Writing, Aesthetics, Climate (A Bricolage)


How might we respond to Kate Soper's call for an avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary? What is the time and space of the avant-garde?

“The term avant-garde obscures as much as it reveals.”

Robin D. G. Kelley1

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.”

Walter Benjamin2

In her 1974 novel, The Memoirs of A Survivor, Doris Lessing writes about the slow collapse of society after an unnamed catastrophe in a country not unlike England. It’s a work about care and about hospitality; about what it might mean to open your house to a stranger, to a child handed to you by another stranger, when you have no apparent reason to shelter them other than common-or-garden human kindness. A child called Emily, and an animal called Hugo—something like a dog or a cat, or both, or neither—are deposited with the narrator, and the narrator tries to look after them. The catastrophe that has happened in this world is never described, only glimpsed through descriptions of its effects, but it involves an emptying of the cities, an unravelling of normal civic structures (including the maintenance of facilities), a withdrawal of governance, gangs of youths roaming the streets. It could be read as a book about the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, but Lessing doesn’t spell anything out for the reader; what has happened is never specified, the event is just referred to as ‘it’. The Memoirs of a Survivor is, at heart, a book about proverbial frogs sitting in slowly heating water, trying to ignore the worsening conditions around them, trying to keep everyday life on the same tracks it was on before the collapse. Lessing writes:

While everything, all forms of social organisation, broke up, we lived on, adjusting our lives, as if nothing fundamental was happening. It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing, were the attempts to lead an ordinary life. When nothing, or very little, was left of what we had been used to, had taken for granted even ten years before, we still went on talking and behaving as if those old forms were still ours. […] There is nothing that people won’t try to accommodate into ‘ordinary life’. It was precisely this which gave this time its peculiar flavour; the combination of the bizarre, the hectic, the frightening, the threatening, an atmosphere of siege or war—with what was customary, ordinary, even decent.3

Emily comes to represent a form of hope for the narrator, in the sense that life will carry on; that, as long as humans live in relation to each other, care will continue to be needed and provided. At one point, after Emily has started—like many teenagers—to repurpose the clothing and accessories of older generations, to create her own style out of what she can salvage, the narrator is moved by the fact that Emily, a child, had “found the materials for her dreams in the rubbish heaps of our old civilisation, had found them, worked on them, and in spite of everything had made her images of herself come to life.”4 Life continues, despite it all. But there is a horror to this repeating of the past too, to the repurposing of the rubbish heaps, and the narrator’s relationship to Emily is always ambivalent. She is a source of worry, fear, pain, anxiety; an object of love and an object of hate.

Life continues, despite it all. But there is a horror to this repeating of the past too, to the repurposing of the rubbish heaps.

While Emily is outside, experiencing adolescence, trying to navigate and engage with the social world of the teenagers who run the streets around her new adopted home, the narrator sits inside, staring at a space which seems to open up on the other side of her living room wall. She enters this space as she would step into another house; though for the most part of the books her trips into this other space are dream-like excursions, taking place somewhere between imagination and reality. Sometimes this house is familiar, sometimes it is disorganised; sometimes it’s inaccessible, with the narrator sitting frustrated and willing for it to open for her when she needs it. At the end of the book, as conditions in the world continue to worsen, the narrator, along with Emily and Hugo, finally passes over for good into this other space on the other side of the wall, leaving the old ruined world behind. They find themselves in “that place which might present us with anything,” walking ahead “out of this collapsed little world, into another order of world altogether.”5

It’s hard to know what to make of this ending, and of the book in general. But it is a useful text for our current moment, because it explores questions that, if anything, are more pressing today than they were in 1974. How do we respond to a slow crisis which is impossible to ignore? How do we preserve and sustain our habits and ways of living in the face of enormous and destructive changes? What does it look like to provide care to others—to strangers—when it’s needed of us? What do we hold onto, even when it doesn’t work anymore?

What does it look like to provide care to others—to strangers—when it’s needed of us? What do we hold onto, even when it doesn’t work anymore?

As much as it is a question of science, the climate breakdown is also a question of culture. Towards the end of her recent book, Post-Growth Living, Kate Soper conjures the notion of “an avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary”. This appears, almost as an aside, in the context of Soper’s call for a “more complex vision of the potential satisfactions of work”: a vision which might embrace more artisanal, slower, perhaps less efficient forms of labour; work organised in ways that mean it “is not subject to the imperative of maximising profit by reducing labour time.”6 Earlier in the book, Soper also calls for an “avant-garde nostalgia”: the cultivation of a relationship with the past that could make a contribution to finding new modes of living in the face of climate breakdown

by reflecting on past experience in ways that highlight and continue to endorse humanist conceptions of well-being and personal emancipation, while also exposing the ways in which a growth-driven consumerist programme for realising well-being may now be actively subverting it.7

Leaving aside, for the time being, the implications of the vision for labour, the critique of economic reason, the intimations of degrowth, and the concept of nostalgia that are at work in Soper’s writing, this essay is going to spend some time with the idea of the “avant garde”—a phrase which Soper doesn’t interrogate. I’m more interested in asking questions about this than I am in regurgitating or developing a theory of the avant garde.8 As such, this essay is going to mobilise the old avant-garde technique of bricolage, rather than attempt to construct an argument. It might contain some suggestions and directions for further thought, alongside some blocked avenues and impasses. It is not a manifesto or a programme, but an opening up of the question: what might it mean to call for an avant garde now, in the face of climate breakdown? What exactly might we want from an avant garde eco-socialism? How does the concept of the avant garde—being ahead of things, en avant—relate to the complex temporality of the climate crisis (the effect of global carbon emissions as a return of the past in the present at the expense of the future)? What might an avant-garde relationship with the past look like? Could a backwards-looking avant-garde be a coherent idea? What else might an “avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary” entail?

How does the concept of the avant garde—being ahead of things relate to the complex temporality of the climate crisis (the effect of global carbon emissions as a return of the past in the present at the expense of the future)?

These questions are not necessarily new, and the very concept of the avant garde can feel as if it has already been exhausted. I am not necessarily interested in examining a notion of the avant garde understood in terms of something like a heroic vanguard leadership striding boldly forward through the colossal spheres of history and aesthetics, a rehash of the assertive masculinity of Wyndham Lewis’s Men of 1914, blasting and bombardiering into the future. Instead, I want to look towards conceptualising the avant-garde as a practice concerned with the everyday, with ordinary life, as a shifting of attention towards the mundane and the slow. As Georges Perec wrote, in a different context: “It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile.”9 Yes, an avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary might involve giving attention to a large-scale project of planetary reconfiguration, but perhaps it need not. Perhaps an avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary could examine the ways in which our ordinary daily lives—our activities, habits, practices—could be completely transformed and revitalised, in a way that centres climate justice and pays attention to the ecological ramifications of our lives on this planet.

In 2014 the avant-garde poet Lyn Hejinian asked: “What might an avant garde look like now—as an aesthetic practice and/or as a social practice?” For Hejinian, the avant garde

begins as an oppositional practice, but if it remains only that, or principally that, it dooms itself to continuing dependence on the very thing it opposes. And, since ‘the very thing it opposes’ is likely to be the conditions of late capitalism, the next question to ask is, how does an artist produce anything that could be properly called ‘avant-garde’ when relentless (capitalist) newness is precisely the problem at hand?10

Relentless capitalist newness is precisely (part of) the problem at hand. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since industrialisation has been exacerbated and accelerated by the drive to innovation, an insistence on newness, inbuilt obsolescence, waste. The historical avant garde has participated in this drive to newness, from Ezra Pound’s slogan of “Make it new!” (itself emerging from an aesthetic renovation of the old; not an art of salvage but a fascistic clearing away of the ‘rubbish’), to Italian Futurism’s techno-fixations. What would an avant-garde look like which turns its back on relentless newness? As Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt have said: “Always to the front … is utter nonsense. It’s not revolutionary; it’s the processing of the undigested problems of history that’s revolutionary.”11 Climate breakdown is one of the most urgent of these undigested problems of history.

Relentless capitalist newness is precisely (part of) the problem at hand. The historical avant garde has participated in this drive to newness, from Ezra Pound’s slogan of “Make it new”, to Italian Futurism’s techno-fixations.

The political imaginary of an avant-garde eco-socialism should not rely too heavily on the political imaginary of these historical avant gardes. There isn’t anything in the concept of ‘avant garde’ which necessarily guarantees a left-wing politics, as history has shown. We should recall, as Raymond Williams urges us,

that the politics of the avant-garde, from the beginning, could go either way. The new art could find its place either in a new social order or in a culturally transformed but otherwise persistent and recuperated old order.12

For Williams, the important thing about the historical avant garde—the thing that ensures its continued importance—is the fact that it was the result of internal pressures and intolerable contradictions within early twentieth century European culture and society, pressures and contradictions that meant “nothing could quite stay as it was.”13 And so, any twenty-first century avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary will certainly find itself existing in some sort of relation to the historical avant garde aesthetic and social movements. What, then, are the techniques, styles, ideas or feelings that an eco-socialist avant garde might glean from the historical avant gardes? What should it jettison? What to keep? How to go about it?

One suggestion: we might adopt an attitude like that of the ragpicker, about whom Walter Benjamin writes in his essays on Baudelaire:

Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse, and both go about their solitary business while other citizens are sleeping … the ragpicker, who is obliged to come to a halt every few moments to gather up the refuse he encounters.14

Unproductive; slow; a salvage operator.

Of course, our response to climate breakdown cannot consist solely in an aesthetic practice, or in taking a stance of avant-gardism, especially conceived under the banner of the autonomy of art. As T. J. Demos has written,

To cling to some outdated notion of artistic autonomy, individualist creative freedom, or transgressive and free avant-garde identity, divorced from any duty or responsibility to environmental consideration, is to advocate, intentionally or not, for the status quo of neoliberal exceptionalism and its destructive ecocide.15

But it is also true that, through aesthetics, new relations to the world are developed; through aesthetic practice, they are, if not fully formed, then hinted at, gestured towards, suggested. An avant-garde eco-socialist aesthetics should not seek to be disinterested, or think itself autonomous, and neither should it spend much time at all on apocalyptic fantasies of disaster. An eco-socialist political imaginary might entail the recognition and expression of the feelings evoked by climate breakdown: fear, guilt, dread, grief, loss, sadness. By recognising and expressing these feelings, we might free up more energy for the rest of the work that needs to be done. The antagonistic, oppositional stance of an avant garde could be a starting point for insisting on the urgency of action on climate change, but this opposition is not sufficient on its own. As Hejinian puts it:

The aggression associated with the avant garde—its iconoclastic or agonistic relation to the dominant society—is real; through its oppositional activities, the avant garde struggles to bring about the epistemological break necessary for destabilising people’s assumptions and generating cognitive uncertainty and cultural porosity. But that’s only the first phase of avant-garde practice, the prelude to its real task, which is to forge new social as well as cognitive connections, to generate new forms of connectivity, and to deepen as well as expand membership in the world of interconnectedness, such that the sphere of our awareness and care is, so to speak, internatural as well as international.16

The avant garde is not merely a set of aesthetic practices, but it also has a social and political function, a ‘real task’, in Hejinian’s terms: the forging of new social and cognitive ties, an expansion of our awareness of mutual connectivity. The task of avant-garde work is to provoke new modes of thought, which then lead to new modes of sociability. This conception of avant garde social practice, as distinct from the sphere of aesthetics, is developed by the political theorist Lea Ypi:

Avant-garde work, one might venture to argue, is best understood as a kind of activity that aims to refine the lens through which reality is observed, to articulate and interpret the concerns and commitments of one’s contemporaries, and to analyse current events with an eye to both critique and innovation. Only by doing so are those involved in it ultimately able to inspire viable forms of resistance, and coherent discourses of political, social, and cultural transformation.17

This, it seems to me, is more or less the sense in which Kate Soper also uses the phrase “avant garde” in her recent work, which emerges out of a critique of consumption. Left-wing thinking on ecology and climate, for various reasons, which I won’t get into here, is not always interested in confronting questions of individual consumption. In Soper’s work, the avant garde agent is the individual who willingly engages in certain behaviours which gesture towards resisting consumption for its own sake. Her work calls for a post-consumer society, in which—to paraphrase Wordsworth—we no longer lay waste our powers in getting and spending. Part of this is a Romantic turn towards the figure of the artisan, whose modes of working might be “reclaimed as a component of an avant-garde post-consumerist political imaginary, rather than dismissed for their association with pre-modern social relations and limits on pleasure.”18 She suggests William Morris as a useful figure for thinking about this version of work, and asserts that

a political aesthetics that seeks to purify the utopian vision of the quaintness and greenness associated with artisan activity seems itself to be clinging to an outdated set of assumptions about what would constitute post-capitalist forms of industry, labour process and worker emancipation.19

In Soper’s thinking, the slow-working artisan could act as a model for new experiences of labour, as well as of ways of organising production and consumption, and these experiences could restore pleasure and satisfaction to the labour process: new–old practices which seek to recuperate elements of human activity from the idea that all work is something that we’d be better off automating.

Soper is writing against the trends in left-wing thinking which would advocate for an acceleration of automatisation, or see automation as an inevitable trend which is futile to ignore. A promotion of more artisanal forms of labour is just one element of the eco-socialist imaginary she proposes. The main problem, for Soper, with our current societal model of over-consumption is that it offers too little pleasure, too little joy, too little satisfaction, as well as being unhealthy for individuals and the planet. As such, the artisanal turn will be accompanied by a post-consumer society which places an emphasis on “enjoyment as well as on frugality, on the rewards of a socially just and eco-benign consumption as well as on the restrictions placed on former habits”.20 Artisanal working practices could be combined with communally owned enterprises and co-operatives which do not subject labour to the imperative of maximising profit by reducing labour time. We will slow down, work less, reclaim public spaces.

But something is missing from this: who gets to do the less alienating artisanal labour? If the new artisans become part of an avant garde, how do we stop that avant garde being comprised solely of moneyed, middle-class, white people? And, a broader—perhaps more pressing—issue for Soper’s argument is its lack of global thinking. Coming away from Post-Growth Living, one is left with the image of a few bubbles of green and pleasant European cities full of happy artisans, well-funded social services, bike paths and parks, where nobody buys things they don’t need and people spend their bountiful free time communing with nature. There is nothing in this image that imagines life in the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent, which climate change will render increasingly inhospitable. Mike Davis was warning against this model of climate change adaptation over a decade ago, writing about the likely prospect of “the creation of green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.”21 Soper’s model of consumption is untethered from the realities of global production, from the international supply chains that make it possible. The alternative hedonism she calls for in her book’s subtitle will be one reserved for citizens of European and North American nation states.

Something is missing from this: who gets to do the less alienating artisanal labour? If the new artisans become part of an avant garde, how do we stop that avant garde being comprised solely of moneyed, middle-class, white people?

In a recent book, Andreas Malm calls for a militant climate activism, which serves as a radical flank to the mainstream of the climate movement and which can intensify the demands and pressures exerted on states to respond to the climate catastrophe. Malm encourages acts of sabotage or vandalism, celebrating the actions taken by Ende Gelände in Germany and Scandinavia to shut down power plants and coal mines—actions which he argues should exist alongside the non-violent demonstrations in major cities, as well as alongside the more moderate, technocratic calls for Green Keynesian embodied in discussions around the Green New Deal.22 An avant-garde eco-socialist political imaginary in Europe should, most likely, be part of this increased and focused radicalism, taking actions to push resistance to ecocide harder and further (though while still resisting the masculinist aggression of certain historical iterations of modernist avant-gardes), standing in active solidarity with global movements, beginning to formulate and experiment with new ways of living in the face of climate change. This is not to call for an avant garde which embodies a pre-figurative eco-socialist politics—perhaps through some new kind of hippy back-to-the-landism (though some elements of hippy back-to-the-landism will certainly be worth redeeming)—but rather to extend the use of the phrase ‘avant garde’ beyond its usage by Soper: to demand more of any eco-socialist avant garde than an insufficient return to artisan labour and a focus on ‘eco-benign’ consumption.

Not one avant garde, but many avant gardes: any avant-garde eco-socialist imaginary emerging in either Europe or the US must pay close attention to the struggles led by Indigenous and First Nations groups around sovereignty, around resistance to agribusiness, to extraction, to the violence of dispossession and the poisoning of the land. But it must also resist the colonising tendency behind “becoming Indigenous”, and work to support these struggles in a way which doesn’t seek to appropriate Indigenous knowledge systems and onto-political ways of living, but instead respects, learns from and stands in solidarity with these movements.23 Rather than assume that there is any ready-and-waiting shared universal response to the threats presented by the climate emergency, it will be important to resist the temptation to fall into the myopic perspective of the “metropolitan Marxism”, “the capitalist/red-eco-modernist smorgasbord lately on offer from London” which Max Ajl has identified as a tendency in Andreas Malm’s recent calls for ecological Leninism. The historical avant garde plundered enough from non-western traditions of culture and knowledge formation. Any new avant garde must work against colonial aesthetic and social tendencies.

Similarly, we should be wary of anyone claiming the status of “the avant garde” for themselves. Hejinian again:

The avant garde always exists in relationship to the socio-political and, increasingly, to the socio-economic milieu surrounding it. Insofar as the avant garde produces an aesthetic, it does so in response to its assessment of society. […] The term ‘avant garde’ can never properly be applied to a solitary artist, working individually. It is not an identity, a mode of personhood—although, for self-marketing purposes, it sometimes does get appropriated by individuals, with what, in my view, is cynicism and hypocrisy.24

Soi-disant “radical”, “innovative”, “experimental” artists and writers are no less complicit in ecological catastrophe than anyone else. As The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii) put it in 2014:

Many of our artists and intellectual friends fly from biennial to festival, from one city to another to make “radical culture”. It’s all part of the ‘rights’ of the hyper mobile cultural class, a global generation that that has been uprooted from any material place, ripped from local communities, distanced from contexts where they might have some agency in transforming the material world. It suits the status quo that the radical thinkers and makers don’t have a territory, belong to nowhere and float in an abstract vapid world where no solution is graspable, where radical thinking has no anchor in action. But as John Berger says ‘to improve something, you really need to know the texture, the life story of that thing’, and knowing the story of somewhere takes a lot longer than a festival or a residency, according to some farmers it can take a thousand years to know a place.

If we are going to call for a new avant garde, it is surely also crucial to take stock of the failings of previous avant gardes, and to examine the racial assumptions on which they were founded. In his first book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Fred Moten reminds us that

the idea of the avant-garde is embedded in a theory of history. This is to say that a particular geographical ideology, a geographical-racial or racist unconscious, marks and is the problematic out of which or against the backdrop of which the idea of the avant-garde emerges.

In his development of a theory of the black avant-garde, Moten insists that there are many avant-gardes existing at any time, not just the historically canonised white male avant-garde which emerged in the Euro-American twentieth century. He builds on the claim that “the idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically—as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends for its coherence upon the exclusion of the other”, suggesting that this conception of the avant-garde as “necessarily not black” is not just a matter of a counting of avant-garde artists, but is the result of a “deeper, perhaps unconscious formulation”. Against this, Moten asserts that not only is “the avant-garde a black thing” but also that “blackness is an avant-garde thing.”25 Any call for a new avant garde, whether that term is understood in simply its aesthetic valences or whether it considers social practices too, should take seriously this argument in Moten’s work, and build on it by interrogating and undermining the unconscious racial underpinnings of the category.

Moten’s work calls for an expansion of our understanding of the avant garde—a recognition of its unconscious logics and structuring assumptions. Others, meanwhile, have suggested that the twentieth century avant garde has failed in another, more straightforward sense, by refusing to meaningfully engage with the climate emergency. Amitav Ghosh, writing about the failure of literature to address the growing threat of climate breakdown during a period of spiralling emissions, has suggested that in the latter half of the twentieth century,

the avant-garde, far from being ‘ahead,’ was clearly a laggard. Could it be, then, that the same process that inaugurated the rising death spiral of carbon emissions also ensured, in an uncannily clever gesture of self-protection, that the artists, writers, and poets of that era would go racing off in directions that actually blinded them to exactly what they thought they were seeing: that is to say, what lay en avant, what was to come? And if this were so, would it not be a damning indictment of a vision in which the arts are seen to be moving forever forward, in a dimension of irreversible time, by means of innovation and the free pursuit of imagination?26

For Ghosh, a conception of literature understood in terms of progressive historical development through stylistic modes (nineteenth century realism, into early twentieth century modernism, into postwar postmodernism) led by an avant garde which focuses on the autonomous, freely creative individual, has lead to all “writing of the kind in which the collective had a powerful presence” being taken less seriously than it might otherwise have. The answer presented by Ghosh is a refocus on modes of imaginative writing which have otherwise been dismissed as ‘genre fiction’: science fiction and fantasy. Since ‘realism’ hasn’t done much to halt spiralling emissions, or help people imagine alternative ways of living, Ghosh argues, it’s time to turn to other forms of literature, other aesthetic practices. The results of this line of thinking can be seen in the recent popularity of ‘cli-fi’, imaginative writing which engages directly with climate breakdown. Ghosh turns his back on the notion of the avant garde, in favour of a recuperation or promotion of different genres of writing, geared around speculation.

But this raises some questions, not least the question of what exactly he means by ‘avant garde’. Ghosh’s argument blurs the distinction between the literary mainstream and the avant garde; he ignores the oppositional and dialectical characteristic of the avant garde and sees its members as merely the handmaidens of modernity, expressing themselves through the realistic novel focused on individual moral experience. Surprisingly, in Ghosh’s account, John Updike ends up in the position of the voice of the literary avant-garde. At one point he suggests that J. G. Ballard—surely a key figure in the postwar British literary avant-garde—is one of the few writers in the English language who has taken note of the accelerating changes in our environment, unlike Ghosh’s bête noire of the literary mainstream/avant-garde. This is a very strange conception of the avant garde. Rather than seek to reject the avant garde out of hand for its perceived failures, we should surely interrogate its composition, its structure, and our assumption about it.

In another context, the psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has called for the development of a “New Imagination” to combat what she has called the neoliberal “culture of uncare”. Weintrobe’s New Imagination would be an achievement of socio-political maturity, which operates on both an individual and social level, and which rejects neoliberal insistence on the isolated individual in favour of a recognition of our human dependency on the Earth:

The new imagination is historically new because only now, with scientific and technological advances and satellite pictures, can we more fully appreciate the Earth’s otherness, majesty, fragility, limits, and as comprising complex interconnecting dynamic systems that support life. All this enables us to love the Earth more fully and in a more mature way, and be very concerned to see the Earth so damaged. The new imagination helps us face our true dependency on and indebtedness to the Earth. It opens our eyes to the need to share resources with other humans and other species living now and in the future.

Now that we can actually know where we stand in the relation to Earth, Weintrobe suggests, we have at last the opportunity to accept our responsibility to the planet, and to other life forms on it. But we have known about anthropogenic climate change, to a greater or lesser degree, for coming up to fifty years.27 The way that the climate crisis manifests itself means that we will forever be behind it, trying to catch up, to mitigate, to adapt, to respond to new developments, disasters which have arrived earlier than we had expected.

Given the disruption of temporality at the heart of the climate emergency, what might it mean to reorient our everyday life along a series of principles which centre slowing down, looking backwards, reflecting, taking care? This is not, by any means, to begin to conceive of “care” as a novel, innovative concept, recently invented or rediscovered—nor to suggest that the work of care or the practices of maintenance are in anyway new. We should indeed be suspicious of any aesthetic turn towards the concept of ‘care’, especially one which refuses to engage with the deep ambivalence at the heart of caring—care’s potential to be a form of violence. As Lisa Baraitser has put it, writing about the “practices of maintenance that have largely been accorded to women, people of colour, animals, and other non-human others”, we live in a condition of radical dependency on others:

Given the disruption of temporality at the heart of the climate emergency, what might it mean to reorient our everyday life along a series of principles which centre slowing down, looking backwards, reflecting, taking care?

These practices of maintenance entail the temporalities of often mind-numbing repetition: reproductive and other forms of labour that support, sustain, and maintain all living systems. In order to ‘deviate’, someone or something else needs to preserve, maintain, protect, sustain, and repeat. Those ‘others’ stay on the side of life, not as progression or even deviation towards death but as a permanent sustaining of life-processes.28

Building from Achille Mbembe’s writing about the COVID-19 pandemic and Melanie Klein’s theoretical work, Baraister articulates a notion of a time ‘in-common’:

a time of permanent mattering, which also takes time to recognise … the time in which depressive guilt survives and hence the time it takes for a future to be recognised within the present, rather than being the outward edge, the longed-for time that is yet to come.

This is a time in which “what is loved and what is hated can come to matter to one another,” in which the working through of depressive guilt (about ecological catastrophe perhaps) allows us to begin to move towards a position of reparation, and perhaps ultimately towards optimism, or courage.

In one of his texts on Brecht, Walter Benjamin writes of

the recognition from which the courage of despair is generally drawn today: the recognition that tomorrow may bring disasters of such colossal dimensions that we can imagine ourselves separated from the texts and products of yesterday as though by centuries.29

Something like this recognition is behind the work of Christa Wolf, the East German writer and socialist who, in 1983, published Cassandra: a novel retelling the Cassandra myth, accompanied by a series of lectures, diary entries, and travel notes, written against the backdrop of nuclear tensions. In the face of the ever-present threat of annihilation, Wolf finds herself turning back in time, looking backwards and involving herself in deep researches about the Minoan culture located on Crete between three and five thousand years ago. In her studies, and during her research trips to Crete with friends, Wolf encounters a romanticisation of the past:

Everything that we are unable to achieve was attributed to them: the ability to find meaning in their work; to integrate themselves into a social and religious community without an accompanying need to reduce themselves to an automatic level of functioning; to live without internal and external violence—an island of perfection.30

As in her later novel, Accident: A Day’s News (written the day after the Chernobyl disaster), Wolf writes about trying to sustain everyday life in the face of a looming catastrophe. Part of this means writing—doing the work of literature—which begins to feel “incongruous” in the face of the language of political communiqués and news bulletins about the threat of a nuclear winter:

Literature: a valiant, if groundless, effort to create a shelter at the same time for free-floating reason and for oneself. Because to compose words presupposes conditions which lie outside literature. It also presupposes a measure, for aesthetics is also rooted in the question of what can be ascribed to man. […] But in the face of modern-day phenomena, awareness of the incongruousness of words keeps growing. The thing the anonymous nuclear planning staffs have in mind for us is unsayable; the language which would reach them seems to not exist. But we go on writing in the forms we are used to. In other words, we still cannot believe what we see. We cannot express what we already believe.31

Like Doris Lessing in The Memoirs of a Survivor, Wolf’s writing explores the difficulty of knowing how to write or speak about disaster: the ways we might avoid referring to something directly, the ways official or technical language becomes insufficient for the description of our experience of catastrophe—especially when the catastrophe is looming, but not yet here. By turning backwards, by hoping to pull something out of Minoan culture, out of the Cassandra myth, Wolf grapples with questions of style and genre. She asks what use ‘realism’ could be in the face of annihilation:

It occurs to me that literature is judged to be unrealistic, just as the peace movement is, and by the same people. A ‘realist’ today is one who stands on the ground of facts—but in the plans of today’s ‘realists,’ the ground is already contaminated. What effect does this concept of realism have for aesthetics?32

Wolf doesn’t answer this question directly; it seems to present an irresolvable tension. How should one write in order to make sense of the world we inhabit despite ourselves? What can literature achieve in the face of catastrophe? What use can we make of ‘realism’? These questions might feel like they have nothing to do with the climate breakdown, or our response to it. But Wolf’s writing insists on a commitment to slow, careful attention to life, to the everyday, to the pleasures which remain to us despite everything else. As Henri Lefebvre pointed out, “the concept of the everyday illuminates the past.”33 In Wolf’s work, the everyday’s illumination of the past comes up against the darkness of an uncertain future, the abyssal fear of catastrophe. It is by turning to the small events in her quotidian experience that Wolf creates a space in which fear and complicity sit next to pleasure and love. One of Wolf’s diary entries published with Cassandra embodies better than anything else this care, this hope in the face of catastrophe, the courage of despair:

Meteln, April 28, 1981. I want to gather together all the things that make me, make us, into accomplices of self-destruction; and that enable me, enable us, to resist it.

Daily pleasures: The morning light that falls precisely through the little window I can see from bed. Fresh eggs for breakfast. Coffee. Hanging up a fragrant wash in the breeze coming from the sea. Reading about my Minoans, which unites the confusing mass of detail I have accumulated in my head over the last few weeks. The good soup at noon. A short nap. Pleasure at an electric hot plate which I am finally able to buy, and which makes me independent of the bottles of propane gas. A friendly saleswoman. The young woman in the antique shop who for a long time cautiously twists a blue glass bottle in her hands so that the glow falls on her face. Nothing diminishes my enjoyment, although the thought of the three or four years of grace that remain continues to pre-occupy me. What is the point of the hot plate if there should be no electric current, nothing to eat, no one to eat it? What is the point of beauty anymore if it is already given up for lost? Why add yet more books to the many I have not yet read? The photos from last year, which I finally had developed. The faces of the children hurt me. In the evening I enjoy the good cheese. The red wine. Now the tiredness. Writing is also an attempt to ward off the cold.34

It is through careful attention to the everyday that Wolf allows the fear of catastrophe to come into contact with the small and real pleasures of her life.

It is through careful attention to the everyday that Wolf allows the fear of catastrophe to come into contact with the small and real pleasures of her life. She acknowledges her role as an ‘accomplice of self-destruction’ but finds the capacity to resist this, to turn back to hope. A flicker of anxiety and dread enters in when she thinks about the future—three or four years left, perhaps; everything given up for lost; the faces of the children in her photographs. But the pleasures of eating and drinking, of sociability, of reading, of daily life—which at once changes and stays the same—sustain her. A careful attention to the everyday reveals the repetition of the past in the permanently incomplete present. This, perhaps, might be the space in which a reconfiguration of our lives along eco-socialist principles can take place.

  1. Robin D. G. Kelley. 1999. “New Monastery: Monk and the Jazz Avant-Garde”. Black Music Research Journal. Vol. 19, No. 2, New Perspectives on Thelonious Monk. p. 136. 

  2. Walter Benjamin. [1940]. 2006. “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”, Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940 Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press. p. 402. 

  3. Doris Lessing. 1976. The Memories of a Survivor London: Picador. pp. 19–20. 

  4. Lessing. The Memories of a Survivor. p. 54. 

  5. Lessing. The Memories of a Survivor. pp. 189-90. 

  6. Kate Soper. 2020. Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism London: Verso. p. 180. 

  7. Soper. Post-Growth Living. p. 156. 

  8. In this essay, I use ‘avant garde’, unhyphenated, as a noun (e.g. “the avant garde”), and the hyphenated form, ’avant-garde’, as an adjective (e.g. “avant-garde poetics”). This distinguishes between ‘the avant garde’ as an object and ‘avant-garde’ as a practice. 

  9. Georges Perec. [1973]. 1997. “Approaches to What?” in Species of Space and Other Pieces. Translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin. p. 207. 

  10. Lyn Hejinian. 2014. “Avant Garde in Process: An Allegory,” in The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Edited by. Marc James Léger Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 57. 

  11. Alexander Kluge in conversation with Oskar Negt, “Closer to the Concrete Situations,” in The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Edited by Léger. p. 98. 

  12. Raymond Williams. 1989. “The Politics of the Avant-Garde,” in The Politics of Modernism London: Verso. p. 62. 

  13. Williams. “The Politics of the Avant-Garde”. p. 62. 

  14. Walter Benjamin. 2006. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire Cambridge MA. Belknap Press, 2006. pp. 108–09. 

  15. T. J. Demos. 2016. Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. London: Sternberg Press. p. 265. 

  16. Hejinian. “Avant-Garde in Process”. p. 60. 

  17. Lea Ypi. 2012. Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 3. 

  18. Soper. Post-Growth Living. p. 104. 

  19. Soper. Post-Growth Living p. 105. 

  20. Soper. Post-Growth Living. p. 178–80. 

  21. Mike Davis. 2010. “Who Will Build the Ark?”, New Left Review 61. See also Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan. London: Verso, which examines the question of planetary sovereignty in relation to climate mitigation and adaptation. 

  22. For an argument for the necessity of increasingly militant climate activism which doesn’t shy away from some property destruction, see Andreas Malm. 2021. How to Blow Up a Pipeline London: Verso. The literature on the Green New Deal continues to proliferate wildly; for a recent, particularly ‘sensible’ (and fairly uninspiring) version, see Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin and C. J. Polychroniou. 2020. Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet Londo: Verso. For a discussion of the Green New Deal as a single stepping stone towards climate stabilisation, see Stan Cox. 2020. The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can. San Francisco. City Lights. 

  23. For a critique of the recent turn towards ‘the Indigenous’, the attendant reduction of Indigeneity to instrumental imaginaries of perseverance and resilience, and the resulting entrenchment of neoliberal hegemony, see David Chandler and Julian Reid. 2019. Becoming Indigenous: Governing Imaginaries in the Anthropocene Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield. 

  24. Hejinian. “Avant-Garde in Process”. p. 60. 

  25. Fred Moten. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 31–32. 

  26. Amitav Ghosh. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 125. 

  27. For an infuriating history of the failure in the US to take meaningful political action on the climate in the 1970s and 80s, see Nathanial Rich. 2019. Losing Earth: A Recent History. London: Picador. 

  28. Lisa Baraitser. 2020. “The maternal death drive: Greta Thunberg and the question of the future,” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society

  29. Walter Benjamin. 1998. “Commentaries on Some Poems by Brecht” in Understanding Brecht. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: Verso p. 44. 

  30. Christa Wolf. 1984. Cassandra . London. Virago. p. 198. 

  31. Wolf. Cassandra. p. 226. 

  32. Wolf. Cassandra. p. 263. 

  33. Henri Lefebvre. 1987. “The Everyday and Everydayness,” Yale French Studies no. 73. p. 10. 

  34. Wolf. Cassandra. pp. 253–54. 


Andrew Key (@rolandbarfs)

Andrew Key lives in Sheffield and works in mental health social care. His essays and criticism have appeared in various publications. Ross Hall, his novel about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile to England and subsequent feud with David Hume, is forthcoming from Grand Iota in 2022.