Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ozymandias and His Children

"And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

--from Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"

It is difficult to predict which aspects of our civilization will remain as evidence of the era of Late Capitalist American Global Hegemony (aka the Proto-Anthropocene). If a private profit could be realized made from demolishing the Empire State Building, it would be. The monuments of state cults--the Statue of Liberty, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, Mount Rushmore--are perhaps more secure. Yet within twenty years, we may well see the Potomac Estuary lapping at the foundations of the White House and the presidential memorials.

The artistic impulse overlaps with the monumental impulse in ways that are uncomfortable for those who feel it, yet also feel an allergy to power. How does the desire to create something that will outlive one's physical form and leave an imprint on the minds of generations to come differ from Ozymandias' call to despair? For how much longer will there be people capable of reading and understanding Shelley's poem? Even as he castigated the pretensions of the powerful, was he perhaps clearing the ideological path of antique rubble in preparation for a new ruling clique, for whom the monuments of old are at best sites for commerce, at worst obstacles? After all that was solid has melted into the air, will we find, perhaps, that his partner Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the more prescient writer with her Frankenstein? And for how much longer will that, even, be readable? Who will find Abe Lincoln's vast and trunkless legs of stone: adaptable hominids, newly ascendant crows or intelligent insects, or extraterrestrial travelers?

The artistic impulse and the monumental impulse both presuppose a more fundamental human responsibility, to create or maintain the conditions for the continued flourishing of our species. In that respect, I fear that it is safe to say to those of us who have been of an age of political majority for long enough to have tried to make a difference, i.e., those of us including myself over the age of 35, that we have failed. We have all failed.

You rebel against this. You point to your own personal accomplishments, or to incremental collective betterments that have come to pass in your lifetime. At the very least, you plead, must you be so pessimistic? Can't you look on the bright side? Especially if you are American, you will say this, because success is our true national religion, failure the devil to be beaten, and optimism an ingrained disposition.

Ask yourself, then: Will we leave 80% of the world's known fossil fuel reserves in the ground? Have we been proceeding inexorably toward known tipping points? Is there any political force that can be plausibly expected to take state power within the next generation and do what must be done? Answer those questions honestly and you will agree: We have failed.

This is the case for all of us collectively, regardless of whether you ever believed that humanity had to overthrow and surpass the capitalist mode of production. Whether you consider it more blameworthy to have been among the majority who never quite believed it, or the minority who believed it, still believes it, but never pulled it off, depends on which you consider more despicable, ignorance or incompetence. I think incompetence is worse than ignorance, so I think the minority of which I am part deserves quite a bit of blame. The only ones more hateful are those who have quite competently profited from our collective self-destruction.

Say it now: I have failed. We have failed.

To say it and mean it can be strangely freeing. One is freed from the burden of measuring one's beliefs and actions against a purported "correct" ideology and praxis, since all that have hitherto existed have contributed in some way to this failure. One is freed from having to lecture the younger generations, the ones who will live most of their lives in the shadow of our failure, on all the lessons one has learned in a lifetime of defeats, since it is safe to say that those lessons are likely false. Our actions at this point must be measured not against an ideal, but with the methods of harm reduction: Does what I do, in some way, lessen the present or future suffering of others? If so, it is worth doing. If not, stop it.

For over a decade, I aspired to contribute in a small way to the construction of a monument to human capabilities, to be a metaphorical mason filing the toenails of a future Ozymandias. The lack of aspiration, the lack of ambition, is an emotional transformation to which I have only slowly acclimated myself. This loss of aspiration and ambition is now an ethical imperative for those of my generation and older.

For those younger, the challenges are much greater. They will have to reshape their modes of belief and action to minimize the loss of human life and clean up the messes left to them, and do so in a situation where the guidance of elders is either useless or deleterious. They will be the ones plundering the monuments for building materials to shore up the neglected irrigation canals, destroying an old civilization to try and create the conditions for a new one.

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