September 26, 2009

Atwood's anti-capitalism

year of the flood.jpg

"Regressive it all is," Jameson remarks of the "God's gardeners" cult in Atwood's The Year Of The Flood, adding a provocative parenthesis: "it is always helpful to wonder what politics today could possibly be otherwise." The Year Of The Flood is disappointing in part because it has no alternatives to regression - the only way forward, it seems, is back to nature.

It isn't the focus on religion per se that is the signature of this regression; rather, it is Atwood's retreat from the questions about religion that Oryx And Crake posed so intriguingly. One of the climactic moments of Oryx was the foundation of religious feeling amongst the lab-designed neo-noble savages, the Crakers. As per Totem and Taboo and Moses And Monotheism, the religion emerges as a consequence of the death of the Father figure. Ironies abound here: since the "Crakers" were made, not begotten, the "Father" is actually their creator-designer, the misanthropic wunderkind Crake - who had precisely designed them without the neurological configuration which he believes gives rise to religion. Crake is not so much an eliminative materialist as a materialist eliminativist: "Crake thought he'd done away with all that, eliminated what he called the G-spot in the brain. God is a cluster of neurons, he'd maintained. It had been a difficult problem, though: take out too much in the area and you got a zombie or a psychopath." If, at first sight, the emergence of religion amongst the Crakers appears to be a kind of miracle, in the end it is only a testament to the power of other (psychoanalytic and cultural) determining factors in addition to neurology.

Crake's experiments constitute a retort to the hoary old reactionary homily that utopia is alien to human nature. (For a recent version of this, see one of the antagonists in Zizek's latest book, the uber-capitalist realist Guy Sorman, with his claim that, "[w]hatever the truths uncovered by economic science, the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.") If that's the case, Crake concludes with the pragmatism of the autist, we should change human nature: the means are now available. Crake is effect responds to Freud's argument in Civilization And Its Discontents that, even if property relations were made egalitarian, antagonism would continue to arise because of sexual competition. "Maybe Crake was right," Snowman reflects,

    "Under the old dispensation, sexual competition had been relentless and cruel: for every pair of happy lovers there was a dejected onlooker, the one excluded. Love was its own transparent bubble-dome you could see the two inside it, but you couldn't get in there yourself.

    That had been the milder form: the single man at the window, drinking himself into oblivion to the mournful strains of the tango. But such things could escalate into violence. Extreme emotions could be lethal. If I can't have you nobody will, and so forth. Death could set in.

So Crake replaces what Toby in The Year Of The Flood calls "romantic pain" with sedate animal courtship rituals. "Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones: they came into heat and regular intervals, as did most other mammals other than man." It would have been fascinating for Atwood to have given a fictional testing to Crake's claim to have eliminated hierarchy, hunger and racism amongst his genetic creations. There's also the problem of language. The Crakers are able to maintain their genetically-designed innocence, Atwood suggests, because they lack the past subjunctive tense. ("[T]he idea of the immortality of the soul ... was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there is a past tense, there has to be a past before the past until you get to I don't know, and that's what God is. It's what you don't know - the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar." But, this too, is fixable with a little genetic engineering: "[G]rammar would be impossible without the FoxP2 gene gene.")

Yet the loss of Crake - which is nothing less than an encounter with loss and negation itself - threatens to project the Crakers out of their animal-time into the wounded time of human abjection. But the Crakers recede from focus in The Year Of The Flood: a sign, perhaps, that Atwood has lost interest in them, or - maybe - that such creatures cannot elicit much interest from beings such as us. What looms to the fore in the narrative is the progressive-regressive religious form that a less pacific group of humans cleave to in the dying days of the world.

Atwood has said that one inspiration for the creation of the eco-religion was "the death of her father and mother ... and the necessity to choose hymns for their funerals that would have been acceptable to them: both were scientists." It's easy to sneer at the difficulty that Atwood touches upon here, and the familiar problems of reconciling religion and science may ultimately be less intractable than the issue of symbolic deficit in contemporary secularism that she is pointing to. Atheism has yet to come up with rituals that can muster the symbolic weight of religion, and there are strong reasons to suspect that the failure is more than a contingent one. That's because Atheism typically construes the death of God in terms of a disavowal of the Symbolic (=big Other) itself. There's a close fit between this quintessentially postmodern disavowal - where official denial of the existence of the big Other is combined with a de facto observance of the symbolic at another level - and capitalist realism. As Althusser realised, the rituals of capitalist ideology function all the better for not being acknowledged as rituals at all. In place of the instransigent solemnity of the religious ritual, postmodern secularism presents us with either an eschewal of ritual altogether (no need for any kind ceremony), or "write- your-own-vows" personalisation, or a kind of ersatz humanist-kitsch, in which religious form is preserved even as belief in a supernatural God is denied. The problem is not a secular "lack of meaning", but almost the opposite: it is religious rituals' very meaninglessness, their lack of personal significance, which gives them much of their power. Partly, as Jameson suggests in his LRB piece on Year Of The Flood, the problem is time: any new "belief system" "demands a supplement in the form of deep time, ancient cultural custom, or revelation itself". Time precisely allows a ritual to become a custom, an empty form to which the individual is subjected - and, very far from being a disadvantage, this is what yields funeral rites much of their power to console.

Mourning and loss are not only at the origins of religion, but also, it goes without saying, at the root of much of its continuing appeal. One of the most contentious - and borderline acrimonious - discussions amongst students that I've seen for a while came up in a session on Philosophy of Religion that I taught earlier this year, which broached some of the issues I raised in this post on David Peace. What prompted the controversy was my contention that atheism has far more of a problem with evil and suffering than religion does - not least because of the suffering of those who are now dead. Ivan Karamazov's howl of anguish can be directed at the atheist architects of the radiant city as much as at God, since what can any revolutionary eschatology, no matter how glorious, do about the agonies of those who are long dead? No amount of secular good will cannot guarantee any correlation between virtue and happiness, as Kant argues in an incendiary passage of The Critique Of Teleological Judgment:

    Deceit, violence, and envy will be rife around [the righteous non-believer], even though he himself is benevolent. Moreover, as concerns the other righteous people, he meets: no matter how worthy of happiness they may be, nature, which pays no attention to that, will still subject them to all the evils of deprivation, disease, and untimely death, just like all the other animals on the earth. And they will stay subjected to these evils always, until one vast tomb engulfs them one and all (honest or not, that makes no difference here), and hurls them, who managed to believe that they were the final purpose of creation, back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from which they were taken.

Note also that Kant's argument here applies equally well to the neo-paganism of God's Gardeners as it does to "righteous non-believers", for Kant absolutely refuses the equation of nature with beneficience that the Gardeners preach. On the contrary, Kant argues, God is necessary to make good a nature characterised by amoral purposelessness. The true atheist must be able to look this "vast tomb", this "abyss of purposeless chaos", full in the face - whereas I suspect that most (of us) non-believers manage only to look away from it. But Kant's moral argument is less easily dismissed than it would appear, because it is far harder to eliminate belief in a providential structure of the universe than we first imagine - precisely because this kind of belief lurks far beneath anything that we would admit to accepting. (Watch an edition of Deal Or No Deal, though, and it's clear that many openly evince such a belief.) Perhaps it would indeed take a Crake's genetic tinkering to eradicate it.

The problem with The Year Of The Flood is that politics and religion become synonymous - and while there's every reason to be positive about politicised religion, there are deep problems with a politics which cannot shed the redemptive and messianic mantles of religious eschatology. It's striking how much that God's Gardener's resemble the Greens as abominated by Sorman, in a passage quoted in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce:

    No ordinary rioters, the Greens are the priests of a new religion that puts nature above humankind. The ecology movement is not a nice peace-and-love lobby but a revolutionary force. Like many a modernday religion, its designated evils are ostensibly decried on the basis of scientific knowledge: global warming, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, superweeds. In fact, all these threats are figments of the Green imagination. Greens borrow their vocabulary for science without availing themselves of its rationality. Their method is not new; Marx and Engels also pretended to root their world vision in the science of their time, Darwinism.

Atwood makes a case for such a religion. (Clarifactory note: just to be 100% clear - I in no way endorse Sorman's views of the Greens. I just thought it was amusing that Atwood constructed an eco-cult which so closely fitted Sorman's stereotype.) In an exchange with Richard Dawkins on Newsnight review a couple of weeks ago, Atwood maintained that arguing against religion from the perspective of evolution makes little sense, because the persistence of religion itself suggests that it confers evolutionary benefit on humans. Given this, Atwood suggested, religion should be used as a tool for "progressive" struggles; and Adam One, the leader of God's Gardeners, is interesting only when he sounds like a Machiavelli or a Strauss, who uses religion to manipulate popular sentiment - the rest of the time his eco-piousness is made bearable only by virtue of Atwood's gentle satirical teasing (witness, for instance, the convolutions into which Gardener-doctrine is forced in its attempts to reconcile vegetarianism with both the carnivore-bias of the Bible and the "amoral chaos" of a nature red in tooth and claw). Initially, what appeals about the idea of God's Gardeners is the promise that Atwood will describe a new kind of political organisation. Yet the Gardeners' doctrine and structure turns out to be a disappointing ragbag of stale and drab No Logo-like anti-consumerist asceticism, primivist lore, natural remedies and self-defence that is as alluring as last week's patchouli oil. Ultimately, The Year Of The Flood feels like a symptom of the libidinal and symbolic impasses of so much so-called anti-capitalism. Atwood imagines the end of capitalism, but only after the end of the world. Oryx was like the first part of Wall-E; The Year Of The Flood is like the second part, where we find that the last survivor was nothing of the sort, and there were existing bands of human beings already wandering around, mysteriously just out of sight. (At least in Wall-E the surviving humans were offworld, whereas in Oryx, we are now asked to believe, they had somehow remained just outside Snowman's eyeline.) It has a retrospectively deflationary effect, subtracting most of the pathos and nobility from Snowman's plight, and converting what had seemed like a cyberpunk-Beckett tragicomedy into mere comedy. (Incidentally, perhaps the greatest "achievement" of The Year Of The Flood is that, by the end, it no longer feels like an Atwood novel at all. Instead, it's written in the kind of functional prose of a middling Stephen King novel, and populated by cyberpunk genre-standared hardass women, in a post-apocalyptic setting which is surprisingly lacking in vividness. The result is what Robert Macfarlane memorably calls a "dystoap-opera".)


The question that kept recurring when I was reading both Oryx And Crake and The Year Of The Flood was: why do these books not succeed in the way that The Handmaid's Tale did? If The Handmaid's Tale was an exemplary dystopia, it was because the novel made contact with the Imaginary-Real of neoconservatism. Gilead was 'Real' at the level of a neconservative desire that was operating in the Reaganite 80s; a virtual present that conditioned the actual present. Offred, the handmaids, the Marthas, the Wall - these names have the resonant consistency of a world. But Atwood does not have so assured a handle on neolliberalism as she did on neoconservatism. Atwood gives every appearance of underestimating the cheap poetry of brands, banal as it is; her corporate names are ugly and clunky, no doubt deliberately so - perhaps this is the way that she hears the absurd infantilisms of late capitalist semiotics. AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, Happicuppa, ReJoovenEssens, and - most ungainly of all - Sea(H)ear Candies: these practically caused me physical pain to read, and it is hard to conceive of any world in which these would be leading brands. Atwood's mistake is always the same - the names are unsightly plays on the function or service that the corporations offer, whereas capitalism's top brand names - Coca Cola, Google, Starbucks - have attained an asignifying abstraction, in which any reference to what the corporation does is merely vestigial. Capitalist semiotics echo capital's own tendency towards ever-increasing abstraction. (For the Imaginary-Real of neoliberalism, you'd be far better off reading Nick Land's 90s texts, shortly to be re-published.) Atwood's names for genetically-spliced animals - the pigoon, the spoat/gider, the liobam - are also examples of linguistic butchery; perhaps she was trying to provide a parallel in language for the denaturalising violence of genetic engineering. In any case, these linguistic monsters are unlikely to roam far beyond Atwood's texts (they certainly don't have anything like the dark sleekness and hyperstitional puissance of, say, Gibson's neologisms).


But the principal failing of The Year Of The Flood's anti-capitalism consists in its inability to grasp the way in which capitalism has absorbed the organic and the green. Some of the strongest passages in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce keep reiterating this message. (One of my favourite lines in the book: "Who really believes that half-rotten and overpriced 'organic' apples are really healthier than the non-organic varieties?") Needless to say, while any credible leftism must make ecological issues central it is a mistake to seek out an "authentic" organicism beyond capitalism's simulated-organic. (Another of my favourite lines in First As Tragedy ...: "if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, precisely, mother earth now no longer exists.") Organicism is the problem, and it's not some eco-spirituality that will save the human environment (if it can be saved) but new modes of organisation and management.

Posted by mark at September 26, 2009 04:44 PM | TrackBack