Is loss a precondition for activism? Critiquing mourning / melancholia distinctions in the context of ecological irreversibility
This paper begins by recalling Cormac McCarthy’s exploration of memory loss in The Road: a thought experiment for the Anthropocene if ever there was one, and for the possible value in keeping memory of things his burnt world no longer recognises - “of things that cannot be put back”. I argue that this dilemma – what to imagine into our futures, what to accept has become our past forever – is an under-explored tension within environmental practices of resistance to extinction (as strategically diverse as those of climate action, survivalism, or de-extinction technologies). Furthermore I look critically at the claim, made both by activists and philosophers, that ‘working through’ loss could constitute a basis for political engagement rather than despair. The often cited Freudian distinction between mourning (in which attachment to the lost object is overcome) and melancholia (in which attachment becomes pathologically 'fixed') has, I will argue, blurred some of the useful nuances of this debate. Are there not grounds for the activist to retain something of the spirit of melancholia, acknowledging the ‘forever’ of loss? To delve back into such muddy waters, I draw upon two opposing legacies in the western philosophical and theological canon – represented by G.W.F. Hegel’s and Walter Benjamin’s respective thinking on mourning, dialectic and eternity – as competing temporal frames for the Anthropocene. A desire to overcome loss on the one hand, and to redeem and ‘fix’ it through memory, on the other.
Stefan Skrimshire is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Leeds, UK. He teaches courses in the broad areas of Religion and Politics, and Ethical Theory. His research spans political theology, continental philosophy and environmental ethics. The theme that unites these is a long standing interest in the formation, in both Christian doctrine and western philosophy, of apocalyptic and eschatological thought; more specifically in the impact of apocalypse belief upon contemporary environmental and political movements. He is the author of Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope: De-politicisation in a Time of Terror (Continuum 2008) and editor of Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination (Continuum 2010). He has published numerous chapters and articles on apocalyptic, messianic and eschatological themes in journals such as Political Theology; Cultural Politics; Environmental Philosophy; Journal for Cultural Research; Literature and Theology. Between 2007 – 2010 he led a research project on apocalyptic imagination and climate activism at The University of Manchester. He is currently in the planning stages of a new interdisciplinary research project at Leeds called ‘Religion and the Anthropocene: Rethinking Belief in Progress, Crisis and Deep Time’. See also http://skrimshire.org.uk/
Please note that unfortunately this recording missed the first 30 seconds or so of Stefan's presentation