Don’t Worry, Be Scrappy: On Stephanie Wakefield’s "Anthropocene Back Loop"

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer & Katherine Cassese

Cleveland Review of Books article here

Stephanie Wakefield | Anthropocene Back Loop: Experimentation in Unsafe Operating Space|London: Open Humanities Press | May 2020 | 212 Pages

JBK: “The back loop presents an opportunity to reclaim and redefine human agency” (p. 134).  This is the premise of Stephanie Wakefield’s imaginative book, the richer development of an idea she presented in a memorable article in the Brooklyn Rail, a course on invented lifestyles with students at Eugene Lang College, and a concept article for scholars and designers concerned with environmental, climate and other forms of resilience.

By the “back loop,” Wakefield is repurposing an idea from Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling.  Holling discovered and then theorized that ecologies go through a process of “colonization,” stability, dissolution, and then reorganization.  He came to this view first by observing succession processes in the woods after a forest fire.  The sudden interruption of the fire led the stable state of the woods to dissolve, throwing open biological and ecological possibilities that led to a reorganization of the ecosystem after the fire.  The back loop is the period of dissolution and creativity: ““Now suddenly,” wr[ote] Holling, “[is] the time where unexpected events happen. The accumulated resources are disassembled, broken down, left uncontrolled”” (p. 23).

Imagine a figure “8” on its side as a mobius strip.  The lower left front facing curve is the period of “colonization.”  The upper right front facing curve is the period of stability.  The lower right back turning curve is the onset of the back loop – the period of dissolution.  The upper left back facing curve is the period of reorganization.  The back loop is thus a continuum of dissolution and reorganization.

What Wakefield proposes is that we view the “Anthropocene” through the figure of the back loop.  The “Anthropocene” is the proposed name for the geological period wherein human activity becomes a main driver of planetary geology.  Things like global warming and the likely onset of a the sixth mass extinction suggest that human beings are now a geological force, to echo the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty.  Wakefield thinks that the concept of the back loop can be repurposed to help us understand the situation we are in.  The build-up that has led humankind to be able to change the planet’s biochemistry and biological order was the period of planetary “colonization” and then stability.  The onset of global warming and the beginning of what appear to be mass extinction cascades are the disruptive events of dissolution, the first half of the back loop.  These disruptive events have implications for how we live:

“Practices of power and truth, dreaming and living, governing and shaping: such practices are as old as humans themselves. They are how we create our worlds, take them in hand and shape them. But what is happening to these practices of life as they enter the back loop?” (p. 12)

What is happening, Wakefield thinks, is that the powerful are trying to manage the disintegration of the ecological stability of our planet to preserve their power and its order.  But as a moralist for our time who emerged out of anarcho-socialist Occupy, Wakefield urges us to break with the world the powerful seek to preserve and to transcend the dread of viewing the future as a period of ecological ruin:  “It seems to me that the future belongs not to those who seek to govern or suffer the back loop, but to those who know what they love, and take that love as a starting point and new definition of security” (p. 78).  Against a dying and conflicted world, she wants us to reinvent our lives.

Wakefield’s book is a call to view our lives as opening onto the second half of the back loop – the process of reorganization – while living through the dissolution of our world:

“My suggestion that we are in the back loop means that we have already crossed various tipping points …. [E]verything from social practices, technologies, and [conceptions of] truth to plants, animals, and places have become shaken out of their normal frameworks. We are free to move on new planes. And this should compel us to shift our perspective a bit” (p. 18).

I’m curious, Katherine, what you thought of all this.    

KC:  Wakefield draws on academic theory, film and even some posts on social media to suggest an approach for people working to carve out meaningful lives.

She divides her book into two parts with an interlude between them. In part one, she sets up the big picture frame of her view. She explains the back loop, how resilience theory is about managing life in a “safe operating space” that more or less preserves contemporary class-stratified consumer life, and then she lays out the challenge of moving beyond the safe operating space to embrace “post-apocalyptic” life through autonomous experimentation – taking up basic questions of life oneself and trying out novel ways of being as they feel right  The second part of the book then looks at several in-depth examples of how people are already embracing dissolution and enacting affirmative change using experimentation instead of a single blueprint:

“Rather than offering imperative statements or laws to which life must constrain itself in order to survive, [the examples I’ve chosen to study] instead communicate to us that life in and beyond the back loop is something to be explored on one’s own terms” (p. 84). 

Experimentation is personal, which is why all the examples – living and building on the water in Louisiana, CrossFit as a global phenomenon, and the singer Chronixx – are specific instantiations of experimentation that Wakefield has “lived or been close to” (p. 132). Whatever doesn’t work for us personally, we should abandon. It’s here that Wakefield goes big. She seems to think that “front loop” politics and philosophy might not work for us at allanymore: 

“[T]he quest of philosophy and politics in the front loop overall was to determine being by giving it a name, a ground, or telos. In place of trust in one’s own intuitions, actions, or definitions of truth, codes of sovereign grounds are created, to which being and action will be required to refer themselves” (p. 59). 

JBK:  That is an allusion to the work of the late New School for Social Research philosopher Reiner Schürmann, whose work is still being discovered.  Schürmann was a Heideggerian thinker who took Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics in the direction of politics.  Wakefield seems to be saying that the politics and philosophy of the front loop has been a “metaphysics of presence,” which means both that it has been hierarchical and heteronomous – we find what makes sense by learning it from an authority outside ourselves – and that it has been static, resistant to becoming, trying to fix being in an eternal now.

KC:  Interesting.  If philosophy and politics do impose an order on us, then (Wakefield thinks) beginning from ourselves will help ordinary people find meaning. But I wonder if she neglects those things that are meaningful precisely because the individual is just one part of them: truth, planetary responsibility and universal principles. To live a good life, I can’t thoughtlessly believe, say, or do whatever I want.  Far from inhibiting life, that makes it more meaningful.

Is there a way to begin from ourselves using autonomous experimentation, while also embracing what is bigger than ourselves? 

JBK:  That’s a good question.  It pushes back a bit on Wakefield’s down-low Heideggerianism.  And there’s a lot there to resist.  Wakefield makes a number of unstudied or sloppy claims.  She often grandstands and can be contradictory in the details.  One of the main contradictions is to mix her anarcho-libertarianism with Schürmann’s Heideggerianism.  For Schürmann, “an-archy” – life without a metaphysical ground – points  toward what Rob Nichols called a “politics of historical ontology,” the historical study of our ways of being while working on them from within.  But Wakefield’s book is at risk of repressing history by thinking that sheer willpower and ingenuity can tear us free of it.  This is actually, for thinkers like Schürmann or Nichols, to remain entangled in a dualist metaphysics of will set over against reason.  It’s to privilege “immediacy” when the way we approach everything is deeply mediated by what we’ve inherited historically.

Still, what Wakefield is doing with will – or as I will say, attitude – is interesting.  It comes out in her freshest intuition:  how to approach climate panic.  She rallies us tokeep our spirits upabout global warming and to be defiant.  Someone might think that this seems both wrong and absurd.  How can we “be positive” about hundreds of millions of climate refugees, failed states, civil war, millions dead from viral vectors, crashing ecosystems, drought, and mass starvation?  But Wakefield argues that some badass attitudeis spirited, beautiful, and sensible.

Take mellifluous Chronixx from Jamaica.  She thinks he shows us human potential by always going farther and higher than our current or past selves.  Going higher here means being more affirmative, more loving, more creative with whatever cards one has been dealt.

“Faced with a rifted reality where the old transcendents no longer work, … Chronixx actually disentangles himself, becomes his own ground. Whether it’s beer bottles as mics, palm trees as audience, ProTools or YouTube, colonial histories, fashion shoots, British football casual culture, the ocean’s waves or the sun’s heat—what Chronixx offers is a view of the possibilities present when we take up the world around us, without justification, moral or otherwise, to go beyond our given conditions. This is equally possible on an individual or shared basis. And it is something you can’t always see, touch, or read” (p. 121; note that she says “shared basis,” for it suggests something non-individualistic).

Granted, it’s not obvious what the “old transcendents” are in this passage, nor what is meant by “old” except that one isn’t creative enough to make some dogmas work now.  Yet Khalik Allah seems to reinvigorate “old transcendents” in Black Mother (2018) when he returns to Jamaica and goes “most high,” mixing and repeating the “old transcendents” with a difference that passes beyond the visible.  Nor does it seem likely that Wakefield wants to make way for someone who, say, goes on a killing spree “without justification, moral or otherwise” so as to “go beyond [their] given conditions” and affirm everything in a cosmic bloodbath.  

After all, Chronixx does have a moral justification in his music and in his videos, implicit in the voice, tone, and framing of his song and step. He signalsthat he is a “good guy,” not dangerous, and is in touch with others.  That is, he clearly manifests what Philippa Foot called “thick” moral sense.  He sings and steps good soulfulness.  Wakefield may not like the word “good,” because she has an allergy to the connotations it has in some people’s bad mouths, but that doesn’t mean the logic of goodness is not present all over Chronixx’s going higher and higher.

Also, Chronixx is working within a tradition of music, showing carefor it as he moves into its possibilities and expands them into something that can change.  This is a micro-version, a “practice of freedom,” of what Nichols calls “historical ontology.”  Wakefield’s use of Foucault’s “practices of freedom” is ahistorical, but someone like Chronixx is actually historical by way of his living tradition in song.

All this is confusing in Wakefield’s book.  How historical should a “practice of freedom” be?  Wakefield here seems modernist, even what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls “imperial.”  Check out Wakefield’s emphasis on the “new”:

“To transform the world does not only entail material infrastructures but also calls desperately for new kinds of human beings” (p. 119)  

What kind?  The kind of human beings who are here and now, pointed toward the new with an excess of creative and loving energy.  It’s contagious right?  Stop being stuckDon’t wait to be validated!  Get out there and reshape your body, home, and soul.  But in its lack of attention to history, this feels weirdly imperialist!  Here comes extreme global warming, and it is going to wreck everything.  Affirm it and leap into the void with your can-do attitude.  Laugh not with hellfire with but with joy!  How far can an attitude go?

KC:  Wakefield draws on a fitness practice to demonstrate the importance of attitude. Athletes use “imagination, visualization, and mental rehearsal of both… as powerful tools for transforming performance” (p. 75). To complete a long run, for example, I might imagine every detail of crossing the finish line – and that’ll help me achieve it! In the same way, Wakefield thinks our attitude toward the end of civilization as we know it determines how we experience it. 

This extension of visualization from athletic goals to defining realities verges on the unscientific, and the only supporting information for this jump comes from “experts on visualization and self-mastery” (p. 75, who these experts are isn’t explained, nor is there an endnote).  But I think Wakefield, skeptical of truth and universal science, would rather urge us to consider the usefulness of visualization on a more personal level. From there, visualization seems useful because it allows normal people to enact themselves  ourselves – a phrase that I think captures Wakefield’s version of human agency that values our dreams as epistemic sources. 

If our attitudes define reality, positive visualization seems a very sensible tool.  Who would willingly define a horrible world to live in?  But the negative, hateful messaging we consume about our changing planet does define it that way!  Even Anthropocene thinkers spew negativity when they proclaim the end of progress, the end of people making their own destinies, the end of everything:  

“[A]uthors like [Bruno] Latour [tell] us that no more dreams are possible, other than of managing disasters; that no other worlds are possible, other than this ruinous one in which we are enmeshed beyond our control” (p. 70).

Traditional Anthropocene discourse sucks the potential out of our futures.  It also mimics “old transcendents” like Christianity.  Negative messaging convinces people to hate themselves and their world, rather than seeing in themselves the ability to call forth the world to come. 

But what Wakefield wants is this:  instead of considering ourselves victims or a “hubristic cancer on the Earth” (p. 74) let’s visualize the possibilities of life by asking questions like “how… to live with nuclear contamination,” and “[h]ow to live with water” (p. 97, 83).

Faced with frequent flooding, Old River Landing – a small Louisiana town along an “old bend” (p. 93) of the Mississippi – chose to ask the latter question instead of evacuating.  Wakefield writes about how their ad hoc answer included floating homes and boats to get around.  These ended up being so common and successful that a local commented, “Everyone says, ‘I don’t know why the professors think [how we live] is such a big deal’” (p. 94). 

Wakefield explains that this work and the attitudeunderneath it are much more valuable (and ordinary) than another neoliberal platitude about the poor being resilient enough for mere survival: 

“[T]he water transforms [the] lives [of Old River Landing], affects and radically alters them. But [the people there] also assert a place for themselves within its ebbs and flows.  In doing so, they make themselves less vulnerable….  The problem in this case is not … how to get by amidst negative conditions.  Rather, it is how to continue what for the fishermen is their definition of the good life, the lifeway they have chosen, on their own terms” (pp. 95-96, emphasis added). 

The issue is autonomy, not resignation!  In response to your question, how far an attitude can go?  The attitudes we choose can take us very far.  We have the power to enact ourselves by visualizing the back loop as teeming with potential and by affirming whatever happens to us. 

I still wonder, though: how should we view the very real suffering and vulnerability of others?

JBK:  I think Wakefield’s implied answer is that we should approach the suffering of others with solidarity that empowers others to become as autonomous as they can be.  We should do this with an attitude of defiant amor fati – acceptance of fate, facing toward the next moment and what good we can do in it.  “Don’t cry – act.”  Don’t worry – be scrappy.

Here is where I begin to feel Wakefield’s repression of history.  The lament is a historical emotion, dreams are our histories bubbling up as they come into contact with the void, and bricolage – the makeshift making-do of anything – always draws on histories of making, repertoires of know-how and practice.  Language itself innovates only in the spaces between its historical remembering, reaching into possibilities thrown ahead by its ingrained history of sense.  It was Heidegger who made many of these points, among others!  I do not see how we can work through the present without drawing in the past, carefully.

What I see you pointing to is the missing soulfulness and practicality in Wakefield’s work.  Lost in the grief of our hearts, rituals, words well-worn, practices and histories of commiseration and healing all help us do justice to the lost.  In the chaos of a community coming apart, inherited symbols and meanings, tried and true and trusted means of making collective decisions, sensible orders of authority based on experience help us find the way through.Without turning to traditions, we are doomed in a different way.

KC: I found Wakefield’s belief in the potential of everyday people convincing.  Some sort of democratization seems necessary as trust in the cultural and political elite disintegrates today through the fissures in the Antarctic’s ice sheets: 

“The claims to governmental mastery of the world and human life are being washed away by rising seas and unprecedentedly powerful storms—as much as by Twitter feeds” (p. 30). 

Blueprints from political and cultural institutions are less authoritative, just one option among many. We are now freed to find our own ways in the unknown. But we are not starting from scratch:

“[A]s we explore our own paths, the back and front loop offer a wealth of resources from which we can draw as suits us. This includes [the] Styrofoam [used for Old River Landing’s amphibious architecture] and includes philosophy. Maybe Foucault, great thinker of the 20th century, still helps us comprehend our now. Maybe not. In other cases, perhaps it is our own experience that leads to the best insights. There is no one way, no tools that are pure and clean. Nor others that are off-limits” (p. 129). 

Wakefield thinks we should draw on tools from the back and front loop – our context and our history, respectively – as though we are selecting goods from a shelf. But the relationship is not so one-sided: the tools that are available allow us to make sense of one way of things, but not others, and in so doing they constitute us. We can become more autonomous in our own constitutions through critical reflection about what makes sense to us and why, but this cannot achieve a complete severance from our circumstances, not least because we can only engage in critical reflection using more tools we gather or create from context and history.

Think about when Wakefield discusses infrastructures. Infrastructures define the most basic facts of our life; they constitute us too. But now that infrastructures are unable to shield us from threats – or becomes a threat itself! – we see how contingent and socially constructed our infrastructure is.  We realize that we can organize living differently.  For instance, when Wakefield discusses Open Source Ecology (OSE), which provides public information about machines that anyone can use to create their own civilization, OSE neither distances us from our circumstances nor holds us in the past; rather, it gives the power of infrastructure to ordinary people who, freed from corporate profiteering, can then choose their own ways of being and justify their choices to themselves.  At experimentation’s best, the process of justification is at least personally accountable, and it makes way for critical reflection on our ways of being.  Each experimenter is seen as having the capacity – and the right – for self-determination.

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