In Capitalism: A Ghost Story, 2015, Arundhati Roy writes, “the middle class in India live side-by-side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeist of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for them”.
Is it any different in the good ol’ U.S. of A? Other than clarifying class-calibration whereby India’s emergent middle class can be equated with America’s mostly white ten-percenters, or upper-class, I suspect not.
Indeed, as the precipitated waters of the gulf coast inundate the sunken oil and chemical lands of Texas and Louisiana, we are experiencing our own sub-continental, Bangladeshi nightmare. The spirits of dead dinosaurs have arisen to re-arrange geographies and elide the physical certainties that used to exist between solid and liquid, between water and land, between salt water and fresh, and between the potable and the poisoned. Nature and Society now share equal billing. The elephant of climate change trumpets, as it rampages through what we used to think of as our room.
Here and elsewhere, we are castaways amidst the hobgoblins of our own horror show. It is not only the demonic cries of over 100,000 suicides amongst Vietnam Vets and a further 25,000 ex-service men and women dead by their own hand since 2012 – from our more recent wars of empire – that we hear: the psychic airwaves tremor not only with their suffering, their sacrifices and their condemnations but also, as Roy writes of her country, are rent with screams from our own mountain-top lobotomies, sickened streams, clear-cut forests and our daily extinctions. That pounding rhythm you may hear is propelled by the sonorous bass notes of our deeply troubled history.
We too have a nether world populated with those trapped in the purgatory of three jobs, a superannuated car and sub-standard housing; or of those a step below them, who roam the black-top parking-lots and streets amidst shuttered malls and fast-food emporia, car-lots and other materially manifest survivors of our digital age; or lurk at night in the shadows between the mercury vapor security lights and surveillance cameras, thinking idle thoughts, perhaps, of what makes America great or, more pressingly, of where they might spend the night. This underbelly of the impoverished and the dispossessed, forms a part of a greater whole: the vast middle class disenfranchised from its access to prosperity by successive waves of red-lining by which the institutions of hyper-capitalism define their prey. These armies of the white, now in solidarity with the black and brown by their comparative impoverishment desperately seek to differentiate themselves by their ethnic heritage – real or imagined – and by their common, sordid histories of predation, albeit practiced at a distinctly minor league, non-executive level.
This world remains hermetically sealed until some great meteorological event rips the plastic shrink-wrap skin away and we see, mostly second hand, via the voyeurism of the media, both social and mainstream, the festering wounds of fossil-fueled financial finagling that lie beneath the glossy surfaces of the upper-class world which, full disclosure, I uneasily inhabit. In this reveal, we may glimpse that underworld’s carnivalia, both arisen from the recent morbid history of this tragic country and more ancient, indigenous demons stirred from their sleeping places deep within the earth by extremes of weather, its winds and water; and perhaps glimpse too, the swirling, vaporous brimstone that arises out of the land, psychic testament to our half millennium of careless predations upon it, it’s indigenous people and those brought here under force or through the artful dissemination of the duplicitous American Dream – where double dealing hides the reality that the many will forever be enslaved by the few. The extremes of our globally warmed weather stir these macabre specters of neo-liberalism that now arise from their sick-boxes to haunt our dreams.
Welcome to our Whitemare. As a character declares in Colson Whitehead ‘s The Underground Railroad, 2016, the writer’s pro-forma, episodic novel that glosses the far greater Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, (which possessed real moral agency in the long struggle towards the abolition of slavery),
“…. America too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, cruelty.”
Now the nation is a little less disingenuous in its understanding of its foundations, thanks to the installation of a depraved hyper-capitalist in the aptly named White House, the traditional seat of male, almost exclusively white hegemony over the colored races. From this great white throne, judgements are cast upon the land that torture the souls of the indigenes – that encourage the rape of the earth’s crust, pollute their sources of water and deny them sovereignty over their lands. And from this great white throne judgements are cast that seek to expel so many of our Latino neighbors from the country and stifle their free movement across borders imposed by a war constructed of a depraved imperialism, incarnated by one James Polk. And from this great white throne and its web of plenipotentiaries ensconced in State houses across America are administered those houses of the mostly black and brown arrayed across an evil empire of incarceration. That empire too, is for a moment exposed as its sub-tropical edges are under threat of a vengeful hurricane and its mournful legions are relocated under armed guard to safer ground.
In North America we are no longer, (as aftershocks rumble through Chiapas and elsewhere in earthquake stricken southern Mexico) either literally nor metaphorically on solid ground. As Bruno Latour has it, “the decor has gotten up on stage to share the drama with the actors”. The separation between Nature and Society has been rent, in this latest iteration of a dissolving modernist epistemology, by hurricane force winds: winds – in an old locution – that are truly the winds of change blowing us towards a re-integration, whether we wish it or not, of natural context and social content. It is this radical re-structuring of our understanding of the world that is letting loose the psychic content of our histories with one another and with our natural environment.
Current literary work, set against the churning news cycle, is the bell weather of our predicament. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017; The Underground Railroad, and the partially grave-yard set, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, 2017, Roy’s novelistic setting of her social and political concerns and so, so much other cultural production, all toll for our futures. As Rosalind Crisp, the Australian dancer and choreographer writes, “The borders between sensation, imagination and fiction are now very slippery”. She goes on, in describing her dance cycle, The Boom Project, 2015, inspired by the environmental ravishment of her home country,
“….I breathe and at almost the almost-same instant I am filled with horror at the clear felling of the last old growth forest in my region and from the crack in my elbow sawdust pours out. This news from my body as it happens is a capturing of each miniscule, local detail of change in my body (even breathing makes us move!), and a welcoming into the body of sensation-images from my lived experiences in this terrible time of extinctions”.
Storm battered Texans, wind-swept Floridians and shaken Chiapans can relate: epistemological change is now a kinetic experience. We are being tossed, willy-nilly into a new (and the Universe knows, I hate to use this word) paradigm.
Our sensibilities and our flesh are under assault from both the real and the spectral, from the mundane and the magical, as the weather stirs our land and our imaginations. Wakened from the slumber of a post-racial age that falsely dawned under a bi-racial president, whose proclivities and will-to-power proved to arise more from his whiteness than his blackness, we are reminded that black, brown and indigenous lives matter, not only for their lives lived – our lives lived – but for their reification of our shared history that is mostly built on backs broken by white privilege realized in a great and on-going American imperial project. But it is a project that is now storm battered: its obfuscations ironically clarified in the meteorological and spectral clouds that gather above us.