Grief and Hope in Face of the Failing Human Project

Magdelena Grieving by Caravaggio (detail).

[The following is a modified version of a presentation by the same name, given on October 29, 2023 at the “Apocalyptic Anxieties” conference celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Institute for the Humanities of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.]

In the final passage of his After the Future, Franco Berardi (2011) writes that “Creating a form of self-consciousness of the general intellect is the political task of the future.” (pg. 163).”

In these times of growing brutality toward one another and toward the planet, it is difficult to maintain any hope that we will ever “create a form of self-consciousness of the general intellect.” The inhumanity that civilization hubristically and insouciantly commits on a daily basis can easily become overwhelming, beyond our capacity to tolerate. Yet, we try. Artist John Berger (2001) has written that what he has called “small pockets of resistance” can be formed “when two or more people come together in agreement.” It is here that hope – again, that word, hope – can be experienced. It is not the sort of hope of stopping mankind’s destruction of the Earth, or his inhumanity toward one another. It is a hope in experiencing, finding, those small pockets of resistance.

It is also a hope that we can face, tolerate the hopelessness of humanity, grieve it, and find like folk with whom we can be together in peace. It is hope that we can form small pockets of resistance. It is hope experienced in the best of art, the beauty we can cherish in making community with others who mourn and yet rise beyond it.

In order for us to progress, to move beyond so many forms of divisiveness, we must be able to become aware in ourselves of our own particular tendencies to become cruel, retaliatory, even sadistic. That is a prerequisite for hearing, truly hearing and humanizing, our opponents. It is our only hope of opening an actual dialogue of differences. Not everyone will be able to do this, but any number of us can; or at least any number of us have the potential, a potential that might be helped along in certain situations.

I have struggled mightily as an environmental activist, only to find, over and over and over, forces of greed or, by their opponents, forces of shared contempt for the exploiter. Hatred, greed, and sanctimonious rectitude consume lives. The environmental movement disappoints in unspeakable degree. Communities purporting solidarity too often disdain those who don’t share their views. Yet we hope within our finding those small pockets of resistance. In this instance, by “hope,” I emphatically include a kind of action and activism, a kind of psychoanalytic act; an act in the sense of nondefensively receiving whatever level of maturity or immaturity each speaker is capable of. It is at this juncture that an as-yet undeveloped, but present, capacity to maturity might be actualized.

In a recent five-town speaking and discussion tour across the mountainous southern tier of Montana, the failure of the environmental community became evident to some participants who had wanted to think otherwise of it. That they could begin to fathom grieving its destructiveness also opened, paradoxically, a small pocket of resistance in the face of it. Facilitating that generative grief in them called on me to be a psychoanalyst not only within the consulting room, but also outside of it.

Or, several years ago when a small Montana town was in the midst of serial suicides that had gripped its inhabitants, rageful blaming and dehumanization of one another gave way, through a community gathering of speaking to one another. That is, about 150 people found a way to move from persecutory hatred to a sense of solidarity, in only a few hours’ time. Another small pocket of resistance when town folk found that there was no one to blame. Hope emerged from what had been a grief refused.

In that same small Montana town, and later in that same year, a new eruption appeared. A handful of high school students, incendiaringly and very visibly flying Confederate flags on their pickup trucks, parked just outside the school’s boundaries, such that the Administration had no legal power to intervene. Another community discussion was offered, and this time about 35 people showed up. A larger group contagion had not formed. Might it have been owing to the earlier serial suicide intervention? Be that as it may, after heated and blaming exchanges settled down into theretofore embattled participants coming to understand each other’s experiences and ideologies, the meeting cordially adjourned. It was followed by the Confederate flags immediately being voluntarily taken down.

In each of these interventions, knowing of, and having a generative relationship to my own aggression was perhaps the most important element of what I did. Not to mention that it required a certain courage, an entering into all eight of these gatherings knowing only the likely contention involved, while not knowing the form it might take, and remaining receptive to both spoken and non-spoken communications from, and experiences in, participants.

Still, the thought of such resistance and group dialogical transformation ever reaching a sense of global humanizing and celebration of freedom, seems impossible indeed. I have often engaged in a naive activism, thinking I might change the minds of the felonious, that I might be able to sway dominant oppressive or exploitive groups to move toward justice and togetherness. Instead, I have come to occupy a knowing that humanity likely will never alter its multifariously failing trajectory. Perhaps also quintessential to the interventions I am describing here, or at least in today’s grim world situation, is an embracing of that likelihood, while acting within small pockets of resistance. By finding beauty and freedom there. But also hope.

Imagine such interventions successfully occurring, for example, in the Palestine-Israel intensities. Without a naive wondering, how far might an embrace of these possible transformations go?

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a psychoanalyst, environmental and social critic, living in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His environmental writings and interviews have appeared in numerous journals and podcasts in recent years. He is the author of Intimate Violence: Attacks Upon Psychic Interiority and numerous psychoanalytic journal articles. Scalia is in private practice in Livingston, Montana, and is President of Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, as well as a past President and current critic of Wild Montana (né Montana Wilderness Association).