Monday, May 9, 2011

Michael Crichton’s State of Fear

Almost everything in modern society is opaque and mysterious to almost everyone. This is true of the most familiar things and occurrences of everyday life perhaps above all else. Take a car, for example: consider the material systems that go into putting a car on the road—the great extractive and refining operations, the vast open-cut mines and all the machinery involved in them, the massive rigs sucking oil from kilometres below the surface of the sea, the smelting of rare and exotic materials resistant to astonishing pressures and intense heat; the far-flung production chains, the giant factories and million-fold inventories, the daintily pirouretting robots, the containerized networks that transship components and finished cars across continents and oceans; the many forms of expert knowledge brought together in designing and manufacturing these machines, the human harvest gleaned from the laws of themodynamics and the analysis of motion, the advanced mechanical and materials engineering, sophisticated digital circuitry, the generations of tinkering and experiment with synthetic rubbers, camshafts and cracking towers, the precision manufacturing of constant velocity joints and planetary gearsets; the practical sciences from geomorphology to traffic policing, from the civil and behavioural engineering of flyovers and rotaries to the business science of fast-food restaurants, from logistics modelling to the fabrication of consumer desire. Whether speeding along the motorway, crawling in traffic or softly rusting at the wrecker’s, cars exceed all capacities of individual understanding. No-one can fully comprehend his daily drive.

No doubt, most people can experience the limits of their personal automotive understanding without even having to try to imagine all this sublime infinity of motorised ingenuity, effort and violence. If they are anything like me, all they need to do is to open the bonnet and take a look. I usually do this when my car unexpectedly stops working; that is, only when I am faced with sudden breakdowns in the seamless functioning of technologies I do not understand (which basically includes all of them). Most people, like me, take an unknown world on trust every time they get in and turn the ignition. And we are so habituated to the fact that it always works that we only notice this expectation when it doesn’t. Much of daily life plays out against a background of similarly unnoticed and effectively incomprehensible technologies. Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued over a century ago that this is in the nature of complex modern societies, those which are dynamically organised by the division of labour. As the various types of knowledge become more differentiated, we are all required increasingly to rely on the competences of others. As a result, and perhaps paradoxically, the division of labour and the specialisation of knowledge actually lead to greater social solidarity, not less. Anthony Giddens rehearses this Durkheimian argument as follows:

The knowledge incorporated in modern forms of expertise is in principle available to everyone, had they but the available resources, time and energy to acquire it. The fact that to be an expert in one or two small corners of modern knowledge systems is all anyone can achieve means that abstract systems are opaque to the majority. Their opaque quality—the underlying element in the extension of trust in the context of disembedding mechanisms—comes from the very intensity of specialisation that abstract systems both demand and foster.

Specialisation leads to opacity leads to trust. But for some reason, this harmonious weaving of unity from difference seems to break down when it comes to the environment. There, instead of creating the trust that binds modern societies together, expert knowledge instead gives rise to a whole field of new anxieties, most notably the suspicion that the experts are in fact deceiving us. Environmental knowledge is a contemporary breeding-ground of social distrust, the universal solvent of solidarity. Few facts illustrate this more clearly than the perverse disconnection between climate science and public opinion. While evidence of human influence on climate has grown stronger in recent years, fewer and fewer people seem to be convinced. We may be content to trust our transport to expertise, but apparently not the weather. Australian climate wonk Ross Garnaut provides a recent overview of this paradox here (see section 5), concluding:

Despite the increased scientific understanding of climate change, and confidence in the science’s conclusions about climate change, public confidence in the science seems to have weakened somewhat in Australia and some other countries since 2008.

It is a striking case of the deadlock of ecological communications as explained by Niklas Luhmann. For Luhmann, modern societies are constituted by numerous specialised subsystems: science, law, economy, politics, religion and so on. Communication within each subsystem takes place on the basis of a selective coding of the flux and chaos of the subsystem’s environment. Coding converts infinite environmental complexity into meaningful information relevant within the context of the subsystem. Because communication within each subsystem is underwritten by its own particular binary code, messages cannot pass from one subsystem to another. So legal knowledge, coded legal/illegal, cannot directly inform the economy, which is coded payment/non-payment; nor science, coded true/false, and so on. Subsystems interrelate only by forming part of each other’s environments. And as for Durkheim and Giddens, this divergence of social subsystems forms the basis for Luhmann of increasing social cohesion:

Functional differentiation promotes interdependence and an integration of the entire system because every function system must assume that other functions have to be fulfilled elsewhere.

Each subsystem is self-foundational and ultimately self-referential: the sub-system exists because its code establishes and reproduces its difference from its environment. For Luhmann, ‘a system attains rationality to the extent that it reintroduces the difference of system and environment within the system.’ So a system cannot define itself only by identifying all the elements that are internal to it—all those elements that are coded in terms of its binary values. Paradoxically, to achieve operational closure it must also refer to its outside. It must open up to some element external to it: some element that is consequently at once inside and outside the system—inside the system but uncodable by the binary that defines the extent of that system. To avoid breakdown, systems must operationalise this paradox, convert it into a source of internal dynamism. This is what allows a system to reflect on its own operations, its own procedures, and thus to evolve, to remain responsive to changing environmental conditions.

But ecological problems demand comprehending the complex interactions of society as a whole with its environment. As Luhmann states: ‘measured by this criterion, ecological rationality would be attained when society could charge the reactions to its environmental effects to itself.’ This would mean conceiving of both the difference between society and the environment, and also their unity. The constitutive paradox of systems, which operate through an internal configuration of their exterior, would need to be reproduced at the level of the social totality. And the problem here lies not on the side of the environment but on the side of society. To conceive of society’s interactions with the environment requires conceiving of society as a whole. But such a conception, for Luhmann, is effectively impossible in the case of modern societies structured by functional differentiation and the division of labour. The constitutive paradox for society as a whole cannot be articulated, for there is no valid standpoint within society to reflect on society as a whole:

As long as society was differentiated according to center/periphery or rank [i.e. in feudal and monarchical societies, for instance], positions could be established where it was possible, as it never has been since, to represent the system’s unity, i.e., in the center or at the apex of the hierarchy. The transition to functional differentiation destroys this possibility when it leaves it to the many function systems to represent the unity of society through their respective subsystem/environment differences and exposes them in this respect to competition among themselves while there is no superordinate standpoint of representation for them all. To be sure, one can observe and describe this too. But the unity of society is nothing more than this difference of function systems. It is nothing more than their reciprocal autonomy and non-substitutability; nothing more than the transformation of the structure into a togetherness of inflated independence and dependence…In the new order there are no natural primacies, no privileged positions within the whole system and therefore no position in the system which could establish the unity of the system in relation to its environment.

And so Luhmann concludes there is no way of effectively communicating knowledge of ecological problems, which consist precisely in this relation. Instead, he argues, ecological communication operates in three modes. The first two involve the specialised subsystems. There is under-resonance, in which environmental problems fail to trigger any appropriate level of recognition and response in any of the specialised subsystems; and over-resonance, in which some ecological problem causes one subsystem to take actions which cascade through other subsystems in unwanted, unforeseeable and ultimately misguided and harmful ways. Thirdly, there is a background non-specialised communication of anxiety—a type of free-floating, non-functionalist, irrational discourse. Ecological questions cannot be properly posed, let alone answered, in any of these three modes. So the polycentric structure of modern societies—their differentiation into specific functional systems—makes socially effective communication of ecological information practically impossible. Modern global society appears structurally incapable of coming to terms with the risks posed by its ecological dimension—risks represented most acutely today by climate change.

Luhmann’s analysis appears to be borne out by recent history. Political systems have indeed proven largely incapable of addressing climate change. Scientific concern has failed to arouse appropriate resonance in other social subsystems. Legal instruments have been slow to emerge, and unwieldy and uncertain when they have. Much anxiety has been generated, but has done nothing to slow the seemingly inexorable rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Indeed, the last few years have seen the locus of anxiety starting to shift, in a strange concatenation of anxiety and over-resonance. Increasingly, the object of anxiety is not climate change itself but statements about climate change. What motivates these statements? Is climate change part of some devilish conspiracy? How do we know we are not being hoodwinked? Whom can we trust?—these are the questions that appear to be occupying ever greater areas of social consciousness. Suspicion now falls on the channels of ecological communication rather than on its content. Falling levels of public confidence in climate science clearly correspond to this shift. But perhaps it also suggests a potential exit from the deadlock of ecological communication described by Luhmann.

Marshall McLuhan once quipped that ‘the new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature.’ This is the position adopted by the eco-terrorist baddies of Michael Crichton’s climate change novel of 2004, State of Fear. The principle is most clearly articulated by Henley, the arch villain:

“All reality is media reality…That’s why you are holding a conference,” Henley said patiently. “You hold a well-publicized conference and it happens to coincide with some dramatic evidence for the dangers of abrupt climate. And by the end of the conference you will have established abrupt climate change as a genuine problems…Your conference is going to change the ground rules for climate.”

In Crichton’s novel, climate change is a vast conspiracy ‘global in scope, immensely complicated, extremely expensive.’ The plan, in brief, is to fake global warming: violent eco-activists trigger disasters that can be plausibly attributed to climate change, and are carefully timed to maximise publicity. (Although these ‘climate’ disasters rather implausibly include a tsunami: surely a jökulhlaup—a glacial meltwater flood—would have made more sense?) So climate in this plan is what used to be called a ‘social construct.’ It is entirely shaped and reshaped by communicative acts: by conferences, by the mass media, by political statements, and so on.

So the grand irony of the book is that global warming does indeed turn out to be anthropogenic. Even for Crichton, human action is the root cause. But rather than being an unwanted consequence of industrialised modernity, the changing climate is in fact a media spectacle manufactured by terrorists to deceive the gullible public. The novel’s plot is largely a clunky confection of bizarreries, clichés and exoticisms—a blue-ringed octopus used as a murder weapon! NASA robots! Beautiful assassins! Death on the Antarctic ice! Fuzzy-wuzzy cannibals!—the details of which are more or less irrelevant to its ideological purpose. What is really at issue is this ‘eco’ redefinition of climate as media. Crichton takes his stand against this mediatised construct on the firm bedrock of data. Tiresomely repeated throughout the novel is a scene where one character parrots some environmental doxa only to be slapped down with charts, journal references and data—for all of which Crichton provides footnotes:

“Actually it’s not,” Sanjong said. “I can give you the references, if you like.”

“Okay,” she said. “Now I am going to show you a graph…”

“I’ll give you the journal references.”

“Actually, Kilimanjaro has been rapidly melting since the 1800s...a topic of scholarly concern for over a hundred years.”

“Here is the actual data, Ted.”

“Actually, scientific studies do not support your claims.”

And so actually on and on, over and actually over again. In State of Fear, data represents the true state of affairs in opposition to climate as media construct. But the novel itself operates on both sides of this dichotomy, as it declares on its very first page:

This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions, and organizations in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct. However, references to real people, institutions, and organizations that are documented in the footnotes are accurate. Footnotes are real.

The distinction between fiction and reality, novel and footnotes, can never be quite as neat as this suggests—not least because characters in the novel are constantly referring to the footnotes. In this regard, the novel resembles the operations of its counter-terrorist heroes, which, despite their references to data, are primarily interventions in the media sphere. To prevent an event being broadcast is as much a media act as to broadcast that event—even when this is achieved by preventing not just the broadcast, but the event itself. The parameters of action remain those of the media. Similarly, the novel uses the techniques of fiction to assert a proposition about reality, and also uses references to reality to bolster that fiction. State of Fear targets the media sphere in the name of data, but it also and paradoxically employs its own media strategies within that disputed world. It works both sides of the fence.

In this way, Crichton’s novel reflects the asymmetric burden of explanation placed on climate change sceptics. Affirmers seek to demonstrate: 1) that the climate is changing; 2) that this is a result of human action; and 3) that societies must consequently respond and adapt. All three points are now central questions of political contention. So sceptics variously argue (somewhat incoherently): 1) that the climate is not changing; 2) that changes are not caused by human action; and 3) that human-driven climate change does not require any focussed measures of response or adaptation (a warmer world is actually beneficial; we’d be better off investing scarce resources in other areas; markets will manage fine if we just leave them alone, and so on). But sceptics have an additional explanatory task. They must also explain the reasons for the existence of social concern about climate change in the first place. Even if the climate were not in fact changing, climate change would still need to be accounted for as a cultural phenomenon. So casting doubt on the motives of climate change affirmers is not merely a rhetorical tactic that sceptics can adopt or abandon at will. It is in fact inherent to the logic of the sceptical position. Sceptics are compelled by the structure of the controversy to perform this shift from criticising the affirmers’ claims to criticising the ways those claims are formulated and disseminated. Hence the otherwise inexplicable prevalence within sceptical arguments of such tropes as the psychology of confirmation bias, the perils of grant-funded careerism, the operations of shadowy agents, the history of scientific method, withheld results, the threats of world government, etc. These are all ways of calling attention to the fact that climate science is inextricably embedded in material and political structures of knowledge. Such criticism is really metacriticism: its target is the forms and conditions of its opponent’s assertions, rather than those assertions themselves; the medium, rather than the message.

For affirmers, the equivalent explanation for the existence of the sceptical position is almost self-evident, as well as being relatively incidental to the imperatives of their argument. Basic self-interest requires those who benefit from activities that change the climate to deny climate science (and in effect this includes everyone, if to vastly varying degrees). A fundamental continuity is acknowledged between society’s ecological dimension and its communication about that dimension. Communicative positions within society are closely interrelated with ecological processes. Scepticism is almost as much a natural and predictable phenomenon as the greenhouse effect. No sharp conceptual distinction is required between the cultural and the ‘natural’ aspects of climate change. Indeed, this distinction between nature and culture is a central target of affirmers’ arguments. For sceptics, on the other hand, the discursive logic of the opposing side is much more opaque. Not even Crichton actually believes that eco-terrorists are faking the whole thing. And in State of Fear, the terrorists’ motivations remain completely obscure. Are they simply cynical criminals, just in it for the money? (But wouldn’t it be easier to rob a few banks?) Are they true believers? These are questions raised in the novel:

“Fuck you,” the guy said… “We’re trying to save the planet”…

Kenner wasn’t sure whether the guy believed what he was saying, had been fed it at college, or was just distracted by fear. Then again, maybe it was meant to be a distraction...

But these questions are never answered. The discussion is swiftly brought to a close when Kenner shoots his interlocutor dead. Another of the very many possibilities Crichton puts in play is that universities invented climate change to justify their existence, having realised that ‘only so many theoretical texts on the semiotics of Foucault could be published in any single year.’ But as everyone knows, the number of texts on Foucault that can be published is in fact unlimited. Motivation, like the media to which questions of motivation draw attention, is at once essential to State of Fear’s ideological strategy and dismissed as nothing more than a ‘distraction.’ It is a contradiction that exemplifies the double-bind of climate change scepticism more generally. On the one hand, as Clive Hamilton has recently argued:

Developments in climate science have revealed a natural world so influenced by human activity that the epistemological division between nature and society can no longer be maintained. When global warming triggers feedback effects, such as melting permafrost and declining albedo from ice-melt, will we be seeing nature at work or human intervention? The mingling of the natural and the human has philosophical as well as practical significance, because the “object” has been contaminated by the “subject”. Climate denial can be understood as a last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms, as if the purification of climate science could render Nature once again natural, as if taking politics out of science can take humans out of Nature.

This is the side of Crichton’s novel that opposes data to the media, asserting the purely cultural status of climate change. On the other hand, as Michael Grubb remarked a few weeks ago at a talk at ANU, basic physics has somewhat absurdly become a left/right political controversy, largely thanks to climate change scepticism. In Luhmann’s terms, this would be a case of over-resonance: statements that are non-contentious within the subsystem of science—Planck distributions, the Stephen-Boltzman constant, Kirchoff’s law—are now triggering bizarre overreactions and controversies within the subsystem of politics. Absurd this may well be, but it also indicates a startling redefinition of what can be considered as political questions. If we follow tradition and understand politics as the art of the possible, then a newly central political task appears to hinge on asking what possibilities are allowed for by the fundamental principles of thermodynamics. And this redefinition of politics has been effected by sceptics as much as by affirmers, if not more so. If the sceptical position seeks to take politics out of science, as Clive Hamilton suggests, it has proceeded by making science political. If sceptics want to take humans out of nature, they have done so by humanizing nature, finding evidence of unacknowledged human motivations within purportedly neutral statements about natural processes. Like Crichton’s counter-terrorist proxies, climate change sceptics seek to prosecute their arguments in the same media sphere as affirmers: they engage with the ‘ecology of thought.’ At the same time, they assert the inherent and unavoidable falsity of that sphere, in contrast to some putatively pure natural data. They politicise and mediatise ecological knowledge, and simultaneously deny any continuity between politics and the ‘natural’ world that forms the ostensible subject of ecological debate. It’s a paradox that Crichton seems at points even to be aware of: as he writes in the final words of his concluding ‘author’s message,’ ‘Everyone has an agenda. Except me.’

What modern society lacks, Luhmann argued, is a form of communication premised on the paradoxical difference and unity of society and its environment. Perversely, climate change scepticism appears to be one cultural site where this paradox is now beginning to be articulated. Its internal contradictions correspond to the conceptual impasse presented by climate change—of the Anthropocene, for example, as a term that names the historical erasure of the difference between human history and its natural environment. So perhaps climate change scepticism actually conforms to the new logic of the Anthropocene better than climate science, better than Green politics. Scepticism understands climate to be at once a wholly natural system and also a mediasphere of politics. It insists that these two senses must remain separate and opposed, and yet it also constantly secures their identity. It prosecutes ecological arguments on the terrain of media ecology, and media arguments on the terrain of natural ecology. Admittedly, climate change sceptics do not yet appear to be aware of the contradictions of climate change scepticism. But they have succeeded nonetheless in providing striking formulations of the paradox we find ourselves in—a paradox, Luhmann suggests, that we have now only to operationalise.

One possible way out of the deadlock of ecological communications, Luhmann notes in passing, would be provided by something like ‘a modern functional equivalent for original sin’; namely, a universal schema of social self-observation. A conception of ecological original sin would locate the paradoxical unity and difference of society and its environment everywhere within society—not at some central point, not within some privileged functional subsystem, but in every communicative action internal to the system as a whole. But such an equivalent, Luhmann adds, ‘is not on the horizon.’ Nor has one emerged in the two decades since he wrote. Instead, ecological knowledge inspires ever more scepticism, ever more anxiety. In church history, the doctrine of original sin was conclusively formulated by Augustine in reaction to the heretical teachings of Pelagius—that humans are free to choose good over evil without divine assistance; that we do not inherit Adam’s sin. Perhaps climate change scepticism could be understood as a type of ecological pelagianism. The Anthropocene describes a transformation of the world not by choice but by accident: our actions, even if they consist of nothing more than going for a drive, bring consequences that lie beyond the outermost reaches of our understanding. We certainly appear to fall into evil even when opting for good. But an Augustine of the Anthropocene, who could demolish this illusion of free will and establish in its place a social orthodoxy commensurate with the actuality of climate change, has still to appear.


Having just read an article by Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra that surveys 56 climate change novels (not to mention many more literary critical works on the theme), I’d be feeling rather intimidated by the size of my reading list if this blog made any claim to comprehensiveness. Climate change in contemporary fiction looks to be an area rapidly outstripping our ability to provide an exhaustive overview of it. Thankfully, my blog doesn’t have any ambition to complete coverage. It’s just occasional. In the next episode, I’m thinking of looking at Will Self’s The Book of Dave—a novel I haven’t yet read—but I’m open to suggestions if you have any.


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