Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Every new year brings with it the promise of a fresh start, the promise that this year, unlike last year, we can finally get things right. Thus, the resolution-industrial complex whereby the early weeks of a year are filled with a deluge of firm commitments (and encouragements to make such commitments) based around self-improvement. In the new year we will learn a new language, work out more, read at least a book a week, waste less time on social media, finish an ambitious creative project, spend more time with family, or [insert your very own resolution here], and so forth. There is usually a positive connotation surrounding these resolutions, even if what we’re aiming to correct about ourselves is a quality towards which we feel negatively.
But banish such negativity! Indeed, the first weeks of a new year are a time to think about improvement! A time for hope! A moment in which we construct earnest plans to make it a great year! We try our hardest to spend the early days of January locking in the positive habits that we want to stick with for the whole year! We momentarily erase from our minds the mountain of horror stories that were filling the news towards the end of the previous year! After all, December is the time to look back with critical disappointment, January is the time to look forward with excited anticipation!
Yet, as 2017 begins, it seems that it may be worth making a rather different sort of resolution. One that runs directly contrary to the attitude with which we are generally encouraged to greet the new year. To put it plainly, in 2017 it is worth resolving to be more pessimistic. And following directly from this, resolving to allow yourself to be afraid.
The world situation at the end of 2016 was not particularly good, and had little about it to inspire confidence – and switching over to a new calendar does effectively zilch in automatically improving this situation. 2017 begins amidst a rising tide of xenophobia, misogyny, governmental ineptitude, technological control, normalized discrimination, nuclear paranoia, authoritarianism, and one should not forget the increasingly dire warnings of impending ecological catastrophe. There are dark days ahead, and there is little to be achieved by pretending otherwise. This is not a time to hope for the best, it is a time to anticipate the worst. In short, it is a time to be pessimistic and to acknowledge the fear in your gut.
Such a suggestion meets with the obvious counter that negativity breeds apathy, that it leads to inaction and a shrugging acceptance of the status quo. It would be folly to ignore this argument. Despair can drop a person into a pit from which they are unable to escape. For, what is the point of doing much of anything if “all is lost”? Yet, it is worth noting that faith in the inevitability of progress can also breed apathy and inaction, while the belief that “things aren’t really all that bad” serves to easily inure people to the status quo. And given the cultural emphasis on optimism and positivity, which of the above scenarios is really doing more to maintain complacency? True, too large a helping of doom and gloom may convince people to don sackcloth and retreat from society, but the belief that “everything will work out” or that “someone will invent something to deal with it” just as easily leads people to pop in earbuds (or put on a VR headset) and retreat into the comforting myths of their society.
Pessimism can function as a much needed corrective in moments such as this, and can serve as a way of forecasting the future with unfortunate effectiveness. After all, as has been previously argued, many of the dead pessimists of yore did a frighteningly successful job predicting the state of the world at the end of 2016. It is not that such figures were in the possession of a time machine, precognitive abilities, or a crystal ball – they were simply unflinching in considering the dark trajectories of history, and unwilling to be swayed by a simplistic belief in progress. As Theodor Adorno once quipped:
“Relapse into barbarism is always an option.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 22)
And that is an observation that is well worth remembering at the start of 2017, when evidence of this relapse is plentiful.
Yet, pessimism is a reminder, and a warning, that things can get worse – and that there is a solid chance that they will. Of course, to council pessimism is not to obviate the need for activist engagement, mutual aid, ethical behavior, or a commitment to education. Rather, it is a perspective that draws its reasons for acting from a wary recognition of just how bad things can get if people do nothing – and which matches this with a long perspective of just how much work needs to be done. 2017 is going to be a year spent fighting (at times literally) against the forces of intolerance, destruction, and repression. Yes, that is a pessimistic prediction, but to believe otherwise at this point is not optimistic, but delusional.
Pessimism does not mean an abandonment of hope – it is not nihilism – but it tempers the brightness of hope by recognizing that we do not get what we hope for by doing nothing, waiting patiently, chipping in a few bucks to the right cause, and believing in the basic goodness of human beings. It acknowledges that our hopes always exist in a tense push and pull with our fears.
Therefore, in 2017, it is also important to make space for fear. To acknowledge our fears. To admit our fears. To face our fears instead of running from them. And even to ponder whether or not we are as afraid as we should be. In the tug of war between hope and fear, pessimism forces us to consider that our fears might win out. Seeing this as a realistic possibility should not be discounted. For much of the twentieth century, various thinkers drew a connection between the need for a realistic level of fear in light of the threat of nuclear annihilation. There was a happy time during which such nuclear paranoia seemed rather outdated, but in 2017 it seems that the possibility of nuclear weapons actually being used is something that we need to worry about again.
In the estimation of Günther Anders, people were ignorant of the scale of the danger posed by nuclear weapons, to him this represented a failure of the imagination. To Anders the problem was not that people were afraid, but that they were not afraid enough. As he put it:
“Therefore: don’t fear fear, have the courage to be frightened, and to frighten others, too. Frighten thy neighbor as thyself. This fear, of course, must be of a specific kind: 1) a fearless fear, since it excludes fearing those who might deride us as cowards, 2) a stirring fear, since it should drive us into the streets instead of under cover, 3) a loving fear, not fear of the danger ahead but for generations to come.” (Anders, 190)
These three types of fears are what we need to rediscover in 2017 – and we need to permit ourselves the pessimism necessary to truly see the things we need to fear. We need to have the steely resolve to admit that it could be as bad as we secretly worry that it will be, and we need to admit this to others. For we are not alone in our fears.
It is odd, and likely unwelcome, advice to suggest facing 2017 pessimistically. And it is not as clearly a useful resolution as learning a new language. And yet it is the type of resolution which may strengthen our resolve by allowing us to move into the year without illusions. As Lewis Mumford put it in 1939 in a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to rouse people to the dangers of fascism:
“Hoping for the best, we must still prepare for the worst. To face the future in any other spirit is to invite destruction.” (Mumford, 8)
So, raise your glass to 2017! And allow yourself to recognize that the glass is already more than half empty.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Towards a New Manifesto. London: Verso, 2011.
Günther Anders “Theses for the Atomic Age.” In The Life and Work of Günther Anders. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2014.
Lewis Mumford. Men Must Act. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939