Sunday, 4 April 2010

9: Jones: The Subject Supposed to Recycle

Having scheduled a discussion of ‘how to put society into climate change’ for the closing weeks of my new module Nature and Society, I found myself struggling for enthusiasm and ideas. This begs the question: how can one be uninspired by the prospect of global catastrophe?

Campbell Jones ‘The subject supposed to recycle’ (Philosophy Today Spring 2010) offers, at least, some explanation of my inertia. Jones provides a different way into discussions of climate change by problematising the figure of the ethical/apathetic/greedy consumer usually placed at the centre of narratives about the issue. In the contemporary setting it is recycling (and we might add other forms of ‘ethical’ consumption) that are driven by moral imperatives. Jones suggests that while some early capitalists (as Max Weber described) pursued salvation through ‘good work’ the recycler is responding to the ‘generalized risk’ of apocalypse.
“ But we have it in our own hands to forestall this apocalypse, and in this sense we are today invited into a care for the planet, that is accompanied by an almost paranoiac ‘care of the self’.” (p30)
Recycling depends on the intersection of recyclable objects and active free subjects rests on fantastic claims made for the potential contribution of individuals and for the recyclability of objects. Jones suggests that we should locate this within a discussion of commodity fetishism by considering “the mystifications on the other sides of the product, with respect to the ghostly afterlife of products in the social relations of their disposal.” (p32)

Jones writes of ‘the ideology of recycling’ and, in particular, “the subjective categories supposed or presupposed by ideology”. These categories include ‘the catastrophic subject’ responding to real and present danger and her evil twin, the complacent subject unwilling to change her behaviour. These subjectivities and their notions of responsibility have two key aspects – guilt and freedom – which, Jones suggests, are neither realistic or helpful.

I found Jones’ discussion of guilt and consumption particularly thought provoking. The interiorisation guilt and responsibility may have deep roots in Judeo-Christian culture but seems integral to consumer behaviour: Jones quotes Walter Benjamin who wrote that “capitalism is presumably the first case of a religion that does not atone but produces guilt.” Much consumerism is driven by cycles of over indulgence and regret (think of the current preoccupation with food and body management). This point was make previously in Colin Campbell’s book The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism.

The implication of Jones’ arguemnt is that making people guilty about consumption choices and giving them personal responsibility for global climate melt-down is counter-productive.
“Perhaps then the properly moral subject is the one who refuses to allow their subjectivity to enter into the process, who refuses to take responsibility for the catastrophe. The subject who refuses to accept the invitation to permanent guilt and paranoiac self-concern that one hasn’t done enough.”

Jones argues that our response to climate change should not be passivity but a rejection of individualized, localized guilt. Our current tokenistic attempts at behaviour change mirror those of corporations and governments who have ‘outsourced’ their responsibilities to us. We need to shift responsibility to those who really have the power to bring about a low carbon world.

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