The story of the disaster, the disaster of the story


This article was originally published by Le Monde on 6 November 2022. 

‘The ecological transition lacks a narrative’ was the headline of the editorial in Le Monde the day after the presentation on 21 October by the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, of her ‘France Green Nation’ plan. ‘What we have seen so far are photos. But the script of the film is missing, a shared narrative,’ said Benoît Leguet, director of the Institut de l’Économie pour le Climat, a think tank on ecological transition.

It is indeed an illusion shared by politicians and the media to believe that a story can remedy a civilisational crisis that questions not only our consumption patterns, but also our way of representing and telling a story.

Faced with the ecological transition, our political leaders struggle to find words. Government communication borrows from a lexicon of constraint: ‘efforts’, ‘responsibility’, ‘sacrifice’. The measures announced are formulated in terms of renunciation, deprivation, and restriction. They never use the language of experimentation or invention. They are always about loss (of a way of life or of consumption habits), never about reclaiming (new spaces, biodiversity). The ecological transition is a burden that must be apportioned, a collective responsibility towards future generations.

Ecology has gone from being punitive to being expiatory. A form of purgatory charged with redeeming the faults of hyper-consumption: uncontrolled growth and plundering of natural resources. Restrictive measures are put forward, but never opening up or broadening experiences, inventing new relationships to the body, to time and to space. It is exclusively a matter of the survival of the human species, never of reunion with other species. We are called on to correct ourselves on a daily basis through eco-gestures and sobriety, never to deploy ourselves in other fields of experience. The ecological catastrophe puts all the dominant narratives in crisis, but it fails to propose a horizon of possibilities. It is locked in a feedback loop: the narrative of the catastrophe, the catastrophe of the narrative.

Experience belied by facts

‘Life has been transformed into a timeless sequence of shocks between which there are gaping holes, empty and paralysed intervals’, wrote Adorno in 1945. Twelve years earlier, Walter Benjamin analysed the reasons for the crisis of narrative that followed the First World War in a famous essay entitled ‘Experience and Poverty’: ‘Never was acquired experience so radically given the lie as strategic experience by war of position, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by the ordeal of hunger, moral experience by the manoeuvrings of rulers.’

This same phenomenon has been repeated since the 2000s.

The strategic experience of deterrence was disproved at the end of the Cold War. The economic experiment of neoliberal globalisation would relocate millions of jobs, increase inequality, and impose the financial deregulation that led to the 2008 crisis. The experience of sexual liberation led to the emergence of AIDS, bringing back the spectre of great epidemics. The experience of progress through great ecological disorders and the first major nuclear disaster of Chernobyl did not wait for the fall of the Berlin Wall to reunite Europe under a single radioactive cloud.

It is no longer just certain levels of experience that are belied by the facts, as Benjamin observed in his time, but the very possibility of a real experience of the body that has been called into question by genetic mutations, cloning, neuroscience, and biotechnology. The traditional human experience of time and space was ridiculed at the turn of the millennium by new information and communication technologies, the development of the Internet and social networks. The introduction by television of instantaneous modes of narration, which through cable and 24-hour news channels have become a massive and global means of formatting the imaginary, has contributed decisively to aggravating the crisis of narration noted by Benjamin in the 1930s.

Ruining public speech

Since the 2000s, the multiplication of adaptation narratives conducted under the aegis of the ‘storytelling’ communication method has produced a narrative hyperinflation in the media, marketing, and institutional communication sectors. This has led to an unprecedented loss of confidence in public discourse and the credibility of all narrators in the media sphere (politicians, journalists, experts, communicators, commentators). The symptoms of this loss of trust are well known: fake news, alternative facts, unreliable narrators, blurring of truth and falsehood, robotisation of language by algorithms, clashes on social networks, collapse of trust in language.

In this context, the climate crisis and its perceptible effects act not as a welcome return of reality, but as a new destabilising shock. The philosopher Frédéric Neyrat stated last July, in an article published in L’Obs, that ‘megafires do not only burn forests and human and animal lives, but also our ways of thinking. These burnt-out ways of thinking struggle to produce the intellectual and political counter-fires needed to respond to climate disasters: every proposal, every cry of rage, every concept flames and is reduced to ashes before it can even take shape.’

A flood of images now presides over our vision of the world and saturates our visual environment, just as elevator music has long since colonised our auditory space. We no longer look at images, we fall into them. We are immersed in them. They engulf us. They do not belong to the regime of the spectacle, but to that of the spectral, no longer a matter of exhibition but of devouring. Imago mundi in the age of digital reproducibility.

The national conversation has taken the form of a series of media blitzes that abuse our attention and participate in a society of predation that devours not just energy resources, but also attentions, desires, and imaginations. All these forms of devouring merge before our eyes in a social universe where the manipulation of impulses has now taken the place of the exchange of ideas and experiences.

Christian Salmon is a writer and essayist, the author of Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind (Verso, 2017), and L’Ère du clash (Fayard, 2019). His latest book is L’art du silence (Les liens qui libèrent, 2022).

Translated by David Fernbach