Discover more from living together, somehow
That summer feeling: Derna in autumn, Melbourne in spring
trying to conceive of our community of fate from the distance of a first world spectator of a third world devastation
Something about summer has shifted, in the double looping knot of the world’s boundary currents, the intensifying dread recognition in the widening gyres. Between the northern hemisphere’s hot August blobs and the sense of gritted foreboding we’re facing here by September, there’s only a month. There I was, sweating in shorts in Berlin in July; here I am, sweating in shorts in Melbourne in September.
That summer feeling
will haunt you
for the rest of your life
I spent my earliest years in a time and country that had not even yet dealt with childhood sunburn and middle-aged melanoma. Summer was a long stretch into warm relaxation, beach frolicking and afternoons playing outdoors ‘til 9p dusk. Summer was a collective, personal paradise – and this was a granted cultural fact in Australia. Late 20C Summer was about the cessation of school and worry, the place where humans approached life as a grateful basking photosynthesis.
40 years on, it’s clear that early 21C summer is a global season of dread, a time when the heat switches on and bakes cities never designed for this, revealing dependent conurbations of tens of millions that never should have been placed or structured as they have been, iterated through the dozing of mangrove swamps and the construction of concrete high rises by flood-prone estuaries, then exposing whole urban populations to five days at 45 degrees, train tracks buckling and tiny box apartments going hot and stuffy the moment the electricity cuts out, the soon-spectre of wet bulb 36 mass choking events, and the some day soon of cars wrecked atop tetrapods on the harbour bar, fishing boats atop the local primary school.
I want to give these preliminary impressions of summer dread as the kind of ultima ratio dealt out to all of us, unevenly distributed – as we inescapably are – in the fossil fuel-dependent ‘future’ that is this; the community of fate we’re denizens of now, in which we have to live together, somehow.
I want to take summer heat dread and paint it there as our collective-existential background, pressurising our dependency on the path dependence of fossil-fueled civilisation (without leading a way out of it), while I foreground other foregrounds: so as you read, keep the radiant heat locked in your mind as the oppressive-invisible-ubiquitous factor bearing down on what the remainder of this post will try to bring and keep forward.
My local gym tells a powerful socio-cultural story about what people notice and prioritise – when it’s empty. My class privilege means I work a salaried job that has flexibility: if it’s too hot, or too wet, or I’m sick outside of scheduled commitments, I don’t have to commute to at|tend an office, but I still get paid. So I can make it to the gym when it’s emptied of all of those harried by the working week and the gridlocked rat race – which most re-embraced uncritically after the precious opportunity to reflect and choose another path, during 2020-1.
But it's very telling, what’s left on, what’s left around, what this says.
When I come in to the gym, the music is blaring, the fans are whirring, the TV is on, the windows are open. If, as often, there’s no one there (which is precisely when I try to go, which I’m sometimes capable of), I go behind the desk to the master volume and turn down the music, usually blaring something terribly conventional and durably popular, like ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’, ‘All Star’, and ‘American Pie’.
I put on my ‘phones and put a mix or ‘cast on, then walk up the stairs to the mezzanine; every time, before I sit down at the rowing machine, I have to switch channels, from Channel 9 to the ABC.
We can already surmise quite a bit from this repeated set of ambient facts. This is a cohort enculturated to the unattended use of electricity, smoothly delivered without a second thought: the lights are on and no one’s home – and that’s okay, somehow.
This is also a bunch of people who are still marinating in American cultural signifiers from late last century; these are normal people with remote controllers who prefer Channel 9, who switch back to commercial free-to-air TV as an active preference1.
So in terms of their foreground activity, they (as we) are trying, impossibly, to return to their embodied past, and forestall their senescent crumbling into the curled and wrinkled wizened future; in their background, they have earworms generated by their brain singing along to songs from a century that ended a quarter century ago. And above all, they want their news to be garish, lurid, parochial, and served up with ad breaks.
These are some of the people I share my community with, many of them also good and kind people. They’re also the people with whom I must dread summer, and maybe try to move away from further entrenching everything that compounds the dread. They are a portion of my community of fate, in a privileged and insulated little corner of this future we’re facing together, unevenly.
I look up at Channel 9 with the controller in my hand, pausing before I change over to ABC News 24, as is my habit.
Channel 9 is feeling the news at me through tight botox faces; it is ex footballers with fake tans in tight blue suits ‘alarmed’ about ‘dramatic police pursuit leads to arrest of five teens after alleged burglary in affluent suburb’; it is the heavily made up hostess feeling sad at the camera as she tells the audience the guy from Smash Mouth died; then they are both letting you know that – coming up – is the woman with the world’s largest mouth, who has 3.7 million TikTok followers.
Suggested search: ‘who is the big mouth lady that eats?’
I flick over to ABC News 24, and take my seat at the rowing machine.
Over on ABC News 24, it is already a different set of worlds and referents: a parallel universe, although it’s still free to air TV and still middle class white Australia.
On ABC News 24, there is worrying about the Yes Vote, there’s more news to hand that Alan Joyce is a ruthless heartless bastard who cares only for maintaining short-term profitability, supported by the board and shareholders (soon to be paid a reduced salary of 21 million dollars); and there’s a long and detailed weather forecast giving impressions of the likely possibilities across the island-continent in the coming days.
The weather guy walks a perfect line between seeming affable and conveying foreboding: flood warning, fire risk, heat wave; lovely beach weather, gorgeous warm afternoon, before a light cool change. Take care with snakes and devastating floods in the mallee; UV index up on the Gold Coast, don’t forget your hat and sunscreen.
Somewhere in the cycle of all the above world news rotates though: utter devastation in Derna; There’s nothing more 2023 than the bizarre jumps that ABC News 24 has been making between the devastation of the Libyan port city, the parochial though not unimportant patterns of federal politics, and the weather. In fact, it’s precisely here that we confront the anomic violence of the affluent society, in the spectre of its fragility, in the psychotic bathetic jumps between brain worms and birthday celebrations, between the breakdown of gang-held order in Port au Prince, shark attacks in Port Macquarie, and the death of Ron Barassi.
Baudrillard block quote without significant commentary:
“The consumer society is at one and the same time a society of solicitude and a society of repression, a pacified society and a society of violence. We have seen that 'pacified' daily life thrives on a daily diet of consumed violence, 'allusive' violence: news reports of accidents, murders, revolutions, the atomic or bacteriological threat - the whole apocalyptic stock in-trade of the mass media. We have seen that the affinity between violence and the obsession with security and well-being is not accidental: 'spectacular' violence and the pacification of daily life are homogeneous, because they are each equally abstract and each is a thing of myths and signs. We might also add that violence is nowadays inoculated into daily life in homoeopathic doses – a vaccine against fatality – to ward off the spectre of the real fragility of that pacified life. For it is no longer the spectre of scarcity which haunts the civilization of affluence, but the spectre of fragility. And that spectre, which is much more menacing because it concerns the very equilibrium of individual and collective structures, and which has to be warded off at all costs, is in fact kept at bay by this roundabout solution of consumed, packaged, homogenized violence. This violence is not dangerous violence: blood on the front page no more compromises the social and moral order than does sex (despite the emotional blackmail on the part of the censors who wish to persuade themselves of this, and to persuade us of it). It simply attests to the fact that the balance is a precarious one, that the social and moral order is made up of contradictions” (174).
How can one reckon with the contradictions of Derna and Melbourne; how can one hold these two disparate realities together in mind? The frame of the TV and smartphone can hold such schizoid oppositions together end to end, edge to edge, to the boundary of the screen and to the limit of the pixels’ ability to project a coherent image of mad realities.
And to some extent, this is how the violence of the affluent society tries to transcend its substantive fragility, by making two disparate violences make sense and seem to cohere to the extent they both ‘fit’ in the screen frame and the holding hand and ambient paranoia of the (be)holder.
But how can they be held together in-and-as different aspects of our community of fate, how can we see Derna and Melbourne as co-here, as us, as now, as our future – from the distance of a white middle class guy on a rowing machine in a gym in Melbourne, 14,000km away from the where the smell hits you?
From 14,000km away, the story of Derna is one of presence and absence, of foreknowledge and the total absence of saving prediction.
To begin with, how many of us were even aware of its urban-coastal existence? I knew of Tripoli and Benghazi; I assumed there were cities like Derna, but I’d never heard the word nor known a person who’d been there. And yet, there as here, there exists a coastal city with people trying to live together somehow, sited centuries ago based on a relation to water, to river and sea, as life and transport, as trade and connection. In Derna as with 40% of the world’s populations, the collective reality is urban and coastal; low lying, built by the river mouth, by the sea. Two in five of us share the fate of some future possible Derna.
Yet Derna is in Libya in 2023, and this is a complex and overdetermined socio-culturo-geopolitical reality made from the overlay of corruption, neglect, factionalism, civil war, Islamic State, bomb-happy Anglocapitalist gliberalism, and the moral indifference of Libya’s regional and international labours to the fate of the seven million people who, after the bombs have been dropped and Ghaddafi’s body has been hacked to pieces and Islamic State have been replaced by the Libyan National Army, still have to live in Derna.
The substantive flipside about first world panics about asylum seekers, hordes fleeing and swarming at the gates and walls, is the reality of most people, the impossibility of moving and and escaping, even when this would be entirely preferable for most reasons.
There is nothing of Derna on Channel 9.
On ABC News 24, there is regular reporting.
So there is that presence and absence, too, and the willed choice of spectating the devastation, or turning away from it, turning back to the world of the white 20C projected back by Channel 9 to its ageing audience, who are also trying not to die, and maybe trying not to worry too much.
One of the disquieting hallmarks of the ABC reporting around Derna, to me, has been the abundance of high-res drone footage. This is not something categorically new, but it is an intensification of a set of tendencies well under way for at least a century. The contrast between the crisp focus of the devastation, taken from a safe height, and the mud, silt, and debris of the on-the-ground reality. All of those before/after pictures that you can scroll over with your finger on your phone.
I had the strange noticing that, when the flood comes here, as it came to Lismore, the drones of the world’s media outlets could be buzzing above my head, as my leg was trapped under the discontents of my neighbour’s apartment. I could be pinned under an elliptical trainer2, unable to move, and hear the buzz of the drones taking footage of me back to the world, so some guy on a rowing machine in some other Norway or Switzerland could spectate, never knowing or facing what had befallen me.
Guy Debord talks about a relation of separation in the society of the spectacle; the buzz of the drones over Derna has intensified this and clarified it into 4K, without capturing the smell of Derna after the flood, the factor that would make continuing the workout on the rowing machine unbearably unpleasant.
Smell does not travel, but images proliferate like viruses – as signs of separation.
Presence and absence, foreknowledge and un-predicted events. The other element that stood out to me most was the liquefaction of institutions. Two things: first of all, the fact that the weakness of the dams was known, documented, published. These dams above Derna were catastrophes waiting to happen; as a person who narrowly survived a bushfire, I can attest to how this can be so – even in a country with institutions, regulations, supposedly effective warning systems and contingency plans. Yet in Derna, above all, the absence of a Bureau of Meteorology. So on the one hand, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know’ those dams were deadly and just awaiting their Daniel; on the other, it was precisely this, precisely the absence of meteorologists that prevented Derna’s residence from getting the heads up that could have lead to a timely evacuation. So – like all of us – it was known that this was going to happen. Yet on the other hand, no one in Derna was warned well enough, soon enough, to evade the catastrophe when it burst the town.
So when my local neighbourhood faced a flooded river less than a year ago, there was debris and devastation, there were destroyed homes and lives – but no deaths. This, so far, is the distance between Derna and Melbourne.
Back in my gym, with the resistance set to approximate that of river water, I’ve finished my 5000m row. I get off the rowing machine, ready to stretch before turning to weights. I pass another gym member as I head down the stairs to stretch. It’s the distinctively Finnish-looking woman who wears 80s tennis-style sweat bands on her wrists and forehead. Her whole get up still evokes Jane Fonda and Jazzercize. She mounts the elliptical trainer, then notices it’s on ABC 24, dismounts, flicks back to Channel 9, then jumps back on, and begins to pump her legs and arms rhythmically, in time with the news feed.
The office workers who make up the rump of the gym’s clients are trying not to die as they die, as we are, as our bodies face entropy, at the differing rates of our genetic-inherited and acquired-chosen fates: keep the visceral fat down; avoid metabolic syndrome; offset the depletion of muscle mass and the clicking creaking of knees hips and shoulders under the load of time; flush cortisol and maximise the possibility of enough sleep to continue working productively and without having a nervous breakdown. Fitter, happier, more productive; like a Radiohead song, in frozen winter shit.
They – as we – are also grappling with the frenetic busyness of social acceleration and the uncontrollability of the world (Rosa’s two substantive insights are spot on). In middle class Australia now, privilege and insulation means their worry set tends to be about inflation, mortgage stress, and cost of living; their attentional foreground is, probably, their inbox, the hyperactive hive mind of our conventional office spaces, led by the patterns of reactivity set by their boss, too often marked by poor boundaries, inadequate affirmative recognition of loads and burdens, unreasonable expectations of responsiveness, and maladroit handling of group messaging – probably on an iPad on a couch somewhere, in an airconditioned room, in a mortgage asset valued at 2.5 million Australian dollars.
You would have to ask them, individually, if the beads of moisture heralding the dread of summer creeps into the edges of their thoughts. Maybe that’s the good sweat of an elliptical trainer warm up.
My anecdotal sense is that, for many, the dread still only registers as something happening to other people, as a disruption to holiday plans, as ‘oh dearism’. But who knows how people really feel, deep down.
I’m surmising this based on the fact that I must make this switch to ABC News 24 every time I attend the gym, and do so three times a week; I have never walked upstairs and beheld ABC News 24 as on… like: someone(s) is/are switching it *back* to Channel 9, and Channel 9 is where it tends to stay and be, whenever I arrive.
One of the things that was surreally revealed by the flooding of the Maribyrnong River here last October was actually just how many people had elliptical trainers in their garages; there were several that ended up washed up alongside piles of splintered wood and oversized soft toys, sprigged by bubbles of styrofoam and wrapped by shreds of plastic bags.