Richard Seymour’s World Is Full of Wonder - Interview

Lewis Gordon
Richard Seymour. (Courtesy of the author)

July 15, 2022

The author’s latest book is a wide-ranging collection of left-wing ecocriticism catalyzed by his own ecological awakening.

In 2015, Richard Seymour’s entire world was in flux. The London-based author, editor of Salvage, a socialist magazine that covers art and politics, and contributor to the New Left Review had recently left the Socialist Workers Party; his long-term relationship had fallen apart; and then, on Christmas Day, he noticed how eerily warm the weather was where it should have been crisply cold. As Seymour explained, all this contributed to a “deep crisis” in which he rethought everything from his “tough-minded militant” persona (the “political ego ideal,” he says) to actual politics, specifically where the overlapping crises of the climate and environment fit into his decidedly class-focused worldview. During this period, Seymour came to understand the climate as “the problem of problems” because, as he says, “the biosphere is the precondition for everything else.”

The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism and Barbarism chronicles this shift in thinking. His new book is an eclectic mix of leftist criticism, personal reflection, and analysis on topics like animal rights, nuclear energy, climate denialism, and democracy itself. As a whole, these essays do more than tackle their independent subjects: They collectively dismantle widely held assumptions and concepts to articulate the beginnings of what could be called “ecosocialism.” In the process, Seymour pushes his reflections to the brink of catastrophe—visit nature “as you would a dying patient,” he writes in one essay—while simultaneously finding solace and strength in such grief. “We despair, but we do not submit,” he writes in another.

While his previous book, 2019’s The Twittering Machine, examined social media through a psychoanalytic lens, Seymour’s new book foregrounds his own rekindled relationship with nature. During our conversation, he referred to his upbringing in Northern Ireland: walking in the Mourne mountains, visiting Glenariff forest, experiences that “can’t quite be commodified, narrowed down, or predicted.” He compared these activities to Disneyland, a place where you know exactly what you’re paying for. It’s this sense of unknowing that Seymour appears to thrive on and that has helped stimulate the book’s ideas. “When you go out for a walk, you don’t know how you will feel,” he says. “Sometimes it’s dour, and sometimes it’s miraculous.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Lewis Gordon

LEWIS GORDON: In the book’s introduction, you admit to having had little time for “earth talk” as a young activist. More recently, you’ve undergone what you characterize as an “ecological awakening.” Could you talk about this process in a little more detail, and how it impacted your own politics?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: During the 2000s, I read a number of books—George Monbiot’s Heat, for example—and there was a growing body of data suggesting things weren’t good. But it certainly wasn’t integrated into my understanding as the main problem—the problem of problems. At that time, I was concerned with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intervention in Haiti, and related issues such as racism and Islamophobia. I put everything else on the back burner.

I also had a certain amount of snobbishness—a weird, Trotskyist inverted snobbery—toward fashionable issues, as opposed to the real issues of organizing the working class for political power. There was an element of that, and also an element of disdain for those who would deflect our attention to the suffering of the trees and the suffering of animals. My approach to the environment was a bit brusque: It’s a problem, but all too often the solutions are sentimental, or they subtract from class analysis.

LG: In one essay, you write that “We can’t simply add ‘ecology’ to a list of issues concerning the left, because it is the unconditional condition for everything else.” This reads like an epiphany in the book. Was it?

RS: I don’t know if I would call it an epiphany, but it’s an expression of a number of things. One is a yearning for transcendence which has been with me for some time. The line that you’re quoting also echoes a line by Catherine Keller, the feminist theologian, who talks about God as the name for that which unconditionally matters. I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but I think that you can use that as a reference for something that is transcendent, something that is both material and immanent and also transcends our day-to-day concerns. So, while a lot of the book is about describing the dilemmas of climate change and the catastrophes that await us, a lot of it is also concerned with trying to evoke these encounters with what we call nature—the ways in which it can spark a certain awareness of transcendence.

LG: The book’s title, The Disenchanted Earth, is partly a reference to what you refer to as a world shaped by the Enlightenment, where everything is “calculable and intelligible” in the light of science. Is it fair to say you were looking for reenchantment while you were writing these essays?

RS: That’s a complicated question to answer. The title comes from Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, where they say that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” For them, the enlightened earth was very much a disenchanted earth. What I say in the essay “Unworldliness” is that we’re not actually living in a disenchanted world. Just when we think that the world has been disenchanted, stripped of everything that is mysterious, that’s when it becomes reenchanted with new mythologies—and frankly, with often barmy mythologies. Just think about QAnon.

LG: The so-called “cosmic far right.”

RS: Exactly. It’s a theologically diffuse world. The writer Karen Armstrong makes the point that through almost the entirety of human history, people have had myths about the world and how it works. And a myth is not a literal description: It rather draws attention to aspects of reality that are important and organizes feelings about them in an ethical way. That’s what myth is for. And so I don’t think we’re really without myth or without enchantment.

I think that the belief that we live in a disenchanted world is, as the philosopher Jim Bennett argues, quite inhibited. It is one that is not good for us in terms of motivating us towards kindness or adventurousness. It keeps us with the lowest possible horizons, geared towards solving the problems of our lives, which, in late capitalism, are organized as a series of challenges, hurdles, risks, and stresses: this bill that you can’t pay, the war you don’t know enough about.

With climate change, they claim that if you change light bulbs and reuse old shopping bags, that will help—but how can it? That’s what you get with a disenchanted approach to the earth. I quite deliberately attempt to show the ways in which the earth is enchanted, culturally and politically, and to engage with that productively rather than dismiss it.

LG: Your previous book, The Twittering Machine, invoked Freud’s idea of the death drive—an oblivion we find in the machine of social media. In The Disenchanted Earth, you talk about disavowal, which you could perhaps characterize in a similar way: a means of looking away at the expense of our own survival. How would you characterize disavowal in relation to the climate and environmental crises we currently face?

RS: Disavowal is a psychoanalytic category that comes from Jacques Lacan. He links this to what he calls a perverse personality: someone who knows very well what the rules are, what the law is, but nonetheless behaves as if they don’t. This kind of perverse subjectivity is quite common during the pandemic. Everybody has broken at least one rule.

When we talk about climate change, it’s absolutely understandable and predictable that most of us would disavow most of the time: “I know this is happening, but I’m still going to buy fruit that is out of season and that therefore has a large fossil-fuel footprint. I’m still going to travel by plane to go to this place; I’m still going to do all the things that make up a good life in this society.” I’m not judging this—I do it myself. I’m saying that these are the ingredients of a good life supplied to you in late capitalism. That is your main form of freedom: the freedom to choose between different commodity experiences.

Obviously, changing how we live for the sake of avoiding a disaster requires big transformations. We have to consume a lot less energy; we have to consume a lot less meat. It’s very, very challenging. And so, given that we are systematically shut out of political power, given that there aren’t emergency town hall meetings in every locality every single week to talk about how we’re going to deal with this—which there would be if there was any sense—what are you going to do? You’re going to disavow, you’re going to just get on with your life, because you can’t live otherwise. I don’t invoke disavowal in a critical way. To me, it’s explanatory.

The death drive could be a way out of disavowal, but that depends on what we mean by the death drive. Lacan has a version that goes something like this: If you’re in a zone of nonbeing—you’re melancholic, depressed, you have nothing left to lose—the death drive is where you essentially destroy all your existing ego ideals. You break ways with the traditional political superego, which is about how we should do politics in a civilized way, and you do something a bit crazy. The death drive is the point where you say: “Forget about what’s possible. What do you want? What would you like to happen?” And then you take the leap. There’s an inherent radicalism in the death drive. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, suddenly there’s a rupture, a movement; suddenly people are on the streets.

LG: One of my favorite essays in the book is on nuclear energy. It’s been incorporated into the climate solutions of figures on the left such as George Monbiot, but you seem to be more skeptical, particularly in relation to truly renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro. Why?

RS: There’s some controversy over the carbon footprint of nuclear energy. It’s not settled, and that should give us reason to pause expanding. Then there’s the question of the opportunity costs, the infrastructures that you build now, which are going to be around for decades. Worse than that, there’s the nuclear waste, and so you’re setting up potential traps for future generations.

There’s also an issue which is essentially about values. There is, I would say, a contrarian left that’s pro-nuclear on Promethean grounds. It’s essentially the idea that we should not be technophobic. Nuclear is a technology that requires centralized, coordinated deployment. It basically needs to be run by the public sector, and it could be used in such a way that helps us democratize the whole economy. If we do that, we can reshape the entire planet’s energy system in a way that empowers a lot of people.

But there are some prima facie reasons to be cautious. One is that Promethean energies have hitherto led us to embrace fossil fuels. The left was not exempt from the general tendency to build up industrial capacity in a way that was extraordinarily destructive of the natural environment. While some of these problems were predictable, there’s also an extent to which the full consequences of using fossil fuels were unknowable to the people who were making key decisions in the 19th century, when that shift was made—certainly unknowable to the mass of people who bought into it. We might want to think about that precedent and whether we’re being drafted into something that we’ll come to regret later. This is why, in the essay that you referred to, I spent so much time corralling all the evidence which is critical of nuclear energy.

LG: On the subject of energy, how have you felt watching the Ukraine-Russia conflict unfold?

RS: There have been articles written since the war began which tried to make tenuous links between climate change and the war: You can sock it to Putin by shifting to renewables. I don’t think this is very useful or constructive.

However, it’s manifestly the case that we are going to see more shocks like this. War is one type of shock. Another type of shock is what I’ve referred to elsewhere as “wild energy.” Wild energy is the energy that’s stored up in floods, wildfires, storms, etc., which are increasing production costs, not just of energy but of everything. The biosphere is being reorganized by human, capitalist activities in such a way as to unleash forms of energy that are highly destructive.

LG: The impact of such capitalist activities on animals is clearly significant. You grapple with their place in your own politics throughout the book. Did your own conception of animals change while you were writing these essays?

RS: It’s important to say that my main way into this subject came from nature walks and taking photographs. I developed an interest in the origin of life, in evolution, in the roots of these extraordinary, miraculous shapes of organized complexity. Obviously, they’re extremely beautiful, but they’re also beguiling because they’re alive and they have personalities.

I was also thinking: What’s the politics of this? What’s the ethics? Where’s this going? I was reading about the linguistic and communicative capacities of different animals, but I’d always assumed human beings are the only linguistic creature; to say otherwise was unrigorous and sentimental. Maybe there’s an element of truth in that, in the sense that other animals can use symbols and use elements of language to communicate, but they don’t have a generative language, an open language, in the way that humans do. Nonetheless, they have quite complex systems of communication capable of describing quite complex aspects of reality.

I also learnt that animals have great cognitive, emotional, social, and moral complexity, and so we have to see ourselves as being in a social relationship with them. That means we also have a political relationship with animals, and therefore we might consider their inclusion not just on the basis of rights, but on the basis of what forms of communication we’re able to have with animals, what forms of negotiations we’re able to have with them.

LG: You wrote a piece in the New Left Review on E.O. Wilson, who advocated for a “half-earth” policy—the idea that half of the earth’s surface should be designated a human-free natural reserve to preserve biodiversity.

RS: The reason for doing so is that the more that you break these enclaves up and reduce their mass and size, the less animals are able to survive in that habitat. If you want to preserve maximum biodiversity, you need to maintain the maximum amount of intact wilderness for them to thrive, and obviously be stewards of it.

There’s also another question, which is: Do we care if we wipe out most species? And if we do care, is it for instrumental reasons—meaning fewer species is bad for us—or is it because we have a genuine emotional, moral, and ethical orientation towards these animals? And I think, obviously, it’s the latter. I think it’s actually a form of disavowal if we pretend that we don’t have an emotional, ethical, and aesthetic relationship with animals. We just haven’t gotten it rigorously worked out. That’s why I felt the need to approach this without necessarily having the answers.

LG: What about further rights not only for animals, but all of nature itself?

RS: On the one hand, you’ve got the Pachamama law in Bolivia, which recognizes certain rights for nature. On the other hand, if you look at the history of European ecology, you find a lot of blood-and-soil ideology stems from the rights of wilderness. So it’s a question of articulation. I am skeptical that we can say that rivers and so on have rights—but at the same time, it depends on why we think rights exist, what rights are.

We don’t know what the thresholds are of our imaginative sympathy with other creatures. I don’t think there’s much imaginative sympathy with insects, but we know that we need insects and that insects are capable of experiencing pain. Therefore, we can say that they would be as amenable to having rights as any other living thing, and so we can talk about a graduated system of rights. The kind of rights that a human being claims includes things like autonomy and dignity which a spider couldn’t claim, because it wouldn’t be able to formulate such a demand in the first place. So we could think about the ways in which rights could be worked out based upon some sort of communication with animal life that is capable of communicating.

LG: In a piece for The New Statesman, you wrote that keeping within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming requires “shuttering profitable fossil fuel corporations, canceling hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, organizing large-scale industrial adaptation, transitioning the entire fleet of cars, trains, buses, transforming the food system and limiting consumption.” To what extent do you have faith in the Green New Deal—of which there are many competing definitions—to enact change on the scale you outline in that piece?

RS: The Green New Deal is susceptible to contestation. There are mildly liberal Keynesian versions; there will undoubtedly be conservative nationalist versions; but fundamentally it’s a left-wing project. We’re using Keynesian means, which is to say economic reform through the state, to catalyze a transformation of society to something radically different in which, essentially, the imperatives of capitalism no longer operate. If we’re serious about climate change, ecological disaster, and mass extinction, we have to put a stop to capitalist growth. We have to achieve, at the bare minimum, a steady state. There are various ways of achieving a steady state that could be quite nasty, brutal, and inegalitarian. Those outcomes are plausible, if not probable.

The Green New Deal attempts to bring about a steady state, a nongrowing economy, through democratic instruments and Keynesian policy mechanisms. It’s also an attempt to democratize the energy system—to build up the capacities of millions of people to shape the society in which they live, from which they’re currently excluded—and to include traditionally oppressed and marginalized groups of people. To that extent, I think it’s a constructive agenda. There’s no prospect of us having a socialist revolution or an anarchist revolution in the time scale that we have, but what we do have the time for is reforms. The Green New Deal is an attempt to push reforms to their most radical outer limits. At the moment, I think it’s the best game in town.

Lewis Gordon Lewis Gordon is a UK-based video game and culture journalist. His work appears in outlets such as ViceThe Verge, and The Onion’s AV Clu

[Top image: Richard Seymour. (Courtesy of the author)]