There’s nothing new about the end of the world: Dread and decolonization

Jastej Luddu and Fenn Stewart1

For the past year and a half, and all the way through the pandemic, the two of us have been talking (and writing emails) about dread. Were mostly interested in the usefulness, and uselessness, of different kinds of dread in response to the interconnected (and ongoing) catastrophes of colonialism and climate change. This piece reflects some of our ongoing conversation.

FS: In a discussion of Indigenous women’s love and rage, Rachel Flowers says that “for Indigenous peoples, unbearable suffering is often the motive for revolutionary action”; for settlers, the “anguish of facing the truth […] compels them into action [but], as Sartre (1965) reminds us, “most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith.””2 

Though Flowers doesn’t refer to “dread” here, her words remind me of a question that Jastej and I keep coming back to: how do we know which dread is useful, and which isn’t? For settlers, how do we know when we’re “flee[ing] […] in bad faith”? How do we know when our anguish is a sign that we’re “facing the truth” in a useful way? 

Jastej and I have a recurring argument (it dates back pre-COVID) about the dread-full movie First Reformed (2017). Jastej keeps trying to get me to watch it, and I keep refusing. I’m repelled by this film. As far as I can tell without actually watching it (ill-informed-spoiler warning), it’s about a reverend played by Ethan Hawke, who spectacularly self-implodes (with grim consequences for those around him) due to his overwhelming dread about climate change. 

JS: Fenn thinks I’m giving the film too much credit, but I was floored by First Reformed. The film offers a crushing depiction of dread: the sense that something has gone deeply wrong and will only get worse. Dread implies a future-oriented affective mode of living and being in the world. But what if what you dread is an ongoing set of circumstances, something that is already happening and is unlikely to stop anytime soon? David Theo Goldberg calls dread “a driver of our time,” arguing that a number of social and political issues, like climate change, racist and sexist violence, economic inequality, white supremacy – and, one might add, settler-colonialism – have contributed to a profound and prevailing sense of anguished paranoia.3 For Goldberg, “Dread is depthless, bottomless, lacking insight.”4

In First Reformed, Michael, a disillusioned young environmentalist, describes the devastation wrought by climate change to Reverend Toller, and asks, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” The coming years offer so little to look forward to that Michael has asked his pregnant wife to have an abortion. She has asked Toller to speak to Michael, who doesn’t attend church. In his conversation with Michael, Toller calls for hope: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously. Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” But Toller’s face is tired and his voice weary. He is ill, and his 250-year-old church is nothing more than a tourist trap, kept afloat thanks to the support of Abundant Life Ministries, a wealthy megachurch. His conversation with Michael is a tipping point. The young man’s despair gnaws at Toller, driving him towards drastic, self-destructive action. It’s this “gnawing” that I find so compelling.

FS: In the year and a half in which I’ve been refusing to watch this movie, I’ve found myself recoiling from many similar expressions of dread.5 It seems contagious. I tell Jastej that I think First Reformed is just a vehicle for “settler apocalypticism” — this term, as used by Kyle Powys Whyte (and others), points to how popular forms of climate pessimism ignore Indigenous understandings of, and organizing against, climate change. When I first heard the term “settler apocalypticism” – in an interview Kyle Powys Whyte gave on the Cultures of Energy podcast – I felt an immense sense of relief. The nameless dread had a name! It was a specific, historical, contingent formation (not Truth). My relief wasn’t relief in the sense of things are not so bad or in the sense of everythings going to be fine. It was relief in the sense of people(s) are thinking and working through these times in different ways. I will attend to these realities

Apparently “apocalypse” originally meant “the unveiling of things as they are” and not (just) “the end of the world.” When the settler apocalypticist sees the end of the world, he thinks he’s seeing things as they are. But he’s not. He’s wrapped up in himself, wrapped up in what April Anson (also a theorist of setter apocalypticism) calls the “solitary and asphyxiating atmospherics of settler time-space.”6 

Another way of saying this is that settler apocalypticism “speciously universalizes a set of environmental anxieties that is in fact particular to white settler society.”7 It turns out there’s nothing new about the end of the world. Many Black and Indigenous theorists have used the concepts of disaster and apocalypse (and dread) to analyze colonialism.8 As Heather Davis and Zoe Todd say, to “expand and pluralize collective understandings of the disasters of the Anthropocene” means attending to Indigenous peoples’ understanding of ongoing “practices of dispossession and genocide,” and it means learning from work, like Christina Sharpe’s, that “tend[s] to the ongoing disaster of the Middle Passage.”9  

JS: You’re right, there’s something problematic about centering white, masculine dread about the end of the world. I find this critique particularly relevant for groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR), who conjure up images of an uninhabitable Earth in their attempts to move governments to action. As Athian Akec writes in The Guardian, XR, a largely white, middle-class movement that has been roundly critiqued for its problems with race and diversity, employs apocalyptic language that “fails to cut through for those of us already faced with a nightmarish present, surrounded by poverty and austerity.”10

FS: Yes. Mainstream environmentalism — the non-apocalyptic kind — is often no better. 

See Whyte: “it’s been alienating for me and a lot of other people that in […] environmental movements there’s such an obsession with protecting today’s world […] if today’s world is actually a dystopia for [Indigenous peoples] and our ancestors, why are we trying to protect this particular world?”11 Warren Cariou has made a related point about how the cultural norms of settler colonialism are “fundamentally linked” to the current politics of “energy transition,” as in the “green power” megaprojects that are “violently imposed” on Indigenous peoples and lands.12 

JS: Yes, I don’t deny that Western culture privileges the concerns – and the dread – of white people. And it is certainly true that a violent white paranoia has accelerated systemic inequality. Achille Mbembe, and Frantz Fanon before him, acknowledged dread in their analysis of racism, genocide, and colonialism. Mbembe writes that many in the West live “afraid of having been invaded and on the verge of disappearing.”13 Colonizers are beset with “annihilation anxiety.”14 Frantz Fanon describes the “state of anxiety” that grips colonialism, transforming the environment itself into an enemy that needs to be conquered and controlled.15

These feelings – fear, anxiety, dread – are often rightly characterized as unproductive, negative, or reactionary. But what if are our bad feelings are alerting us to something important? Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard defends resentment, challenging the reconciliatory stance and arguing for a more nuanced and critical reappraisal of feelings of political anger that stem from living in a settler-colonial state.16 Audra Simpson articulates a “politics of refusal”; grounded in Mohawk nationhood and governance, this refusal reflects, and contributes to, a rejection of liberal recognition politics.17 Without appropriating Indigenous political and affectual responses to settler-colonialism, perhaps settlers can learn to use their own bad feelings to enable insight, action, and solidarity. I do not believe all dread “lack[s] insight” or affirms the kind of uncritical whiteness Fenn is so worried about reproducing. Perhaps it is precisely by cultivating a more critical relationship with this network of uncomfortable emotions that we can begin to imagine a different way of living in the world. 

FS: This reminds me of Erica Violet Lee’s “Reconciling in the Apocalypse,” in which she envisions a decolonizing form of dread — maybe, she says, imagining “the end of your world” might bring home to settlers the importance of making “reparations to Indigenous people”: if “duty or kindness” won’t do the trick, she says, “consider at the very least that you will need a friend who knows how to skin a porcupine, build a house, and navigate by the stars when the end of your world comes.”18 Maybe a dread that leads to reparations could get us somewhere?

JS: Yes, I think there’s something to the idea of a dread that points to where, or how, we need to be. My own dread moment came just a few months before I saw First Reformed. As part of a course on Indigenous North Americans’ experiences in the United Kingdom, I visited London for two weeks. Being somewhat educated on the blood-soaked history of the British Empire, I traversed the museums, monuments, and public spaces with a heaviness that I sometimes found difficult to bear. There was something dread-inducing about the British Museum, machine-gun wielding guards at Whitehall, and the statue of the last viceroy of India. The carving of coloniality into the streets, the buildings, the institutions, makes Empire appear everlasting; it’s been here, it continues to be here, and it will keep being here, violently enduring into the future. I sensed something ongoing that was unlikely to stop, something that had touched my parents and grandparents and was now making contact with me. 

FS: This is very different from the kind of dread I think of as First Reformed-type dread. That kind of dread seems to stop thought (and work): it seems to find suicide, the end of the world, the extinction of humanity, more plausible (more compelling?) than the uncertain, unending (and, for white settlers, non-self-focused) thought/work of anti-colonialism. The kind of dread youre talking about here seems inextricable from thought, and work. I think your conviction that dread can be useful shares something with Flowers’ point about the very fine line (sometimes indistinguishable?) between facing the truth and fleeing from it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so confident that I can tell the difference.

JS: I don’t expect us to ever agree on this film! I won’t stop talking about it and you will likely never watch it. But in reflecting on feelings of dread in our conversations, I have been able to think and work with what it means to harbor a painful desire for transformative social and political change. I have come to a better understanding of a world that seems dedicated to violent inequality through interrogating my hopelessness and keeping faith in my dread about the future. This is not an argument for self-destructive pessimism, or the violent fantasies of martyrdom depicted in First Reformed. But the film’s desperate call for something to be done resonates with what I think is a real feeling of dread – of anxiousness and unease – experienced by people the world over. 

Not everyone needs dread to be moved to understanding or action. But dread, like the apocalypse, can reveal something.  Feelings of doom can produce genuine, creative responses to a hellish world. They do not have to foreclose the opportunity to learn from and build solidarity with others. And they have the potential to engender critical engagements with the material and affective conditions that structure our lives – even if these engagements are, for the moment, only communicable over email and on a blog. 


Notes:

[1] Fenn reads and writes on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ lands; she’s from a settler family (most recently, from England and Ireland). Jastej is presently living on sq̓əc̓iy̓aɁɬ təməxʷ, sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ, S’ólh Téméxw, Á,LEṈENEȻ ȽTE, Kwantlen, Stz’uminus, and Semiahmoo lands; his family immigrated from India. We’d like to thank Warren Cariou for generously sharing text from his 2019 UBC ILSA talk; thanks also to Afuwa, Evan Mauro, and Haeden Stewart for guidance on drafts.

[2] Rachel Flowers, “Refusal to Forgive: Indigenous Women’s Love and Rage,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 4.2 (2015), p. 38.

[3] David Theo Goldberg, “In the Grip of Dread,” Los Angeles Review of Books. September 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/in-the-grip-of-dread/ 

[4] Ibid.

[5] A year ago, Mo Pareles wrote a very helpful post (on the Oecologies blog) on a similar subject: Mo Pareles, “Learning to Die Read More in the Anthropocene the Time We Have,” Oecologies, 2020, https://oecologies.com/2020/02/19/learning-to-sdie-s-read-more-in-the-santhropocene-s-the-time-we-have/.

[6] April Anson, “Apocalypse and settler/colonial climate change,” 2020, https://april-anson.com/2020/01/18/apocalypse-settler-colonial-climate-change/.

[7] Bruno Seraphin, ““Rewilding,” “the Hoop,” and Settler Apocalypse,” The Trumpeter 32.3 (2016), 144. (Seraphin credits Zoe Todd and Whyte with this point.) 

[8] For instance, work by Cutcha Risling Baldy, Lawrence Gross, Frantz Fanon, Gerald Horne, Erica Violet Lee, Achille Mbembe, Christina Sharpe, and Whyte.

[9] Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16.4 (2017): 772, 761, 772. 

[10] Athian Akec, “When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change,” The Guardian, October, 19th 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/19/extinction-rebellion-white-faces-diversity 

[11] Whyte, “Cultures of Energy,” http://culturesofenergy.com/166-kyle-powys-whyte/ podcast, at 1:02:38.

[12] Warren Cariou, “Breaking Colonial Circuits: Hydroelectricity in Indigenous Literature,” Presentation at ILSA, UBC (Vancouver, June 5, 2019). 

[13] Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 83.

[16] Glen Coulthard, “Seeing Red: Reconciliation and Resentment,” in Red Skin, White Masks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 105-131.

[17] Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[18] Erica Violet Lee, “Reconciling in the Apocalypse,” The Monitor, 2016, https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/reconciling-apocalypse.

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