Can we write our way out of catastrophe?

In Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Desert Notebooks,’ a fragmented style attempts to change the way we think, and write, about the Anthropocene.

 

Overcome with dread by present-day geopolitics — increasingly grim climate reports, turmoil in the Middle East and violent rhetoric from President Donald Trump’s White House — Ben Ehrenreich, a climate change writer for The Nation, can’t help but feel as if we are living at the “end of time.” The kindling is all there; it only needs a single match.

Ehrenreich airs his anxieties in Desert Notebooks, which is split between Joshua Tree National Park, where he likes to sojourn — the desert flattens human ego and “puts eternity in the foreground” — and Las Vegas, where he spends time at a prestigious writing residency. These two poles in a shared desert — the indifference of Joshua Tree, the excesses of Las Vegas — come to represent extreme visions of history: where humans came from and where we are today. To understand “this perilous moment, in which everything, time included, appears to be on the verge of collapse,” he asks himself: How did Westerners get here?

The answer, for Ehrenreich, does not lie strictly in history, but rather in the Western understanding of time itself, which he sums up as “Progress.” Progress, in Ehrenreich’s formulation, posits society’s steady advancement toward a greater good while simultaneously erasing the violence committed in the name of “civilization; he regards the concept as an ancestor of racist ideas of white supremacy. Taking cues from the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose tombstone reads, “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Ehrenreich writes that Progress “functioned at once as an explanation of European dominance and a rationale for the slaughter and pillage on which it depended, and continues to depend.” Alone in the expansive desert and then in the belly of the nearby beast, Ehrenreich tries to wriggle free from Progress’s restrictive ideology — to dismantle its ideology and hint at new possibilities through his writing.

Desert Notebooks takes the reader on a dizzying journey through intellectual histories, Indigenous creation myths, and doomscrolling through news headlines, as Ehrenreich ponders “what histories had to be erased and what new narratives invented for time to rule our lives this way.” The connective tissue binding it together is the author’s diaristic dispatches, mostly involving his daily runs into the desert and, outside the Strip, his culling of dread-inducing headlines from Twitter and occasional social visits to Los Angeles. The end result of this ambitious, heady project is something like an anthropological study of the excesses of late capitalism — the paths leading toward Trump, whom he calls “the Rhino,” and the mental gymnastics brought on by worsening climate forecasts. 

Written in chunky fragments, Desert Notebooks introduces many motifs, some of which recur (owls, conflict in the Middle East) while others never return (black holes, the multiverse). Ehrenreich’s argumentative style is scattered, but this approach is deliberate: If he reproduced the kind of thought processes he wishes to dismantle, his critique would be compromised, and so he must deploy new writing techniques. “The stories that have been winning out these last two-hundred-and-change years … they have led us here, to this particular regime of power and to this too-warm abyss,” warns Ehrenreich. “If we are to survive we will have to remember, if we can, that there are always other paths.”

“The stories that have been winning out these last two-hundred-and-change years … they have led us here, to this particular regime of power and to this too-warm abyss.”

These divergent threads, however, never arrive at a convincing, coherent place. Driven by a loose, associative logic, Ehrenreich’s style, at points, is reminiscent of skimming through Wikipedia tabs of hyperlinked content, forsaking critical depth for a perfunctory overview — from the influential writings of an early 17th century cobbler-cum-philosopher named Jacob Boehme to the Ghost Dance. The fragmented approach is in vogue among American nonfiction writers, but its best practitioners, Maggie Nelson chief among them, understand that these fragments must be meaningfully layered to feed into one another. Ehrenreich, however, can’t resist jetting off in many different directions, some of which turn out to be cul-de-sacs. This anxious book benefits from fragments, which diagnose the post-modern condition. But when a writer is trying to unseat something deeply embedded in our psychological hardware, focusing on a single alternative — and illustrating that idea with critical depth — might be more convincing than pointing out an abundance of alternatives.

Despite these shortcomings, Desert Notebooks does offer an intriguing array of alternative frameworks of thought. In an attempt to decenter the Western perspective, Ehrenreich draws from a vast swath of literary and intellectual sources, including the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (“One of our finest methods of organized forgetting is called discovery”), Mayan codices, and anthropological studies on tribes such as the Chemehuevi and Oglala Sioux. Importantly, these alternative frameworks are often closely linked with different modes of writing, fable and myth chief among them, demonstrating how narrative and language are inextricable from thought patterns.

Anthropology, many would argue, is a discipline with outdated elements inherited from its colonial origins. Though Ehrenreich, who is white, is quick to check the racism of past anthropologists, he is not entirely immune to the discipline’s colonial trappings. The most glaring example of this is the lack of work from living Indigenous thinkers and postcolonial scholars, who have laid significant groundwork in exposing and dismantling the very regimes Ehrenreich wants to challenge.

Ehrenreich is self-aware enough to take a nuanced look at the power of writing. One of the most fascinating threads in Desert Notebooks is its abbreviated and contested history, with some claiming writing was first used for “record keeping” as a “tool of social and economic control.” The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it more starkly: “The primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery,” he wrote. “The use of writing … as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying, or concealing the other.” With this weighing heavily on his mind, Ehrenreich asks himself, is it “possible to write without plundering?” For all his despair, he seems to retain faith in writing as a tool for social change. With this tool in hand, he loosened a few floorboards, but the house of Progress remains standing.

Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Nebraska. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Seattle Times, MEL, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @condorgoodwing.  Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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