‘The (newly) imaginable disaster’: precursors of David Blacker’s thesis

In its sudden loss of confidence, its glimpse of the newly imaginable disaster, it [our civilisation] – in politicians of all parties, … the voices of the eminent wise … – talks merely of how to restore a steady rate of economic growth and a constantly rising standard of living (a matter of money to buy things with and a sure and growing supply of things to buy). It can’t really believe in the menace hanging over it; it is incapable of grasping the patent diagnostic truth, so rapid has progress been, so stupefying the effect on human life of the continuing industrial revolution, which is constantly accelerating …

No, not Susan Sontag in her 1965 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ but F. R. Leavis, writing in 1975 in Thought, Words and Creativity, page 18. The above text has been rumbling through my mind as I make notes on David Blacker’s book which presents us with another take on the wholly imaginable disaster. One challenge for higher education – what role do we have in enabling the ‘eminent wise’ and others to grasp the patent diagnostic truth(s), to transcend what Leavis calls ‘the neo-Benthamite world’s spiritual philistinism’ (page 18)? Harsh and persistent ridicule? Pre-emptive ‘resilience’? Creative metaphorisation, of which Sontag’s science fiction apocalyptic tropes or more recent analogies of zombie culture are two examples?

Leavis interestingly at this period also called attention to the ominous appearance of the word ‘joblessness’ and ‘the threat of joblessness’ in public discourse at around this time, signifying an existential state in which dehumanised labour was robbed not merely of the prospect of paid employment but of its very meaning. A precursor of Blacker’s eliminationist thesis?

Steven Cranfield

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