Elisa Gabbert Helps Us Make Sense of Living in a Time of Disaster
The author of "The Unreality of Memory" on doomscrolling and competitive happiness
My brother has always loved disasters. Growing up, fights over the remote control were Buffy vs. knowing when a plane crash is most likely to occur (takeoff or landing), or Ally McBeal vs. how the crash will play out depending on where you’re seated (if you choose the extreme front or rear, at least the end will be swift). When we traveled to the U.S. for the first time and visited the Golden Gate Bridge, he looked up and asked: “What happens if this collapses?”
I should clarify: my brother is a chilled out human who is generally curious about how the world works. I, on the other hand, am a highly-strung mess, who has carried the anxieties of the Discovery Channel well into adulthood. And to make matters worse, now all my brother’s favorite TV seems to be coming to life. Floods, AI, wildfires, chemical explosions, and viruses almost feel like a fact of existence.
As Elisa Gabbert writes, “I wonder if the way the world gets worse will outpace the rate at which we get used to it.”
Poet, essayist, and Electric Literature columnist Gabbert’s fifth book The Unreality of Memory is an expansive collection of essays that is partly about disaster (9/11, Chernobyl, plagues), but equally about the shifting constructs of society and selfhood through which we mediate the world. From the slow violence of global warming to the fever pitch of Twitter feeds, Gabbert gracefully explores what knowledge means when its contexts are constantly collapsing—and which pieces of information we should focus on in the first place.
She writes: “We believe we need to worry about the right problems, even if we can’t solve them…And with so much that is inaccessible, unknowable, and in flux, we can’t even hold on to whatever we already know.”
I spoke to Gabbert about memory, happiness, doomscrolling, and why solving global warming is harder than eating an airplane.
Richa Kaul Padte: Please let’s start with crises, because the way we understand and respond to them varies dramatically! Disaster is sudden, shocking, a spectacle: 9/11, Chernobyl, war—all these inspire “a sense of purpose gathering in us, an enemy taking shape.” On the other hand, “we’re poorly equipped to deal with so-called long-emergencies” even if they cause more deaths: famine, climate change, poverty. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I felt galvanized. As the British government’s plea went: “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” There was something to do. Now, I feel so tired; I just want it all to go away. Do we respond better when we conceive of something as a disaster—and what happens when disaster turns into a long emergency?
Elisa Gabbert: I think that’s it exactly. I’m hesitant to invoke evolutionary psychology but you could say we evolved to respond to sudden and imminent threats, via fight or flight or freeze (playing dead—which sometimes works!). These bigger and slower disasters require more concerted, organized, social effort, and the fight can be very long indeed, generations long. Often we seem to feel equal to the fight at first. But after some time goes by, and we don’t appear to be making any progress, it’s natural—and on some level even rational—to want to just give up. This seems especially true when we’re dealing with multiple crises at once. It’s like getting attacked by a bear while your house is on fire. (And meanwhile, they’re purging the voter rolls.) I think it helps to find a problem you can focus on and contribute to over the long term—like the activists who have been fighting police brutality for years and will continue to fight, whether or not it’s front-page news—rather than only responding to this or that issue when it’s reached a crisis point. Because we can’t all contribute meaningfully to everything. But we need national and world leaders to do their fucking jobs too. And we need to think of ourselves as part of a society, to have some sense of shared responsibility for human life, for quality of life.
RKP: Yes, multiple crises, all at the same time! And even so-called “single issues” are actually so huge, right? You explore philosopher Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects”—things whose incredibly massive scales make it difficult to wrap our minds around. Like global warming, which “is happening everywhere, all the time, which paradoxically makes it harder to see [than] something with defined edges.” Is breaking up the problem a better approach, or can that also lead to missing the forest for the trees?
EG: This reminds me of a story I heard once (which may not be true) about a man who ate an airplane by breaking it up into tiny pieces. But “solving” a hyperobject problem like global warming is exponentially harder than eating an airplane. You have to break up the problem, but separate efforts might end up undermining each other. And we can’t really foresee the distant consequences of our actions. But we also can’t do nothing!
RKP: 2020 is revealing much of what we’ve gotten terribly wrong—healthcare, community, slow living, environmental responsibility. Now, at least we can be better. But history isn’t exactly on our side. After the Black Death, you write, people weren’t more cautious. Instead, “sens[ing] a baffling meaninglessness to their being spared,” they were reckless, callous, indifferent. This really scared me, because I recognized the impulse in myself: if I survive, will I live with abandon, lessons and consequences be damned?
You ask: “Is remembering enough, or is there a right, and a wrong, way to remember?” How can we remember to remember the right way?
EG: It is so difficult, isn’t? In that same piece, the one about the plague, there’s a part where I say I keep thinking that we don’t deserve to be happy. But I wasn’t writing that essay in the midst of a pandemic! Now I’m not sure—I really mean this, I’m not sure—that I care what we deserve. Some days I think desperately: This is my life, my one life! I do want to be happy—not happy at the expense of others, insofar as I can help it, but I want moments of happiness, even if this time is mostly a struggle.
The memory thing frightens me too. I wish I had an answer. I do think we have to read and engage deeply with history. There’s an impulse to sort of reject the past wholesale, to throw it all out because it’s tainted with evil, and because it’s overwhelming—the past is really almost infinite, in a sense more infinite than the future. You see this when people just refuse to read books more than X years old. I think that’s the absolutely incorrect approach. You can’t understand it if you don’t actually read it. And anyway we’re evil too, and we are part of history.
RKP: You talking just now about moments of happiness reminded me of the chapter where you cite Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth, and how we prize certain types of happiness over others. Hecht writes: “we devalue euphoria…because we value productivity,” and this struck me as very true. There is a collective value placed on a long life or a successful career—compared to, say, MDMA or bird watching without a camera. Does happiness feel so elusive (even to those of us with relative privilege) because we define it according to productivity? And how can we change this approach when the premise of productivity—capitalism—is so deeply ingrained?
EG: There seems to be an element of competitiveness to everything, like even happiness becomes competitive happiness. Social media seems to accelerate or exacerbate these tendencies—we’re rewarded more for posting about newness and achievement than the same old routine. (I’ve always found Instagram fairly boring, but it was especially boring during the first few weeks of lockdown, I noticed.) We’re constantly made to second-guess what makes us happy, like it might be the wrong kind of happiness. We should probably all read How to Do Nothing, but I must admit that part of the nothing I’ve been doing is not reading that book yet.
RKP: Omg that was my favorite book of 2019—it absolutely changed my life! Except now I have to constantly re-read it because I keep forgetting that my life was…changed.
Something you explore is how “we can’t actually care about everything equally, especially not at the same time.” Our resources are not limitless, so we conserve them. In the past months, I’ve read more novels than news, watched more Netflix than Twitter. It feels good, safe, calm.
You go on to write: “These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy—they are almost innocent, almost ‘self-care.’ (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.)” My note in the margins reads: brutal. A month into the pandemic I tweeted: “It is okay to stop looking at coronavirus news. It is okay to stay at home and look at a book, show, cat, or plant instead.” But…is it?
EG: I think it is okay! I think we have to turn it off sometimes, often, in fact. And if you’re already staying home, scrolling the news all night isn’t protecting you and your neighbors any more than petting your cat would. What’s not okay is ignoring these problems to the point of denial. Crippling panic isn’t going to help us in the long fight, but it’s also dangerous to rationalize yourself out of discomfort by saying, “Everyone is overreacting, there have always been problems, it’s going to be fine.” Because the thing is, if you’re alive right now, it’s because your ancestors managed not to die of AIDS or in Vietnam or in the Holocaust or of smallpox before they had a kid. It’s going to be “fine” for some people—some people will survive the pandemic and likely even climate change. But many others won’t. So it’s kind of incredibly arrogant to think that just because you happen to exist, everything will probably work out in the end.
RKP: You write: “My brain had adapted to high doses of news, and I needed more and more news just to feel something. But quantity wasn’t the problem, I wanted to know what it meant.” I know the feeling, and I keep hoping that the next link, tweet, or idea will somehow reveal the answer to me. Later in the book, while exploring wildly different reporting on the same crime, you write: “Whether it’s piles of evidence or piles of news, you read it through the lens of whatever conclusion you’ve already come to.”
When we doomscroll till 3am, are we trying to understand what everything means—or are we just reinforcing what we already believe it means? Where do we go from here?
EG: Your question puts me in mind of a line in a short essay by Tom McAllister, written about a day in June of 2018, which he ends in bed, semi-drunk, scanning his phone for terrible news: “I wanted to feel as bad as possible.” It also reminds me of something I read many years ago, so long ago I can’t remember if it was in a magazine article or a novel or what, but it was something about how getting drunk makes you feel more of whatever you were already feeling—it can turn happiness into euphoria, but it can turn sadness into despair. Doomscrolling is maybe like the drunk version of confirmation bias. If we want to feel even more guilty or scared or like everything’s fine, it can provide that. But I might be the wrong person to answer this question—at this point in Trump’s presidency/time-space, I have a very low tolerance for news.
RKP: My favorite chapter in Unreality is “Vanity Project,” where you write: “[T]he brain seems to build a self-model, a representation of your own body within your mind.” This mental image is then what we use to navigate the world. And amazingly, a study you cite found “people were more apt to ‘recognize’ themselves…when their images had been enhanced to…appear more attractive.” In other words, even though we (especially as women) are credited with low self-esteem, the mental avatars through which we experience the world are often filtered and upgraded.
And I was wondering why we do this. Are we actually that vain, or is the self the ultimate hyperobject—too big to comprehend, and absolutely terrifying when we catch an unfiltered glimpse?
EG: Yes, the self as hyperobject! Always evasive and partly hidden. I’ve noticed that images or videos of my face look more like I think I look when they’re small—like when you’re in a big enough Zoom meeting that your face is just a tiny part in the grid. I think our self-model is inherently low-res, the way faces don’t have to be perfectly crisply defined in a dream. Did you know that you can see your nose at all times, but your brain just stops processing it, because it’s not useful information? “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”