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The Great Wave by Michiko Kakutani review – overcoming ‘permacrisis’

The Great Wave by Michiko Kakutani review – overcoming ‘permacrisis’

For more than three decades from 1983, Michiko Kakutani was the lead book critic for the New York Times. She won a Pulitzer for her “fearless and authoritative” criticism, shorthand for an unflinching ability to dismantle heady literary reputations. Novelist Nicholson Baker described being reviewed by Kakutani as “like having my liver taken out without anaesthesia”.

Kakutani put down her literary scalpel in 2017 and turned her attention instead to that alternative arena of outlandish plotlines and overbearing egos, American public life. Existential crisis in democracy was no longer only of academic interest in the books pages. In her 2018 book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, she documented the president’s first unhinged phase of wild and whirling words, and placed it in the context of postmodernism, which had undermined the authority of shared narrative viewpoints, and collapsed Enlightenment faith in the sanctity of fact. This movement in critical philosophy had, she argued, trickled down to the wider public in disturbing ways. It had led to a narcissistic relativism in the culture that “allowed [all] people to insist that their opinions were just as valid as objective truths verified by scientific evidence or serious investigative reporting”. Tinfoil hats all round.

Six years on, with little evidence that the corrosive habits and trends she described are in retreat, she has expanded that thesis in this book, to take in global currents of fake news and technological disruption, the forces that seem to fuel our increasingly polarised and unstable world. She takes as her metaphor for our times Hokusai’s Great Wave woodcut of 1831 (it was, you guess, either that or Munch’s The Scream) and compares and contrasts similar interregnum periods of history, when in Gramsci’s famous lines: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

Though a veteran deconstructer of tall tales, Kakutani suggests that the current “permacrisis” of “life in the third decade of the third millennium” feels like “a preposterous mashup of political satire, disaster movie, reality show and horror film tropes all at once”. The contours of previous comparable periods – the disruptive “hinge years” that followed the Great Depression or the emergence of the printing press – have been rolled into one. The ongoing transformation wreaked by the digital economy and AI has coincided with economic turmoil and pandemic and mass migration from war and climate emergency. The capacity for disruption, of societies and democracy, has, Kakutani argues, been exponentially increased by globalisation; this is nowhere felt more keenly than in the realm of information.

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Kakutani looks hard at the cultural effects of that daily avalanche of “news” – the ways in which “the edges replaced the centre”. She identifies how the radical anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s evolved into a “hacker ethic” supported by the entrenched tax-avoiding superpowers of Silicon Valley. Decentralised systems were envisaged in the cold war as a means of creating “a communications network that could survive nuclear attack”. The world wide web was built to be beyond any centralised control; the unintended consequence, as Tim Berners-Lee has written “is an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”.

The trillion-dollar question is how to harness these unleashed forces for cooperation and innovation rather than division and conflict. One of Kakutani’s solutions lies in the need to embrace outsiders, to “optimise marginality”. While the complication of our world invites simplistic nostalgia and narrow nationalism, Kakutani makes the case that the opportunities for renewal lie where they always have done: in embracing risk, welcoming otherness, opening dialogue rather than building walls. She suggests that, counterintuitively, crises such as Covid might be viewed as examples of how the world can begin to come together to confront its gravest threats.

In this regard, her deeply researched book offers the thought that perhaps the defining event of our times might prove not to be 9/11, but 3/11, the date in 2011 that saw a real life “great wave” tsunami engulf the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, triggering an emergency on multiple fronts. The response to that disaster has, Kakutani suggests, become a blueprint for the ways comprehensive future disaster planning, of the kind required by global heating, can involve and mobilise individuals and thereby strengthen democratic institutions at all levels; she quotes from Seamus Heaney, on bridging partisan divides. Positive renewal, he wrote, came from abandoning “the intoxication of defiance” and choosing “the civic, sober path of adjustment”. Useful lines to remember in this year of political choices.

Source: theguardian.com