- “Shadow Boxing”Empty Blows, Practice Steps, and Nature’s Hold
Obsessive prohibitions possess an extraordinary capacity for displacement; they make use of almost any form of connection to extend from one object to another and then in turn make this new object “impossible,” as one of my patients aptly puts it. This impossibility finally lays an embargo upon the whole world.Freud, Totem and Taboo
Modern natural science and technology seem to have carried irreversibility and human unpredictability into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done.Arendt, The Human Condition
and, when the deed was done,I heard among the solitary hillsLow breathings, coming after me, and soundsOf undistinguishable motion, stepsAlmost as silent as the turf they trod.Wordsworth, Prelude, 1.329–33 (1805)
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the word shadow-box appears as a verb both transitive and intransitive: “to box (against) an imaginary [End Page 137] opponent, as a form of training.” In his 1991 book translated as Ecological Enlightenment, the German sociologist and philosopher of risk Ul-rich Beck uses the metaphor in the course of distinguishing “the new ecological conflict,” in which nothing is at stake except “negatives: losses, devastation, threats,” from “the old industrial conflict of labor against capital” that was (once upon a time) conceivable as a struggle for “positives: profits, prosperity, consumer goods.”1 Written in the aftermath of Chernobyl, Beck’s words bear repeating in light of recent catastrophes such as the bp–Deepwater Horizon oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear melt-downs in 2011, widely publicized accidents whose unfinished harm overlaps with, and cannot be separated from, the ongoing violence of systemic forms oftenergy-intensive resource extraction, including tar sands exploitation and gas-and oil-hydrofracking:
The ecological conflict, to use Claus Offe’s notion, is a negative-sum game of collective self-damage [emphasis in source]. At first glance, then, this is a game between losers, more precisely, losers who either refuse to admit their loss or who choose to blame it on others. It is an end-game, if you will (in Beckett’s sense as well), in which the advantages struggled-for are always relative and always threatened, and which at heart consists in either denying (whitewashing, minimizing) the threats or, to the extent that denial fails, preventing or concealing any specific attribution or general accountability.
. . . The new and dominant fact is thus the negative conflict, the distribution of loss. It is shadow boxing [emphasis added]; directly at stake are only disadvantages and indirect advantages: cost avoidance, corporate image, market position, and values such as health, recreation, and contact with nature. The central point, however, is the shifting of consequences, the definition of consequences, and the accountability of consequences. The longer the shadows of progress grow, the more the industrial perpetrators tend to lose their own shadow. They end up as purely abstract creatures, concrete only in the radioactivity or toxicity they cause.(ee, 3–4)
For Beck, ecological conflict is an “end-game” or “last round” played between losers, one in which heavy industry and image-capitalism join forces and deploy all their might to box shadows, in what is [End Page 138] both a claustrophobic deadlock and an escape from accountability. Readers familiar with the primacy assigned to the proliferation of unforeseen consequences, unintended side effects, and disavowed waste products in Beck’s theory of “reflexive [not reflective] modernity” will recognize the way he puns here on “die Folge” as that which follows and is passed on to others (the verb that repeats in German is abwälzen—to pass on, shift [blame, responsibility]) and “der Schatten” or “shadow,” as something that both follows you inescapably and behind which you can hide: global in their reach, “die industriellen Täter”—in Nietzschean parlance, industrial deed-makers, doers, perpetrators—produce and chase a multitude of shades as flat, shifting, and ungraspable as those that populate the Underworld. Yet Mark Ritter’s English translation hardly captures the irony with which Beck tries in his last sentence to bite through this inauthenticity...