2023 CBC Massey Lectures: Astra Taylor

Filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor explains how society runs on insecurity – and how we can change it.

Almost everyone is feeling insecure these days, whether it’s financial pressures, mental health issues or all-consuming anxiety about the state of the world.

According to writer, filmmaker and political organizer Astra Taylor, insecurity is a “defining feature of our time.” Not only that, she argues our society is actually built to make us all feel insecure on purpose.

In her series of Massey Lectures, which she delivered this fall across Canada, Taylor explores all the ways that different social institutions are both built on and perpetuate feelings of anxiety — from politics to education to policing.

The 2023 CBC Massey Lectures are also available as a book, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart, from House of Anansi Press.

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“What [these lectures say] is, ‘Let’s step back. Actually, maybe insecurity isn’t just about you.’ And in fact, it’s not,” Taylor told CBC Radio. “Insecurity is really central to the functioning of our political and economic system.”

Taylor takes a deep dive into the history of capitalism and explores how, paradoxically, the ways that we’ve been encouraged to achieve security — purchasing health and wellness products, buying life insurance, acquiring property — actually work against us.

She also looks forward at the ways we might be able to achieve true security, using collective action.

Astra Taylor delivers the final of her five Massey Lectures at Toronto’s Koerner Hall in September 2023. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Lecture 1: Cura’s Gift

The human condition is one of existential insecurity: we’re dependent on others for survival, and we’re vulnerable to physical and psychological illness, as the ancient Roman goddess Cura reminds us.

But today, we also live in an era of manufactured insecurity, imposed on us from above. Consumer society, Taylor argues, capitalizes on the very insecurities it produces, making us all insecure by design.

How we understand and respond to insecurity is one of the most urgent questions of our moment — nothing less than the future security of our species hangs in the balance.

Listen to the lecture Cura’s Gift:

Lecture 2: Barons or Commoners?

In the second of her lectures, Taylor argues we need the right to various things, not just protection from threats.

Our constitution tells us what we’re protected against, but it doesn’t tell us a lot about what we’re entitled to. And it’s not enough to be granted the negative right against abuse without also having the positive right to receive assistance, or to possess civil and political rights without social and economic rights as well.

The wealthy barons of the past and present have defined what security means — for themselves — but the rest of us have fought for something else instead.

Listen to the lecture Barons or Commoners?:

Lecture 3: Consumed by Curiosity

It’s a paradox: we live in the most prosperous era in human history, but it’s also an era of profound insecurity.

In the third of her Massey Lectures, Taylor suggests history shows that increased material security helps people be more open-minded, tolerant, and curious. But rising insecurity does the reverse: it drives us apart, and it also drives the rise of reactionary politics.

We’re in the middle of an attack on our essential nature, she says, an attack on our economic and emotional well-being.

Listen to the lecture Consumed by Curiosity:

Lecture 4: Beyond Human Security

The burning of fossil fuels causes the past, present and future to collide in disorienting and destructive ways. In the fourth Massey Lecture, Taylor tells us that as we incinerate our energy inheritance, nature’s timekeeping methods become increasingly confused.

As the climate alters, delicately evolved biological clocks erratically speed up or slow down, causing plants and animals to fall out of sync. In a world this out of joint, how could we possibly feel secure?

To move forward, Taylor argues we need to move beyond human security — and create security for the plants, animals and ecosystems on which our own security depends.

Listen to the lecture Beyond Human Security:

Lecture 5: Escaping the Burrow

Human beings will never be totally secure, especially not on a planet that has been destabilized. In her fifth Massey lecture, Taylor offers hope and solutions.

We need to cultivate an ethic of insecurity, she says, one that acknowledges and embraces our existential insecurity while resisting manufactured forms of insecurity imposed upon us. The experience of insecurity, she says, can offer us a path to wisdom that can guide not only our personal lives but also our collective endeavors.

Listen to the lecture Escaping the Burrow:

About Astra Taylor

2023 Massey lecturer Astra Taylor. (Nye Taylor)

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and political organizer, born in Winnipeg, Man., and raised in Athens, Ga. She currently lives in New York. Her previous books include Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, and the American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. She regularly writes for major publications, has directed three documentaries — Zizek!, What is Democracy? and Examined Life — toured with the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and co-founded the Debt Collective, a debt relief advocacy group.

About the CBC Massey Lectures

Since 1961, CBC Radio has broadcast the Massey Lectures, bringing Canadians some of the greatest minds of our time, exploring the ideas that make us who we are and asking the questions that make us better human beings. The lectures are a partnership between CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College in the University of Toronto. For more, visit the archives.

Writing: Pauline Holdsworth, Philip Coulter and Althea Manasan | Editing: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Artwork: Ben Shannon | Digital Production: Althea Manasan | Massey Lectures Producers: Philip Coulter and Pauline Holdsworth