Isabelle Stengers: In Catastrophic Times

“In writing this book I am situating myself amongst those who want to be the inheritors of a history of struggles undertaken against the perpetual state of war that capitalism makes rule. It is the question of how to inherit this history today that makes me write.”
 ………….– Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times

A second quote is from Schellings Weltalter:

That primordial deed which makes a man genuinely himself precedes all individual actions; but immediately after it is put into exuberant freedom, this deed sinks into the night of unconsciousness. This is not a deed that could happen once and then stop; it is a permanent deed, a neverending deed, and consequently it can never again be brought before consciousness. For man to know of this deed, consciousness itself would have to return into nothing, into boundless freedom, and would cease to be consciousness. This deed occurs once and then immediately sinks back into the unfathomable depths; and nature acquires permanence precisely thereby. Likewise that will, posited once at the beginning and then led to the outside, must immediately sink into unconsciousness. Only in this way is a beginning possible, a beginning that does not stop being a beginning, a truly eternal beginning. For here as well, it is true that the beginning cannot know itself. That deed, once done, is done for all eternity. The decision that in some manner is truly to begin must not be brought back to consciousness; it must not be called back, because this would amount to being taken back. If, in making a decision, somebody retains the right to reexamine his choice, he will never make a beginning at all.1

Zizek commenting on this passage, says,

What we encounter here is, of course, the logic of the “vanishing mediator”: of the founding gesture of differentiation which must sink into invisibility once the difference between the vortex of “irrational” drives and the universe of logos is in place. Schelling’s fundamental move is thus not simply to ground the ontologically structured universe of logos in the horrible vortex of the Real; if we read him carefully, there is a premonition in his work that this terrifying vortex of the pre-ontological Real is itself (accessible to us only in the guise of) a fantasmatic narrative, a lure destined to detract us from the true traumatic cut, that of the abyssal act of Ent-Scheidung. (ibid.)

As I began reading Stengers latest work tonight it reminded me of so many works of late that are almost prophetic in tone, bewailing the fate of ourselves, the earth, the zone of habitable life which so precariously seems drifting toward utter collapse and extinction. And we worry over the basics of day to day living, survival, terror, political corruption, austerity, sex slavery, racism, etc. etc. …. as if splitting all our problems off into various sinkholes of activism will keep the truth at bay. Even the sciences themselves have become so politicized that the Left and Right, Progressive and Reactionary, etc. all line up their various experts defending or castigating the models that speak of global warming and the Sixth Extinction. The World of data is seems bound to mathematical ontologies that our common sense folk psychologies can neither apprehend nor share in. The algorithms that chart in minute detail the various aspects of the climatological picture along with the extreme data of our ongoing Sixth Extinction seem like narratives out of some Sci-Fi novel. We are so busy just surviving the plight of our economic lives we want to put such Sci-Fi narratives on the backburner as if it were just another fictional piece of data for the analysts, the government, the scientists to worry over. As we say here in the USA – “It’s not my job to think!” So we turn the mind off, go home to our children, wives, husbands, girlfriends, etc. and forget the truth might be just over the horizon coming at us faster than we might ever believe.

What struck me in the Schelling quote was these few sentences about making a choice, a permanent decision that once made is final, a new beginning that cannot be challenged or returned to what came before: “This deed occurs once and then immediately sinks back into the unfathomable depths; and nature acquires permanence precisely thereby. Likewise that will, posited once at the beginning and then led to the outside, must immediately sink into unconsciousness. Only in this way is a beginning possible, a beginning that does not stop being a beginning, a truly eternal beginning. For here as well, it is true that the beginning cannot know itself. That deed, once done, is done for all eternity. The decision that in some manner is truly to begin must not be brought back to consciousness; it must not be called back, because this would amount to being taken back.” Isn’t this what we’re really afraid of. Making a decision, choosing to intervene, change things, invent a beginning that will forever mark a cut in the fabric of human time? A beginning that asserts itself then forgets itself, its decision, its assertive choice; allowing it to sink into oblivion. Isn’t what we’re facing the Age of Forgetting? To get through this terrible change will we not need to forget who and what we are? Haven’t we been speaking of this over and over in all the thousands of publications on inhuman, non-human, post-human, anti-human rhetoric and philosophy for fifty years? It’s as if we keep repeating the same narrative over and over but no one is listening. Even the scholars that repeat each others work don’t believe it anymore. Not really. For them it’s just the “courage of the hopeless” as Zizek once said of the political turmoil of the refugees. We live in a time between times, a zone of transitional hyperstition, when the world turns topsy-turvy and the chaotic brew of thought and being goes south, goes down below the inhuman level of utter pain from which there will be no redemption.

Does it have to be this way we ask ourselves? Why? Is technology to blame, or is it the answer? Are we just sticking our heads in the sand, pretending it will all go away, that like T.S. Eliot’s ironic poem the world will end not with a “bang but a whimper”? Are we at the edge of nothing, an End Game? Or at the beginning, a new beginning for the planet without us? Or do we as a species still have half-life in us, a way to kick-start our lives out of this zombiefied field of death we call global capitalism? Is there a path forward, or are we doomed to repeat the age old death of culture and civilizations like Greece, Rome, and other empires of the mind? Is this humanity’s last stand? And, most of all are we going to allow our rich, our powerful, our stupid leaders to take us down that river of no return without a fight? Lie down like sheep before the juggernaut of our own ignorance and pretend the world is just a joyride in the nihilist bath of historic acid?

But how to choose a beginning? Beginnings are about precedence and priority. In this sense a beginning “goes before” or “leads the way forward”, while priority gives us the sense of the “state of being earlier” as if it were a return to the beginning of all beginnings; one that pulls together the far ends of time into the newness of this reorientation toward the momentum of time. A beginning is also a sense of place, of a situation where that which emerges forgets its origins, its source and begins, starts-up, aware of only this beginning. A beginning does not remember, but rather forgets. It is a choice and decision that allows only for something new that changes everything forever. To begin is to move forward, forgetting what lies in the past, all thought, all laws, all forms and habits.

Beginnings are much like contracts in that they are artificial constructs that forge new relations, new laws, new forms of life. Zizek will tell us that the “greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.” 2 Stengers tells us that “what has made us a danger to the planet, ready to recognize illusions everywhere, is the way that emancipation has come to coincide with the struggle against human illusions.”3 Maybe this is our greatest enemy: our own historical memory, the long heritage of exceptionalism in religion and philosophy that has invented a mythic narrative of cosmic proportions with humanity at its center. We think of ourselves as immortal and heroic, even exceptional creatures of some god or history, when in fact we are blind to the blindness of our own ignorance, the darkness of our own three-pound brain’s ancient roots in the cold seas of ancient oceans. Isn’t this the great lie we must overcome? Hasn’t the combination of non-human, anti-human, inhuman, posthuman thought for the past fifty years taught us that humanity is not the center of anything, that all our gods are but the inventions of our ancient forbears, stories and poetry to guide us in the night of nights. Isn’t it high time we finally let loose of our past, our philosophies, our religions, our ideological blinkers? Yes, even what we think we know about reality is but an ideological construct, a lie we’ve all come to believe in, support, die for; a reality that seems to be scattered around us, falling into decay, into ruins as the barbarous truth of our own fated inability to know who and what we are comes back to haunt us. Isn’t it this inhuman-nonhuman core within us that seems on the verge of escaping our traps, our fictions, and releasing its truth into our world.

As Stengers recites:

It is barbarism that is today sadly predictable. But the test here is once again to abandon with neither nostalgia nor disenchantment the epic style and its grand narrative of emancipation, in which Man learns to think by himself, without needing any artificial prostheses any longer. This grand narrative has poisoned us, not because it would have lured us with the illusory prospect of human emancipation, but because it has given a debased version of this emancipation, one marked by a scorn for those peoples and civilizations that our categories judged well before we undertook to bring them, with their consent or by force, our enlightenment. Do we not recognize ourselves in their rituals, their beliefs, their fetishes, these artificial prostheses that we have been able to free ourselves from? (pp. 144-145)

The real barbarians are not the refugees in our midst, rather they are the men and women wandering Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, the grand and illusionary global cities of pleasure, fun and profit. The barbarians at the gate are those oligarchs and their sycophantic minions in government and business, traveling the world’s fast lanes, the archons of capital and finance, oil and diamonds, corporate and private Moghuls who squander the true human capital of our world without a thought about what debt must be paid for such excess. And it will be paid, one way or the other. Yet, most of all the real barbarian is us: we who look on complaining, but doing nothing to change things. We who get up everyday in the same cess-pool and convince ourselves this is life, that it will be alright; we have to think about our families, our children, they come first… etc. All lies, sweet lies to convince ourselves that the night of nights come at us out of the future is just another Sci-Fi horror film.

Yet, as we edge closer and closer to the no-return zone we are beginning to realize anxiously that maybe, just maybe these scientists aren’t mad at all, that maybe the truth we so willingly forget is that we are not exceptional, that there is no God out there beyond the dark night coming back to save us from ourselves; that the Lone Ranger isn’t going to save the day; that Tonto want be around to make us laugh at the silliness of this jokester hero, that the truth is human kind – like the 99% of all other species that ever existed have already gone extinct, will too… will we sit on the edge of time’s last desert bewailing the way of things, or will we wake up before it’s too late (or is it already too late?). Maybe like Thomas Pynchon’s lonely watchers of film screens of reality we believe it is just a grand narrative that we will escape, just a collapsing world of rolling film flicking by us on the light-show of some dilapidated theater where we sit idly by hoping beyond hope its all happening to someone else… but as the world bursts into flame and we become radiant in the gleaming firestorm that spark within us before the creation of all time suddenly realizes, too late… that yes, we had our chance, and allowed ourselves to fall asleep in a cold world theater believing it was all a sweet dream, when in fact and truth it was just the opposite: it was the only ever life we ever had, and now it’s gone, gone forever….

The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on! Start-the-show! Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult even for us, old fans who’ve always been at the movies (haven’t we?) to tell which before the darkness swept in. The last image was too immediate for any eye to register. It may have been a human figure, dreaming of an early evening in each great capital luminous enough to tell him he will never die, coming outside to wish on the first star. But it was not a star, it was falling, a bright angel of death. And in the darkening and awful expanse of screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see . . . it is now a closeup of the face, a face we all know—

And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs . . . or, if song must find you, here’s one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,
Though thy Glass today be run,
Till the Light that hath brought the
Towers low Find the last poor Pret’rite one . . .
Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,
All through our crippl’d Zone,
With a face on ev’ry mountainside,
And a Soul in ev’ry stone. . .

Now everybody—

 from  Thomas Pynchon,  Gravity’s Rainbow

  1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 6378-6386). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 6488-6490).
  3. Isabelle Stengers. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press (September 1, 2015)


3 thoughts on “Isabelle Stengers: In Catastrophic Times

  1. thank fucking god I’m illiterate. any book that starts with a giant pair of adenoids walking down a street is written for idiot savants on hallucinogens.

    Without massive energy demand destruction, renewables are unviable.

    Himalayan temperatures are warming 100% faster than earth at twice the median.

    China’s average temp rose 1.5°C in 100 years.

    Earth average temp rose 0.7°C in 100 years.

    China is heating 100% faster than earth at twice the median.

    50% of China’s rivers gone since 1990.

    75% of their lakes and rivers are poisoned.

    60% of their groundwater is poisoned.

    50% of their farm land is poisoned.

    40% of humanity in 15 years will be short of water.

    20% of humanity in 15 years will be severely short of water.

    90% of earth’s farmland will be gone in 50 years.

    20,000,000 acres of forest loss per year on earth.

    6 new nuclear plants per year will be built in China until 2030.

    2,000 new coal plants worldwide by 2030.

    20,000,000 new cars per year sold in China.

    25,000,000 miles of new roads worldwide will be built in 15 years.

    50 years for 100% world energy transition minimum.

    15 years for worldwide food, water and migration wars.

    30 years until runaway cascading mass extinction tipping point.

    50% of mega-cities are not suited for renewable energy because,

    50% of mega-cities face extreme weather, water, food dangers.

    China now controls 75% of the world solar panel market.

    50% of Forest Bird species will go extinct in 50 years.

    60% of Flower species will go extinct in 50 years.

    50% of Mega Cities will go extinct in 50 years.

    90% of Soil will go extinct in 50 years.

    40% of Humanis will not have enough water in 15 years.

    100% – Ocean Acidification doubles by 2050,

    200% – Ocean Acidification triples by 2100.

    99% of Rhinos gone since 1914.

    97% of Tigers gone since 1914.

    90% of Lions gone since 1993.

    90% of Sea Turtles gone since 1980.

    90% of Monarch Butterflies gone since 1995.

    90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.

    80% of Antarctic Krill gone since 1975.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    60% of Forest Elephants gone since 1970.

    50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    40% of Giraffes gone since 2000.

    30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.

    70% of Marine Birds gone since 1950.

    28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.

    28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.

    97% – Humans & Livestock are 97% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    10,000 years ago we were 0.01% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    Vaclav Smil explains the energy efficiency trap, the intense dependency of renewable energy on fossil power production and how much complexity our hi-tech green energy fantasies will face, as well as how incredibly difficult, long and complex energy transitions actually are for humanity. Because of these factors, he says the energy transition to renewables will takes generations, not just decades.

    In “After The Age Of Cheap Oil” two Finnish energy experts tell us that in a world of scarce oil, every ounce of it we possess will have to meet essential needs, i.e. food-shelter etc., before those of alternative energy.

    To close down a 1 megawatt fossil fuel plant we require 10 megawatts of solar and wind power just because they don’t run all the time. This does not include the massive battery and smart-grid infrastructure solar and wind require. We refuse to even harden existing grids against solar flares, let alone smarten non-existent grids that will take decades and trillions to build.

    Vaclav Smil is Canadian. So is Naomi Klein. Naomi Klein spent her whole life relying on nuclear power. Vaclav Smil says comparing wind power in a small windy country like Denmark — with its international smart-grid right next to German markets — to vast countries like Canada and the U.S. — who have no smart-grids — is ridiculously misleading. This is what Naomi Klein does, I call it lying.

    Klein extols the green energy virtues of Germany, where 50% of their renewable energy comes from burning trees imported from all over the world. Then they use this renewable energy to build cars for world export. Cars run on roads made from oil. German diesel cars burn palm oil and soy oil imported from Brazil and Indonesia, then they lie about their emissions. There is nothing green about Germany. This is lying dressed up as fantasy.

    Green energy is low-density energy in that it is spread out over large geographical areas, i.e. – there is not enough land in South Korea for a 100% energy transition to solar and wind power. There are a dozen mega-cities facing certain near-term severe storm-drought-flood damage and are impractical for wind and solar power. Too many foggy windless days in China and the Typhoon or Monsoon season in places like Japan and India, never mind building a solar farm in Miami. It’s laughably stupid.

    What this means is that the resource intensity per unit of intermittent energy production is unsustainably high in the face of rapid climate change stressors. Not to mention that solar and wind products have a planned life-cycle obsolescence of 30 years. Recycling their component alloys cost more than mining for them in the first place because recycling them uses more energy. Each time component minerals are recycled they lose their qualitative usefulness in our high-standard hi-tech world.

    We are set to double energy demand in 50 years exactly when all resource production becomes more difficult to afford because of low-ore grades and high energy costs combined with water and food shortages in the face of ever increasing climate stressors, i.e. – new fossil fuel sources demand more water than ever before exactly when we are facing water shortages due to climate stressors.

    The energy trap is leading us into a complexity trap where the confluence of crises overwhelms human society. Or, put another way, most of us never knew shortages of energy, food and water, or even shortages of anything. The last time we had just an energy shortage was in 1973 and that’s how we ended up with Ronald Reagan’s contra freedom fighters and Soldier of Fortune magazine. Don’t be fooled by temporary gluts from capital misallocation.

    Without severe demand destruction, there is no energy future. But, nobody wants to destroy energy demand 80% in 50 years when at the same time all forecasts point to a 100% increase in energy demand in those same 50 years. It’s like stealing candy from a capitalist baby. Nobody wants to hear it except for people who don’t understand what that really means. Especially those who oppose austerity. We are incapable of resolving energy -political, -economic and -ecological dynamics. But relax, it’ll be years before peak human slavery, peak civilization and peak cannibalism.

    100 years ago cars were the latest greatest thing, and millions of blacks in Africa were killed to control the rubber plantations for all the tires cars needed.

    100 years later swiping video screens is the latest greatest thing. and millions of blacks were killed in Africa for the conflict minerals all our smartphones need.

    20 years from now eating will be the latest greatest thing and millions of blacks will be killed in Africa as China and the U.S. battle for control of the black slave farms rich people need to eat. The farm land we are fighting to save in Africa is not for the Africans, it’s for the rich foreign government and corporate landowners in China and the U.S..

    There will be no green hobbit shire with dancing rainbow ponies and unicorns.

    Next year, we’ll do it all again. Same story, different metaphors.

    Green is the new brown. Devolutionary Transition indeed.

    It’s all here:

    Humans and livestock caused 80% of land-air vertebrate species extinctions and occupy half the land on earth. Humans and livestock cause half of all GHG emissions. Eating meat is the number one destroyer of habitat for life on earth and 7 billion people are NOT going to stop eating meat.

    1,000,000 humans, net, are added to earth every 4½ days.

    During COP21, James Hansen spoke of his private tax dividend plan as the most efficient way possible to unite humanity in the cause of survival. Again the greens continue to run with their mindless anti-nuclear stance without saying anything about eating meat. Nuclear power is not a menu item you get to have a say about, eating meat is. Nuclear power will not go away and magically clean itself up. There is good nuclear power and there is bad nuclear power. Without nuclear power for a steady base load supply, there will be no renewable green nirvana. Eating meat will destroy the earth before we can complete a 100% energy transition. There is no way 7 billion people will stop eating meat and wasting food out of the goodness of their hearts unless we carbon tax livestock.

    Eating meat is the #1 cause of up to 50% of all GHG emissions when you add up production & consumption. McDonalds drive-thru anyone?

    Eating meat is the #1 cause of water demand exceeding supply by 40% in 15 years with 2 billion people extremely short of water in 15 years.

    Eating meat is the #1 cause for a 90% decline of soil within the next 60 years. If we do not stop eating meat, we will have to grow 100% more food per year within 50 years. We will need 12 million acres of new soil every year for 30 years if we don’t stop eating meat, but eating meat is the #1 cause of losing 24 million acres of soil every year due to loss and degradation.

    Eating meat is the #1 cause for 80% of vertebrate species extinctions on land, air and sea.

    Eating meat is the #1 cause of rainforest deforestation. Go ahead, ask any tree.

    The “Cowspiracy” video, now on Netflix, says not eating meat will reduce emissions faster than anything else.

    Vaclav Smil says comprehensive world energy efficiency regulations can reduce emissions up to 40% in 10 – 20 years, but we refuse to do it.

    James Hansen’s 100% private carbon tax dividends (0% to government) would incentivise efficiency regulation worldwide uniting rich, poor, left and right. This would be especially true if we were to denominate carbon taxes in a new worldwide e-currency to facilitate smooth regulatory harmonization across the planet.

    Kevin Anderson is absolutely right in that rich westerners have to initiate massive demand destruction for energy or there will be no green energy nirvana.

    Vandan Shiva is right that small farms are 25% of the farmland growing 75% of earth’s food. Animal agriculture will destroy water, soil and life before we can resolve our carbon energy use.

    Michael Mann says we are on track to “lock-in” a 2°C temperature rise in just 3 years which would then arrive no later than 2036. Now, I am just as content as the next guy to fuck the dog and greet the end, but I just don’t see how I can take another ten years of this Socialist David vs. Capitalist Goliath shit. I don’t think life on earth can.

    Anderson + Hansen + Smil + Shiva = Hope

    Bernie Sanders + Bill McKibben + Naomi Klein = Idiocracy


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