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