Slavoj Zizek: Civilization and its Malcontents

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We are thus entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself that melts into air: the main consequence of the scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of their construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus ‘desubstantialized’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’. This compels us to give a new twist to the title of Freud’s Unbehagen in der Kultur – discontent, uneasiness, in culture. The title is usually translated as ‘civilization and its discontents’, thus missing the opportunity to bring into play the opposition of culture and civilization: discontent is in culture, its violent break with nature, while civilization can be conceived as precisely the secondary attempt to patch things up, to ‘civilize’ the cut, to reintroduce the lost balance and an appearance of harmony. With the latest developments, the discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer ‘natural’, the reliable ‘dense’ background of our lives; it now appears as a fragile mechanism which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.

Nature is in increasing disorder, not because it overwhelms our cognitive capacities but primarily because we are not able to master the effects of our own interventions in its course – who knows what the ultimate consequences of our biogenetic engineering or of global warming will be? The surprise comes from us, it concerns the opacity of our role: the problem is not some cosmic mystery like the explosion of a supernova, it is us ourselves, our collective activity. This is what we call ‘anthropocene’: a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we humans can no longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity. We must acknowledge that we live on a ‘Spaceship Earth’, and be responsible and accountable for its condition. At the very moment at which we become powerful enough to affect the most basic elements of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our environs is necessary once we realize this: we must become modest agents collaborating with our environment, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of stability, with no a priori formula to guarantee our safety.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek


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