The Human Catastrophe

All family life is organized around the most damaged person in it.

—Sigmund Freud

Very few study Freud these days, but if they did they’d soon realize that his scientific mythology centered on the great war of the psyche: a secular psychomachia. For Freud the human mind in its split from the world of ignorance into that of awareness or consciousness was a catastrophe. A catastrophe that he relates to repetition-compulsion, to the drive-towards-death, and to the defense of life as a drive toward agonistic achievements (the Sublime) of anteriority, of others, and even of one’s own earlier self. Our late age of capitalism is not an aberration, but rather is the outcome of this dark heritage of aggression and sublimation. We are at heart all contaminated by this heritage rather willingly or not.

One could say that civilization is a death wish, an achieved anxiety, a creation-by-catastrophe that seeks to stave off death through its repetitive-production. Capitalism is a death-machine or factory. Some ancient cultures literally made this anxiety a part of the great show of ritual and religious praxis through its yearly cycle of repetition through sacrifice. All ancient cultures were built on this sacrificial techniques. Scholars such as René Girard and Walter Burkett trace this sacrificial heritage through its various twists and turnings down the centuries. Both conclude that at its core blood sacrifice and violence are at the heart of religion and society alike.

Sacrifice is a form of collective murder, and even in some forms of cannibalistic behaviour. Think of that grand ceremony performed by both Catholic and Protestant alike as the eucharist in which the body of Christ is transubstantiated into the very wine and wafers to be eaten by all the varied participants on a Sunday morn. This is cannibalism of a god, a savage act of violence that people enact without even a the blink of an eye. Most of these believers would deny such a thing, and explain it away; and, yet, under the surface glow of smiles is the wariness of this act of violence that will not go away.

To understand how a collective murder could stand at the beginning of human culture, how an act of violence could possibly define both the problem and the solution for social formation, Girard suggests the following scenario. Humans have no braking mechanism for intraspecific aggression. This means that rivalries and conflicts, once unleashed, cannot stop short of manslaughter. Violence, therefore, is endemic. Since the only answer to murder is another murder, cycles of reciprocal retaliation create unending series of revenge killings. To bring the series to an end, a “final” killing is necessary. The final killing is achieved in the “mechanism of the surrogate victim,” From within the group, one person is separated out as victim. The selection is arbitrary and spontaneous, though there are requisites. The victim must be recognizable as a surrogate for the guilty party (or parties, and ultimately for the group itself); he must be vulnerable, unable to retaliate, without champions to continue the vengeful violence; and there must be unanimity within the group that he is the one at fault. When this unanimity is achieved the victim is treated as a criminal, killed, and expelled. This brings the violence to an end. The group has redirected its aggressions and its members are now able to cooperate.1

Humans are violent and murderous, and sacrifice and ritual killings came about to curtail and legitimize law as the only form of protection against absolute mayhem. Rivalry and mimetic desire are at the core of Girard’s notions. Humans seek to be like the ones they admire, to imitate the other in ways that will bring both pleasure and the thing desired whether material object or behavior. The one among us who is beheld in such a light as an object to be imitated says: “Be like me, but not too much like me.” For those who seek this path of rivalry there begins a course of antagonistic relations. The so called spirit of competition in our age of sports and capitalist excess begins and ends in this rivalry prone mechanics. One could cite scholar after scholar in various disciplines but I have no time to catalogue such works at the moment. Most of it if you think about it is just plain commonsense information wrung out of tons of data and ancient texts to bone up arguments that at heart humans are aggressive and murderous overreachers. Religion as a form of communal binding offered a way to ritualize and focus those dark energies into sacrificial shows. The sordid likes of a Hitler or Stalin would do the same in secular forms of sacrifice and glamour. We need not go there…

That humans are partially aware of their own origins in the realm of organic life goes without saying. Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons that Darwin so shocked his time-and still bothers ours-is that he showed this bonecrushing, blood-drinking drama in all its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person’s life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested. The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish. The din alone would be deafening. To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.2

Try as we might to repress or deny this sordid truth we come to realize only too late that it is the bloody reason we are so aggressive and murderous. So we have created civilization and its defense systems against this dark world of organicism. For thousands of years we’ve prepared ourselves through art and religion a way to escape this organic world. Most of our current crop of transhumanists and other transcenders seek to overcome the organic stench of our past through either some form of religious elevation to the heights of paradise; or, through a more earthly program of transcending the human into an inhuman inorganic form of life. But there is no escape, only a series of dark turns.

Doom ridden to the end humans will sacrifice everything to live. They will in their darkest dreams sacrifice every other soul on the planet to become the one who will survive, and not only survive but become a god, immortal. This need to continue and do it with sublime excess is at heart the driver of global civilization and its destruction of all organic life. Deny this if you will. Deny this if you can. We are the fruit of a dark dream, harbingers of a science of transcendence that has driven humanity to the excess of posthuman worlds. Where will it lead us?

  1. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Stanford University Press; 1 edition (November 1, 1988)
  2.  Becker, Ernest. Escape From Evil. Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition (March 1, 1985)