Fragility, Globalism and the End of the World
What is the difference between the end of life and the end of the world, and how might we think about life without the world? In what follows I want to explore the ways in which various senses of globalism are bound up with new conceptions of world and life. My overall claim will be that a quite specific and normative sense of world is tied to new conditions of globalism that, in turn, demand new modes of human life.
This sense of world is perhaps best captured by the phenomenological term Lebenswelt or lifeworld: it is not just that there is no such thing as an ‘I’ that is not always already oriented to a world, not only that consciousness is always consciousness of some experienced object, but that any of these experiences occurs within a horizon of sense (Carr, ‘Husserl’s Problematic’). The experience of the present, of the here and now, is already haunted by a received sense of the past, and an anticipation of the future. This is not simply an old phenomenological notion (although it is that); it is articulated most forcefully by today’s Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler makes two distinct contributions to post-phenomenological deconstruction that intensify its already global ethics. First, in addition to the notion of secondary retention—that my experience of the ‘now’ is inflected with memories of the past—there is also tertiary retention, where my lived experience is made possible not only by my own memories but by technology (Stiegler, Technics, 251). Indeed, one only has one’s own memories because of the technology of the archive. What makes me able to say ‘I’ is not my Cartesian detachment from experience, but a history of experiences that are composed through a world of texts. When I arrive in New York I experience this spatial presence with a sense of every episode of Seinfeld, every James Baldwin story, every Sonny Rollins solo, and every picture of the Statue of Liberty. This New York here and now is individuated by my past consumption of a global archive. The more of that archive I consume, the more I am the individuated being that I am. What tertiary retention intensifies in the concept of world is an imperative of global expansion: the more narrow my world of textual consumption, the more ‘short-circuited’ will be the range of experience, and therefore the less human I become. I risk falling back into the myopia of stupidity. Second, and related to the first point of tertiary retention, is Stiegler’s concept of epiphylogenesis: who we are, as humans, is not only the result of the evolution of our kind, but an ongoing inheritance and transformation of an archive (135). To be human today—reading, writing, listening, touching—is to be inflected with all the objects and texts we have created that organize our being. We could, then, study the ways in which some types of objects orient our bodies and passions towards a future that is not merely our own, while other types of objects—those typical of late industrial capitalism—‘proletarianize’ our senses (Stiegler, New Critique, 45). If I read Plato then I am compelled to think of another world, a different ‘who’ as the author of this text, and then be connected in this reading with the history of Plato, neo-Platonism, and all the other repetitions and inscriptions of this text (Stiegler, Technics, 252). It’s the mystagogic nature of this text, that it needs to be read, and that it is beyond me, that creates a long-circuit of attention, drawing me beyond myself (Stiegler, ‘Kant’). By contrast, if I consume the same present-day mass-produced objects that circulate almost anonymously I become like everyone else, and therefore I become no one. Having no sense of a who as the creator of these mass-produced objects, I have no sense, no desire, of what it might mean to author or create. Rather than viewing a film with a sense of an author, and rather than discerning a different signature or different world, I become the passive recipient of so much circulating mass media.
While Stiegler’s account of tertiary retention, epiphylogenesis and the proletarianization of the senses is unique, it does intensify and bring to the fore a globalist morality at the heart of the more widespread concept of world. The richness of the present is made possible by the inheritance of the past, and the richness of the past is made possible by the range of the archive. To be human is to have a world, where any experience is haunted by a sedimentation of sense and an anticipation of futurity. Such a notion not only harks back to Kant and Husserl, and to the claim that the very reality of the here and now presupposes that the same reality would be there for ‘any other whatsoever’ (Gorner, ‘Phenomenological Interpretations’, 503), but also has a broader resonance in liberalism. I should act as if the world I would consent to would be one that could reasonably be accepted by any other reasonable person (Rawls, Theory). At the basis of liberal anti-foundationalism, in other words, there is not simply an ethic of tolerance (where I would accept the misguided views of others) but an assumption regarding the world. Every individual comes into being in a specific world, but is also capable of viewing every other individual as also bearing a world. When Martin Heidegger argued that animals were poor in world, he recognized that their experience was inflected with a past, future and sense of possibility. What impoverished animal worlds was the absence of particular opening to Being that sets Dasein apart (Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts, 177). If one experiences what is present as never fully present, as given in part, and as given, then one is necessarily open to other worlds. Further, one ought to see all those different worlds as subtended by Being. There is an implicit global moralism in Heidegger’s work that gets taken up over and over again: globalism reduced the world to a homogeneity of views or pictures, and what gets lost is the depth of the globe. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it:
This network cast upon the planet—and already around it, in the orbital band of satellites along with their debris—deforms the orbis as much as the urbs. The agglomeration invades and erodes what used to be thought of as globe and which is nothing more now than its double, glomus. In such a glomus, we see the conjunction of an indefinite growth of techno-science, of a correlative exponential growth of populations, of a worsening of inequalities of all sorts within these populations—economic, biological, and cultural—and of a dissipation of the certainties, images, and identities of what the world was with its parts and humanity with its characteristics….
The world has lost its capacity to ‘form a world’ [faire monde]: it seems only to have gained that capacity of proliferating, to the extent of its means, the ‘un world’ [immonde], which, until now, and whatever one may think of retrospective illusion, has never in history impacted the totality of the orb to such an extent. In the end, everything takes place as if the world affected and permeated itself with a death drive that soon would have nothing else to destroy than the world itself. (Nancy, Creation, 33-34)
For Heidegger, what’s wrong with today’s managerialism, or the ‘age of the world picture’ is that ‘research’ proceeds by setting out one’s object domain, and then operates accordingly: ‘the research worker necessarily presses forward of himself into the sphere characteristic of the technologist in the essential sense. Only in this way is he capable of acting effectively, and only thus, after the manner of his age, is he real’ (Heidegger, Question, 125). Heidegger marks a crucial distinction, the significance and morality of which goes well beyond his work: what is wrong with our present is that each domain to be studied or understood is delimited, mapped out, and measured with its appropriate degree of exactitude. Every expert has a command of their field and thus manages to be scientific. What is not experienced or questioned is the coming into being of all these worlds. One might pause to see here how a certain reduction of the world to the merely calculable, the fragmentation of the world into so many areas of expertise, and the notion of the world as being nothing more than that which is pictured, is part of a broader modernist lament that would pit capitalist globalism against an existential/metaphysical sense of the globe from which worlds emerge. Heidegger insisted that what had been lost is anything that is not reducible to what is depicted by the efficiency and expertise of modern man. For the Greeks, ‘That which is, is that which arises and opens itself, which, as what presences, comes upon man as the one who presences, i.e., comes upon the one who himself opens himself to what presences in that he apprehends it. That which is does not come into being at all through the fact that man first looks upon it, in the sense of a representing that has the character of subjective perception. Rather, man is the One who is looked upon by that which is; he is the one who is—in company with itself—gathered toward presencing, by that which opens itself’ (131). The difference between ‘man’ and Dasein is a difference between a technocratic globalism of so many object domains, each with their own aims and methods, and a profoundly open orientation towards the ‘unlimited sphere of possible objectification’ (147).
Much later, when Bernard Stiegler argues against the industrialization and proletarianization of the senses, and the growing infantilism, attention deficit disorder and stupidity of the present, he is continuing a Heideggerian tradition that is neither technophobic, nor claiming that there is only one objective world. Rather what is being lamented is a simple enclosure within one’s world. A proper comportment is open to the worlding of worlds, aware that any one world is unfolded from a Being that gives itself historically in an ever-enriching sense. What is strongly implicit in Heidegger, and quite explicit in Stiegler, is a morality of globalism: one must cherish richly individuated worlds, each distinct in its unfolding from its own archival encounters. There is no such thing as ‘man’—a distinct being who pictures the world—but there are worlds, all of which emerge from that which is never fully given in any one picture; without that individuating sense of the globe giving itself differently we are lost and deceived:
Europe—which copies American economic models but fails to grasp that the cost of turning globalization into a generalized mimetism would be that it sinks into disaster—has resigned itself to delegating to the American entertainment and games industry the destiny of its own culture, that is, the liquidation of its own culture. Now, this is especially serious when, capitalism becoming cultural, culture itself becomes the key to all industrial policy—besides which, it was already the key to all politics whatsoever. It must be hoped that those European industrialists who are not blinded by ideology or paralysed by the voracity of their share-holders know how to preoccupy themselves, and be concerned with, posing the right questions, those which guarantee a future to industry—and where the much-touted reform of casual labour [intermittence] could only ever have amounted to rearranging the deckchairs in a situation in which everyone would nevertheless remain lost and deceived. (Stiegler, Decadence, 18)
The moral dichotomy that distinguishes capitalist globalism from an existential comportment to the ‘unlimited sphere of possible objectification’ is not merely a fetish of post-Heideggerian thought. I will leave aside for now the ways in which Heidegger’s contempt for a managerial and calculative manipulation of the world coupled with a sentimental yearning for a type of experience that was given from the world ties into a whole series of Eurocentric decisions regarding the lesser status of the animals and persons who simply accept the world as it is, not questioning or expanding their range of reflection. I will also leave aside the question of whether Stiegler’s demand for an archivally expanded future, in which ‘we’ become more individuated by seizing control of the aesthetic means of production, does not privilege a typically European conception of what it means to read, write and think. (Is reading necessarily an individuating event, in which an archive of signatures, marked by mystagogy, generates a ‘we’ of the future?) What I will pursue is a more simple question that nevertheless resonates with the grand pronouncements of Heideggerian disdain for simple worldliness. I want to argue that the sense of world and life embedded in the concept of lifeworld relate directly to the ways in which the ‘end of the world’ is being imagined and discussed, and that what the end of the world really means is an end of globalism, and that what the end of globalism really means is the tragic end of our world, a world in which we Europeans were globally oriented.
Before I go on, let’s just undertake a brief thought experiment and recall any number of ‘end of the world’ scenarios: the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead (2010-), the various media-bereft landscapes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Emily St. John Mantel’s Station Eleven (2014) or Mad Max: Fury Rd (2015), or the various disaster and invasion epics that show urban centres reduced to lock-down and rubble, and where the state of emergency turns where we live now into something like a police state. The end of the world is the end of globalism: there are no longer the technological means to survey and connect with the outside. One wanders, with no real sense of where one is, and no sense of the world as a whole. In short, it is quite incorrect to say that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. When ‘we’ imagine the end of the world all we can summon to mind is the end of the capitalism that survived technically, economically and morally through a daily imaginary of the globe.
It might seem odd to suggest that concepts such as ‘life’ or ‘world’ carry the same historical limits and contingencies of globalism. It would seem evident that globalism has a series of historical thresholds ranging from abstract moments—where humans begin to think of themselves as tied to persons in general, beyond the reach of immediate communities—to concrete moments, where imperialist, colonizing and enslaving ventures tie distributed points on the earth to a single market. We could dispute when each of these moments occur, and to whom they occur: does a sense of universal humanity emerge with Stoicism and the notion of the world citizen, with Christianity and the sense of a world to come, or perhaps earlier and elsewhere with indigenous conceptions of human life as a later and derivative fragment of a broader realm of persons, such that one might think of the West as a latecomer to the notion of a profound interconnectedness?1
To think globally is at once a gesture that seems to transcend one’s time and place, and an assumption of globalism not as transcendence of one’s own world but as the geo-political and economic (and now climatic) subsuming of all else under a single system. What I want to argue here is that these two senses of the globe—an infinite universe beyond one’s own milieu, and the single geo-economic system of globe—relate in important ways to the end of the world and peculiarly human sense of fragility. Bound up with the problematic reach of globalism is a specific sense of world and life. Here I use the concept of world not to refer to the planet or the physical space of the earth, but world as a horizon of sense, expectation, social fabric and sedimented meanings. When one talks about the ‘end of the world’ it is more often than not something like the lifeworld (or Lebenswelt) that is being referred to. In order to experience any present, and in order to be a self, one must have an ongoing experience of a coherent world, where others would also concur for the most part with the order and stability that makes everyday life possible. This conception of world—not as a space but as a horizon of meaning and expectation—goes back to Kant. For Kant, before one can doubt the world, before one can ask any question of knowledge or value, one must already be able to distinguish between one’s self and what is being experienced, and between a before and after through which the world presents itself as stable. To make a scientific claim one assumes not only that the world continues to cohere in its stability but that others will also continue to experience the world as lawful.
It is at this point in modernity that the coherence of the world is dependent on the subject. And, as the tradition from Kant, through Heidegger, to Stiegler and high modernism will insist: there is a radical difference between subject and man. The subject is given through the synthesis of the world, properly aware that the world that is unfolded is not being as such. Whereas a naïve and vulgar conception of man would see humans as nothing more than beings in the world, one should properly see worlds and selves as mutually and dynamically constitutive. This mutual imbrication of self, world and sustainability is not unique to Kantian thought and extends beyond philosophy. At its most intense this sense of world allows each person, with their own perceptions, beliefs and projections to generate a world. Derrida will argue that the death of any other is the end of the world (Naas, End), and Deleuze will insist that it is the other person whose world disturbs the order of my own: ‘the first effect of Others is that around each object that I perceive or each idea that I think there is the organization of a marginal world, a mantle or background, where other objects and other ideas may come forth in accordance with laws of transition which regulate the passage from one to another’ (Deleuze, Logic, 305).
To be human, it seems, is to have a world: not simply to experience the here and now, but to think of the space in which I live as one in which every other also has their own horizon and mode of existence. Before globalism is a late-capitalist economic order it is an existential condition and a moral imperative: humans must be archival animals, capable of viewing every present as if it were already lived and rendered meaningful by others. This is what Habermas means when he refers to communicative action: when we live and move we do so in a lifeworld, already informed by the sense others have made of the world (Habermas, Theory). Habermas claims that this renders his theory post-metaphysical; one’s world is always lived through a social and historical milieu that is subject to ongoing collective reflection and critique. What Habermas does not consider is whether that conception of reflective, collective and meaning-enabled life is itself normative, rather than being an explanation of norms. What if the concept of the lifeworld were tied to a specific lifeworld, one in which the economic, cultural practices and habits of globalism made a certain comportment possible? Is it really necessary and universal that ‘we’ all live in a world in which our actions, sense of self, and our future are intersubjective? Is it the case that to be is to be-with-others?
I would suggest that the concept of the human is tied to a whole series of global assumptions, ranging from the notion of the world as a horizon of meaning, to far more specific cultural and geo-political conditions. Consider, for example, two claims from the present, one of them philosophical/theoretical, the other seemingly less metaphysically burdened. Bernard Stiegler has argued for a specifically human epiphylogenesis: human beings are the outcome of evolutionary change by way of natural selection, and the habits, tendencies, relations, forms and inscriptions of the archive. Every film, cave painting, novel, philosophical dialogue and melody adds to an increasingly complex archive that, in turn, allows human subjects to become who they are in relation to other reading/listening/viewing subjects. What inscription enables is a specifically human temporality; animals may also evolve in relation to their milieu and each other, but only humans can read Plato or watch Goddard and respond to the individual signature of who authored each text. The more we read, view, and listen, the more complex we are in relation to each other, the past and the future. Stiegler argues not only that humans are composed by these complex circuits of trans-individuation, but that the very archive that allows us to be more than our animal being may also lead to short circuits. All the texts that compose our memories, hopes and relations to each other may allow humans to fall back into stupidity. In short, then, Stiegler’s insistence on long circuits of trans-individuation—on becoming who we are by way of an increasingly enriched archive—harbors a double relation to globalism. Humans are properly global, experiencing the here and now by way of a retention of the archive, and an anticipation of the future that is never simply one’s own but ought to be oriented towards a virtual ‘we’. Stiegler refers to writing in the broadest sense as a pharmakon, at once cure and poison, capable of rendering us maximally human (open to sublime futures) and stupid (doing nothing more than being captivated by the same texts … one Harry Potter sequel after another.) You are what you read, and if you read globally your singular being will be ever more singular—always open and enriched by the increased complexity of relations. At the same time, globalism as a capitalist phenomenon threatens to overtake and reduce the archive: no longer allowing for an amateurish relation to the art object, where we imagine that we could write, paint, sculpt, compose, we are now proletarians of the senses.
My second example is not taken from philosophy, but from a popularization of George Lakoff’s recent explanation of why Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. For Lakoff the reason why the democrats lost, the reason why there is so much division, can be explained by two mind-sets, both of them deriving from the family: ‘The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative)’. Such a claim is in line with Lakoff’s broader account of the ways we view the world in terms of metaphors, each person bearing their own cognitive map, which the cognitive brain scientist can explain from his position of over-arching comparison. Every person emerges from a family, and therefore has a worldview: ‘We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families’ (Lakoff, ‘Understanding Trump’, n.p.). The human sciences, though, have a grasp of the condition from which those world-views are generated.
What ties the comportment of the human sciences, high Heideggerian disdain for ‘man’, and liberal globalism is a highly normative conception of the human that is intertwined with a rich multiplicity of worlds. I must not simply have ‘a’ world; my world should properly be reflexively aware of its singular worldness. Unfortunately, the technical and material conditions that make that ethical-political global openness possible are the same conditions that threaten to bring about the end of the world.
Globalism is at once a contraction and expansion of the world, an intensified sense of world, and a logic of essential fragility at the heart of what has come to call itself humanity. Globalism is ostensibly (and essentially) a recognition of multiple worlds. Rather than an empire that demands one mode of existence and that colonizes and dehumanizes those others who feed its demands, globalism operates by a market that survives not simply by accepting but by maximizing difference. There may be Nike, MacDonald’s and Starbucks operations across the globe but those markers and points of recognition not only adapt to local nuances but are set alongside the wide commodification of ethnicity: the marketing of Indigenous art, authentic experiences of spiritualism (in yoga, Buddhism, Shiatsu), tourism, world literatures, world music, world cinema, global cuisine and blatantly commercial celebrations of diversity that allow the many faces of the world to express a humanity united by variation. The cultural-capitalist creation of a global world order is, of course, tied to a geo-political sense of increasing security and stability, supposedly threatened by recent resurgences of nationalism. Yet, here, in the tension between apparent global stability and recognition on the one hand, and a backlash of populism on the other, one might see that what looks inevitable and universal is far from being so. When President Donald Trump threatens to withdraw from NATO, or when the British public vote to leave the European Union, what is brought to the fore is the extent to which these progressive, global and stabilizing structures displaced and repressed an essential volatility.
In this sense, the logic of ‘too big to fail’, widely reproduced during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), covers more than the system of global finance, more than defense and trade alliances, and marks out a specific mode of ‘humanity’. Consider, again, the formal sense of ‘humanity’ that we inherit from the Enlightenment. Entertaining the idea that ‘humanity’ in its strong sense does not exist, Kant imagined the kind of moral relation to others that might be expected to be the norm: as one goes through the world one sometimes behaves honestly, generously and consistently—depending upon how one feels about one’s fellow man—but if those feelings happen not to be elicited, and if the other does not warrant my sympathy then I choose to act for my own interests. Kant insisted that this morality of fellow feeling was no morality at all, relying as it does on who I happen to be, how I feel about particular others, and all the ways in which I can be partial and make an exception of myself. If, however, I think of myself ideally as a ‘member of the kingdom of ends’, or as part of an Idea of one rational humanity in which we all act as if every other person were as worthy of concern as my own person, then I would be achieving true morality. It is in this moment of impersonal abstraction that humanity is constituted, both as global and as secure. Twentieth-century liberal theory sustains this commitment to a humanity that is formal rather than substantive and that is necessary because of its global sustainability. Only if one recognizes others as themselves free, self-determining and equal could we possibly end the wars and conflicts of ideology. The more empty the notion of humanity, the more inclusive it will be, and the more global and stable our future will become. One might think here of Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the end of history, where we no longer contest what counts as properly or normatively human (Fukuyama, End); or, more broadly one might think of John Rawls’s theory of justice and the notion of a fair society where any position in the social whole would be acceptable for any reasonable agent; or Richard Rorty’s postmodern bourgeois liberal humanism where one accepts that one’s moral vocabularies have no foundation and that what sustains us all is conversation (Rorty, ‘Postmodernist’). More specifically and explicitly, modern versions of Kantian ethics maintain that one cannot make an exception of oneself—that one must act as if any other reasonable agent would also consent to such a decision —and that without the ongoing consistency of this sense of personhood one would simply not be oneself (O’Neill, Acting). To be human is not simply to exist in a world, but to have an orientation to the other in general.
Alongside this expansive, formal sense of ‘humanity’, consider the 2008 GFC and what that event presupposes, expresses and reinforces. Obviously the ‘global’ crisis was large scale theft and fraud undertaken by a few with criminal disregard for the many, while the subsequent bail-out’s logic of ‘too big to fail’, disclosed the broader criminality of a system so powerful in its reach that it can no longer not be. ‘Too big to fail’ has a very simple, and perhaps easily remedied, sense: not only did banks take risks that were too high, with far too many assets, thereby exposing large numbers of people to subsequent destitution, there were too few banks holding too much power. ‘Too big to fail’ has a broader and more disturbing sense, for by the time of the crisis the banks had failed, but allowing that failure to be fulfilled would be too big an event. A certain non-existence is unimaginable because it is so robust. This is not the same as saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Quite the contrary: we are constantly imagining the end of capitalism as the end of the world, and as the contraction of the globe. Here, the logic of ‘too big to fail’ is charged with affect. Look at any number of post-apocalyptic scenarios where humans are now detached from what one might have called ‘social fabric’; they rely on the immediacy of their surrounds and ad hoc attachments. If there is a system or order it is someone else’s, or else an order that was once global has contracted to become nightmarishly managerial.
The world, in the sense of ‘the end of the world’, is the globe. What we now experience as the world is a quite specific mode of existence where each individual has a sense of the global whole, by way of media, social media, markets, travel, cinema, geo-politics and a sense of an ever-more-inclusive humanity. End of the world scenarios are more often than not scenes of disconnection, of isolated wandering, of knowing no more than where one is, and of a future that is not a radical ‘future to come’ but an eking out of existence. This post-global condition is often given in the form of the pre-global, of a return to primitivism or as the violent erasure of all that counted as human. Too much has been written already about zombies and their allegorical import, but one can at least note that zombies are nightmarish instances of ‘being without world’. They move and devour, but are devoid of interiority and exteriority. To see zombies as metaphors for migrants or the working class is plausible, but what is more significant is the sheer horror generated by beings who are mere life without world or personhood. If zombies say anything about globalism it is at once because expansion of one’s world to include all others places pressure on the extent to which one can grant ‘humanity’ to anyone and everyone, and because—as the popularity of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer (1998) reveals—bare life is what must be expelled in order to forge a conception of man as a political animal, a being whose proper mode is away from the animality of the body towards others who are also political and relational beings. (Agamben, despite his flagrant Eurocentrism, odd hyperhumanism and seeming disregard for the planet, suggests another politics that would not fetishize relations, and would not require an other whom I can recognize only insofar as he, too, is relational and political, or worldly.) When humans, rather than zombies, are depicted at the ‘end of the world’ they seem similarly lacking in orientation, and are condemned to wandering lives of mere existence while being burdened with the memory of a once-meaningful past. Here one can recall McCarthy’s The Road, where the blank present is interrupted by dreams of a not-so-empty (and yet deluional) past, or Emily St. John Mantel’s elegiac Station Eleven where a wandering troupe performs Shakespeare, again haunted by fragments of a once meaningful past (a comic that imagines space travel and an airport that has become a museum of what was once humanity). In post-apocalyptic cinema pre-emptive mourning abounds: in Oblivion (2013) Tom Cruise plays an outlier in the future, reminiscing about the Super Bowl while playing a vinyl recording of the 70s classic ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. It seems that the end of the world is, quite specifically, not the end of the globe (in terms of the planet), but the end of globalism. What is left behind are fragments: humans living fragmented lives, the past given only in wreckage that is no longer bound to its original sense.
It is in this sense that the logic of ‘too big to fail’ goes well beyond banks, finance, 2008 and neoliberalism’s implicit ethos of survival of those who grow large enough to render the entire system precariously dependent. ‘Too big to fail’ captures the profound imbrication of globalism, humanity, world and a unique fragility. Once humanity discovers itself as having no foundation other than a capacity to recognize all others, in their difference and with their worlds as human ‘just like me’, then there can be no outside to humanity. Humanity in its ethical, liberal, post-foundational sense is too inclusive to have an outside, and too big to fail, precisely because anything else would be unthinkable or unbearable. If humanity is not reduced to species being, not unified by a quality, but defined by a capacity to always be other than itself, to be pure becoming towards a radically open futurity, then humanity is essentially global (being always oriented beyond the present), always blessed with a world (the specific and different meanings and horizons which one recognizes as one’s own), and a unique relation to fragility.
Various claims about the end of ideology, the end of history, post-metaphysics, anti-foundationalism and moral evolution insist that humanity must become something other than itself, not committed to its own kind but cognizant of all the ways and worlds in which humans might become. Humanity is constitutively global, constitutively tied to ‘a’ world that is one of many worlds, and essentially relational. Once humanity becomes nothing more than an open and all-inclusive horizon it becomes uniquely robust and fragile all at once. Consider any post-apocalyptic scenario where the end of the world is a mere living on without archive, without all the forms of communication and media that open the present, and without the stability that is now threatened by climate change. We should not see these dystopias as an interruption of a properly human global stability; we should see global recognition and the formation of a system ‘too big to fail, too inclusive to be otherwise’ as achievements that allowed humanity to generate harmony and worlds at the expense of others who ideally would be included in some ever more global future.
Post-apocalyptic cinema is not only a form of working-through, an imagination of what things might be like without ‘us’; it is a constitution, justification and shrill imperative that concludes from our very robust and fragile global order that we must continue to be. Rather than ‘I think therefore I am’, the cogito of the twenty-first century is ‘we are imperiled, therefore we must be’. This cogito takes two forms. Explicitly, the new globalism of the Anthropocene creates an inescapable and supposedly unifying predicament. Despite the differences of the past, the same threat is posed to ‘us’ all, and even if some modes of existence were not quite of the type to enable ‘humanity’ to become a geological force, ‘we’ are now sharing the same space that has become volatile enough to demand a concerted and collective future effort, either by way of geo-engineering, colonization of another planet, or the simple prioritization of saving ‘intelligence’ at all costs. It is because damage has reached such a threatening degree that there must be a ‘we’ and we must survive. Less explicitly, post-apocalyptic film and literature presents a threatened humanity—either by way of viral pandemic, invasion, resource depletion, some form of new barbarism or despotism, or climate catastrophe—and then in the playing out of the disaster epic ‘humanity’ emerges as the agent and victor. What occurs is a form of sublime apostrophe: by addressing humanity as at once already fallen, post-apocalyptic culture generates this new global being by way of an imagined, mourned and apostrophized non-being (de Man, Aesthetic Ideology, 114). To imagine ourselves as tragically vanquished, and yet somehow surviving the end of the world, this is today’s sublime. The narrative force and heroism of most ‘end of the world’ dramas create humanity by way of peril, with those who live through the disaster inevitably being urban, cosmopolitan, affluent and familial: only such a blessed ‘humanity’ could live its end as the end of the world. A disaster epic featuring the threatened and fragile lives of non-Western, non-urban, poor and disenfranchised persons is not the stuff of Hollywood cinema, and usually fails to rate a mention in the news media. There is at once a simple cinematic and novelistic genre imperative that the agent of the disaster epic must triumph, but there is also a performative force whereby the playing out of threat and victory allows those humans who must remain to stand for humanity in general. A new mode of global humanity is generated by a robust flirtation with fragility.
It is because contingency and volatility had been constitutively expelled in order to form the new ‘man’ of modernity that the return of repressed disaster unleashes an even more intense narrative of triumph. The greater and more imminent the threat the more strident is the will to conquer, and this is because what it means to be human is to be able to think of oneself as a citizen of the globe, capable of viewing oneself and others as persons with rights, dignity and freedom. To be human is to be free from the forms of contingency, fragility and risk that would preclude one from universal empathy. Declarations of human rights are as much about definition as they are about demand. Liberty, equality, fraternity, life, and the pursuit of happiness are at once goals for how we would like our entire world to be, but also stipulative definitions. The liberal, universally-oriented and rights-blessed humanity of the eighteenth century gained its ease, security and stability by outsourcing risk and volatility. Other worlds were left to experience slavery, indentured labor, and the sorts of conditions that humanity now imagines as typifying the end of the world. These contemporary scenes of humanity lost are not only the conditions required to sustain modern global humanity; they are typical of the forms of fragility that were overcome by some humans in order to generate the stability that climate change now threatens. Here is where I would argue for a series of reversals.
First, rather than see the climate change that is occurring now as an interruption of stability, it would be better to see stability—the harmonious, agricultural-calendar nature of modernity—as the carved-out exception that ultimately intensified climate change to the point that what is now known as the Anthropocene presents humanity as a whole with unsustainability. Sustainability—or the notion of a steady, ongoing, ‘measured’ extraction of the world’s resources—was always bought at the cost of rendering invisible those forms of existence that had always worked with instability. What ‘humanity’ is experiencing now as a violent and intrusive cut into its right to life is better thought of as an intense resurgence of the fragility that had been held at bay and outsourced for the sake of global modernity.
Second, rather than see the humanity that faces an unjust and catastrophically tragic end as the agent of history whose survival is required in order to achieve a more just future, one should see the end of the world as the beginning of other worlds.
Third, and perhaps in tension with the second claim, the notion of futurity as increasing inclusion and expansion of global prosperity, fraternity and recognition, needs to be replaced by a post-global ethics of worldlessness. In a provocative quotation of a quotation, Jared Sexton cites Franz Fanon quoting Aime Cesaire (Sexton, ‘Afro-Pessimism’). In Sexton’s text the phrase used is the ‘end of the world’, in the context of blackness as a figure of inhuman negativity. Writing in the context of Afro-pessimism, the ‘world’ that must end is not only the world of liberty, equality and fraternity—the world that came into being with a form of leisured, reflective ease enabled by slavery and the technologies slavery made possible—it is the world as a global horizon of sense and meaning.
1. A classic statement regarding the historical emergence of a virtual humanity is Henri Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion where he sees Socrates as exemplifying the ‘open soul’ set against any form of moral empiricism (49) and sees the figure of Christ as inaugurating a mysticism that enables the philosophy of universal humanity: for Bergson it is Christianity that transforms Judaism from a distant God of a people, to a God of all mankind (205). Such a notion might seem quaintly Eurocentric and impossible to fathom in the late twentieth century, and yet as recently as 2009 Robert Wright argues for an evolution in the concept of God that generates a progressively abstract and universal morality. In marked contrast, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has argued that indigenous Amerindian thought begins with a more expansive universalism, in which all life is human, and in which the ‘man’ of the modern world is a contraction or fragment of a once more volatile life of metamorphoses. #back
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