We have become Titans, wrote Gunther Anders in 1956, in the wake of the development of nuclear weapons and their use in japan on the 6th of August, 1945. Lost children of an earlier humanity who could see in Faust the struggle, the torment, caused by our inability to transcend our finitude, “the source of man’s greatest sufferings and greatest achievements”, our condition is haunted by meaninglessness. The human past, even that of our parents, “the last humans”, is but a trace of a former species that lived under the fear of death that “all men are mortal”. Auschwitz taught us that “All men are exterminable”; a lesson that is taught to us each day, if we have eyes to see, under the reign of Capital. But it is a lesson that still refers, in our false imaginary, to specific “men”: enemies, refugees, criminals and delinquents, the poor, the black, the female, the gay and the queer, and the like. The “bomb” revealed to us that “mankind as a whole is exterminable.”
“If there is anything that modern man regards as infinite, it is no longer God; nor is it nature, let alone morality or culture; it is his own power. Creatio ex nihilo, which was once the mark of omnipotence, has been supplanted by its opposite, potestas annihilationis or reductio ad nihil; and this power to destroy to reduce to nothingness lies in our hands.” The human infinite is not the power to create, but to destroy. We have become our own apocalypse.
So much about how we once thought about ourselves thus dies, or continues as tedious farce for blind romantics. The distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, good and evil, hope and fear, reason and emotion, become unreal, as they always were for the gods. Yet as we grab hold of our new infinite power, we discover simultaneously a new powerlessness: “… omnipotence has become truly dangerous only after we have got hold of it. … There is little hope that we, cosmic parvenus, usurpers of the apocalypse, will be as merciful as the forces responsible for former cataclysms were out of compassion or indifference, or by accident. Rather, there is no hope at all: the actual masters of the infinite are no more imaginatively or emotionally equal to this possession of theirs than their prospective victims, i.e., ourselves; and they are incapable, and indeed must remain incapable, of looking upon their contraption as anything but a means to further finite interests, including the most limited party interests. … Because we are the first Titans, we are also the first dwarfs or pygmies, or whatever we may call beings such as ourselves who are mortal not only as individuals, but also as a group, and who are granted survival only until further notice.” Our power comes with an inability to act, to act freely, and to be able to speak, to think about that which we do. If Hannah Arendt could lay bare the banality of an Adolf Eichmann as a simple civil servant, Anders reveals the un-freedom of each one us in a technical rationality that reduces all of us to measures of means to ends, but inept to judge the value of the ends themselves. Our evil, from Hiroshima to Fukushima, is not the consequence of actions, but of mechanical responses to technical exigencies and criteria. “Let us assume that the bomb has been exploded. … The chain of events leading up to explosion is composed of so many links, the process has involved so many different agencies, so many intermediate steps and partial actions, none of which is the crucial one, that in the end no one can be regarded as the agent. Everyone has a good conscience, because no conscience was required at any point. Bad conscience has once and for all been transferred to moral machines, electronic oracles: those cybernetic contraptions, which are the quintessence of science, and hencce of progress and of morality, have assumed all responsibility, while man self-righteously washes his hands.” All decisions, all possible costs or benefits that follow from them, are but finite and always possibly justifiable, “although it is precisely this evaluation that destroys us, the evaluated ones, even before we are actually destroyed.” Whether applied on the scale of one’s personal life, or family, or at the level of a nation state, “responsibility has been displaced on to an object, which is regarded as “objective”, it has become a mere response; the Ought is merely the correct chess move, and the Ought Not, the wrong chess move. The cybernetic machines [that we ourselves have become and that power makes of us] are interested only in determining the means that can be advantageously used in a situation defined by the factors a, b, c ….. n. Nothing else matters: after all, the continued existence our world cannot be regarded as one of the factors. The question of the rightness of the goal to be achieved by the mechanically calculated means is forgotten by the operators of the machine or their employers, i.e., by those who bow to its judgment the moment it begins to calculate.” If we can be said to lack conscience, it is not because we act against conscience, or have no conscience (Eichmann certainly did) – “such immoral possibilities are still comfortably human, they still presuppose beings that might have a conscience” – but because conscience has been excised. We are beyond good and evil. To blame any one individual who contributed in any small way to the use of the nuclear bomb, the development of the hydrogen bomb, the occurrence of jewish holocaust, or the many who die each die to keep profits flowing under Capital is meaningless. Just as a “mere hand cannot be cowardly, so a mere participant cannot have conscience.” The division of labour of human exploitation and extermination prevents any single individual “from having clear insight” into what they contribute to. And yet today, this lack may result “in the death of all mankind.”
In the world of the half-guilty or half-innocent, in ” a situation in which all perpetrators are merely co-perpetrators and all non-perpetrators are indirectly perpetrators”, our moral language fails. But then so too does our ability to act, to create, to bring into being new possibilities. We are torn between moral nostalgia and nihilism: the nostalgia for finitude, like the men and women of the past, still hopeful, or the empty thoughtlessness and aimless repetition of the present. The former however, exemplified in a diversity of “neo-primitivisms”, only “weakens those who indulge in it, while it strengthens the self-assurance of those who are sufficiently unimaginative and unscrupulous to put to actual use the omnipotence they possess”, while the latter either flees into imaginaries of salvation (Heidegger: “Only a god can save us now”) or collective suicidal hedonisms.
Fear requires a definite object. Anxiety is uncertainty with regards to our own possibilities. Neither today can fully take hold of us. We are beyond religion and humanism, and this because the “spaces” and “times” in which these could make sense (“creation”, “humanity” and “eschatology“, “progress”) have died. We “know more and produce greater things than we can imagine or feel.” And thus not only do we fail to understand our condition, or fear it, we are resigned to failure in the midst of technical abundance and prowess. The “helplessness with which contemporary mankind reacts – or rather fails to react – to the existence of the superbomb bespeaks a lack of freedom the like of which has never before existed in history … We have reached the freezing point of human freedom.”
The task before us is to “develop our moral imagination.” As our power has increased to unimaginable dimensions, our daily powerlessness shows itself at the most minute of scales. As we discover what we are, namely nothing before the immensity of our machinations, it is this nothingness that must be thought through. Modern “unmorality does not primarily consist in man’s failure to conform to a specific more-than-human image of man; perhaps not even in his failure to meet the requirements of a just society; but rather in his half-guilty and half-innocent failure to conform to himself”; that is, in our Promethean ambition to make of ourselves “human beings” when the “human” died in Auschwitz and Hiroshima and in our failure to see that what remains of the “human” is an empty mechanical/electric device that runs without purpose.
(All quotations are from Gunther Anders, “Reflections on the H Bomb”, Dissent, 3:2, Spring 1956, 146-155).
Butoh performances, the “dance of darkness”, by Ko Murobushi …