Politics in times of catastrophe (7)

Jacques Phillippe Le Bas, Recueil des plus belles ruines de Lisbonne causées par le tremblement et par le feu du premier Novembre 1755

In all the representations disseminated by catastrophism, in the way they are elaborated as well as in the conclusions they inspire, we see above all an astonishing accumulation of denials of reality. The most obvious is the one that refers to the ongoing, and already consummated, disaster, which is hidden behind the image of the hypothetical catastrophe, when it is not calculated or extrapolated. In order to be able to understand the extent to which the real disaster differs from the worst scenarios announced by catastrophism, we shall attempt to define it in a few words, or at least specify one of its principle features: by utterly ruining all the material foundations, and not just the material ones, on which it is based, industrial society creates such conditions of insecurity and generalized instability, that only an increase of organization, that is, of submission to the social machinery, can still cause this collection of terrorizing uncertainties to pass for a habitable world. This will give you a good enough idea of the role actually played by catastrophism.

René Riesel and Jaime Semprun, Catastrophism, disaster management and sustainable submission

What follows is a free translation-abbreviation-commentary of Annie Le Brun’s essay, Perspective Dépravée: Entre catastrophe réelle at catastrophe imaginaire (2011). If it appears under a title which has now emerged as a series in Autonomies – “politics in times of catastrophe” -, it is by no means to diminish it, for Le Brun’s essay stands on its own.

The contemporary proliferation of catastrophe literature and discourse, and all that it carries politically – something of our time and, at first sight, something that is seemingly justifiable – veils a deeper sense of catastrophe which formerly bore potentialities, but which today, in its suppression/forgetfulness imprisons us in the present.

Our catastrophes are paraded before us as the consequence of scientific- technological myopia and mismanagement, to be overcome by broader and deeper management of natural and human agencies. Industrial and nuclear accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima – are avoidable with greater improvements in the same. The ecological disasters of the present and future are controllable with more sustained and consistent control of human activities, under emergency conditions – the avowed politics of the “Extinction Rebellion“.

On this horizon, “natural” disasters are pushed away into a distant background, while “human” caused disasters occupy centre stage in a narrative which invites us to accept the unacceptable, thereby binding and crippling our imagination.

The contemporary discourse and politics of catastrophe inaugurates and creates a catastrophe unseen, that of “sustainable submission”, of “the administration of disaster” (René Riesel and Jaime Semprun, Catastrophism, disaster management and sustainable submission), of the incapacity to see and imagine things where they are not; before this, our much feared technological and/or ecological disasters are minor events. If they terrify us, it is only because our physical existence as a species is threatened.

There is an involuntary way to catch up with what escapes us in the noise of time. Chance sometimes calls us forth from our sleep. In fact, it is not often necessary to think except when it becomes impossible not to try to understand and that one must imagine a response, a way out. In this, thought is in part tied to the sentiment or felt experience of catastrophe, and this at the deepest level of ourselves.

Life goes on, imbeciles tell us and they are right because it is so. But they are also wrong because the night is inhabited by a disquieting fauna of which we can distinguish neither the forms nor the colours.

In other words, if life continues, so does thought, but elsewhere. Neither truly unconscious, nor truly conscious, it profits from the least obstacle to escape the pressure of necessity, to wander, to stop even and to let the wind pass over it or to let go in the swamps of ambiguity.

There are thus thoughts that lie in waiting, lurking, numb and yet ready to awaken, with as little as a strange presence of something that comes to trouble its own self-absence. It may even be the case that we expect from every encounter that it upset the often precarious and always fictional hierarchy of our preoccupations, suddenly seducing the paths of our reflection, bringing into light what was previously in darkness.

Flushed out, there are thus ideas which take on disturbing proportions, to the point where they leave us to suppose that their withdrawal perhaps occurred with the end of warning us, of preventing their emergence. We have kept them at a distance so as to be able to skirt them, without denying them. Each one of us cultivates such a reserve of ideas, on the condition that they appear inactive in the manner of volcanoes. Yet they are a part of us, our self-decoration, our furniture, and yet, also, revealed only (or often) in the midst of catastrophe.

[Catastrophe: from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,” from katastrephein “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,” from kata “down” + strephein “turn”. Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.]

The catastrophe which then haunts us is not our imminent extinction – to be avoided only by a complete submission to technicians of survival – but the ever growing banality of catastrophe which impedes us from seeing, imagining, the possibility of the end of the present.

Something essential plays itself out today around the idea of catastrophe, with the stakes being our capacity of create.

Since antiquity, the word preserved a stability of meaning, that is, signifying a violent event which carries with itself the strength to change the course of things; an event that is at the same time a rupture and change of meaning and direction, and which consequently can also be a beginning as well as an end. In sum, a decisive event which perturbs the order of the world, from which another should come.

From chaos to the Apocalypse, from the Flood to the end of time, from the tower of Babel to the year 1000, from the disorder that engenders order in foundational myths to the clean slate which leads to the “revolution” …, numerous have been the imaginary constructions of catastrophe around which humanity has sought to define itself under the sign of the accidental in its relation to the world. First, by upsetting the course of time, there is no catastrophe which does not shatter the continuity and radically modify our relation to time. But also, in changing our relation to space because with catastrophe, excess becomes reality, bringing with it a change of scale, which may even sometimes suggest the impossible physical perception of the infinite.

In precipitating men and women outside of their measures and of their representations of the world, up to reducing them to being nothing more than the insignificant element of a phenomenon whose laws escape them, the notion of catastrophe accordingly implies an overthrowing of the relation of the human to the inhuman. Thus, it becomes an inestimable way of measuring the excess which grounds us. But also, it reminds us of our foreignness or strangeness to ourselves.

To safeguard this brusque intimacy with the inhuman, as the access to an unlimited wealth which we are in the process of being deprived of (which until recently was available to us and which has been slowly removed from us) by the growing banality of catastrophe, is a central task for a politics of the present. Since time immemorial, human beings have beheld (and not) the wreath of infinity through their fascination with catastrophe, searching within this grandiose figure of destruction, beyond even any speculation on death, the sudden physical revelation of what they were not. For imagined or real, catastrophe possesses the prodigious strength to rise up as the objectification of what surpasses us. It is in binding the real and the imaginary that it continues to attract us as one of the most beautiful escapes of the human spirit.

The sentiment of catastrophe is undoubtedly the first image-presentiment, at our most deepest, of the fissure of the imaginary; a permanent fissure whose line is a way of interrogating our destiny, rather than responding to it. Catastrophe, the return of chaos, is the fire of the imagination; it sweeps away the old, disorienting and maddening, and thereby making possible other possibilities.

One has but to recall the enormous impact of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a catastrophe that undermined both Christian theogony and theodicy, along with its Enlightenment secular contemporaries: the reconciliation of God or Reason and the world was left in ruins. The true catastrophe of Lisbon was that the unthinkable took place and that God, nature and human beings revealed themselves to be, suddenly, totally different from what had been thought before. Differently impressive from the collapsed houses, the destroyed monuments or toppled churches, there was a piling up of shattered theories, ruins of ideas and broken pieces of beliefs, before which the disaster of Lisbon leaves the century disabled.

The sentiment of catastrophe is born there, from this chaotic horizon, from the moment when this unprecedented disruption, abruptly breaking up religious and philosophical references, gives rise catastrophically to the question of meaning, of which the infinite repercussions call for, in response, the excess of imagination. A truly catastrophic question: it is sufficient to pose it for it to consume ethical constructions and systems of representations.

Perhaps as never before, with such almost erotic splendor was the sentiment of catastrophe so powerfully expressed than in the writings inspired by the events of Lisbon. In the discovery of something beyond themselves, the catastrophe served for the individual to confound her/himself with nature, the primordial ground or source of creation.

If we then speak of “catastrophe” today, or since the end of WWII, it is with a different meaning, for the word has metamorphosised semantically into something quite different. We may date this rupture in meaning to coincide with the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. What revealed itself on those days was the unimaginable catastrophe, no longer the work of a god or of nature, but of men; a kind of catastrophe that put into question the imaginary itself, and with it, the possibility of a dream of catastrophe which could aid, as in the 18th century, in considering the human condition beyond good and evil, for beyond itself.

There is devastation and there is devastation. What lies before us is nature, our nature, amok, but a nature outraged and unbalanced by our scientific and technological ignorance or hubris. It is therefore no longer nature – ourselves – that we fear, but our lack of foresight, judgement, technical means, in sum, all things that we hope we may conjure (however mad this hope is).

But with this, everything changes: if the spectacle of natural catastrophe incited the 18th century to dream of catastrophe, thereby upsetting established orders, the real catastrophes of the last decades seem to confine this dream to the realm of the possible, the currently possible, breaking with the same blow the inexhaustible negating lyricism which characterised, from the Enlightenment to our own time, the catastrophic imaginary.

An unprecedented reversal of perspective: for the first time, instead of leading to something beyond, the imaginary is led to what is closest; for the first time as well, instead of opening up the horizon, catastrophe closes it, playing on the similarity with past meanings. The unknown which it implicitly carried in its bosom is thereby suppressed. Telluric, wild imagination gives way to imagined, calculated risk; counterfeit catastrophe supplants real catastrophe, thereby increasing the real risk of our self-destruction and leaving us presently with the uninspiring – deadening – ambition of merely surviving and managing the damage (either politely or violently).

We can no longer see beyond what is given, beyond the surface of the mirror which is our own self-made spectacle, and thus we lose touch with the inhuman, with the chaos, which is the only force capable of pulling ourselves out from ourselves, or of sweeping away the already made, so as to create anew. Is it not when men and women come to believe themselves masters of the universe that their all too human inhumanity, denying at the same time the human and the inhuman, reveals itself to be both pathetic and fatal?

The real has today taken the imaginary hostage. Before the indeterminate disaster which in fact threatens us, where and how can we see things where they are not? From whence can we draw upon a depraved perspective fed by chaos?

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