Giorgio Agamben: The snail’s shell

Joris Hoefnagel, Snail, c. 1575-80

A snail, after adding a number of widening rings to the delicate structure of its shell, suddenly brings its accustomed building activities to a stop. A single additional ring would increase the size of the shell sixteen times. Instead of contributing to the welfare of the snail, it would burden the creature with such an excess of weight that any increase in its productivity would henceforth be literally outweighed by the task of coping with the difficulties created by enlarging the shell beyond the limits set by its purpose. At that point, the problems of overgrowth begin to multiply geometrically, while the snail’s biological capacity can at best be extended arithmetically.

Ivan Illich, Gender, 1973

From Quodlibet

Whatever the deep reasons for the decline of the West, the crisis which we are living in all decisive senses of the term, it is possible to summarise the extreme outcome by taking up the icastic image of Ivan Illich, which one could call the “snail theorem”.

“If the snail,” says the theorem, “after having added a certain number of coils to its shell, instead of stopping, continued its growth, a single additional coil would increase the weight of its house by 16 times, and the snail would be inexorably crushed by it.” This is what is happening in the species that was once defined as homo sapiens as regards technological development and, in general, the hypertrophy of the legal, scientific and industrial apparatuses that characterise human society.

These have always been essential to the life of this special mammal that is man, whose premature birth implies a prolongation of the infantile state, in which the baby is incapable of ensuring its survival.

But, as is often the case, there is mortal danger in the very thing that ensures their salvation. Scientists who, like the brilliant Dutch anatomist Lodewijk Bolk, have reflected on the unique condition of the human species, have drawn conclusions that are, to say the least, pessimistic about the future of civilization.

Over time, the increasing development of technologies and social structures has produced a real inhibition of vitality, which is a prelude to the eventual disappearance of the species.

Indeed, access to the adult stage is increasingly differed, the growth of the organism, the length of life – and therefore old age – slows down more and more.

Prolonging “the progress of this inhibition of the vital process,” writes Bolk, “cannot exceed a certain limit without vitality, without the power of resistance to pernicious influences from the outside, in short, without the existence of man being altered. The more humanity advances on the path of humanisation, the closer it gets to this fatal point where progress will mean destruction. And it is certainly not in man’s nature to stop in the face of this.”

This is the extreme situation we are living today. The limitless multiplication of technological devices, the growing subjection to legal constraints and authorisations of all kinds and the subjection to the laws of the market make individuals more and more dependent on factors which are entirely beyond their control. Günther Anders defined the new relationship that modernity has produced between man and his instruments with the expression: “Promethean disparity” and he spoke of “shame” in the face of the humiliating superiority of things produced by technology, which we cannot do without.

We no longer consider ourselves masters at all. Perhaps today this difference of level has reached the point of maximum tension and man has become completely incapable of assuming control over the sphere of products he has created.

In addition to the inhibition of vitality described by Bolk, we observe the abdication of this same intelligence which could in some way slow down these negative consequences. The abandonment of this last link with nature, which the philosophical tradition called lumen Naturae, produces an artificial stupidity which makes technological hypertrophy even more uncontrollable.

What will become of the snail crushed by its own shell? How will it survive the rubble of its house? These are the questions we must never stop asking ourselves.

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2 Responses to Giorgio Agamben: The snail’s shell

  1. les online says:

    About the reference to ‘the laws of the market’.
    There is only One Law of The Market:
    “There shall be NO impediments to physical (or emotional) exploitation of
    man by man.” ?

  2. Pingback: Giorgio Agamben: The snail’s shell – The Polar Bl@st

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