After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes

25 March 2021


Excerpt from the book After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, translated by Charlotte Mandell, Fordham University Press, 2015.

Excerpt Nancy title.jpeg

Eremita, Bahman Mohasses, 1996; Image credit: British Museum



        hat is what makes Fukushima exemplary: An earth- quake and the tsunami it caused become a technological catastrophe, which itself becomes a social, economic, political, and finally philosophical earthquake, at the same time as this series intersects or intertwines with the series of financial catastrophes, of their effects on Europe in particular and of the repercussions of these effects on all global relationships. 

There are no more natural catastrophes: There is only a civilizational catastrophe that expands every time. This can be demonstrated with each so-called natural catastrophe— earthquake, flood, or volcanic eruption—to say nothing of the upheavals produced in nature by our technologies. 

We have, in fact, transformed nature, and we can no longer speak of it. We must attempt to think of a totality in which the distinction between nature and technology is no longer valid and in which, at the same time, a relationship of “this world” to any “other world” is also no longer valid.

This condition imposed on our thinking surpasses greatly what we sometimes call “a crisis of civilization.” This is not a crisis we can cure by means of this same civilization. This condition also goes beyond what is sometimes called a “change of civilization”: We do not decide on such a change; we cannot aim for it since we cannot outline the goal to be reached. 

Our thinking must no longer be either about crisis or plan. But we know no other model for thinking about the “better.” Ever since we have wanted a “better,” ever since we have wanted to change and ameliorate the world and humankind, we have only thought in terms of regeneration or new generation: Remake or make a better world and humankind. That, of course, began with the great historical configuration marked by Buddhism, Confucianism, Hellenism, and Western monotheism, which is also the configuration marked by the end of strictly sacrificial (self-sacrificial) relations of human beings with a world of gods. The divine, if it still has not disappeared everywhere, has profoundly changed its meaning. It has also passed, in the West, into the divinization of humanity (called “atheism”). 

But this divinization has given way, in turn, since “human- ism” has not been able to conceive of “the essential worth of the human being,” or of that of “nature,” or of that of the “world,” or finally that of existence in general. It has given way to an interconnection, to a kind of generalized environ- mentalism in which everything is environed, is enveloped, and develops according to the reticulation of what has been called an unconscious technology—“unconscious” meaning above all, here as well as elsewhere, the tangled web of all beings. This web, this profuse contextualization that has promoted in our modernity the motif of “immanence”—of an adherence to self without “self” in a way—gives rise to legitimate questionings, suspicions, and doubts that, after God, center on “subject,” “meaning,” “identity,” “symbol.” 

It does not follow, however, that this immanence and its intricacy should be considered as degradation or degeneration of our past transcendences. We must think in terms other than regeneration or new generation. This should at least begin with a renewed understanding of what “technology” means. Since it is no longer enough to contrast it or pair it with a supposed “nature,” we must think—even at fresh expense—of what Heidegger called “the last farewell of being.” That means at least this: Technology is not an assembly of functioning means; it is the mode of our existence. This mode exposes us to a condition of finality that had till now been unheard-of: Everything becomes the end and the means of everything. In one sense, there are no more ends or means. General equivalence has this meaning too, an equivocal meaning. In the mutual cross-referencing [renvoi] of everything are also at play both the destruction of all construction and what I might call struction, in the sense of heaping up [amoncellement] without putting together [assemblage].

What assembling could we invent? How can we assemble the pieces of a world, of various worlds, of existences that cross through them? How can we assemble ourselves, “us,” all beings? Fukushima can make us decide not to use nuclear energy anymore or to use it differently: I cannot enter here into the considerations these options involve. I can instead assert that no option will make us emerge from the endless equivalence of ends and means if we do not emerge from finality itself—from aiming, from planning, and projecting a future in general. That our ends have become future ends, that will be the main product of what we call the West or more generally the “modern.” To speak of “postmodern” is correct if we mean by that giving up any aim for a future conceived of as the unity of a meaning to come. But it is not enough, since that remains trapped in a scheme of succession, of before and after. 
What would be decisive, then, would be to think in the  present and to think the present.

to come, or even a felicitous anarchic dispersion of ends, but the present as the element of the near-at-hand. The end is always far away; the present is the place of closeness—with the world, others, oneself. If we want to speak of “end,” we must say that the present has its end in itself—like technology, in short, but without the addition of “final” representations. The present has its end in itself in both senses of the word end: its goal and its cessation. Finality and finitude joined together—which means, if we think about it, opening onto the infinite. Knowledge of existence as infinite capacity for meaning. Thinking about “meaning” as not an end to reach, but that which is possible to be close to. Fukushima forbids all present: It is the collapse of future goals that forces us to work with other futures. Let us try in fact to work with other futures—but under the condition of the ever-renewed present



Quotation Icon.png

                    To demand equality for tomorrow is first of all to assert it today, and by the same gesture to reject catastrophic equivalence. It is to assert common equality, common incommensurability: a communism of nonequivalence.

Excerpt Nancy body.jpeg

Gotenyama no hanami hidari, left panel of a vertical Oban Nishikie triptych, Kitagawa, Utamaro, 1805; Image credit: Picryl.



The present I evoke thus is not the present of the immediate, that of the pure and simple inert position where reason and desire are fixed in stupor or in repletion, without past or future, nor is it one of the fleeting or lightning-quick instant of decision, that exemplary decision made by the trader who shifts millions from one account to another: This present is one in which we are escaping toward a future that we desire and that we want to ignore at the same time (which does not prevent us from escaping also toward a past of nostalgia or the collection of antiques). I am speaking of a present in which something or someone presents itself: the present of an arrival, an approach. That is the exact opposite of general equivalence—which is also that of all chronologic presents that follow each other and that must be counted. The opposite is the nonequivalence of all singularities: those of persons and moments, places, gestures of a person, those of the hours of the day or night, those of words spoken, those of clouds that pass, plants that grow with a knowing slowness. This nonequivalence exists by the attention brought to these singularities—to a color, to a sound, to a smell. The contemplation of cherry trees in flower, that ceremony called hanami in Japanese and that is rightly famous throughout the world,1 or else a glance at the brilliance of a precious stone—whose “price” is not its cost—as well as the final sonority of Nun by Helmut Lachenmann, whose title means “now”—a sonority that is that of the k in the word Musik. 

Each time it is a question of a particular consideration, of attention and tension, of respect, even of what we can go so far as to call adoration, directed at singularity as such. It is not that “respect for nature” advocated by facile ecologist discourse or a “respect for human rights” as advocated by another often ignored discourse—ignored even though the respects in question are not to be scorned—it is not that, then, but rather an esteem in the most intense sense of the word: a sense that turns its back on “valuation” measures. For estimation—or valuation—belongs to the series of calculations of general equivalence, whether it be of money or its substitutes, which are the equivalence of forces, capacities, individuals, risks, speeds, and so on. Esteem on the contrary summons the singular and its singular way to come into presence—flower, face, or tone. 

Esteem, once and for all, goes beyond itself and addresses something inestimable, a term used in French to designate something more precious than any price, something incalculable, so exceeding any possible calculation that one does not even try to imagine it. 
The present I mean to evoke is one that opens to this esteem of the singular and turns away from general equivalence and from its evaluation of past and future times, from the accumulation of antiquities and construction of projects. No culture has lived as our modern culture has in the endless accumulation of archives and expectations. No culture has made present the past and the future to the point of removing the present from its own passage. All other cul- tures, on the contrary, have known how to care for the approach of singular presence. 

It is true that most of these cultures have also supported tyrannies, cruelties, slaveries, anguishes whose abolition modern culture has willed. But it has come to experience itself as tyranny, cruelty, slavery, and anguish. It is up to us, after Fukushima, to open other paths, whether they be inside or outside this culture that is drowning itself. 

To begin, we must understand that equivalence is not equality. It is not the equality that the French Republic sets between liberty and fraternity and that can in fact be thought of as both a synthesis and a surpassing of those two notions. Equality designates here the strict equality in dignity of all living humans2—not excluding other registers of dignity for all living beings, even for all things. Dignity is the name of the value that is absolutely valid (Würde is the German Kant uses, from the same family as Wert, value). It means it has no “worth” if “to have worth” [valoir] implies a scale of measure; it is thus priceless, as we say to mean inestimable and thus incommensurable. Equality is not that equivalence of individuals of which the idea of “democracy” makes us think first of all—favoring thus insidiously both mercantile equivalence and the atomization of “subjects,” each as catastrophic as the other. Quite the opposite, “democracy” should be thought of starting only from the equality of incommensurables: absolute and irreducible singulars that are not individuals or social groups but sudden appearances, arrivals and departures, voices, tones—here and now, every instant. 

To demand equality for tomorrow is first of all to assert it today, and by the same gesture to reject catastrophic equivalence. It is to assert common equality, common incommensurability: a communism of nonequivalence. 

Quotation Icon.png

                    Ever since we have wanted a “better,” ever since we have wanted to change and ameliorate the world and humankind, we have only thought in terms of regeneration or new generation: Remake or make a better world and humankind. That, of course, began with the great historical configuration marked by Buddhism, Confucianism, Hellenism, and Western monotheism