INTRODUCTION: The Apocalyptic Hitchhiker – Are We There Yet?
2 May 2022
When catastrophes occur, the sands of time stand still and everything is engulfed in a benumbing silence. Often we experience a mixture of fear and astonishment in the face of a catastrophe, not knowing what to do in its unhomely hour.
When catastrophes occur, the sands of time stand still and everything is engulfed in a benumbing silence. Often we experience a mixture of fear and astonishment in the face of a catastrophe, not knowing what to do in its unhomely hour. A closer look at the tumultuous events of the past few decades – from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the several collapses of the financial markets, the invasions in west Asia, the pogroms in India, the Arab Spring, populist dissolution of the democratic promise – shows that we are desperately trying to bind these events together through narratives – narratives that are commonly woven retroactively. These narratives today serve a peculiar restaging of recent history, in which the tumultuous events from the past are recycled to fit the present.
Unlike the events mentioned above, the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis compels us not only to reflect on what was, but to intervene in what is and will be. Yet of what kind should this intervention be? From a philosopher today, the question ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ requires not strategic plans, market analyses and benchmarks, but rather a conception of time that substantially differs from inherited historiographical accounts of what has been, on the one hand, and from dry technological projections of what will be or should be, on the other. Both conceptions of time, the historiographical and the futurological, are similarly grounded in one basic feature they have in common: they implicitly or explicitly simulate to master the time.
One of the famous Simpsons episodes involves the family traveling across the country. As soon as the car starts moving, the kids (Barth and Lisa) start chanting: “Are we there yet?” Throughout the journey, this nerve-wracking question continues, and Homer, exhausted, tries to silence the children, unaware that they have really gotten there. Is not this the situation we are in? In recent years, we, like the Simpsons, have been asking ourselves, “are we there yet? Isn’t the apocalypse just around the corner?” While the catastrophe has been going on for a long time and we have been ignoring it. All of us proceed as if we were hitchhikers, unsure of where to get off and what station to go to next.
Starting from the fact that this state, in which we have already been for two years, by its very nature defies speech, compels silence, and shatters meaning, we invited 12 philosophers to think about this ongoing catastrophe. After all, understanding a catastrophe that is taking on new dimensions every moment is possible only through collective thinking and the creation of a radical community. They responded with philosophical acts in which they commit themselves to understanding the catastrophe without enforcedly mastering it and packaging it into narratives.
As Jean-Luc Nancy had shown (1), that which is shattered and that which shatters, must first be held in experience without seeking to master it in order to understand it. In this sense, the collected essays show that we do not have the story that would contain the appropriate principles for understanding the catastrophe. They argue almost unanimously that the tools for thinking with and within catastrophe cannot be found within a conceptual framework that we knew so far. Instead, they require a new experience of time – an experience that is intimately intertwined with deeply traumatic experiences of the social self. This aspect of temporality, also Slavoj Žižek reminds us, is something we should keep in mind. But what temporality exactly? Is it the eternal return of the same (epidemics occur as long as there is life on Earth), the exhortation to persevere until the worst is over, or the appeal to learn from the past and the present and do better next time? And how does this new sense of time, in which we are incessantly and invariably immersed, compel us to rethink the relationship between philosophy and technology? The collected essays suggest that this relationship should now be differently captured than by Walter Benjamin’s (Paul Klee's) Angelus Novus, in which the angel of progress is incessantly driven into the unknown by the progressive force of technology and the philosophical insight fatally delayed. It should not be characterized by a retreat of philosophy to the ethically fraught science of calypsology – a “science of the concealment of a thing such that it is not open for other contenders.” (2)
In “Nature of Disruption, Disruption of Nature: During and After the Pandemic,” Esther Leslie argues that catastrophe and crisis have been an integral part of human history during capitalism. Although we live in vicious times, times have long been vicious. It is true that the Corona pandemic has gripped everyone today and brought us to a dark age, but – Leslie asks herself – is the situation truly worse than in the period of the first primitive accumulation as peasants were thrown off the lands and dispossessed, not just of place but also of their own energies? The way she sees it, the old ways reassert themselves, in the pressure for a return to the normal, to the status quo. She also reminds us that in Walter Benjamin’s outstanding analysis, it is precisely this desired ‘status quo’ that is the true catastrophe. Leslie’s central argument is that despite all its exceptionality the pandemic only acuminated existing problems. Its odd merit is that henceforth these problems appear in a clearer light. Granted that we overcome the romantic idea that nature is something which would save us from our own self-inflicted (self-)destruction, from now on we might begin to think how to “save ourselves along with everything and everyone else.”
Yet, the question how to do this, alongside with the question of ‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ is an extremely anxious quandary, the solution of which does not know whether forward or backward. This potentially condemns us to relapse into old patterns of explanation, and evokes fears of stepping into the abyss of the radically unpredictable. Our issue attempts to answer the above question by first considering “how we confront the End.” Here Jack Black asks the vital question, namely whether it is at all possible under our current circumstances to discern an 'end' to the Covid-19 virus. In his essay “A Hole that Does Not Speak: Covid, Catastrophe and the Impossible,” he argues that outlining how we must now retroactively align ourselves with the impossible, the Covid catastrophe sits as an impossible that happened; an impossibility which, in our response to its ongoing and unending impact, can only be conceived as well as tackled via a paradigm shift in our current social-political coordinates. To this extent, a retroactive perspective is not simply a ‘return to the past,’ but a considered attempt to theoretically, and, thus, philosophically, redefine the very framework in which our Covid-past is retroactively conceived and, as a consequence, how our Covid-future is impossibly determined. Black elaborates wonderfully that attributing any meaning to the catastrophic era of coronavirus “is itself a way of curtailing the anxiety that we face when confronted with the indeterminacy of the Other’s desire – a desire which the virus provokes.” He proposes to approach the catastrophe as a “hole that does not speak,” and thus not to give “any deeper meaning” to this hole. To this end, he brings together accounts of the trauma of the pandemic that point to the urgency of transfiguring the linear concept of time in which the Covid-19 era is compellingly embedded. In this new temporal framework, Black embeds the concept of “second retroaction,” epitomized in the temporal modus of “the will always have been.” This modus confronts the acts willing to deal with the catastrophe, and even to prevent new ones, with the conditions of their own (im)possibilities, with the multitude of possibilities that, having been there but having not been realized, led to the catastrophe in which we find ourselves in. The second retroaction cares for a “sense of fatigue,” which re-symbolizes the new normal – a normalcy accustomed to catastrophe.
Existential Discontent and Ecological Grief
The simultaneity of the outbreak of the pandemic and the end of the climate equilibrium, as well as the certainty that this twofold catastrophe has always-already occurred leaves us with an existential discontent. Missed opportunities continue their presence of always-already being there, which is a presence that cannot be reclaimed. Added to the grief of the missed opportunities to save ourselves are the opportunities we overlook in the present, and the ones we are certain to miss in the future. It is striking that the essays are literally bursting with names for this new phenomenon: E. Ann Kaplan dubs the proleptic nature of trauma a “pre-traumatic stress syndrome,” Juliane Prade-Weiss speaks of “anticipatory anxiety” and “proleptic grief,” and Jack Black recognizes in it elements of the aforementioned “second retroaction” (a term he borrows from Žižek).
For E. Ann Kaplan, the current health calamity serves as a memento of dread, fear, and grief she experienced as a child in the World War II, and which 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy also triggered. These traumatic experiences continue to resurface with new catastrophic events as specters. Through such experiences, she argues, we confront the unsettling certainty about the opportunities to save ourselves that we have squandered in the past and that cannot be regained. As Kaplan argues in “Covid, Trauma and The Failed US Autocratic State: A Coronavirus Diary,” this dreadfulness is the result of the absent State and having no reliable, expert leadership to give people (and in her text, Americans) a sense of safety and of things under control.
Besides pre-existing traumata, collected essays address also the perhaps hidden, inaccessible reasons for the complex and unprecedented, thoroughly disconcerting revision of our experience of temporality: The authors ask themselves if this is still about triggers that reactivate past traumata – or about the threat of individual and private deaths? Does the pan- rather point to something incomparably more encompassing and pervasive than the loss of control when faced with an erratic virus? The answer seems to lie in the intertwining of pandemic and our biological ecosystem: Given the imminent end of us all, the pandemic appears as the first large-scale premonition of total extinction.
Against this background, Juliane Prade-Weiss’s essay “Anticipatory Anxiety, Proleptic Mourning: Grieving Pandemic and Ecological Losses” focuses the interaction between the experience of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the ecological crisis: her hypothesis is that the pandemic globalizes loss brought about by the ecological crisis. Her argument is based on the fact that the pandemic and the climate change correlate not only in cause, but also in structure. Therefore, linking pandemic to ecological losses might be a way to approach the so-called “proleptic mourning”: Grieving the multifold losses of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that have already occurred might serve as a hermeneutical key to the ecological crisis which exceeds conventional terms of comprehension. According to Prade-Weiss, grieving pandemic losses might allow to address relationality as a third fundamental aspect that limits comprehension of, and reaction to, the ecological crisis: It might allow to see, feel, and believe oneself and others affected by processes that are, for the most part, accessible only via complex scientific models.
The Failures of Philosophy
As Leslie correctly observes, despite its exceptionality, the pandemic has merely bundled together a plethora of problems that had been known about for at least decades, and its only ‘achievement’ is that these problems have finally appeared in as strident a light as they deserve. A group of essays takes up this argument and vividly illustrates how our philosophies, both past and present, have failed to recognize the confluence of climate crisis and pandemic risks, and have thus played their part in the chronic predicament.
Avital Ronell draws on Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Luc Nancy to contemplate about philosophy’s ways to master that which is radically intangible. In the essay titled “Vexed and Vaxxed: What Now?,” she elaborates that Kant likened philosophizing to “having a concept,” being able conceptually to contain an elusive phenomenon or silent runner. In her opinion, we have no fully stabilized concept of the effects of this drama of contagion, yet we’re oversaturated with claims of cognition. She derives that on the rise, suicide, anguish, poverty, comorbidities and epidemics make up part of a history of runaway greed and perilously overlooked multifactorial analyses, marking up a breathless record of deluded conquests.
Anthony Ballas’s contribution “What Is to Be Thought?: Philosophy after Covid-19” addresses the ‘thingliness’ of the pandemic by pointing to the canonic story about Thales of Miletus: “When Thales of Miletus fell down the well while lost in thought, it was because he didn’t stop to contemplate the well’s agential ‘thingliness’ first.” This sentence Ballas applies to our global dealing with the pandemic. In his critique of the pandemic philosophy, he specifically inspects this intricate relationship between capitalist realism and idealism, as exemplified in the dispute between Graham Harman and Alain Badiou. He then goes on to discuss the theoretical fetishism that underlies object-oriented and other shallow ontologies and concludes that in order to think our practices and concepts anew, philosophy must be willing to get its hands dirty: it must be willing to think substance and subject together, refusing to gainsay the intractable contradiction between the two. Philosophy is the act of thinking through this contradiction, not the fetish of its overcoming.
In contrast to philosophy (at least its critical edge), philology or literary studies finds itself deeply enmeshed in compromising service of global capitalism. Sebastian Schuller argues in “Philology of World Conspiracy: The ‘Great Reset’ and other Problems of Philology” that there is a link between the idea of world literature, its underlying liberal ideology and conspiracy theories, which have proven to be on the rise since the onset of the pandemic. The structural correspondence between the two is found in the fact that “conspiracy theorists engage in close readings in order to reconstruct, on the basis of textual material, original texts from which a unity – the unity of the world – is reconstructed.” The reading practices of conspiracism are structurally related with those of global philology: they take place within institutions such as special forums, institutes or publishing houses, which is why they often cannot be distinguished from ‘regular’ philological work. As a result, conspiracism and philology interact and often mutually underpin their epistemologies.
Todd McGowan discovers a similar burden of philosophy in the perhaps most heated discussion of the pandemic – the Agamben controversy. If the current status quo reveals anything for philosophy, it is the inadequacies and ineptitude of the theory of biopower. Analyses of power of both Foucauldian and Agambenian provenance support an anarchist dimension in contemporary global theory, which in its questioning of the state and capital – as if they were situated on the same plane and equally corrupt – “actually feeds capitalism’s own logic.” McGowan concludes his essay “Agamben in Lisbon: Pandemic and Biopower’s Reckoning” by saying: “Anarchism’s refusal of state power eliminates the site at which one can contest this logic with an alternative.” Which is why both “Foucault and Agamben cede the struggle before it begins.” To highlight the distinction between capital and the state is for McGowan the supreme task for the Left – pandemic capitalism only urges for this task to be accomplished.
In the final section of this special issue, Daniel Tutt’s “Ontological Communism: On Nancy and Fraternity Amid the Pandemic” examines the relation between the current pandemic and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls our ‘being-in-common.’ As he articulates in his article, the Covid-19 virus has revealed the otherwise hidden class system of the global economy. The pandemic has also caused a seeming political paralysis on the left across the world, especially now as we face the precipice of a return to ‘business as usual’ with austerity policies and wealth inequality continuing to run amok. Tutt believes that in this collective political paralysis Nancy saw a form of solidarity and therefore any thinking of the individual must also confront the communism of collective existence, which he defines as the space in which individuals come to realize themselves in their true singularity.
Similar conclusions are drawn by Michael Marder, who in “Three Thoughts on the Pandemic” maintains that with the coronavirus pandemic, the sense of touch has come under attack. Actually, in this dimension the effects of the pandemic comply with the dream of globalization, namely to create touch-less reality, a virtual togetherness without bodily involvement. Hence, the Covid-19 pandemic signals a return of what has been suppressed or repressed by the entwined drives to globalize and virtualize the world, namely the body. In conclusion, Marder argues in favor of rebuilding the sense of the common good amidst the pandemic. He advocates that terrifying and tragic as it is, the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity – an opportunity to rebuild a sense of common good, and breathe new meaning into it, grounded on experience.
Natalia Romé takes a more straightforward path to accomplishing the tasks determined by Tutt and Marder. She articulates her central concern already in the essay’s title: “What If Our Spectres Were Right-Wing? Post-Revolutionary Transfigurations in Pan-Demic Hatred.” The text raises unique and authentic questions that occupy every intelligent and clear mind: Has rebellion become a right-wing image? Are young people right-wing? Is our future a right-wing one? Looking through the non-democratic tendencies we see in our global, regional and national situations, she argues that all we have for now a weak opportunity and great risks, because the socialization of fear can provoke inexplicable alliances, for example, of a part of the popular sectors with capital forces.
The final word and conclusions are, as often, made by Slavoj Žižek. In “Last Exit to Communism,” he argues that the pandemic and its aftermaths are our final chance to return to communism. As he elaborates, it looks more and more that the last exit before the final one (collective suicide of humanity) will be some version of what was once called ‘War Communism’. It includes voluntarism (tasks ventured “against the spontaneous tendency of history”), egalitarianism (“global solidarity, healthcare and a minimum of decent life for all”), and terror necessary to realize the mission defined by its first two dimensions (“limitation of many personal freedoms, new modes of control and regulation”). Evidently, what Žižek has in mind here is not any kind of rehabilitation of or continuity with the 20th-century ‘really existing socialism,’ even less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures which are imposed by the situation itself. According to Žižek, this is the paradox we have to sustain in these crazy days: to accept that we are one among the species on Earth, and simultaneously to think and act as universal beings. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option, it is a path to catastrophe.
1. Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019, 128.
2. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Shattered Love.” The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.