The End of the World: Contemporary Philosophy and Art

The End of the World: Contemporary Philosophy and Art


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786602626
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 09/16/2018
Series: Future Perfect: Images of the Time to Come in Philosophy, Politics and Cultural Studies Series
Pages: 316
Sales rank: 440,796
Product dimensions: 5.92(w) x 8.79(h) x 0.92(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marcia Sa Cavalcante Schuback is Professor of Philosophy at Sodertorn University, Sweden. She has published widely in both English and Portuguese, including the Portuguese translation of Heidegger's Being and Time.

Susanna Lindberg is a Core Fellow at the Collegium for Advanced Studies of the University of Helsinki. She is co-editor of Europe Beyond Universalism and Particularism (2014) and the author of several books in French.

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The End of the World

Contemporary Philosophy and Art

By Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, Susanna Lindberg

Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd.

Copyright © 2017 Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback and Susanna Lindberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78660-261-9


Technologies of the End of the World Susanna Lindberg

Although there are many philosophical answers to the question "What is technology?" philosophical problematization seldom starts from concrete technological objects or situations: Generally philosophy uses objects only as illustrations (it would be worthwhile to examine the consequences of the fact that the philosophers' favorite example and exemplary sample of technology has traditionally been the hammer instead of, for instance, the needle). Among the few technological facts that have given rise to genuine philosophical problematizations are the ones that will here be called the technologies of the end of the world; for example — and of course these are not random examples — atom bomb and global warming (why global warming should be analyzed as a "technological fact" will be explained later). The technologies of the end of the world are capable of destabilizing philosophical edifices because they shatter and demolish a number of habitual ideas; for instance, the habitual ideas concerning technology, world, and its end.

In order to count as a "technology of the end of the world," a technological fact, such as the atom bomb or global warming, does not need to concretely annihilate the Earth but only to appear capable of doing it (this is obvious — we would not be discussing total annihilation if it had already taken place). The precise degree of its power of destruction is not a philosophical question either, but a scientific question that gives matter to philosophical or ethical reflection. Bertrand Russell refers in this way to sciences when he says in a radio talk from 1954: "It is stated with very good authority that [...] a war with H-bombs is quite likely to put an end to the human race. It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death." When it comes to global warming, today's philosophers can — and must — refer to the IPCC Assessment Reports (IPCC being the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established by the United Nations in 1988). The dry, tedious, and not in the least alarmist prose of the Assessment Reports does not herald the end of the world but reveals the logic of a series of degradations of the world that different degrees of global temperature rise are likely to cause (melting of the polar caps, rising of the sea level, multiplication of extreme weather phenomena, diminution of water and soil resources, extinction of species, deterioration of the life conditions of populations, particularly in the poorest regions of the world, followed by migratory movements, and so on and so forth). The IPCC also underlines that these changes will be more or less considerable in function of how human communities choose to act.

Evidently, so far neither nuclear war nor climate change has really put an end to the world, although nuclear and fossil technologies have certainly suffocated, crushed, destroyed, and annihilated certain aspects of the world. Nonetheless, these technologies have created the philosophical question of the end of the world through technology, because they have forced us to confront by means of thought the possibility of the total destruction of the world by human beings themselves — "world" being the lifeworld that can be inhabited by human beings, by other living beings, or by any living beings at all. This article will examine the history of the philosophical analyses of the technologies of the end of the world. It will start with the atom bomb, which was the first man-made technology that implied the question of the definite disappearance of all possibilities of existence, and continues by showing how global warming, which has sometimes been analyzed in terms that were first invented in the context of the atom bomb, actually forces us to reinterpret the question of the end of the world in terms of an increasing degradation and even of a destruction of our capacity of being-in-the-world. The technologies of the end of the world retrace the outline of something called world — first in relation to the possibility of its total annihilation, then in relation to the possibility of its unbearable disfiguration.

The following reflections are philosophical, not scientific. In reality, the inherent positivity of sciences prevents us from imagining a genuine science of the end of the world: The end of the world ends all sciences, and probably only metaphysics can survive this annihilation. There are theologies of the end of the world — for instance, the Jewish and Christian apocalypses — and there are mythologies of the end of the world, such as the myths of the Flood and of Ragnarök. It is also possible to imagine a cosmic end of the world, for instance, in the form of a great comet that the hazard throws on the Earth, like in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. This is a different destruction than the theological and mythological apocalypses because it does not postulate any kind of a new postapocalyptic world after the catastrophe. While all these figures of the end of the world describe a fatal destiny to which it is vain to oppose oneself, there is still one more version of the end of the world that is at least partly provoked by human beings themselves, and that they can at least in principle try to prevent: It is the end of the world through technology. In what follows, I examine only the last one of these figures; I will also show that while the philosophical analyses of the Bomb conserved something of a theological vision of the world, global warming has taught philosophers to think of the world in terms of ecology at last.


We started with the idea that the technologies of the end of the world jeopardize the world understood as the where of human existence (or, more generally, of life). Heidegger calls it the "there" of the "being-there," the Da of the Dasein, and in his terms one can say that the end of the world is the becoming-impossible of being-in-the-world. Ever since Heidegger, and at least until Derrida, it is customary to think that the end par excellence of being-in-the-world is death. But one can also find in Heidegger a sketch of a thought of an end of the world itself through technology: While in principle the world "worlds" (in a verbal sense),technology can choke and petrify it so that it ceases to "world" and only subsists (in a substantive sense) and, at least in a somewhat deconstructive reading, this could be interpreted as a "death of the world." It can imply the death of human beings and other living beings that inhabit this world, but in reality the death of the inhabitants of a world is only a (possible) consequence of the death of the world itself (while ordinarily Heidegger enlightens the anguishing possibility of the nonexistence of the world through the being-toward-death of Dasein). Heidegger's thinking of technology makes the need of such a reversal of terms more evident, because in his interpretation modern technology inherently threatens to destroy the world, to "kill" it.

It is almost inevitable that a study of the end of the world through technology should start with Heidegger. Heidegger has a particularly important conception of technique insofar as he thinks of technique as the "enframing" (Ge-stell) of the world that would be characteristic of the "era of technique": Modern world is articulated as technical Ge-stell. If one were to enlarge this idea through the anthropological knowledge gathered by André Leroi-Gourhan or through the technological knowledge brought up by Gilbert Simondon, one could say, like Bernard Stiegler, that any human world as such is "enframed" and articulated through its techniques and technologies: Technologies "make" the worlds, analogically to the way in which, according to Heidegger, works of art open worlds. In the context of this article, it is not necessary to decide if technology is a transcendental or an epochal condition of the world, for in the case of the contemporary world they amount to the same: It is enough to say, following Heidegger, that the modern industrial world is in an unprecedented way "enframed" by technology, which changes both nature and human beings into simple resources (Bestand). Today one could add that even thinking has now been transformed into a resource. According to Heidegger, modern technology has ravaged the world in such a way that the destruction caused by atom bombs is not the cause but only the most striking consequence of a much more profound destruction of the world that has already taken place metaphysically. Heidegger's diagnosis has been extremely influential: It has been largely admitted as a very acute observation of our time that cannot be overlooked, although it might have to be completed on certain points (for instance, by taking social, economic, and political factors in consideration). Heidegger's idea is important in particular because:

1. It shows why the limits of technique are the limits of a world: Technique articulates the "time-play-space" (Zeit-Spiel-Raum) of the world.

2. It shows that technique cannot be reduced to the role of tool, instrument, or other means of reaching an end. It is much more primordial because it prefigures the figure of the world, which we cannot exactly construct but which falls upon us like destiny.

3. It shows that technology is ambivalent. On the one hand, it can really be a machination of the end of the world. This happens when a given technological system is rigidified and petrified in such a way that it cannot welcome any novelty or any unheard-of events anymore, especially if these tend to question the established order. (To give a simple, if not simplistic, example of a rigid technological framework today, one can think of the reduction of realist energy solutions to the choice between nuclear and fossil energy.) A world comes to its end if it does not leave any space to freedom and to the surprise of the new. On the other hand, if a technological enframing is open to what Heidegger calls "the free use of technique," it can become akin to art, give to think, and become an element of "building the world."

Heidegger can bring us as far as this. Technique does not fall upon a world as if from an exteriority: On the contrary, it is the same as the world (although "same is not identical"). The end of the world is not the destruction of the world through technology that would be hostile and "alien" to it; it is, on the contrary, a too close identification of a world with its technology, in such a way that the world is petrified in its effort to assimilate itself infinitely to its technological image or condition. In this sense, the end of the world through technology is the suicide of the world — and not the suicide of humanity, as Camus said of the nuclear bomb. One does not contemplate the suicide of the world (one dies together with it), but one can see how the technical tendency of a world becomes suicidal when it suffocates the "time-play-space" through which novelty could come into the world.

If the fictive image of the end of the world through the excesses of technology is older than Heidegger's thinking (it is born in fiction already in the nineteenth century), the evolution of this thought has mainly been provoked by real-world developments. Since 1945, the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become theundeniable facts at the origin of a philosophical debate on humanity's capacity of complete auto-annihilation in a total nuclear catastrophe. Among Heidegger's contemporaries and students, in particular Karl Jaspers, Herbert Marcuse, Günther Anders, and Hans Jonas have participated in this debate. While atomic destruction cast its shadow over the 1950s and until the 1970s and 1980s, since the 1970s the question of ecological destruction has taken it over. Below I will isolate, in the vast debate on ecology in general, only the question of global warming.


According to Günther Anders, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, caused not only an unprecedented destruction but also a metaphysical upheaval: Since 1945, humanity knows that it is really capable of destroying the entire human species and the totality of the viable world. The metaphysical change concerns above all the notions of world and history, which the possibility of their end makes appear as totalities.

Until then, the world appeared divided into "planet," known abstractly via sciences, and "lifeworld," of which one can have a direct experience. Heidegger still reflects this division when he denounces the inauthenticity of "the planetary." The thought of atomic destruction is the first experience of the totality of the planet as the dwelling place of humankind: One could say that in a phenomenological sense, the totality of the world had not appeared before the Bomb. One should pay attention to the fact that at this time, "the totality of the world" was generally understood in the sense of "humanity": At the time, thinkers did not pay much attention to other living beings, either because they forgot that total destruction would affect them as well, or because they thought their destruction secondary.

Nuclear destruction also caused us to consider a new version of the end of history. For the first time, the end of history was understood as a "naked apocalypse" — to use another expression of Anders, by which he meant a total annihilation after which there is no future, no new postapocalyptic world. "Naked apocalypse" is a concrete and at last an atheist thought of the end of history, which turns the traditional sense of the end upside down. After Hiroshima one cannot wait for the end of history as if it hid a secret promise of "another beginning" (like still in Heidegger's thought). The end has already taken place in Hiroshima; the end of the world is already possible in such a way that we do not live at the end of times but at the time of the end that will last until the realization of the end that is already here. The time of the end is a suspension or an extension of time that consists in hoping that the end that is already here won't reach us.

The presuppositions of the reflections concerning the Bomb were above all humanist and existentialist, and this is why the discussion concentrated on the ethical and moral consequences of the atomic peril. Let us summarize the essential points of the debate:

The nuclear catastrophe is an end of the world occasioned by human beings and not by some cosmic powers. The atom bomb presupposes an extremely complicated technology known only by human beings; moreover, it presupposes a human society organized according to very complicated military and civil interests. It leads to the representation of a technological end of the world, which — more obviously than any other representation of the end of the world — leads to the question of human responsibility. But who is "humanity" that bears the responsibility of nuclear destruction?

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not done by "humanity" but decided by US President Harry S. Truman, and the bombs were dropped by pilots Paul Tibbets and George William Marquardt: Even if one counts the entire Manhattan Project and supreme military command of the USA, it is evident that a relatively small number of persons, with little or no personal risk, destroyed a great number of completely helpless persons. According to Anders, this omnipotence of a minority of specialists (of technology, war, or politics) over impotent masses is characteristic to the nuclear era, and this is why nuclear weapons always create totalitarian situations. Even when they are used by so-called democracies (like in 1945), as well as in the so-called civil use of nuclear technology, the distance between those who decide and those who are subjected to the effects of these decisions is insurmountable, and this is why such use is never democratic.

This is why the nuclear fact cannot provide a solution to the problem that it cannot fail to rise, leading therefore into a kind of aporia of nuclear threat. On the one side of the aporia are those who think that their impotence before the nuclear threat and catastrophe means they are not responsible for it. Anders describes in existentialist terms the cynicism of "das Man," of the ordinary citizen in front of the atomic catastrophe: If it happens, one cannot flee from it; one can simply recognize that "we will all die together," and learn to accept this loss of a personal death in the inauthenticity of mass destruction. No doubt, in ordinary life this flight into inauthenticity is the most current attitude toward nuclear peril.

On the other side of the aporia are those who think that because the nuclear catastrophe is of human origin, it is the object of human responsibility par excellence. This is in particular the thesis of Hans Jonas, who thinks that although technological progress as a whole is a good and desirable thing, it should also be the object of ethical evaluation (and this is what, according to Jonas, scientists and technicians systematically refuse to do). The criterion of the ethical evaluation of technological progress is precisely the end of the world: According to Jonas, it is indubitable that one cannot — one must not — want the end of the world, and this is a fact of reason on which Jonas builds a new ethics of responsibility. The end of the world is the absolute evil that orients the "heuristics of fear," which is the measure of human responsibility. It consists of a systematic examination of the effects of our technological actions in order to detect the ones that can have harmful consequences — hyperbolically, that contain the possibility of the end of the world — and to take the measures that allow us to avoid them. The moral imperative consists of doing everything that can be done to prevent it. Humanity requires us to act against the end of the world. If nuclear catastrophe makes the entire Earth definitely or even relatively uninhabitable for human beings and for other living beings, then it is the evil par excellence that must be thwarted by all means. Is the responsibility of the end of the world through nuclear war null or total? It is impossible to continue the way of this aporia without rethinking the very notion of the "subject" of responsibility. We will come back to this question below.


Excerpted from The End of the World by Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, Susanna Lindberg. Copyright © 2017 Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback and Susanna Lindberg. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd..
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback and Susanna Lindberg / Part I: The Ends in the World / 2. Technologies of the End of the World, Susanna Lindberg / 3. Dialogue on the Postcolonial World, Achille Mbembe and Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback / 4. After the End of the World, Danielle Cohen-Levinas / Part II: The Ends of Art / 5. The Ends of the World in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Martta Heikkilä / 6. The End of Film. Béla Tarr's Les Harmonies Werckmeister and the Intempestive Escathology of Editing, Serge Margel / 7. Viktor Pelevin's Apocalyptic Postmodernism, Artery Magun / 8. The Space of the End of the World, Dan Karlholm / 9. Expansions. Remarks on Friedrich Hölderlin's Geo-politics, Esa Kirkkopelto / 10. The Language of the End and the Language of the World in the Poem of the End by Marina Tsvetaeva, Tora Lane / 11. After the End of History, Asyndeton (Ce qui reste, the Otherwise of History), Irina Sandomirskaja / 12. It's Not the End of the World! Reflections After Günther Anders and Maurice Blanchot, Gisèle Berkman / 13. Immersion: Harmony, Variety and Fragmentation, Sean Gaston / Part III: Philosophy at the End of the World / 14. Kant and the End of All Things, Sven-Olov Wallenstein / 15. End and/or Beginning: The World as One-Time Event in Heidegger and Dogen, Krzystof Ziarek / 16. Mettre fin. Derrida et la peine de mort, Laura Odello / 17. The End of the World after the End of Finitude: Of the Speculative Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy, Jussi Backman / 18. The Energy of the End, Michael Marder / History as the Hermeneutics of the Without, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback / 19. The End of Ends. Scene in Two Acts, Federico Ferrari and Jean-Luc Nancy / Index

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