Unbehagen in Der Natur
Ecology Against Nature

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK

Recall Marx’s and Engels’s famous description of the capitalist dynamics in The Communist Manifesto:

“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. […] In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so, also, in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

(Marx and Engels, 1985: 83-4)

Does this not, more than ever, describe our contemporary reality? Ericsson phones are no longer Swedish, Toyota cars are manufactured 60% in the USA, Hollywood culture pervades the remotest parts of the globe. Furthermore, does the same not also go for all forms of ethnic and sexual identities? Should we not supplement Marx’s description in this sense, adding that also sexual ‘one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible’, that also concerning sexual practices ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’, so that capitalism tends to replace the standard normative heterosexuality with a proliferation of unstable shifting identities and/or orientations?

Today, with the latest biogenetic developments, we are entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself that melts into air: the main consequence of the scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of their construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature -human and inhuman- is, thus, ‘desubstantialized’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’. This development compels us to give a new twist to Freud’s title Unbehagen in der Kultur – discontent, uneasiness in culture. With the latest developments, the discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer ‘natural’, the reliable ‘dense’ background of our lives; it now appears as a fragile mechanism, which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.

Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation is, therefore, effectively, a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the ‘danger’ inherent to modern technology. What is crucial here is the interdependence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another natural object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right: humanity itself relies on some notion of ‘human nature’ as what we simply inherited, namely, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is, thus, that there is man only insofar as there is impenetrable inhuman nature. With the prospect, however, of biogenetic interventions opened up by the access to the genome, the species is able to freely change/redefine itself, its own coordinates; this prospect effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from its enslavement to the ‘selfish genes’. However, there is a price for this emancipation:

“With interventions into man’s genetic inheritance, the domination over nature reverts into an act of taking-control-over-oneself, which changes our generic-ethical self-understanding and can disturb the necessary conditions for an autonomous way of life and universalistic understanding of morals.”

(Jantschek, 2001: 26)

How, then, do we react to this threat? Habermas argues that, since the results of science pose a threat to our (predominant notion of) autonomy and freedom, one should curtail science. The price we pay for this solution is the fetishist split between science and ethics (“I know very well what science claims, but, nonetheless, in order to retain (the appearance of) my autonomy, I choose to ignore it and act as if I don’t know it”). This attitude is what prevents us from confronting the true question: how do these new conditions compel us to transform and reinvent the very notions of freedom, autonomy, and ethical responsibility? Science and technology today no longer aim only at understanding and reproducing natural processes, but at generating new forms of life that will surprise us; the goal is no longer just to dominate nature (the way it is), but to generate something new, greater, stronger than ordinary nature. Man himself is part of this goal – the exemplar of this process is the obsession with artificial intelligence, which aims at producing a brain stronger than human brain. Sustaining the scientific-technological endeavor is the dream of the singularity – of triggering a process with no return, a process that would exponentially reproduce itself on its own accord.

The notion of ‘second nature’ is, therefore, today more pertinent than ever, in both its main meanings. The first, literal meaning, takes it to refer to artificially generated new nature: monsters of nature, deformed cows and trees, or -a more positive dream- genetically manipulated organisms, ‘enhanced’ in the direction that serves us. Secondly, we may take the notion of ‘second nature’ in the more standard sense, as referring to the autonomization of the results of our own activity: the way our acts elude us in their consequences, the way they generate a monster with a life on its own. It is this horror at the unforeseen results of our own acts that causes shock and awe, not the power of nature over which we have no control; it is this horror that religion tries to domesticate. What is new today is the short-circuit between these two senses of ‘second nature’: ‘second nature’, in the sense of objective Fate, of the autonomized social process, generates ‘second nature’ in the sense of artificially created nature, of natural monsters. The process that threatens to run out of control is no longer just the social process of economic and political development, but new forms of natural processes themselves – from the unforeseen nuclear catastrophe to global warming and the unforeseen consequences of biogenetic manipulations. Can one even imagine what might be the unforeseen result of nanotechnological experiments? New life forms, reproducing themselves out of control in a cancer-like way, as articulated here, in this standard description of this fear:

“Within fifty to a hundred years, a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they will originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will ‘evolve’into something other than their original form; they will be ‘alive’ under any reasonable definition of the word. […] the pace of evolutionary change will be extremely rapid. […] The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution.”

(Farmer and Belin, 1992:815)

This fear also has its clear libidinal dimension: it is the fear of the asexual reproduction of Life, the fear of an ‘undead’ life that is indestructible, constantly expanding, reproducing itself through self-division. And, as always in the history of the last two millenniums, the greatest master of exploiting this fear is the Catholic Church. Its predominant strategy today is that of trying to contain the scientific Real within the confines of meaning – it is as an answer to the scientific Real (materialized in the biogenetic threats), that religion has found its new raison d’être:

“Far from being effaced by science, religion, and even the syndicate of religions, in the process of formation, is progressing every day. Lacan said that ecumenism was for the poor of spirit. There is a marvelous agreement on these questions between the secular and all the religious authorities, in which they tell themselves they should agree somewhere in order to make echoes equally marvelous, even saying that finally the secular is a religion like the others. We see this because it is revealed in effect that the discourse of science has partly connected with the death drive. Religion is planted in the position of unconditional defense of the living, of life in mankind, as guardian of life, making life an absolute. And that extends to the protection of human nature. […] This is […] what gives a future to religion through meaning, namely by erecting barriers -to cloning, to the exploitation of human cells- and to inscribe science in a tempered progress. We see a marvelous effort, a new youthful vigor of religion in its effort to flood the real with meaning.”

(Miller, 2004: 8-19)

The Church’s message of hope thus relies on the pre-existing fear: it evokes and formulates the fear against which it then offers a solution of hope and faith. The Life that it promises in its defense of the ‘culture of life’ is not a positive life, but a reactive life, a defense against death. The same goes for ecology; its by far predominant version is the ecology of fear: the fear of a catastrophe -human-made or natural- that may deeply perturb, destroy even, the human civilization, a fear that pushes us to plan measures that would protect our safety. This ecology of fear has all the chances of developing into the predominant form of ideology of global capitalism, a new opium for the masses, replacing the declining religion: it can assume an unquestionable authority which can impose limits, a function it takes over from religion.

The fundamental message propagated by this ecology is a constant reminder of our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality; we are finite beings embedded in a biosphere which vastly transgresses our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately Sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a Mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate. While we cannot gain full mastery over our biosphere, it is within our power to derail it, to disturb its balance, so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are constantly demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe.

This distrust is what makes ecology the ideal candidate for hegemonic ideology, since it echoes the anti-totalitarian post-political distrust of large collective acts. And the same distrust has been given a new impetus by today’s biogenetics, which is on the verge of a crucial break-through (see the report “Life 2.0″ in Newsweek, June 4 2007, p.37-43). Until now, geneticists were confined to “tinkering and tweaking what nature has already produced – taking a gene from a bacterium, say, and inserting it into the chromosome of corn or pigs. What we are talking about now, is producing life that is wholly new – not in any way a genetic descendant of the primordial Mother Cell. The initial members of each newly created breed will have no ancestors at all.” This will allow the artificial creation of the organism’s very genome: first, individual biological building blocks are to be fabricated; then, they are to be combined into an entirely new synthetic, self-replicating organism. Scientists have designated this new life form as ‘Life 2.0’, and what is so unsettling about it, is that the ‘natural’ life itself, becomes thereby ‘Life 1.0’ – it retroactively loses its spontaneous-natural character, turning into one in a series of synthetic projects. This is what the ‘end of nature’ means: synthetic life is not just supplementing natural life; it turns natural life itself into a (confused, imperfect) species of synthetic life.

The prospects of this breakthrough are, of course, breathtaking: from microorganisms that detect and eliminate cancer cells, to entire ‘factories’ that transform solar energy into usable fuel. However, the main limitation of this endeavour is no less obvious: the DNA of existing natural organisms is “a mess of overlapping segments and junk that has no purpose scientists can fathom”. So, when geneticists tinker with this mess, they cannot ever be sure not only of the outcome, but also of how, exactly, this outcome was generated. The logical conclusion is, thus, to try to “build new biological systems; systems that are easier to understand because we made them that way”. However, this project will work only if we accept the thesis that “at least 90 percent of the human genome is ‘junk DNA’ that has no clear function” (the main function envisaged by scientists is that they serve a guarantee against the danger of copying-mistakes, a kind of back-up copy). Only in this case can we expect a project of getting rid of the repetitious ‘junk’ and generating the organism only from its ‘pure’ genetic formula work. What if, however, this ‘junk’ does play a crucial role, unknown to us because we are unable to grasp all the higher-level complexity of the interaction of genes which can only account for how, out of a limited (finite) set of elements, an ‘infinite’ (self-relating) organic structure arises as an ‘emergent property’?

Those who oppose most ferociously this prospect are religious leaders and environmentalists – for both, the idea of creating a new form of life from scratch involves a transgression, an entrance into a forbidden domain. And this brings us back to the notion of ecology as the new opium for the masses. The underlying message is, again, a deeply conservative one: any change can only be a change for the worse:

“Behind much of the resistance to the notion of synthetic life is the intuition that nature (or God) created the best of possible worlds. Charles Darwin believed that the myriad designs of nature’s creations are perfectly honed to do whatever they are meant to do – be it animals that see, hear, sing, swim or fly, or plants that feed on the sun’s rays, exuding bright floral colours to attract pollinators.”

(Newsweek, 2007: 41)

This reference to Darwin is deeply misleading: the ultimate lesson of Darwinism is the exact opposite, namely that nature tinkers and improvises, with great losses and catastrophes accompanying every limited success. Is the fact that 90 percent of the human genomeis ‘junk DNA’, with no clear function, not the ultimate proof of it? Consequently, the important realization to be made, is the one repeatedly argued by Stephen Jay Gould: the utter contingency of our existence. There is no Evolution: catastrophes, broken equilibriums, are all part of natural history; at numerous points in the past, life could have turned towards an entirely different direction. Even the main source of our energy (oil) is the result of a past catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions.

Along these lines, ‘terror’ means accepting the fact of the utter groundlessness of our existence: there is no firm foundation, a place of retreat, on which one can safely count. It means fully accepting that ‘nature’ does not exist. It means fully consummating the gap that separates the life-world notion of nature and the scientific notion of natural reality: ‘nature’ qua the domain of balanced reproduction, of organic deployment into which humanity intervenes with its hubris, brutally throwing off the rails its circular motion is man’s fantasy; nature is already in itself ‘second nature’. Its balance is always secondary, an attempt to negotiate a ‘habit’ that would restore some order after catastrophic interruptions.

The lesson to be fully endorsed is that of an environmental scientist who came to the result that, while one cannot be sure what the ultimate result of humanity’s interventions into geo-sphere will be, one thing is sure: if humanity were to stop abruptly its immense industrial activity and allow nature on Earth to take its balanced course, the result would be a total breakdown, an unimaginable catastrophe. ‘Nature’ on Earth is already to such an extent ‘adapted’ to human interventions; human ‘pollutions’ are already to such an extent included into the shaky and fragile balance of the ‘natural’ reproduction on Earth, that their cessation would cause a catastrophic imbalance. This is what it means to claim that humanity has nowhere to retreat: not only there is no big Other (self-contained symbolic order as the ultimate guarantee of Meaning); there is also no Nature qua balanced order of self-reproduction whose homeostasis is disturbed, thrown off the rails by the imbalanced human interventions. Not only the big Other is ‘barred’, Nature is also ‘barred’.

One should, thus, become aware not only of the limitation of the ideology of progress, but also of the limitation of the Benjaminian notion of the revolution as the move to put on brakes on the runaway train of progress: it is too late for that, since the cessation of activity can trigger an even greater catastrophe.

With regard to this inherent instability of nature, the most consequent was the proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth’s ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth’s change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity’s survival. This extreme proposal renders visible the truth of ecology. In his Reflections at the Edge of Askja, Pall Skullason reports how he was affected by Askja, a volcanic lake and valley in the middle of Iceland, surrounded by snow-covered mountains:

“Askja is the symbol of objective reality, independent of all thought, belief and expression, independent of human existence. It is a unique natural system, within which mountains, lakes and sky converge ina volcanic crater. Askja, in short, symbolizes the earth itself; it is the earth as it was, is, and will be, for as long as this planet continues to orbit in space, whatever we do and whether or not we are here on this earth. […] Coming to Askja is like coming to the earth itself for the first time; finding one’s earthly grounding.”

(Skullason, 2005:21)

Gilles Deleuze often varies the motif of how, in becoming post-human, we should learn to practice a perception “as it was before (or after) men […] released from their human coordinates” [Deleuze. 1986:122]. Skullason seems to be describing just such an experience; the experience of subtracting oneself from the immediate immersion into the surrounding world of objects which are ‘ready-at-hand’ moments of our engaged relationship with reality – or is he? Let us take a closer look at what kind of experience he is rendering:

“[…] the world suddenly strikes us in such a way that reality presents itself as a seamless whole. The question that then arises concerns the world itself and the reality that it orders into a totality. Is the world really a unified totality? Isn’t reality just an infinitely variegated manifold of particular phenomena?”

(Skullason, 2005:11)

One should be Hegelian here: what if this very experience of reality as a seamless Whole is a violent imposition of ours, something we ‘project onto it’ (to use this old, inappropriate term) in order to avoid directly confronting the totally meaningless, ‘infinitely variegated manifold of particular phenomena’ (what Alain Badiou calls ‘the primordial multiplicity of Being’)? Should we not apply here the fundamental lesson of Kant’s transcendental idealism: the world as a Whole is not a Thing-in-itself, it is merely a regulative Idea of our mind, something our mind imposes onto the raw multitude of sensations in order to be able to experience it as a well-ordered meaningful Whole? The paradox is that the very ‘In-itself’ of Nature, as a Whole independent of us, is the result of our (subjective) ‘synthetic activity’ – do Skulason’s own words, if we read them closely (i.e. literally), not already point in this direction? “Askja is used in this text as the symbol of a unique and important experience of the world and its inhabitants. There are numerous other symbols which men use to talk about the things that matter most.” (Skullason, 2005:19) So, exactly as is the case with the Kantian Sublime, the unfathomable presence of the raw Nature-in-itself is reduced to a material pretext (replaceable with others) for ‘a unique and important experience’. The obvious question arising is: Why is this experience necessary?

“To live, to be able to exist, the mind must connect itself with some kind of order. It must apprehend reality as an independent whole […] and must bind itself in a stable fashion to certain features of what we call reality. It cannot bind itself to the ordinary world of everyday experience, except by taking it on faith that reality forms an objective whole, a whole which exists independently of the mind. The mind lives, and we live, in a relationship of faith with reality itself. This relationship is likewise one of confidence in a detached reality, a reality that is different and other than the mind. We live and exist in this relationship of confidence, which is always by its nature uncertain and insecure. […] the relationship of confidence […] is originally, and truly, always a relationship with reality as a natural totality: as Nature.”

(Skullason, 2005:31-33)

One should note here the refined analysis of the tension between the inhabitable and the uninhabitable: in order to inhabit a small part of reality that appears within our horizon of meaning, we have to presuppose that the Reality-in-itself, ‘different and other than the mind’, which sustains our ordered world, is part of reality in an ordered and seamless Whole. In short, we have to have faith and confidence in Reality: nature-in-itself is not merely a meaningless composite of multiples; it is Nature. What if, however, this relationship of faith in Nature, in the primordial harmony between mind and reality, is the most elementary form of idealism, of the reliance onto the big Other? What if the true materialist position starts (and, in a way, ends) with the acceptance of the In-itself as a meaningless chaotic manifold? One is tempted here to turn again to Iceland’s unique natural landscape: the magnificent misty-green coast plains in the south, full of big rocks covered with wet green-brown moss, cannot but appear as nature run amok, full of pathological cancerous protuberances – what if this is much closer to ‘nature-in-itself’ than the sublime images of seamless Wholes? Indeed, what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on (see: Morton, 2007).

THE USES AND MISUSES OF HEIDEGGER

Today, with the prospect of the biogenetic manipulation of human physical and mental features, the notion of danger inscribed into modern technology elaborated by Heidegger turned into a common currency. Heidegger emphasizes how the true danger is not the physical self-destruction of humanity, the threat that something will go terribly wrong with biogenetic interventions, but, precisely, that nothing will go wrong, that genetic manipulations will function smoothly. At this point, the circle will, in a way, be closed and the specific openness that characterizes being-human abolished. That is to say, is not the Heideggerian danger (Gefahr) precisely the danger that the ontic will ‘swallow’ the ontological (with the reduction of man, the Da (here) of Being, to just another object of science)? Do we not encounter here, again, the formula of fearing the impossible? What we fear is, that what cannot happen (since the ontological dimension is irreducible to the ontic) will, nonetheless, happen…

The same point is made, in more common terms, by cultural critics from Fukuyama and Habermas to Bill McKibben, who are all worried about how the latest techno-scientific developments (which potentially made the human species able to redesign and redefine itself) will affect our being-human; the call we hear is best encapsulated by the title of McKibben’s book: Enough. Humanity, as a collective subject, has to put a limit and freely renounce further ‘progress’ in this direction. McKibben endeavors to empirically specify this limit: somatic genetic therapy is still this side of the ‘enough’ point, one can practice it without leaving behind the world as we’ve known it, since we just intervene into a body formed in the old ‘natural’ way; germline manipulations lie on the other side, in the world beyond meaning (McKibben, 2004:127). When we manipulate psychic and bodily properties of individuals before they are even conceived, we pass the threshold into full-fledged planning, turning individuals into products, preventing them from experiencing themselves as responsible agents who have to educate/form themselves by the effort of focusing their will, thus obtaining the satisfaction of achievement. This has the result that such individuals supposedly no longer relate to themselves as responsible agents. In short, they are not able to engage within the horizon of meaning that renders possible their status as ethical beings.The insufficiency of this reasoning is twofold.First, as Heidegger would have put it, the survival of the being-human of humans cannot depend on an ontic decision of humans. Even if we try to define the limit of thepermissible in this way, the true catastrophe has already occurred: we already experience ourselves as manipulable in principle, we only freely renounce to fully deploy these potentials. Consider, for instance, the view that “in the technological age, what matters to us most is getting the ‘greatest possible use’ out of everything” (Wrathall, 2005:102). Does this not throw a new light on how ecological concerns, at least in their predominant mode, remain within the horizon of technology? Is the point of using the resources sparingly, of recycling, etc., not precisely to maximize the use of everything?

The crucial point, however, is that, not only will with biogenetic planning our universe of meaning disappear (i.e. not only are the utopian descriptions of the digital paradise wrong, since they imply that meaning will persist), but, the opposite, negative description of the “meaningless” universe of technological self-manipulation is also the victim of a perspective fallacy; it, also, measures the future with inadequate present standards. That is to say, the future of technological self-manipulation only appears as deprived of meaning if measured by (or, rather, from within the horizon of) the traditional notion of what a meaningful universe is. Who knows what this post-human universe will reveal itself to be ‘in itself’? What if there is no singular and simple answer, what if the contemporary trends (digitalization, biogenetic self-manipulation) open themselves up to a multitude of possible symbolizations? What if the utopia -the pervert dream of the passage from hardware to a software of subjectivity freely floating between different embodiment- and the dystopia -the nightmare of humans voluntarily transforming themselves into programmed beings- are just the positive and the negative of the same ideological fantasy? What if it is only, and precisely, this technological prospect that fully confronts us with the most radical dimension of our finitude?

Heidegger himself remains ambiguous here. It is true that Heidegger’s answer to technology “is not nostalgic longing for ‘former objects which perhaps were once on the way to becoming things and even to actually presenting themselves as things’ (‘The Thing’), but, rather, allowing ourselves to be conditioned by our world, and then learning to ‘keep the fourfold in things’ by building and nurturing things peculiarly suited to our fourfold. When our practices incorporate this fourfold, our lives and everything around us will have importance far exceeding that of our resources, because they, and only they, will be geared to our way of inhabiting the world” (Wrathall, 2005: 117). However, all examples Heidegger provides of ‘keeping the fourfold in things’ -from the Greek temple and van Gogh’s shoes, to numerous examples from his Schwarzwald mountains)- are nostalgic, i.e., belonging to a world which is passed, no longer ours. For example, he opposes the traditional farming practices to modern technologized agriculture, the Black Forrest farmer’s house to a modern apartment block.

So, what would be examples appropriate to our technological times? Perhaps, one should take very seriously Fredric Jameson’s idea to read Raymond Chandler’s California as a Heideggerian world, with Phillip Marlowe caught in a tension between heaven and earth, between his mortality and the divine shining through in the pathetic longing of his characters, etc. And did Ruth Rendell not accomplish the same for the UK suburbia, with its decaying backyards, grey shopping malls, etc.? This is also why Hubert Dreyfuss’s notion, that the way to be prepared for the upcoming Kehre, for the arrival of new gods, is to participate in practices which function as sites of resistance to the technological total mobilization, is all too short:

“Heidegger explores a kind of gathering that would enable us to resist post-modern technological practices. […] He turns from the cultural gathering he explored in The Origin of the Work of Art (that sets up shared meaningful differences and thereby unifies an entire culture) to local gatherings that set up local worlds. Such local worldsoccur around some everyday thing that temporarily brings into their own both the thing itself and those involved in the typical activity concerning the use of the thing. Heidegger calls this event a thing thinging and the tendency in the practices to bring things and people into their own, appropriation. […] Heidegger’s examples of things that focus such local gathering are a wine jug and an old stone bridge. Such things gather Black Forest peasant practices, […] the family meal acts as a focal thing when it draws on the culinary and social skills of family members and solicits fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, familiar warmth, good humour, and loyalty to come to the fore in their excellence, or in, as Heidegger would say, their ownmost.”

(Dreyfus)

From a strict Heideggerian position, such practices can -and, as a rule, do- function as the very opposite of resistance, as something that is already included in the smooth functioning of the technological mobilization (like the courses in transcendental meditation which make you more efficient in your job). The path to salvation, therefore, only leads through the full engagement in technological mobilization.

The aftermath of the constant innovation of capitalism is, of course, the permanent production of piles of leftover waste: “The main production of the modern and postmodern capitalist industry is precisely waste. We are postmodern beings because we realize that all our aesthetically appealing consumption artifacts will eventually end as leftover, to the point that it will transform the earth into a vast wasteland. You lose the sense of tragedy, you perceive progress as derisive” (Miller, 1999:19). The obverse of the incessant capitalist drive to produce new and new objects is, thus, the growing piles of useless waste; piled mountains of used cars, computers, etc. In these ever-growing piles of inert, dysfunctional ‘stuff’, which cannot but strike us with their useless, inert presence, one can, as it were, perceive the capitalist drive at rest.

Therein resides the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, exemplified by his masterpiece Stalker, with its post-industrial wasteland filled with wild vegetation growing over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water and wild overgrowth, in which stray cats and dogs wander. Nature and industrial civilization are here, again, overlapping, but through a common decay – civilization in decay is in the process of againbeing reclaimed (not by idealized harmonious Nature, but) by nature in decomposition. The ultimate Tarkovskian landscape is that of a humid nature, river or pool close to some forest, full of the debris of human artifices (old concrete blocks or pieces of rotten metal). The postindustrial wasteland of the second World effectively is the privileged ‘evental site’, the symptomal point out of which one can undermine the totality of today’s global capitalism. One should love this world, up to its grey decaying buildings and sulphuric smell – all this stands for History, threatened with erasure between the post-historical First World and pre-historical Third World.

As for Benjamin’s notion of ‘natural history’ as re-naturalized history: it takes place when historical artifacts lose their meaningful vitality and are perceived as dead objects reclaimed by nature or, in the best case, as monuments of a past dead culture. For Benjamin, it was in confronting such dead monuments of human history reclaimed by nature, that we experience history at its purest. The paradox here, is that this re-naturalization overlaps with its opposite, with de-naturalization: since culture is, for us humans, our ‘second nature’, since we dwell in a living culture, experiencing it as our natural habitat, the re-naturalization of cultural artifacts equals to their de-naturalization: deprived of their function within a living totality of meaning, they dwell in an inter-space between nature and culture, between life and death, leading a ghost-like existence, belonging neither to nature nor to culture, appearing as something akin to the monstrosity of natural freaks, like a cow with two heads and three legs.

The challenge of technology is, thus, not that we should (re)discover how all our activity has to rely on our unsurpassable (unhintergebar) embeddedness in our life-world, but, on the contrary, that one has to cut off this embeddedness and accept the radical abyss of one’s existence. This is the terror that even Heidegger did not dare to confront. To put it in the terms of a problematic comparison, are we, insofar as we remain humans embedded in a pre-reflexive symbolic life-world, not something like ‘symbolic plants’? Hegel writes in his Philosophy of Nature that a plant’s roots are its entrails which, in contrast to an animal, are outside itself, in the earth, and which prevent it from cutting its roots and freely roam around; for it, cutting its roots is death. Is then our symbolic life-world, in which we are always-already pre-reflexively embedded, not something like our symbolic entrails outside ourselves? And, is it not the true challenge of technology that of repeating the passage from plants to animals, also at the symbolic level, cutting off our symbolic roots and accepting the abyss of freedom? In this very precise sense, one can accept the formula that humanity will/should pass into post-humanity: being embedded in a symbolic world is a definition of being-human. And in this sense, also, technology is a promise of liberation through terror. The subject that emerges in and through this experience of terror is, ultimately, the cogito itself, the abyss of self-relating negativity that forms the core of transcendental subjectivity, the acephalous subject of (the death-)drive. It is the properly in-human subject.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

What triggers this terror is the awareness of how we are in the midst of a radical change. Although individual acts can, in a direct short-circuit of levels, affect the ‘higher-level’ social constellation, their effect upon it is unpredictable. The constellation is properly frustrating: although we (individual or collective agents) know that it all depends on us, we cannot ever predict the consequences of our acts – we are not impotent, but, quite on the contrary, omnipotent, without being able to determine the scope of our powers. The gap between causes and effects is irreducible, and there is no big Other to guarantee the harmony between the levels, to guarantee that the overall outcome of our interactions will be satisfactory. guarantee that the overall outcome of our interactions will be satisfactory.

The deadlock is here deeper than it may appear (as was repeatedly developed by Dupuy – see Dupuy, 2006): the problem is that the big Other continues to function in the guise of the ‘second nature’, of the minimally-reified social system which is perceived as an In-itself. Each individual perceives market as an objective system confronting him, although there is no objective market but just the interaction of the multitude of individuals – so that, although each individual knows very well that there is no objective market, just the interaction of individuals, the specter of ‘objective’ market is this same individual’s fact-of-experience, determining his beliefs and acts. Not only market, but our entire social life is determined by such reified mechanisms.

Scientists and technologists who keep the scientific/technological progress alive with their incessant activity, nonetheless experience this Progress as an objective constraint that determines and runs their lives: this constraint is perceived as ‘systemic’, no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such: no one is responsible for its machinations, everyone is caught in the objectivized urge to compete and profit, to keep moving the circulation of the Capital.

Prosopopoeia is usually perceived as a mystification to which naïve consciousness is prone, i.e., as something to be demystified. At the beginning of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the goddess of music introduces herself with the words “Io sono la musica…” – is this not something which, soon afterwards, when ‘psychological’ subjects had invaded the stage, became unthinkable, or, rather, unrepresentable? It is therefore all the more surprising to see ‘objective’ social scientists practicing the ‘primitive’ art of prosopopoeia. Dupuy recalls how sociologists interpret electoral results: for example, when the government retains its majority, but barely does so, the result is read as ‘the voters prolonged their trust into the government, but with a warning that it should do its work better’, as if the electoral result was the outcome of the decision of a single meta-Subject (voters) who wanted to deliver a ‘message’ to those in power.

Although Hegel is often dismissed as the very model of the idealist prosopopoeia (the Spirit is talking through us, finite mortals, or, in the inversion of the Materialist Critique of Hegel, we, mortal humans, project/transpose the results of our activity into autonomous Spirit), his notion of ‘objective Spirit’ precisely undermines such prosopopoeian mystification: ‘objective spirit’ is not a meta-subject who runs history. It is crucial not to confuse Hegel’s ‘objective spirit’ with the Diltheyan notion of a life-form, a concrete historical world, as the ‘objectivized spirit’, the product of a people, its collective genius. The moment we do this, we miss the point of Hegel’s ‘objective spirit’, which is precisely spirit in its objective form, experienced by individuals as an externalimposition, constraint even. There is no collective or spiritual super-Subject that would be the author of ‘objective spirit’, whose ‘objectivization’ this spirit would have been. There is, for Hegel, no collective Subject, no Subject-Spirit beyond and above individual humans. Therein resides the paradox of ‘objective spirit’: it is independent of individuals, encountered by them as given, pre-existing them, as the presupposition of their activity; yet it is, nonetheless, spirit, i.e., something that exists only insofar as individuals relate their activity to it, only as their (pre)supposition (see Bienenstock, 2005)

So, what is the problem today? The problem is that, although our (sometimes even individual) acts can have catastrophic (ecological, etc.) consequences, we continue to perceive such consequences as anonymous/systemic; as something for which we are not responsible, for which there is no clear agent. More precisely -and here we are back at the logic of the madman who knew he is not a grain, but the chicken didn’t know it- we know we are responsible, but the chicken (the big Other) doesn’t know it. Or -insofar as knowledge is the function of the ‘I’, and belief the function of the ‘Other’- we know it very well, but we do not believe it – the big Other prevents us from believing in it, from assuming this knowledge and responsibility: “Contrary to what the promoters of the principle of precaution think, the cause of our non-action is not the scientific uncertainty. We know it, but we cannot make ourselves believe in what we know” (Dupuy, 2006:147). Take, for example, global warming: with all the data about it, the problem is not the uncertainty about facts (as those who caution us against panic claim), but our inability to believe that it can really happen: look through the window, the grass and blue sky are there, life is going on, nature follows its rhythm.

This situation confronts us with the deadlock of the contemporary ‘society of choice’ at its most radical: in the standard situation of the forced choice (a situation in which I am free to choose on condition that I make the right choice, so that the only thing left for me to do is the empty gesture of pretending to accomplish freely what is, in fact, imposed on me). Here, on the contrary, the choice really is free and is, for this very reason, experienced as even more frustrating: we find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge:

“We have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. New technologies alter our lives daily. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time, we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.”

(Gray, 2003:110)

It is, thus, not enough to vary the standard motif of the Marxist critique: “although we allegedly live in a society of choices, the choices effectively left to us are trivial, and their proliferation masks the absence of true choices, choices that would affect the basic features of our lives…” While this is true, the problem is, rather, that we are forced to choose without having at our disposal the knowledge that would enable a qualified choice.

Here, perhaps, Dupuy is too short when he attributes our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our mind by scientific ideology, which leads us to dismiss the sane concerns of our common reason, i.e., the gut sense that tells us that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientific-technological attitude. The problem is much deeper, it resides in the unreliability of our common sense itself, which, habituated as it is to our ordinary life-world, finds it difficult to really accept that the flow of everyday reality can be perturbed. The problem is, thus, that we can rely neither on the scientific mind nor on our common sense – they both mutually reinforce each other’s blindness. The scientific mind advocates a cold objective appraisal of dangers and risks involved where no such appraisal is effectively possible, while common sense finds it hard to accept that a catastrophe can really occur. The difficult ethical task is thus to ‘un-learn’ the most basic coordinates of our immersion into our life-world: what usually served as the recourse to Wisdom (the basic trust in the background-coordinates of our world) is now the source of danger. We should really ‘grow up’ and learn to cut this ultimate umbilical cord to our life Sphere. The problem with the science-and-technology attitude is not its detachment from our life-world, but the abstract character of this detachment, which compels the science-and-technology attitude to combine itself with the worst of our life-world immersion. Scientists perceive themselves as rational, able to appraise objectively potential risks; for them, the only unpredictable-irrational elements are the panic reactions of the uneducated crowd: with ordinary people, a small and controllable risk can spread all around and trigger global panic, since they project into the situation their disavowed fears and fantasies. What scientists are unable to perceive is the “irrational”, inadequate, nature of their own cold, distanced appraisal.

Dupuy refers to the theory of complex systems that accounts for the two opposite features of such systems: their robust stable character and their extreme vulnerability. These systems can accommodate themselves to great disturbances, integrate them and find new balance and stability – up to a certain threshold (a ‘tipping point’), above which a small disturbance can cause a total catastrophe and lead to the establishment of a totally different order. For long centuries, humanity did not have to worry about the impact on the environs of its activity productive activity – nature was able to accommodate itself to deforestation, to the use of coal and oil, etc.

However, one cannot be sure if, today, we are not approaching a tipping point – one really cannot be sure, since such points can be clearly perceived only once it is already too late. We touch here the paradoxical nerve of morality, baptized by Bernard Williams ‘moral luck’ (see Williams, 1981). Williams evokes the case of a painter, ironically called Gauguin, who left his wife and children and moved to Tahiti in order to fully develop his artistic genius. Was he morally justified in doing this or not? Williams’s answer is that we can only answer this question in retrospect, after we learn the final outcome of his risky decision: did he develop into a painting genius or not? As Dupuy pointed out (Dupuy, 2002:124-126), we encounter the same dilemma apropos of the urgency to do something about today’s threat of different ecological catastrophies: either we take this threat seriously and decide today to do things which, if the catastrophy will not occur, will appear ridiculous, or we do nothing and lose everything in the case of the catastrophe. The worst choice which can be made here is the choice on a middle ground, of taking a limited amount of measures: in this case, we will fail whatever will occur (that is to say, the problem is that there is no middle ground with regard to the ecological catastrophe: either it will occur or it will not occur). In such a situation, the talk about anticipation, precaution and risk control tends to become meaningless, since we are dealing with what, in the terms of Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge, one should call the ‘unknown unknowns’: we not only do not know where the tipping point is, we even do not know exactly what we do not know. The most unsettling aspect of the ecological crisis concerns the so-called ‘knowledge in the real’ which can run amok: when Winter is too warm, plants and animals misread the hot weather in February as the signal that Spring already began and start to behave accordingly, thus not only rendering themselves vulnerable to late onslaughts of cold, but also perturbing the entire rhythm of natural reproduction. This is, maybe, how one should, if at all, imagine a possible catastrophe: a small-level interruption with devastating global consequences.

One can learn even more from the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the ‘unknown unknowns’, i.e. the threats from Saddam, about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the ‘unknown knowns’, namely the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware ouselves of adhering to ourselves. In the case of ecology, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions, combined with the ‘unknown unknowns’, are the ones that prevent us from really believing in the possibility of the catastrophe.

Our blindness for the results of the ‘systemic evil’ is perhaps most clearly perceptible apropos debates about Communist crimes. There, responsibility is easy to allocate, we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did it, and we can even identify the ideological sources of the crimes (totalitarian ideology, Communist Manifesto, Rousseau…). When one draws attention to the millions who died as the result of capitalist globalization, from the tragedy of Mexico in the 16th century through the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, etc., responsibility is denied: this just happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, nobody planned and executed it, there was no Capitalist Manifesto (the one who came closest to writing it is Ayn Rand). And therein resides also the limitation of the ‘ethical committees’ which pop up all around to counteract the dangers of the unbridled scientific-technological development: with all their good intentions, ethical considerations, etc., they ignore the more basic, ‘systemic’ violence. The fact that the Belgian king Leopold who presided over the Congo holocaust was a great humanitarian, proclaimed a saint by the Pope, cannot be dismissed as a mere case of ideological hypocrisy and cynicism: one can argue that, subjectively, he probably really was a sincere humanitarian, even modestly counter-acting the catastrophic consequences of the vast economic project of the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of Congo over which he presided (Congo was his personal fiefdom!) – the ultimate irony is that even most of the profits from this endeavor went for the benefit of the Belgian people, for public works, museums, etc.

Back in the early 17th century, after the establishment of the shogun regime, Japan made a unique collective decision to isolate itself from foreign culture and to pursue its own path of contained life of balanced reproduction, focused on cultural refinement, avoiding wild expansion. Was the ensuing period that lasted until the middle of the 19th century really just an isolationist dream from which Japan was cruelly awakened by Commodore Perry on the American warship? What if the dream is that we can go on indefinitely in our expansionism? What if we all need to repeat, mutatis mutandis, the Japanese decision, and collectively decide to intervene into our pseudo-natural development, to change its direction?

The tragedy is that the very idea of such a collective decision is discredited today. Apropos of the disintegration of State Socialism two decades ago, one should not forget that, at approximately the same time, the Western Social Democratic welfare state ideology was also dealt a crucial blow, it also ceased to function as the imaginary able to arouse a collective passionate following. The notion that ‘the time of the welfare state has passed’ is today a piece of commonly accepted wisdom. What these two defeated ideologies shared, is the notion that humanity, as a collective subject, has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development, to steer it in a desired direction. Today, such a notion is quickly dismissed as ‘ideological’ and/or ‘totalitarian’: the social process is again perceived as dominated by an anonymous Fate beyond social control. The rise of global capitalism is presented to us as such a Fate, against which one cannot fight – one adapts oneself to it, or one falls out of step with History and one is crushed. The only thing one can do is to make global capitalism as human as possible, to fight for ‘global capitalism with a human face’ (this is what, ultimately, the Third Way is -or, rather, was- about). The sound barrier will have to be broken here; the risk will have to be taken to endorse again large collective decisions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – REFERENCES

Bienenstock, Myriam “Qu’est-ce que ‘l’esprit objectif’ selon Hegel?” in Lectures de Hegel, edited by Olivier Tinland, Paris: Le livre de Poche 2005
Deleuze, Gilles Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1986
Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Highway Bridges and Feasts,” available online at http://www.focusing.org/apm_papers/dreyfus.html.
Dupuy, Jean-Pierre Pour un catastrophisme eclaire, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2002
Dupuy, Jean-Pierre Retour de Tchernobyl, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2006
Farmer, Doyne and Belin, Aletta “Artificial Life: The Coming Evolution” in Artificial Life, ed. by C.G. Langton, C. Taylor, J.D. Farmer and S. Rasmussen, Redwood City: Addison-Wesley 1992
Gray, John Straw Dogs, Granta: 2003
Jantschek, Thorsten “Ein ausgezehrter Hase” Die Zeit 5 July 2001, Feuilleton
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick The Communist Manifesto Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1985
Miller, Jacques-Alain “The Desire of Lacan,” in Lacanian Ink 14, Spring 1999
Miller, Jacques-Alain “Religion, Psychoanalysis” Lacanian Ink 23, New York 2004
“Life 2.0” in Newsweek, June 4 2007
McKibben, Bill Enough. Staying Human in an Engineered Age, New York: Henry Holt and Company 2004
Morton, Timothy Ecology Without Nature, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007
Rasmussen Redwood City: Addison-Wesley 1992,
Skulason, Pall Reflections at the Edge of Askja, Reykjavik: The University of Iceland Press 2005
Williams, Bernard Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981
Wrathall, Mark How to Read Heidegger, London, Granta Books 2005

  • About

    Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic. He has written over forty books and is the international director at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Birkbeck College.


    His essay 'Unbehagen in Der Natur' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.