Monday, April 18, 2011

Is catastrophe inevitable?

"[I]f we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this "historical" notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time. Dupuy calls this the "time of a project", of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, while the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation:
The catastrophic event is inscribed into the future as destiny, for sure, but also as a contingent accident: it could not have taken place, even if, in futur antérieur [looking back from the future], it appears as necessary. ... if an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is not inevitable. It is thus the event's actualization - the fact that it takes place - which retroactively creates its necessity."
"If - accidentally - an event takes place, it creates the preceding chain which makes it appear inevitable: this, and not commonplaces on how underlying necessity expresses itself in and through the accidental play of appearances, is in nuce the Hegelian dialectic of contingency and necessity. In this sense, although we are determined by destiny, we are nonetheless free to choose our destiny. According to Dupuy, this is also how we should approach the ecological crisis: not to appraise "realistically" the possibilities of catastrophe, but to accept it as Destiny in the precise Hegelian sense - if the catastrophe happens, one can say that its occurrence was decided even before it took place. Destiny and free action (to block the "if") thus go hand in hand: at its most radical, freedom is the freedom to change one's Destiny.

"This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities ("If we had done this and that, the calamity we are now experiencing would not have occurred!") upon which we then act today. We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny - and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. Paradoxically, the only way to prevent the disaster is to accept it as inevitable. For Badiou too, the time of the fidelity to an event is the futur antérieur: overtaking oneself vis-à-vis the future, one acts now as if the future one wants to bring about were already here.

"What this means is that one should fearlessly rehabilitate the idea of preventative action (the "pre-emptive strike"), much abused in the "war on terror": if we postpone our action until we have full knowledge of the catastrophe, we will have acquired that knowledge only when it is too late. That is to say, the certainty on which an act relies is not a matter of knowledge, but a matter of belief: a true act is never a strategic intervention in a transparent situation of which we have full knowledge; on the contrary, the true act fills in the gap in our knowledge."

- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 150-52.
Internal quote from Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite metaphysique des tsunami (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 19.

This somewhat dense passage is either nonsense, or very profound. It can be difficult to tell, and perhaps only hindsight will let us know for sure. But this is precisely Žižek's point: that we act (largely) in the dark, and certainly in the dark about whether future events are inevitable or not. A terminal diagnosis could prove to be wrong. But this doesn't mean we just write off such a diagnosis, no, we embrace it and feel the full weight of living under a death sentence, and then live as those who will be resurrected.
Images by HCS. The eagle-eyed may have notice that the young man attempting to prevent the apparently inevitable collapse in the second image is your truly, age 11.