Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32

panic civilization



Let us begin with a concise thesis: alternative groups today are the children of catastrophe. What differentiates them from previous generations and recommends them as prime candidates for a panic civilization is their expert eye for the potentialities of the catastrophes that surround them. Historically speaking, they are probably the first humans to have developed a non-hysterical relation to the possible apocalypse. For the first time, we no longer have to tempt fate and strain our eyes to read the writing on the wall. The situation itself has already adequately provided for this. The apocalypse calls attention to itself like neon signs on Broadway. With dry professionalism, it writes its own advertising copy. Apocalyptic warnings no longer require a religious tempest in the soul. Putting people on their guard against the coming decline no longer involves prophetic individuals proclaiming themselves the spokespersons of transcendent revelations. The current alternative consciousness is characterized by what one might call a pragmatic approach to catastrophe. Today, anyone who can count to three can be a prophet. Anyway, the catastrophe doesn’t need to be announced; it needs to be documented. From a linguistic standpoint, its proper place is on the daily news and in commission reports, and not in apocalyptic prophecies. The writing on the wall appears in ordinary language. All one needs for a modern-day utterance of “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is an aerosol can and some empirical data — for instance, from 1986, a year that has come to hold a symbolic quality after a series of fatal accidents (including Chernobyl).

What does the phrase “panic civilization” mean? Is the experience of panic compatible with civilization? Insofar as civilization is founded upon hope, repetition, security, and institutions, isn’t the absence or even the exclusion of panic one of the necessary conditions of civilization? We would wager it’s the opposite. Living civilizations are possible only thanks to the proximity of panic experiences — a moderate human domain in which we can cultivate the things in which we are competent arises only out of the occasional experience of immoderacy. According to one of his epithets, the Greek Pan was the god of high noon, the moment when shadows are shortest and the world, overwhelmed with light, holds its breath in its presence. The modern concept of panic neglects this connection between the present moment, revelation, and terror — all it retains is the kinetic motif of hurtling blindly onward. Above all, modernity has neglected the most important thing: that a bearable human life is always an island in the midst of the unbearable, and the islanders’ existence is guaranteed only as long as the ocean remains discreetly in the background. For this reason, the world that we hold as certain always rests upon a ground either of apocalypse (Judeo-Christian) or of panic (pagan). But modernity wants a present moment without the tears. Modernity conceives of civilization as a state in which the question of the origin of water is solved by faucets, just as the problem of the origin of “truth” is solved by the work of scientists. One immediately recognizes a panic civilization by its respect for water faucets: isn’t it possible the whole ocean might come out when you open one? And it’s no different in the case of the sciences. For a long time now, the sciences have been creating things that might cause the world to take shelter, just as men and beasts once protected themselves from the noonday light of the Greek god Pan.     

Certain questions have become inevitable. Does the alternative civilization, therefore, need catastrophe? Is it secretly in allegiance with catastrophe, as people have sometimes suspected? Is panic civilization necessarily hungry for disaster, since this disaster creates the only climate in which alternative ideas can hold considerable sway? Is catastrophe indispensable to the introduction of a different kind of development, just as a schoolteacher becomes indispensable once he or she finally convinces even the most recalcitrant students that the lessons are useful? Do humans in general need catastrophe because they need to be educated, and is this school-of-the-worst the only place where they can learn? If so, aren’t the real hopes of alternative movements linked to a secret wish for “learning-from-catastrophe,” insofar as it is true that the concrete lessons of disaster are the only thing that can force us to take a turn for the better?

I first came to understand the meaning of “learning-from-catastrophe” in drastic fashion, at the time of the reactor accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Three Mile Island) in 1979. As the reactor seethed uncontrollably, and we held our breaths to hear whether the hellish machine would explode, I observed in myself and in many others an uncanny phenomenon. Naturally, no one could fail to be aware of the devastation a reactor explosion would cause, nor could anyone guarantee that the notion of a safe distance between us and the reactor would keep its traditional meaning in an accident of this kind. And yet: at the time of Harrisburg, an option in favor of catastrophe hung in the air; we felt a sly sympathy with the reactor’s explosive materials. It was as if this deadly mass not only represented a physical grandeur, but also carried a critique of civilization, a critique that deserved to be brought to light. This little immoral neurosis in the presence of the faulty reactor wasn’t merely a perverse whim, unique to our circles, nor was it merely a symptom of pyromania or yet another proof of the human nervous system’s macabre tendencies, which spur us to procure new sensations through ever-stronger stimuli. An entire way of thinking revealed itself in broad daylight with its complex of problems. According to this logic, the explode option was nothing less than a pedagogical gamble on the didactic, opinion-transforming energy discharged by catastrophes that really happen.   

Chernobyl revealed the under­lying pedagogical implications of Harrisburg. For if the worst has to really happen before a change of mindset can occur, then the Harrisburg incident wasn’t “bad enough” from this perspective. Since the big explosion didn’t happen, the Harrisburg catastrophe never reached the threshold at which learning-from-catastrophe deploys its grim mathematics. This is the threshold where we think it becomes possible to establish indisputable links between catastrophe and discernment. By a precarious logic, these links are born of a large-scale application of the following principle: a person who doesn’t listen to counsel will learn his lesson at his own expense. Indeed, the concept of instruction through catastrophe carries the promise that even the biggest disasters can be brought back to a human scale through subsequent learning; that is, one can reduce them to the domain of reasonable measures taken to prevent them from happening again. As one might logically expect, the term “warning-catastrophe” had a good run in the vocabulary of alternative movements after Harrisburg — the term sums up the hope that catastrophes will penetrate, probe-like, into normally incorrigible consciousness and provoke new discernment.

This desperate theory of learning sheds light on the current state of the enterprise known since the 18th century as Enlightenment. The latter began as a utopia in which humankind could progress freely toward better knowledge. Through the gentle demonstrative power of the mind’s self-overhearing of the “voice of reason,” Enlightenment sought to do away with the violence that gashes our flesh each time we learn at our expense. But now even the old, well-meaning proponents of Enlightenment are ready to include outright catastrophe on the curriculum of humanity as the ultimate means of instruction, if it turns out that catastrophe is really the only way of teaching us anything. This explains how the classical Enlightenment, with its concept of truth founded upon argumentation, has found itself lamentably on the defensive. No one seriously believes that we can still get anything essential from listening to counsel. “Let us learn at our expense / for that old precept — listen to counsel — lies in ruins.” A number of these indefatigable fellows from the old Enlightenment troop would be all smiles if, among these catastrophes that gash our flesh, an 11th-hour treatment could contribute, even ever-so-slightly and at our own expense, to the establishment of truth in the “process of civilization” (ah, that word, those dimples!). Hence their strange emotional affinity for the disaster that really happens. That catastrophe will show them! Disaster, when it actually manifests itself, seems by all accounts to bridge the gap between argument and revelation; it overcomes the discrepancy between the dictates of the representations of consciousness and the dejection brought about by evident present facts. Catastrophe thus becomes a striking inversion of miracle: no, people will say — and why not? For it is the direct consequence of what the blinded activists are doing. Catastrophe that really happens thereby holds a very significant role in the theory of truth: catastrophe completes simple argument and confers massive presence upon what was previously merely represented. By overcoming the evidential gap between listening to counsel and learning at our own expense, didactic catastrophe sets the epiphanic truth of event above the discursive truth of representation. Thus, the problem of learning-from-catastrophe leads straight to the logical center of Enlightenment and of modernity. Isn’t modernity the very enterprise in which human intelligence ceased to content itself with uttering “correct” statements about the world? Modernity will declare itself satisfied only when it has actively made sure that what happens in the world as a whole is correct. But this active preoccupation with what is “correct” now finds itself in a radical crisis. For, if it is now the case that the catastrophe caused by humankind must serve to teach us how to act correctly, then this fatally shows that, under the aegis of success and truth, modernity no longer knows what to think of its conception of learned correct action.     

It has become difficult to tell the difference between the hope of learning from the worst at the last minute and the despair of ever being able to learn at all.

Four brief remarks, below, will illustrate the risks and limits of learning-from-catastrophe. The failure of this dejected theory of learning affords a plausible reason why alternative civilizations are only possible as panic civilizations. These remarks shed light on a question that every contemporary citizen has on the tip of their tongue: what else has to happen before something changes? From a practical perspective, this might also be stated as follows: what order of magnitude does a catastrophe need to attain before it can discharge the general lightning bolt of knowledge we are waiting for? At what point do catastrophes become evident reasons for awareness and a change of mindset? How bad do the things that happen to us have to be before there is an improvement? Does something bad really have to happen to us? Is the supposed relation between disaster and understanding valid?

It will be clear right from the first remark to what extent the answers to these questions must be problematic, or, even, to what extent the questions in themselves are problematic. Clearly, no quantitative measure can be adopted as a “didactically” sufficient magnitude of disaster. Human consciousness possesses a multifaceted capacity for remaining immune to catastrophic evidence. In all likelihood, the silent majority always keeps outside the potential didactic range of major disasters. This is compounded by the fact that, in the modern world, many citizens have long since begun to experience their era as a series of fateful misfortunes that cannot be attributed to any reasonable will at all. A second kind of fatalism, now prominent, arises in a consciousness when it becomes aware of just how differently things turn out from how we have conceived them. For that matter, modern societies’ most powerful groups have invested themselves so heavily in the most dangerous techniques of mobilization — politically, ideologically, economically, and biologically — that it is now unlikely that even the gravest of accidents could provoke any fundamental doubts about the civilization process. In these circles, one finds mindsets massively and irreversibly specialized in mobilization; these mindsets remain unshakable in the bunkers of their reflexes. Evident catastrophe, even when it is truly present, slips off these structures. For them, the revelation doesn’t happen. When push comes to shove, consciousness is harder than facts, and those who once declined to listen to counsel (when it was still possible to listen) will also now refuse to learn at their own expense. […]

But we are witnessing the agony of truth. The old alliance between light and truth — the photologic pact of Western rationality — has been broken ever since we gained the power to use that which bears light as that which brings death. Nuclear weapons are also epoch-making from a philosophical point of view. From a photologic perspective, truth accomplishes itself as a revelatory action on a scale of three degrees: in ascending order, these range from the natural and artificial illumination of solid bodies that become visible through autarkic reflection; to the active and invasive radiography of bodies; to the final transformation of bodies into light. Photologic Enlightenment understands all possible objects from the point of view of their ability to be illuminated, penetrated by X-rays, or transformed into light. If Enlightenment carries its own dramatic finality toward which it tends, this consists in the operation by which the initial difference between light and matter — as found in simple lighting — disappears in the final transformation of matter into light. During the time when Enlightenment was still operating in the middle (analytic) stage of the logic of X-rays, it was itself blind to the final stage of its own movement toward the light — the photokinetic dimension of this process became transparent only at the moment when modern atomic physics reached the third degree, the radical transformation of matter into light. At that point, cutting-edge photocratic technologies carried this photologic process to its necessary conclusion by directly transforming matter into “light” — brighter than a thousand suns. But what can we still recognize in such a light? Is the light of nuclear explosion a light in which the world learns something about its situation? Or does this very light not transform itself into the ultimate event: the disappearance of things in a storm of light? Instead of shedding light on things, the light that transforms matter into light liquidates things and those who desired to know them.

Certain aspects of these paradoxes also hold consequences for the speculations of pedagogy-by-catastrophe. People who bet on learning-from catastrophe await the explosion that will bring light to dark minds. They want a “warning-catastrophe.” They want the real transformation of matter into light to become the light that critically X-rays our civilization process. Anyone who thinks this logic through to its end arrives at a fatal conclusion: the only convincing warning of the end of the world is the actual decline of the world. Only real disaster can prove a truth that must appear in full apocalyptic presence in order to be completely true. Therefore, the only catastrophe that will appear clear to everyone is the catastrophe that no one survives.

When all the possibilities for turning catastrophe into a pedagogical tool have been exhausted from top to bottom, and all have been understood in their necessary failure, then this reflex for an epoch-making headlong flight has nowhere to go. The forces that simultaneously protect themselves from and create catastrophe suddenly begin to accumulate in themselves. The watchword of the era is no longer: “Run for your lives!” but rather: “Know where you stand.” This gives birth to a situation in which panic consciousness could transform itself into a civilization. Before, everything was still Biedermeier with rockets.
The uttermost experience of panic is the only thing that can deliver us from the didactic delusion — panic bridges the way toward a consciousness that no longer expects anything, not even from catastrophe, and certainly not from critical revelations about civilization. Panic civilization begins where the constant headlong flight of mobilization ends. That’s why the “history” of a panic civilization will play itself out as a chronic end of history — the kinetic motifs that have heretofore made history will be tamed here by an explicit civilization, whose efforts will consist in preventing the eruption of new epoch-making impulses, since it has a precise post-historical understanding of the catastrophe caused by historical mobilization. In this way, a kind of consciousness that had previously remained esoteric — known in spiritualist jargon as illumination — would become a public affair. In a panic-ecstatic civilization, entire populations would accomplish this task formerly achieved only by a select few — the leap of consciousness toward the end of time contained in the fullness of time, and the subject’s extrication of itself from the causality that binds flight to hope. In this way, a post-historical panic civilization would become the only alternative to our historical mobilization-civilization, which at present has no future at all, except a countdown.


excerpt from eurotaoismus: zur kritik der politischen kinetik, peter sloterdijk, edition suhrkamp, 1989


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The Cosmos Issue #32

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