Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32

the creation of the world or globalization


the creation of the world or globalization

theory by JEAN-LUC NANCY

Urbi et Orbi [to the city and the world]: this phrase from the papal blessing has passed into ordinary language, with the sense: “everywhere and anywhere.” More than a shift in meaning, this is a disintegration. It does not merely come from the dissolution of the Christian religious bond that continued, more or less, to hold the Western world together until the mid-20th century (which is really when the 19th century finished dismantling its certitudes — history, science, triumphant humanism — either alongside or against the remnants of Christianity). It also comes from the fact that it has become strictly impossible to identify a city that might stand as “The City” — as Rome did for so long — or an orb that might delimit the contours of a world extending around this city; it has even become impossible to define the city or the globe in general. The city has multiplied and extended itself to a point where, as it tends to cover the entire globe, it has lost the properties that make it a city, which of course also implies the loss of those properties that used to allow us to distinguish a “countryside.” What extends in this way is no longer “urban” in the strict sense of the word — urban planning and urbanity are equally absent here — but rather megalopolitical, metropolitan, or conurbational, or else it lies caught in that loose net that people call the “urban fabric.” This fabric is where city crowds in all their hyperbolic accumulation of constructions (with accompanying destructions) and traders (who deal in flows, merchandise, information) extend and sprawl. And in direct proportion to these accumulations, we see an accumulation of the gaps and segregations in the access to urban things (whether habitat, comfort, or culture), along with those outright exclusions that cities have always generated, their rejects and dejects. What results from all this seems less and less capable of being called anything except an agglomeration, with its overtones of conglomeration and congestion, its sense of an accumulation that simply concentrates on one side (in a few districts, a few houses, sometimes a few gated micro-cities) the well-being that was once called urban or civil, while, on the other side, it piles up that which carries the very plain and pitiless name of misery.

This fabric cast over the planet — and already beyond it as well, in the orbiting cohort of satellites and their debris — deforms orbs and urbs alike. The agglomeration offends and gnaws away at the thing that believed itself to be a globe and is now merely its linguistic double: a glomus. This glomus plays home to the conjunction of an indefinite growth in techno-science, a correlative exponential growth in population, an escalation of inequalities of all kinds — economic, biological, cultural — and a wild dissipation of the certitudes, images, and identities that used to compose the parts of the world and the characters of humanity.

The civilization that once represented reason and the universal — the one that used to be called Western civilization — is no longer even capable of admitting that its norms are relative or its convictions uncertain: something it had already accomplished two centuries ago. (Hegel wrote in 1802: “The extension, according to natural necessity, of commerce with foreign nations, as for example the commerce between Europe and a new continent, has had a skeptical effect on the dogmatism of their sense of community such as it existed before, and on the irrefutable certitude of a host of concepts concerning law and truth.”) This skepticism, which Hegel saw as a fruitful means of calling dogmatism into question, can no longer count on a future whose dialectic might carry reason further on, further up, until it meets a truth and a meaning of the world. On the contrary, in one fell swoop our confidence in historical progress was suspended; the convergence of knowledge, ethics, and living-well-together disintegrated; and the domination of a twofold empire of technological power and pure economic reason asserted itself. 

The West eventually came to cover the world, and in doing so it disappeared, insofar as it was supposed to direct the course of this world. And yet, to date it cannot be said that any other configuration of the world or conception of reason and the universal has asserted a valid claim. Even when people demand a return to the “spiritual” (or a “revolution,” which is perhaps not so different), the very demand betrays itself either as wishful thinking, having lost all pretense of effective capacity, or as a modest way of saving face — except when it reveals itself as a further means of exploiting the conditions created by economic and technological exploitation. (For some time now, we have seen countless dissertations devoted to the sterile theme of taking what is “positive” in the West and injecting it with something new — some “values” — from some African, Buddhist, Islamic, Taoist, hyper-Christian, or even hyper-Communist soul.)

The world has lost its capacity to compose a world: in exchange, it seems to have gained only the power to multiply to its fullest extent such a proliferation of unearthly filth as the entirety of the globe had never seen until this day, whatever one might say of retrospective illusions. To finish, everything takes place as if the world were tormented and traversed by a death drive that will soon have nothing left to destroy except the world itself.

This isn’t about pondering or opting for destruction or salvation. For we do not even know what one or the other might mean, nor do we know what form another civilization or another savagery rising from the ruins of the West might take, nor do we know what could be “safe” when there is no space outside the epidemic (in this regard, the AIDS epidemic is exemplary, as are also, on another level, certain epizootics: the sheer size of the world,
of its technologies and its habitus, carries to an incommensurable height the terror of the plagues of times past).

The destruction of the world is not hypothetical: it is, in a certain sense, the one established fact upon which every thought of the world today depends. This is so all-encompassing, however, that we don’t know exactly what “destroy” means, nor exactly what “world” is being destroyed. Perhaps only one thing remains for us — I mean one thought in which we can have a sliver of confidence: what is taking place is actually taking place; in other words, this is happening, and therefore what is happening to us is more than a history, more even than an event. Everything is taking place as if Being itself — whether as existence or as substance — had caught us by surprise from some unnameable elsewhere. And make no mistake that what causes us this anguish is the ambivalence of the unnameable: an elsewhere for which no Otherness can offer us the least analogy.



excerpt  from la création du monde ou la mondialisation [the creation of the world or globalization] by jean-luc nancy éditions galilée, 2002

[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32

Table of contents

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