“It’s a dead calm, isn’t it?”
“It is, sir. But there’s something out of the common coming, for sure.”
—Joseph Conrad, Typhoon
Nothing happens. A dull sea, the color of slate, mirrors the gray skies billowing above. The sun flickers through the mist, its pale disc begging for an appearance, like an old actor whose glory has passed. The wind has slackened. Any sense of direction and purpose has given way to aimless drift. Time seems to have come to a halt. Ennui builds—and yet, the stillness is rife with threat.
In Conrad’s novella Typhoon, the lull is the omen of a catastrophe foretold. Everything seems to be in a state of suspension that could unravel at any moment. The lull exists only against the backdrop of a cataclysmic event, provisionally deferred and yet constantly prefigured. Nothing happens, but everything feels “tense and unsafe like a slender hair holding a sword suspended over [one’s] head.” Located somewhere over the line of the horizon, the menace remains abstract and invisible. Or perhaps it’s just a figment of the imagination, something one might have read about in navigation manuals but that reality can never quite match. At least, this is the impression of MacWhirr, the captain of the steamer in Typhoon. He decides to stay his course.
In his famous 1989 essay, Francis Fukuyama made uneventfulness the defining feature of our time. One could tell that we had reached the end of history when nothing happened anymore. Of late, it is fashionable to dismiss Fukuyama’s pronouncement as disconfirmed by recent events, but these criticisms largely miss his point. The end of history does not mean that “there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs,” as he pointed out, only that such events, no matter how dramatic they may turn out to be, would not fundamentally alter the foundations of social life, since it had reached its most accomplished form with the ideological dominance of liberal democracy.
There was nothing catastrophic about this conclusion, but Fukuyama’s tone was not quite triumphant either. Something was lost in the consummation of history—a sense of possibility, the expectation of future fulfillment, a fundamental striving. Art and philosophy would disappear because there was nothing left to contemplate beyond the here and now and no aspiration to transcend the present. Humanity would have little else to do besides ministering to its material needs. Fukuyama admitted to “the most ambivalent feelings” about such prospects. The end of history would be a long lull in which nothing would happen.
The end of history was not an idea that was original to Fukuyama; rather, as befits an age of ideological exhaustion, it was a vintage reissue harking back to an earlier era. The idea was hatched in the rubble of the Second World War and set the tone of intellectual life in the 1950s. Jacques Derrida once reminisced that it was the “daily bread” on which aspiring philosophers were raised back then. Its charismatic impresario was the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Many others, however, came to terms with the idea the way one does with an ominous prognosis. For the German philosopher Karl Löwith, the end of history was primarily a crisis of meaning and purpose regarding the direction of human existence; for Talmudic scholar and charismatic intellectual Jacob Taubes, it was the exhaustion of eschatological hopes, the last of which were vested in Marxism; for the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, the collapse of secular and religious faith; for the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, it meant that the task of finding meaning in human existence had become a purely individual burden; and for the political theorist Judith Shklar, it morphed into an “eschatological consciousness” that “extended from the merely cultural level” to the point where “all mankind is faced with its final hour.” Kojève, however, was upbeat. Building on his idiosyncratic reading of Hegel, he suggested that the principles of liberal constitutionalism represented the rational culmination of human history. Henceforth, all of humanity would be gradually absorbed into the “universal and homogeneous State”—what we call today the liberal, rule-based international order—and everything would be just fine, if a bit boring.
Kojève’s enthusiasm for liberal internationalism was the latest expression of an evolution that had previously seen him endorse Stalin’s Soviet Union and later Vichy France as the possible terminus ad quem of human history. After the war, he saw in the process of European integration the embryonic outline of the last empire, the emergence of which he proceeded to hasten by working as a high-level official of the French government in the negotiations that eventually established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In claiming that humanity had reached its destination with the emergence of the liberal international order, Kojève was putting a positive spin on what many experienced as the loss of the main bearings of modernity.
The postwar years were also a time of anxiety. Auschwitz and Hiroshima had marked the collapse of the great belief systems that projected meaning in history, leaving behind a liberalism premised on the very limitations and finitude of the human condition that it had previously promised to transcend. While nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberals still believed in the possibility of substantially improving the human lot, their Cold War successors had come to view such expectations as a juvenile mistake that had paved the way to totalitarianism. Liberalism had not only forsaken its earlier claims to progress, but now looked with diffidence, if not hostility, to any perfectionist strivings. It merely “concentrate[d] on damage control,” as Judith Shklar later put it—making it the perfect ideological expression of a life that now took place in the shadow of the apocalypse.
Among those who weren’t convinced by Kojève’s highbrow advertising campaign was the German philosopher Günther Anders. Anders remains little known in the Anglophone world, where his major works have yet to be translated. Shortchanged of the fame he deserves for his ideas, he is usually recalled as Hannah Arendt’s first husband or the man who accused Jonathan Schell of plagiarizing him when Schell’s The Fate of the Earth was published in 1982. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Anders did not simply register the exhaustion of the modern historical imagination and its debilitating effects on human agency. He was interested in what happened behind the scenes, in the machinery that created the illusion of a calm surface while everything seemed about to unravel. He knew that the end of history was not just an ideological phenomenon but the reflection of a new material and human reality: the existence of the atomic bomb and the possibility of an end to life itself.
To capture this new condition, Anders settled for the image of the lull—an “eschatological lull” that had to do with final things and the consummation of history. Only theological concepts, he suggested, could make sense of humanity’s predicament at the time of its possible disappearance. The bomb had transferred to humanity destructive powers that had long been a divine prerogative. Anonymous officers on swivel chairs and sealed launch codes may have replaced the four horsemen and the seven seals, but no matter how secularized it had become, the apocalypse remained a transcendent event, independent from human action. The Doomsday Machine may have been a fiction born in the feverish dreams of Cold War intellectuals, yet it symbolized an unprecedented situation that saw human life take place in the shadow of self-steering technological systems. The future of humanity had been entrusted to technologies that could not be “undone.” In that sense too the lull was “eschatological”: it was not just a new stage in the history of mankind, it was also the last.
In this situation of extreme discrepancy between the ever-present possibility of the end and the seemingly impassive attitude of most, what struck Anders was the absence of any signs of outward disturbance. As in Conrad’s tale, catastrophe seemed to manifest itself in uneventfulness. “If one excepts the agitation within scientific circles,” he wrote, “one does not register the smallest panic.” Anders understood that the atomic bomb was not just an ordnance of unprecedented might: it was the culmination of successive industrial revolutions which brought to a point of incandescence the contradiction of a form of life that was also a form of self-destruction. It was the symbol of “an era in which we ceaselessly manage the production of our own destruction.” Yet humanity carried on unperturbed, apparently inured to the possibility of its own extinction. Strong on oceanic metaphors, Anders suggested that we were now “all in the same boat.” What he had in mind was probably a vessel that needs many miles to be turned around—perhaps an ocean liner headed for an iceberg, with an orchestra playing on the deck.
Reading Anders today elicits an uncanny feeling of déjà vu, as he perfectly captured the cultural affinities between the end of history and an apocalyptic ecology. It also raises the disturbing possibility that the uneventfulness that for Fukuyama distinguishes the end of history was just our experience of the catastrophe, its delusional phenomenology. Like MacWhirr, the captain of the steamer in Typhoon who had only a bookish knowledge of biblical storms, we assume that planetary catastrophes are the stuff of IPCC reports.
The experience of catastrophe as uneventfulness is at the center of an inspiring essay by the philosopher Jonathan Lear, which revolves around something the great Crow chief Plenty Coups (1848-1932) told his biographer, Frank B. Linderman. In the late 1920s, over the course of several sessions, Linderman recorded Plenty Coups’s recollections of a life rich with battle feats, prophetic dreams and tribulations. Asked about the life of the Crows after they were moved to a reservation, the old warrior dismissed the question with an intriguing answer: “After this nothing happened.”
What could he have meant? Of course, things kept happening in the life of Plenty Coups and of his tribe: elders died, children were born, traditions were kept and relations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs could be tense. And yet, “nothing happened.” The pronouncement is so odd, Lear writes, that one is tempted to understand it as an expression of dejection, following the passing of the Crows’ traditional way of life—perhaps a symptom of depression. And yet, Lear points out, “ostensibly Plenty Coups is making a claim about the world,” not about a state of mind.
What the Crows experienced was the collapse of their lifeworld. The traditional Crow way of life was structured around two cardinal virtues: being a warrior and being a hunter. Waging battles against rival nations and engaging in seasonal buffalo hunts were the supreme purposes of Crow existence and gave meaning to every other activity, down to the smallest gestures of everyday life. Everything was oriented toward them. “Nothing happened,” then, meant that once the telos of Crow life had disappeared, any subsequent happenings had already lost their purpose and become meaningless. In such a situation, Lear observes, “the concepts with which [one] would otherwise have understood [oneself] … have gone out of existence.” An invisible cultural scaffolding supporting a form of life and a way of being in the world has collapsed. Suddenly, the world no longer offers a solid backdrop to our existence and to our aspirations. It is as if there had been in Plenty Coups’s life “a moment when history came to an end.”
Can we relate such an experience of catastrophe, including its psychological manifestations, to the theological concepts that alone, Anders thought, could make sense of our condition at the end of history? Most Christian theological concepts have been created to address the problem of eschatology, and in particular the delay of the Parousia. Initially thought to be imminent, the return of the Christ soon became a long wait. But he had come and he would return. By anchoring faith in a past event, Christian dogma removed eschatological pressure from the present: the end could be indefinitely deferred while still being bound to happen. The formula was summed up by Oscar Cullmann in his classic Christ and Time: “That which has already happened offers the solid guarantee for that which will take place.” What distinguishes the end times is not the imminence of the end, but the fact that nothing of real significance can happen while we are waiting for it. Prophecy replaced history. The eschatological lull was a distinctively Christian invention.
We find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of the one the early Christians faced. What we call the “Anthropocene” appears to be nothing but the playing out of a previous dispensation—in this case, the cumulated effects of industrialization and global capitalism that began before we were born and have set our world on a course we can hardly hope to alter. Its general form is that of fulfillment and its happenings those of a prophecy averred. It forces upon us an experience of time not unlike what the early Christians must have felt: what will happen in the future has already taken place in the past. Even in the absence of a tangible confirmation, our belief in invisible forces is solicited, and we must accept that a cosmic drama is playing out beyond the narrow confines of our senses. When the time comes, our deeds will be tallied and we shall be held to account. In short: we have it coming.
Anders emphasized that, unlike the apocalypse the early Christians expected with trepidation, the catastrophic possibilities of the Anthropocene were imminent and real. Perhaps this is the case—but from a psychological perspective, what made the early Christian sense of crisis different from ours was clearly not the reality of the threat. “In a discussion of how people behave under eschatological threat,” Frank Kermode once suggested, “it would be childish to argue … that nuclear bombs are more real and make one experience more authentic crisis-feelings than armies in the sky.” The major difference lay rather in the fact that the early Christians not only experienced the end as if it were really upon them, but also as something more than just an end. For them, the fulfillment of history opened onto the possibility of salvation and eternal life. The end of the world was only the end of this world—a better one lay ahead, and it was just around the corner.
The end we face is intransitive and unforgiving; it offers no redemption. “We have learned to wait without hope,” Karl Löwith observed in 1949: “We find ourselves more or less at the end of the modern rope.” There is no Kingdom in waiting under the melting ice cap; no new dawn, or maybe a last flicker of light fading into the cold silence of eternity. Unlike the early Christians, we have nothing to put wind in our sails, and nothing to look forward to, except an absolute end. Exeunt omnes.
When the dense cultural backdrop that sustained the possibility of a meaningful life collapses, one must latch on to the hope that the world contains an unknown good, the possibility of a new telos. It may be still concealed in the haze of the future and has yet to reveal itself to us, but there is a good life out there. This wager is inherent to our sense of inhabiting a world. This orientation to the future was known to the ancients and was fundamental to salvific religions.
In Radical Hope, Lear contends that the Crow tradition provided Plenty Coups with the tools to create, over time, a new vision of life for his people, one that could succeed the period in which “nothing happened.” Dreams and their interpretation by the tribe elders were a cultural resource that allowed the Crow to cope in creative ways with unforeseen existential threats. As a young boy, Plenty Coups had a dream in which a spirit announced to him the tribulations of the Crows and the disappearance of their traditional way of life, but also adumbrated the possibility of a renewal of Crow life, the precise contours of which could not yet be anticipated.
The dream indicated the possibility that the tribe would “weather the oncoming storm” and come out on the other side with a new way to live well, “a genuine, positive, and honorable way of going forward” in which traditional virtues became reimagined around goals and contents that could not be fathomed in advance. It offered the possibility not just of survival but of “revival” after catastrophe.
The specifics of this future good life were not revealed to Plenty Coups, yet it is the cultural currency of this dream that allowed the old chief to indicate new ways for his tribe to show courage and creatively reinterpret traditional virtues in radically altered conditions, leaving behind old understandings of the good life. In the end, the Crows succeeded in retaining part of their land and in developing an acceptable modus vivendi alongside white settlers, while other, comparable tribes remained “stuck in a past world,” or disappeared with it.
Because such visions are an anticipation of a future we don’t yet know how to think about, Lear writes, it is a form of imagination that does not need to be too detailed. It is unavoidable that, in situations of existential crisis, our longing for something better than survival does not come with a ready-made implementation plan. What matters is the cultural availability of this imagination.
Our way of life is ending too. Yet, unlike Plenty Coups and the Crows, we seem unable to express our anxiety in forward-looking dreams or to muster the cultural resources that would enable us to reinvent ourselves. Instead, we seem capable only of extending the lull. “We cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better,” Fukuyama observed. It is as if our culture systematically works to stifle our imagination rather than to activate it.
The more general lesson in Plenty Coups’s story is that a healthy orientation toward the world assumes that it contains a future good beyond the narrow historical horizon of a given way of life. This possibility is inherent to the human condition and to its basic striving to transcend limitations in creative ways. “It seems oddly inappropriate,” Lear writes, “to think that what is good about the world is exhausted by our current understanding of it.” It would imply a fundamental incapacity to move forward in challenging times. Yet this is precisely what the culture of the end of history is about: the ethical consummation of human striving and the exhaustion of further possibilities of good life. We have nothing left to look forward to.
Precisely when Plenty Coups told his story to Linderman, psychologists inspired by phenomenology and existentialism gave a name to this experience of catastrophic uneventfulness: Weltuntergangserlebnis—literally, end-of-the-world experience. It was a morbid condition, usually associated with schizophrenia, and it manifested itself in apocalyptic visions and a paranoid feeling of disempowerment. Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, famously analyzed by Freud, offers a collection of such visions. Yet there was more to this experience than the torment of an individual mind: it was also a cultural phenomenon.
In a compilation of notes and material for a book interrupted by his death in 1965—the book was later published under the title La fine del mondo (“The End of the World”)—the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino interpreted the psychopathological experience of the Weltuntergangserlebnis in relation to the eschatological function of religious and political cultures. For de Martino, human cultures included a redemptive element that made it possible to transcend the finiteness of human experience and transform present conditions. This was true of early Christianity as much as of Marxism, but also of more distant cultures. De Martino had accumulated material on the millenarian cults and prophetic religions that had allowed African societies to navigate the violent shock of colonialism and now seemed to reemerge as the colonial world had started to dissolve and a new future had to be invented. At every critical juncture, at every closure of the existential horizon, these eschatological cultures rediscovered the possibility of a future. What looked like a terminus ad quem from afar revealed itself to be a way station upon closer scrutiny. Endings became new beginnings, and a form of existence that seemed threatened found renewed confirmation. Whether in its religious or secular versions, the possibility of hope, redemption and renovation turned final prospects into regenerative epiphanies.
But there were also cases when these cultural resources went missing. Then, individuals faced critical junctures alone, without the escape hatch of collective hope. De Martino saw the symptoms of such a crisis in the culture of his own time, which registered the crisis of bourgeois society without a transformative vision and expressed as “existentialism” the triumph of boredom and uneventfulness. The crisis ceased to be culturally regenerative and instead became crushing and final: there was nothing beyond the abyss toward which everything seemed inexorably bound. Instead of turning a cape, one reached the end of the world, of the sort populated by monsters in ancient maps, and was about to fall off its edge. What should have been a “great New Year” turns out to be “a final Sabbath.”
Although La fine del mondo was never written up, the materials de Martino had collected offer a diagnosis of the malaise that suffuses contemporary liberalism. “The current cultural juncture,” he wrote, “entertains a notion of the end outside any religious horizon of redemption, i.e. as a desperate catastrophe of the mundane, the domestic, the familiar, the meaningful and the actionable.” In this condition, any sense of historical agency vanishes and the world no longer feels like a human creation reflecting past visions of a future. It ceases to be “our” world and becomes an alien and hostile environment in which any strivings seem to be thwarted in advance and any aspirations frustrated. One feels estranged and prey to obscure forces and dark plots, “victim of conspiracies, machinations, curses.”
Both Anders and de Martino understood that Kojève’s sunny announcement of the end of history had pathological implications. Once modern liberalism became the last historical horizon, its incapacity to envision the future as anything other than a catastrophic blank could only metastasize. The passive and desolate Weltuntergangserlebnis was something contemporary culture endlessly generated by presenting itself as the last horizon of human existence.
Of course, one could simply dismiss the whole idea of the end of history as another failed prophecy—the standard criticism of Fukuyama. By definition, announcements that history has ended always look premature when considered in retrospect, those of the postwar years particularly so. No one would seriously argue that nothing has happened since 1945: the triumph and subsequent demise of the welfare state, decolonization, or the fall of the Berlin Wall are only a few momentous events that would put such a delusion to rest. But such objections miss the extent to which the end of history has always been a cultural phenomenon—and in that sense, a real one. When the idea was first articulated in the aftermath of World War II, it captured the collapse of political and religious eschatologies that had offered the narrative arc within which historical events could be fitted. Suddenly, history became brittle, like a music score molto staccato in which every event is a self-contained note separated from the others by an unbridgeable hiatus. The result was atonal, if not cacophonic. Postwar liberal culture registered events outside any meaningful succession.
The idea of the end was more attractive than acknowledging there was no meaningful and continuous process. So there was the end of ideology, the end of empire, the end of man, the end of the Cold War, the end of Communism and ultimately the end of history. Even literary theory registered this trend—the death of the author, the death of the novel, the literature of exhaustion—as it reflected the crisis of a kind of storytelling in which the end is what reveals the ultimate meaning of everything that took place before. There were no more master narratives, only grand finales. With entropic inexorability, what followed was the end of truth, and now, imminently, the end of nature.
The Crows, whose culture was violently taken away from them, had no choice but to hope for the possibility of another form of life. In our case, something prevents us from imagining a new life even as we constantly contemplate the disappearance of our present one. There remains activism for greater social justice or other causes, but it is noteworthy that its general orientation has been increasingly toward the past: it is often concerned with history and seeks to compensate, if only in symbolic ways, for past injustices. In a sort of redemptive recapitulation, we seek, understandably, to make the end of history more inclusive and more just, and thus more acceptable. It may be, however, that the end of history is an untenable situation regardless of its inclusiveness. In any case, curating our past was one of the defining cultural features of the end of history, what Fukuyama has called the “perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” This caretaking is the characteristic activity of a people for whom nothing can happen.
To the extent that our political culture seeks justification, it does so in a counter-apocalyptic role. We remain tethered to our way of life not because it is good, but because there is nothing else on offer. In fact, we no longer seem able to make that kind of distinction. This conflation of two sorts of ends is central to the “end of history”: as Kojève once pointed out in a letter to Leo Strauss, “the universal and homogeneous state is ‘good’ only because it is the last.” In his view, being poised at the edge of the abyss waived the need for moral justification, or rather it took its place. Fukuyama himself acknowledges that the triumph of liberalism is a largely Pyrrhic victory, a win by default for lack of challengers. But to shore up its credibility as the last bulwark, it must constantly remind us that it is staving off the apocalypse: après moi, le déluge.
Millenarian and apocalyptic myths have always been closely related to imperial ideologies. Early in the third century, Tertullian was the first to grasp the pro-imperial potential of Paul’s obscure allusion to a bulwark against chaos postponing the end of times: the mysterious katechon or “retainer” mentioned in the second letter to the Thessalonians. Who could that be, Tertullian asked, “if not the Roman state?” In the great scheme of things, Rome was supposed to be the last earthly regime. Yet once it had converted an empire to its dogma, the early Christian church discarded millenarianism as a troublesome leftover from its revolutionary past, now recast as heresy.
In the twentieth century, the defenders of elite rule who entertained ambivalent views of democracy have similarly arrayed themselves against the forces of apocalyptic provocation. D. H. Lawrence considered John’s Revelation a populist pamphlet catering to the resentment of the lower classes. It was a “repulsive work” that had only one message: “Down with the strong and the powerful, and let the poor be glorified.” It encapsulated the Christianity of “the lowest classes and mediocre people” who would never “get a chance to be kings.” In the 1960s, the historian Richard Hofstadter gave the same arguments a Morningside Heights flair when he turned American populism into a paranoid form catering to the resentment of those left behind by the liberal consensus: “like religious millenarians,” the modern populist expressed “the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.” It is not a coincidence if Hofstadter’s writings are enjoying a revival today as intellectual bromides for anxious liberals. Nor that Fukuyama dismissed challenges to liberalism as the work of “crackpot messiahs.”
Little has changed, save for an overhaul of our apocalyptic lexicon: we no longer say “katechon” but “resilience,” “quantitative easing” or “#resistance.” Like all its predecessors, today’s empire props up its waning legitimacy by constantly working on the edge of the abyss. It discovers and defuses weapons of mass destruction. It fights climate change. It prevents financial meltdown. It keeps watch against the horned barbarians massing outside the Capitol’s gates. It knows no battle that is not a Manichean fight over world order. Its ethics are those of escalation. In the absence of a future different from the present, holding the line against chaos becomes a substitute for political vision.
In the early years of the nuclear age, Anders was looking in vain for signs of panic as the end had become a constant possibility. Today, some find it tempting to shock us out of our torpor by relying on apocalyptic agitation: the end is nigh! This explains the current intellectual appeal of political theology—from Carl Schmitt revivals to Agambenian incantations—which is expected to take over where politics has failed. Yet as much as apocalyptic agitation can be threatening to the institutions in charge of extending the lull, it can also easily become nihilistic and unproductive. Contemporary apocalypticism is too bereft of salvific prospects to give any kind of hope for a better life in this world: it revels in the prospect of catastrophe but can’t offer more than an ersatz of revolutionary politics without the fruits of revolution. At best, its gestures are purely liturgical. In its more impoverished manifestations it devolves into the pathological Weltuntergangserlebnis behind all kinds of paranoid fantasies. That political theologians sometimes morph into anti-vax conspiracy theorists is not unheard of.
If apocalyptic agitation is not the way forward, what is? “In health,” Jonathan Lear writes in his latest book, Imagining the End, “we imagine alternative possibilities. Our imaginations open up the future, recreate the past, and enliven the present.” And what if we are not in health? Should we then look toward other cultural traditions—maybe those of people who, like the Crows, had a more symbiotic relation to nature? Should we instead make the natural world party to our political institutions (George Kennan once suggested it needed diplomats, Bruno Latour that it should be brought into parliaments)? Should we comb through our past for promising ideas that have been discarded along the way—the proverbial “roads not taken” historians are so fond of? How do we liberate our imagination from the straitjackets into which it is currently channeled and from the negative fantasies that paralyze it? How do we reimagine a world fit for human life, away from the Weltuntergangserlebnis that defines our collective experience? How can we recover a healthy imagination?
The notion that the current state of things is “good” because it is “the last” is a poor justification for keeping things as they are: So why do we settle for it? Perhaps such a situation offers us certain satisfactions. Strauss once said that a world where the political forces that made history were exhausted would be a world without “seriousness.” But do we really wish to live “seriously”? Surely there is something enjoyable in leaving seriousness behind and indulging in “liberal democracy … combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos,” as Fukuyama put it. This is especially true if democratic choices have relatively unserious consequences.
But we can now see how the comfort we might have taken from embracing the lull has robbed us of the resources we need to face the multiple crises of the present. One way to take stock of that loss is to look at what has happened to language. An entire vocabulary that used to put the shape of the future within our grasp—words like “peace,” “progress” or even “revolution”—can no longer be used seriously. This does not mean, of course, that these words are not used, only that we use them with the neutralizing distance of irony or historicization: we can’t be serious, we can’t possibly mean it. There was a time when it wasn’t just philosophers like Günther Anders who thought that the Anthropocene required a new world organization: when the most realist political thinkers of his generation spoke of moving beyond the injustices of capitalism or the horrors of war, about creating genuine equality or global peace through regional or world federalism, they could not have been more serious. If these proposals sound jejune today, it says something about our condition, not theirs. Their imagination was healthy and capable of projecting another world beyond the catastrophe, while we can only live in its long, crepuscular shadow.
Their visions were still premised on the humanist assumption that the future is ours to shape. The end of history, when understood not as a prophecy but as a prevailing mood or Weltuntergangserlebnis—one with roots that reach back long before the fall of the Berlin Wall—seems to have gradually eroded this assumption, diminished our faith in our own creativity and left us unable to change at a critical time. The language of collective aspirations now seems disconnected from reality; it no longer gives us access to a world we are reaching for but seems to place it out of our reach.
Yet the multifold crisis of the Anthropocene is not just another apocalyptic prospect that will shore up the current social order and make it more “resilient.” It also unravels its foundations. The “universal and homogeneous state” was always predicated on the idea of an inexhaustible nature, the infinite exploitation of which would contain emerging political conflicts within narrow limits by constantly expanding the wealth to be shared, no matter how unequally. This was axiomatic for Kojève—in fact, it provided nothing less than the opening of the famous note announcing the end of history in the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: “The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity.” Today, we know this isn’t true. The climate crisis exposes the end of history for the illusion it always was.
At the end of Typhoon, against all odds, the steamer eventually reaches its port of call. The storm had been real. But it becomes clear that what had made it such a formidable menace was the drama unfolding in the ship’s hold, along with Captain MacWhirr’s refusal to heed the early warning signs. We have no choice but to recover the seriousness that we were told was no longer needed. And there may be something joyful, perhaps even elating, in rediscovering that aspirations can define the good that the future holds in stock or, like Plenty Coups, that dreams may disclose livable worlds.
Art credits: Ingrid Weyland. Topographies of Fragility XIV (2019), archival pigment print; Topographies of Fragility VII (2020), archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and Klompching Gallery, New York.