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A few epistemological considerations for the attention of those who wish to rebel against extinction

Let “things go on as before”: this is the catastrophe. It does not lie in what will happen, but in what, in every situation, is given.

Walter Benjamin

It is the negative that we still have to do, the positive is already given to us.

Franz Kafka

Originally published by Lundi Matin. Written by André Phage. Translated by Autonomies.

In 1681, an English author named Thomas Burnet wrote Telluris Theoria Sacra and gives to the word catastrophe its modern meaning: a fatal upheaval on a large scale.

He supposes that the earth, formerly perfect and smooth, was ravaged by a first catastrophe. We humans live on “a second work, the best that can be done with debris”; debris doomed to a new purification by the devastating fire that will again make the earth a perfect heavenly body. The notion of catastrophe then slips from the individual (his catastrophe) to the possibility of “a catastrophe”, and thus surrounds itself with a mass aura. Two centuries later, in 1837, catastrophism was introduced by the English historian and philosopher William Whewell to characterise thinkers, who like the naturalist George Cuvier, argue that the history of the Earth can only be explained by major changes, having affected large parts of the earth’s surface (whether in politics or biology). Faced with the catastrophism of Cuvier’s natural history (which uses the word revolution as synonymous with catastrophe), the other scientific hypothesis is that of the geologist Charles Lyell. In Principles of Geology of 1830, he states that any scientific thought wishing to understand the changes of the past, must only look at slow effects and long term causes. The camp of uniformitarianism stands up against that of catastrophism. A long time versus a short time: does change give rise to subtle modifications or can these only take place with a sudden change?

For Cuvier, species do not change, they perish with disasters, such as the mammoth. According to him, every revolution (in the scientific sense of geo-physical upheaval) comes with extinction. In Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe et sur les changements qu’elles ont produits dans le règne animal (1830), Cuvier portrays a naive walker wandering about the fields and who “is not tempted to believe that nature has also had its internal wars, and that the surface of the globe has been overthrown by revolutions and catastrophes.” Moreover, these immense revolutions were sudden and independent of man. Extinction and disaster go together and this is the very cycle of earthly life.

Lamarck is one of the first scientists to reject the idea of fixed species, which in truth would be able to mutate. In order to contradict Cuvier, he shows that it is sufficient to find species that have survived a major disaster and to prove their mutations, which he does as early as 1801. Lamarck puts Cuvier out of play by proving that after a disaster, the same organisms continue to exist in different forms. Hardly the debate between Lamarck and Cuvier closed, that a new controversy opens up, this time between Lamarck and Darwin, for which organisms do not transform but adapt or die, giving way to others better adapted. For example, if one day the abundant food of birds of the coast, located in the holes of the rocks and cliffs, were missing and hid deeper, only those with a more refined beak would be able to survive. Birds with large, small beaks disappear and give way to birds – of the same species or not – but with slender beaks which, when reproducing, give the same characteristics to their descendants.

Darwin is fundamentally evolutionist and uniformitarian, thus rejecting all catastrophism, considered too close to a form of scientific diluvianism. Evolutionary changes are minuscule and occur over the very long term: “these slow and gradual transformations escape us until, in the course of ages, the hand of time has left its mark, and then with little attention to the long geologic periods that have elapsed, we are content to say that living forms are today different from what they once were”, says Darwin in explaining the idea of natural selection.

Behind this debate whose integral and rigorous restitution goes beyond the silent interest of the subject, we note that these questions, like an epistemological tension, go beyond the debate between the different biologists and then reverberate in our present. These bio-historical issues have become political with the industrial age, and in a time when the end of the world is an active process and no longer a multi-millennial cultural tension, one wonders again whether the human species will survive disasters or not. The debate opens anew between the long term, the short term, adaptation, catastrophe, violence, radical break or transition.

If we look at the proposed solutions to the disintegration of the world, we see that the debate has been the same since that of the nineteenth-century biologists. On the one hand, those who speak of collapse offer us a nameless catastrophe in which everyone is led to perish in fire and hunger, while on the other bio-engineers and scientists offer us a form of cyborg transformation in which those who do not not have the means to pay will die. Still others offer a smooth transition (adaptation) through algorithmic management of our lives, and come together with “non-violent” movements like Extinction Rebellion. In all of the options, the end of the world is made with its complicity, as a sort of virtuous circle in which it is, in the end, impossible to believe.

In 1987 and following Chernobyl, philosopher and anti-nuclear activist Günther Anders gave an interview called “Violence: Yes or No”, subtitled “a necessary discussion”. To this terrible question, Anders answers in the affirmative: whoever refuses extinction and wishes to rebel can not do without violence. Let us listen to what he said:

Today I have come to the conviction that nothing can be achieved with non-violence. The refusal to act does not amount to an action. […] We are really – nobody can dispute it – in a situation which, legally, can, no, must be described as self-defense. Millions of men and women, all the lives on earth, that is to say, also the lives of those to come, are threatened with death. Not by people who would directly kill human beings, but by people who are comfortable with this risk; and who can only think factually and technically […] economically and commercially. We are therefore in a state which, from a legal point of view, is a “state of emergency”. All law books, even those of canon law, not only allow violence but encourage it in the face of a state of emergency. […] We must make this obvious to our contemporaries. It is not possible to achieve effective resistance by amiable methods, such as offering bouquets of forget-me-nots to police officers who can not receive them because they have their batons in their hands. It is equally insufficient, no, it is absurd, to fast against nuclear war. This only has an effect on the one who fasts, namely on hunger; and perhaps the good conscience of having “done” something. Reagan and the nuclear lobby do not really care that we eat a ham sandwich more or less. These gestures are really just “happenings”. Our current pseudo-political actions really do look frighteningly like those pseudo-actions that appeared in the sixties. They too already glimmered between appearance and being. Those who made these happenings really believed themselves to have crossed the border and had gone beyond what is only theoretical, but they remained “actors” in the sense of theatre actors. They only did theater, and that, really, for fear of really acting. In fact, they did not really strike any blow, they only provoked a shock. And even a shock that would bring pleasure. Theater and non-violence are closely linked. […] I think it is necessary for us to intimidate those who exercise power and threaten us (millions of us). We have nothing left to do but to threaten in return and neutralise those policies which, without moral conscience, adapt to the catastrophe when they do not prepare it directly. The simple threat may already, and I hope, have an intimidating effect. After all someone already presented himself as a sword that the “Christians” might have had the audacity to consider as “vandal” (Matthew 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace but the sword “). “

Anders’ comments are still untimely actual. In this worldwide dissolution of the living, violence is no longer an option to choose; it is rather proper to any refusal of the catastrophe. The end of the world is no longer a multi-millennial cultural tension that haunts our words, but an active, ongoing process. The Lubrizol disaster in Rouen, a town already stricken by its industrial history, is the latest proof. To quote anew Benjamin’s sentence: that things continue as before, this is the active disaster. From Fukushima to Lubrizol, the authorities have always done everything to keep day-to-day life going and to literally bury and repress the disaster, at the cost of the future.

To interrupt the present, as Anders says in his interview, “we must not create hope, we must prevent it. Because nobody will act out of hope. Anyone hoping gives up improvement to another authority.”

André Phage

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1 thought on “A few epistemological considerations for the attention of those who wish to rebel against extinction

  1. The problem with violence is the kind of social organization necessary to manage it. Repeated experimentation with and improvements to the practice of violence over recent millennia has caused that practice to evolve into governments, especially military and police bodies, and the states which they produce. Since these are committed to the practice of violence they inevitably come into conflict with one another, leading us all to the brink of catastrophe and the abyss which lies just beyond it.

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