Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman
Harken we must, for the world as we know it will soon come to an end. Of this Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro have no doubt: ‘the next generations (the generations next to us) will have to survive in an impoverished, sordid environment; an ecological desert, a sociological hell’ (17). The “why” of the coming catastrophe does not occupy them much. The culprits are too well known, too oft discussed to be given more than a rapid listing: capitalist greed and exploitation, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, atomic weapons, global deforestation, genetically modified crops, pesticides, pollution, the mass extinction of ecosystem-maintaining species, and, most ominous of all, epoch-ending, human induced climate change (101). On the “how” of the world’s end Danowski and Viveiros have equally little to say, because they do not exactly know, and neither do you, nor I, nor anybody else. One of the many monsters will eventually get us. Does it matter which one? The focus of The Ends of the World, their book-length disquisition on this gloomy subject, is how we think about the end, how we conceptualize it, and, ultimately, at least those of us who are not erased by the cataclysm to come, how we deal with it.
The impetus behind the book is Danowski and Viveiros’ intuition that the human culture of “the anthropocene” has already begun this conceptualizing process. Their primary aim is to provide ‘an initial description of what [they] see as the colossal effort of contemporary imagination to produce a thought and a mythology that are adequate to our times’ (113). The evidence of this effort they find in books and a handful of films, ranging from middle- to highbrow. There is no Žižek-like enthusiasm about popular culture here, save a few passing references to Mad Max and, inevitably, The Matrix. Thus, The Ends of the World is at its core a work of literary analysis, although the authors give themselves significant leeway to drop in cultural commentary, ideological denunciation, philosophical theorizing, and even here and there some cutting humor (usually in impudent parentheses). They do not seek a comprehensive overview of literary works that deal with the world’s end. They prefer to be selective and engage at length with their favorites – Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, and James Lovelock’s works on Gaia – through the terminology and narratives established by other authors, who are in turn discussed at even greater length. To a disheartening degree, this is a book that engages in the literary analysis of other books of literary analysis.
Based in Rio de Janeiro, Danowski, a philosopher, and Viveiros, an anthropologist, work within science and technology studies. Their interests overlap significantly with those of Bruno Latour, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway and Quentin Meillassoux, among others. More generally, their approach to scholarship, especially language, links them to the post-structuralist tradition of Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, and François Lyotard, though strongly informed by Marxism and critical theory. This is, therefore, a short volume filled with highly specialized jargon – think “counter-effectuation” or “speleology” – and cliquey in-jokes, intended mainly for colleagues frequently encountered at conferences and symposia.
Consequently most readers will find this a very challenging book. Non-specialists will have their work cut out for them trying to unravel sentences like this one: ‘We have noticed, besides, the central ambiguity that is a mark of the properly modern metaphysical condition, namely the ‘correlationist’ figure of the transcendental or constitutive anteriority of the human vis-à-vis a world that nonetheless has empirical presence over it, and the important consequence, among others, that this situation entails form the civilizational point of view: the manifest necessity of a re-determination of the empirical world by the human as transcendental negativity, through the thaumaturgic potency of labor and the emancipatory violence of revolution’ (63).
A reader’s interest in the book will depend on her degree of tolerance for this sort of writing, as there is a lot of it. Mine, let me admit, is fairly low, and not merely as a matter of taste. The use of such language is often defended for bringing more precision to theoretical debate, and therefore facilitating more insight and profundity than a jargon-free, more accessible alternative. But in The Ends of the World, as in many works like it, its use obscures more than it illuminates. Consider, for instance, this remark following a long list of current global challenges: ‘all these countless agents, agencies, actants, actors, acts, phenomena, or however else one may wish to call them, are automatically enlisted in the Gaia war’ (101-102). It’s hard to reconcile the pedantic use of terms like “constitutive anteriority” with the carelessness exhibited in this flippant remark.
Or, take a discussion of Latour’s work on the relationship between the concepts of “humanity” and “world”, which ‘have entered a nefarious cosmological or spatiotemporal conjunction associated with the controversial names ‘anthropocene’ and ‘Gaia’’. The result, Danowski and Viveiros conclude, is a “new age of time” in which “the difference of magnitude between the scale of human history and the biological and geophysical scales has decreased dramatically, if not reversed, with the environment changing faster than society” (79). One would think Danowski and Viveiros could find a less cumbersome way of stating the point: that it seems that environmental change is accelerating so much that it is outpacing social change. But, rather than try to clarify, or evaluate, the empirical validity of such a pronouncement, the authors introduce layer upon layer of confusion: do “cosmological” and “spatiotemporal” mean the same thing or not? Are we talking about both biological and geophysical changes outpacing social change? And, while we’re at it, can there be an “age” that is not “of time”?
It is unfortunate that the opacity of the language will keep a potentially interested audience away, because the book touches on many fundamental ideas regarding the relationship between human beings and the non-human world around them. Danowski and Viveiros develop, for instance an incisive dichotomy between visions of a post-catastrophe world, free of humanity (as in Wiseman’s wonderful The World Without Us), and those of humans continuing to exist without a world (as in The Road or the Mad Max films). They are particularly good at challenging the dominant narrative espoused by environmentalist, of a pristine natural world that has been contaminated by the presence of humanity. All too aware of the complexity of the world, they prefer Latour’s interpretation of Lovelock’s Gaia as ‘a gigantic discordant harmony, mutable and contingent, ‘a mess’’ (89).
Towards the end, Danowski and Viveiros reveal their political proposal for the unknown, post-end world. In a nutshell, they suggest abandoning the destructive ways of capitalism in favor of the ‘aesthetic anthropomorphism and metaphysical panpsychism’ (103) they identify in Native American, or “Amerindian”, traditions. Their best-case scenario for the “diminished” post-diluvian age is ‘a World without antonym or antagonist’, instead populated by the ‘people of Pachamama’ (112). This embrace of the Amerindian way of life will have a practical basis, since ‘the generally small populations and ‘relatively weak’ technologies of indigenous peoples […] could become a crucial advantage and resource in a post-catastrophic time’ (95). And it will also help us to deal with the psychological scars the end of the world are bound to leave on us. Fortunately, Amerindians will know how to deal with the end of the world because their world already ended once (104).
Curiously, and a little disingenuously, the authors neglect to mention how this notion of the Native America as the wise noble savage has been prevalent in Western popular culture at least since the 1960s. In fact, everything this book has to say about metaphysical panpsychism is explained more clearly and straightforwardly in the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney animated film Pocahontas or in James Cameron’s sci-fi extravaganza Avatar. Much like those two products of corporate capitalism, Danowski and Viveiros offer an uncritical, oversimplified, and condescending version of Native American culture.
They completely neglect to discuss the enormous variety of Native American cultures and worldviews, instead taking the recently published The Falling Sky by the Amazonian shaman Davi Kopenawa as archetypal. Moreover, they breezily dismiss “modernity’s proud intellectual assurances” (80) while taking this shamanistic cosmology at face value. This is particularly irritating since Danowski and Viveiros know full well that the Kopenawa narrative is really a hybrid of traditional and Western ideas.
Since Latour is not convinced that native cultures have much to offer after being flattened by the juggernaut of industrial capitalism, Danowski and Viveiros feel the need to point out that there remain 370 million indigenous people spread over 70 countries in the world (96). But this haughty number includes casino-owning groups in American Indian reservations, as well as formerly nomadic groups in Asia and Africa that long ago left their traditional ways of life behind. More disturbing of all is the fact that Danowski and Viveiros know of the evidence that Amerindian cultures (such as the ancient Maya) proved themselves to be as self-destructive as modern Europeans (106-107) yet do not consider the ways this complicates their position.
Indeed, this lack of self-criticism is a problem throughout the book. Danowski and Viveiros insist, for example, that modernity, Enlightenment thought, and capitalism are to blame for the end of the world (e.g., 114-115). They grant that some anthropologists disagree with them, but do not pursue the matter further. A thorough argument would at least contend in good faith with an alternative position in, say, Jared Diamond’ Collapse or Charles Mann’s 1491, or any of dozens of scholarly volumes (not to mention Agent Smith in The Matrix), which dwell on the destructive similarities rather than the differences between developing human cultures. Danowski and Viveiros will have none of it. They have no patience for those who suggest that pre-capitalist societies were destructive as well, charging that they are “minimizing the crimes” of the industrial world (15-17).
Neither have they time for those, on the right and the left, who have faith in the capacity of human ingenuity to ameliorate our current predicament. Is it possible, is it conceivable, that the world is not going to end? Danowski and Viveiros scoff, dismissing the notion as “messianic philosophy” (56). They would rather direct blame, rather unfairly, to ‘the country to the North of Mexico’, which evidently ‘owes to the rest of the world at least four worlds’ (97). This seems a little precious from two scholars living in Rio de Janeiro and frequently flying to Europe to attend conferences that bemoan the overuse of fossil fuels. On the recent economic growth of China, India, and Brazil they have but this to say: “Everything takes place as if some of the erstwhile victims wished to claim their own share in the now enviable condition of future culprits of the shared catastrophe” (81).
This relentless pessimism leads them to grossly overstate the impact humans can have on the world. The human species, they contend, has changed from a mere biological agent into a geological force (13-14). ‘Global warming’, they declare, ‘will bring changes that will remain for several tens of centuries, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years’, before quipping that ‘not even capitalism will last so long – which is at least some consolation, after all’ (81). Such is humanity’s reach that these days ‘political economy meets cosmic entropy’ (96). Needless to say, humankind will have to subsist for a long time yet in order to be able to inflict significant damage to the cosmos as a whole. As my third grade learned at school this year, the biosphere, where humankind does its worst, constitutes just the thinnest sliver of the surface of planet Earth, not any wider vis-à-vis the whole than the skin of an apple is to the entire fruit. Even if we are doomed to destroy ourselves, the cosmos will be just fine, and so will our home planet. While it is true that many living species will disappear as a result of human activity, all evidence suggests that Gaia will recover nicely, thank you very much, as soon as we are gone.
11 July 2017