‘The Ends of the World’ reviewed by Eduardo Frajman


The Ends of the World

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017, 186pp., $19.95 pb
ISBN 9781509503988

Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman

About the reviewer

Eduardo Frajman teaches humanities and philosophy at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, …

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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

5 comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this review; thank you. Danowski and Castro's diction does seem to be abstruse, and that's a problem. As to the reviewer's final paragraph, I'm afraid it's a bit too self-assured and optimistic. While planet Earth itself will likely persist beyond catastrophic climate change and even nuclear war, it's very unclear whether it will be able to host the necessary conditions by which "Gaia will recover nicely, thank you very much, as soon as we are gone." I would direct the reviewer to James Hansen and Carl Sagan's discussion of the "Venus effect," a hypothesis suggesting that runaway global warming shifted Venus into its current state, which is not amenable to life.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Javier. I will grant you that the last paragraph is optimistic, but I don't think overly so. The "runaway greenhouse effect" that may possibly have affected Venus may possibly affect the Earth. I would love to see some models attempting to predict the likelihood of such an event.

  3. I think I'm with Javier. When considering the billions and billions of light years of cosmic debris, interstellar dust-clouds, exploding nebulae, white holes and black holes, and, finally, a few planets that maybe capable of supporting biological life (only maybe…) that exist in the cosmos, shouldn't this make us more aware of the preciousness of biological life on the planet earth? That infinitesimally thinnest skin of sentient existence capable of breathing, feeling, and thinking, of which we are a small part. And shouldn't that make us even more aware of our cosmic duty of stewardship and guardianship of biological life on the planet earth? Which, besides consisting of advocating for endangered species and so on, also, I think, demands that we do whatever we can to counteract the self-destructive tendencies of the contemporary human species.The reviewer perhaps suggests that the precious sentience of which I speak is not confined to biological life, but is shared by the aforementioned cosmic debris, from subatomic particles up to supernovae and galaxies. But although I share a certain belief in the sentient cosmos theory, which attributes cosmic sentience to all existing things, and I am willing to entertain the notion that all that cosmic debris is somehow necessary, simply so that biological life can emerge on the planet earth, I'm not certain enough of the survival of sentient existence after, for example, a thermonuclear holocaust or a major extinction event (like the current one…), that I'm willing to welcome the concept of self-imposed human extinction: e.g., planetary suicide. Especially since I'm afraid that the self-destructive suicide of the contemporary human species would quite likely take millions of other sentient species, and possibly all biological life, along with us…

  4. So…

    Whilst I would be somewhat inclined to agree with the stylistic criticisms this reviewer made in the beginning, this review rapidly becomes quite embarrassing. Viveiros de Castro is arguably the most influential ethnologist (in simplistic terms, anthropologists who work with ‘extra-modern’ or traditional populations) still currently producing, depending on the level of retirement attributed to Sahlins, Descola, Gow and Strathern. Statements like “Much like those two products of corporate capitalism, Danowski and Viveiros offer an uncritical, oversimplified, and condescending version of Native American culture” betray a titanic level of ignorance of their work and anthropology as a field whilst reproducing precisely the sort of eurocentric prejudice that considers alternatives to itself as either romanticized projection or ‘backwardness’. The author of the review even invokes Diamond, a figure with about as much relevance to anthropology as James Campbell, hacks who tell a western audience what it wants to hear. The author even suggests that Kopenawa’s narrative is a ‘hybrid’, which is about the most insulting thing a person could say to Kopenawa, especially considering he most definitely does not position himself in such a manner. But I guess the reviewer believes he knows Kopenawa better than Kopenawa knows himself. As for the reason Viveiros de Castro and Danowski utilize Kopenawa (and not say, their own fieldwork and experience), it is because they are assuming that he is the most accessible and recognizable point of contact a non-academic audience will have with an indigenous author.

    Insofar as the book is clearly trying to communicate to a wider audience than the authors are accustomed to addressing, there are bound to be problems. But it is a good-faith approach that attempts to circumvent some rather monumental barriers of entry (such as a knowledge of Amerindian perspectivism, of which Viveiros de Castro is the principal anthropological conduit). The contrast, then, could not be greater with the reviewer, who sadly stoops so-low as to adapt the ‘champagne socialist’ critique to the anthropocene: “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”.

    The reviewer even managed to miss the central thesis of the book, which echoes the larger discussion of the anthropocene within anthropology: european metaphysics are grounded (since Kant, though arguably earlier) on a nature/culture binary which is not shared by many other populations. The anthropocene has effectively posited an apparently insurmountable challenge to this metaphysics, both in conception (human activities create and shape the environment) and in action (climate change denialism etc). In one way, then, the ‘end of the world’ has already occurred, in the sense of the conception of the planet as a pure exterior, of ‘unspoiled nature’, etc. From this difference other differences emerge and flow, differences of conception of endings, of humanity, of what the world is (or what the worlds are) etc. And this in turn leads to the reviewer misjudging the works as being relentlessly pessimistic. It is not. It takes the relentless pessimism of climate change, of the anthropocene and sees in it an opportunity, where the world of industrial capital ends, those who have experienced the end of the world once will be in privileged position to do so again. Which is to say, this is not a book about the end of *the* world, but the end of a world.

  5. Trotsky once offered a concept of the nature/culture distinction, as follows:

    “Let us recall first of all that culture once signified a ploughed, cultivated field, as opposed to untouched forests and virgin lands. Culture was juxtaposed to nature, that is, what had been achieved by human effort was contrasted with the gifts of nature. This juxtaposition fundamentally retains its force even today. Culture is all that has been created, built, assimilated and achieved by people throughout the course of their entire history, in contrast with what has been given by nature, including the natural history of people themselves as an animal species. The science which studies humans as a product of animal evolution is called anthropology. But from the very moment when humans separated themselves from the animal kingdom, – and this occurred approximately when they first took into their hands primitive tools such as stones or sticks and armed the organs of their bodies with them, – from that time the creation and accumulation of culture began, that is, of all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature in order to pacify nature. When we speak of the culture accumulated by past generations, we deliberately rest upon primarily its material acquisitions in the form of tools, machines, buildings, monuments and so forth. Is this culture? Undoubtedly it is culture, or its material deposits, – material culture. It creates, – on the foundations of nature – the basic setting for our life, our everyday existence, and our creativity. But the most valuable part of culture consists of its deposits in the consciousness of humans themselves – our devices, customs, skills, and acquired capabilities which grew out of all preceding material culture and, while resting upon it, continues to rebuild it. We will then, comrades, consider it firmly established: culture grows out of people’s struggle with nature for existence, for the improvements of living conditions, for the increase of their power.” – Leon Trotsky, “Culture and Socialism” (1927).

    Following this concept, the human stewardship of nature is also a form of culture. If a park is created, that is an item of human culture. Okay, biologists or park rangers also talk about culture sometimes in terms of an ecosystem of different species or organisms, or one type of species or organism. But it is understood clearly that such cultures are not human cultures, and can indeed be dangerous to human culture.

    I watched a film once, of a guy who was dropped in the wilderness, and had to survive there for a few days, equipped only with clothing and a sharp knife. He did survive (otherwise there would probably not have been a film, or the film would have been censored as a “snuff movie”) but he was very glad afterwards to get back to civilized surrounds, realizing that nature, although it may look pretty, can also be very tough, unforgiving and merciless indeed – every organism which is unable to do what it needs to do, to survive, dies.

    Why did the human species survive and grow, acquiring a hegemonic position in the biosphere? Because it showed itself to be better than all other species at adapting to and modifying its habitat. The ability to survive is deeply programmed in our bodies and minds, through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

    Certainly, millions of people die every year from man-made problems. But at least the awareness exists that this is so, and that it is preventable. If insufficient action is taken to prevent that, this is a social and political problem of human organization, which can in principle be solved, and will surely be tackled, when it becomes absolutely necessary.

    When culture pessimists say, that the nemesis of the human species is imminent, not only is there no real proof for that, but it distracts attention from the hell that many people live in already. A billion people today live in slums, for example. Point is, some survive while others do not, and some survive at the cost of the death of others.

    What Marxism was originally about, was the spirit of revolt against oppressive and unjust conditions. Its aim was to reduce or abolish the social oppression of people by other people, and to increase the power and insight of people faced with the inexorable forces of nature.

    Accepting cultural pessimism means, putting Marx and Engels and seven generations of socialists into the dustbin of history. Before you do that, you ought to consider what you lose, if you do that.

    Among others things, it leads to the conclusion that, since humans create only mayhem on planet earth, you really ought to detest humans, and if you detest humans, that includes hating yourself. Humanism would be an error. If that is the case, it would be only logical to kill yourself, “for the benefit of planet earth.” Is that what we are here for? I think not.

    If life is lived well, you leave the world in a better shape than it was than when you were born, in some unique way. Pessimism from this point of view is a hindrance, not a help. To get things done, you have to be optimistic. Optimism costs nothing, and is healthy. Who knows for certain what you can still do, in ways large and small, to create a better world?

    One might indeed pursue this thought still further: cultural pessimism is precisely the thing that helps to destroy the world, substituting gloomy perceptions of everything that is *not* possible for everything that *is* possible to achieve. In that case, overcoming cultural pessimism is vital to change things for the better.

    When right-wing people harp on a la Oswald Spengler about the “decline of the West” or the “the decline of civilization” as such, this is a grotesque error from a scientific point of view. In reality, we are better equipped, and have more resources to make the world a better place, than ever before in history.

    Certainly, the world’s wealth is very unequally distributed. Plenty people are exploited terribly. But even if it was true, that nothing at all can be done about that, it still does not stop us from improving life.

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