The suffering and desperation bound to the crises we are living through have been trivialized beyond recognition. More than three decades ago, “crisis management” became an administrative process meant to organize natural and social catastrophes that mark the progress of industrial civilization. The “posts,” sung out with an air of arrogant snobbery and advertised in the style of commercial insurance products, have enthroned intellectual opportunism and irresponsibility in the face of an historical situation that is not sociologically, ecologically, or economically “sustainable” — to name another empty signifier propagated by the mass communication industry.
It is necessary to recall that which we already know: our historical crisis is not only an economic recession. It is the consequence of a global war declared on terrorism or drugs, but whose strategic objective is to control centers of petroleum extraction and acquiferous concentration, as well as regions abounding with useful minerals and biodiversity. It is also the consequence of an economic development incapable of defining a social and ecological equilibrium on a global scale, or of conceiving a worldwide political order based on national autonomy and human equality. Its technological and military monuments march at the forefront of a destructive process that negatively affects the historical and cultural ways of life of millions, throws off the equilibrium between human development and nature, and threatens the survival of the human race.
Millions of people displaced due to armed conflicts, the corporate destruction of local economies and industrially-induced natural catastrophes, masses of human material, which feed industrial work camps and penitentiaries where semi-slave, slave, and deadly labor are standard operating procedure, evaporated into statistics on illegal immigration, hundreds of thousands of mortal victims of a range of military and paramilitary strategies, weapons of massive and selective destruction… The ultimate consequence of this civilizational process is the “geopolitics of hunger” — to recall one of the most important works on political anthropology of the twentieth century erased from our memory: Geopolitica da fome by Josué de Castro (1). The ultimate consequence of this regressive process is a billion human beings agonizing in slums, and favelas from malnourishment and environmental contamination all of which are products of industrial capitalism.
The destruction of educational institutions, the manipulation and control of the media, the degradation of a worldwide system of democracy into a bipartisanism that is immune to the civilizational dilemmas of hunger, global climate change, and the continuous expansion of war crown this “global order” and “world history.”
Trümmer auf Trümmer (2), “ruins upon ruins” — was the metaphor for the historical regression of humanity which the European conscience formulated at the gates of the wastelands of World War II. These landscapes of destruction extend again before our eyes, which are blinded by the mass media.
In Hopi mythology the concept of koyaanisqatsi designates the disintegration of the real, a terminal situation that first affects the ethical order of the community, and accounts for the interruption of the cycles of natural reproduction and renewal, whose ultimate consequences are detrimental to all of humanity. Koyaanisqatsi signifies a radical ontological imbalance as perceived from what is both a cosmic and spiritual point of view, under whose influence humanity ends up destroying itself (3).
2. Human Intelligence under House Arrest
Over these landscape colossal architectonic backdrops, dazzling electronic global political events, and digital and financial paradises emerge: the postmodern spectacle. Under its triumphant flag have been proclaimed the end of the subject, the last book, the final painting, and the death of the intellectual. The denouncement of the “resentment at the development of man’s cerebral nature” and the “voluntary refusal” of those spiritual values that can “humanize humans,” which Thomas Mann raised against the European fascist elite in 1934 (4), should be directed today against the “the end of the human”—the password that sanctions the opportunistic complicity of postmodern academia by placing intelligence under a house arrest imposed by the media, the commercial colonization of culture, and its own epistemic censure: You know nothing, you see nothing, you remember nothing (5).
3. Postmodern Complicity
Postmodernism has never been a philosophy. It hasn’t been an ideology either in the sense in which we use this term to describe twentieth century Marxism or nineteenth century Positivism, in order to distinguish their social and political ties.
The postmodern fascination with digital technology; the performativity of politics, history, and human existence; the opulence of its financial simulacra; and its celebration of microknowledge, microintellectuals, and micropolitics have rigorously defined the postmodern “brand” as a political teleology of renunciation.
Postmodernism has renounced critical theory; embraced as a destiny the end of intellectual awareness; announced the abolishment of philosophy, art, and political resistance; the postmoderns have celebrated postsubjects, posthistory, postpolitics, and posthumans; and they have identified themselves with a corporate project that semiotically redefines cultural identity and biological existence, the democratic spectacle and even human consciousness, through its commercial packaging and media manipulation.
Postmodernism has never been a philosophy, but rather its rejection. Its point of departure was the negation of philosophy as enlightenment. I refer to enlightenment as the philosophical, mystical, and mythological work of those figures in the history of human thought who have promoted the autonomy of rational reflection (Averroes or Kant), the philosophies of illumination (Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi), and the development of art and techniques for philanthropic ends, opposed to corporate appropriation and genocidal utilization (Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus).
Postmodernism confused the historical enlightened critiques, summarily identified with the panopticon, modern imperial absolutism, and the power of instrumental and colonial reason, with something else. It confused Comte’s positivism and the technocentric development of electric light from Franklin to Edison with the sacred fire of Titanic reflection and rebellion against oppression. The postmodern has fatally identified Dialectic of Enlightenment with the abandonment of the enlightened tradition, both the religious and philosophical enlightenment of the Vedas or Islam, and that of the Aufklärung or Les Lumières, whose objective was to emancipate humanity from servitude, injustice, and inequality.
Out of the resulting ambiguity, the mannerist fascination, the cult of the labyrinth and the spectacle, the seduction by artifice, the rhetoric of travesty, and narcissism, they have named themselves post-modernists. They have promised happiness in exchange for throwing overboard philosophies of freedom, from Kant to Emerson, and critical theories, from Marx to Mumford, as useless ballasts. They have embraced microdiscourses and micropolitics. They have defined themselves as microintellectuals. Their opportunism announced, as early as three decades ago, the present collapse of intelligence in the face of the landscapes of war, corruption, and misery that preside over the dawn of the new millennium.
The academic cloistering of negative dialectics has been just as damaging. It has set apart, on campus and in its guarded intertextualities, a rhetoric that is epistemologically immune to any possible contact with existential and political reality. And it instrumentalizes its narratives and discourses in line with a corporate pragmatism: scripts of humanitarian wars, colonial invasions under the banner of feminism, genocides in the name of democracy, or the destruction of the employment of tens of millions as a redemptive sacrifice to the market.
4. Enlightenment of Enlightenment
Since its origins, critical theory has made manifest the sacrificial nature of civilizational rationality. Marx demonstrated that the accumulative logic of capitalism seated itself upon the sacramental principle of the transfiguration of human creativity into a monetary value. Nietzsche discovered the origin of morality in the sacrificial Christian conscience and in guilt as its nihilistic foundation. Freud revealed the totemic roots of patriarchal reason. In the Homeric saga of Odysseus and the sirens, Horkheimer and Adorno brought to light the spiritual mutilation underlying industrial reason and the capitalist subject; under the premise of repeating empirico-critical inductionism they uncovered the same rationality that operated behind modern industrial genocide.
All of these perspectives converged in a singular vertex: the capitalist political economy, the instrumental epistemology of the industrial era, and the secularization of the providential conception of history in ideologies of progress. The corollary to this critique of Enlightenment was its dismantlement in Foucault’s Les mots et le choses under the great futurist signifier of the death of the human and the end of philosophy.
Foucault traced the final consequence of the degradation of the Enlightenment to positivist linguistics and instrumental rationality. He signaled the end of an historical age and a concept of civilization that had been established in the arts and sciences of the Encyclopédie, in the democracy of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and in the universal declaration of the Rights of Man. He announced the end of modernity. And the post-modern as a terminal era.
That we live in end times is no longer a concept as it was in the wake of World War II when it was formulated by Günther Anders.6 It is now an empirical and quotidian perception. But this end does not mean the fatal termination of reflection. It does not mean the end of enlightenment as the will towards resistance and emancipation.
In the spring of 1975, Klaus Heinrich inaugurated his lectures in the Freie Universität of Berlin under the title: Aufklärung in den Religionen – Enlightenment in Religions. He summarized their leitmotif in one of his introductory statements: “Enlightenment is as old as the human race. And it is just as threatened”. His point of departure: “Prometheus, enlightener par excellence” (7).
Faced with the deconstruction of the emancipatory political project linked to the historical European and North American Enlightenments, faced with this same deconstruction that has inclined the postmodernist academy towards a conservative opportunism with leftist narratives, this Promethean Project takes up the philosophical enlightenment, unbounded by the limits of the historical enlightenment, as the renovation of critical theory. I want to underline two elemental aspects of this renovation: One: the transparent link between the civilizational technai created by Prometheus as a culture hero and his philanthropy, in other words, technology meant as a tool for human emancipation. Not the corruption of technology as an instrument for domination over humans and the contamination of the biosphere. Two: the philanthropic rebellion against that corporate and patriarchal power represented by Zeus and his violent opposition to the biological and civilizational preservation of Gaia (Coatlicue or Pachamama), Mother Earth, and “mother of all” (8).
5. The Political Ecology of Democracy
The great divide signaled by the birth of the twenty-first century does not lie in the virtual realities generated by the electronic grid that connects antennas, satellites, and computers. This is not the global village. It doesn’t stem from the hyperreal order of virtual objects, electronic events, intertextual webs, and digital controls over human existence that are linked to the new administrations and technologies of communication. Those were only the final neofuturist slogans of the past century. The dilemmas that distinguish our historical condition in the twenty-first
century are global climate change, the industrial destruction of the ecosystem and its immediate human consequences: worldwide famine, misery, and violence.
The global administrations, when not complicit, are ostensibly blind to the ultimate catastrophic consequences inscribed in this biological and civilizational regression. But it is also necessary to highlight the fact that the crisis derived from this selfdestructive process does not only affect global politics and politicians. It is a crisis over the legitimacy of the very structures of instrumental reason: the Baconian/Newtonian paradigm. And this is a civilizational crisis.
The techno-scientific progress of global civilization is based on two categories originally formulated in Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna: productio and potentia. Both are mythological categories tied, respectively, to the fertility of Mother Earth and the fertilizing masculine power to make her fruitful. But in the industrialized world both categories have acquired the reductive meaning of capitalistic productivity and military potency. In the era of global warming and global war this techno-scientific rationality clearly puts in question the survival of the human race.
The only alternative to this suicidal logic is to reestablish that filial tie of technai between humans and the earth which defined Promethean philanthropy. This philanthropic redefinition of technoscience necessarily presupposes critical reflection on its development and potentially destructive uses. The philanthropic redefinition of technoscience comprehends the creation of a harmonious relationship between human beings and their natural and cultural habitats. This philanthropic redefinition of technai and knowledge comprises, and not in the last place, the reestablishment of human rights based on those sacred ties with the earth that guarantee her survival.
The ultimate consequence of the new enlightenment is the reconfiguration of democracy. Vandana Shiva formulated it under an elemental concept: “Earth Democracy”. Not a performative democracy sustained by the financial strategies of parliamentary representation and its propagandistic apparatus. On the contrary: an economic democracy, a democracy founded on “people’s creativity, intelligence… self-organization and self-rule”. The people’s democracy that points back to the swaraj vindicated by Mahatma Gandhi (9).
This humanized concept of democracy opposes the mass media and academic monocultures of intelligence. It is opposed to the corporate monopolies on biodiversity. A democracy bound to the preservation of cultural memory and the autonomous evolution of earth’s many species. A new enlightenment of the humanized human.
Translated by Danielle Carlo.
CASTRO, Josué de. The geopolitics of hunger. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.
BENJAMIN, Walter. Über den Begriff der Geschichte. B. J., Ges. Sch., Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974, vol. I-2, p. 625.
MALOTKI, Ekkehart (ed.). Hopi Tales of Destruction. Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. 124 and next.
MANN, Thomas; KERÉNYI, Karl. Gespräch in Briefen. Zürich: Rhein Verlag, 1960, p. 42 (20/2/1934). An English version of this letter was published in Mythology and Humanism, Trans. Alexander Gelly (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), 38.
ELIOT, T. S. The Waste Land. New York: Norton Co., 2001, p. 9.
ANDERS, Günther. Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. München: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1956, vol. I, p. 219.
HEINRICH, Klaus. Aufklärung in den Religionen. Frankfurt a. M.: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern Verlag, 2007, p. 8 and 128.
Prometheus Bound, 875 (edición de A. H. Sommerstein).
SHIVA, Vandana. Earth Democracy. Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 2005, p. 71-74.
about the author
Eduardo Subirats is the author of a series of works on the theory of modernity, the avant-garde aesthetics, as well as the crisis of contemporary philosophy and colonization of America. Writes regularly critical cultural and social articles on Latin American and Spanish newspapers.