Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
9th August 2012

From “The Age of Catastrophe”: An Excerpt

The Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times

A Few Words on a Civilization’s Loss of Command Over its Environment

by John David Ebert

One of the constitutive aspects of Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the worldhood of the world — of its nature as a world — is that the objects around us making up our daily lives create a kind of closed referential totality such that we scarcely notice them. That is, the objects that surround and comprise the everydayness of our world have a tendency to withdraw from us and blend in to the world which they compose. They only stand out when they break down, become unusable or otherwise damaged. At that point, the object becomes conspicuous — Heidegger’s example of the broken hammer has become proverbial — and stands forth into our awareness as a problem. The object no longer blends in but has now shifted into a theoretical mode in which it has become a problem for the human intellect to solve.

But as the following chapters should, if I have done my job right, make abundantly clear, we are now surrounded, everywhere we look, by broken technological artifacts that have stood forth from the background of global consumer society and made themselves conspicuous through the increasingly ubiquitous phenomena of accidents and catastrophes. Technology as a whole, that is to say, has now come into question as the result of this pile-up of broken down machines that have come crashing forth from out of the background of our awareness and into the field of our concern. Technology, as was once the case during, say, the nineteenth century, no longer forms an unnoticed and therefore subliminal world-round inside which we are contained, but now stands forth into the clearing of our mentality as something that has become a problem to be solved, and therefore, impossible to ignore. The entire technological landscape has now shifted into the mode of Heidegger’s broken hammer, and so it must now be theorized about as a problem.

Apparently, the decade of the 1930s was the point at which this took place, for it wasn’t until then that books written about technology in the abstract began to appear, beginning with Oswald Spengler’s Man and Technics in 1931 and Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization in 1934. Heidegger’s famous essay on “The Question Concerning Technology” was first delivered in its earliest form as one of his Bremen Lectures of 1949, while Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride soon followed in 1951. Jacques Ellul’s Technological Society, furthermore, appeared in its original French version in 1954, while the later books of McLuhan, such as Understanding Media, soon followed.

Once any subject — and in this case, we are concerned with technology — has shifted into the mode of discussion, worry and theory, you can be sure that that subject is being noticed precisely because it has become a problem.

It was Arnold Toynbee, furthermore, who, in his monumental A Study of History, pointed out back in the 1930s that one of the conspicuous signs of a disintegrating society is a slow, gradual loss of command of its ability to control its environment. A decreasing technical and artistic ability, he insisted, was one of the symptoms — though not the cause — of the breakdown of a civilization.

The great civilizations have each had their own particular stylistic bias; that is, like human individuals, they all did one thing better than the others. For the Egyptians, this was their elaborate articulation of the rituals and technologies associated with the Afterlife; for the Greeks, it was a keen aesthetic sensibility; for the Hindus, a superior religious development; for the Mesopotamians, an advanced hydraulic civilization based upon an extremely complex irrigation system; and for the West, it has been a machinic specialization evident from as early as the stirrups and iron horseshoes of the fifth century.

Consistent with this logic, then, a breakdown in one or the other of these areas of expertise in their respective civilizations should be an unfailing marker that the society in question had reached the limits of its mortality, and was beginning to enter the initial stages of its senescence. And indeed, when one surveys the evidence, this does appear to be the case.

In ancient Egypt, for instance, a gradual loss of competence in the technical abilities attending the mortuary practices of its ancient cults becomes evident around the period of the 22nd Dynasty, in which the elaborate imagery associated with tomb decoration begins to disappear. Coffins become shoddier and shoddier from this point on and by the 25th Dynasty, the famous canopic jars were artistically inferior as well.

It was the great Near Eastern scholar Thorkild Jacobsen, furthermore, who noticed that the shift in Mesopotamia from the homeland of the Sumerians in the south near the Persian Gulf, to the north with the coming of the Babylonians, and then even further north with the Assyrians, paralleled a gradual depletion and exhaustion of arable soils along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Jacobsen suspected that this shift was not accidental but mapped out the slow, inevitable salinization of the soils due to the failing Mesopotamian irrigation system. The shifting of each Mesopotamian kingdom further and further north was symptomatic of its southern neighbors’ gradual loss of command over their land, as their canals silted up, and their soils became ruined by salt.

In ancient India, a gradual loss of command over the religious sphere begins to become evident from about the twelfth century on, where a certain sugary sweetness appears first in Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda and then with the rise and spread of the sentimentality of the bhakti cults with their Krishna avatars and circling gopis. The sophistication of yoga and philosophy slowly gave way to the kitsch of folk art and popular piety.

And in Classical civilization, as is well known, the decline in Greek sculpture and statuary that began to set in from the Hellenistic period was tantamount to the rise of melodrama, realism and bombast — first evident in the “Wagnerian” art of Pergamene — which became slowly rigidified and calcined until, with the severe and imposing Roman portrait busts, this great art came to its end.

But these, of course, are only some of the most conspicuous examples of the phenomenon. We need only think of a few others — the loss of the Hinayana Buddhist control over the great irrigation tanks on the island of Ceylon; the loss of the ability of the Polynesians of Easter Island to create their stone statues, which had become legend already by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival there in the eighteenth century; or the ghostly, dust-blown ruins of desert oasis cities like Petra and Palmyra — in order to remind ourselves that the phenomenon is not at all a rare one, for every civilization is mortal and all eventually lose their ability to shape and command Form in the effort to reverse Entropy into higher, more complex dissipative structures.

And this is no less so in the case of our modern Western civilization, as the following catalogue of disasters reveals. Indeed, the increasing banality of disaster, its overwhelming everydayness, points to the fact that the West is slowly losing its grip over its environment, namely, its ability to command Nature by manipulating its forces with machines and technological apparatuses. It was precisely this ability — first evident in the windmills, waterwheels, and mechanical clocks of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — that marked the emergence of Western civilization as a unique society entering upon the stage of world history with a style of unprecedented technological mastery over Nature. An ever increasing abundance of catastrophes, however — whether defined as “technological” or “natural” — means that more and more turbulence is building up in the system of the West’s great global megamachine, and as any student of chaos theory knows, turbulence can only increase so much before the system snaps into a phase change governed by an altogether different systemic attractor.

Everywhere we look nowadays, upon the distant horizons — like those tiny burning villages and shattered boats and windmills in the dim backgrounds of the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel — planes are falling, cars are crashing and buildings are crumbling, their foundations washed away into the sea by the ever-swelling tides and tsunamis brought forth by rising sea levels and global earthquakes. It would appear that we are entering into the early stages of a mortal illness that is spreading throughout the West and is revealing itself through the pile up of disasters as the West’s gradual loss of command over its own particular environment, namely, the orb of the earth itself.

But, after all, the great cavalcade of machines cannot continue to unfold forever. Sooner or later, the sheer abundance and profusion of them is bound to generate so much entropy in the environment that it will cause far more problems for us than the machines will actually solve.

Once, long ago, at the dawning of Western civilization, its creaking windmills and chiming clocks shone with a kind of divine aura to the Gothic monks who brought them into being as revelations of a whole new age, a Third Age, that is, of the Holy Spirit — as articulated by Joachim of Floris — during which the Spirit would descend to earth and reveal a New macro-order of world history to those initiated into the secrets of the Machine and its inner workings.

But now, the Machine has become more of a source of fear and apprehension than a revelation of the interior workings of the mind of God. It has shifted its ontological status from a mechanization of the Holy Spirit to a threatening mechanical demon sent up from Hell — like those homocidal robots in the Terminator movies — to harry and hound the human being to the edges of his Final Days.

We never know, anymore, when the elevator we are riding in is going to stop; or the balcony we are leaning on to look over the atrium of some hotel is going to give way; or whether the roof of the stage at a rock concert is going to come down on our heads. Technology, these days, can no longer be trusted.

We simply never know when it is going to turn against us, for it is becoming increasingly more and more expected that it will fail, give out, and bite back when we least expect it to.

Thus, the arc of Western culture, long past its noon, and long since having diverged with the ever rising arc of technology which surpassed it long ago, is coming, lightly, to rest upon the earth, while somewhere, not too far ahead of it, the arc of technology, too, is now coming down from the heavens like a falling satellite whose orbit is decaying as it comes crashing toward the earth.

Who knows where the pieces will land?

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