I recently read a piece in Wired about the impact of global warming on the bodies and minds of the Inuit (and the rest of us)—how profound changes in what we take to be the external world manifest as profound psychological (inner) changes, which are themselves somatic effects, registers of physical distress or debilitation. Most of us know the lacerating, visceral effects of natural disaster, and now of political catastrophe in the form of the Trump White House.
But how do they go together?
Why do we feel penetrated by these events, as if our skin is just a porous veil and our guts have spilled into view? Why these cramps and lesions and dizziness and anger? In “the Use and Abuse of History,” Nietzsche announced that what distinguished the consciousness of modern Man was the notion that he had an interior to which no exterior corresponded, and vice versa. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer turned this idea into the premise of their Dialectic of Enlightenment(1944), and hundreds of other theorists enlisted it to explain “alienation.” But it doesn’t sound like a self-evident proposition anymore. Kant was closer to the truth of our times:
“But through inner experience I am conscious of my existence in time (consequently also of its determinability in time), and this is more than to be conscious of any representation. It is identical with the empirical consciousness of my existence, which is determined only through relation to something which, while bound up with my existence, is outside me. This consciousness of my existence in time is bound up in the way of identity with the consciousness of a relation to something outside of me, and it is therefore experience not invention, sense not imagination, which inseparably connects this outside something with my inner sense. . . . the inner situation, in which my existence can alone be determined, is sensible, and is bound up with the condition of time.” [Preface to Critique of Pure Reason, 2nded. (1787), pp. 34-35 n.]
Political catastrophe and natural disaster are now two sides of the same coin. Government denigrated and downsized to the point of punkdom can neither anticipate nor manage the storms that come of global warming or would-be Mussolinis. Think of New Orleans, whose people could have been spared their misery by long-term public planning and construction before Katrina. “Heck of a job, Bownie.” Think of Puerto Rico, more recently. “You’re welcome, I brought some paper towels.”
What binds these phenomena as a palpable, material feeling of dread, something like a fever, is a brand new sense of an ending, and this in turn amplifies the collateral effects of every event. That ending is written in the literal extinction of species and the measurable erosion of icecaps and the weird extremities of weather which are by now inscribed on our bodies, installed in our minds, no matter where we live. The evidence is unavoidable except to those who won’t see it because they know the end of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture means the end of capitalism as we know it.
There is no ground, no permanence—no permafrost—that would permit us to believe the human species can survive the impending disaster. The worldness of the world is gone, and with it any coherent sense of temporality, how change in time works. Kant said it long before Heidegger:
“Now time cannot by itself be perceived. . . . Our apprehension of the manifold of appearances is always successive, and is therefore always changing. Through it alone we can never determine whether this manifold, as object of experience, is coexistent or in sequence. For such determination we require an underlying ground which exists at all times, that is, something abiding and permanent, of which all change and coexistence are only so many ways (modes of time) in which the permanent exists. . . . it follows that only in the permanent are relations of time possible. In other words, the permanent is the substratum of the empirical representation of time itself; in it alone is any determination of time possible. Permanence, as the abiding correlate of all existence of appearances, of all change and of all concomitance, expresses time in general.” [Ibid., pp 213-14]
The unfolding of time and its corollary, the end of days, have no meaning for any species other than ours. Why? We know we’ll die, sooner or later, animals don’t. In other words, we know our bodies–this particular set of muscles and bones–will expire, and so we measure our stay on earth in years measured against the standard installed by the followers of an itinerant preacher who died a criminal. Birthdays mark a closing approach to an ending as well as a certain distance from a beginning.
But the commemorations of this or that particular body, whether as milestone or funeral, always presupposed the existence of other bodies, people who will outlast the object of commemoration and carry on the work of the world by extending the continuum of civilization. By remembering and promising, living forward but understanding backward.
No longer. The ending we can now anticipate–because the evidence is all around us–is the death of that world. Not just the “natural” world, or rather not just the flora and the fauna, but everything we take to be uniquely human because we’re animals, too, we’re an integral part of this natural world. The earth is “the extended body” of the human species, as the young Marx put it in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, and vice versa. We can’t avoid being physically threatened and therefore psychologically damaged by the erosion or erasure of our material habitat.
The other ending upon us, and here too the evidence is overwhelming, is the eclipse of government of the people, by the people, for the people. In the US, the founding principle was the sovereignty of the people, not the state or its agents—that is, not the Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court, but the people “out of doors.” Today, the mantle of sovereignty has been appropriated by the ignorant, brutish oaf who occupies the White House, a man whose every act signifies the end of democracy precisely because it ignores public opinion, precisely because it’s unprecedented. The continuities written in the Constitution might as well be folktales in the times defined by Donald Trump—to him and his fellow gangsters in Washington, D.C., they amount to quaint aphorisms uttered by demented elders. This wholly unnatural ending weighs upon us as much as the death throes of the earth we tread. Maybe more.
In these related ways, time slows down, or, what is the same thing, it loses its inherited meanings. It no longer rushes forward, not even in compressed digital form, instead it meanders, sometimes regresses. Beginnings and middles, narrative momentum, these get harder to imagine because the end is not just nigh, it’s here and now.
As the earth itself is flayed and peeled–as the glaciers melt and the lakes dry up and the soil whirls away–it reveals ugly, buried layers of human civilization and social psychology as well. The past catches up with us. Time stands still.