Humans and Terrans at the Ends of the WorldA review of Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of The World
“The end of the world is a seemingly interminable topic – at least, of course, until it happens” (1). The opening words of Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s The Ends of The World clarify for the reader just what is at stake in an attempted overview of an apocalyptic discourse whose proliferation seems to accelerate in step with the irreversible damages to our planet, the availability and strength of weapons of world-ending power, and global thanophilic political posturing. How can we come to understand what is being expressed in the frequent thematization of “the end of the world” without first cataloguing its instances? And yet, how could one take the requisite step back and assemble such a catalogue when
blockbusters of the fantasy genre, History Channel docufictions, scientific popularization books of varying complexity, videogames, art and music pieces, blogs of all shades across the ideological spectrum, academic journals and specialized networks, reports and pronouncements issued by world organizations of all kinds, unerringly frustrating global climate conferences (like the COPs), theology symposia and papal pronouncements, philosophical tracts, New Age and neo-pagan ceremonies, an exponentially rising number of political manifestos – in short, texts, contexts, vehicles, speakers, and audiences of all kinds (1–2)
continue to be produced, disseminated, consumed, and commented upon day to day, week to week, month to month?
The above list of potential contributions to the contemporary apocalyptic imaginary is, in The Ends of the World, typical of Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s ambitious desire to read a globalized cultural current and their simultaneous recognition that, by virtue of its structure, a complete accounting of relevant texts is impossible – after all, the apocalypse will continue to be commented upon right up until it has happened. It is to these authors’ great credit that they are able to offer wide-ranging, symptomatic readings of several forms these commentaries have taken and to identify a through line in them. Inspired by the renewal of “ties between metaphysical speculation and the mythological (Kant would say ‘dogmatic’) matrix of all thought” announced by Meillassoux’s After Finitude and Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro pepper The Ends of the World with references to popular figures like Thom Yorke and Caetano Veloso, and ask us to consider texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia alongside the requisite Heidegger, Hegel, and, importantly, “the treasure trove of ideas accrued over millennia in the cosmological speculation of the world’s indigenous people” (7). As it turns out, optimistic or pessimistic, celebratory or mournful, whether we imagine a world without us or ourselves without a world, it is precisely the status of the relation between ourselves and the world that best allows us to understand the mythopoetic posture and theoretical commitments at work in a given apocalyptic discourse. Fittingly, the original Portuguese title of this work was Há Mundo Por Vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins – literally, Is There a World to Come? An Essay on Fear and Ends.
The Ends of the World also offers its readers a suggestion as to what sort of mythopoetic end of the world account might turn out to be most adequate, borrowing (and retranslating) Bruno Latour’s language of Humans and/or Moderns in opposition to Earthlings (Latour’s rendering of the French terriens) or Terrans (Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s preferred nomenclature). The opposition between Humans and Terrans here gets worked out along the lines of a given historico-cultural mythopoetics that would or would not be adequate to our times and, in that adequacy, might also allow us to imagine a “new people” rather than “a new world” (123). Roughly, Humans have gotten us into this mess and, as the readings of various all-too-human apocalyptic imaginaries demonstrate, are utterly incapable of imagining their way out of it. What is necessary, then, is a revitalization of Terran-thinking – whether that means empowering the Terrans among us today or allowing the Terran within us all to counter our Modern/Human tendencies. I suspect that this implied normative and hierarchical binary will appear problematic to many readers, and so it is worth detailing how Danowski and Viveiros de Castro get us there, before spending some time thinking about how these categories are meant to operate.
The text is divided into seven chapters and a conclusion. The short but dense first chapter introduces Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s project in the context of both the proliferation of discourses about the end of the world, and the echo of this thematic in contemporary metaphysical discourse. This latter in the sense that “from Kant to Derrida and beyond,” we have seen metaphysical attempts to undermine or even demolish “the concepts of the world elaborated by modern philosophy” (125n6). On the coincidence of this “world-ending” tendency in contemporary metaphysics with the all too apparent threat of imminent planetary disaster, the authors write that
It is true that many of these metaphysical ends-of-the-world have only an indirect motivational relationship to the physical event of planetary catastrophe; but that does not make them any less expressive of it, offering as they do an outlet for the vertiginous sensation of incompatibility – perhaps even incompossibility – between the human and the world.(3)
This symptomatic approach to reading allows Danowski and Viveiros de Castro access to the generalizable conclusion that it is precisely “the human” itself that needs to be rethought if a potential compatibility or compossibility of ourselves with the world is our goal. We are asked throughout The Ends of the World to identify the dissociation between ourselves and our world in our apocalyptic cultural production and, further, asked to identify the Terran as the people who would be, to use Latour’s descriptor, “bound to the Earth” (qtd. in Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 94).
Dissociation is at the heart of Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s reading of the apocalyptic. For instance, early in the text they cite Latour’s observation that “things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep track” (qtd. In Danwoski and Viveiros de Castro 8). And, indeed, not only must contemporary scientific discourse struggle to keep up with the ever-shifting terms of multiple interlinked environmental and ecological problems, but the popular understanding of these discourses then lags in turn. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro compound such epistemological anachronisms by adding the claim that “for some time now it has been time itself, as the dimension of the manifestation of change (time as the ‘number of motion,’ as per Aristotle), that not only seems to be speeding up, but qualitatively changing all the time” (8). This state of anachronism is attested to in the very unpredictability of the future – more unpredictable than before, for now “the near future becomes unpredictable, if not indeed unimaginable outside the framework of science-fiction scenarios or messianic eschatologies” (12). Our understanding of our position, of time, of our relations and relationality, and of our situation are all out of joint or anachronistic to the extent that this crisis, this time, presents us with a sort of “perfect storm” of shattered continuity. We are without World in a – if not the – important sense.1
The second chapter, “… Its hour come round at last …,” claims that this anachronism, the dissociative acceleration of time that had heretofore been seen merely as an “existential or psychocultural condition of Western modernity,” has now “crossed over from sociocultural to biogeophysical history in a paradoxical way” (13–14). Here referencing Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and above all Dipesh Chakrabarty, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro argue that we must understand a transformation of our species from “biological agent” to “geological force” (14). In response to this transformation, we discover the event that Stengers calls “the intrusion of Gaia” (qtd. in Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 14), a “sensation of a definitive return of a form of transcendence that we believed transcended, and which reappears in more formidable form than ever” (14). In short, the transformation of the human species into a geological force has been “paid back” with Gaia’s intrusion into the human world.
In this passage, as in many others, the authors choose language and terminology they never quite contextualize. The authors’ prefatory note to The Ends of the World acknowledges the important events and publications that have transpired since the original, Portuguese publication in 2014 and with which, therefore, this text does not engage. Among these, the most important – “from a point of view that we could call dialogical rather than critical” (xi) – is the appearance of Bruno Latour’s Face à Gaia (2015), itself a reworking of Latour’s Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, presented in Edinburgh in 2013 and since published in English under the title Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017). Danowski and Viveiros de Castro suggest that their book and Latour’s be read together, as a systematic engagement with Latour would require “writing a different book altogether” (xi). The therefore glancing references to Latour’s works at various crucial points make clear that this reading strategy is, if not necessary, at least very well recommended, and we can add that a familiarity with Stengers and Chakrabarty is only slightly less crucial.
Alongside this introduction of the language of Gaia, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro express, following Chakrabarty, a dissatisfaction with critics of the anthropo-geological concept of the “Anthropocene,” such as Jason Moore who has famously suggested that we instead refer to our era as the Capitalocene. By Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s account, Chakrabarty rightly points out that a critique of capital is, despite its apparent necessity, insufficient to explain the planetary crisis. The development of productive forces under any economic system – Soviet-style communism is Chakrabarty’s example – would or could have conceivably resulted in similar environmental destruction. Indeed, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro endorse the view that a new species-consciousness would be required to halt the devastation that we see global capitalism enabling rather than causing. As such, the anthropological commitment of The Ends of the World allows us access to the sense in which a certain understanding of “the human,” and these humans’ understanding of themselves, has explanatory power in the face of imminent global destruction.
It is with this view in mind that Danowski and Viveiros de Castro turn toward a select number of representative apocalyptic cultural reckonings in order to better understand how certain communities view their relationships to each other, to nonhuman others, and to an uncertain and ultimately terminal future. Their anthropological approach to these apocalyptic accounts is here justified philosophically in that these accounts are, importantly, “something that is necessarily thought from another a pole, a ‘we’ that includes the (syntactic or pragmatic) subject of the discourse on the end” (20). Here, then, “humankind” or “we” are defined as that entity “for whom the world is a world, or rather, whose world the world is” (20). There are as many worlds as there are human accounts of a world, then. Coming to understand who falls under the rubric of a given “we” or definition of “human” or “person” is, thereby, “a strategic task, for which empirical anthropology or ethnographic theory is much better prepared than metaphysics or philosophical anthropology, which always seem to know perfectly well what kind of entity the Anthropos is, and above all who is doing the talking when one says ‘we’” (20).
This is a passage in which a little more elaboration would have been appreciated. What sorts of metaphysical accounts of the “we” do the authors have in mind? Surely the dislocation of the subject and the difficulty of providing a definitive account of the constitution of the “we” is a major topic in recent philosophy. There is a sense that we are meant to think that such accounts would, on Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s reading, count as examples of metaphysics or philosophical anthropology, but this connection remains underdeveloped and so seems, too quickly, to rule out a complex history against which their effort sets itself.
Several modes for conceiving of the apocalyptic are presented in the middle chapters by way of a helpful schematic that may turn out to be exhaustive. Whether it be the grim survivalism of post-apocalyptic wastelands (such as those of Mad Max or The Road), the world-ending suddenness of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, or the techno-capitalist denaturing of the Breakthrough Institute or Singularitarians (a think-tank in California), what is at stake is a working out of the relative emergence or survival of either the human or the world. For instance, the thinking of an idyllic natural wilderness that predates the emergence of humanity and that therefore allows us to think the reassertion of that nature long after the eventual extinction of humanity – paradigmatically represented in Alan Weisman’s 2007 The World Without Us – conforms to the broad schematic category of a “world-without-us,” further divided into a thinking of a “world-before-us” and a “world-after-us,” respectively. That is, this way of conceiving of the relation between the world and the human is one that posits the human as a denaturing addition to the world and one that the world can, ultimately, survive. Similarly if conversely, the Singularitarian vision of a radically de-natured humankind imagines an “us-without-world,” enabled by the human being’s capacity to enact an “upwardly mobile” collapse that would culminate in a rapture wherein we ascend to the Cloud rather than to the heavens (47). Such an envisioning of a “‘worldless humans’ scheme” (46) finds its metaphysical correlate in the creative worldlessness of Heidegger’s Dasein – that is, a scheme in which technological development has become sufficient to overcome “the species’ organic or earthly condition” (46) and so would have us “literally and definitively become the world-makers dear to Heidegger” (47) find ourselves “emancipated from the world” (47). The worldless human is thereby presented as the mirror-image of the world-without-us. Importantly, whether we think a world that predates us, a world that survives us, or a humanity that survives the end of the world, the distinction between humanity and world (or life, or nature) is preserved as unbridgeable. And so we may conclude that each of these elaborations of the end times revolves around a similar conceptual commitment to human agential exceptionalism and to passivity in nature.
Here Danowski and Viveiros de Castro begin their positive contribution. For if all these strategies fail due to their commitment to a destructive binary, what is necessary would be a mode of thinking that is free from this opposition. Insofar as the modes of thinking already addressed have dealt, variously, with a conception of the world as predating the human, a conception of the world as surviving the human, and a conception of the human surviving the end of the world, we are left to think through a variant in which the human is “empirically anterior in relation to the world” (63). And it is through an engagement with Amerindian cosmological myths that such a variant finds its expression. Here, humanity is primordial, either simply given or made up of “the only substance or matter out of which the world would come to be formed” (63). Rather than repeat the distinction between human and nature, in these myths we see that “humanity or personhood is both the seed and the primordial ground, or background, of the world” (65). There is, then, a continuity between the human and the world (and all of its denizens) that is essentially absent from the other three possibilities. Indeed, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro make much of the fact that, on this account, there is a sense in which all life is “human,” thereby allowing for an anthropomorphism that is not an anthropocentrism. Life is anthropomorphic because all life – life in general – is understood as a form of humanity, but not anthropocentric in that, if everything is human, “humans” in the sense more familiar to us moderns are no longer exceptional. The continuity between a primordial humanity and a world made up of rather than by that humanity means that no nature has ever been “lost,” and there is no compulsion to be freed from nature baked into this mythos.
At this point, then, we can begin to see what is at stake in the distinction between ‘Humans” or “Moderns” and “Terrans,” those who have never been modern. If a disjuncture or anachronism is characteristic of the global planetary crisis we are experiencing, it is equally and antecedently characteristic of those humans that have set us on this trajectory culminating in an end. If the end of the world is being increasingly thematized, it is because, qua Human, our understandings testify to a world already lost – a world irretrievably and irreconcilably lost. And if there is to be hope, it is to be found in those for whom the world is not in opposition to the self. As such, the war between Humans and Terrans, as much as the “Gaia War” itself, is, properly speaking, a “war of the worlds” (91). It would be a mistake to think that opposing parties here are conflicted about what form our present or future could take, as though there were a common body of facts that one could reason about and so reason toward. Insofar as the scientific community finds itself in a position of general consensus regarding the fact that climate change is anthropocentric in origin, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro insist that what is at stake in this war is precisely not matters of fact, but rather matters of concern. The Gaia War, then, is understood to take as its fundamental stake “what world we want to live in” (92). In this sense, Terrans can be defined not only as a community possessing a certain type of common cultural mythos, but, additionally, as the name for a “common cause, which concerns all of the planet’s collectives, but which can only properly come together if future ex-Moderns make their anxiously anticipated vow of humility and open up a space for cosmopolitical dialogue” (93).
It remains unclear to what extent introducing or elaborating a binary, especially a participatory binary like “Humans” and “Terrans” that even “virtually” picks out living members of a population, is a helpful or desirable strategy for overcoming an unequivocally destructive binary like “Human” and “Nature.” Or, to raise the underlying opposition that I have argued is structuring this text, both in the initial pair ‘human-nature’ and in Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s appeal to the pair ‘Human-Terran,’ a thinking of disjunction and contiguity with the world. The lack of a more thorough engagement with twentieth- and twenty-first-century deconstructive thinking seems like a missed opportunity here, not only because thinkers like Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida articulate the theme of the end of the world, but also because these thinkers and their commentators have worked to demonstrate, in many places, that any articulated self, be it an “I,” a “we,” or a “them,” will be disjointed as a condition for its impossible contiguity. Suggestions that such a reading are compatible with Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s project can be found in the text – in moments like the thought that Europeans were, after all, the first Terrans to be invaded (108), or in the insistence that the different scales of the apocalypse necessitate a thinking of the end of the world as a “fractal” event (105). But if the Terran is a form of life that needs to be recovered and empowered in each of us and in each instance, the project takes on a pedagogic structure that itself seems inadequate to the urgency of our current crisis.
In their dual philosophical/anthropological perspective on apocalyptic thematics – Bruno Latour describes the authors as “an anthropologist with philosophical leanings” and “a philosopher with an ecological bent,” in his short foreword to the text (vii) – Danowski and Viveiros de Castro ask us to take these tales of the end of the world seriously and in so doing, to understand them as “efforts, though not necessarily intentional ones, to invent a mythology adequate to our times” (6). In this regard, the authors are undoubtedly successful. The text offers a number of up-to-the-minute philosophical, anthropological, cinematic, and literary apocalypse-flavored interventions wide-ranging enough that any interested reader is likely not only to find a foothold in their particular contextual starting point, but also to discover previously unknown theoretical resources. I expect many English readers will, like me, be particularly appreciative of the careful presentation of a number of South American Amerindian perspectives on the end of the world (a multiplicity of perspectives united in thinking an end of world that has taken place prior to “our” historical present) typically lacking from Western, Eurocentric educations.
Michael Peterson is a Ph.D. candidate at DePaul University. His work lies at the intersection of questions of inheritance, intergenerational responsibility, environmental philosophy, and twentieth century continental thought. He is the author of “Responsibility and the Non(bio)degradable” in Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy (2018). His forthcoming dissertation reads contemporary nuclear waste disposal policy alongside figures such as Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Derrida to discover the sense in which such policy both is and isn’t responsive to the demands of a responsibility worthy of the name.