We live at a time of great upheavals. Every sphere of existence is now home to the destabilizing forces that are drastically changing the environment, redrawing social boundaries, shaking up the economy and family relations, altering individual psychologies and political orders. Catastrophe, global devastation, apocalypse no longer refer to fantastic scenarios of a dystopian future; they knock on our doors. How to interpret the world in a state of upheaval, a world that seems to elude our capacities for understanding reality more swiftly and more deftly than ever before?
Marx famously wrote in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[i] A rejoinder to Marx may be that the point now, in the twenty-first century, is to interpret a changing world and that, in any case, without a careful and indefatigable interpretation, it is impossible to ascertain if and how the world is changing. My contention in this book is that the world is changing through upheavals that, experienced from within, cause it to lose its quality of worldliness, its livable, habitable character.
We treat upheavals as more or less synonymous with revolutions, mayhem, disorder, disarray. Still, there is something highly idiomatic about this word and the process it designates, something that will help shed light (however unsteady) on what is going on at present.
Upheaval literally means the heaving up of the earth. The English verb to heave derives from the Proto-Germanic *hafjan and entails the sense of lifting up, or raising. It is closely related to a more common verb, to have—to take hold of, to possess. In upheavals, though, the taking hold slips away from the grasp and control of those who experience these extreme events. It is not we who take hold of the tendencies underway; rather, these tendencies grip us, throwing us, along with our world, up in the air. We are deprived of the support we usually seek from the more or less stable foundations of our existence in the social and cultural meshwork of customs, in a habitual relation to our natural environment, in the daily routine of work or leisure. The dynamics of upheaval are close to elemental forces, especially those related to the element of the earth with its seismic activity, entirely uncontrollable and only barely predictable.
As in the churning up of the earth, what is lifted in upheaval is what was already there as the underside of the present: secret, invisible, obscure, abstruse. With the shadowy underside of existence—of our own existential, social, economic, political, or ecological being—emerging in the daylight of the present, a certain version of the apocalypse, which implies the ultimate uncovering or unveiling of reality, becomes concrete. That said, apocalyptic upheavals are not just drawing the curtain that has prevented us from seeing the true nature of reality; they meddle with the system of coordinates for meaningful experience, upending things, throwing what was down up and bringing what was up down. More radical yet than a revolution, a persistent upheaval invalidates our tried-and-tested methods for orienting ourselves in space, time, and the pluriverse of sense. I have dealt with this totally disorientating aspect of upheaval in my Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation, as well as in Pyropolitics in the World Ablaze.[ii]
Not by chance, upheaval is a kindred word of the German Aufhebung, which it translates into English with much more precision than “sublation,” “reversal,” “removal,” or “revocation.” This word, this concept, is one of the keys to Hegel’s dialectics, where it plays the role of the engine for the development of the most disparate of entities from plants to the institutions of the state, from human consciousness to artworks, from logical categories to organic systems. While Aufhebung concentrates in itself the labor of the negative (that is, of negating the preceding state of whatever or whoever undergoes it), it is indispensable to the positive development of the entity in question. The same goes for upheaval, which, besides the destructive or disorienting connotations it contains, renders possible what was impossible before.
More precisely, upheaval allows for the disclosure of the murky underside, silently subtending things within their visible outlines, not to mention the switch of positions that sets an otherwise static order in motion. Perhaps, we should say with Hegel that everything and everyone develops by upheaval, not thanks to the comfort of an undisturbed self-identity but thanks to the splitting of this identity open, its churning and reversal, the uplifting of what was suppressed or repressed.
***Senses of Upheaval: Philosophical Snapshots of a Decade was published by Anthem Press in the beginning of December 2021. The above text is a part of the book’s introduction.***
[i] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach.” In Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition (London & New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 145.
[ii] Michael Marder, Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2020); Michael Marder, Pyropolitics in the World Ablaze (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).