One of the best scenes in The Cocoanuts (1929) by Marx Brothers is where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) mentions, addressing himself to Chico, the presence of a viaduct between the mainland and a peninsula. Chico, in response, repeats constantly his famous line: “Why a duck?”
Isn’t this the same predicament we are in today? In recent years, experts have repeatedly warned us of the dangers inherent in ways of life under capitalism and how ignoring them could result in a full-out disaster. However, we reacted to these warnings with the structure of fetishist disavowal: “I know these warnings are true, but at the same time I do not take them seriously; these catastrophes will not happen for several centuries, so why bother?” Well, adversity has struck once again and we are still asking: “Why a duck?”
The first problem when a catastrophe strikes, when the horror of the denouement manifests itself, is the ability to live in a world where the end is a necessity. But, today, even the possibility of an end and annihilation has been taken away from us. The fact that neither pervasive social movements, nor the bleak landscape of an environmental or a nuclear blow, nor even the ongoing health crisis can revive the possibility and hope for a radical shift shows that “we are engaged in a gigantic process of revisionism – not an ideological revisionism but a revisionism of history itself.”[i]
The ongoing contagion is a clear example of this deadlock. In the beginning, there was at least hope that in the midst of such a desperate situation, there would be more solidarity and cooperation around the world. We all remember the ridiculous images of people singing from their balconies in the middle of the quarantine or police officers dancing and cheering in the neighborhoods trying to lift the spirits of trapped citizens. The Guardian, however, revealed the meaninglessness of such images nearly a year ago:
A few days into Italy’s lockdown, people across the country sang and played music from their balconies as they came together to say “Everything will be alright” (Andrà tutto bene). Three weeks on, the singing has stopped and social unrest is mounting as a significant part of the population, especially in the poorer south, realize that everything is not alright.
The fact that even politicians have more or less abandoned the promises of sweet days after the end of the health tragedy and are warning of more cataclysmic suffering in the future shows that the dream is finally over and the mutilated face of a world we once considered perfect and flawless (at least for a certain group of people) is apparent in front of us.
Every cataclysm inevitably leaves behind a ruined structure, a wasted formation that indicates the occurrence of a devastating event, as a witness of a plight. Empty streets, parks, hotels, airports, desolate shopping malls, and somewhat vacant cities are the new examples of ruins in our time. But, unlike in the classical period, in the modern era, these wreckages are no longer reminiscent of the lost glory of ancient Greece or Rome; rather, they show the destruction that is at the heart of the idea of capitalist progress.
It should be noted that even with improvements in global vaccination, scenes of dilapidations are still prevalent in many countries (including mine), and there is no guarantee that we will not witness such scenes again with another mutation in this stupid virus. Moreover, inequality in the distribution of the vaccine itself is a factor that precipitates the prolongation of the disease.
Isn’t the disappearance of the aura of the inner world of capital a way to politicize this situation and focus on similar catastrophes in the future? This “political” act comes into existence only when, as Slavoj Žižek perspicaciously remarks in his Enjoy Your Symptom!, the subject suspends the network of symbolic fictions which serve as a support to his daily life and confronts again the radical negativity upon which they are founded.
The question then emerges: what does it mean for something to be abandoned, rendered useless, and discarded (at least temporarily) in our lives? As William Viney argues in his Waste: A Philosophy of Things, discarding something as waste is not simply due to our feeling compelled to organize the environment into hygienic allotments of clean space, but due to how we “encounter the time of things; objects that arise from the time felt in and with matter. Waste is also matter for whom time has run out or has become precluded.”[ii] One has to accept the fact that the present structures of the world are not only waste in terms of space, but also that the time for all the ruined apparatuses of our lives is practically over.
What does this radical detachment mean for our future? Wagner includes a wonderful phrase at the end of his Parsifal opera: “The wound can be healed only by the spear or sword that inflicted it.” This means that the very disintegration of traditional forms of life opens up a space for liberation. The same goes for all of the impractical and idiotic nostalgia for the conditions prior to the pandemic. While this widespread disease was a devastating blow, return to the idealized past is not possible. Instead, we have to see this deprivation (of the days of the past) as a unique chance of freedom and try to embrace the authenticity of the ruins we see unfolding before us.
The more one looks at how things function, the more one comes to the conclusion that the rusted architecture before our eyes is not an exceptional experience, which will be elaborated once the worldwide vaccination takes place; it’s a symptom of a substructure, in which every catastrophe is considered natural and immediate. Perhaps, it can be argued that we must first acknowledge our inability to provide a way out of the crisis. Without accepting the unbridled frustration of the case, nothing can be resolved. As Mike Davis has rightly contended, “we first need to acknowledge our collective shame in failing last year to build an effective national protest movement against the policies that led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and the economic ruin of tens of millions more.”
The illusion of an orderly world under capitalism, the hope to continue with “business as usual,” neoliberal democracy—these are the ruins of our world that lie in front of us. If we are to walk through the catastrophic world we are living in, we’ll have to keep these defaced fantasies as they are, in the shape of a shattered appearance.
There is a wonderful theological example of waking up after the catastrophe ends, namely, the story of the Seven Sleepers. In Christian and Islamic tradition, the Seven Sleepers (aṣḥāb al kahf, lit. ‘Companions of the Cave’) is the story of a group of youths who hid inside a cave outside the city of Ephesus around 250CE to escape the Roman persecutions of Christians. According to chapter 18 of the Quran (verses 9-26), once seven young men reach the cave, they fall into a deep sleep for about 300 years. The sleepers then wake up thinking that they have been slumbering not for more than a few hours. But when they enter the city, they realize that everything is changed.
Aren’t we today at a similar threshold? Weary of the daily struggle against the pandemic and other similar calamities, we sleep with the desire to wake up to the evidently happy old days. But what we don’t tend to realize is that much has changed and we are now in a new day and age. Now, if we want to have a happy ending like the “Companions of the Cave”, we have to change our prospective. In other words, to use Baudrillard’s terminology, one way of narrating a tragedy is to make your narrative alter the state of things in such a way that you no longer have any reason to be a part of it.
In a way, living in the middle of the pandemic is not a difficult task, at least during the day when you have to work: you can somehow immerse yourself in meaningless and repetitive activities and escape from constant fear, even for a few hours. But at night, nightmares, worries and despair arise. Isn’t this the miserable situation of most of us in the middle of this crisis? Fear of the virus, anxiety for the condition of our loved ones, the ruined world we live in, the dreadful picture of an economic and ecological disaster in the future, etc. haunt us constantly.
In a scene from the movie Casablanca, Victor Laszlo, a renowned, fugitive Czech resistance fighter is talking with Captain Renault after arriving in Casablanca. “Did you have a good night’s rest?” Renault asks. “I slept very well!” Laszlo replies. And there comes the wonderful remark of Captain Renault: “That’s strange; nobody’s supposed to sleep well in Casablanca.” The logic behind this dialogue is, of course, very simple: what Renault is trying to express in metaphorical language is that the Nazi regime has created so much suffocation that no one can live a comfortable life. That is to say, “sleeping badly” is the unfortunate result of living in this situation. Today, the only people who can easily go to bed at night, without fear and haunting nightmares, are those who are probably hidden in their shelters in New Zealand, while ordinary people have to face many dangers and fears every day. Thus, our basic dogma should be that today everyone has to act as if they are not supposed to sleep well. This means that when we think of the golden days after the end of the pandemic, we must not forget that, if our way of life continues unaltered, the still ongoing disaster is the smallest crisis we have to worry about, and the ruins will become an integral part of our world.
Of course, the politicization of the ongoing situation does not mean retreating to a pretentious and idealized realm of “pure politics”, namely “the reduction of the sphere of economy (of material production) to an ‘ontic’ sphere deprived of ‘ontological’ dignity.”[iii] On the contrary, one needs to focus on forms of struggle that exclude the official and symbolic logic and offer options beyond existing barbaric frameworks. This, however, must be accompanied by a kind of necessary pessimism. The stupid optimism of an easy way out of the situation is nothing but a sign of theoretical laziness; it was Jean-Luc Nancy who once said, “calls do not make answers and ‘chances’ are not necessarily taken. There are as many silences as calls, as many risks as chances.”
To overcome the endless and meaningless process that has made us become the ones who are doomed to failure even before the start, we need an approach that Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, the well-known Syrian scholar and writer, called “Self-Criticism after the Defeat”, a milestone that marks a new beginning for the world to come. Similar to the reading of Sadiq Jalal al-Azm from the 1967 War, which led to the defeat of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt by Israel, we need to adopt an inward look, that is, to understand the mechanisms of our powerlessness.
But amid this pervasive crisis, what is the significance and role of philosophy? When it comes to the inability of philosophy to deal with a crisis, at a time when there is no longer anything to ask, this question finds its greatest importance. My good friend Shaj Mohan, a philosopher based in the Indian subcontinent, recently wrote to me about the meaning of being a philosopher during a pandemic in India, a country struggling with increasing numbers of COVID-19 deaths and infections:
To be a philosopher anywhere now means this: to be an ambulance driver, a primary school teacher in a village, a carrier of the dead, recipient of the beatings of the fascists, agitator, the agonist of unnamable sorrow which snatches the soul away from the call of the dead to mourn for them because there are worse days still ahead.
I can think of no better words to describe what philosophy should do in an apocalyptic impasse. In other words, we need something that Slavoj Žižek calls the “inversion of the apocalypse”—a manoeuvre that does not take the apocalypse as something that we will have to face in the future but as something that already took place.
So, the slogan for us in this day and age should be as follows: There is an infinite amount of sleep under capitalism… but not for us!
[i] Baudrillard, Jean, (1994) The Illusion of the End, Translated by Chris Turner, Polity Press, p. 32
[ii] Viney, William, (2014) Waste: A Philosophy of Things, Bloomsbury, pp. 1-2
[iii] Žižek, Slavoj, (2006) The Parallax View, MIT Press, p. 55–56.