“It’s almost unbelievable when you think of it, how they live there in all that ice and sand and mountains wilderness. Look at it,” he says. “Huge barren deserts, huge oceans. How do they endure all those terrible things? The floods alone. The earthquakes alone make it crazy to live there. Look at those fault systems. They’re so big, there´s so many of them. The volcanic eruptions alone. What could be more frightening than a volcanic eruption? How do they endure avalanches, year after year, with numbing regularity? It’s hard to believe people live there. The floods alone. You can see whole huge discolored areas, all flooded out, washed out. How do they survive, where do they go? Look at the cloud buildups. Look at the swirling storm center. What about the people who live in the path of a storm like that? It must be packing incredible winds. The lightning alone. People exposed on beaches, near trees or telephone poles. Look at the cities with their spangled lights spreading in all directions. Try to imagine the crime and violence. Look at the smoke pall hanging low. What does that mean in terms of respiratory disorders? It’s crazy. Who would live there? The deserts, how they encroach. Every year they claim more and more arable land. How enormous those snowfields are. Look at the massive storm fronts over the ocean. There are ships down there, small craft, some of them. Try to imagine the waves, the rocking. The hurricanes alone. The tidal waves. Look at those coastal communities exposed to tidal waves. What could be more frightening than a tidal waves? But they live there, they stay there. Where could they go?
Any reader familiar with Don DeLillo will recognize in this small excerpt from the short story “Human Moments In Wold War III” (1983) one of the recurring themes in his work: the looming sense of threat which grew among us after World War II. In an interview he did with Terry Gross on October 2, 1997 (for NPR’s Fresh Air program), DeLillo, who had just published his novel Underworld, explained how he understood the transition from one era to another while looking at an archived version of a 1951 front page of The New York Times (see below):
The ball game was a unifying and largely joyous event; the kind of event in which people come out of their houses in order to share their feelings with others. And an event not primarily defined by television: there was only limited coverage. With the onset of the bomb the communal spirit becomes associated with danger and loss rather than with celebration. And the sense of catastrophic events framed and defined by TV grows ever stronger: assassinations, terrorist acts, even natural disasters. (listen to it on YouTube; DeLillo gave a more detailed account of the genesis of his novel Underworld and the role played by that front page in his essay “The Power of History”)
With the atomic bomb, we were confronted with our very own capacity to annihilate ourselves. We’re still living today with this threat even though its form and its name may have changed (“Cold War”, “atomic bomb”). From DeLillo perspective, this newspaper front page from 1951 marked the disappearance of the belief that we could all live together simply by sharing positive values. It’s the brutal discovery that this idyllic vision of the community is unsustainable or, as Adorno and Horkheimer once put it:
human beings expect the world, which is without issue, to be set ablaze by a universal power which they themselves are and over which they are powerless. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, tr. Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002 p. 22)
The description of our planet as an inhospitable place in DeLillo’s short story points to the other side of this loss. Not only is living together problematic, to say the least, but we’ve also come to think about the very space we call “home” as a potential threat to our existence. The old romantic view of a preestablished harmony between man and nature ―from which the figures of “Mother Nature” and more recently “Mother Earth” originate― has crumbled. The portrait of Earth in “Human Moments In Wold War III” could be read as the very antithesis of the lyrical account given by Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot:
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (New York: Random House, 1997p. 7)
Like the female character of “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), another short story by DeLillo, we’ve come to fear the walls of our own houses: where they once stood as the guaranty of our safety, they now threaten to fall on our heads and bury us alive.
How do we live together, here and now, under those circumstances? To this question, one would be tempted today to answer by saying that we do not merely live by means of social contracts or shared values, for the sake of tradition or in the pursuit of a better future, but that we live in fear: fear of ourselves as well as fear of our own environment. However, unlike terror, fear has the potential to bring people together, to be transformed into a political force1. This idea, which was already familiar to Thomas Hobbes, is at the heart of the comment DeLillo made in his interview with Terry Gross: the constitution of the “communal spirit” by means of danger and loss.
From this perspective, the overly catastrophist tone used by some major media outlets when it comes to impending disasters ―like in the case of hurricane Sandy2― may have less to do with an accurate description of reality than it has with producing a lost sense of belonging. Those of us who have shared scary stories around a campfire or held hands while watching horror movies know about this feeling. In “Human Moments In World War III” this idea is further developed:
“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger then themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city―but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. (The Angel Esmeralda, New York: Scribner, 2012, p. 31).
We live in relative state of fear, but with the feeling we’re not alone, nor completely exposed. It has already been argued but worth repeating: where the old walls fail to protect us, media ―in the broad sense of this word― provide abundant coverage. This may be one of the overlooked effect, if not function, of the repetitive nature of the media stream we create around us (television, Twitter, etc.). As a collective, we invest on a daily basis in the belief that such a self-sustaining information vessel will be capable of carrying and intensifying a certain sense of community by synchronizing a multiplicity of affects and narratives. We hope to sail on the stories we tell each other, aware or not that those stories are shaped in turn by our voyages.
However, in the process of coping with our collective fears, we run in circle from one issue to another: “danger and loss” said DeLillo. Our dream of a global, harmonious “communal spirit” is the kind nightmares are made of. This argument has been repeatedly developed here (see below for relevant entries): namely that what is brought together under this new “electronic medial skin”3 is the lack of a common measure (Bataille, Blanchot) and the manifest absence of a constitutive essence (Nancy). We’re stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: escaping our old safety structures only to find ourselves unable to live under the same unifying, global roof. We live in dangerous times, DeLillo likes to reapeat, of which we are apparently both the victims and the cause. Fortunately for us, it seems that when facing disasters, good novelists have just as much to offer as meteorologists, maybe even more.
• • •
Previous entries relevant to the issues discussed here:
- On the threshold of knowledge: Pythagoreans, irrationality and the experience of modernity
- Some thoughts on the 2012 Quebec student protests
- Peter Sloterdijk: “We share the separator” (2005)
- Feeling threatened: community, security and politics in the post 9/11
- Christoph Gielen’s Photographs meet Peter Sloterdijk’s “Poetic of Space”
• • •
1. Roberto Esposito has a whole chapter exploring the function of fear in his book Communitas:
[Fear] doesn’t only cause flight and isolation, but it also causes relation and union. It isn’t limited to blocking and immobilizing, but, on the contrary, it pushes to relflect and neutralize danger. It doesn’t reside on the side of the irrational but on the side of the rational. It is a productive power. It is this functional side of fear that distinguishes it from terror, from immediate fright or absolute panic. (tr. Thimothy Campbell, Standford: Stanford University Press, 2010, p. 23) ↩︎︎
2. When it comes to natural disasters, modernity has taught us to always suspect that “nature” is not the only culprit responsible: every natural catastrophe is potentially a man-made catastrophe. And it isn’t simply a question of global warming. See previously here: “The Half-Life of Disaster” by Brian Massumi (April 2011) ↩︎︎
3. Peter Sloterdijk from the first volume of his Spheres trilogy:
Modernity is characterized by the technical production of its immunity and the increasing removal of its safety structures from the traditional theological and cosmological narratives. Industrial-scale civilization, the welfare state, the world market and the media sphere: all these large scale projects aim, in a shelless time, for an imitation of the now impossible, imaginary spheric security. Now networks and insurance policies are meant to replace the celestial domes; telecommunication has to reenact the all-encompassing. The body of humanity seeks to create a new immune constitution in an electronic medial skin. (Bubbles. Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, tr. by Wieland Hoban, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011, p. 25) ↩︎︎