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Conditio posthuma

» My own childhood, like that of many children of the 1980s, was marked by a film called ›Back to the Future‹. Maybe our posthumous condition requires something like a time machine that enables us to return to that time in which there was a future. «
Marina Garcés

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Ours is a time in which everything is coming to an end. We have witnessed the end of modernity, history, ideologies, and revolutions. We have seen how progress has come to an end: the future as a time of promise, development and growth. Now we are seeing how resources are used up – water, oil and clean air – and ecosystems and their diversity are extinguished. Our time is definitively one in which everything is ending, even time itself. We are in regression. Some say we are in a process of asphyxiation or extinction. Perhaps not as a species, but as a civilization based on development, progress and expansion.

In a 20 January 2016 article, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote: »Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party«, continuing with a series of questions like the following:

What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China […]?

[…]

What is the $100-a-barrel oil price era is over […]?

[…]

[W]hat if the E.U. era is over?

He concludes: »There’s still an opportunity for someone to lead by asking, and answering, all of these ›what ifs‹, but that time is quickly coming to an end, just like the last dinner party I ruined.«1 At the outset of the US presidential campaign, this influential commentator permitted himself to map and diagnose the present state of the world for the next president in terms of a series of endings, summed up in the idea that time is finishing and someone has to step forward and do something. Could Friedman have imagined at that moment he would be directing these words to Donald Trump?

We find many other examples like this every day in the press, academic debates, and the cultural industry, confronting us with the necessity of thinking in terms of the exhaustion of time and the end of times. When it is said that time is ending, this does not mean abstract, empty time, but rather liveable time. That is to say, the time in which we can still intervene and shape our conditions of life. Faced with the exhaustion of liveable time, anthropological collapse and the irreversibility of our own extinction, our time is no longer that of postmodernity, but rather that of another experience of ending, which I call the conditio posthuma. In this, »post« no longer means something that emerges after leaving behind modernity’s grand perspectives and references. Our »post« is that which comes after the after: a posthumous post, a time of deferment we give ourselves when we have conceived and in part accepted the real possibility of our own end (whether of our world or the end of the human species as such).

 

From postmodernity to the conditio posthuma

The transition between these two experiences of after can be summed up in terms of a series of shifts, through which we shall see how the meaning of the »post« is changing. What has happened between »after modernity« and »after after modernity«? What are the contours of an experience characterized by having left behind the sense of the future as a perspective and promise?

Firstly, the postmodern condition located us in the present of global capitalism, which in the late 1970s and early 80s began to be experienced as a present of hyperconsumption, unlimited production, and the political unification of the world. Economic globalization, the other face of postmodernity, invited humanity to celebrate an eternal present filled with possibilities, simulacra, and promises realizable in the here and now. In this present, the future was no longer necessary, because in some sense it had already been realized or was in the process of being so. In contrast, the dominant temporality of the posthumous condition is the no-future of runaway capitalism.2 Globalisation has now revealed its most terrible face, particularly since 2008, and its time no longer invites us to celebration, but condemns us to precarization, the exhaustion of natural resources, environmental destruction, and a malaise of both body and mind… If the present of the postmodern condition appeared under the sign of eternity on earth – forever young, so to speak – the present of the conditio posthuma shows itself today under the sign of ecological catastrophe and the sterility of daily life. This turn can be seen very clearly in the transformations of my hometown, Barcelona, which serves as a paradigmatic example. In only a few short few years, a decade and a half at most, Barcelona has gone from being the ciutat guapa (the beautiful city, »Barcelona posa’t guapa« was the motto of a famous campaign by the municipality in the 1990s) to a ciutat morta, a dead city (which is the title of a film about Patricia Heras’s suicide following her arrest, mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment by the police and judicial system). From the young city to the ravaged city, Barcelona has passed from being the city that erased history in order to adorn its colourful shop windows, to become the city without a history, condemning its inhabitants, particularly the youngest, to forced emigration. From a timeless fiesta to a time without future.

Secondly, postmodernity appeared as a culmination of the biopolitical turn of modern politics. As Michel Foucault first analysed and other authors from Giorgio Agamben to Antonio Negri further developed, the relationship between the state and capitalism from the eighteenth century onward configured a biopolitical scenario in which the management of life, both individual and collective, became the centre of both the ruling power’s legitimacy as well as the organization of its practices of governmentality. Violence was of course still exercised by the soldiers and policemen of the state under the biopolitical regime, but was considered exceptional – a disruption of political normality. Today, biopolitics reveals its necropolitical face, no longer as deficit or exception but as normality. In Mexico, for example, this turn is clear and dramatic: death is no longer residual or exceptional, it does not interrupt the political order but has found its place at the centre of democratic and capitalist normality with its undeclared wars. Hobbes and the political order of modernity, in which peace and war are the interior and exterior of civility and the space of the state, has been superseded; and with this, too, the Kantian perspective of perpetual peace. In other words, the regulative ideal of a tendential advance towards the pacification of the world has been erased from our map of potential possibilities.

Thirdly, the postmodern condition was characterized above all by incredulity towards grand narratives and their effects on the sciences, language, and knowledge itself. That is how Jean-François Lyotard defined the postmodern condition in a famous 1979 book of the same title.3 According to his analysis, postmodern knowledge is characterized by the trait that neither history as the scenario of progress towards a more just society, nor progress as the horizon from which to judge scientific and cultural accumulation towards truth are regarded as markers of the validity of epistemological, cultural, and political activity. The postmodern after, as elaborated by Lyotard, is thus freed from the linear sense of historical meta-narrative of progress, and thus open to multiple times – to heterochronias – to the value of interruption, to the event, and to discontinuities. Like the punks whose screams of life and rage were uttered in those same years, »no future« was experienced as liberation. The conditio posthuma, by contrast, looms over us today as the imposition of a new narrative, unique and linear: that of the irreversible destruction of our conditions of life. The inversion of the modern conception of history, characterized by the irreversibility of progress and revolution, now holds in store for the future not the realization of history but its implosion. Historical linearity has shifted into reverse, pointing not to a light at the end of the tunnel, but casting a shadow on our shop windows illuminated by constant artificial light.

Fourthly, the end of the grand narratives of a single meaning also coincided with the discovery of difference and multiplicity of identities and meanings as fundamental dimensions of human experience. The ontologies of the late twentieth century were open to everything that had not fitted into the categories of identity and representation. Politics incorporated diverse and irreducible cultural, symbolic, and corporeal pragmatics, experimenting with new forms of generating connections and alliances. Now, by contrast, the conditio posthuma confronts us with a new experience of totality: that of a humanity made concrete, a whole, when exposed to the real possibility of its destruction as a consequence of its own action. This is a negative totality that neither welcomes nor rejects us, but shows us a new experience of the limit, of an all or nothing. This becomes a single unique fate for all, as it seems to situate all of us together under the same threat. Most totalizing in this new situation is that, no matter how we live, no matter what we do with our lives, and no matter what we think, we all contribute equally to fuelling the possibility of destruction of some by others, with no possibility of subtracting ourselves from this fatality.

Fifthly and finally, the postmodern after offered itself as a time open to experimentation, leaving behind predefined teleologies and perspectives. To act was to invent one’s own action and its meaning. In the after of the posthumous after, on the other hand, collective action (whether political, scientific or technical) is no longer understood in terms of experiment but rather of emergency, as a last resort, a remedy or rescue. The heroes of our time are the lifesavers of the Mediterranean. These people, ever ready to cast their bodies into the water to rescue a life without direction – one that has left behind a past without possessing a future – represent the most radical action of our days. To save life, although this has no other horizon of meaning beyond one’s own self-assertion. Rescue as unique reward. In some way, the »new politics« that has emerged in Spain in recent years and now governs a number of cities and regions also presents itself under this logic: its primary raison d’être, before political transformation (in other words, a future), is social emergency. Politics as action of civic rescue puts itself before politics as collective project based on social change. Even in the social movements and contemporary critical thought, we speak a lot about »looking after« (los cuidados). To look after ourselves is the new revolution. Perhaps this is one of the key threads running through feminism to community action or local self-defence today. But this looking after which we speak of so often increasingly resembles a form of palliative medicine.

On the basis of these five shifts and their conscious and unconscious effects on our experience, the collective imaginary of our time has filled itself with zombies, vampires, and skeletons, even millionaire skeletons such as those of the Mexican writer Daniel Orozco, who stated in an interview with El País4 that he had already died years before. Meanwhile, as we become conscious of this death now accompanying us, we do not know how to respond to real death – to the old and sick people who accompany us, to violated and murdered women, to refugees and immigrants who risk their skins to cross international borders. The conditio posthuma is the after of a death that is not our real death, but one that has made the dominant narrative of our time obsolete and presents itself to us as a socially produced and culturally accepted death. Why has this narrative triumphed so easily? It is clear that we are experiencing, in real time, a harshening of the material conditions of life in both economic and environmental terms. Limits to the planet and its resources are scientifically self-evident – but what is the root of the impotence that inscribes us, in so uncritical and obedient a fashion, as agents of our own end? Why, if we are alive, do we accept a post-mortem scenario?

To answer these questions, perhaps it is necessary to take a step back in historical time, in order to encounter what we could call the »time of our death«. The twentieth century was the century of our death, of this after we left behind but can now only emerge from in the form of postponement. The meaning of our conditio posthuma lies not only in the future, in the real possibility of cataclysm or anthropological collapse. If this were the case, we would not speak of the posthumous but of the imminence of a threat. It lies in a past that still gives meaning to our present and captures it.

 

The time of our death

The twentieth century was the time of our historical death: massive death, administered death, toxic death, atomic death. It involved the deliberate murder of millions of people, with which the subject, the history, and future of humanity also dies. This is the death that postmodernity with its celebration of the inexhaustible simulacrum denied by its celebration of the eternal present, and that is now returning – like all that is repressed – with greater force. This was the weakness of postmodern culture and everything it was capable of opening up: that its eternal present forgot and negated death (the death of dying and the death of killing), placing its trust in the inexhaustible meaning of the simulacrum and immaterial labour. But the continuity between the twentieth and the twenty-first century is that we have not stopped killing ourselves, and that, moreover, we are tired because we can see no end. We no longer count the world wars: the Third one, in which we currently find ourselves, is uncountable because we do not know when it began or when and where it will end.

The time of our death is drawn by a cartography of places, dates, and events: Verdun, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bhopal, Palestine, New York, South Africa, Iraq, Chechnya, Chernobyl… Of all these names, the last is perhaps the most invisible to us, the least present. The work of journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich allow us to experience and incorporate this name into the indispensable references of our present. Her book, Voices of Chernobyl, contains several paragraphs that deserve to be reproduced here in full, as they speak the truth of our time:

I see Chernobyl as the beginning of a new history […] because it challenges our old ideas about ourselves and the world. When we talk about the past or the future, we read our ideas about time into those words; but Chernobyl is, above all, a catastrophe of time […].

We were dazzled by infinity. The philosophers and writers fell silent, derailed from the familiar tracks of culture and tradition…

In the space of one night we shifted to another place in history […], beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. Time was out of joint. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on; in the all-encompassing – or so we’d believed – archive of humanity, we couldn’t find a key to open this door […].

We now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun… But people do not want reflect on that […], preferring to take refuge in the familiar. And in the past […].

What lingers most in my memory of Chernobyl is life afterwards: the possessions without owners, the landscapes without people. The roads going nowhere, the cables leading nowhere. You find yourself wondering just what this is: the past or the future.

It sometimes felt to me as if I was recording the future […].

Everything has changed, except us.5

 

Philosophies of broken time

The philosophies of the twentieth century are elaborations of this historical death, which in turn is why they are philosophies of broken time, philosophies of the event that break the thread of history and expose it to other temporalities. Against the modern (Kantian, Hegelian, Marxian…) notion of a historical realization of philosophy which would tend to resolve contradictions and reconcile reality and theory, the philosophies of the twentieth century open us to a different experience of space and time. The two figures representing this rupture of time in contemporary philosophy most significantly are perhaps Heidegger and Deleuze.

Heidegger is the master who appropriated the death of the century to make it both existential condition and metaphysical, historic, and technical destiny. On the basis of his philosophy of acceptance of radical finitude –undermining any philosophy of the subject and its realization in the reified world of technique – Heidegger opens the experience of meaning to a time of extasis. This »ecstatic« time is the event that exposes temporality to an experience neither linear nor cumulative. Ecstatic time is the time of enlightenment, from the experience of comprehension in language to the suspension of all will in a disposition of the subject to embrace, without inviting, the advent of a new destiny for the West. It is a time of messianic structure, in whose wake several other philosophers such as Blanchot, Derrida, Nancy, and Agamben continued thinking in the second half of the twentieth century. These are philosophies of the between, of the interval that suspends the meaning of history and action in the perhaps of an imminent but inaccessible interruption.

Deleuze, for his part, is the philosopher who shuns the death of the century, refusing to pay attention to its deathly condition and showing the creative perseverance of desire. Deleuze, like his master Spinoza, refuses to speak death, to put it into words. The free man is the man who does not think of death. And like his other master, Nietzsche, Deleuze breaks the thread of history, exposing us to a creative repetition of novelty, of the inexhaustible shift of difference that dwells in the virtuality of a past that unfolds in the future, but in multiple directions of becoming. Like Heidegger, his time is that of the event, but in his case it is not the event of extasis, but event as irruption of novelty with neither beginning nor end. There is no extasis, but there is a yearning for beatitude, that is, for an eternity alive and in movement.

For Deleuze as much as for Heidegger, philosophy is precisely the word that can receive and speak the event, that is to say, the break in the thread of time. Because it is daughter of time but not its work, it can express the untimely and rise up against the meaning of its own time. For this reason, philosophy does not conclude with the end of history. Quite the contrary: it offers us a place, a breach, for our unfinished existence. We do not know whether the »history of philosophy« has finished as a unity of meaning that retrospectively constructed modernity from its supposed Greek birth to its realization in the liberty of the modern political subject. This may be. But this uncertain fact forces us to ask: if there is no longer historical time nor history of philosophy, what is it that we carry on doing and thinking? Is the posthumous condition a time of deferral? Or is it rather a transition, an impasse leading to a spatio-temporal turn we are not yet able to formulate? Unfinished philosophy is the rebellion of the common power of thinking against our predicament, condemned to a finite time. Thinking always means being able to think again. A temporal spiral that advances and recedes, shifting the limits of what we are given to live.

 

The unfinished word

Heidegger leaves this finite but unfinished existence in suspension, while Deleuze invites us to use this unfinished character for tireless experimentation. But when the event of our time bears the name of Chernobyl, this event no longer opens up either the time of ekstatis or the irruption of novelty, but condemns us to the irreparable time of catastrophe. What, in the face of this, is the meaning of the philosophical word capable of revolt against this new teleology and its condemnatory irreversibility?

Alexievich said, in the fragments quoted above, that all that has been saved from the past is the knowledge that we know nothing – in other words, this old Socratic condition of not-knowing as a gateway towards a truer knowing, having passed through the abyss of radical critical questioning. Not-knowing, proceeding from this sovereign gesture of declaring oneself outside of already inherited meaning, is quite the opposite of passively suffered illiteracy. It is a gesture of defiance towards the understanding and acceptance of the codes, messages, and arguments of power.

Philosophy, in its deliberate radical idiocy, interrupts the meaning of the world and opens the possibility of having a different experience of it. With respect to the dominant narrative of our time, we can say: we know nothing about the end that we are supposed to accept and with respect to which we are obliged to live as if it had already taken place; but what we can know, because we are already familiar with it, is that the death our posthumous condition in no way imposes on us a natural death. We are mortal and finite: consciousness of this makes us human. That the human species is one among many, in the broad history of life, is also a fact. But the death that we accept today as the past and future horizon of our time is not death, it is crime. It is murder. This is how Ingeborg Bachmann expressed it, the Austrian writer whose life and work were both unfinished, and who never confused human finitude with the social production of death, with ways of killing. It was no accident that she studied philosophy and wrote her doctoral thesis in the 1940s against the figure and philosophy of Heidegger. After abandoning philosophy as discipline, Bachmann shifted her investigation to the word itself, stripped of all academic trappings, and shifted her trust to the possibility of still encountering a true word. One of these true words that changes the meaning of the experience of our time is precisely the word murder – the word on which Bachmann’s unfinished novel Malina ends. Proceeding from the truth to which this word exposes us, we can say with Bachmann that we are not dying out, we are being murdered, and collectively. With this turn, with this interruption in the meaning of our end, death is no longer projected to the end of times, but enters into present time, showing the relations of power that it is composed of and capable of being denounced and combatted. The time of extinction is not the same as that of extermination, no more than are dying and killing.

In the same way that we know nothing about our end but we do know about present-day murder, so we know nothing about the limits of our world, but we can know in any case our own limits: the limits of dignity, the limits of the intolerable, the limits we can discern and therefore indicate. This is the fundamental critical capacity: the art of making the limits apparent and of drawing from them the moral, aesthetic, and political consequences of this possibility. From this critical capacity, which is not only that of judging but that of generating new values (as Nietzsche put it), there is no longer room for mere reaction and fear. Establishing limits means beginning to work, struggle, and commit ourselves. Only by the art of limits can possibilities be generated to alter the already established map of the possible.

Deleuze, we said, left no room for death in his philosophy. At least, for death as condition for understanding truth. He said something more than this, that the shame of being human before the intolerability of our action and our forms of life was the sole and true motive for writing. He said this after discovering and reading the work of Primo Levi. The intolerable is a limit that we make ourselves capable of perceiving when we believe we have lost all sense of the limit, when we accept that everything was possible within the prisons of the possible. To work on this perception of the intolerable – to make ourselves capable of experiencing it concretely and taking a position on the basis of this experience – is the main task that education, art, thought, and the forms of common life should ascribe us.

In the 1950s, Günther Anders said that when the limits of production have crossed all limits in terms of power, growth and consumption, it is necessary to develop a critique of human limits.6 This critique possesses a dual function: on the one hand, to show us that we have made ourselves small in relation to the world we have constructed, and to the consequences of our actions. On the other, it also has the virtue of pointing out to us, on the basis of this sketch, the potential of human plasticity. Anders says that the human soul is characterized by its capacity to expand itself and its ability to understand. To him, this work of expanding the contours of the human soul is the work of poetry. Poetry is not words in verse, or simply a literary genre – verse is simply one of the many expressions of our ability to expand the contours of the human soul. Trust in language, whether verbal or otherwise, opens instead of closes, expands instead of represses, and does not kill but makes it possible to breathe. Anders says that the souls of the era in which we live are still »in the making«, in other words incomplete, and as long as they refuse any definitive form they never will be complete. These souls are, in the time of the always and still, our own, unless we allow ourselves be condemned to die before due time.

My own childhood, like that of many children of the 1980s, was marked by a film called Back to the Future. Everything I have argued up to this point leads to asking ourselves whether our posthumous condition requires something like a time machine that enables us to return to the future, in other words, to that time in which there was a future. Can we enter again the lost linearity of the history we left behind? There was a time in which this undertaking was still attempted. Habermas, for example, placed himself within this sphere of meaning when he defended modernity as an unfinished project. Other elaborations of Marxism have also attempted to extend history, pressing the future forward. More than time machines, however, what we need today is to take a position in the war for time. Apocalyptic stories tinge it with darkness and fear. Techno-utopian narratives come to the rescue of the hecatomb with technological recipes auspicious for the market. A war against history is being waged, not against History with a capital »H« but against contingency and its openness of meaning. This is a war that converts everything, in a pseudo-religious language, into determination and necessity. Or apocalypse and salvation. But what if things did not have to be this way? This question, composed of suspicion and trust at the same time, is the direction that critical thought must follow if it proceeds from the reality of our present in order to continue and open it. Like a trail, or a signpost – not a plan, but a signpost to the future.

Translated by David Fernbach

 

1. Thomas L. Friedman, »What if?«, in: The New York Times (20 January 2016); available online (May 2017).

2. Santiago López Petit uses this term in La movilizacíon global (Madrid: Traficantes de sueños 2009).

3. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press 1984 [1979].

4. Jan Martínez Ahrens, »Llevo anos muerto«, interview with Gabriel Orozco, in: El País (28 January 2016); available online (May 2017).

5. Fragments from Svetlana Alexievich, »The author interviews herself on missing history and why Chernobyl calls our view of the world into question«, in: Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, London: Penguin 2016.

6. Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (»The Obsolescence of Humanity«), 2 volumes, Munich: C. H. Beck 1956/1980.