GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 4, 2007

Originary Modern Individuality and Global Religion: Some comments on the Religion of Impending Disaster

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:24 pm

The notion, put forward in Eric Gans’ latest Chronicle (349, that global warmism (as the latest and most succesful incarnation of the religion of impending disaster) is a viable global religion that might serve to defer conflict in a post-Auschwitz world is worth pursuing further.  First of all, the religion of impending disaster is surely an off-shoot of the quintessential post-Auschwitz religion, White Guilt. What marks White Guilt as post-Auschwitz is its direct representation of, human beings as precisely the kind of beings the originary hypothesis reveals them to be:  the greatest threat to their own survival.  White Guilt is extremely direct:  it provides a thorough itemization of human institutions and norms that we “know” threaten said destruction because we know the violence they have already caused; global warmism, meanwhile, mediates such destruction through inherently questionable scientific claims whose confirmation can, of course, only come in the future.  But “impending disaster” might very well supersede White Guilt if if can provide genuine solutions where WG can only exacerbate problems; its anthropological insight might be somewhat lesser if, in its ability reject the steady stream of human sacrifices WG depends upon, its anthropological instincts are superior.

The fact that contemporary ideologies seem to be coming closer to this basic originary insight (as opposed to the naivete about human goodness in both Enlightenment and Romantic discourses) raises another question: can human beings directly confront an acknowledgement that we are, essentially, the greatest threat to our own survival or would, paradoxically, a widespread acceptance of the originary hypothesis (or the closest “popular” approximation) undermine our capacity to display the saving signifying capacity that hypothesis discloses?  Even White Guilt, in the end, flinches decisively by reducing the threat to the scapegoated “dominant” group–but does that increase or mitigate its destructiveness?  How would a community of adherents to the originary hypothesis, confronting, intellectually, without any mythological or ideological interference, the primacy of their mimetic and hence potentially violent relations to each other, mediate their interrelationships?  It seems to me that the main problem here is the awareness that no particular sign of deferral can be given priority over other candidates, nothing that is simply there between us–to be modified and questioned, but still, first of all simply there.

The advantage of global warmism over WG would lie precisely in the fact that if new scientific advances could weaken the warming hypothesis, by the same token such advances could never decisively refute it; after all, yet further evidence could once again secure the higher probability of the events it predicts.  And if the “cultic” aspects of the religion have been sufficiently developed by the time the evidence starts to point against the hypothesis, that investment will itself weigh heavily in favor of maintaining it (“we are obviously making progress, why relax our guard now”?).  By the “cultic” or ritual aspects I mean nothing more invidious than Gans does in calling belief in global warming a religion:  the development of market niches and practices (inventions, fashions, etc.) that might fit the global economy rather well while calling for certain minimal “sacrifices” on the part of individuals; once the religion has become more accepted and less defensive it might become less dogmatic and therefore capable of accommodating, for example, Bjorn Lomborg’s suggestion that even if human-induced global warming is occurring, we might be better served by anticipating and countering its effects rather than trying to prevent it–in that case, a wide sphere of voluntary and compelled, large and small scale activities, all organized around the “race against time,” become conceivable; global warmism might co-exist peacefully with the world’s religions, which don’t seem to be intrinsically opposed to its hypothesis; finally, one could even imagine the integration of global warmism into the war on terror such that it comes to subsume it–terrorists and perhaps Islam itself might be designated enemies of humanity for distracting attention away from our salvation, and the drive to find other sources of fuel given divine sanction–perhaps the new religion will neutralize White Guilt and lead to its extinction.  Of course, in this final possibility lies new dangers:  who else might be thus designated enemy of humanity, even of the earth, and hence subject to annihilation?  What would the existence of a particular recalcitrant people weigh in the scales of the preservation of all life on earth?  Especially poor people, from countries with too much population increase, who demand too much economic growth…

The cult of global warmism need not crowd out other explorations of the sacred on the terms set by our post-Auschwitz, scientific world.  The limits of global warmism would lie in the weakness of its “ostensives”:  its rituals would probably be an unwieldy combination of fastidious specificity and uncertain meaning, enshrined in both informal norms and legal codes, involving overbearing social pressures for purposes whose fulfillment must be kept at a steady distance (why must I drive only this kind of car, for 5 and not 6 hours a week, etc.; who decides and how?  Surely salvation can’t be “in” the difference represented by that one hour).  It would generate new resentments accordingly, in often comic forms (as in the currently popular carbon “offsets,” amusingly comparable to the “indulgences” sold by corrupt popes to the rich in the middle ages; indeed, if I understand the complicated mechanism of offsets correctly, Al Gore buys them from himself).  And this weakness, in turn, points to the problem of precisely a universal, completely inclusive religion:  it must be totally bereft of events.  Perhaps this is why the proponents of global warmism seem so desperate to generate and, if necessary, fabricate, events:  an increase in hurricanes?–global warming!  Forest fires?–global warming!  The necessary gradualism of long term natural changes makes the temptation to “compress” these changes into the form of packagable events irresistible:  hence the scenes of polar bears slipping off of melting ice floes, the scare tactic of claiming we will need our scuba gear to visit New York a couple of decades down the road, and so on.  I suppose I am asking whether the “divinization is altogether optional”–at any rate, if our attention to global warming were to be “weighed” along with other threats to our well being on a “scale” based on a genuine calculation of risks and benefits, that is, if the rationalistic mentality were to be applied to our interest in global warming in addition to being channeled through that interest, it would no longer be a religion, which is to say without the “value-added” of faith its efficacy in deferring violence would be nil.

To return to my earlier question, even a community made up solely of generative anthropologists would find themselves in unanticipated conflicts due to their intersecting desires which take on their true meaning only in those intersections; this community would be as obliged as any other to invent/discover that “creative compromise” which would provide for a temporary, fragile, cessation of hostilities; and that compromise would always lean toward some “default” stance that is at least remnisicent of something that has worked in the past (even the very immediate past of slowing down the escalating confrontation enough so as to consider alternatives).  Desire and resentment, in other words, along with their transcendence, involve an irreducible opacity–the more we own what we have done the more we realize that there is something we can’t quite own.  What is interesting to consider here is whether the explicit awareness that this compromise comes from no one other than ourselves, along with the equally significant consciousness that no one of us can claim authorship, that some “spirit,” ultimately inexplicable beyond a certain point, came over us; whether this awareness of our paradoxical condition is conducive or harmful to survival.  At any rate, such explicitness seems to me to point to a very different form of holiness than that of impending disaster–and one upon which we might not want to place all our bets. What would be holy in that case would be a readiness to chance transparency, to take upon oneself the condition of the sign–of being increasingly “legible” in equal measure to oneself and others and thereby of exposing a basic fundament of inscrutability; of representing in one’s person the renewal of the originary scene in miniature by allowing oneself to be the product of others’ imaginaries while minimally distinguishing oneself from all of them; of setting in motion new chains of action whose ends one concedes the ability to anticipate; of finding eternal life and prefiguring it in others in the disappearance of everything that makes one substantial.

Shelby Steele, in an essay on Clarence Thomas’ autobiography in a recent National Review, declares that Thomas is “the freest black man in America… the first black American of his generation to become–openly and irrefutably–an individual.”  This new mode of “carefully evolved individuality,” which I tried to explore a couple of posts back, this “habit of thinking for himself,” is in turn certainly connected with Thomas’ willingness to be “crucified” or “sacrificed without repercussions” (i.e., for those conducting the sacrifice); Steele doesn’t say this, but I think that even Thomas’ continued sense of resentment regarding his treatment by paternalistic elites, his unwillingness to forget even as he transcends that treatment, contributes to his sharply delineated individuality, his determination to owe nothing, either material or ideal, to anybody who would presume to judge him.  If Thomas is, as Steele contends, now an “archetype that will inspire others,” one form of that inspiration involves his refusal to scapegoat others so as to defer the scapegoating directed at him, his apparent ability to reject the mental habit of defending stances that have been attacked with the panicked reflex of either “but that’s what _____ said!” or “but what about you!”–which is to say, a refusal to broaden the target that one has become, instead taking one’s own targeting  as an occasion to invite others to embark upon a retrieval of the origins of our mechanisms of deferral–in Thomas’ case, a highly principled Constitutional “originalism” that makes him a very solitary figure, even among the Court’s conservatives.  Thomas is aware that “originalism,” far from a mind-deadening traditionalist recitation of known and well digested truisms, is the highest form of reflection upon the events outside of our renewed participation in which we cannot even pretend to think.  It seems to me that we generative anthropologists can agree that whosover would be an individual, must be an originalist.

Adam Katz


  1. Adam, I wonder if you could do something with the content-independence of the environmental end-times doctrines. I seriously doubt if it’s going to be global warming too much longer, but will probably shift fairly seamlessly (I’d say within 3-7 years) into another cause. (Remember when it was ozone depletion not too long ago?) Yet when the new content for the iminent environmental apocalypse is set, we’ll all be just as guilty, and guilt or absolution will be determined (as now) by affiliation and correct verbal formulae rather than by measurable action or effect (e.g. Canada, with earth warming emissions up, is absolved completely now, while the U.S., with emissions reduced, MUST be the MOST guilty because it rejected Kyoto and because, well, it just MUST be). In other words, it’s the extreme malleability of content wedded with perfect preservation of form that strikes me. (wine and wineskins?). The form is all about guilt, penance, absolution, accusation, and raw, naked white guilt–so stern and puritanical in its weird way–while the content (guilty of what, exactly?) can be endlessly adjusted.

    Comment by Matthew — November 6, 2007 @ 8:30 am

  2. I think you are right about this, and part of my reading of Eric’s original Chronicle is that this “malleability” is part of the faith–we believe in human caused impending disaster, not any particular form taken by that disaster. What seemed to be new in the Chronicle is what I at least, took to be the suggestion that, regardless of its origins in WG (although, interestingly, this doesn’t come up in the Chronicle), impending disaster is a more peaceful faith that might supersede its predecessor. So, I thought that if we explore the contours of what that faith might be, it could turn into an intensification of WG (we are destroying not only “Other” people, but the environment, the world–what’s next, the solar system?) but it might also soften a lot of those edges. If all the faith of impending disaster asks, in other words, is that we consistently err on the side that unintended consequences of our actions will be destructive, and hence the more destructive the more consequential those actions (as our technological capacities increase); to put it more religious terms, if all we need to believe is that there are myriad sacred sites out there that we won’t even recognize until we have already destroyed them, then, on balance, one could imagine such a faith doing more good than harm, regardless of its scientific or cognitive content. So, the “content independence” (which, you are right, I probably didn’t emphasize enough in my post) can cut both ways–and the implications need not be solely “left-wing,” especially since all kinds of entrepeneurial possibilities are sure to emerge; those opportunities may range from fraudulent to genuinely innovative technologies on one side to from various placebos to inventive forms of spirituality on the other, but when isn’t that the case? (On another level, of course, I’m simply interested in what happens as we come to realize that the origins and consequences of our desires and resentments have no other location than in ourselves–will that make us more or less enlightened, more or less violent?)

    Comment by adam — November 6, 2007 @ 9:16 am

  3. Another interesting post. Adam, I wonder if or how your willingness to consider the upside of impending disaster cults on this issue might lead you to similar arguments about the impending disaster hypotheses of those counter-Jihadists who want to separate Islam in all its forms from the rest of the world.

    I’m also wondering if you wrote this post with an eye to how GA might find some kind of further creative interaction with the more apocalyptic formulae of the Girardians. It seems that the latter provide an easier entry for many to something like our kind of anthropology than does the more religiously minimal GA.

    Matthew, regarding your comments about Canada, it’s interesting that the Canadian federal government has recently announced that we are giving up on Kyoto and its targets, for more realistic measures, but at the very same time polling suggests Canadians are among the world’s leaders in their willingness to make “sacrifices”, e.g. to be carbon taxed, for the new religion. And at the same time, our provincial government here in British Columbia has announced that it will be unveiling a carbon tax in the near future and working towards making the province live up to Kyoto targets. BC will be doing this as but one polity in the larger Canadian and global economy, which suggests a risk to our local economy; but it is nonetheless, and probably rightly, assumed that this will be a more popular than resented measure.

    Obviously, British Columbia alone can have no significant impact on global warming, even if it is happening and it is largely human caused. So, it is apparently hoped that if we in BC tax our carbon footprint, and spend the revenue greenly, we will by example be furthering the cause of the global religion, and even if our sacrifice may not be much appreciated because of how the world will likely view Canada as a whole once the national government gives up on Kyoto. I’m not sure what to make of all this but I guess it goes to the question of how or if “divinization is optional”. It is as if people here want to renew a universal morality, and also something akin to a personal conversation with God, distinct from the shifting ethical compromises that currently occupy the national government.

    Comment by John — November 6, 2007 @ 5:55 pm

  4. Thanks for the info and commentary, John. Adam, your vision of the “Ecopalypse” is certainly a more benign and optimistic one than I am accustomed to entertaining. There is something to be said for that. (“It keeps them off the streets!”). And certainly, environmentalism in itself does inspire some good practices, great innovations, and super technological developments (recycling, hybrid cars, wind power, solar panels, etc.). As a doctrine/religion, however, I wonder (re:reduction of violence) about the “net effect” of deflecting attention globally away from real problems, and of saddling the developing world with the burden of our eco-guilt (e.g. malaria deaths in the tens or hundreds of millions because of white guilt about DDT).

    Comment by Matthew — November 6, 2007 @ 7:27 pm

  5. In that case, Matthew, we would have to work with the “frame” of the religion of impending disaster in order to introduce greater rationality to it from the inside, as perhaps as been done, with greater or lesser success, with all religions.

    John, all I was doing here was following a line of inquiry that was new to me and intersected with a set of questions that already concerned me. But, to take a look at your examples, the counter-jihadist “narrative” seems to me to lead too obviously to violence–most of the counter-jihadists, as I understand it, would counsel in favor of ejecting all or most Muslims from Western societies–there is no deferral here, just a meeting of actual and anticipated violence with violence; and the counter-jihadists seem to see the problem of convincing their fellow citizens as one of simply getting them to recognize obvious truths–there is no proposed dialogue, or process of education through events, or even strengthening of liberal institutions, which seems to me yet another form of violence.

    As for the Girardians, if “impending disaster” provides a basis for engagement, why not–but others would know a lot more about that than me. I indicated in that post the form of post-victimary sacrality I would prefer, as an individual and a thinker. To be honest, I can never work up an interest in apocalyptic visions or their cousins, like conspiracy theories–it’s far more interesting that what ends up being genuinely frightening is never what you were afraid of in the first place. I am starting to wonder what a discourse that disciplines itself not to “predict” (to simulate future scenes of satisfied desire, with enemies stricken and friends rewarded), that tries not to look beyond the next ostensive, might look and “feel” like. Again, though, like apocalyptic stories, I don’t recommend that as a cultural norm–just a cultural possibility.

    Comment by adam — November 6, 2007 @ 9:42 pm

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