A Philosopher for the Apocalypse

The following excepts come from an essay by Audrey Borowski in Aeon, entitled “Philosopher of the Apocalypse”, about the work of the twentieth century German philosopher Gunther Anders. Anders was a student of Martin Heidegger, husband of Hannah Arendt, and contemporary of Theodor Adorno, and this thought is informed by all of these.

Anders was a critic of technology and the way it alienates us from reality by mediating our experience and dehumanizes us by disconnecting us from the consequences, and hence the feeling of responsibility, for our actions.

“… the progress of technology should not be understood as necessarily being the progress of mankind: far from it, they are not accompanied by a progress of thought, reflection and responsibility, since they eliminate their intervention and even often make them impossible.”

“… the more machines connect us by virtue of their very existence, the more we are also singled out as being expendable and inadequate.”

— Gunther Anders

Borowski elaborates, “For all its benefits, technology restricted our experiential horizons, offering only ready-made worlds and predetermined modalities of experience carefully determined by corporations and advertising industries.”

Anders’ ideas resemble those of another favorite thinker of mine, Theodore Roszak, author of The Making of a Counterculture (more about Roszak here and here), who also wrote about how modern modes of social control have become increasingly subliminal.

“… our obedience is ensured without our needing to perceive an order as such.”

— Gunther Anders

Tell me if this quote doesn’t seem to anticipate social media and internet streaming:

“No depersonalisation, no degradation of man is more effective than the one that seems to preserve the freedom of the personality and the rights of that individual. Each separately undergoes the ‘conditioning’ process, which works just as well in the cages where individuals are now confined, despite their loneliness, in their millions of isolated units. This treatment is inconspicuous since it is presented as fun, since it conceals from its victim the sacrifices it demands of her and leaves her with the illusion of a private life or at least of a private space. We will fill people’s minds with what is futile and fun. It is good to prevent the mind from thinking through incessant music and chatter. Sexuality will be placed at the forefront of human interests. As a social tranquilliser, there is nothing better …

“In general, we will make sure to banish seriousness from life, to deride anything that is highly valued and to constantly champion frivolity: so that the euphoria of advertising becomes the standard of human happiness and the model for freedom. Conditioning alone will thus produce such integration that the only fear – which must be maintained – will be that of being excluded from the system and therefore no longer able to access the conditions necessary for happiness.”

— Gunther Anders

But the reason I really wanted to share Borowski’s essay about Anders here had to do with the idea that modern technology inhibits our ability to appreciate danger and take responsibility for it. Borowoski writes:

“The ability to kill thousands at the press of a button was no longer matched by the ability to take the measure of the calamity wrought. This ‘promethean lag’ often anaesthetised our faculties, including our ability to fear the danger that threatens us, for the simple reason that we cannot know what we cannot understand or represent concretely or morally to ourselves. These limitations in us induced a state of irresponsibility, a form of nihilism in action that maintained us as atomised individuals while we laboured toward our own irrelevance and extinction.”

Climate change came immediately to mind as I read this. Borowski goes on:

“Our ‘blindness in the face of the apocalypse’, which, according to Anders characterises the Third Industrial Revolution, enables us ‘to make plans and to live as if everything … were going to continue as before’. This belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution, makes any end to human history inconceivable: ‘Faced with the idea of the apocalypse, our soul forfeits.’ …

“Despite increasing media representation of these threats, we live in what Anders called ‘the age of the inability to be afraid’ and still overwhelmingly remain passive in the face of this development.”

In light of this, Anders hoped to “sow panic”. I was intrigued by this, because I have sometimes been accused of “sowing panic” about climate change and civilizational collapse. But Anders defends it:

“he who sees the danger in panic, and not in the danger against which we warn those who are anxious to be anxious, distorts the truth and wilfully blinds his neighbours” 

— Gunther Anders

You can read Borowski’s complete essay here. I would love to read more of Anders’ writing. There are only a few books about him in English and translation of his work into English is limited. If you have any recommendations, please share them in the comments.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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