"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Though the school year may have restarted, the summer has not truly ended as of yet. Thus, one can still ponder whether or not the summer of 2013 will be capped with US military action against Syria. It is a sorry matter to note that such an action would in many ways be a darkly fitting end for what has been a rather horrendous season.
While this summer may have marked the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and the “I have a Dream” speech it was also marked by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, the sentencing of Chelsea Manning, the continuing revelations about the NSA’s spying apparatus, and now what seems like an inevitable trudge towards warfare. True, the summer had its victorious moments such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) being struck down, but the presence of a few waves of justice in an ocean of injustice hardly represents much of a sea change. It has been a summer in which many – at least those who find the items listed previously to be worrisome – have felt themselves battered by event after event and completely overwhelmed.
In many respects it has been an ordeal simply to try to stay informed about general goings on as one travesty has turned into another while the news is still occasionally peppered with reports reminding us that the former travesty is still expanding behind us. Thus, even as ever more attention (by those who care, and by the media) is focused upon the seemingly inevitable military action against Syria, further revelations about the NSA continue to appear. Yet the revelation that the NSA can easily spy on smart phone data, and that the NSA is able to defeat much of the encryption that some had thought would keep them safe from the all-seeing-eye of the surveillance state, garner relatively little attention. Indeed, it almost seems as if those who are still focused on the NSA revelations at this point are those who had been concerned about surveillance before Snowden’s leaks had generated any news stories.
It is not necessarily fair to refer to people’s current state as an apathetic one (though there is certainly some of that) but rather as one where people are simply, and totally, overwhelmed by the amount of information of which they are trying to make sense. Even after wading through all of the media’s rubbish about celebrities and detritus regarding new digital toys the remaining information is still of a daunting quantity, and more information is piling up by the moment. Indeed it seems that this has been a summer wholly in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” (as explained in his Theses on the Philosophy of History), the angel has:
“his face turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 258)
Is this not a fitting descriptor for the summer we have seen? One in which the catastrophe to which we have become almost inured piles “wreckage upon wreckage” before us but in which we have not enough time to come to understand what is afoot before even more wreckage is thrown before us. And as we are forced “into the future” all we can see is the “pile of debris” growing ever skyward, a mountain that grows – even as the icecaps melt – and which we seem to have no hope of halting. The challenge of the moment seems particularly visible as public unease about the degree of domestic surveillance grows and as a war weary public is not at all eager to see the US entangled in another conflict (whether this is based out of a moral inclination or an isolationist stance is another matter). In the shadow of the “pile of debris” it is all too easy to focus upon the darkness in which we dwell and to grumble our frustrated agreement with Theodor Adorno’s comment (from Minima Moralia) that:
“The logic of history is as destructive as the people that it brings to prominence: wherever its momentum carries it, it reproduces the equivalents of past calamity. Normality is death.” (Adorno, 60)
And yet it is precisely against this sentiment – even though at moments it may seem very convincing – that we must struggle. The struggle for the cause of justice is always one that must take place on two fronts simultaneously: the one front is the public realm in which we are actively engaged in fighting for the world that we are still wonderfully foolish enough to think is possible; while the second front is the internal conflict in which we must overcome our individual feelings of smallness, apathy, and depression in order to pick ourselves up after each defeat and after each revelation of further “catastrophe” and “calamity” to still engage with the world. As the numbers of our allies vocally voicing their opposition in the public sphere seems to diminish it can be harder to keep ourselves motivated on the private front; however, it is precisely for this reason that we must keep ourselves committed and focused. To Adorno’s dark words balance is necessary, and a complimentary phrase (that has been quoted on this site before) comes from Lewis Mumford (from In the Name of Sanity) where, whilst mulling the threat of nuclear war he offered not despair but a reminder that:
“Our numbness is our death.” (Mumford, 165)
Which Mumford expanded upon thusly:
“Whatever our immediate fate may be, as individuals or as a nation, we must, as a condition of survival, recover our humanity again: the capacity for rational conduct, free from compulsive fears and pathological hatreds: the capacity for love and confidence and co-operation, for humorous self-criticism and disarming humility, in our dealing with each other, and in our dealings with the rest of the human race, including, it goes without saying, our enemies.” (Mumford, 165)
It has been a cruel summer, and it is perhaps fair to imagine that the fall and winter towards which we shall inevitably be blown shall be equally defined by a variety of “catastrophes” and “calamities” that shall make the pile of debris stretch beyond the Moon; yet despair cannot be an option if we would see that pile of debris begin to shrink. It is precisely when we are at our most overwhelmed by the world’s injustices and by our feelings of smallness that we must continue striving on, even in exhaustion.
Walter Benjamin noted that the angel of history, if it could, would try to make sense of the ruins and rouse those who had been battered, but the angel of history cannot stop. It is continually propelled forward. Repairing the world and awakening those who have been deadened by apathy?
That’s a task that belongs to us. All of us.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken Books, 2007.
Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.