Shattering Silence of Peace (3)

. . . aren’t the new dead everywhere, on all sides, in every nation? Should I harden myself against the Russians because there are Jews, against the Chinese because they are far away, against the Germans because they are possessed by the devil? Can’t I still belong to all of them, as before, and nevertheless be a Jew?

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, from a note written in 1944


Just this year of 2015 Fordham University Press brought out an English translation of a book by Jean-Luc Nancy that was first published in France three years earlier, in 2012, a book that addressed the disaster of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year before that, in March 2011. The original French title of Nancy’s book was L’Equivalence des catastrophes (après Fukushima), which in the English translation by Charlotte Mandell reversed the two parts of Nancy’s title, eliminated the parentheses, and added a colon, becoming After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes.

I imagine that those changes to the book’s title were made for commercial reasons, but they seem to me to distort things. First of all, they make it look as though Nancy’s primary concern is the still recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant. In the title of the original French edition, however, not only does reference to Fukushima belong to the second part of the title, not the first, but it is also placed in parentheses to emphasize its subordination to the first part of the title—and with no colon between the two parts, a mark that is itself suggestive of an equivalence of the what precedes that with what follows after it.

The reversal of the two parts of the title in the English edition, coupled with the removal of the parentheses and the substitution of a colon, makes Fukushima occupy first place and center-stage. That may indeed sell more copies of the book, but it is likely also to add to the very confusion Nancy is struggling to dispel. For him, the Fukushima disaster is really just a lens through which he focuses his real concern in the book, which is on what’s named in the other part of his title—the first part in the French edition, but made to take second place, like an afterthought, in the English one.

After all, if the Fukushima disaster reveals something such as “the equivalence of catastrophes,” then part of what it reveals is that the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is interchangeable with one or more other disasters. Thus, one could imagine Nancy writing the book using, perhaps, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl as his focusing example, if the “equivalence” at issue has something to do only with disasters at nuclear installations. Or he might have used just any old disaster—say the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II, or the American massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—if it doesn’t. At any rate, going by the remainder of the title (the part besides “after Fukushima,” whether that itself comes after or before the rest, in parentheses or out of them, and with or without a colon between), he could have used any disaster that does counts by his analysis as “equivalent” to the 2011 one at Fukushima.

What’s more—and more importantly—there is a rich ambiguity to Nancy’s title pertaining especially to how one takes the phrase, “the equivalence of catastrophes.” That phrase can be read in at least three different ways.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could mean, for one thing, that the catastrophes at issue are equivalent to one another, such that the disaster at Fukushima would count as “equivalent to” the earlier ones at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, for example, or to whatever other disasters are at issue.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could also be taken quite differently, however. It could be taken to mean the equivalence that catastrophes such as Fukushima themselves generate, as it were: How Fukushima and other disasters like it (so: “equivalent disasters,” in the first sense of the phrase at issue) make other things (maybe everything else) equivalent—as a nuclear disaster, for instance, reduces everything within its range to cinders, let’s say.

Finally, “the equivalence of catastrophes” could mean what might be called “catastrophic equivalence.” That is, the phrase could be read as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive,” so that it means “catastrophes’ equivalence.” By such a reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would be taken to mean the equivalence that belongs to catastrophes of the sort at issue, rather than meaning, say, “catastrophes, those equivalent things,” which would be the first reading again (just as “the house of John” could be taken to mean “John’s house,” rather than, say, “John, the house”).

Thus, by the third reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would mean an equivalence that itself generates catastrophes, by a sort of inversion of the first sense I just suggested. This third reading would point to some sort of catastrophe generating equivalence, some sort of equivalence that, as such, generates catastrophes (presumably including generating the one at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011).

In fact, Nancy is concerned with the intertwining of all three: the catastrophic equivalence that makes all catastrophes equal in destructive potential.   But it is above all toward the equivalence of catastrophes in the third sense that his analysis drives the reader—at least so did the reading of his book drive me, when I first read it just a couple of weeks ago, after it came out in English.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What history shows us of gender-based societies, that is, societies that operate “under the sign of gender,” as Ivan Illich puts it in the passage from Gender I used as the second epigraph to my immediately preceding post, are predominantly if not exclusively societies in which women are made “subordinate” to men, as Illich also puts it. That is, in the recorded human past—which is what we mean by history, in the sense that “historians” concern themselves with it—gender-based societies have institutionalized inequality between the genders, where that word gender means what Illich calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” the duality, namely, of the “feminine” and the “masculine.”

Inequality is not to be endured. It is to be eliminated.

However, to eliminate an inequality is not to erase all differences, or to pretend that there are none. Far from it! It is to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate differences. For straights to treat gays as equals, for example, is not for the former to treat the latter as just more members of some snot-slinging, belching, skirt-chasing, gun-toting band of macho brethren—incorporating gays into straight wolf packs, as it were. It is not to deny, overlook, or hide the differences between gays and straights, but rather to acknowledge and attend to them, letting them “come out of the closet.” It is, in short, to let them be, in an active sense: to say Amen! So be it! to all the differences, and not to subject any one any longer to subordination to any other.

Equivalence is interchangeability. If two things are equivalent, then they are interchangeable, which is to say freely substitutable one for the other. Each of two equivalents—for example, the quantity (20-18) and the quantity (1+1)—can be substituted for the other in any given structure to which both belong, without the substitution changing the structure as a whole.

If, for example, all guinea pigs are equivalent when it comes to being beloved pets, then if one’s beloved guinea pig—let’s call that dear one “Fluffy”—were to die, then all one would need to do is go out and buy any other guinea pig as a substitute. If Fluffy goes belly-up on you, no problem! Just go out and get yourself another Fluffy!   Just buy another guinea pig and give it that same name, and everything will once again be “copacetic,” as used to be said.

Thus, establishing equivalence between two things is allowing each to substitute for, to take the place of, the other. Right legs, however, cannot substituted for, or take the place of, left legs. Right legs and left legs are not equivalent. Modern prosthetics takes that very lack of interchangeability into account, producing prosthetic legs of both sorts, right and left, rather than just producing one product that will substitute equally well for either leg, as in the old days of peg-legs such as Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick.

In a situation already marked by institutionalized inequalities between two or more groups of people all of whom truly are equal in dignity and worth—as are men and women, or gays and straights, or Germans, Jews, Russians, and Chinese—confusing equality with equivalence can only result in a situation in which the already present in-equalities are entrenched ever more deeply and secured by ever more fully impregnable borders. The most truly impregnable of all borders, in fact, are precisely those that are no longer even visible as borders, but are simply accepted by everyone as defining the field of vision and movement—constituting the very world itself, such that it is no longer even possible so much as really to imagine anything different.   Kierkegaard said ago that the very deepest, most utterly, truly hopeless state of despair—the very etymological meaning of which is to be without hope, from Latin de-, “without,” and sperare, “to hope”—is that in which one does not even know any longer that one is in despair. When equality gets confused with equivalence, in a state where forms of subordination and dominance, the denial of equality, have already been institutionalized, then all real equality has truly been utterly despaired of. What looks like equality under such a desperate condition is really just the final closing of all borders against it.

Such equivalence is catastrophic.

*     *     *     *     *    *

Money is the general equivalent in terms of which everything can be assigned a value relative to all other things, so that interchange of those things can occur without bounds. All economies, whether cast in terms of production or consumption, are systems for the circulation of such unbounded interchange.

To be given a price, which is to say assigned a monetary value so that it can enter into such an economic system of circulation, is to be stripped of all worth. What has only a value, has no worth.* It can be replaced by anything else of equal value, with no resulting loss.

If people can be bought and sold, it is only insofar as they have been deprived of their own dignity, stripped of their own worth. Just to the extent that people are interchangeable one with another, each person is worthless. When all are without worth, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equivalent in their worthlessness, even as their value fluctuates with the market (after all, the price of slaves in the slave-market varies from slave to slave, as does the pay of the worker from worker to worker in the labor-market).

If, on the other hand, each and every single person (or, for that matter, beloved guinea pig) is irreplaceable, then each and every one has a worth that is strictly speaking incalculable: Worth is not a matter of calculation, only value is. Worth can only be esteemed, not estimated. In that sense, we could also say, correlatively, that value, which is just what can be counted and therefore estimated, is nevertheless—and precisely as being subject to estimation—in-esteem-able: Value is not a matter of esteem at all, but just of calculation. What has value has its price, but what has worth is “priceless,” as we rightly say. Thus, if each and every person has worth, which is to say each and every one of them is priceless, then none of them is any better or worse than any other, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equally priceless, available to no market (for example, though there can be a market for guinea pigs, there can be no market for Fluffys—or Janes or Jameses).

So whether it is a matter of equivalence or of equality, people are all the same. That sameness is incomparably different in the two cases, however.   Papering over that difference, making equality equivalent to equivalence, itself fosters sameness of the first sort, the sameness of equivalence. Yet it does so only at the cost of altogether undercutting sameness of the second sort, the sameness of equality.

That making equivalent of equivalence and equality is itself a catastrophic equivalence: an equivalence that engenders catastrophes.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is in the nature of the economy, at least of the money-based modern economic system of commodity and service interchange, to go global. Exchange as such knows no limits within which it naturally confines itself. Of its nature, we might say, it has no natural limits, but rather just keeps on expanding, until and unless it runs up against some non-economic barrier it cannot overcome. Then it just collapses, since it belongs to its very nature always to expand, always just to keep the interchanges not only going but also always growing, and if it can no longer do that, it can no longer be.

Nietzsche said that life never attains any steady state. Always life is either growing, or else it is dying; it never just maintains itself at any given level. In that way, life, we could say today, is like the global market economy, which is always either growing or diminishing, and can never strike some balance point beyond which it just stays steady. The nature of life, however, is such that when life hits a limit in one of its forms, life can trans-from itself, then keep on growing in its new form—biting the head off any black snake of limits that may crawl into its mouth   The economy, however, is no living thing. It cannot transform itself. When it comes up against a limit to its continuing growth, all it can do is shatter.

In going global and then going on, the economy enmeshes all things ever more deeply with one another in and across global networks of exchange and interchange. All we need to do to confirm that is open any daily paper, online or in print, to the business section, and at a glace we can see how what happens anywhere on the globe has an impact on the worldwide economy, as expressed in global stock-market fluctuations. Accordingly, what used to be local catastrophes cease to be local at all any longer, but have globally catastrophic impact. The very boundary between local and global catastrophe gets washed out, as does the one between “natural” catastrophes and “man-made” ones—which latter boundary has always been somewhat porous anyway: for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE would not have been so catastrophic, had a bunch of Romans not chosen to live in such close-by places as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In his reflections after the 2011 disaster at the Fukishima nuclear power station, Nancy tries to call our attention to all that.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What Jean-Luc Nancy tries to call to our attention in his book pertaining to Fukushima is really the same thing that Ivan Illich tries to call to our attention not only in Gender but also in most of his works. Both Illich and Nancy try to call to our attention how catastrophic our entire economic system” (as well as the entirety of our “politics,” which has become nothing more than the pursuit of the economy by other means, we might add), based as it is on what might well be called “the rule of equivalence” is. It has been catastrophic, that is, generative of catastrophes, from the very start, since to generate catastrophes is nothing less than the very mechanism of its growth—a growth that could belong to no living thing, but only to something man-made.

However, in this age of the equivalence of all things, including men and women, an age in which the typically masculine fear of fear itself at last comes out permanently on top, such calls upon our attention really accomplish no purpose. They are as useless as my daughter’s now long-dead childhood pet guinea pig, Fluffly. So far as it comes to effecting significant changes in the global system, such calls cannot but fall on deaf ears.

They do nothing but break the peace, shattering the silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Still more to come, in my next post.

* That’s how I will here use the terms value and worth, at any rate: to mark the difference at issue. Others may prefer other ways of marking that difference. In the end, how we choose to mark the difference at issue makes no difference, just so long as the difference itself gets clearly marked, and remembered—the difference between what I’m here calling value and what I’m here calling worth.

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