Why being a philosopher in the heatwave is so particularly unbearable

When you lose yourself in theoretical speculations to try and distract yourself from how warm it is, you realise you’ve become a classic Freudian case

Slavoj Zizek
Friday 03 August 2018 15:27
Sit on your deckchair and think about the scientific implications of this lovely weather
Sit on your deckchair and think about the scientific implications of this lovely weather

I hate heat. The place where I dream to be nowadays is on the Svalbard islands north of Norway, halfway to the North Pole. But since I am stuck at my home, all I can do is turn on the air conditioner and read… about the ongoing heatwaves and global warming, of course.

And it’s quite something to read about. Temperatures rising over 50C is no longer big news, it happens regularly in the crescent from Emirates to southern Iran, in parts of India, in the Death Valley, and now we learn that the prospects are much darker, threatening not only desert areas. In Vietnam, many farmers decide to sleep during the day and work at night because of the unbearable heat.

The most populous region in the world – China’s northern plain from Beijing to Shanghai, densely populated and food-producing – will become uninhabitable if global warming goes on. The cause will be the deadly combination of heat and humidity measured as the “wet bulb” temperature (WBT). Once the WBT reaches 35C, the human body cannot cool itself by sweating and even fit people sitting in the shade die within six hours.

So what is going on? We are becoming more and more aware of the ultimate uncertainty of our survival: a devastating earthquake, a big asteroid hitting earth, a deadly heatwave, and it’s all over. Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote: “Take away the supernatural and what you are left with is the unnatural.” We should endorse this statement, but in the opposite sense, not in the sense intended by Chesterton: we should accept that nature is “unnatural”, a freaky show of contingent disturbances with no inner rhyme. But there is more, much more, going on.

Global warming makes us aware that, with all our spiritual and practical activity, we are, at the most basic level, just another living species on planet Earth. Our survival depends on certain natural parameters which we automatically take for granted.

The Central Line in the heatwave: How hot is it?

The lesson of global warming is that the freedom of humankind was possible only against the background of the stable natural parameters of the life on earth (temperature, the composition of the air, sufficient water and energy supply, and so on): humans can “do what they want” only insofar as they remain marginal enough, so that they don’t seriously perturb those parameters of life. As our freedom to grow as a species starts impacting the world, nature’s response then curtails our freedom. “Nature” becomes a sort of social category in itself.

Science and technology today no longer aim only at understanding and reproducing natural processes, but at generating new forms of life that will surprise us; the goal is no longer just to dominate nature (the way it is), but to generate something new, greater, stronger than ordinary nature, including ourselves. Exemplary here is the obsession with artificial intelligence, which aims at producing a brain stronger than a human brain. The dream that sustains the technological endeavour is to trigger a process with no return, a process that would exponentially reproduce itself and go on on its own.

The notion of “second nature” is therefore today more pertinent than ever, in both its main meanings. First, literally, as the artificially generated new nature: monsters of nature, deformed cows and trees, or – a more positive dream – genetically manipulated organisms, “enhanced” in the direction that fits us.

Then, the “second nature” in the more standard sense of the autonomisation of the results of our own activity: the way our acts elude us in their consequences, the way they generate a monster with a life on its own. It is this horror at the unforeseen results of our own acts that causes shock and awe, not the power of nature over which we have no control.

The process which threatens to run out of control is no longer just the social process of economic and political development, but new forms of natural processes themselves, from a nuclear catastrophe to global warming and the unforeseen consequences of biogenetic manipulations. Can one even imagine what can be the unforeseen result of nanotechnological experiments: new lifeforms reproducing themselves out of control in a cancer-like way?

We are thus entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself which “melts into air” (in the words of Marx’s Communist Manifesto): the main consequence of these scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. This compels us to give a new twist to Freud’s title Unbehagen in der Kultur – discontent, uneasiness, in culture. With the latest developments, the discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer “natural”, the reliable “dense” background of our lives. It now appears as a fragile mechanism which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.

Thinking about heatwaves and getting lost in theoretical speculations, I thus ended up forgetting about the miserable reality of unbearable heat. In short, I got caught into the trap of what Freud called fetishist disavowal: I know very well (how serious the danger is), but I nonetheless cannot take it quite seriously, I don’t really believe it can happen.

Maybe, unfortunately, only the shock of an actual catastrophe can awaken us. And then we will become aware of the ridicule of the fights between our nation states, of America First and Brexit games, when our entire world is slowly disintegrating and only a large collective effort can give us hope.

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