Category Archives: Nuclear issues

Stumbling into eternity

Why IR needs deep future counterfactual thinking

Chernobyl Pripyat exclusion zone by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (http://bit.ly/19czoBH)  licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial share-alike (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Chernobyl Pripyat exclusion zone by Pedro Moura Pinheiro (http://bit.ly/19czoBH)
licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial share-alike (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Almost thirty years after the world’s worst (yet) nuclear disaster, work is nearing completion on the 110 meter arch that will seal off Chernobyl’s reactor number four and allow for the removal of the melted nuclear fuel beneath it. The labourers building the arch are working against time: the concrete sarcophagus built to contain the effects of the explosion will reach the end of its expected lifespan in 2016. Then again, it might expire sooner, if the partial collapse of the turbine hall next to the reactor in February, 2013 is any indication. The arch itself is only a temporary solution, since there is currently no means of disposing of the waste. According to site manager Phillippe Casse, cited in the article, the disposal of the waste “could be done in 50 years’ time. Perhaps there will be the technology to solve the problem then.” In other words, this problem is being delegated to the future and its inhabitants.

The article highlights the staggering temporal challenge that radioactive material poses. Nuclear materials remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Yet many of the materials and strategies used to contain it – for instance, the concrete in which reactor four is currently encased –  are only effective on vastly shorter timescales.

The 2011 documentary Into Eternity delves into this problem by exploring the world’s first final nuclear waste facility: Onkalo in Finland.  Onkalo is hewn out of solid rock, constructed over decades and built to last 100 000 years. It seems to reflect an encouraging degree of proactivity and future-thinking with regards to the problem of nuclear waste.

But forward-thinking brings its own problems. Humans (even when aided by their most advanced technologies) struggle to think on timescales that reflect the half-life of nuclear particles. The effects of radioactive materials are distributed across the deep future, or what Timothy Morton calls the ‘future future’: a time so distant that it seems beyond the grasp of human cognition and, I shall argue, ethics.

Into Eternity’s director, Michael Madsen, is fascinated by this issue. He frames the documentary as a direct message to beings living thousands of human generations in the future. In a series of interviews with prominent members of engineers and advisors from the nuclear authorities of Finland and Sweden, he raises some tough questions. For instance, how can contemporary humans prevent distant future generations of humans from entering Onkalo? Can we trust thousands of future generations to transmit warnings about the site, or are we better off encouraging them to forget its location? Even if these future beings can decipher the messages left at the site, will they dismiss them as myth – just as contemporary scientists dismiss runes and other symbols left by previous civilizations?  Even these questions presuppose that the human species will exist long enough to guard these materials until they are no longer dangerous. Given the timescales involved, even this cannot be taken for granted.

Geiger counter by Jayneandd (http://bit.ly/19cyx41)  licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Geiger counter by Jayneandd (http://bit.ly/19cyx41)
licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

If your ethics are  anthro-instrumental, then you can dismiss these problems: if there are no more humans, than who cares what else is harmed by radiation? But let’s assume that other beings do matter, and not only the ones that currently exist, but also the possible beings that may exist in the deep future. This is one way of saying that care for possible futures, and for future possible beings, is an ethical good irrespective of its value to humans as they currently exist. From this viewpoint, even if humans do not exist in the future, something to which we (now) could be ethically attached might be harmed by our actions, and so we should take it into account when pondering different courses of action. All right, then – how can we begin to think in this way?

The respondents in Into Eternity rely on one of the only tools that humans have for projecting into the future with limited or no empirical data: their imaginations. More specifically, they use a technique called future counterfactual reasoning: the act of imagining possible future scenarios and asking ‘what if…?’ they occurred.

Future counterfactual thinking is not, generally speaking, an accurate predictor of ‘the’ (that is, one specific) future. Rather, its function is to attune humans to multiple possible futures and consider how they – or, I would argue, future others – might react in these possible future conditions. As Stephen Weber puts it (in one a small handful articles in the IR literature devoted to future counterfactuals), the purpose of this kind of thinking is “to open minds, to raise tough questions about what we think we know, and to suggest unfamiliar or uncomfortable arguments that we had best consider”.  He argues that effective future counterfactual scenarios challenge the ‘official futures’ on which analysts and policy-makers rely. They focus our attention on ruptures and discontinuities, apparent anomalies, and catalytic events. For Weber, a good future counterfactual changes the boundary conditions for discussion, making it possible to address what, in the physical sciences, are often called ‘category two problems’. These are problems that exceed the limits of science in its current form – including the now (unfairly) infamous category of ‘unknown unknowns’.

Into Eternity’s interviewees use this form of thinking to ponder the problem of communicating the secrets of Onkala to future beings. They consider a number of possible scenarios: for example, one in which people eventually return to live around the site of Onkala; one in which earthquakes or wars destroy the site and its archive; one in which future beings try to open the site deliberately because they value its contents. They also consider the possible outcomes of their attempts to communicate into the distant future. For instance, they ask whether it would be effective to construct a sinister ‘landscape of thorns’ around the site to frighten intruders, or whether a reproduction of Eduard Munch’s ‘Scream’ would do the trick. They rely on this kind of future counterfactual thinking to make crucial decisions about Onkala’s future.

Counterfactual thinking is one of the few tools at human disposal for responding to some of the biggest problems we face. But counterfactual thinking remains underdeveloped – and sometimes openly scorned – in international security. In fact, Richard Ned Lebow titled his 2010 book on the historical counterfactuals Forbidden Fruit  precisely because mainstream IR treats places this technique somewhere on a continuum from rampant subjectivity to the corruption of scientific knowledge. Even those IR scholars, like Lebow, who engage with counterfactuals do so in a fairly conservative and instrumental way. The vast majority of this literature is devoted to past counterfactuals as a means of challenging theories and explanations of present conditions. This, in turn, is expected to help policy-makers to be more attentive and open-minded in their (near) future strategic actions. Moreover, these authors focus on relatively narrow timeframes (perhaps a few decades, or a century at most). They rely on existing, accessible empirical data and social-scientific methods for collecting it. And within IR discourses, most of the available work on this subject focuses on establishing the plausibility of other possible outcomes of historical events – that is, on the predictive value of counterfactual thinking. This is because counterfactual thinking is usually viewed as a means of improving strategic thinking – for instance, how to prevent (or win) the next war.

Future counterfactuals have also made a small impact on contemporary IR. Some academics and use future counterfactuals in order to inform policy making, theory-building and teaching. Others have scenario-based workshops in which they brainstorm, for instance, possible outcomes of the Syria crisis by 2018 or the potential use of nuclear weapons for terrorism or as a result of inter-state conflict. And as far back as 2000, a group of US think tanks ran a large-scale simulation in which they asked current and former government officials to react to a small-pox outbreak. Indeed, Operation Dark Winter exposed the total lack of preparedness on the part of the relevant agencies: supplies of vaccines were quickly exhausted and the (fictional) medical system collapsed quickly.

But these approaches to counterfactual thinking cannot help very much with the kinds of problems discussed above, which span millennia into the future, often cannot be studied empirically due to their massive timescales, cannot rely on existing knowledge, assumptions or conditions, and cannot be predicted with reasonable accuracy. In fact, the least problematic element is the past-orientation of historical counterfactuals – after all, a past counterfactual simply involves placing oneself in the past and thinking forward into a counterfactual future.

Even the future counterfactual exercises discussed above extend only a short distance into the future (in some cases, only a few years).  They do not help us to understand future possible worlds dramatically different from our own. Instead, they focus on very similar versions of existing conditions, with a few minor mutations (despite the fact that complexity theorists, and most proponents of scenario thinking, acknowledge this to be unrealistic in nonlinear systems). In these scenarios, most of what we know today still holds true, and our ways of knowing it are treated as reliable. Crucially, the beings that might be harmed are those that exist now, or in the near future. Finally, and crucially, these scenarios and counterfactuals are oriented towards informing strategy, not preparing us to face the ethical challenges posed by meta-threats like nuclear disaster.

Does this mean that counterfactual thinking is useless for thinking about harm in the deep future? No, but it does suggest that we need dramatically to change how we do counterfactual thinking. This is not a matter of making ‘better’ (in the sense of more plausible or empirically accurate) counterfactual questions and scenarios. Instead, it is a matter of using counterfactual thinking to do different things, several of which deserve to be highlighted.

First, it should help us to break with deterministic understandings of the future, which can lead to a sense of nihilism. For instance, apocalyptic climate discourses give humans the impression that we are mired in a deterministic universe, and that nothing we do can change the situation. This may be true, but in case it is not, it is important to retain a sense of multiple possibilities and contingency, and to explore the range of responses we might make to them. Future counterfactual thinking – particularly approaches that impel us to imagine multiple worlds – can help to achieve this, or at least to orient ourselves towards it.

Second, one of the advantages of counterfactual thinking in general is that it undermines the notion that there is only one possible future. As such, it can help humans to cope better with (and perhaps even embrace) contingency and non-linearity, conditions with which we do not relish. Simply accustoming ourselves to multiple possible futures, and radically different worlds, can help us to retain (or perhaps to attain) a sense of efficacy,however modest, in the face of extreme uncertainty. This can combat the affective states of nihilism, resentment or depression that might otherwise accompany thinking about meta-threats. It also attunes us to possibilities, not only that our worst nightmares might not happen, but also that other, unknowable futures might exist. Since we cannot know these futures now, we cannot assume with any certainty that they will be either positive or negative, and so we must remain open to a range of possibilities. In a word, deep future counterfactual thinking is conducive to hope, albeit of a tempered kind.

Radiation chamber by Thomas Bougher (http://bit.ly/19cxIbt) licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-derivs non commercial generic (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Radiation chamber by Thomas Bougher (http://bit.ly/19cxIbt) licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-derivs non commercial generic (http://bit.ly/1fdBmTD)

Third, deep future counterfactual thinking can help us to imagine multiple possible worlds that may seem extreme, fantastical or horrific to us (for instance, human extinction). This helps to combat what I call futural amnesty, or  forgetting the future. Futural amnesty is distinct from denial, for instance of the kind that we find in debates on climate change. Denial is, in one sense, affirmation; it involves acknowledging the possibility of a phenomenon or event, then systematically negating what, to the opposite viewpoint, appear to be its positive features. In contrast, futural amnesty is a deep-seated unwillingness to think, or be confronted by, a possibility that one might otherwise be forced to accept or deny. It is a refusal to recognize things that cannot be fully grasped, an unwillingness to think even the conditions of their unthinkability. Its most frequent refrains are ‘how could we possibly know?’ or ‘let’s not even think about that’.

By appealing to futural amnesty, people let themselves off the ethical hook not only of responding to, but also of imagining situations beyond their grasp. Yet, like amnesty related to the past, its function is to allow humans to ‘get on with life’, to live without the constant presence of horror and enormity. It allows them to draw a line in the near to medium future (perhaps a few generations, or even one’s own lifespan) beyond which they can forget to think, and behind which they can shelter. So futural amnesty is a protective and generous strategy. But it is also one that stops humans from confronting what might be the most important ethical challenges they could face. Future counterfactuals break through futural amnesty and the social taboos that hold it in place, forcing us to imagine the unknowable or unthinkable.

Doing this is, in turn, crucial in helping us consider our responses to such events: what we value, what we might try to protect, and how we can respond to other beings. In other words, future counterfactual thinking is deeply ethical. By imagining the effects of our actions into the deep future, we may start to think about the harms that we might do (unintentionally) not only to known others, but also to unknowable others. And this is not only useful in thinking about future actions and their effects, but also in helping us to realize our effects on currently existing others that are radically different from us. Indeed, good counterfactual thinking will not detract from the value we place on ourselves and other beings now but rather heighten them, attuning us to ethical challenges both present and (future) future. From this perspective, (deep) future counterfactual thinking is a means of enhancing our ethical sensibilities, confronting our worst nightmares, and trying to remain ethically open in the face of them.

IR needs to develop these aspects of counterfactual thinking, and to make it central to discussions of international ethics. Counterfactual thinking is not scientific, or objective, or empirically robust. It cannot give us predictions or certainty, and it can’t prove that everything will be ok, or tell us how to ensure this.  But it can help us to see possibilities, to scope the boundaries of our knowledge, to appreciate the limits of our agency and to expand our ethical sensibilities. In the strategic-instrumental discourses that (still) dominate IR, this may not seem like much of a weapon to wield against meta-threats like nuclear disaster. But it may be all we’ve got.

As the author of the Chernobyl article discussed above states, “every stage of the [arch] project has been a step into the unknown”. Indeed, when we think ethically about meta-threats, we are stumbling into the unknown – quite literally, into eternity –with little to guide us. This goes far beyond what Hannah Arendt called ‘thinking without banisters’: it is thinking without stairs, and perhaps without even a human body to climb them. If future counterfactual thinking can help us even in a modest way to do this, then we should make it a top priority.

 
 

Apocalypse then: worldliness after the end of the world

Image by Matthew Holland  Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

Image by Matthew Holland
Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

A (re)view of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

The opening montage of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia ends on an arresting slow-motion image: viewed from outer space, the earth crashes into, and is obliterated by, a larger planet (the eponymous Melancholia).  This planet, or so the narrative goes, is on an inevitable collision course with the earth, but has been concealed behind the sun. Although intimately close to the Earth, Melancholia is simply too large in scale for humans to see or fully comprehend until they are about to collide. This collision marks the end not only of the Earth, but of all life in the universe and every trace of its existence.

The fact that the film starts at the end (of the Earth) puts the viewer in an unusual position. It cuts short the sense of anxiety produced by most disaster films – that is, the fraught hope that the protagonists will survive, or even save the day. We know from the outset that everything will end, and are plunged into a cool, meditative space of certainty and, indeed, melancholy.

We are also forced into an eerie counterfactual mode of thinking that inverts standard understandings of time. Even though we watch  quite ordinary human events unfold – a wedding, quarrels between siblings, the habits of home-making – they are taking place in a world that has already ended. In other words, the present is already in the past. We are forced to see ourselves as immersed in the middle of processes so vast in scale that by the time we are aware of them, they have already happened.

This is precisely the kind of temporal shake-up that Timothy Morton’s new book Hyperobjects seeks to achieve. The book explores entities that are so large (or micro)  in scale and that so exceed  human temporality that we simply cannot grasp them, despite the fact that we are ‘in’ them, and they are in us.  Although we can never see them in full, these objects – whether global warming, nuclear materials or evolution – are always intimately enmeshed with us, and inescapable to us. One of these objects, Morton claims, is the end of the world, and, according to Morton, we are already in the midst of it.

Like Von Trier, Morton uses the end of the world as his opening gambit. This is a bold move that pulls the rug from under apocalyptic discourses, ecological or otherwise. These discourse impel us to ‘act now!’ in order to stop the world from ending. Apocalyptic narratives generate fear that can easily be channelled into reactionary politics. But they also propagate the myth that humans can, through their agency alone, ‘save the world’ (at least for themselves).  Instead, like Melancholia, Morton’s book asks how humans should act in a world that is (always-) already ending.

Melancholia gives us an account of four archetypal responses to ‘the end’, each represented by one of its central characters.  John (Kiefer Sutherland), the wealthy husband of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), one of the two protagonists, engages in a kind of scientific denial. He encourages his wife and young son to dispel their fears of the end. Indeed, he urges them to view the confrontation between earth and the planet Melancholia as a scientific marvel that is ultimately subsumed under human knowledge and powers of prediction (only to kill himself when he discovers that he is wrong).

Claire, suspicious of John’s certainty, furtively downloads predictions about the apocalypse whilst maintaining the day-to-day running of the house and caring for her family. Her initial reaction to the certainty of the collision is to plan a ‘nice’ ending, complete with a glass of wine on the veranda. Yet, as her own worst fears become realities, she quickly descends into despair.  Leo (Cameron Spurr), the couple’s son, is insulated in a series of small, enclosed worlds: the remote estate where the family lives, the cocoon of his parents’ reassurances, and even the imagined ‘magical caves’ he hopes to build with his aunt.

Only Justine (Kirsten Dunst) knows from the outset that the world is ending. She dwells in a calm state of depression, unable to participate in social rituals that she knows to be pointless. She even refuses to mourn for a world that she sees as ‘evil’. When the end comes, she resists attempts to deny or palliate it and simply inhabits it.

Morton’s work elegantly deconstructs three of these positions. He undercuts scientific denialism by demonstrating that hyperobjects are neither the result of human cognition, nor subject to it. In fact, he avers, the more we know about hyperobjects, the stranger they become. Hyperobjects, he claims, are distributed across time and space, and emerge in a variety of manifestations – for instance, as a patch of spilled oil here, and an instance of cancer in humans there. Because they are so widely distributed, it is almost impossible to prove their causes through scientific evidence – a fact which gives free rein to denialism. Just like John’s expert calculations, the attempt to grasp hyperobjects through conventional science ends only in delusion.

Morton is also deeply suspicious of those who try to aestheticize ‘Nature’ in order to uphold a stable order in which humans are safely divided from their ‘environment’. According to Morton, ‘there is no there’ into which humans can banish dangerous objects such as toxic waste. Instead, he claims, we are interspersed with nuclear particles, biological waste, and everything else that we try to ‘flush away’. These objects, he suggests are ‘viscous’: they ‘stick to us’ and no amount of scrubbing can remove them.

Indeed, one of the main fallacies that Morton explodes is the idea that we can cleanse ourselves of hyperobjects.  Just as Claire attempts to maintain the aesthetic distance from the advance of Melancholia by continuing daily rituals (meals, bedtimes, and so on), Morton claims that those who believe in Nature are simply denying the fact that they are intertwined with everything else. They tend to adopt the problematic position of the Hegelian ‘beautiful soul’ who shields herself from the horror and harshness of reality, and criticizes others who acknowledge them and act upon them. This attitude, Morton contends, has contributed significantly to anthropogenic global warming and the threat of nuclear disaster.

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

Perhaps the most vehement argument in Hyperobjects is waged against Leo’s position: the child cloistered from danger by the fantasy of enclosure and an ‘inside’ to which humans are admitted. Indeed, as discussed above, Leo is ensconced in a variety of small, seemingly stable, human-made ‘worlds’, which Claire seeks to protect right up until the end of the world.

For Morton, ‘worlds’ are akin to carefully-constructed scenes in fantasy films, simulacra that throw only a thin and misleading veil over reality. He uses the macabre image of the charnel ground to describe the conditions from which humans try to shield themselves with these ‘worlds’. According to Morton, the only truly ecological act is for humans to actively inhabit this charnel ground, to confront directly the other beings that help to constitute us and may simultaneously corrode us from within (whether toxins, viruses or the decaying bodies to which the metaphor refers). He urges us to stop trying to save a rigid and groundless notion of world and instead to accept that we are embedded within objects that are constantly changing, and which may be indifferent to our existence.

In other words, Morton places us in the position of Justine throughout most of Melancholia. He asks us to dwell in the contemplative space of the melancholic. But, in so doing, he takes a dangerous gamble and does not quite win it. Morton states from the outset of Hyperobjects (and in his other writings) that he is not an evangelist of hopelessness – in fact, he claims to be the opposite. Yet for all of its rich and textured thinking, Hyperobjects fails to carry out a promise hinted at in its first pages: to offer an ethos for living in a world that has ended, or is in the process of doing so. I take Morton’s point that neither apocalyptic scare-mongering nor scientific candy-coating is likely to produce sufficient human action to respond to the threats that face Earth. But he offers almost nothing concrete to replace these approaches. Specifically, he tells us what kind of conditions we exist in, but offers little indication of how we should be and act in them (aside from some suggestions regarding artistic practices).

What’s more, he works hard to dissolve one of the few concepts that could form a basis of an ethics for the end of the world. He focuses much of his attack on the concept of world, one of the few ideas powerful enough to harness human attachment and care on a large scale and to translate these affects into ethical action.

In fairness to Morton, he uses the term ‘world’ in a highly specific and well-delineated way – albeit one which is almost the diametric opposite from my own understanding of it. Morton adopts a Heideggerian notion of world as sphere to which humans have privileged (if not exclusive) access. ‘World’, from this perspective, is a reified object which floats in a metaphysical ‘void’, immune to the extrusions of other objects and to change. This is, from my viewpoint, an extremely limiting notion of ‘world’.

I prefer the non-metaphysical (and post-Heideggerian) conception of world developed by Jean-Luc Nancy (see my previous post on this topic). Nancy also believes that (the) world is being destroyed, or at least exhausted, by the processes of globalization and the over-saturation of meaning. But at the same time, he is concerned with understanding how a new world can emerge without metaphysical grounding. Like Morton, Nancy suggests that the ‘event’ (like the object) ultimately ‘withholds’ itself or ‘withdraws’, leaving a strange ‘absence of presence’. It is from this ‘nothing’ that ‘world’ cultivates itself, as a form of creation-as-being.  ‘World’ from this perspective, is being-with, or the direct relation of beings to one another. It has no outside, no metaphysics and no teleology.

It is also the condition of ‘being-toward’ – that is, the co-constitution of plural beings – rather than a metaphysical plane in which beings are separated. This seems to be very much in line with the object-oriented ontology that Morton espouses.

For me, a ‘world’ is an instantiation of the conditions of worldliness discussed here – just as, for Morton, what we see of hyperobjects  are instantiations of conditions like viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation and phasing. In other words, there are conceptions of ‘world’ that seem to fit very well with Morton’s notion of hyperobjects.

But I don’t want to gloss over Morton’s rejection of ‘world’ as a matter of a difference in rhetoric or interpretation. When Morton says that ‘the world’ has ended, he is certainly referring to the notion of ‘a’ metaphysical world. This is also the case in Nancy’s work. But Nancy also urges humans should address themselves to (not produce) a new world emerging in the wake of this ending. If I understand him correctly, Morton argues that humans should do away with worlds and world-making altogether – in other words, that world can only be a metaphysical concept.

This, I think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Certainly, we can and should do away with the idea that there is ‘a’ stable, unchanging world, a separate ontological plane reserved for humans. But can we really exist without the notion of attachment to and care for other beings that shapes  non-metaphysical notions of world?

I think not. One of the main reasons is that, even if we are able to grasp, at least to some extent, other temporal and physical scales (whether macro or micro), we still experience ourselves, along with other living beings, in a meso-level in which we perceive some degree of stasis or consistency. In other words, even if we can try to see our lives from the perspective of a planet (like the fictional Melancholia), we cannot actually live in that spatio-temporal scale.  Instead, we live in a scale that allows, and also forces, us to overlap with the lives of other beings.

This means that we can experience attachments to other beings, even if these attachments are temporary. Simply because these beings (and we) will not exist in the future does not mean that we should not care for them as they are now.  This is akin to saying that we should love in the full knowledge that we will lose the beings we love, or that they will change irrevocably.

In other words, we should not try to ‘save the world’ by attempting, in vain, to arrest change, or by denying finitude from behind the windshields of fantasy worlds. But there is nothing wrong with remaining attached to our world(s) in a melancholy way: that is, caring for them in the full knowledge that they are finite.

From this perspective, it is crucial to hold onto a sense of worldliness at the end of the world. This enables us to avoid the two horns of apocalyptic reasoning: the reactionary and futile desire to capture the world in a freeze frame; and the nihilistic attitude that nothing matters unless it is ‘forever’. Instead, we need an ethics of care for finite and dying worlds, and for the attachments between beings that constitute them.

At the end of the day (world?), it is these attachments that save us from falling into the paralysis that grips Justine in Melancholia. She spends a great deal of the film inert, unable to eat, move or think. She even plunges into a dark mood in which she claims that ‘no one will mourn the Earth’ or the ‘evil’ life that it fostered. In short, she is aware of her conditions but can not find a way to be within them. I worry that banishing world as a concept will produce precisely this mood.

Image by  NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (shows the ‘collision zone’ in north Sudan). Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

That’s why it’s interesting to follow Justine’s arc throughout the film. At various points, she tries to merge with the Earth, whether by lying naked in the moonlight or immersing herself in a creek.  And at the end of the film, as Earth is pulled into Melancholia’s gravitational field, she mourns the planet to which she initially denies any attachment. This is reflected in the tears running down her face in the final scene, and the force with which she grips the hands of her sister and nephew. Despite her attitude of fatalistic acceptance and her rejection of redemption, she faces the end of the world by building a small world – the ‘magical cave’. She co-constitutes this tiny world with her loved ones  –  along with some sticks, soil, trees, grass and air which are just as integral to the magical cave as the humans that sit inside it.  In so doing, she makes one final attempt to co-constitute a world in the face of absolute finitude.

I suspect (although I may be wrong) that Morton would see this  as a collapse into the fantasy of world-building in the face of terror. But I think it’s something quite different. Justine creates this world, and fully experiences it, knowing fully that it will not save her or anyone/thing else. It is an ethical act without instrumentalism, without an end. It is an expression of love for, and in, an ending world.

This, from my perspective, is an attitude that can ground ethics in the face of radical finitude. Only with a melancholic sense of the world, and love for it, can humans confront the enormity of the challenges that face them without being paralyzed by fear or nihilism.

So I leave Morton’s work puzzling over several questions. Namely, what does it mean to act ethically in a world that is (always) ending? What forms should ‘protection’ take in these conditions? Can we still love (in) a world that has already, at some temporal scale, ended? And how can we maintain ethical attachment and openness to other beings in these conditions?  These are the questions that will need to be answered if Morton’s brave and dangerous work is to make good on its promise of waking us up in the middle of the void without putting too strong a damper on hope.


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