La biblioteca de Babel


This encounter, which took place in a summer afternoon in late 2014, brought together Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Déborah Danowski, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané and Michelle Sommer in a free-form, four-part polyphony dealing with anthropology, philosophy, artistic and curatorial practices. The context for the discussion, named after Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story, was the International Colloquium The thousand names of Gaia: from the Anthropocene to the Age of the Earth, conceived by Bruno Latour, Déborah Danowski, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, which took place in the first week of September 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. Déborah and Eduardo’s book, Há mundo por vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins (Is there a world to come? An essay on fears and ends; forthcoming 2016 with Polity in a translation by Rodrigo Nunes), had come out at the same time.

Narrators of this experience—two of several possible librarians—Daniel and Michelle proposed that starting the conversation with an exploration of the theme of the end of the world in contemporary culture. What followed was a broad speculation on whatever hope there could be for the survival of the species, wedged between the prospect of climate change, fantasies of spatial colonization and utopian technological advances: the Anthropocene in the media, and the concept’s recent appropriation by the art system and potential theoretical extrapolations of “Amerindian perspectivism”—on account of which Claude Lévi-Strauss once described Viveiros de Castro as the founder of a new school in anthropology—because he thought about art.

While merrily awaiting the arrival of a “thermodynamic Messiah,” we imagined that Vladimir Mayakovsky would look down smilingly on our proud attempt at maintaining “joyous pessimism” in the face of the end on the world. Whereas the Russian poet thought it was better to die of vodka than of boredom, we replaced vodka with cachaça in order to arrive at the provisional conclusion that it is better to die of cachaça than of pesticide poisoning while planting genetically modified Monsanto seeds.

(Upon opening the notebook containing the questions for the interview, the ticket stub for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), watched the previous night, falls out. Déborah had also watched the film the week before.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: So, does the world end in Interstellar?

Michelle Sommer: No. The Americans save us all in the end, of course.

That was our starting point for a conversation on the end of the world in contemporary culture, excerpts of which are presented below. “The end of the world is a seemingly interminable subject—at least, of course, until it happens.” These are the opening lines in Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s and Déborah Danowski’s Is There a World to Come? The book attempts to chart the contemporary imaginary regarding the end of the world across manifestations spanning various fields, such as literature, cinema, and philosophy. On one end, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), which presents us with an event to end all events (the collision between Earth and an absolute Outside); on another, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), which narrates a father and a son’s journey across a landscape in which a “residual” humankind survives a vanished world. In representing the end of the world, it seems we necessarily oscillate between manic exuberance (there is always some hope in the species’ perenniality and its capacity for overcoming obstacles) and melancholic depression.


On the End of the World, Fears, and Such

Michelle Sommer: Is there any hope for any human action that could prevent a tipping point in the terrestrial biosphere? Something that would be a turning point in our present situation.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: A positive turning point?

MS: Yes, a positive turning point. A happy ending.

EVdC: Short of Christ’s second coming?


EVdC: Yes, we can hope for a Messiah that will come down from the heavens, a thermodynamic Messiah that will suck all the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, make Africa go green, and bring rain to São Paulo. Apart from a miracle like that, well yes, maybe there would be hope, but something very different would have to happen. The absence of a common agreement among the world’s greatest power could be seen in a positive light: it shows that it’s not through high-level negotiations among nation states that we’ll arrive at a consensus that can get us out of our predicament. What we actually need is a diffuse popular insurrection around the world.

MS: My immediate reaction would be to think of some kind of political action on a global level. But I’d like to go back to the film (Interstellar). The turning point in the film is a major physical discovery, a wormhole where the power to transform the situation and save humankind resides. So if there could be a major, truly transformative discovery today, what would that be?

Déborah Danowski: We could speculate on the discovery of cold fusion as something that would allow for the survival of the human species. But this technology doesn’t really exist yet, and, in any case, all technology requires matter. That means we’re very close to the idea of the Messiah that Eduardo was talking about: it could be that it comes . . .

EVdC: If we supposed that utopian technological advances could happen, it seems to me that the chief ones would in fact be cold atomic fusion. But the likelihood of that happening in the next years is very small. Besides, even if you could discover an inexhaustible source of energy, that wouldn’t solve a number of other problems anyways—like the poisoning of the soil by agrochemicals, or global warming, or several others. The food we consume today depends on chemical bombs of hormones and antibiotics and none of that would in principle be solved by an inexhaustible source of energy.

DD: Let’s go back to the film. The “saving” technology, which exports the species to another planet, doesn’t save anything in the end. This recurrent idea of leaving the Earth is absurd: that it is easier to go to another planet, search for water, produce an atmosphere in Mars, and so on, rather than carry on living in the Earth’s ecosystems, which will have become more hostile. It is much easier to stay here and scale down our way of living.

EVdC: This is a key point: all these fantasies of space colonization are ultimately fantasies about not changing a thing. They’re about going very far in order to carry on doing exactly the same thing as we are doing here. How can we go on wrecking everything? By going to another planet. There you can do the same things, except you’re in a different place. This extends the logic of the colonization of the Americas: There’s no more America? No more New World? We need to find a new New World, so let’s go to another planet because this one here is done. In the cycle that began in 1500, we have Europe invading the Americas and a whole new world being discovered, whose minerals, slave labor, crops, etc. fed Europe and its economy for five hundred years. So the idea is: Let’s go to another planet and do the same thing! Kill the Martians, sow our crops, find a way of extracting water from the Moon. Now, this is not going to work, for only two reasons worth mentioning: there’s no technology for that, and there are very few inhabitable planets.

MS: This is ultimately what we are seeing now: the recolonization of America.

EvDC: Yes, exactly.

DD: It’s easier to live in one of the Earth’s deserts than in any known place outside the Earth.

EvDC: Mars, which is in theory the closest place we can get to, is infinitely less inhabitable than a place like the Sahara, or the Atacama and Gobi deserts. The most inhospitable places in our planet are easier to live in than modifying another planet so as to make it inhabitable. The Earth won’t end, obviously. There’s an enormous amount of organisms that will live on under favorable conditions, like bacteria and several kinds of animals. It’s not that the human world will end either; it’s going to get worse. Take the poor peasants of Bangladesh: the world has already ended for them. What they have, their land, is being eaten away by the rising sea, by giant floods that happen once a year in the monsoon; they lead a wretched existence, and the best thing that can happen to them is that their next generation will work at some Zara sweatshop, if they’re lucky. This kind of situation, which is the end of the world for us in a metaphorical sense, is happening and has already happened to 50 percent of the world’s population, maybe more.

DD: In other words, what will happen is a world-wide generalization of what already goes on in parts of the world.

EvDC: I do believe the world will end: this Western world. This world that we can say began in 1492 with the conquest of America; or in 1750, with the Industrial Revolution; or even before, with Rome at year zero. It all depends on when you want to start counting. At any rate, it is this tradition of ours that we call Western culture, Christian, of Mediterranean origin, that may be reaching its limits in terms of cultural influence and political power.

Daniel Steegmann Mangrané: But there will have to be a moment, a tipping point. I remember an interview Eduardo gave in which he said that, if we could trust any knowledge, we should trust indigenous knowledge to survive the world to come, because they have been living this coming moment for a long time.

EvDC: Exactly. If God came to us now and said, “There’s no more oil, no more electricity, no more of those chemicals you use for everything”—if a miracle like that happened, who would survive? People like the indigenous peoples. Why? Because they can survive without any of that. If you parachute an indigenous person and a Harvard graduate into the middle of the Amazon, who’s going to survive? The indigenous person, of course.
Can we say that we are living the good life? It depends. I understand indigenous as describing all those who can survive in non-luxury conditions. “Indigenous” is the one who gets by, who makes do, who can get what he needs out of whatever he’s got. A human without instruments, without anything, can’t survive in the Amazon; but if they’re indigenous, they can make a bow, an arrow, they can make fire. The poor are the first to be affected by the impact of environmental crises, but if things get really rough, it’s likely that they will also be the ones who’ll survive the best. They’re already used to the end of the world. They know what it takes to live in a degraded world. You just have to go to a favela in São Paulo to have an idea of what it’s like to live in a horrible world: polluted, without water, violent, filthy, with no sewage. In the periphery of São Paulo, the world is already post-apocalyptic. Then you ask, “Will the world end?” Well, the world has already ended for these people. A sizeable portion of human population already lives in a post-world, in something like The Road.


On Near-death Experiences

DSM: Going back to indigenous thought, I was thinking of an interview Eduardo gave in which he spoke of the near-death experience as a possibility for ontological change, something like a new paradigm.

EvDC: It’s quasi-death, the quasi-event.

DSM: So the question is: Is catastrophe necessary? Or is near-death enough?

EvDC: Historically speaking, I think that the nuclear crisis of the 1960s was a near-death experience. We now have the impression that the nuclear threat has disappeared, because there was a strong anti-nuclear political movement and international pressure that finally managed to disarm that threat. However, the bombs are still there. In fact, there are enough to destroy the earth several times. The United States still has nuclear weapons, and so do Israel, Pakistan, and maybe Iran.

DD: That’s where things get complicated, because we could ask: Who are the agents involved on both sides of this event? This near-death—to whom and for whom is it near? The same goes for climate catastrophe: Who nearly kills, and who nearly dies? The whole species? To what extent is not everyone impacted? To what extent are also other species impacted? It’s hard to tell. When a hunter is in the middle of the forest and he meets a jaguar, you can tell who’s on what side, who will be ontologically captured by whom. But in regard to the climate crisis, it’s everybody and nobody at the same time. Or some more than others, some before the others . . .

MS: The climate crisis has no subject.

EvDC: The climate crisis doesn’t exist for everyone as a problem. For example, I spoke to an Argentinean journalist last week, and she told me that there is no climate change in Argentina. No one talks about it there.

DSM: In that sense, there is no better place in Brazil to go totally dry than São Paulo, because this would make people start thinking and talking about it.

EvDC: If people don’t talk about it in Argentina, I imagine that the question isn’t posed in various other parts of the planet either. In the United States, what they want in terms of climate change is to change everything so that everything stays the same. But in order to cause less destruction, what you’d really have to do is radically overhaul your way of life, and that is something no government can accept. There is no capitalism without continuous growth.

MS: But continuous growth is not synonymous with equality.

EvDC: Exactly. What’s more, capitalism is an economic system that exists in order to produce, and what’s the point of production? More production. So it never stops producing. But up to what point and how much can we continue to grow? Nobody knows. Nobody talks about it, because the idea of zero growth doesn’t figure in economic models. The idea is: If there’s zero growth, there’ll be recession, and this will cause immiseration. Nowadays, in order to stay in the same place, people have to keep on running all the time. This is the problem with capitalism. You have to keep running so you can stay in the same place. This is why it’s impossible to imagine a way out of capitalism that doesn’t literally involve a catastrophe, so that everyone can see what is already there: a drought that paralyses the entire North American Midwest, a summer in Russia that destroys all crops, a crop loss that starves millions of people to death. But that has to be in the developed world, because if millions of Africans die, nobody pays any attention. It has to be millions of Americans or Europeans for people to notice.


On Hyper(quasi)objects, Chains of Mediation, and other Derivations

DSM: Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to pose again the question of the role of art? Could this difficulty in thinking about climate change (as a hyper object,¹ to quote from Timothy Morton) not be modified in some way by art? We could think of a quasi-object or hyper-quasi-object, a reality that can be imagined, even if in a reductive way.

MS: If we could think a rupture that could overcome the duality between the observer and the observed in art, which is the association I immediately make here, we could establish a relation that would effectively be horizontal and emancipatory, since everything is a matter of points of view (and their possible reversals).

EvDC: I’m also thinking of Günther Anders and his concept of the supraliminar here. Anders emigrated to the United States from Nazi Germany, but instead of finding work at an university, he took a job in a factory, apart from also becoming a journalist. In his 1972 book Endzeit und Zeitenende (The Final Hours and the End of All Time. Thoughts on the Nuclear Situation) of which we made substantial use in Is There a World to Come?—he points out that, with the invention of the atomic bomb came a metaphysical mutation of humankind. Upon becoming capable of destroying itself, humankind went from being a species of mortals to being a mortal species, in the sense of both “mortality” and “deadliness.” And this capacity, this possibility will never disappear. Once done, it can’t be undone. The deadly event that took place over Hiroshima was the beginning of the absence of future. From that point on and forever, at least for as long as the world doesn’t end, we live on borrowed time, not the end of time but the time of the end. Anders suggests that there are two different kinds of phenomena: those that are psychologically subliminal, because they take place below the threshold of perception, they are too small or practically imperceptible; and those that are supraliminal, in the sense that they are so big, so unconceivable, that we can’t perceive them. Nuclear war is a supraliminal phenomenon. We’ve become capable of making a nuclear bomb, but we’re not capable of imagining it.

DD: Of imagining its effects.

EvDC: Imagining the bomb in the sense of having a concept of it. What Anders says is that we have come to a point in which we are capable of doing things we are not capable of imagining. In utopia, he says, you’re capable of imagining something that you can’t do. But now we have the reverse situation, in which we are capable of doing things we can’t imagine. It is a little like the hyperobject: producing an object that is capable of destroying everything, like the atomic bomb, is beyond our capacity to imagine. It’s inconceivable, but we can do it, can’t we?

DD: The point here is the disproportion between cause and effect. Our actions today have effects that we’re not capable of conceiving. A consequence of that, he says, is that we need ever less wickedness to produce an ever greater evil.

EvDC: So the guy who pushes a button in the United States and kills millions of people in Iran is not evil. He’s not doing anything much. He has no relationship to the action he performs. In the past, in order to kill someone you had to chase them with a sword, cut their throats, etc. This is the difference between us and indigenous people. In order to eat an animal an indigenous person has to kill the animal, gut it, skin it; so they know exactly how much the death of that animal costs in cosmological and psychological terms, because they have to kill it in order to eat. Whereas we go to the supermarket and grab a frozen something that we’re not even sure is an animal, and everything becomes the same thing in the end.

MS: When you were speaking of indigenous people, I was thinking about the relation they have to the hyperobject, the cosmological relationship among all things that they perceive. One of the fundamental principles of Buddhism is that all things are interdependent: this sheet of paper in my hand is related to the cloud, the cloud to the rain, the rain to the trees, the tree to the paper it provides, the paper to the book that we read. There’s a rupture when we can no longer connect what is close at hand to its sources.

EvDC: Because the chains of mediation have become too long, Bruno Latour would say. In the premodern world, chains of mediation are short. The first time I visited an indigenous village, the first thing they asked me was, “This shirt you’re wearing, did you make it?” And I said, “No”. “Did you make those trousers?” “No.” And these weren’t critical questions—they were out of curiosity. “Did you make that camera?” “No”. “So who made it?” And I replied, “The Japanese.” “So you didn’t make anything you have with you?” I said: “No.” And I realized there and then that it was true, none of what I carried with me was made by me. Whereas everything they had was made by themselves or someone they knew; they knew where it came from. Not that they had necessarily made everything personally, but if I asked, “What about your bow, did you make it?” they would answer, “No, it was my brother-in-law. He’s over there.” So our relationship with everything is too mediated, too distant. We don’t know anything anymore.

MS: This is a big crisis that has contaminated all kinds of fields. In 2013, I was teaching first-year architecture students, and I was thinking about what modernism had led to in this one decade between me leaving architecture school and this lecture, which is the consolidation of a model that makes a fetish out of technique. Architecture has become exclusively concerned with form. It’s no longer a form of knowledge that can also be applied to form. Modernism implied the suppression of thought when it came to the architect’s primordial function as someone who thinks about space. This has resulted in the automatism of a technician who executes projects. The process of thinking about the meaning of an element like a door, for example, has been lost entirely. Thinking about the meaning of a door has become less important than knowing about the frame, the material, the lock, etc.—which is what the technique-oriented model imposes on you. Considering the meaning of the door, its function, and thus its place, is something that’s harder and harder to recover. This applies to other fields as well. Philosophical thought has been replaced by the automatism of production.

DSM: It’s like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

EvDC: Anthropologists hate that book. I haven’t read it yet, nor the ones he wrote after that. For anthropologists, though, Diamond is a dilettante pontificating on things he doesn’t understand.

DD: There’s a lot being written on this subject, an increasing amount of stuff. I was looking for some books here while you were speaking, but we can’t find anything here anymore because our library is all out of order.

EvDC: Just too many books.

DD: I search, then I give up.

EvDC: We can’t find anything anymore. We’re living out the library of Babel. That makes me very lazy sometimes. There’s just so much to read, so why write anything? There’s so much you haven’t read yet.

DSM: I saw a short film on TV the other day about a man who has to compose a song for an ad, but he’s having a creative block; he’s trying lots of different things, but nothing comes out of it. The day before he’s supposed to present the song, he has an epiphany, thinking, “Wow, this song is fantastic!” So he spends the whole night working on it, burns it on a CD and goes to the presentation. He puts the CD on and plays it, and it’s Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones. He’s beaming, but everyone’s looking at him like, “What the fuck?”

DD: That’s like the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, isn’t it?

EvDC: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.

DD: Pierre Menard is a poet who writes Don Quixote, which is a totally different Don Quixote, except it’s exactly the same.

EvDC: He wants to rewrite Cervantes’ Don Quixote without copying it. So he has to relive Cervantes’ life—for that purpose. The most interesting thing is that this is how Satisfaction was actually written! Keith Richards wrote it in his sleep. He woke up in the middle of the night, played the first four chords, got a tape recorder, taped it and went back to sleep. And forgot about it. He woke up the next day and he didn’t remember a thing, so he turns on the tape recorder and there’s a song there, and he goes, “Now that’s an interesting song”.

MS: That’s such a great story.

DD: If there’s going to be a catastrophe, it should at least be like that.

EvDC: As Mayakovsky would say, it is better to die of vodka than of boredom.

¹ According to Morton a hyperobject is an object so massively distributed in time and space that it transcends spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium. See: Morton, Timothy, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

EDUARDO BATALHA VIVEIROS DE CASTRO is a Brazilian anthropologist and lecturer at the Social Anthropology Graduate Program, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He has published several highly influential books and articles, including From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian society, Amazônia: etnologia e história indígena [The Amazon: Ethnology and Indigenous History, coedited with Manuela Carneiro da Cunha], Cannibal Metaphysics, and Há mundo por vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins (with Déborah Danowski). Viveiros de Castro has taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the University of Chicago, and Cambridge University, among other institutions.

DANIEL STEEGMANN MANGRANÉ has lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, since 2004. Selected solo shows include: Daniel Steegmann Mangrané/Philippe Van Snick, MAM, Rio de Janeiro (2015); Spiral Forest, Esther Schipper, Berlin (2015); Animal que no existe, CRAC Alsace, Altkirch (2014); / (- \ , Nuno Centeno, Porto (2013); Bicho de nariz delicado, Uma Certa Falta de Coerência, Porto (2013); Phasmides, Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo (2013). His work also has been included in numerous group shows, among them: 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, The New Museum, New York (2015); Tunnel Vision, Momentum, Nordic Biennale, Moss (2015); Canibalia, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris (2015); Ir para volver, 12th Biennial de Cuenca, Ecuador (2014); Suicide Narcissus, Renaissance Society, Chicago (2013); Formas únicas da continuidade no espaço, 33rd Panorama of Brazilian Art, Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (2013); Weather permitting . . . , 9th Mercosul Biennial, Porto Alegre (2013); Tropicália negra, Museo Experimental el Eco, Mexico DF (2013); Sin motivo aparente, Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, Madrid (2013); The Imminence of Poetics, 30th São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo (2012).

DÉBORAH DANOWSKI is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and a National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) researcher. She holds a PhD in Philosophy (PUC-Rio, 1991) and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne) under the supervision of Michel Fichant (2001). Déborah’s research is mainly in early modern metaphysics, and, more recently, in political and philosophical ecology. Among her main works are “Ordem e desordem na Teodicéia de Leibniz” (2011), “Dic cur hic? Ou o que significa estar aqui” (2012), “O hiperrealismo das mudanças climáticas e as várias faces do negacionismo” (2012), “Predicados como acontecimentos em Leibniz” (2013), and Há mundo por vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins (with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro).

MICHELLE SOMMER is a doctoral candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at PPGAV/UFRGS and works as a teacher, researcher, and curator in the visual arts. In 2015 she was a visiting researcher at Central Saint Martins/University of the Arts London in the Exhibition Studies program. She holds a degree in architecture and an MA in urban and regional planning from PROPUR/UFRGS. She has written Territorialidade negra: a herança africana em Porto Alegre, uma abordagem sócio-espacial (2011) and edited the book Práticas contemporâneas do mover-se (2015). She recently cocurated the 11th edition of Abre-Alas (2015), A Gentil Carioca, Rio de Janeiro). She has curated the residency program Estado de deriva em residência móvel, (Chapada dos Veadeiros, 2014/2015) and Mimetismo (Casa de Rui Barbosa, Rio de Janeiro, 2014, parallel to the International Colloquium The Thousand Names of Gaia). In 2013, she was the cocoordinator of museography for the 9th Mercosul Biennial, Porto Alegre. She is currently a faculty member at the Parque Lage Visual Arts School, Rio de Janeiro, and is preparing an exhibition on Brazilian modernist critic Mario Pedrosa (1900–1981) with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, which will open at the Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid in 2017.