The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse
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About two thirds of Pascal Bruckner’s book The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse are, unfortunately to the theme, disappointing. To start, Bruckner is a celebrated French intellectual, a philosophy graduate and has written best-selling books on human guilt and masochism, to which Fanaticism seems an heir. The line selling this book says about the content – since we live in times close to an environmental, economic and political collapse, there is nobody else to blame, except for us, humans ... and instead of doing something, we are told to pay – such is an impasse blocking real Enlightenment, engagement and progress! While this would probably not turn down a broader, less-informed audience, one can wonder whether, and if, the poorly chosen examples and techniques of argumentation would convince professionals and academics.
Speaking with a generalisation, there are two kinds of authors. One could be exemplified by Marx or Plato, for example—focused discussions about topics, which seem important, but one does not necessary have to identify themselves with. On the other hand, exemplified in St. Augustine or Nietzsche, the reader finds much of what is said to be immediate, even intimate to one’s very own existence, in need of attention. Now, the problem is that Bruckner is struggling to become one of the latter. Yet the content often compels one to stop and say aloud “Not me, sorry ...” and probably to wonder, whether it wouldn’t be more successful, if Bruckner avoided attempts to include the reader in his narrative. That this does not work is for two reasons.
First, Bruckner really enjoys to pull out quotations in order to ridicule some of his sources. As the author of this review is quite familiar with the work of Paul Virilio and André Gorz, as two cited examples, the problem is that some of the quoted statements are not easily qualifiable. To give an example, Bruckner cites Virilio's concept of ‘integral accident’ (p. 114), which suggest that technology brings about accidents, e.g. the invention of a train involves the risk of derailment, computer drives make possible data loss, and so on. While for Bruckner, this is silly technophobia, Virilio is much more subtle here and uses this concept to think about how dangers are socially and techno-politically organised across the political space and how we can design our societies without giving up technology, since, as Virilio tends to imply, life as such is inevitably accidental itself.
The second reason is that at the same time, Bruckner quickly jumps on controversial statements from mainstream literature, such as Jared Diamond’s provocation that indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans, Africans, etc.) actively participated in their own decimation and subjection (p. 62). This is echoed a few times through Fanaticism, but without sufficient specificity to confirm his position. Even less convincing is his dismissal of indigenous knowledge, which, no matter how unscientific, is still an indicator of environmental degradation going beyond those who caused it, demonstrated in Bruckner’s completely out-of-picture portrait of indigenous environmental struggles in Canada (p. 124). Here’s the main problem: Bruckner is excited to ridicule all radical, leftist and especially green political movements without an interest in the sometimes subtle and sometimes major differences between and among them. Notwithstanding that many might have at least partly, if not completely acceptable responses to his criticism, which, when unpacked, makes the stronger part of his work. In chapter 1, he begins with the assertion that ever since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent excitement, the West, in particular, became frustrated by an absence of enemies. Bruckner makes an intellectually interesting move: in the evil of enmity, he locates a source of creative force, which, similar to the Frankfurt school, takes form in either myth or reason. It is apt that nature may not be the nice, harmonious system celebrated by “newageism” and can be seen as a quite nasty, indeed evil, unpredictable serial killer. ‘Environmental concern is universal, but the disease of the end of the world is purely Western’ (p. 181), concludes the author and the reader gets a glimpse of what the story is about: the myth here is ‘preventing rather than proposing’ as Bruckner understands the asceticism of his own Jesuit education (p. 3) and a passivity that threatens what he considers democracy and public engagement:
The choice is not between an intact Nature that slowly recovers from human intrusions and a devastating productivism that forges, pierces and disfigures, but between a process of regression and development lucidly embraced with all its risks and benefits (p. 128).
The author prefers to unleash a storm of big words to make his case, thus, one constantly hears about “sickness,” “vanity,” “disease,” “malevolence,” “devastation” and other like words used to describe what Bruckner doesn’t like. Unfortunately, he fails to give a single detailed case to present why the motifs behind what he attacks are so corrupt. Although there might be a few clever observations scattered across the book, such as how the line ‘scientists tell us ...’ and putting numbers next to everything can indeed serve to promote quite silly opinions, or an ironic lexicon demystifying certain contemporary buzzwords, such as “ethical,” “ethnic” and, to give an example, “sustainable:” ‘If everything started being durable, life would quickly turn into a nightmare’ (p. 47). All this is fine, until the last chapter, where Bruckner himself in conclusion repeats some of the popular clichés about progress, innovation and technology without qualifying them, and one is to wonder if it is to be taken seriously at all.
The problem with this book is that compared to my other review (Evans’ Liberal Terror), the author starts with a big picture of things, ignoring all the small and important details, such as the possibility, that behind some of green thought, there might be genuine beliefs in the possibility of a better life and not diseased misguidedness. The book’s reader doesn’t get anything concrete about green politics, or a conceptual or logical order that would meet the criteria for theoretical strength. The question then might be, ironically, whether Bruckner has settled all the issues with his own morbid vanity.