The Red Critique


Disaster Theory


As we publish this issue of The Red Critique, bourgeois cultural theory is facing one of its cyclical confusions: its various textual strategies—which have used the vocabularies of ethics ("forgiveness," "hospitality," "wholly other," "event," "rogue," and "sovereignty") to normalize class antagonisms in contemporary capitalism over the last several decades—no longer work effectively. They can no longer blur class divisions and obscure the growing intensities of social contradictions with the usual interpretive casualness. This cynical use of ethics (which in a class society is the spiritualization of class interests) has reached its historical limits and consequently its ethics has abandoned the outside and retreated into self-referentiality. The gap of economic inequalities now exceeds the deflective powers of its quasi-religious acts of "hospitality," "forgiveness," and the blessing of the "wholly other." Property relations can no longer be diffused through an etymological spinning on the "proper" or in the eventhood of the "event"—the "unanticipatable," which is said to be beyond representation and thus outside the reach of reason and history. 

Bourgeois theory, to use Marx and Engels' words, has always been "instructions in the art of ghost-seeing." It has been, in other words, the metaphysics of capitalism. It has conjured up concepts, tropes, interpretive strategies and a rhetoric to go with them, by which capital, often in the rhetoric of an anarcho-left, replaces property with the power (of the State), inverts class difference into cultural difference, obscures the collective in irruptive singularities, and legitimates its own class interest as the universal interest. 

Faced with an intensification of the historical situation—whose stubborn materialist complexities overflow the interpretive cunning of its textual ethics and threaten to make it irrelevant to capital and deprive it of its institutional rewards—bourgeois theory is now altering and adapting its strategies in order to translate the class interests of capital into new topoi ("extinction events," "despoilment," "mutation events") through which it distracts analytical attention away from material causes and instead focuses on cultural effects. Bourgeois theory is the assemblage of reading practices that bury causes in effects and construct the social as singularities of events, as causeless arrivals. In a Nietzschean move, it suspends the very idea of "cause." 

The "new" topoi of bourgeois theory hover over the tropics of disaster. In a newly adopted apocalyptic tone, bourgeois theory deploys disasters—ecological, social, political disasters, which it takes to be allomorphs of nature—to displace history (the outcome of class struggles). Disasters are seen as aleatory and unrepresentable "mutations of systems," as they are called by Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook in the manifesto of their new book series on disaster theory (Open Humanities Press, published by the University of Michigan Library) [1], that they title "Critical Climate Change" (a mimetic residue of Cary Wolfe's Critical Environments). However, its "climate" has nothing to do with the current "climate," which is an effect of (the exploitation of) human labor, and what it calls "change" is merely a reprocessing of the exhausted concepts of recent cultural theory by using marketing techniques that sensationalize the "new"-ness of a present and manufacture the "old"-ness of the past. In contrast to this troping of the new, change is always the outcome of remaking the social relations of production. 

"Climate change" is part of a tradition in bourgeois theory that questions the naturalness of the natural (in order to represent it according to the needs of capital) while grounding itself as nature, as the uncanny and the unrepresentable with a singularity of its own. For instance, it "deconstructs" politics (which it represents as naturalized beliefs) displacing it into "the political" (as the "endlessness of politics" which includes all life practices, the politics of means without end). "The political" is de-naturalized (de-programmed), but like its textuality, it has the organic unplannedness and unrepresentability of difference—as nature. Nature is the horizon of concept-tropes in "climate change" because it is assumed to be omni-historical and cross-class, and thus the condition for an environmentalism without class. The appeal of ecology for bourgeois theory is that nature involves all the people (regardless of class), and therefore through ecology, the bourgeois theorists can express concern for the planet and its inhabitants without having to account for the social relations of production which actually shape the ecological. "Climate change" is the vulgar, apocalyptic, and loudly sentimental version of such other "terrestrial" theories as "risk society theory."  

Since hazards, like all environmental events, are represented as affecting all people alike—the poor and the rich—the division of the social into owners and workers is no longer relevant to the risk society. Of course, this does not mean that risk theory does not recognize that poor neighborhoods are more likely to suffer from pollution, contaminated water and proximity to the toxic waste of the affluent. It knows the politics of hazard, but treats it as a local matter that does not substantively influence the terrestrial reach of the theory. Having erased class from the social, risk theory invokes a messianic voice (which is also the tone of "climate change") to claim that old social models of analysis concerned with equality are outdated, modernist political thought and residues of industrial class society. In the new risk society, "safety" not "class" is the norm of social justice.  

The erasure of class, the dismissal of social analysis and a fusional ecstasy over the limits of political thought are the desires that underlie Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller's other disaster text—Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin. Here, Paul de Man (whose writings are expressions in literary theory of what Milton Friedman argues for in his economic theories) emerges as the promised "new" model for understanding the "mutations of systems beyond 20th century." De Man's reading of Benjamin, is the example for "critical climate change" and for reading the remains of the apocalypse: the "current sense of depletion, decay, mutation and exhaustion." He is the prophet who is "oriented," to use words from Cohen and Colebrook's manifesto, "toward the epistemo-political mutations that correspond to the temporalities of terrestrial mutations." De Man on Benjamin, to put it more clearly, is the bearer of "the critical languages and conceptual templates, political premises and definitions of 'life'" that are called for in the disaster "era of climate change" which "involves the mutation of systems beyond 20th century anthropomorphic models." De Man provides models for grasping all that "until recently" stood "outside representation." His 20th century writings are, to say it again, the model for the model-less. The simplistic historiography of "climate change"—its cartoonish views of the 20th and 21st centuries—comes out of the white papers of capital's think tanks and the talking points in board rooms. After all the climate hype, its 21st century turns out to be a refurbished (return of the) 20st century—"the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."   

In the affective cadences of care, ethics and justice but in a paramilitary language of shock and awe, "climate change" produces an interpretive "climate" in which cultural meanings—which are effects of the social relations of production—mutate into orphan signifiers that resignify class relations as links of affinity and invert the economic so it "counts with the aneconomic." The social in disaster theory is the assemblage of "events" whose understanding, as Tom Cohen announces in the manifesto to his edited collection of essays, Telemorphosis (the disaster mimesis of teletechnologies), "exceed any political, economic, or conceptual models." The social, in other words, is made, not by human labor but by disasters—the irruptive chain of singularities of shock and awe. Telemorphosis is a book of the "impasse of an emerging era of climate change and ecocatastrophic acceleration," the tale, as he writes in his hagiography of de Man, of a "disappearing future."  

The companion volume to Cohen's disasterographies (Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, ed. By Henry Sussman) chases after megadisasters not just in the global but also in the "post-global" scene of "ecological, demographic, socio-political, economic, and informational disasters." It is the narrative of an "open-ended chain of current insults and injuries to the ecological, socio-political, and cultural surrounds." The two books are echographies of disaster as "wholly other."  

The theoretical hollowness of "critical climate change" is on display here in its treatment of disaster as an "event." In recent bourgeois theory, "event" has become the trope of the post-historical. It "implies surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable," and its "eventfulness depends" on the "experience of the impossible" which is the "unique, exceptional, and unpredictable arrival of the other." But, and here is the event's political twist, "there is iterability and return in absolute uniqueness and utter singularity, [this] means that the arrival of the arrivant—or the coming of the inaugural event—can only be greeted as a return, a coming back, a spectral revenance." "Event," in cultural theory, in other words, is the causeless, reversible history, utter alea; its arrival is always a re-arrival outside the regulative structure of specific historical social relations. The deploying of "event" as the analytics of "climate change" is a symptom of the poverty of its historical understanding masquerading as a freedom from connected meanings (history).  

"Event" is valorized because it is the paralogic of singularities—disconnections. Cause is the logic of connections, of effect. "Climate change" is administrative disconnection. Through the singular, it produces subjectivities out-of-joint for desire shopping in the niche markets of capital. "Climate change" is the pedagogy of a post-disaster longing. It teaches shoppers the trauma of the rationalities of modernity and re-educates them into spontaneity so that they can shop (beyond reason) to slow capital's falling rate of profit (as reason).  

Disaster theory is the cultural arm of what Naomi Klein in her The Shock Doctrine called "disaster capitalism." It is an ideological crusade to invert cultural meanings, which are the outcome of specific historical social relations of productions, into the spectral wavering of mutational signs, in order to make it impossible to form any ground for class struggles. Klein argues that capitalism uses disasters to heighten cultural crises and produce a "climate change" within which it pushes through laissez-faire, pro-corporation policies as "new" ideas.  

Like shock doctrine, disaster theory uses the "current sense of depletion, decay, mutation and exhaustion" to orchestrate raids on public meanings. Texts of culture produce public meanings through which social collectivities are formed and general class experiences (class in itself) is transformed into class consciousness and class solidarity (class for itself).  

Cultural texts, in short, have "use-value." Disaster theory undoes their use-values and reconstitutes them as exchange-value. The public meaning of texts (the collective signified) is no longer a means for analyzing and understanding the social in order to change it. "Critical climate change," changes it into spontaneous reflection on the signifier, which is now "value" in itself—a semiotic fetish. The shift from meaning as use-value to meaning as exchange-value is the shift from the signified to the signifier, from conceptual analysis to the linguistic body, from the social to the natural, from class to climate.  

Reading, consequently, is no longer aimed at understanding the outside of the text but is a purely immanent activity directed toward the anarchograms that put the signified in ruins. Reading is the disaster of meaning, a semiotic catastrophe, a mutation of the letteral.  

Disaster theory produces a crisis—"climate change"—in which meaning as social relations is represented as limited and unable to engage the higher levels of "extinction events." This is another way of saying that through disaster, cultural signs are re-signified so as to produce meanings that, instead of unconcealing social relations and laying bare their class logic, become linguistic disasters to the body politics and put its class interpretations of signs in ruins. The bigger the disaster, the more radical is the re-signification. The ideal disaster is a mega-disaster with a "post global" magnitude moving in the rhythm of "terrestrial temporalities." Disaster theory is the trauma of the public signified. It softens it up for lines of private connotations that ultimately subject class to the "repression of the archive." In "critical climate change" there is, of course, "no political power without control of the archive." Disaster theory is the control of the archive: the exclusion of class and reassertion, with "climate change," of the rights to private ownership of public surplus labor. But all archives are historical—they are the scene of class struggles—their control will collapse not because they are archiviolithic—the lapse of memory and forgetting—but because of activating the class contradictions that they attempt to contain.




THE RED CRITIQUE 14 (Winter/Spring 2012)