POSTED: March 27, 2018
Arts | Philosophy

Anthropocene dreams: a review of Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s The Ends of the World

If the Anthropocene had an intellectual mixtape, The Ends of the World would be a worthy candidate, Jana Bacevic finds. The book presents perspectives on the end of the world beyond the Western-centric view, to include those for whom the world has already ended; providing valuable lessons. (This blog also appeared on the PERC website.)

by Jana Bacevic
Abandoned land
CC-BY-NC 2.0 :: Lig Ynnek / Flickr

Wim Wenders’ 1991 Until the end of the world shares quite a few themes with Deborah Danowski’s and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s The Ends of the World. The film opens with a shot of the planet taken from the orbit. The year is 1999, when, we are told, the world was expected to end, due to a predicted explosion caused by an out-of-control Indian satellite. The main protagonist, Claire, is troubled by an altogether different matter: a dream in which she is gliding in an airplane above the Australian desert – pleasantly at first, but then the plane begins to lose altitude, eventually colliding with the red, dusty ground – into which the eye of the camera folds at the end of the opening sequence.

Wenders’ mixture of millenarism, cyberpunk, and 1980s aesthetic does not, unfortunately, make an appearance in Danowski’s and Viveiros de Castro’s book. Other narratives of violent collision with the world do: from Von Trier’s Melancholia to Ferrara’s 4:44 and Weisman’s The World Without Us, from Stengers’ ‘intrusion’ of Gaia to the post-humanist speculative realism of Brassier and Meillasoux. If the Anthropocene had an intellectual mixtape, The Ends of the World would be a worthy candidate. Nor does it remain limited to tropes from the Global North. The authors contrast the ‘Western’ imaginaries of the end of the world with those of other, in particular indigenous, people, bringing in the Yanomami and Aikewara in order to challenge the assumption that the world is something humans have; and, furthermore, that it is possible to easily separate ‘the human’ from ‘the world’.

The three central chapters – ‘The outside without thought, or the death of the Other’, ‘Alone at last’, and ‘A World of people’ – present perspectives on the end of the world beyond the Western-centric, modernist view, to include those for whom the world has already ended, for instance, by the virtue of colonial exploitation. Their sense of finality – and, by extension, their sense of the world – is quite different. In this sense, the book pits Latour’s ‘moderns’ (Humans) against non-moderns/Others (Terrans) in a (not-quite-hypothetical) conflict. This conflict is no longer (or primarily) over resources, nor even about the reality of global warming: the Gaia war, authors argue, has virtually become a war of the worlds, the one that would decide the fate of the planet and its future.

As masterful as this argument and its exposition is, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Others – or Terrans – appear as last-minute saviours of the world, rather than actors in their own right. Commendably, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro want to give Others a voice, without speaking for them. Yet, the book’s references remain curiously Euro-centric, reading more like a guest list for a Latourian house party. This, of course, is not a unique feature of The Ends of the World. Social sciences, anthropology in particular, have always been very good at using Others as (literal or metaphorical) gateways to other worlds: from the reliance on natives as informants and field guides, to the ‘ontological turn’ – one of whose foremost proponents is Viveiros de Castro – that argues that cultural variation should be seen as a plurality of existence, rather than a plurality of interpretation.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why Others’ ends of the world – or the ends of other worlds – acquire such relevance in the Anthropocene. The existence of multiple ends of the world, after all, hints at the possibility of multiple worlds. This, in turn, holds the promise of exit from this world: in other words, even if the planet cannot be saved, perhaps we can.

The dialogue from Von Trier’s Melancholia Danowski and Viveiros de Castro relate reflects this idea. As the encounter with the planet Melancholia draws nearer, Justine (the main protagonist) expresses no desire to mourn, saying: “The Earth is evil. We do not need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it”. To this, her dismayed sister Claire responds with “But where would Leo [her son, Justine’s nephew] grow?” In this exchange, the drive to escape Earth/death through transposition into the Other is rendered literal through the figure of children as virtual extension of self (on)to another being. The fact that Justine, at the very end of the film, relents by building a ‘magical cave’ in which to hide with Leo – as the inevitable collision approaches – underscores mortality as the final fact of inseparability from (the) earth, from which there is no escape.

The real predicament of the Anthropocene, in this sense, may lie in the fact that even if Others could create worlds – if, like Latour, we can hope for a generation of Terrans to inherit the Earth – there is nothing to suggest they would consider ‘us’, the Moderns, worthy of saving. In Wenders’ film, Claire will come to learn the same thing. Having survived the plane crash – which happens exactly in the way she previously dreamt of – she arrives to a research facility at the heart of the Australian desert, where she participates in the development of a camera that helps blind people see. After the experiment fails, even the local Aborigines abandon the research facility, leaving Claire lost in the desert, addicted to the only successful function of the camera: the capacity to record the viewer’s dreams. This recalls another quote in Danowski and Viveiros de Castors’ book, by Davi Kopenawa, the Yanonami shaman:

“Whites only treats us as ignorant because we are different from them. But their thought is short and obscure; it cannot go far and elevate itself, because they want to ignore death. Whites do not dream far like we do. They sleep a lot, but they only dream about themselves”.

The challenge of the Anthropocene, then, is how to learn to dream about something other than ourselves. The Ends of the World only begins to address it: but, in the process, it offers good material for thinking about who we are, and, by extension, who are the others.

Jana is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Her interests lie at the intersection of social theory, sociology of knowledge, and political sociology; her current work deals with the theory and practice of critique in the transformation of higher education and research in the UK.

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