Philosopher of the apocalypse

Devastation after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan; undated photograph. Courtesy the Department of Defense/Department of the Air Force

From the ashes of the Second World War, Günther Anders forecast a new catastrophe: technology would overwhelm its creators

Audrey Borowski is postdoctoral fellow at the MCMP at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, as well as a research associate at the University of Oxford where she completed her DPhil. Her interests range widely from the early modern period to the 21st century, from Leibniz to catastrophe and the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

As the commander of the weather plane that supported the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, Claude Eatherly did not feel any particular animosity towards the Japanese, involved as he was in committing arguably one of the most barbaric acts of the Second World War with complete indifference. Eatherly carried out his mission, oblivious to its ultimate finality. How had it come to that? How was it possible that, as the philosopher Günther Anders later wrote, ‘the amount of wickedness required to accomplish the ultimate crime, a disproportionate crime, was equal to zero’?

B-29 Superfortress ‘Straight Flush’ with its commander Claude Eatherly, centre, back row. He later became a friend and correspondent of Günther Anders. Photo courtesy US Air Force

The work of Anders (1902-92), a German philosopher and essayist of Jewish descent, bears testimony to some of the 20th century’s major disasters and their effect on the intellectual landscape of the time. Anders set out to theorise those disasters and the impact of technology on modernity and the human condition, in particular technology’s gradual domination over all aspects of human activity – the commodification, dehumanisation and even derealisation of the world that had resulted from that domination.

Exiled to Paris in 1933, Anders eventually wound up in California, and in the Hollywood film industry of all things, where he supported himself by writing film scripts and doing odd jobs in factories and movie repositories. There, he closely observed the dramatic rise of consumerist culture – from the ashes of the Second World War and Western humanist ideals – while attending seminars held by members of the Frankfurt School. Despite his complicated relationship with Theodor Adorno, much of Anders’s critiques and concerns overlapped with Adorno’s in seeking to come to grips with modernity’s darker side. Much later in life, from his hospital bed, Anders would declare their oeuvre complementary in providing an ‘encyclopaedia of the apocalyptic world’ that had recently unfolded. In 1950, he returned permanently to Vienna.

Anders’s work has long remained unknown in the English-speaking world, perhaps because of what Herbert Marcuse described as its ‘unsparingly critical pessimism’. Yet, it already prefigured key themes later addressed by the philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Zygmunt Bauman; and it has recently gained new currency and relevance. Alarmed by some of the social effects of the new phantasmagoric world that had taken shape around us, Anders set out to dissect it and find out how it had inured us to – and even led us to embrace head-on – the devastating effects of technological development, and even our potential extinction, in order to prompt us to break from it by mobilising fear.

As he set out to tackle the challenges faced by the human condition – and the threats to its very existence – Anders jettisoned the academic style of his teachers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger for a more accessible style of philosophical language that paused to consider historical realities as fully fledged philosophical objects. Auschwitz and Hiroshima, in particular, with their mass-production of deaths on an industrial scale, marked turning points in Anders’s thinking. These catastrophes had been made possible by the progress of science and technology, progress that had brought the very existence of our world into jeopardy.

The advent of the nuclear age had transformed peace into the perpetual preparation for war, and, in an interesting reversal of Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, threatened to cancel politics altogether by ensuring the mutual destruction of the belligerents. Anders deplored tacticians’ and politicians’ collective blindness, their unconsciousness in seeking to instrumentalise the threat of annihilation for political purposes – a gamble that relied on their very ignorance. In the early 1940s, he wrote (translations from the French my own):

None of us has a knowledge commensurate with what an atomic war could be … which means that, in this field, no one is competent and that the apocalypse is therefore, by essence, in the hands of the incompetent.

The modern use of nuclear power had blurred the distinction between civilian and military, and rendered the possibility of disaster omnipresent. A threshold had been irredeemably crossed when mankind deliberately hung a sword over its head and created the conditions for its self-annihilation…


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