Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The normalisation of the unthinkable

We live in apocalyptic times. This is the considered belief of an extraordinary contemporary philosopher, who also phrases it as Living in the End Times — the title of a book that appeared in 2010 (Verso), and which contains between its covers so many intellectual tours de force that I, for one, will not even try to capture where they converge and diverge. Besides, the title neatly summarises what these reflections by the master of interweaving (neo-)Marxism and psychoanalytic theory have in common.

One of Slavoj Žižek’s most timely reflections brings one face to face with the apocalypse in one of the areas of its manifestation: “ecological breakdown”; the other two being “the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines” and “total digital control over our lives” (p327) — the latter perhaps most tellingly experienced at airports when one has to submit, willy-nilly, to sometimes very invasive “security measures”, which are slowly but surely making their way into other social spaces, too, such as when you have to go to consulates for visa applications. It is worth quoting Žižek at length (quoting Ayres):

“At all these levels, things are approaching a zero-point, ‘the end time is near’ — here is Ed Ayres’s description: ‘We are being confronted by something so completely outside our collective experience that we don’t really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming, For us, that “something” is a blitz of enormous biological and physical alterations in the world that has been sustaining us.’ At the geological and biological level, Ayres enumerates four ‘spikes’ (or accelerated developments) asymptotically approaching a zero-point at which the quantitative expansion will reach its point of exhaustion and will bring about a qualitative change. These four spikes are: population growth, consumption of resources, carbon gas emissions, and the mass extinction of species. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and simulation which include the direct will to ignorance [a fundamental Lacanian precept]: ‘a general pattern of behaviour among threatened human societies is to become more blinkered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.’ … The recent shift in how those in power are reacting to global warming is a blatant display of such dissimulation.’’

He proceeds by clarifying what he means by the last statement, above, first reminding us of the recent discovery, by scientists, of the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Arctic sea-ice, and second, that not so long ago the usual response to scientific evidence of such imminent doom was, as might be expected, alarm and a corresponding “call for emergency measures: we are approaching an unthinkable catastrophe, and the time to act is quickly running out” (p327-328).

But guess what? This way of reacting has seen an about-turn: “Lately, however, we hear more and more voices enjoining us to be positive about global warming. The pessimistic predictions, so we are told, should be seen in a more balanced context” (p328). It is Žižek’s masterly, understated summary of the liabilities and assets, as it were, of global warming that really goes to the heart of the utter cynicism of the ruling elites of today (p328):

“True, climate change will bring increased resource competition, coastal flooding, infrastructure damage from melting permafrost, stresses on animal species and indigenous cultures, all this accompanied by ethnic violence, civil disorder, and local gang rule. But we should also bear in mind that the hitherto hidden treasures of a new continent will be disclosed, its resources will become more accessible, its land more suitable for human habitation … Big businesses and state powers are already looking for new economic opportunities, which concern not only (or even primarily) ‘green industry,’ but much more simply the potential for further exploitation of nature opened up by climatic changes … according to current estimates, up to one quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas sources may lie under the Arctic Ocean.”

If one hadn’t become virtually numb in the face of the barrage of evidence, in one form or another, that the so-called “leaders” of the world — politicians as well as business leaders — do NOT bear the interests of ordinary people and of other living species at heart, this might have come as a shock. However, it does not, for the obvious reason that, after all the revelations, in recent years, of utter disregard for the natural environment as well as for people’s so-called “democratic rights”, on the part of many governments and many corporations (especially Big Oil), most of us have come to expect nothing less.

An exemplary instance I recall concerns the leading politician in an Australian state, where, if I recall correctly, coal exports have been threatening the continued existence of the most bio-diverse undersea eco-system on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef, because of the large amount of cargo shipping traffic right across the Reef. When confronted by a number of environmental organisations about the obvious necessity, to find alternative export transportation routes (lest this ecological marvel, a priceless natural legacy for successive generations, be completely destroyed), this politician replied that the economy was more important than the ecology.

Anyone who knows the difference between the encompassing planetary ecosystem, on which all life depends, and a sub-system such as the human “economy”, would know how moronic this statement is: without the planetary ecology, there would NOT BE a human economy. Sadly, however, this is exactly the way that most politicians think today: there are no more statesmen and -women; their self-conception is that of “managers of the economy”. The fact that politicians in South Africa are willing to prostitute the ecologically unique Karoo environment, as well as our scarce water resources, for the sake of money for shale gas from Shell Oil, is paradigmatic of this attitude.

Most people have given up thinking of doing something to change this lamentable state of affairs, which is the most saddening thing of all. That does not include me — I believe in the constant historical possibility of change, as long as sufficient numbers of people seize upon what Walter Benjamin called the sparks of “messianic time” that always intersperse the degraded time of the status quo, to bring about a “return” to a life worthy of being called human. The present time does not deserve such an epithet.

To return to Žižek’s reflections on the “normalisation of the unthinkable”, this is how he summarises it (p328):

“ … an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes — the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as real but impossible (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable it may be, is effectively dismissed as impossible) becomes real and no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is “renormalised”, perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is that between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.”

Symptomatic of this paradoxical state of affairs is the way that the very same businessmen and politicians who, not so long ago, rejected the claims of scientists about global warming as “junk science”, and claimed that everything will just go on as usual, have done a volte face, and now look upon climate change as just another “simple fact, as just another part of ‘carrying on as usual’ ” (Žižek, p329).

The unthinkable has been “normalised”, or as Žižek also puts it with sardonic humour: “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”

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  • 31 Responses to “The normalisation of the unthinkable”

    1. Comrade Koos #

      The Daily Maverick have refused me permission to post on their threads.

      November 8, 2013 at 8:36 pm
    2. J.J. #

      Bert, Interesting article. I have not read Žižek, but have been researching this theme for a while now. Thanks for bringing to attention Žižek’s take on how the process of normalisation happens mentally. So my interpretation of what he’s saying is this:

      It’s like a flip-switch… for a long time something is unacceptable or “impossible” or unlikely to happen, or far away, then one is confronted with it all of a sudden is a common normality – it arrives. This brings on a state of being stunned, like a deer caught in the headlights. For a while. Cognitive dissonance basically. Then the switch get’s flipped (in order to release your-self from being stunned, not knowing how to react and not being able to continue undisturbed). Now we accept the new normal and continue “as per normal”, accepting it as an inevitable new reality, which is assimilated withe the old realities and blended with reality in general.

      What intrigues me is why we don’t act pre-emptively to resolve the upcoming crisis/crises? And/or, why don’t we resist the previously unacceptable with much more resistance?. My feeling is the answer has to do with conformity. Humans are herd animals after all and if the whole herd turns, only a very few on the fringes will go their own way.

      November 9, 2013 at 10:33 am
    3. Richard #

      Is this not symptomatic of a relativist stance? I mean, for instance, acceptance in the West of, say, the moral equivalency of the subjugation of women in Islam, which very much goes against the teachings of feminism? Or, indeed, the silence of feminists on that very subject? Or what about massive population growth, and increasing consumption by the populations that are growing the fastest? It is considered impolite to comment on such population growth because it is a cultural matter for Asians and Africans. That fact that it imperils the planet seems to be neither here nor there. It is no longer possible in human affairs to judge events or trends “good” or “bad” but instead we are taught (sometimes through legislation) to tolerate everything, even if it threatens us. There can be no striving for a better world in general, only for a better world for ourselves as individuals. The United Nations does not exist to improve anything, but simply as a vehicle through which individual countries can advance their own interests. The very idea of trying to drive humanity towards “betterment” is seen as fascist. The reason for that is not hard to see: occupying such a moral high-ground (according to its own definition) affords an alternative route to power. The antithesis of what we traditionally understand as power becomes power in its own right, a sort of mirror-power from a negative place. It is only through human self-destruction that the world will renew, sorry to say.

      November 9, 2013 at 12:38 pm
    4. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Comrade Koos – It does not surprise me in the least. Most people who ostensibly promote critical (and lateral) thinking, will only allow it within the limits of the ‘normal’, that is, the conventionally acceptable social/economic paradigm. Genuine lateral thinking disrupts their bearings intolerably.

      JJ – Your interpretation of Žižek on this ‘logic’ of normalization is spot-on. What you say about most people being herd-animals resonates with both Nietzsche and Freud’s beliefs in this regard. For Freud, it is ultimately a manifestation of the ‘conservative’ side of the death drive, which imposes a veritable inability to adapt to fundamental social or economic (or ecological) changes; instead of doing something concrete to address a seriously changed situation, people just assimilate it into their ‘comfort zone’. Unfortunately, this time it is so serious that inaction will have cataclysmic consequences, if the natural scientists are to be believed – and I don’t see why they should not be, given their evidence based, intersubjective agreement on the matter. Like you, I have also been fascinated by people’s inability to resist, or rather, act upon their intuitive resistance to what is unacceptable, despite Freud’s plausible explanation. Marxists have a phrase to explain the hold of the prevailing ideology on people’s minds: ‘The tyranny of the status quo’. Indeed. Subsequent generations will curse the present generation, especially so-called leaders.

      November 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm
    5. There is, of course, nothing new about the End Times or people’s belief that we are living in them (at least until the End comes) – the two are perennial features of human existence.

      But not everyone will necessarily spot at once that the End in our times is naturally seen in secular terms, as a matter of science and technology destroying the world, not of the End coming, as once predicted, in fire and brimstone hurled by a righteous god.

      The question, from there, remains one of what you believe – that is, one of faith, not science. Science very obviously does not and cannot predict the end of Earth (except in astronomical time) though it raises serious concerns that we are doing damage to it and points out some obvious areas where we are destroying our habitat and life forms. But that is a different matter.

      Armed with a good brain and the wit to argue his case, Mr Zizek moves from his own faith that the End is near to explaining how those who do agree with him are unable to see the truth of his prophecies.

      There is nothing new in that either.

      November 9, 2013 at 2:37 pm
    6. Rene #

      It is as if almost the whole of society is caught in a gigantic straitjacket of conformity and paralysis, and is totally unable to wake up out of this stupor. We are somnabulating to a gigantic catastrophe…

      November 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm
    7. Second to last para above should of course read ‘… explaining how those who do not agree with him …’

      November 9, 2013 at 6:03 pm
    8. Comrade Koos #

      Thoughts manifest as reality. If our thoughts and desires are for an ideal world we can create it. Right now the mainstream media spin out there is for a fascist world which has already taken us well down the road to the Sixth Major Extinction of Life on Earth.

      November 9, 2013 at 7:06 pm
    9. Dave L #

      The human mind seems to be an infinitely flexible thing, sometimes for the good but most often not. So we absorb the shocks and move ‘forward’ if it can be termed that.
      The herd mentality is a big part of that mechanism. Couple to that the fear that many administrations have actively fostered in their subject’s minds (the US as just one example) and it’s easy to understand the inertia. Big business and gov’t have worked collectively for decades and it’s a formula that works well. Try to go against the flow in the US and you’ll be met with a paramilitarised response at every level…from the TSA agent at the airport to your local neighbourhood watch. As a BBC correspondent put it so well a year or so ago:
      “America, a nation we associate with rugged individualism, is actually a nation of rules and conformity. A nation of community spirit, enforced where necessary by law.
      You may not say and do what you like in America, whatever the constitution says. You are expected to play nice. And you are all – every American – in this together.”
      Not difficult to see how the herd keeps playing the game. And I’d venture that it’s not a lot different in most developed countries.

      November 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm
    10. It seems to hing upon the human heart. When the heart turns to stone we can not see the wood for the trees. All interested parties need to focus attention to what is in the heart. What does you heart say

      November 10, 2013 at 10:00 am
    11. Jenni #

      What we fail to account for, is that this is simply the end of time for of humanity. The earth will continue on long after the demise of our species, and will probably prosper without us. Should some of us survive, perhaps we can develop using a different paradigm, one that is more nurturing of the planet that supports us.

      We overrate the importance, humanity to the earth.

      In the bigger scheme of things… does it really matter???

      November 10, 2013 at 12:51 pm
    12. J.J. #

      It has been said that the human species is like a virus… This may be true. In the end it leans more towards destruction and the consumption of everything than sustainability.

      If it were different then we would have moved to turn the Titanic around by now – we’ve had ample notice, yet we are still going full-steam ahead! Fossil fuels ahoy!

      The thing is that logically speaking, there’s no reason why each individual person cannot move towards living more sustainably and make the right choices – like opting for or choosing using renewable energies and organic produce for example. Reduce reliance on unnecessary technology (multiple gadgets), etc. But how many people are doing this? We are a species with a very addictive disposition. We are addicted to over-consumption. Addicted to our cars, addicted to our gadgets, addicted to our stuff and our pleasures (audio-visual entertainment in many forms). Addicted, addicted, addicted! To our own ego’s too – hence the popularity of social networking. And mesmerized. Like the junkies that we are.

      (And the growing middle classes in the developing world all want a piece of the consumption pie too!)

      As a species our consciousness is at a very low level – personally I think only a miraculous general elevation of the consciousness of humanity as a whole will get us to wake up!

      Personally I am leaving the smallest possible footprint and motivating others to do the same.

      November 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm
    13. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      JJ – I am in wholehearted agreement with everything you have said.

      Paul – I’m afraid that I don’t see much reason for oiptimism. In a posthumously published interview with the magazine, Der Spiegel, philosopher Martin Heidegger observed that “Only a god can save us”. He was primarily referring to the out-of-control development of technology, but the link between technology and ecological degradation is well-known. I tend to agree with him.

      November 11, 2013 at 11:24 am
    14. Tofolux #

      @Bert, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, then we must begin with the premise that we have all colluded in the creation of this abnormal, normality. As a youth, I however am not a fatalist and with the advent of Assange and Edward Norton, I have a sense that things are changing. In fact, I can feel it. For the elite, it seems that their tunnel-visioned fear of the world will never change. This class has always been driven by fear. I am thrilled with the following: Bricsa: a proposal for an alternative to the World Bank: the fact that Africa now demands voting power on Security Council: Russia and the leadership ability of Putin: exposing NSA: exposing obama as a bumbling servant: the carnage of the west: john pilger: us and the west losing credibility: iranian nuclear talks; exposing france and the jewish voting bloc fallout in these nations; israels inhumane war mentality: the housing & other economic bubbles in the west: the economic bubble; barclays bank’s illegal dealing:the failure of capitalism: etc. There seems to be some energy abound and it feels good. At some point, some must take collective blame and responsibility for allowing the unthinkable to happen, eg apartheid. Instead of complaining why are we not lifting the subjugated information and take this to the public? Anyway, public consciousness is rising and I cannot wait for the day when it explodes.

      November 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm
    15. Comrade Koos #

      @Tofolux

      1) BRICS is nothing more than a fascist cabal like the G8.

      2) Putin scored a few brownie points with the left wing on the Snowden affair and Syria but is nothing more than a tyrant and conservative anti-gay, anti-human rights, and anti-environmental demagogue. Putin and Zuma signed arms and nuclear power deals at the last BRICS get together. Birds of a feather.

      3) “At some point, some must take collective blame and responsibility for allowing the unthinkable to happen, eg apartheid.” That type of mindset got the Jews ridiculed for harping on about the Holocaust, and the Afrikaners ridiculed for carrying on and on ad nausea about the English concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War.

      Are those who drone on and on about apartheid going to end up being ridiculed like others who have suffered equally at the hands of oppressors and psychologically just don’t have the capacity to move on.?

      November 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm
    16. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Tofolux – As far as the things that you enumerate go, I, too, have a feeling that things are slowly beginning to move – to add something else to your list: the fact that De Blasio has just been elected Mayor of New York says a great deal. Not only is he outspokenly on the left, but his social activism past also speaks volumes. And the commentators I’ve read believe that the Occupy movement has something to do with the huge swing to the left. At any rate, he is a ‘people’s person’, compared to his predecessor, the plutocrat Bloomberg. While I am also, like you, cautiously optimistic on the social and political front, though, my pessimism concerns something else, namely, the natural environment. The destructive juggernaut of neoliberal capitalism has wreaked such destruction already, and will take such an effort to slow down, that I believe it will be too late for many of the living species in the world. Some humans will probably survive, and as Jenni said, above, they will probably have learnt the lesson, not to push Mother Nature too far. But the planet, Gaia, will survive, and will generate new species, which will have adapted to a warmer planet. The typhoon that has just brought so much destruction to the Philipines is a sign of things to come; it has been described as (one of, perhaps THE) most powerful storm ever, but it is kids’ stuff compared to what 3 to 5 degrees centigrade increase in global temperatures will bring.

      November 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm
    17. Human #

      @Tofolux – think you meant Snowden and not the actor Norton :)

      November 12, 2013 at 8:37 am
    18. Interesting #

      Underlying it all is a species whose intellect, creativity and will to survive and to triumph (and prosper) have seen it prevail over the most horrendous circumstances throughout the ages. We are supremely efficient and our survival thus far has been predicated on our ability to adapt to our environment. I won’t be around for that long but I suspect we are staring another global “war” in the face and this will have a knock-on effect that will again bring to the surface our survuval instincts and skills. Life and living are cyclical. Just as we foster our own demise so we unleash our survival skills, and so the cycle continues.

      November 12, 2013 at 8:48 am
    19. A swing to the left is nothing to be optimistic about, but time will teach this lesson again and again.

      I was also under the impression that the Occupy Movement was not really aligned left or right, but more concerned with activism against the injustices of bankers getting bailouts while the rest have to suffer.

      Is it just a vanguard for lefties after all? Like Anarchism (the REAL Anarchism, of course, except nobody with even half a brain would be silly enough to come out of the Marxist closet in this day and age)?

      I wonder what the greenies make of Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace who since then would not touch them with rubber gloves?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Moore_%28environmentalist%29

      November 12, 2013 at 10:18 am
    20. J.J. #

      “Underlying it all is a species whose intellect, creativity and will to survive and to triumph (and prosper) have seen it prevail over the most horrendous circumstances throughout the ages.”

      - Yes, a lot of those most horrendous circumstances it caused/causes/is causing itself. The level of the species intellect is questionable. We are a very immature species and we need to grow up.

      “Just as we foster our own demise so we unleash our survival skills, and so the cycle continues.”

      True, but it all seems rather pointless if we cannot mature during the process and just keep on going in circles. In the meantime we are destroying everything in the process of struggling to grow up.

      In the case of (another) global war it’s a very real possibility – humans also seem to have difficulty learning from history.

      (On the other hand, some people say we are just following a trajectory of evolution and it is all part of a process which will in fact lead to an evolved state, but first major destruction is necessary – e.g: if consider some of the prophecies)

      November 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm
    21. There is no evidence of a general swing to the left, except for those who hope for one. The same was said of 1968; nothing came of it.

      ‘Marxism’ is a dead duck worldwide and no coherent replacement has appeared since the USSR and its east European empire disintegrated, more or less peaceably and overnight, in one of the most astonishing events in history.

      One must look on a country-by-country basis if one wishes to dispute that. In SA the view currently is there is a swing to the right. Much depends on what you wish to see.

      November 12, 2013 at 3:17 pm
    22. Comrade Koos #

      Change is inevitable.

      To paraphrase Karl Marx – Let the ruling classes tremble at the green revolution. The 99% have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Intelligent people of all countries, unite!

      November 12, 2013 at 7:26 pm
    23. Isabella van der Westhuizen #

      There needs to be a metanoia of the human heart an opening of the heart to the divine and a turning from human sin.

      November 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm
    24. @Comrade Koos:
      The 99% have nothing to lose but the debt they got into themselves and the Apple products with which they tweet ‘occupy!’ and ‘revolution!’.

      Though intelligent people of all countries are uniting. It’s part of globalisation.

      Realise that as you’re reading this, you are part of the 1%. Especially if you have a tertiary education. It shows how arbitrary the 1% versus 99% distinction is – meaningless concept, really, but very useful if the only card in your deck is ‘revolution! revolution! the sky is falling on our heads!’.

      As a curiosity, I wonder how Žižek is perceived back home since he’s from a country that has just recently learned the cost of ‘leaning left’. His kind of revolutionary chic peddling can only find solace in a patronising Western middle class guilt mindset.

      If you want to see the unthinkable ‘normalised’, it’s a good idea to see how left leaning countries treat their people:

      http://www.osundefender.org/?p=131491

      November 14, 2013 at 8:23 am
    25. Tofolux #

      @Bert, I however have an esoteric belief that our planet will survive. Our planet is hugely important to the solar system and the universe and I believe that it is the solar system that will find a way to deal with the stupidity and greed of man so that ultimately, the planet survives. The normalisation of the unthinkable actions of rape and plunder of resources has plagued man since time immemorial. For Africans in particular our biggest mistake was to listened to those who came over the seas, allowed them to put a bible in our hands and told us to close our eyes when we look upward to heaven and pray to their imaginary friends. When we opened our eyes, our land was stolen, our resources were plundered and the imaginary friend did not appear. How we pray for them to take their little black book and take their imaginary friend and give us back our land. I think it was one of our iconic african presidents who articulated this so well, but yip that an eg of a normalisation of the unthinkable.

      November 14, 2013 at 10:26 am
    26. Comrade Koos #

      @Garg

      ““Anarchists have a ‘bad name’ in the media, not because they can point to one indiscriminate massacre by anarchists–there have been none–but because the one thing holders of power fear is that they personally should be held responsible for their own actions” – ― Stuart Christie.

      November 18, 2013 at 10:19 am
    27. @Comrade Koos:
      That’s not why Anarchists have a bad name. You’ve described a system that’s entirely compatible by Capitalism. In fact, Capitalism requires that one should be personally held responsible for one’s actions and more so, for one’s own inaction. And Capitalism has a pretty bad name in the media.

      That description doesn’t describe the general properties of anarchism at all, it’s entirely compatible with Anarcho-Captalism (which most Anarchists deny is true Anarchism) and somewhat incompatible with Anarchy-Syndicalism (which is closer to what most Anarchists believe Anarchism to be).

      But more simply than that, Anarchism has a bad name because most people think it means a world without a state, or a state of anarchy, and most people disagree with that notion.

      November 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm
    28. Comrade Koos #

      @Garg

      Anarcho-Capitalists are part of the problem as are really fascists in disguise (American Libertarians and the Tea Party fall under that umbrella). “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” — Benito Mussolini (and he should know)

      Social-Anarchism is part of the solution, it offers a safety net to those trampled under-foot by the capitalists.

      The most intelligent people I know of are Social-Anarchists.

      Unfortunately the mainstream media have not properly educated the public on Social Anarchism, as instead they cover-up for the fascists that own the global media corporations and give anarchism in general a bad name. Fascist spin doctors who trawl blogs also give Social Anarchism a bad name.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:30 pm
    29. @Comrade Koos:
      Strange some of the dullest people I know are social-anarchists. These are usually people who are systems thinkers, arguing from intentions instead of from causes and effects. And they support this notion of a mainstream media conspiring to cover up solutions and perpetuate military industrial-complex fairy tales (“manufacturing consent” etc).

      Social anarchists are usually public intellectuals with plenty of verbal verbosity but little by means of evidence or logic. They also have no accountability for their ideas, and their ideas are frequently either not testable or have devastating consequences.

      I don’t think fascist spin doctors give social anarchists a bad name, I think their ideological blinkers give them a bad name.

      November 28, 2013 at 9:09 am
    30. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      A very timely article on the link between the meat and dairy industries, on the one hand, and environmental conditions, on the other:

      http://www.care2.com/causes/10-reasons-why-the-meat-and-dairy-industry-is-unsustainable.html

      January 1, 2014 at 6:09 pm

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