Bernard Charbonneau /// Political Ecology
Let’s indulge in a morsel or two of apocalypse. The photo above depicts the “Trinity” device, 16 milliseconds after its detonation on the morning of July 16, 1945. This was the very first explosion of a nuclear weapon, which took place in a (relatively) controlled setting in the Jornado del Muerto Desert in New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project. There are such very first things, unimaginable until they are imagined, unrealizable until they are realized, and there are more—can you believe it?—surely yet to come. There are first things, and there are also last—things and creatures and ideas whose departures are enacted sometimes as briefly, sometimes as violently as their arrivals. We tend to suppose we will see these things coming, or at least notice them when they’re gone, but mostly they appear and endure and vanish quietly, sometimes in the cloak of other louder, longer shadows. Sometimes they are whole lives, sometimes whole epochs. Stop, look up, look around you: what was there before that is there no longer? Where did it go, and how? And what, if anything has replaced it? As Sun Ra told us more than forty years ago, “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”
Well, how could we know?
Everything seems normal, yet there is a plague. On July 10 the chemical boil explodes. The forbidden zone is poorly guarded, and anyone can pass through by avoiding the main roads. The children play and ride their bikes to the edges of the most contaminated spot. In the stores a sign guarantees that the produce comes from elsewhere. Rain has fallen on the first posters put out by the Health Commission, which said not to be alarmed. ICMESA is a huge iron tumor over Meda, which borders on Seveso, a silent dragon at the center of a meadow covered with its own slime. This is how, if our eyes were not sealed by a spell, we should see Industry, which everybody desperately, wretchedly adores. Industry is a mythological animal that deals out death, a Minotaur to which everything must be sacrificed. Tomatoes and lettuce ripen in the gardens, untouchable. The sky is heavy and filled with fumes. A region in the grip of industries, where disfigured lives persevere, in an almost unreal ugliness, chronically ill and bandaged. The power of Man: the toxic cloud killed the animals but (for the time being) only sprayed acne on the children of man (August 26, 1976).1
That’s Guido Ceronetti, describing the aftermath of an industrial accident near Milan. His horror is aroused less by the lone dramatic event than by the conditions that permit and even seem to mitigate its ghastliness: the Industrial Age is not over, as it would seem to be, rather all future ages—Atomic, Postmodern, Digital—nest within it. Is he exaggerating? Well, surely things aren’t so bad everywhere, not even most places. But what does it mean that even some such places exist? And what do you or I know of them, really? Even the most traveled among us follows a vanishingly narrow path, mostly through cities, with mostly very slight concern for what we encounter along the way: some enthusiasm for interesting food and people and landscapes, a vague appreciation for—and/or fear of—obvious cultural and artistic peculiarities, sometimes a real fascination with past or even current events. But Industry? It’s only thanks to Industry we’re permitted to cross these vast and forbidding seas at all. We mount into the air and marvel at the elaborate security apparatus we’ve had to submit to for the privilege. The phrase “carbon footprint” might flash across the window of our minds. Beyond that, there are the obnoxious habits of our fellow travelers, the relative excitement of take-off and landing, the oddity of such violent displacements in space and time, and then: back to normal. Or back to the Internet.
“Everything seems normal, yet there is a plague.” Either there is or there isn’t, you might say. But if there is, doesn’t that imply, even demand we do something about it? To which a reasonable person might reply, “But what?” To which another reasonable person might answer, “Something!” As in, “Not nothing!” Or, when the pot really gets boiling, “Anything!” The World, to quote a recurring slogan, Can’t Wait. Maybe not. But already we’ve wandered away, back to where everything seems normal, if not altogether normalized. Why not take a moment instead, and try to imagine a world whose problems truly can’t be solved, a world which no amount of waiting or not waiting will restore to Arcadia. What then? Do we just let the plague run its course? Do we do nothing? Where is this plague, and why can we not just cut it out? Don’t look now, but human history consists largely of efforts to find the rotten bits and cut them out. It isn’t that we have an especially hard time identifying the rotten bits, and it isn’t that we have much trouble cutting, and—
Had the industrial system not been forced to improve itself, it would have trembled its last on the threshold of this century; it could never have sustained such inhumanity and torture. But flying to its aid came the occult arms of Evil, social humanitarianism, literary philanthropy, unionism, Marxism, laborism, and even religion; redemption, progress, salvation. But you have made evil look nice, improved the vampire’s breath, and put velvet gloves on ruthless claws, so the claws have kept on tearing. The industrial system stops being destructive and swallowing human lives in its furnaces only to destroy us with unanimous approval and to become the system of Universal Destruction. In some cases, industry is also a liberator, nourisher, and conserver of immaterial goods through monetary donations; it eliminates pain; it has itself worshipped as a benevolent God, as the only God. Now that the industrial system has convinced us to accept it, it can cast all of us into the fires of the abyss.2
Once again, what is true turns out to be useless—or have we just too long been dazzled by the gloss of Utility? Liberators, nourishers, eliminators of pain… but evil? Okay, let’s try something.
It won’t be easy, but see if you can relinquish for a moment any dreams of purity and perfection and consider whether it might be so, that every single thing you cherish and admire carries in it the seed of one or another calamitous poison, which your advocacy is bound to promote. That everything you love and believe in, everything that is good, everything that is anything, is subject to the same decay and distortion as are, from one day to the next, your fine intentions. And now relinquish that thought as well. Okay so far? Sei pronto per il grande passo? Good. Don’t look down, or up. And don’t worry. Yes, you’re not right this time, but don’t blame yourself for that. I’m not right either, and don’t blame me. We are all on our tightropes—or rather, we are all like Kafka’s trapeze artist: once such ideas first torment us, they never quite leave us alone.
We’ve already forgotten, but last May at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, before an audience that included survivors of America’s nuclear attack on that city, Barack Obama delivered a brief and in some ways remarkable speech. He deployed, in customary fashion, a wide variety of more or less subtle political signals, but his organizing theme was expressed quite plainly: that there is a contradiction at the heart of human action and identity, that “the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will—those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.” He went on to warn of the dangers of technological progress when divorced from or indifferent to moral progress, and to call for a universal awakening of human consciousness, for a strengthening of the awareness that we are all “part of a single human family,” “members of one human race.”
Our purpose here requires that we set aside for now the obvious ironies of Obama’s discourse, ignore the uneasy relationship between ceremonious rhetoric and the real-world exercise of power, and simply thank him (You’ll miss me when I’m gone!) for articulating the stakes of humanity’s increasing reliance on technical means to resolve—or simply dissolve—problems which are not themselves technical in nature. We have long been in the habit of performing convincing sleights of hand, on ourselves as well as others, in order to placate popular fears, secure voting blocs, and terrorize rival interests, but we have mostly, as nations, as “one human race,” and as individuals, failed to implement any effective limitations with regard to our ability to manipulate, re-figure, disassemble or otherwise dominate the material world. There are, certainly, very good reasons for this, and the point here is in no way to discourage the pursuit of knowledge or scientific understanding. On the other hand, it is our unmistakable tendency in the Age of Technicity to narrow one kind of understanding as we make room for another, and often for purposes that have, ultimately, very little to do with understanding. We may entertain, for example, the idea that a longer life is not necessarily a better one, but in practice doesn’t the safe money follow quantity? And doesn’t quality start to look like a sucker’s play? It will of course always be easier for us to agree on what we mean by longer than on what we mean by good, but the result is that we find ourselves again and again on the path of least resistance, no matter where it leads.
We will have occasion in this space to reflect further on the question of progress—moral, technological and otherwise—but at present we leave you in the hands of sociologist and philosopher Bernard Charbonneau, essentially unknown to the English-speaking world. Together with his friend and frequent collaborator, Jacques Ellul, Charbonneau was a pioneer of the so-called political ecology movement in France. He also participated in the development of a modern form of personalism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, co-writing with Ellul a now mostly forgotten but at the time influential set of Guidelines for a Personalist Manifesto (1934),3 not to be confused with the Personalist Manifesto (1936) of philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, with whom Charbonneau was also associated for a time (via the literary journal Esprit). It would be time well spent to introduce Charbonneau in greater depth, but his own words are a good place to start.
The following lecture was delivered in late 1945, at the Palais des Arts in Pau, France, under the title An deux mille. It appears here in English for the first time.4
[The photo above captures the first explosion of a nuclear weapon, 16 milliseconds after detonation, which took place on July 16, 1945, in the Jornado del Muerto Desert in New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project.]
by Bernard Charbonneau
translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi
On August 6, 1945, President Truman of the United States gave a speech (followed by another from former Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill) alerting us to the fact that the American Air Force had for the first time used an atomic bomb. A single device, dropped on the Japanese naval base at Hiroshima, had annihilated the greater part of that city. Smoke from the explosion, visible within a radius of two hundred kilometers, rose as high as twenty-three kilometers into the atmosphere. The aforementioned heads of state forecasted the deployment of even more powerful bombs.
TWO RISKS TO RUN
Before anything else, I must declare the tremendous nature of this event. For once, the actual importance of a historical eventuality is directly related to how powerfully important it feels. A dazzling light illuminates us as to what path this world in which we live is on; the only danger is to be blinded by it. One does not pass with impunity from the plane of daily life to the realms of science fiction, from the everyday struggle for food to that of the very Apocalypse.
As with any elemental event, one should soon expect to see a process of justification put into motion, to allow the world to assimilate the unassimilable, and all the more inevitably given that, while the use of atomic energy likely represents a mortal danger to humanity, an awareness of this danger could well prove fatal to this world.
Initial reactions in the French press have been revealing. There was indeed an acknowledgement that something extraordinary had taken place—dispatches announcing the use of the atomic bomb—but journalistic commentary has very quickly incorporated the extraordinary into its existing categories, which have mainly to do with politics. An article in Combat maintained a high moral tone5, while Le Canard6 offered wordplay. Combat is meant to be a serious paper, of course, and Le Canard is meant to make people laugh. The socialist papers, following Truman’s lead, expressed their hope that the atomic bomb would put an end to all wars—the bomb itself, however, isn’t a hope: it’s a fact. Action examined the thing in terms of the relationship between the MUR and the UDSR7, while L’Humanité stigmatized the enemies of the Soviet Union who intended to use it against the USSR. General de Gaulle took it as one more argument in favor of occupying the Left Bank of the Rhine, and Comrade Stalin as an argument against occupying Korea. All of which gives us an idea of what our respected journalists and leaders might say on the eve of the end of the world.
I, on the other hand, only want to talk about the atomic bomb itself: about the efficiency of this machine and the fate of mankind. The rest I can take or leave. I couldn’t care less about Germany, I couldn’t care less about the USSR. I couldn’t care less about Truman himself. There are only two things I can take seriously: humanity and whatever threatens it. We have just crossed the Rubicon, and I wonder whether we have ever, in history, taken such a leap—a span of several millennia. Now we can finally say that our means are of a global scale, since a few thousand of these devices would suffice to transform vast regions into desert. And naturally the atomic bomb of today must be considered an extremely rudimentary device, indeed the most rudimentary of all in the line it will now engender. The explosion that destroyed Hiroshima is only a starting point. If, from this point forward, the threat to destroy an entire country can no longer be seen as mere rhetorical flourish, then tomorrow the destruction of the world will be within our reach. Analogous to the discovery of America, the development of the bomb brings the world to a close. We used to be familiar with the world’s limits in theory; now we’re running right up against them. Under threat of this final explosion, the Earth forms a whole; the solidarity of all its inhabitants has ceased to be a slogan and become, from now on, a simple fact.
From now on the existence of Paris, of Moscow, of New York, is a matter of mere formality; the civilization of our great cities has begotten the means to send itself spiraling into absurdity. Even worse, maybe, for the universe we live in is but a miraculous point of application, where all the forces of infinity come into balance. By upsetting this equilibrium, we are unleashing powers that will turn our planet into a new sun. In a not too distant future, in a secret place, the End of the World will be held in trust. Everything that once seemed eternal to us: the poplars of the Cambes ravine, the glaciers of Antarctica, autumn on the beaches of Fouras, all of this will have become provisional. The morning frost of January, the balminess of summer nights, none of this will be indestructible or eternal any more. The world of men is a house haunted by the presence of death, within which from now on it is impossible to live without an undercurrent of dread.
There is no more eternity, no more nature, only a precarious situation, artificially sustained by a covenant among world powers. From now on the existence of our universe is at the mercy of a mere idea: global equilibrium, the magnanimity of America, Soviet self-interest. Nothing thicker than an international treaty, such as those forbidding the deportation and bombardment of civilian populations, separates this summer garden’s cooling off from its incineration by the flames of hell. Political realists and mystics alike know what these agreements are worth. Reality is what counts; life is what counts; and some day, in the name of reality and life, some pragmatic soul will unleash universal destruction. For it is our misfortune—or perhaps our hope—that our political situation remains within our technological means, and that, while the world only gets one end, it still has several nation-states. The universal weapon demands a universal empire.
The possibility of such an end sheds light on the history of the West, just as its realization would confer a strict meaning upon it. The history of the world would have to be considered a process of destruction, culminating in a final explosion. Maybe that is indeed what it is, and between us and the explosion there is only the question of our liberty. The obsession with knowing things for the sake of knowledge, the drive to produce things for the sake of productivity, the glorification of profit for the sake of profitability—these are the elements fueling the flame the West has let loose upon the world. That, and this taste we have now, for art for art’s sake, ideas for the sake of ideas, the essential condition of our end: the absence of the human spirit. And this is the measure of its greatness, more impressive than the science that created the bomb, since it is all that stands, ultimately, between the earthly universe and nothingness.
But, probably because I’m still the son of people who believed in progress, and because I can’t allow human history to take on such mythic proportions, neither can I truly fathom this monstrous outcome. I won’t believe in the end of the world until I believe in God, and I won’t believe in God until I believe in the end of the world. The human species still seems to me endowed with sufficient physical wisdom to step back from suicide at the last minute. To think that, in this day and age, having faith in mankind has been reduced to the supposition that one’s fellow humans still possess an instinct undoubtedly maintained by the most rudimentary animal! But it’s a dangerous assumption all the same, for the world today is ruled by politicians, not by men.
I can just make out a less dramatic but fundamentally more terrible possibility. It may very well be the case, as President Truman has envisioned, that atomic energy will be used, ultimately, only for peaceful ends. The fact remains that, whether through the detonation of bombs or in the roar of machinery, the shape of the world will be determined by enormous expenditures of energy, and that the world will be turned—whether by machines or by bombs—spectacularly on its head. Even more so perhaps by peace than by war, human existence will be radically altered. Because it won’t be a matter of destroying cities but of creating new ones, not of demolishing but rather modifying societies, and happiness is a much more active force than misery.
It is this entry into the third8 millennium, this tremendous upheaval, that I’m asking my fellow man to envision with utmost seriousness. Whatever your political or religious affiliations, whatever future you foresee, you are obliged to concede that, come what may, the world is going to be dramatically transformed. I’m asking you to contemplate this transformation with at least the same attention and anxiety you would bring to some change in France’s political constitution. Both public and private life are at stake here, and not only the lives of some but of all, in the deepest and, at the same time, broadest sense.
The essential character of this upheaval is its unpredictability. The only thing we can state with certainty is that we did not want it. And insofar as its origins are not human, it is impossible for us to foresee it. We have, yet again, invented our means without worrying about the ends they serve, accepting whichever conclusions their functions impose. There is something monstrous, something which goes against nature, in the very fact that I have to worry about, and reckon with, the atomic bomb. My worry is the manifestation of human impotence before the instruments of humankind, but it is at least an effort to gain control over them, as compared to the blindness and mutism of our “realists.”
Our technological means are increasingly fantastic and our objectives increasingly uncertain. All we have left are abstractions. Justice. Liberty. Words increasingly stripped of any effective power. Apart from these, a vague desire for physical well-being, aspirations after greater comfort, and the need, above all, to augment our individual or social efficacy. But this very will to power is only a reflection of the means at our disposal, the joy we take in the strength and energy they confer. This particular end is the product of these particular means.
When you think about the enormous changes provoked by the implementation of steam and electricity, and about the fact that we have been unable to resolve the human problems they presented us with, you can just about glimpse the sorts of impossible situations we are going to find ourselves in. From this clay of elementary particles, man may now, like God, mold the universe in his own image. But tools don’t create forms, they create the thoughts which then will guide them: the new god will have no choice but to destroy. The only instruments it has to build with will themselves be instruments of destruction, its peace the pitiless war it will wage against nature and even against its own nature, having made of the universe, after its own image, a monumental chaos.
My appeal is to those who claim to defend spiritual values, likewise to those who claim the defense of humanity. I say to you: Is there no God, no Reason, no Morality, no enduring Truth that you believe in? And if there is, do you intend to be passive victims of this turmoil, whereby values shall lose their meaning and mankind its very form? Tomorrow our children may well see us as Assyrians, and to our grandchildren we will be Selenites9, because no thought will have managed to take control of our present, to secure this future we can no longer call our own. And what becomes of your Revelation then? And your humanism? What becomes of the justice and liberty we are willing to die for even now, a willingness that acknowledges our obligation to pass these values down through the ages? The human spirit will be buried alive in a world of absurdity, and the ice fields of eternal death halt time in a frozen Apocalypse. In which case, truly, the end of the world will be a mercy.
Declaration of technological autonomy
The time for theoretical considerations has passed. What is at stake now, in concrete terms, is the fate of the world. For all and forever, the threat of the atomic bomb is upon us. The fate of humanity? But all I have is this hackneyed phrase, made stale for having been employed too often without cause. Will we retain for lack of virtue that elementary instinct which makes primitive man rebel in the face of death? It would be enough, if we want to see clearly, for us to become simple again. But I’m afraid we are no longer primitive, and instead of measuring our chains like old codgers, we either rationalize or keep silent in the face of what troubles us. Destiny itself seems to prevent our thinking through the bomb and its implications.
Why this incredible paralysis? At its root lies an already ancient resignation. The bomb is not an idea (one need only consider the inability of our intellectuals to think it through), it is a fact—a fact akin to that other chain of facts we call progress, and not progress as certain people may like to define it but as it has been concretely realized for more than a century now. If we modern individuals have ever had occasion to adopt a position, we have done so with regard to anything and everything that has to do with progress. But this position is contradictory: it consists in considering technological progress as an inexorable law, essential to the evolution of humanity, and, simultaneously, as a merely auxiliary phenomenon. It declares, in professorial tone: “There is no going back.” Which means, by the way, that it will be necessary to continue like this into the future. More simply—since it is the rare individual who even bothers to pose the question—it consists in not talking about it (like anything else that goes without saying), and instead reserves its whole attention for debates of political ideology. On the front page we have the trial of Maréchal Pétain, we have the issue of proportional electoral representation, and we also have the bomb. Obviously, it’s a little odd, and it’s a difficult subject to think about, at best it’s good for shock value. The bomb? Obviously, it’s rather tricky to make room for it in the great political debate. But since it’s been perfected, it will one day prove to be humanity’s saving grace—tomorrow, for tomorrow is when all these things will be sorted out. And anyway, tomorrow we won’t talk about them anymore.
The cult of progress may no longer be gospel among our engineers of the intellect, who are more than anything else afraid of being taken for idiots, but as the energizing myth of our times it is still alive and well. The fact is the Café de Flore doesn’t nominate anyone to public office.
This attitude leads us to consider progress the given par excellence, and to abdicate our liberty in its name. And though the use of machines may not be evil, abdication for the sake of utility is Evil itself. Yes, a machine may be neutral, and may serve equally well for either the benefit or detriment of humanity, but such neutrality assumes as a fundamental condition the desire to make it serve. Yet the partisans of progress take an entirely different attitude: whenever they are asked to contemplate the effects of technology on mankind, to conceive of a different orientation for mechanization, they protest. For them, progress—that is, the perfection of technology as it has been defined in the past century—is a value in and of itself. The material development of civilization, technology such as it is, open up the paths of the future (too often, the partisans of progress forget they’re playing an abstract machine-in-itself against someone critical of the ones we actually have). Machines, for them, are not machines: they are Justice, they are Liberty. For my part, I do not reject machines, but I do reject the conflation of industrial gigantism and the atomic bomb with values as such. The partisans of progress don’t realize they’re putting weapons in the hands of people who think machines, far from being instruments, are ends in and of themselves.
Why this abdication, by generations of so-called humanists, with regard to technology and machines? Why smash the idols of marble and gold in order to worship these greasy, metallic images? Why, no longer seeing its destiny in heaven, does humanity see it now in its technologies? Because, while it is correct to say that machines can be useful, left to themselves they bring along their own purpose, which is to increase power. I go faster and further in a plane than on foot; I can mine more coal with a jack-hammer than a pickaxe; and with a bomb I can kill more people than I can with a knife. Machines are made to dominate, to conquer—things and people alike—and since to conquer is always also in some way to break, they are infinitely more efficient in destroying things than in building them. We have in our possession a bomb that can demolish entire cities, and tomorrow we will be able, in the space of a second, to demolish the world. We will never be able to create its like in so brief a time. Power may crush and grind, but only life can engender life.
Machines are the will to power, and the will to power is a machine. The peoples most eager for gold or conquest are the ones who invent the best machines. And the peoples most free of prejudice are the ones who know best how to use them. The will to power was incarnated in expansionism and in its supreme accomplishment: national imperialism. The periods of greatest technical progress are periods of capitalist prosperity and, to an even greater degree, periods of war between nation-states. What characterizes the totalitarian world we live in is the symbiosis of politics and technology, the harmony between the will to power of various heads of state and the objective curiosity, the mechanical sense, and the narrow-minded obedience of engineers. Hitlerism was the expression of a society where the highest technological capabilities combined with an extreme sense of national discipline; the atomic bomb is the monstrous product of this coupling of technology and politics. As though they were rare and precious lunatics, the State locks up its wise men somewhere in the middle of nowhere, provides costly provisions to nourish their obsessions, and carefully reaps whatever dreadful fruit they manage, in their mania, to develop. The scientific community’s great self-justification: “We are in no way responsible, if others mis-use our inventions.” And it is precisely for this washing of the hands that our scientists will one day be called to account. The nation that has the most to answer for, is the one that is most technologically advanced. Belsen and Buchenwald required an extreme perfection in administrative operations, transport capacity and an evolved chemical industry. Fire-bombing a city of a million people would have been beyond Samory’s10 reach. The vices and virtues of nation-states are indistinguishable from their technological strength or weakness. The Japanese didn’t bomb American cities because they lacked the means to do it, whereas the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima precisely because they were the ones who invented it. In order to give it its full meaning, this most terrible of war machines had to be conceived by politicians and wise men of a so-called Christian nation. It had to be detonated for the good of all mankind. There are no Japanese, there are no Americans; there is the bomb, and there is the war, with its ever more perfect means of destruction. The peoples that accept such means are thereafter only tools, cogs in the evildoing machine. Whose fault is it? The pilot flying the plane? He didn’t drop the bomb. The bombardier? The pilot is the one who flew him into position. The general? All he did was execute the order of a superior and, in point of fact, he was sick that day: it was a subordinate who… President Truman? Roosevelt was the one who set the train in motion, and he was certainly obliged to act since Hitler fully intended… The workers? But here, too, the work was divvied up, and they had no idea they were fabricating an atomic bomb. The thing happened on its own, automatically. Who can be called responsible for it? Everyone who didn’t want to accept responsibility.
What is essential is not the ideological superstructures but the unleashing of technologies of power and the spiritual attitude that engenders them: the passivity of humankind with regard to its technologies, whether this means a lack of imagination among the masses, or the “realism” of men of action, or the idealistic evasions of intellectuals. What is essential is this technological evolution which for convenience we call Progress—and the myth of progress. Today, whichever direction we take, there can be no incarnation of thought, no social or political doctrine, but our position on this matter will define it.
For Control of Our Technologies
We must take back control of our technological means. If we don’t manage to reduce technological progress on an instrumental level—and this is the true significance of the atomic bomb—then we will perish, crushed by powers we ourselves have unleashed. God-like by way of suicide. We should learn again to think of our technologies (and even our politics—another technology) as the means they are. We must stand not against the State, or against the Machine, for this would mean recognizing in them some diabolical divinity they do not have, but against the human attitude that accepts them as an uncontrollable given, as the structure and purpose of life, and against those who confuse the power they allow us to accumulate with the perfection of humankind.
The first condition for achieving dominance over our tools, is that we become aware of the autonomy of technology in our civilization. It is the most basic possible condition but also a necessary one, so humble it doesn’t require any intellectual operation at all but only an experience of the objective situation. We must become aware not of an ideological system but of a concrete structure infiltrating our everyday life: bureaucracy, propaganda, concentration camps, wars. So long as we don’t have the humility to recognize that an ever greater part of our civilization defines itself according to increasingly cumbersome means, so long as we continue to speak of our wars, our politics, our industries as though our control over them were absolute, this debate cannot even begin.
I know how deeply unnatural this awareness is. The human spirit is instinctively loath to acknowledge its faults. It’s so much easier to think of oneself as inexorably free, and to reject a demand for freedom that begins with the oppressive revelation of one’s own servility. But if we are able to consider, without illusion, the autonomy of our technological means and the various destinies they are heir to, then the movement toward liberty will, at this very moment, already be underway. For liberty has only ever been born through an awareness of servitude. And not having control over our means is, I believe, so implicitly horrifying to the human spirit that once this fact has been recognized, the rest will follow—but this is also where the opposition will plant its feet.
The fundamental question is not whether or not the use of atomic energy will harm or benefit humanity, but whether by its use humans will ensure their own liberty or serfdom—a much easier question to answer. The immediate task is to outline to what degree these new technologies require new kinds of servility, and to try to make people aware of the dreadful problems that confront them when technology takes pride of place. The task is to question this given, which everyone accepts, without anticipating the answer. But isn’t it precisely because the question implies the answer that so many people neglect to ask it?
To become aware of something is to take note of an objective situation, and is also therefore an attempt at objectivity. But as with any attempt at objectivity, awareness can only be born through an inner experience that externalizes its object. If we fail to consider our technologies in objective terms, it’s because they give expression to one of our profoundest tendencies—which is itself cultivated, systematically, by our use of technology. Technology, machines, are nothing less than power, and a mind focused on power identifies itself with it: for such a mind to consider from the outside the effect technology might exert on humankind would therefore be impossible. Since power is the prime value, and since the bomb is a machine, it is impossible for it not to contain, potentially, some good—as universal as its explosive power.
Being aware of technology’s autonomy is therefore not a simple matter of knowing about it; awareness implies a weakening of this will to power, of this need to dominate things and people, of this activism that, for modern individuals, has taken the place of religion. Our inability to recognize the monstrous autonomy of our technologies is explained by a weakening of spiritual discipline, and our capacity to dominate these technologies will be established, likewise, to whatever extent we are able to revive a certain number of timeless values. To whatever extent we instinctively place the solitary person ahead of the masses, individual happiness ahead of collective power, perfection of the inner world ahead of mastery over the external one.
First off we must break the somewhat embarrassed silence surrounding the atomic bomb, proclaim loud and clear its fearsome significance. We must take action against this blissful stupor, which finds expression in the startled or captivated exclamations of children caught up in the heady swiftness of a race.
The first thing is to place ourselves—shockingly!—outside the technological landscape, to deem the use of the bomb the most perfect crime, and consider those who used it, be they presidents of the USA, criminals of war. It will be objected that using the bomb was necessary, and that if the Americans hadn’t used it first… And that’s exactly the response I was expecting. Necessity as excuse, together with the obligation to cross the atrocity finish line before the enemy: an excuse that tells us a great deal more about war than about the crime itself.
At stake are the lives of every single one of us, and not in the way we might have understood it before the present war: every single inhabitant of every single large city can consider themselves directly threatened with death. Citizens must therefore demand from their governments every possible information regarding this threat, and if, as some have claimed, this sort of research carries the risk of universal catastrophe, then that rumor must be refuted by providing every necessary assurance. If the danger is real, then either this work must be stopped or else we must be given all-powerful reasons, no less than absolute reasons, for why this most supreme of risks must nonetheless be run. We have every right to our say in this matter and no so-called national interest can strip us of it; it is something that concerns the whole of humanity, the great democracy of bodies, hills and continents; it represents, within the realm of political freedoms, the most fundamental of rights: the right of every person to be alive on this Earth. May our golden birds in the political aviary cease their chirping for a moment; humankind requires a moment of silence in order to receive the answer that cannot not be given them. An answer that cannot be some slogan or other about the greatness of our nation, or some quasi-philosophical riff on a paradisiacal End of Time, but rather a precise reply to an inexorably precise question. Such a threat cannot hang over our life without perverting it. In order to bear such a thing, we would have to make a deliberate decision not to think anymore. The atomic bomb poses the problem of mankind’s ability to control technology. Whoever out there is ready to conflate the search for knowledge and the instinct toward mechanization, hear me now: it is not a matter of suppressing knowledge but of controlling its practical applications. To the extent that it is a solitary affair, knowledge is free; but insofar as its practical applications transform the conditions of human life, it falls within the jurisdiction of human judgment. For while all men may not be competent to judge what’s happening in contemporary physics, they are all competent to judge the ways in which physics has upended their lives, and so in this case it is not a question of merely scientific interest but of everything that matters to humankind.
What will the rights accorded by democracy be worth, unless we at least entertain the possibility of collective control over our technologies? We may put a slip of paper in the ballot box, but actual power is reserved for a few experts and politicians. The bomb’s very existence, moreover, imposes a measure absolutely contrary to democracy: secrecy—and the more important the subject in question, the more absolute this secrecy. There is no way to permit universal access to a device that harbors such mortal power, and no way to guarantee its secrecy except by terrible and unknown means—means every bit as immediate and decisive as lightning itself. The Allied victory may well result in the reign of a minority of insiders, dominating the world on the basis of some hidden threat.
The right to vote is of course the foundation of theoretical democracy, but the foundation of real democracy is the distribution of power among all citizens: there is no freedom except where there is a minimal balance of forces. As for our civilization, what could possibly balance the forces between an empty-handed population and those few persons who possess the power to annihilate the world? For a true democrat, who wants both to have freedom and to live freely, the distribution of real powers is the essential question. I am only free when I am able to take an actual part in the workings of power; I won’t feel free until the day there is no more atomic bomb, the day I exercise my share of control—a control presided over not by the State, or by financial interests, but by people. Whatever solution we might envision, popular control over our technologies is the fundamental problem of modern democracy.
Theoretically, everyone is in agreement on this point: a technology is only as valuable as the purposes it serves. But in order for a technology to serve any purpose whatsoever, it must first of all be subordinated to it. We ought to envision a new direction for progress—a progress whose raison d’être is nothing less than humanity itself, and which must take into account the totality of human needs: the intimate union, that is, of our physical and spiritual beings.
At the most basic level, technological perfection should be a function of individual happiness and not of collective power; it is more humbly important that we possess the means to nourish and clothe mankind than the means to blow up the Earth.
Besides, this is only the simplest aspect of the question. It isn’t enough that progress feed rather than crush our bodies, it must be subject to the higher aspirations of humanity. Spiritual perfection must take precedence over happiness. Technological research and economic activity must take freedom and justice into account, and therefore technology and economics must cease to be considered in isolation from spiritual needs. We should for example make a habit of examining a given monetary system instinctively in relation to freedom. We can imagine a technological progress that aims to foster the conditions of human liberty, by giving us time, for example, rather than comfort, by looking for ways to develop our own initiative, our own power to act as individuals. Such research cannot be systematic. It can only be refined through the study of one after another concrete case. But it is revolutionary because it implies a break with the path we have followed thus far, and because it would lead to institutions, and to machines, that would not be merely more complicated or enhanced, but different.
The above calls for a certain detachment with regard to the improvement of the means of production (and destruction) that have so far been the principal characteristics of “progress.” It’s quite obvious mankind’s present misery isn’t due to an insufficiency in the means of production; if we put as many resources into bettering our material circumstances as we’ve put into waging war, we’d all be living like millionaires. The essential thing is not that we increase production, but that we ensure production reaches and serves us as individuals. Progress matters insofar as it concerns the means of distribution. The course of our technological imagination has to change.
The emphasis ought no longer be placed on innovation as such but on its usefulness in achieving human goals. If it’s going to bear fruit, an invention has to be assimilated both personally and socially, which is not the case with most of our technological creations. From now on, we should exercise our ingenuity by anticipating the consequences of our technologies, adapting them to interesting social types, transforming them in accordance with certain values—all of which will require different virtues: not analytic minds so much as synthetic ones, sensitive to the complexity of reality; a sense of imagination, a sense for what is human, a disciplined spirituality focused on the concrete. And maybe even a different rhythm, because a new technology can only be assimilated after a certain minimum of time. Then the path of progress wouldn’t be this hyperbolic curve, this slope pitched more and more toward the abyss of some vertical descent, but a majestic and regularly rising movement, the powerful and orderly path of a river, whose trajectory a pilot can anticipate and so plot the course of his vessel. Then we will be able to speak legitimately of progress, that is, of a unified growth, where the development of the body is indistinguishable from that of the spirit.
- Guido Ceronetti. The Silence of the Body, translated from the Italian by Michael Moore (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 148. ↩
- Ibid, p. 90. ↩
- Translation forthcoming—please follow us here or via one of the usual channels for updates. -Lc ↩
- The original text, as well as several other writings by and about Charbonneau are available here in French. ↩
- It was Albert Camus, in the August 8 issue of Combat (English translation here), who took the rest of the French press to task for the euphoric welcome it extended to a “scientific revolution” whose first manifestation had been an unprecedented act of carnage, indicating worse things to come. ↩
- Le Canard Enchaîné, French satirical weekly. -trans. ↩
- The MUR (Mouvements unis de la Résistance) and the UDSR (Union démocratique et socialiste de la Résistance) were political organizations, the former established during the German occupation of France, the latter only after the Allied victory in Europe. -trans. ↩
- The original text reads, mistakenly, “second,” though it’s obvious Charbonneau is referring here to the third millennium, inaugurated in the year 2000 but anticipated in 1945. ↩
- That is, members of the lunar race described by H.G. Wells in his The First Men in the Moon. -trans. ↩
- L’Almamy Samory Touré (1830?-1900) resisted French entry into and colonization of West Africa until the end of the 19th Century. ↩
Tags: Barack Obama, Bernard Charbonneau, Fate, French, Guido Ceronetti, Hiroshima, Humanity, Jacques Ellul, Louis Cancelmi, Nuclear Warfare, Personalism, Philosophy, Power, Progress, Sun Ra, Technology, The Silence of the Body, The Year 2000, Translations, Vincent La Soudière