This What World Like Now

As usual, the Onion is out in front in making sense of the senseless:

BOSTON—After Monday’s horrific terror attack at the Boston Marathon that killed three and left hundreds injured, officials confirmed Tuesday that the bombings and senseless violence that followed occurred primarily because this is the kind of world we live in now.

According to reports, this is an age when, in an instant, two explosions can go off in rapid succession in a major urban center, disrupt the lives of thousands, and terrify hundreds of millions. In addition, those familiar with the situation went on to note that going through one’s day-to-day life with the uneasy feeling that a devastating act of violence could happen with little rhyme or reason is “just how it is now.”

Sources later confirmed that people crying, blood-spattered roads, and complete and total chaos are how the current world works and will continue to work for the foreseeable future. (,32068/, accessed 21 April 2013)

There are all sorts of ways we in the Boston area and far beyond are trying to make sense of the senseless right now.  We are piecing together the sequence of events of the last week and its implications for emergency response, security, and law enforcement. We are piecing together what we are learning about the murderers and their motivations.  (The Onion: “Study: Majority Of Americans Not Informed Enough To Stereotype Chechens.”)

Back of them lies the larger question of what all this has to tell us about the world we live in. The Onion, in its sidebars, has a list of BREAKING stories, including “Can Anyone Ever Truly Know Anything? What Is the Truth?” and “Has the Word ‘Breaking’ Lost Its Meaning?”

When it comes to events like those of the past week, we are all historians. We now share a story of a sequence of events (explosions, rescue, manhunt, death and capture) that is already the stuff of legend as a thrilling account of danger and heroism. At the same time we are trying to understand these events as part of a larger pattern.  In this sense too we are all historians, trying to understand  “how the current world works and will continue to work for the foreseeable future.”  To do this we need some sense of how the current world relates to that of past, how it seems different, how it seems similar, and how the world seems to be changing: in other words, a sense of history.

Most of us have grown up with the assumption that history follows a pattern of progress, both social and more lately especially technological, based on human domination of the planet.  But we are beginning to see more and more that this domination—the empire of the human—has also created conditions of ongoing, interactive crises (what follows is from the last chapter of The Triumph of Human Empire):

The triumph of human empire carries with it a tragic sense of its inevitable ending. It is hard to imagine an alternative for human empire, but it is not hard to imagine that it will collapse. Human empire appears invincible in the short run and unsustainable in the long run.

            The experience of crisis as an indwelling condition, containing its own aftermath, increasingly dominates our historical lifeworld.  Crisis, in this sense, is not a potentially world-ending cataclysm, such as a meteorite strike, nor is it a serious but solvable problem, such as episodic shortages of food, water, or energy. The crises that seem most threatening today are in the middle range, involving processes initiated by humans but, once underway, not necessarily controllable by us….

In our new historical condition, crisis is no longer imminent, out there on some future horizon, but has become immanent, incorporated into ongoing history. In the words of Frank Kermode (in his book The Sense of an Ending), “the older, sharply predictive apocalypse, with its precise identification, has been blurred; eschatology is stretched over the whole of history, the End is present at every moment.”  Just as local and global space seem to converge in the condition of human empire, so do immediate and distant time. The end of history dwells in the present as a rolling apocalypse.

From this perspective, history is already and always ending. Human life goes on, sometimes happily, sometimes not, but always in the context of a disappearing world: blown-off mountaintops in West Virginia, desiccated marshes in southern Iraq, toppled neighborhoods in Beijing, dried-up waterfalls, extinct species, extinct civilizations. It is no longer only supposedly untamed savages and untrodden wilderness to which we bid farewell. More familiar peoples and things are disappearing all the time.

We do not have to wait for the last fish in the ocean to die, nor the last tree in the forest to be felled, to see the end coming. It is here and now and all around, as we look back to our home island and realize we cannot discern it anymore. Its end may be experienced as a loss of physical habitat, or as a loss of social coherence and predictability. In the words of one Russian citizen, responding to an especially vicious criminal attack in her country, “I think the end of the world has already arrived in this land.”

That comment was made after the recent acid-throwing attack on the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. It could also be made by a citizen of Boston, who never imagined she or he would see the finish line of the Boston Marathon, this wonderful civic celebration, held for over a century, ending in bombs, shrapnel, blood, and death.  One of today’s front-page articles in the Boston Globe refers to “the emerging stories of survivors and their saviors [that] still resonate, each tale its own vivid apocalyptic world.”  We are also writing the story of the rolling apocalypse of our shared historical world.

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