The Shadow that the Future Throws
Text based on a conversation between Nathan Gardels and Ivan Illich in 1989
Now, nearly two decades [after 1969] later, a woeful sense of imbalance has dawned on the common sense.
The destruction of the ozone layer, the heating up of the earth’s atmosphere, the non-reversible and progressive depletion of genetic variety, the ability to discuss what shall be a human being through genetic intervention – all these things bring to consciousness, even to a non-philosophically inclined intelligent official of the World Bank, that we now face the banquet of consequences of our Promethean transgression.
There is a generalized sense now that the future we expected does not work and that we are in front of what Michel Foucault called an “epistemic break”: a sudden image-shift in consciousness in which the once unthinkable becomes thinkable. For example, it was simply not thinkable that a king could be beheaded up until the French Revolution. Then, suddenly, there was a new way of seeing, a new form of language that could speak about such things.
For most of the Cold War, atomic bombs were commonly considered as weapons. People like myself were little understood in our arguments that such bombs were literally unspeakable; that, epistemically, they are not within the realm of speech because they are not weapons, but acts of self- annihilation.
It is no longer tolerable to the common sense to think of nuclear bombs as weapons, or of pollution as the price of development. The disintegrating ozone layer and warming atmosphere are making it intolerable to think of more development and industrial growth as progress, but rather as aggression against the human condition. It is now imaginable to the common mind that, as Samuel Beckett once said, “this earth could be uninhabited.”
So, what is different than when I first wrote about Nemesis is that the common sense is also searching for a language to speak about the shadow which the future throws. What is new is not the magnitude, nor even the quality, but the very essence of the coming shift in consciousness. It is not a break in the line of progress to a new stage; it is not even the passage from one dimension to another. Mathematically, we can only describe it as a catastrophic break with industrial man’s image of himself.
Now, nearly four decades later…