Blog post

A smart world for irremediably idiotic inhabitants

Marina Garcés lays out the need for critical dissent as a new beginning for the humanities in apocalyptic times.

4 June 2024

A smart world for irremediably idiotic inhabitants

Today’s world is radically anti-enlightenment. If Kant declared in 1784 that European societies were then in a time of Enlightenment, we could say that now, throughout the planet, we are in a time of anti-enlightenment. Kant used the term in a dynamic sense. The Enlightenment was not a state but a task. The same goes for our time. The anti-enlightenment is not a state but a war.

The faces of this anti-enlightenment war are many and multiplying by the day. In the political domain, a growing authoritarian impulse has turned despotism and violence into a new mobilising force. It is often called populism, but this is a confusing term. What we have is a new authoritarianism permeating society as a whole. In the cultural realm, defensive and offensive identities are triumphing. White Western Christianity is doubling down on its values while also unleashing anti-Western rage in many parts of the world, and even in Western critical thought, which rejects its own genealogy. 

In all quarters, fascination with the premodern is triumphing: everything that existed ‘before’ was better. As Zygmunt Bauman explains in his posthumous book Retrotopia, this is a search for refuge in utopias projected onto an idealised past, from tribal life to eulogising any form of precolonial life, for the mere fact of being so. Today, education, knowledge, and science are also falling into disrepute, from which they can escape only if they show that they are able to offer specific solutions to society: employment solutions, technical solutions, economic solutions.

Solutionism is the cover for knowledge that has lost the power to make us better, both as individuals and as a society. We no longer believe in knowledge, which is why we ask for solutions and nothing but solutions. We do not think about bettering ourselves but only about obtaining more and more privileges in a time that is going nowhere because it has given up aiming at a better future.

The anti-enlightenment war legitimises a social, cultural, and political regime that is based on voluntary credulousness. In his famous essay What Is Enlightenment?, Kant speaks of man’s ‘self-incurred immaturity’. Today, instead of this ‘minority of age’ (Minderjährigheit), what we have is an adult – or, rather, senile – society that is cynically willing to believe or pretend to believe whatever is in its best interest at any given time. The media call this post-truth, but this is also a ‘retrotopian’ term because it suggests that truth is what we have left behind, in some better past. There was not more truth or less truth in the past. Rather, there are different ways of combatting the credulity that oppresses people in different epochs. We need to find our own particular way of combatting the system of credulousness in our own time. 

Our present impotence has a name: enlightened illiteracy. We know everything but can do nothing. With all of humanity’s knowledge at our beck and call, we can only slow down or speed up our fall into the abyss. The radical Enlightenment was a battle against credulousness, trusting that human nature could become emancipated and improve itself. Its weapon: criticism. 

We must not confuse this radically critical option with the project of modernisation which, with the expansion of capitalism and by means of colonialism, has dominated the world for the last three centuries. There is a gap between the ‘civilising’ project of domination and the critical option of emancipation, which needs to be explored anew. After the Second World War, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their famous epitaph on the present in Dialectic of Enlightenment: ‘Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.’

Ever since then, Enlightenment and calamity have been understood as almost synonymous terms. But this identification contains another one: ‘liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters’ is asserted to be the same thing. But is that really the case? Given the present magnitude of the calamity, which has brought the human species itself to the limits of sustainability, perhaps the time has come to unravel the implications of this statement and this twofold identification. That all liberation leads to even more terrible forms of domination, and that every form of knowledge mobilises new power relations are truisms but so, too, is the reactionary argument used to condemn any radical project to transform the world and to encourage the personal and collective desire for emancipation. We have therefore come to accept as dogma the irreversibility of catastrophe. 

And this is why, beyond modernity – which designed a future for everyone – and postmodernity – which celebrated an inexhaustible present for each person – our epoch is that of the posthumous condition. We survive, pitted against each other, in a time that only subtracts. What if we dared to think, once again, about the relationship between knowledge and emancipation? They seem to be hackneyed, naïve words, but this is precisely the demobilising effect that the powers-that-be are pursuing today as they ridicule our capacity for educating ourselves so we can construct, together, a more habitable and just world. We are offered all kinds of salvation gadgets, in the form of technology and discourse on demand. Leaders and flags. Acronyms. Bombs. This sets us off on projects of delegated intelligence, in which we can finally be as stupid as we humans have shown we are because the world and its leaders will be intelligent for us. A smart world for irremediably idiotic inhabitants.

We are no longer bogged down in the dialectics of enchantment and disenchantment which stained with shadows the culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We are on the verge of surrender: surrender of the human race in the face of the task of learning and educating ourselves in order to live with greater dignity. Faced with this surrender, I propose that we should think about a new radical enlightenment, resume the battle against credulousness, and affirm the freedom and dignity of the human experience in its capacity to learn from itself. In its day, this struggle was revolutionary. Now it is necessary. Then, its light shone as an expansive and promising, invasive, and dominating universal. Now, in the planetary era, we can learn to conjugate a reciprocal and welcoming universal.

— An edited excerpt from New Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy for a Common World by Marina Garcés. Translated by Julie Wark.

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New Radical Enlightenment

New Radical Enlightenment

Philosophy was born out of discussion, out of the rivalry between world views. From the philosophical ferment of the Enlightenment arose the idea of emancipation, a conflictual perspective which Ma...

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