Sociological notes on the end of the world

Image: Berk Ozdemir


Denialism is not a social aberration, but a predictable phenomenon of a segmented society that is no longer able to provide meaning to life

The end of times is a concern of human beings since they began to mark their own time. The battle between the armies that appears in the Apocalypse has lately given way in the social imagination to a technological or spatial devastation, with collisions of celestial bodies that could end life on Earth. Great chronological milestones can be moments when these feelings surface. The year 2000 generated some distress. Not by chance, in 1998, the North American industry produced two films with the same theme: Deep Impact by Mimi Leder and Armageddon by Michael Bay, to raise the self-esteem of the average American with endless clichés.

If there were apocalyptic fears in kabbalistic dates like the year 2000, now we have the figure of the plague, which appears in the figure of Covid-19. don't look up Adam McKay's also puts an asteroid on a collision course with the blue planet, as do the two films mentioned above. McKay did not intend to make a work of art and his debate is rooted in current North American (and world) problems: denialism and the harmful impact that social networks have had and have had on human interactions. And denialism, in the film, can end the world. Therefore, the film is a manifesto in support of science and against obscurantism. But not only. It is also an anti-political manifesto.

Denial of science has evidently caused many problems and, despite resulting in deaths, has even been used as a political tool. Therefore, denialism is the cause of serious problems. But wouldn't it also be a consequence of something? Using the film's metaphor: it is not the denial of science that can bring about the end of the world, but it is the collective feeling that the world has ended that generates the denial of science and other fundamental certainties. Understanding that denialism is not a social aberration, but a predictable phenomenon of a segmented society that is no longer able to provide meaning to life is one of the objectives of this text. The other is to argue that the way people have tried to combat this phenomenon is totally useless.

Denialism can be understood as the refusal of the speech considered true, given by the great authority of the historical period. Science has reached a very high degree of legitimacy in our time: the evidence for what it says is everywhere, the problems it points out are noticed when ignored, and the benefits are enjoyed when acquired. But then why the hell are there denialists? Why do some people refuse to see the glaring obvious?

One of the scenes from don't look up is particularly interesting: when the scientist played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr. Randall Mindy talks with Bash manager Peter Isherwell, played by Mark Rylance, about the plan to detonate the asteroid, in the presence of US President Orlean, played by Meryl Streep. In this scene, one of the main rituals of science appears, the peer review, which is defended by Mindy, while Isherwell passes over this “scientific sacrament” as if it were irrelevant. Because the state has not listened to science, the world is blown up at the end of the film. The message is the following: ill-fated politics cannot interfere with science and should listen to it first.

By the way, let it be clear: perhaps this could even be ideal for achieving some objectives, but we are not in a position to decide. Ideally, politics and the market should not interfere with the results of scientific studies. However, science is one more of humanity's ways of thinking and is also loaded with ethical conceptions and worldviews. Science historians show how much conceptions of the world (and even religious conceptions) influenced paradigms of current scientific fields, such as, for example, biology. Not even the most neutral observation of enzymes or the study of the circumference that electrons make can be exempt from human values. But the film tries to give the viewer that certainty: it tries to defend that, leaving everything in the hands of the scientists, everything will go well because the decision will be technical and, therefore, beyond human error.

The film (and all discourses regarding the fight against obscurantism) escapes the fact that the discourse of science is also a discourse of authority and, as an authority discourse, it imposes limits, constraints, changes in behavior and beliefs. But if trust is not being allocated in the scientific field, where is the problem? “Lack of education”, some will say. But there is nothing more wrong than this conclusion. This is by no means a data deficit. The most ardent deniers of scientific data often know the data they deny better than those who believe in them.

It is about the search for a different narrative, a demand that this set of discourses meets. We are not in the rational sphere, we are in the sphere of feelings and values: there are desires, values ​​and beliefs that make individuals cling to other arguments to explain the world. known to Cambridge Analytica helped to elect Donald Trump not based on reliable data from reality, but rather, with the deliberate combination of values ​​associated with him with fears, afflictions, anguish specific to each Facebook profile. And these profiles of denial, which are the profiles of hate, are also the profiles of anguish. But where does this modern angst that we see intensifying come from?

Nas Philippine Ordinances, banishment to Africa and Brazil was among Portugal's most severe punishments. One of the crimes punished with banishment was to attack God, the great moral authority of the time. Priests could ask themselves at the time: why does this contingent of people not accept the glory of God, when it is possible to notice it everywhere? Perhaps because, for various disruptive social reasons, this explanation no longer gave meaning to these people's lives and they needed to look for other alternatives for existence.

And it should be noted that the Catholic Portuguese God of the centuries of expansion enjoyed more possibilities to offer meaning to life than science, for the simple fact that the rationalization of the world removes the meaning of things, desecrates the world. The retreat of the great millennial certainties, the impossibility of explaining the world, existence, life itself brings with it the feeling of emptiness and anguish. In short, melancholy.

Max Weber was the first thinker to elaborate this reasoning in a more blunt way: when you remove fantastic explanations, you remove the meaning of the world. After all, if things happen simply by a shock, an explosion, a random photosynthesis, there is nothing special in existence. Therefore, there is this first disturbing fact that comes with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century: reason intrinsically brings anguish.

On the other hand, there is another problem, which is not about the form of knowledge of our times, but the very sociability of modernity: how the social relations of capitalist society, characterized by the social division of labor, take place. And all the classics of sociology agree on this: Weber, but also Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim. The old forms of social organization were destroyed by the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. And what was put in its place? The factory system and, more modernly, the company. And besides that, in the XNUMXst century, we have the impression that the possibility of historical action is blocked and that utopia has woken up to clock in and is as far away as the paradisiacal beaches of Australia are from that family of the seventh continent by Michael Haneke, from 1989, submerged in the boredom and disgust of everyday life, which can only glimpse its end in poison.

Before the advent of modernity, although at the service of masters, some institutions played a central role in people's psychological economy. Even if oppressive, the old craft guilds, the Church and the relationships between individuals indicated, on the one hand, their fixed places in society, however, on the other hand, they provided considerable stability in the symbolic sphere. Bourgeois economic and political revolutions destroyed these ancient ties and plunged individuals into an even greater nightmare than a predetermined lifetime could sound like. The promises of emancipation for all of humanity have become a reality for just a fraction of society that enjoys the astonishing technological advances that have made material life easier than any other type of economic system.

As Albert Camus says, we are modern Sisyphus, uselessly carrying a stone to the top of a mountain so that it falls again and we have to raise it again. What is the feeling of modern work? What's the point of making someone rich who will never be content with your performance? And this will be repeated, day after day. What are the scientific arguments that will explain it? What is the rationality that will justify the astonishing social injustice? Now, in the face of the despair of emptiness and inconsistency, there is no reason that prevails. And these are the feelings and demands that the extreme right, like a therapist says, can help overcome.

Of the worlds destroyed by celestial bodies, I prefer that of Melancholia, filmed by Lars von Trier in 2011. Unlike the asteroid about 10 km from don't look up, in the apocalyptic version of Trier, it is a huge planet, much larger than Earth, blue like it, which was hidden behind the sun and is on a collision course with Earth. At the beginning it is shown, in super slowmontion, our planet being swallowed by the Melancholia, which in psychiatry has already been the disorder characterized by despondency, a feeling of impotence, by the suffering caused by the absence of meaning in life.

The first part of the film does not deal with any science fiction phenomenon: on the contrary, it shows the wedding celebration of Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. Relationships are presented as superficial, sometimes not very friendly and almost always as a demand: that Justine be happy. John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, arrives to demand that Justine be happy due to the high price of the party. It's the world of financial arrangements. But Justine's happiness cannot be bought, the marriage falls apart on its first celebration and she is not happy. On the contrary, in a scene at the end of the first part, her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, sees her “taking a bath of Melancholia”, that is, it is naked, receiving the lights of the giant planet. It is as if he finally accepted the true essence of the modern world we live in: that it will be destroyed by the impossibility of anything other than melancholy.

In a somewhat inhuman tone of hyper-realism (the world would end in a few hours), Justine tells her sister that “the Earth is evil. We don't need to cry for her. No one will miss her.” She is the voice of reason. Claire takes her son and wants to carry him somewhere safe, but there is no: Melancholia it's so much bigger than our planet that it's going to wipe out every part of it. However, there is an internal, desperate rhetoric in Claire's reasoning: for her, it is not possible that we will all leave for non-existence, in that way, inexplicable and meaningless. And her desperation makes her wander, staggering, trying to save the indefensible. And, in the end, what makes his son die in peace is the “magic cave” created by his aunt and himself with twigs from the forest.

The creations of alternative narratives (such as denialism) are like Claire's despair: the agony of noticing the impending destruction of a world. Claire cannot accept the incongruity of a world that will simply explode. He will “astrophysically” explode. And that is all. As well as the possibilities to exist and fulfill themselves as individuals are barred. They simply are. And they are barred by the materiality and “grotesqueness” of imprisoning social relations.

By the way, that's not all: there is also the possibility of total destruction of the planet. It is not restricted here to the allegory about the internal possibilities of creating a world, but the planet itself. Leonardo DiCaprio, a great environmental activist, is right to want to warn about the approach of the cataclysm that man himself has provoked. But the bet don't look up it resides in a very particular effort on something that is, in reality, a product of something structural and much bigger. Bringing scientific evidence to someone who does not accept the authority of science is like demanding that FIFA recognize the Boston RedSox titles.

Every time scientists talk about the need to “raise awareness”, “clarify” about how things really are, they are pouring gasoline on the fire. It is not – and never was – that people did not understand something, it is a positive rejection of a reality that emotionally requires another explanation. (Particularly because refusing the predominant arguments about life and death can mean being alive for these people; perhaps being more alive than the mortifying routine of our bourgeois society.)

As long as we refuse to understand the phenomenon of denialism as a side effect of social structures that are there suffocating dreams and desires and demanding passive obedience in the demeaning order of society, we will be the denialists. And worse: while we believe that scientific neutrality will indisputably tell us where we should go, we will be more than denialists, we will be childish – in the worst sense of the term. There is no neutrality that can justify the world as it has configured itself, and the answer to that is political and moral. Or else we'll be watching the giant planet approaching to swallow us and resigned with Claire's despair.

But, as already mentioned, it was not Claire's despair that caused the collision between Earth and Earth. Melancholia (as Adam McKay's film makes you believe), it was the opposite: the intimate destruction caused by the probable clash with Melancholia which made Claire wander in search of salvation in other domains, in the real world almost always taken by fascist narratives. All Claires will roam indefinitely as long as this is the reality we have. And what are we doing with regard to this gigantic planet that takes away our peace? Basically ignoring it. Perhaps it is less disturbing to suggest that we need to correct some specific route error than to think of ourselves as a society, what its economic and political system has produced.

*Rafael Mantovani is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). Book author Modernizing order in the name of health: the São Paulo of military, poor and slaves (1805-1840) (Fiocruz).


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