Issue 2/2020 - Come Together!

The Last Great Comet

Reflections on Our Enlightened Existential Indifference

Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu

1. The 1976 spectacular appearance of comet West was probably the last great comet of our historical age. The comet had been discovered a few months earlier, on November 5 1975, by Danish astronomer Richard M. West in the European Southern Observatory (ESO), established in the cloudless heights of the Atacama desert at La Silla, Chile. The spectacular comet appeared a couple of years into the Pinochet dictatorship and at the beginning of the experiments with neoliberalism run by the “Chicago Boys,” which were then to be expanded in the following decades to the whole world conceived as a “global market.” For its part, ESO had been established a decade earlier through the European collaboration between France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. The “Southern” in its name stood for the Southern hemisphere of the planet, which became “European” through the acquisition of the land of the mountain La Silla from the Chilean government in 1964. The appearance of the West comet was captured with the one meter aperture of the ESO 1-m Schmidt telescope and recorded on three photographic plates.1 The comet became then highly visible to the general public at the beginning of March 1976.
The other great comets of 1556, 1577, and 1618, which made their ominous and rather frequent apparitions at the beginnings of the colonial and capitalist modernity, during times of seemingly unending wars and plagues, had generated fears and collective emotions throughout Europe, and were interpreted as signs of impending calamities of historical proportions beyond the control of mankind. The general sense associated with the sign of the comet was chaos: a world in peril. An unknown that was looming visibly over the world. In quite obvious contrast, the appearance of the West comet in 1975 was met with mild enthusiasm following its previous photographic capture. Ever since the “Newton comet” of 1680, at the dawn of the “age of reason,” such previously ominous celestial events impressed less and less the enlightened sorts of mankind, all the way to the sparse show of the announced “comet of the century” Kohoutek in 1973 and the most disappointing show of the Haley comet in 1986.
Instead of being celestial news announcing a problematic future (or any kind of future), the apparitions became delayed and quite banal news, announced in advance thanks to the calculations and prior observation through gigantic telescopes operated by highly-qualified sky gazers. Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999) and Ciprian Mureşan’s The End of the Five-Year Plan (2004), though generating collective emotions and finding humor in times of unexpected ends and uncertain futures, also signaled the reduction of celestial events to everydayness, individualization and a kind of obscene visuality, like the sensationalist headline of the Tuesday edition of a tabloid journal, always accompanied by an overly detailed photo. Even a unique planetary event such as the crash of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994 was met with the joy of astronomers who were simply happy to see this cosmic catastrophe unfold under their eyes and recorded by their optical machines.2 Seeing the image superseded the act of seeing and its human relationalities. All the possible sense is already in the image itself. And in 2009, NASA and the US military forces took it into their hands to create and watch a planetary event by bombing the Moon itself with a missile, and then crashing a satellite on its surface—in an attempt to find from the resulting visual footage whether there might be water on our natural satellite.3 The bombing of the Moon, together with asteroid impact avoidance programs like Sentry,4 do signify a tentative reversal of seemingly unshakeable power relations in Western cosmology: one could say an inflation of the modern ego to cosmic proportions. Along the way, the traditionally bad and emotional news represented by comets was converted into positive and rational thoughts, all the way to the scientific hypothesis that comet and asteroid impact may well be the origin of our biosphere, of water and life on Earth. On the 1994 PBS show about the Shoemaker-Levy 9 clash, a visibly giddy David Levy takes first a drink from a glass of water, saying “I'm going to have a drink of comet right now,” before proceeding to explain the significance “almost beyond measure” of the cosmic event. And thus, the formerly ominous celestial appearance has ended in the stomach of the modern astronomer.
This otherwise understandable evolution of the balance between reason and emotions, mediated by the fundamental visual device of the Copernican modernity—the telescope, can be turned on its head, since it also brings evidence of an instrumentalized de-sensibilization to events concerning the whole humanity and planet Earth. Bombing the Moon, beyond its purported scientific merit (and inconclusive results), carries a symbolic weight that is literally beyond measure, and brings evidence of a radical detachment from the reality of a gravitational relation, as well as from the social reality of a historical time when the power of mankind has unfortunately been defined by bombing populations from above. Beneath the sky, the modern world has perfected ways of seeing without relating, all the way to the extensive use of drone killings during the Obama administration, while being increasingly shadowed by its dark side of ecologic destruction and social divides.5 Global inequality, the world-wide division between what Frantz Fanon called “zones of being and zones of nonbeing,” and the accumulation of capital and resources dependent on the disposability of life, have increasingly defined since the late 17th century the reality of our common world, but not necessarily one's sense of the world. The latter tends to be mediated by sophisticated apparatuses of capture and representation, able to produce an image of the world that takes humanity and its horizons of change out of the world,6 as well as to materially transform the world according to such an image.
2. The ominous news of our day and age is that something is fundamentally wrong with our world. And the “wrong” is not marginal, but at the core of our way of life. Presently, we—he skyward “we” of “humanity,” which always comes with its own projections—are trying to come to terms with the fact that the ultimate consequence of our way of life is extinction. According to this perception, the civilizational model in which we are, whether we want it or not, has started with the destructive extraction of natural resources and the commercial racialization of the whole population of the world, and continues along the same path. The heart of this civilization is rotten, but there are other ontologies and modes of being in the world, that could serve as guidance and inspiration, as long as they are not uprooted and ungrounded. According to other perceptions, the wrongs of our world are essentially due to the abandonment of the enlightened Western path, either due to the state of tolerating decadence of the West, the softening of its values, and the consequent invasion of the “lesser” parts of humanity, or due to the erosion of the welfare state under neoliberalism and the abandonment of the critical emancipatory dimensions of modernity. Beyond one or the other take, it has become abundantly clear that, in spite of the enormous wealth accumulated, in spite of the technological advances and progresses made, we arguably live in times of major historical inequalities, widespread violence, and either arbitrary rule or generalized waste of the remaining commons. There have never been so many hungry and impoverished people on Earth, even though we are still far from over-populating it.7
We already know the probable causes of our destruction of life and society on Earth. We know that we have to move away from unhinged extractivism and to stop burning in each 24-hours news-cycle millions of years-worth of dinosaur fossils. As a civilization running mostly on fossil fuels, our saturnian world is consuming unprecedented quantities of materialized time, including times past and future. And we even know that life on Earth could wither away as soon as by the end of our century, if global temperature raises with 3–4 Celsius degrees.
Yet knowledge does not seem to be enough and may not lead to significant change. Something is not connecting. There is still no measurable response to the challenge of such news of cosmological proportions. While we know very well that what we are doing is based on the destruction of the Earth, we just keep on doing it and even enjoying it every day—in the comfort of our economic growth and advanced technologies, within the relative homogeneity and tamed differences of our societies and nuclear families. Even if life on Earth itself might be in danger, the death drives and habitual dependencies wrought in the “long durée” of the modern world may just be too strong to resist. It is as if the dark side of modernity has reached a new degree of intensity, that one might call the enlightened existential indifference. And the enlightened existential indifference, which could be defined as a form of superior being that implies a general denial of relationality, dwells in cohabitation with apparent contradictions such as the outright denial of climate change, or other similar and connected social phenomena, such as the re-claiming of xenophobia and racism.
This might happen because existential indifference tends to favor mechanisms of mediating perception that operate with “isologic systems” like the musical sign, for which the sense (or rather the signified) takes no other materialization than the signifier itself.8 The hardware-driven and technology-driven contemporary culture industries tend to be dominated by isologic systems. In modern regimes of visibility, the technical image of isologic systems is blended into seeing,9 so that the act of seeing turns away from the world and dwells in the technical image itself. In so doing, such gestures enact a process of reducing the world to an encompassed projection surveyed from above, against the way the world is given in human experience. In the latter, the world appears fundamentally as a plurality, opening like the horizon into undeterminable differences. Reality includes the unknown. In the former: the European observatory from Atacama eliminates the horizon of the world and its mediating clouds, and plunges straight into the night sky, indifferent to the visions and histories of the mountain it sits atop; the Hubble telescope eliminates the Earth itself and the distortions of its atmosphere in order to capture the purest of images (even though it remains in a gravitational relation to the Earth). A telling example in the same sense, one that goes in the other direction of the vertical axis, is the white masculine gaze of US film-maker James Cameron, the creator of the immersive 3D movie Avatar, who spent a fortune in order to experience the seeing equivalent of the colonial act of “discovery and conquest,” by commissioning the construction of a phallic-shaped submersible with visual apertures and cameras that allowed him to go the farthest away from humanity, penetrating the deepest depth of the ocean in order to see what no other human has seen: the empty bottom of the Marianne trench.10
Isologic systems make no particular sense (as opposed to things like the phrase a comet has appeared on the sky, which makes me look up). Instead, they produce a proliferation of metalanguages competing for attachment in spite of their arbitrariness. And there is no organic togetherness of arbitrary things. The search for meaning produces in such cases a false sense of importance, or of working at the level of concepts, whereas what takes place is a slippery flight of ever accumulating metalanguages, often sustained by costly investments in “realism,” as in the examples given above. Such investments keep on “de-worlding” the world, i.e. moving away from the radically manifold character of reality, of its multiple modes of being, while positing an exceptional difference: the one of the observer. For the xenophobe or racializing subject, trafficking in isologic systems involves the attachment to indirect speech and discriminating actions, which are motivated by the temporary attachment to a particular set of metalanguage, which is set against other metalanguages, thus dealing with difference and denying reality; not accidentally, this often takes the cultural form of a conspiracy, which is in itself a metalanguage disguised as theory. For the enlightened existential indifference, there is really no difference ultimately between metalanguages and grounded reflection (with a particular history to tell), and potentially there is no unknown: difference is accepted but neutralized, while histories and the world itself, i.e. the ultimate ground of critical reflection, matters in the least.
3. In Nicoleta Esinencu’s play The Abolition of the Family (Die Abschaffung der Familie, HAU Berlin, 2019) there is no place for existential indifference. The world is everything that matters, rather than “everything that is the case.” Although highly personal, the play also finds its own way to speak to “those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts”11. The Moldovan playwright joined forces with Antosea Darca, Elena Anmeghichean, Cătălina Bucos, Doina-Romanța Dochitan, Nora Dorogan, Ciprian Marinescu, Kira Semionov, Elena Sîrbu, Doriana Talmazan and Artiom Zavadovsky, in order to bring to the visibility of a German stage (in this case) the intimate life of Moldovan nuclear families, particularly the histories of women during state socialism and after its fall, and to pronounce from this platform a damning indictment of the wrongs of our world, particularly of the harm caused by patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. The play starts with a sound montage bringing out the familiar soundbites of internet calls without answers. The montage sounds familiar to migrants and non-migrants alike, but is evoking different memories. It sounds particularly emotional to Moldovans, where every nuclear family and one out of every three people has been displaced by the circuits of migrant labor, with enormous consequences for the life of families and the local social histories. The contemporary distance between parents and children is thus introduced, from a barely known past to an unknown future. The montage is followed by the first ritualic incantation, from a series of cursing rituals interspersed with the very personal testimonies of the performers: “we invoke the spirits of our mothers and grandmothers” in order to curse monogamy. The play plunges deep into the emotional stories of mother-daughter relations, of the histories of mothers within their families and in their social dealings, evoking weak and powerful, young and old, working and retired, married and divorced, sick and healthy women, and the ways an officially emancipated society and its institutions treat women inside and outside their assigned roles. The wrecking of humanity on display is devastating, but it is more than matched by the abundant testimonies of transgression, by the depth of emotional attachments, the sharpness of critical reflection, and by the togetherness created between the performers. In between their individual testimonies, the performers are joining together in rituals cursing the ravaging forces of monogamy, the state, the police, capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, or the corporations. Kitchen and household objects become instruments of ritualic cursing, mobilizing against the bad omens that are already inscribed onto the social body. The performers, appearing here in the tail of their mothers, are grounding themselves to the utmost by making their mothers the subjects of both personal and social history, and in so doing they are claiming the resuscitation of humanity in and around them. They are criticizing social history from their experiences, while loudly asking for liberation at cosmic proportions. At the end, Nicoleta Esinencu pronounces the “interior monologue” of her anxiety, that by this time has become an embodied and committed personal and social consciousness, asking for nothing less than the “abolition of all the pains” of her mother.
The peripheral Moldovan histories appeared thus on the Western stages like the tail of a comet, coming steady from its own itinerary, announcing a visible unknown, and claiming a major change. The significance of its particular stories is reaching towards the horizons of humanity itself. And maybe the biggest challenge against the desired change are not only the projections of earthlings who may think of it as a foreign body and ominous sign, but also its integration as delayed yet familiar news. In fact, such a rare appearance is what gives us all the time to act.



1 For images of the comet West see and
2 See the television program The Great Comet Crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, PBS, 1994.
3 On the LCROSS mission see
4 Sentry, Earth Impact Monitoring:
5 Walter Mignolo, Local Histories / Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000.
6 See “The Existence of the World Is Always Unexpected”, Jean-Luc Nancy in conversation with John Paul Ricco, translated by Jeffrey Malecki, in Heather Davis, Etienne Turpin (eds.), Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, Open Humanities Press, London, 2015, pp. 86ff.
7 See Jason Hickel, The Divide. A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, William Heinemann, London, 2017.
8 Roland Barthes introduced in 1964 the notion of isology in his “Classification of the linguistic signifieds!: “We could give the name of isology to the phenomenon whereby language wields its signifiers and signifieds so that it is impossible to dissociate and differentiate them, in order to set aside the case of the non-isologic systems (which are inevitably complex), in which the signified can be simply juxtaposed with its signifier.” (Elements of Semiology, Hill and Wang, 1968)
9 Ivan Illich, The Scopic Past and the Ethics of the Gaze (1998),
10 See the documentary James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge (John Bruno, Ray Quint, Andrew Wight, 2014).
11 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preface, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Kegan Paul, London, 1922.