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Letters to the editors

Vol. 3, NO. 4 / February 2018

To the editors:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone… please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
Donald Trump, Twitter, January 3, 2018

In November 1947, two years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began publishing a biannual global threat assessment, the doomsday clock. After the election of US President Donald Trump, the clock was set to two and a half minutes to midnight—the second closest margin to global catastrophe since its inception. As of January 2018, it seems quite obvious that the doomsday clock might still run backwards. But time is running out. This has been the trend has been since 1995. Notwithstanding the new historic threat level, most media outlets do not seem to express concern beyond reporting the personalized and quasi-comic Twitter squabbles of Trump and his North Korean counterpart. Squabbles, it should be noted, that have with potentially deadly outcomes.

For all these reasons, Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s reflections on historical determinism are highly relevant. But without pondering on a divinely controlled world, von Clausewitz’s escalation to the extreme still seems highly convincing in a world whose bombs are in the hands of a fully assumed irrationality. With Trump’s reactive politics, one might even drop the temporal dimension of the escalation for a more probable outburst to the extreme. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not preceded by threats, they occurred as a historical disruption.

There is a profound difference between Nixon’s strategic madness and Trump’s factual madness. To be considered mad, according to Nixon’s definition, is anyone who “might do anything” to stop, or in this case to start the war. Madness slips into the rationally orientated world of politics as that residue of uncertainty with which anything could happen at any given moment. McNamara’s appraisal of the avoidance of the nuclear holocaust might never have been so true. We might luck out. Or, we might not. And this is, indeed, horrifying.

Dupuy makes a strong point in terms of the temporal logic of necessity when he invokes Günther Anders’s parabola of biblical Noah’s avoidance strategy. By staging a mourning in advance for the future victims of the divine judgment, Anders’s Noah tries to stir up a movement against the future necessity of the catastrophe. This seems theoretically convincing, but Anders’s strategy already seemed too abstract and idealistic when originally published in the 1970s. It supposed a change in general conscience could be sufficient to bring about a global change for a better world.

Anders knew that an enlightened conscience is no guarantee of a change for the better. This uncomfortable discovery had been the preoccupation of most of the research projects undertaken at the Frankfurt School under Max Horkheimer during the 1930s. Rather than the unworldly idealized powers of insight, it is the subtle fatalism of Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that seems more appropriate to explain the political situation in the light of Trump’s victory and presidency.

Even if we accept Anders’s idealistic conception of technology, the threat of nuclear war seems more accurately described by his technological imperative than by the temporal logic of modality. “Act so that the maxim of your action,” Anders remarked, “could be that of the apparatus of which you are or will be part.”1

Thierry Simonelli

Jean-Pierre Dupuy replies:

Thierry Simonelli refers to Günther Anders, one of the most profound thinkers on the nuclear menace, and one of my models. Simonelli has written an excellent book about Anders, which I cite in my essay. It is a great shame that Anders’s work remains little known in English-speaking countries and that his major writings have never been translated into English.

  1. Günther Anders, Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution, 4th edn. (Munich: Beck, 1995). 

Thierry Simonelli holds doctorates in philosophy and psychology and is a member of the Psychoanalytic Society of Luxembourg.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy is Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Philosophy at the École Polytechnique in Paris and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

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