Idea 6 Horrology — study of the self-destructive mechanisms of civilization by Mikhail Epstein

Key words: terror, horror, technology, ciliization, destruction, humanities

Horrology is the study of the self-destructive mechanisms of civilization, which make it susceptible to all forms of terrorism, including its biological and technological forms. Horrology explores how any accomplishment of civilization can be used against it, as a means for its subversion. So many forms of technology can put humanity at risk that practically any of them deserves its own horrological study. The atomic bomb is one of them. Albert Einstein was deeply shocked and saddened when his famous equation E=mc was finally demonstrated in the most awesome and terrifying way by using the bomb to destroy Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. For a long time he could only utter “Horrible, horrible”.

Terror is usually defined as violence, or threats of violence, used for intimidation and coercion; often, terror is carried out for political purposes. In its turn, horror as a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay is caused by terror. Etymologically, horror is derived from the Latin word horrere, meaning “to bristle with fear”. It would be more appropriate to relate terror and horror not as an act and a reaction to that act, but as the actual and the potential. Horror is caused by the possibility of terror even more than by actual terror. It is known that illness can cure at least one thing—the fear of getting ill. Horror is incurable because it is not the fear of illness, but the illness of fear itself.

If the fear of pollution—civilization’s threat to nature—haunted the second half of the twentieth century, then the twenty-first century may fall prey to another type of horror—the threats of civilization to itself. Ecology, as the primary concern of humanity, is succeeded by horrology that explores civilization as a system of traps and self-exploding devices, and humankind as a hostage of its own creations.

For example, after 9/11, it is possible to speak of the horrology of aviation and the horrology of architecture (or sky-scrapers). Consider also the threat posed to civilization by self-replicating machines and nano-devices, as described in the “hell” scenario by Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, and rendered by Joel Garreau in his book Radical Evolution:

“Robots more intelligent than humans could reduce the lives of their creators to that of pathetic zombies…. Unlike nuclear weapons, these horrors could make more and more of themselves. Let loose on the planet, the genetically engineered pathogenes, the superintelligent robots, the tiny nanotech assemblers and of course the computer viruses could create trillions more of themselves, vastly more unstoppable than mosquitoes bearing the worst plagues”[1].

An archetype of such endless and self-destructive productivity is the magic pot from the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm: the porridge that came pouring out of it began to fill the kitchen, the house, the yard, the street, the town, and potentially the entire world. The more productive a system, the more potentially destructive it becomes in the age of advanced technologies, these “magic pots” of today. As an example, it is possible to speak of the horrology of the Internet, focusing on the spread of viruses in computer networks. Viruses do not spread in telephones or TV networks; it is much more powerful electronic connections that fall easy prey to such misorganisms (to use the same prefix as in the words mistake and misunderstanding). As was shown with the newest Macbook laptops, a hacker can hijack the firmware to render a battery useless, or worse, turn off the temperature management to make it potentially explode; thus, a laptop potentially becomes a bomb ready to explode in our hands.

This self-destructive potential of the hyperactive Western civilization was clearly foreseen by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early nineteenth century. Though often misrepresented as social utopia, the second part of his Faust testifies to quite the opposite. The activity of Faust as a social reformer and “civilization builder” culminates in his constructing a new city at the shore that is forcefully won from the sea. Faust dreams of settling a new world “on acres free among free people”, and with this last effort he savors his “striving’s crown and sum”:

I might entreat the fleeting minute:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!

Faust, lines 11581–2

However, Mephistopheles, who had instigated Faust to this feat, makes a sarcastic note behind the back of his blind and half-deaf patron:

For us alone you are at pains

With all your dikes and moles; a revel

For Neptune, the old water-devil,

Is all you spread, if you but knew.

You lose, whatever your reliance—

The elements are sworn to our alliance,

In ruin issues all you do.

Faust, lines 11544–50

Such is Goethe’s vision of the master terror, whose executor turns out to be “the sea devil” Neptune himself, or Mephistopheles’ brother. Terror is not a chaotic destructive action against civilization, but an ironic accomplishment of the latter’s own catastrophic potential.

Horrology as a dicipline is the reverse of all other disciplines, it is a negative science of civilization: hence nega–technology, nega–architecture, nega-sociology, nega-politics, and nega-aesthetics as branches of horrology. Everything studied by other disciplines as positive attributes and structural properties of civilization, horrology studies as a growing possibility of its self-destruction.

[1] Garreau, Joel. Radical evolution: The promise and peril of enhancing our minds, our bodies—and what it means to be human. New York: Broadway Books, 2005, p. 139.


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