How many ways have we learned not to awaken? Reflections on the use of metaphors for Superstorm Sandy

A storm is no neutral thing. Can we count the metaphors? Before the later-named Superstorm Sandy struck the eastern seaboard, journalists reported of citizens bracing. As it churned and grinded, cities like New York were summarily bashed, battered, pummeled, punched (as in packing a…), pounded (e.g., into submission). In the aftermath, the city, though burdened, is recovering, with businesses back and running and commuters returning to work. Everyone is slowly return to normal, to business as usual, to their everyday lives.

What, philosophically, is at stake? According to the Kantian philosopher Susan Neiman in her excellent book Evil in Modern Thought, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 marked a passage into modernity. As the earthquake struck and decimated the city, it raised anew and with especial rawness the problem of evil, with some Christian theologians tracing “natural evil” back to “moral evil” and many Enlightenment apologists rejecting this ‘superstition.’ This event, the former said, was the result of man’s sins and hence was a sign of God’s punishment. However, this medieval synthesis between natural and moral evil–or, more generally, between the natural order and the man-made order–was severed when Enlightenment thinkers held more convincingly that the natural order was value-neutral while the human order was value-laden.

This argument ushered in a new way of experiencing. During the rise of mechanism, nature would come to function solely according to physical laws, leaving room only for human beings to be purposive agents. (For more on this line of thought, see my “Following Nature’s Course,” Dark Mountain: Issue 3.) Consequently, events such as Sandy would be figured as “natural disasters” and thus would have no moral significance and, apart from ‘what to do’ and ‘what is to be done in the aftermath,’ would come to bear no relation to the moral life.

The joke about Sandy is that nature is re-animated, only to keep us asleep. (Thoreau: “To be awakened is to be alive.”) The metaphors journalists use to describe Sandy presume that nature has human-like qualities. In this regard, their descriptions are more ‘poetic’ than value-neutral. According to this story, human beings, so often the masters of nature, are here the victims of a massive force that is beyond their control and that inflicts upon them great suffering, possible punishments. Hence, a more animistic account of natural forces returns during such moments.

The joke goes further, however, due to the fact that ‘the technical’ quickly closes most people off from philosophical inquiry into the question of what matters most. By technical, I mean, for instance: whether levies should be built, how the clean-up can be made more efficient, at what point power and subway service will be restored, which insurance companies will cover what, when will the public schools be reopened, etc. These, and others, are  ways of closing us off from–strategies of blinding us to–the individual and communal confrontation with mortality, human fragility, and (in this instance) the contingencies and hubris of industrial civilization. What is a proper relation between humans and the natural world? Of the Buddha Jaspers wrote that “all existence is suffering and the essential is redemption from suffering.”

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