Communication is a fascinating thing – because it isn’t really a thing. Nobody has ever seen ‘a’ communication. Of course, there are books, songs, emails and posts like this, but if noone ever reads this text, it isn’t communicating anything. A poem in a drawer that nobody but the poet has ever seen isn’t communication. It has to be shared, people have to read and ‘understand’ it (“I don’t get it, but this seems to be a poem”) and then to respond to it – for instance by writing another one. Or by today’s way of approval: “I like.”

This is why I prefer the plural: communications. It takes two to communicate, the same way it takes two to tango – taali do haath se bajtihai.

Some communications make a hell of a career for themselves. They go viral. Literally, they are infectious. Older examples are the Bible. The Quran. Homer’s Odyssey. Or think of songs by Taylor Swift, films by Spielberg, poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, paintings by Sadequain. Or even of everyday phrases like ‘You know’, and words like ‘like’. Other forms aren’t successful at all. We can call them flops.

As a theorist, I am interested in the mechanisms of this selection. Why do some terms become popular while others don’t? Take, for instance, the word ‘Globalization’, that was used long before, but only after Theodore Levitt  mentioned it in an 1983 article, the term itself became ‘global’. Or ‘climate change’. I would have never imagined that a term as complicated as ‘deconstruction’ could become so popular, but nowadays nearly everyone claims to be a deconstructivist.

The word that Paul J. Crutzen coined in 2000 has also made a remarkable career: ‘anthropocene’. What are the reasons for this success story?

To me, the main reason is that ‘anthropecene’ is not – as it claims to be – simply and solely a geological term. It has a deeply moral dimension to it. It includes a dramatic gesture that ascribes responsibility and at the same time asks for possible charges. Not humanity, so the idea, but the West, the European civilization is in the dock.This is why some prefer to speak of the ‘Eurocene’ instead. (Personally, I’d prefer to talk about those agencies that have acquired industrial techniques developed in Europe – and those agencies can include Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese as well as Germans or ‘Britishers’.)

This, however, is not the only reason for its success. It also matches perfectly with another semantic virus – the apocalypse. As Peter Sloterdijk has shown, the term anthropocene is conclusive only in the apocalyptic logic in which the world is evaluated from its end, as a sorting method in which the wicked are separated from the good. Which explains why it has become such an important part of the end rhetoric of the intellectual elite, especially in former European colonies like Pakistan.

I’ll be the first to admit that watching the world end in a movie can be fun, just like a rollercoaster ride. While buildings and people go down in flames and disaster strikes, we comfortably sit in our chairs, munching on some popcorn. But the prophets of the apocalypse are dead serious. They don’t just tell a horror story. They mean it: “Breaking news – the end is near!” What could be the function of this warning?

The answer is simple: visions of the end bring those who proclaim it an interested audience. And in the best case: converts. If the end is near and inevitable, then there is only one salvation – to profess the faith. It must of course be the right faith. Many of those who proclaim the end do have – coincidentally, of course – exactly this product to sell.

Communication is a fascinating thing, but it won’t save our planet – nor is it interested in doing so. All it wants to do is to continue. If this planet dies, it can’t. Maybe that’s why we should try to save it – so we can go on telling each other stories about the end.


Die Zündfunk-Sendung über George Spencer-Brown ist jetzt wieder online:

Script: “Gesetze für alles – Gesetze für nichts. Ein Anruf bei George Spencer-Brown, dem Erfinder der Laws of Form” (BR, Zündfunk Generator 29.09.2013)