Claire Colebrook on Art and Catastrophe

Here, one of my favourite critical theorists/philosophers Claire Colebrook talks about the role of art in thinking and imagining the end of the world. The bottom line, for her, is that only a certain idea of art as decoupled from our immediate practices and functions, that which always relates to other worlds, allows us to think or angst about the end of ours. And by extension, only a world that appropriates or colonizes other worlds can have art as a value. “The logic of art” is also one of colonization.

So post-apocalyptic dramas like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are both about the fragility of a certain kind of humanity (humanity defined in terms of its intelligence, its ability to “master” worlds) an an implicit demand that this humanity should be preserved: “The more exposed, fragile, vulnerable and damaged this future is imagined to be, the more forceful the heroic narrative of salvation.”

The end of the world is the end of the human who does not merely exist “here and now.” but trades in objects and worlds and inscriptions that can be detached from their material origin while still being bound up with worlds. If there are no libraries, no geopolitics, no archives, no mathematics, there are no humans in this sense. Thus imagining a world without art is imagining the end of the world. “Only a world that has a sense of its specific end can demand that it not end” Tribes, cultures, languages, etc. can end, but the world that looks on these as worlds is “too big to fail”. This involves a concept of humanity so global that it implies the impossibility of its own outside precisely by imagining that outside.

Colebrook’s piece prompted me to revisit a piece on Philosophical Catastrophism I wrote earlier this year, focused on catastrophe in Ballard, Brassier and Cronenberg. This also considered the catastrophe as unthinkable limit. However, there are some significant differences. The dust bowls of Mad Max and Interstellar are perfectly representable and thinkable. Indeed, as Colebrook reminds us, they resemble the fragile, hand to mouth existence of much of contemporary humanity more than the sheltered urban world typically threatened in popular end of the world scenarios. The “unthinkability” of the catastrophes considered in Colebrook’s talk is expressed as a normative or ethical demand (they are that which must never be). Those of Crash, Nihil Unbound, Videodrome, and the Hyperapocalypse are all literally unthinkable or, more precisely, unrepresentable.

Ballard’s catastrophe is the ‘unique vehicle collision’ that would utterly transform our dreams and desires; thus transcending the novel’s patina of shattered machinery and ruptured, broken bodies. The thermonuclear war of the ‘Terminal Beach’ is the immense “historical and psychic zero” which generates sense by extirpating it. Its textual and ontological function is is to bind the decoupled moments of Ballard’s montage and of modernist time alike within its promiscuous absence. Whereas Colebrook’s apocalypses imagine worlds to subdue, Ballard’s event reproduces Being by promising to extirpate it.

Brassier’s evocation of cosmic collapse in Nihil Unbound is likewise an attempt to decouple thought from Being, to think a reality that could never belong to or relate to a world. Brassier replicates Laruelle’s detachment of the Real from Being or intentionality but without reinstating it in the form of a gnosis of a bare humanity or inner life (Brassier 2007, 127-9; Kolozova 2017).

Finally, Videodrome‘s viscid new flesh ramifies or plasticizes the barred subject of modernity  beyond the point at which it or its erotic distance from the thing is sustainable. This “semantic apocalypse” is also a different kind of unworlding, if only because it forces us to redefine the globalizing human which forms the background to Colebrook’s reading of apocalyptic fiction. In a sense, this modernist subject is a myth that allows us to reclaim a modernity whose trajectory is fundamentally inhuman and asubjective.


Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kolozova, K., 2017. ‘The Inhuman and the Automaton: Exploitation and the Exploited in
the Era of Late Capitalism’, ‘, accessed 12.11.2017.


One thought on “Claire Colebrook on Art and Catastrophe

  1. Strikes me as a very dogmatic (humanistic) understanding of the apocalypse (and I take your comparison to your “Philosophical Catastrophism” piece is a very polite way to say as much). Dub ‘intellectualism’ over every mention of ‘art’ and the conceit at the heart of her argument becomes plain, I think. She’s playing to the chauvinisms of her ingroup, characterizing apocalypse as the ‘death of us all here’ as opposed to extinction, the ‘death of everyone.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s