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An Apology to Survivors


If I am not drowned or killed trying to escape in the next few days, I hope to write two books. I shall entitle them Apology for Survivors and Tribute to Malthus.
—Adolfo Bioy Casares

Addressing politics in the Anthropocene, Jodi Dean identifies three possible roles for humans: observers, victims, and survivors. Her analysis of these differing human trajectories exists within a clear Darwinian perspective of the world. The division of humans into passive victims, active survivors and those who watch is embedded within an ethos of the “survival of the fittest” and an acceptance of a world where the act of survival is defined as an individualistic performance, suspiciously responding to “the struggle for existence.” Her definition also echoes that of Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power, for whom the survivor—along with the ruler—stands alone and as a hero. In this same line of thinking, philosophers and writers such as Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi approach survival as a form of culpability, inexorably linked to the traumatic experience of the Holocaust. In addition to, and perhaps beyond, these heroic figures of modernity, we propose another reading of the act of survival as a collective performance and the survivor as a collective being. This understanding shifts the frame of the Anthropocene from a spatial struggle to a temporal practice; not a point of departure toward new colonies, but rather a dimension of the present to be handled now for the time that is to come.

The figure of the castaway, and Daniel Defoe’s emblematic Robinson Crusoe in particular, is a helpful guide to understanding the condition of the survivor. Crusoe’s survival on the island is only possible thanks to the supplies that were cast away with him, namely, the building materials and tools salvaged from the shipwreck. In this sense, the various saws, jackscrew, hammer, nails, spikes, grindstone, spare ropes, canvases, cables and hangers were instrumental in Crusoe’s survival of his misfortune. With the Bible in one hand and his tools in the other, Crusoe confronted the adversity of his situation and his lack of society. In fact, this very adversity—combined with years of patient labor—led to a mastery of many occupations: agriculture with a wooden spade, carpentry, earthenware, wicker weaving and many others, all of which allowed him to satisfy his basic needs and beyond.

Similar to Robinson Crusoe, the story of Tuscan farmer Zeno Fiaschi, narrated by Superstudio in 1978 for the Venice Biennale, questions the autonomy, needs and behavior of a single individual. Emphasizing an objective of autonomy, Project Zeno calibrates the concept of “home” to what can be produced and is necessary for the sustenance of a single individual and presents all the tools and supports required to do so. The supersimple life of Zeno parallels the economy Defoe developed with Crusoe, where the consumer is also the direct producer of what is consumed. Within this simple framework, both Zeno and Crusoe have created an economy that is antagonistic to accumulation and other forms of capitalism.

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