How Do We Get Home on this New Earth?
Het Nieuwe Instituut asked philosopher and sociologist Ruben Jacobs to write an essay that reflects upon some of the ideas behind and possible interpretations of Neuhaus.
In 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote his famous poem "The Second Coming". I cite the first three lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
It is the last line in particular that would later incite a furore. Not only newspaper headlines, but also book titles regularly made use of the dramatic charge that the words convey. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1985): a novel about the latter days of pre-colonial Nigeria. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness (2008), the memoirs of psychoanalyst Elyn Saks about her struggle with schizophrenia, or more recently, the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold, about the life and work of the famous American writer. The phrase constantly bubbles up in various forms from the swamp of our cultural consciousness, like a meme that reproduces itself over time and expresses a specific phase in the cycle of creation and destruction.
What exactly Yeats was trying to express with his poem remains conjecture, but that’s the purpose of poetry. However, it does become clear that it was not only a literary expression of the political unrest and violence of the time, but that it also reflected Yeats’ concern about the social ailments of modernity. In other words: the break with traditional family and social structures, the loss of a collective religious conscience and purpose in life; the general condition that the old rules no longer applied and there seemed to be nothing to replace them. In the same sentiment and a while later, during the run-up to the Second World War, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would write,’The old dies but the new cannot yet be born.’
Almost a hundred years later, in 2016, a research company called Factiva picked up on a remarkable fact during their data analyses: the famous poem by Yeats, and especially that one famous last line of the first strophe, was quoted more in the first seven months of the new year than in the 30 years preceding. The reason: yet another cocktail of disruptive social events, such as the significant rise in terrorist violence, the advancing power of artificial intelligence, the increasingly visible consequences of climate change, the shocking result of the Brexit referendum. And, to cap it all, the new and highly controversial and – not entirely unimportant for this story – climate change-denying president of the United States. We all know his name.
This is the superficial ‘in your face’ reality. Anyone who digs further or looks longer will see that something is also eroding on a deeper level, at the centre of our humanist culture. I’m not referring in the first instance to values or achievements such as autonomy, self-fulfilment or human rights, but to the ground on which all this is built: human-centred thinking. At the dawn of the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological era characterised by an increasing interweaving of nature and man, something in human consciousness is also slowly shifting. What always served as a neutral backdrop for a long time, ‘Nature’, is beginning to manifest itself more and more in the foreground of human culture. The stage is starting to play along, the backdrop to the performance ‘Humanity’ is falling, exposing the legions of non-humanity. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently announced the end of what he satirically calls the ‘backdrop ontology’: the dominant modern Western perception that has always regarded Nature as a tranquil décor against which human actions unfold.The result? Background is becoming foreground, and the backdrop dogma is replaced with thinking in terms of relationships and interdependencies.
Let’s consider the Anthropocene for a little longer. We now know that man, as a species, has a great influence on almost all life on earth. We know about the immense CO2 emissions, overfishing, large-scale intensive agriculture, deforestation, the plastic soup in the sea, the fragmentation of ecosystems, the dwindling biodiversity. We know that we have penetrated the geological strata, that we are influencing the global geophysical cycles of water, carbon and nitrogen, and that we have eliminated a third of the world’s insects. But do we also understand what all this actually means? How should we interpret all this?
What makes a concept like the ‘Anthropocene’ so powerful is that it offers us a conceptual framework within which we can see all these seemingly disparate processes as one coherent image. It offers a (scientific) narrative for a new story about the earth and our place upon it. The man who introduced the term, the Dutch geophysicist Paul Crutzen, also realised this and once said the following on the subject:
‘The long-standing barriers between nature and culture are eroding. There is no longer talk of “We against Nature”. Instead, we determine what nature is and what it will be [...] In this new age, “we” and ‘nature’ have become the same.’ (Quote: Albert Faber, De Gemaakte Planeet, AUP, 2018.)
Philosophers have been striving in recent years to formulate a critical philosophical interpretation of this scientific concept. According to many, this is not the age of man (the literal translation of the word ‘Anthropocene’). No, the ‘post-human’ era had arrived, the ‘non-human turn’ (Richard Grusin). Others spoke of a ‘multi-species world’ (Donna Haraway) or an ‘ecology without nature’ (Timothy Morton). And some even came up with thought experiments or ambitious theoretical schemes. Examples are the ‘Parliament of Things’ (Bruno Latour) or a theory for ‘planetary-scale computation’ (Benjamin Bratton). What these thinkers all share is their conviction that the centre (read: humanistic culture) is no longer tenable, and the challenge is to no longer regard man as the measure of things, but to care and pay attention to the non-human. Some focus directly on the organic (animals, affectivity, bodies, geophysical systems); others are more interested in the non-organic (materiality, technology, artefacts).
This exercise has proved intellectually fruitful. After a long period of inviolable sovereignty, the modernist separation of nature and culture, of object and subject, has started to display considerable flaws. This is partly due to the diligent work of these philosophers. They, as well as artists and other culture-minded people, have shown that we humans are embedded in a network of human and non-human relations and that the standpoint that our human lifeform outranks the rest of existence is morally indefensible.
But there is a catch here, because the uncomfortable anthropological lesson of the Anthropocene is that when modern (mostly urban) humans come to terms with the fact that they have always lived in nature, and are intertwined with other organisms and technological systems in all sorts of ways, they simultaneously realise that they also assumed a unique position within it as a species. Yes, humankind is part of nature, an animal among the animals, but at the same time also an eccentric, unique species, the being that (without realising it) has been able to change the entire course of the planet. This dialectic between being separate from and being embedded in nature is the tension that the Anthropocene evokes, and the challenge, as the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton puts it in his recent book Defiant Earth (2018), is ‘to develop an ontology for the unique and responsible position of man within the network of life’. Not the human, not the earth, but the human-earth relationship will therefore have to take centre stage.
The Bauhaus Model
Back to the year 1919. While Yeats, in his study in Sandymount (Ireland), was writing his prophetic words, on the European mainland, in Weimar (Germany), the architect Walter Gropius merged his School of Visual Arts with the Grossherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule. The result: Bauhaus, a new institute with both a theoretically and practically applied programme consisting of a synthesis of expressive arts, craftsmanship and industry. Although inspired by the same collective burnout and associated political and cultural disorder as Yeats, Gropius and his companions took a different, more utopian turn. It was not the threat of loss, disorientation, or weltschmerz, which Yeats expressed so poetically, but the very possibility of reorientation, ‘die Welt neu denken’ (rethinking the world), that was the optimistic tenor. ‘Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future’, proclaimed Gropius.
Bauhaus. We all know it from the austere modernist and multifunctional architectural style and ditto furniture pieces. Less well known is the revolutionary and ideological baseline with which it once began. In the early stages in particular, Bauhaus symbolised a place where there was a re-evaluation of how knowledge is created and what role art, the imagination, should play in this. New frameworks of thought and teaching were developed and the utopian potential of art in transforming society became an important spearhead.
This movement was not really unique. Between 1900 and 1930, various art schools in both Germany and Russia were re-formed or established with similar objectives and educational innovations. Gropius’ original intentions and ideas were also in line with the mindset in the more avant-garde circles of the time. What primarily distinguished Bauhaus was that it was able to give the most practical form to these innovative ideas. In his essay ‘The Bauhaus Today’ Philipp Oswalt, director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, concludes that Bauhaus was primarily a shining example of a ‘radical experiment in the breaking down of boundaries, in de-categorization, and consolidation [....] The Bauhaus was a laboratory for the exploration of a new realm of possibility that took shape with the new knowledge, the new technologies, and the new ways of thinking that were emerging in that time.’
However, this has never led to an unambiguous programme. In addition to being a hive of contradictions, Bauhuas was also a place where there were numerous clashes about artistic and pedagogical views: the school housed representatives of Expressionism, Constructivism and Functionalism as well as De Stijl. Despite these contradictions and conflicts about content, they were united in a common purpose: to improve the quality of life for everyone and also to make it affordable. ‘The emancipation of human beings, the quest for approaches to a better present’, according to Oswalt.
Think Like a Mountain
Again we scroll forward on the timeline, to the present. A century after the foundation of the Bauhaus, Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam) takes inspiration from the utopian German impulse of yesteryear. Neuhaus points the way ahead. It aspires to be a 21st-century learning environment that once again asks the question ‘what should people learn?’ and is also guided by artistic imagination. Where emancipation for ‘human beings’ was central to Bauhaus, Neuhaus, in line with what is brewing under the surface of contemporary culture, chooses to add ‘more than human’ to the equation, because, now that the backdrop of modernity is disappearing and the hidden post-humanity is rapidly becoming visible, the question arises: how should we deal with this today? How should we learn in the 21st century? What could be the starting point of a post-human school like Neuhaus? Metaphor vs. Model is an important starting point for the ideas about learning that are used in Neuhaus. A correct metaphor creates sensory insight; it opens up a new space for us to work with.
Allow me to make a suggestion based on the following observation by the American ecologist Aldo Leopold. In 1949 he introduced an interesting metaphor for ecological consciousness, namely: think like a mountain. Leopold worked as a warden in several nature parks in the US. One of his tasks was regulating the wolf population, which effectively meant that he was hunting wolves, because that was the prevailing idea at the time: the fewer wolves, the more deer to hunt. Leopold soon realised that this led to all kinds of unforeseen problems. The sharp decline of wolves in one of the areas where he worked enabled the deer to multiply quickly and graze on the vegetation that grew on the mountainside. When most of the vegetation had disappeared, other plants and animals also rapidly vacated the area. The loss of the vegetation on the mountain slopes also increased the risk of destructive landslides. In short, the entire ecosystem of the mountain changed when the wolves were no longer or insufficiently present.
The moral of the story: if you don’t learn to ‘think like a mountain’ and thus have full knowledge of and appreciation for the profound interdependence of all the constituent parts of the ecosystem, you ultimately destroy the environment on which you depend. Instead of thinking as an isolated individual, this ‘thinking like a mountain’ is an exercise in placing yourself in an entire ecosystem, in a complex web of interdependencies. This may sound a bit abstract – and it is. But you have to start somewhere. So allow me to propose my own metaphor: Your whole body is attached to a colossal network of hyphal threads. Some threads are thick, others gossamer-thin. As soon as you try to move, the threads on the side you’re walking away from tighten, while they start to sag on the other side. You can’t free yourself from the network, all you can do oscillate with the dynamics of the threads. The threads symbolise all the forces and constituent parts that affect you within the ecosystem and which you simultaneously influence.
Wouldn’t that be a nice metaphor for post-human education? Learning to think and do holistically? Not in the (esoteric) sense of ‘everything is in harmony with everything else’, but rather in the sense of ‘everything interacts and sometimes this interaction can be very intense’. In that case ecology means more than just natural processes, and must be seen as the interaction between the organic (people, animals, plants, climate, etc.) and the non-organic (high-speed trading, artificial intelligence, plastic soup, etc.), and everything in between.
In its mission statement Neuhaus proclaims that, in order to ‘escape from the destructive status quo’, the time has come for (building up) knowledge of ‘marginalised or unrecognised cultures, knowledge that removes the reductionist limitations of traditional analyses and mathematical models, knowledge that lives in plants, animals and machines, and knowledge that appeals not only to reason, the mind, but the whole body with all its senses’. That seems to me to be a mission worthy of pursuit. If we are to ‘learn to think like a mountain’ we will have to find other ways of thinking and try out new navigational techniques. It should be noted, however, that it is thanks to our modern ‘traditional’ science that we have become aware at all of the extent and scope of the ecological disruption that is now underway. The paradox of the Anthropocene could perhaps be formulated as follows: we needed one viewpoint (scientific) to appreciate the necessity of other ways of looking, doing and feeling to find a way in this new overwhelming reality. That is why it is especially important now to seek a connection between these various forms of knowledge, between explanation and representation, between (traditional) science and art, with the aim of (functionally) wandering in the grey area between human and non-human.Dutch philosopher René ten Bos argues that the reality of the Anthropocene demands ‘functional wandering’. According to Ten Bos, the best way to get out of the forest is to get used to it first.
Things falls apart; the centre cannot hold. That’s where I started this essay. In this black vacuum in time Neuhaus is proposed as an experiment; as was the case with Bauhaus, its source of inspiration, Neuhaus views a time of confusion, nostalgia and pessimism as a catalyst to look ahead and work on a new world orientation. Neuhaus fits in with a growing undercurrent in culture that wants to break with the structural pessimism of our time. I am thinking in particular of artistic movements such as ‘solarpunk’, ‘hopepunk’ or ‘accelerationism’, which in their own way all manage to mobilise the energy of utopian imagination, but this time without falling into textbook fantasies.
This is already refreshing in itself. While popular cultural imagination is dominated by dark projections of the future (think of the geopolitical war mania of Game of Thrones, the technoparanoia of Black Mirror or the eco-tyranny of The Handmaid’s Tale), the attempt to break it open is a meaningful exercise. In his essay ‘Dystopias Now’, the American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson concludes that our contemporary preoccupation with stories about dystopian futures comes across as ‘fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent’. Why? ‘Because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through.
The opposite, a naive and frenzied utopianism, is no longer convincing and/or credible at the present time. After all the destruction and megalomania of the 20th century, we have largely lost faith in the idea that we can build an alternative society for the future. Instead, the distant horizon has been replaced by a longing for an abandoned or undead past. One could also call this an inverted utopian impulse: for lack of hopeful visions of what lies ahead, the past becomes the new future.Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called this contemporary utopian longing for the abandoned past ‘retrotopia’.
This is clearly an untenable situation. Living with one’s back turned to the future is disastrous for a society’s resilience and vitality. Science fiction writer and activist Redfern Jon Barrett therefore recently proposed replacing utopia with an ‘ambitopia’, a speculative imagination that takes both destruction and oppression as well as human potential into account. In the light of the current challenges, this may be a fruitful way of thinking about future-oriented imagination. For there is one fundamental difference between then and now: where Gropius and his companions had just survived the horrors of the First World War and tried to build a new world full of utopian bravura on its ruins, Neuhaus finds its origins precisely in or just before the disaster: everything indicates that we are moving rapidly towards an era of water shortage, natural fires, rising sea levels, extreme weather and economic and geopolitical instability. So, apart from much-needed preventitive measures (such as drastic CO2 reduction) and ecological restoration (where possible), the 21st century will in any case be largely dominated by creative adaptation. Unbridled optimism or opportunism do not therefore seem entirely appropriate here (let alone convincing).
The German thinker Ernst Bloch once argued that all utopias ultimately yearn for reconciliation with that from which they are alienated. They tell us how we can get home again. In the 21st century there is actually only one serious candidate left – let’s call it the ambitopian imagination – namely: our home town, the earth.Here I follow the Norwegian philosopher Espen Hammer who, in his essay ‘Utopia for a Dystopian Age’, identifies the earth as the last candidate for the utopian imagination. I’m not referring to a romanticised Mother Earth, which must be brought back into balance (it’s already too late for that), but rather to a hybrid planet full of organic and non-organic life forms that is becoming increasingly confrontational (some climate scientists already call her an ‘Angry Beast’). You could see this not only as a huge challenge, but also as one massive crazy adventure, an adventure without any guarantees of a good ending. Can we ‘dehumanise’ our gaze a bit, without losing our humanity? Can we re-tune our senses and find a meaningful home on this new turbulent planet? I don’t know. But I do know it’s worth a try. Fortunately, I’m not the only one.
Translation: Mark Poysden
Ruben Jacobs (1984) is a writer and sociolgist. He teaches at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht. He is also a regular contributor to the online philosophy platform Brainwash.nl. His book Artonauten. Op expeditie in het Antropoceen was published in 2018 by V2_Publishing, Rotterdam.