Systeem- en leefwereld, deel 2: reactie op Jos van der Lans


Ik schreef een bijdrage voor de website SocialeVraagstukken.nl over het filosofische onderscheid tussen systeem- en leefwereld. Dit onderscheid wordt tegenwoordig vaak aangehaald in het publieke, politieke en ambtelijke debat. Ik haalde in mijn bijdrage het werk van Jos van der Lans aan, die meteen een mooie reactie schreef. Ik ben het grotendeels met hem eens, en vind zijn ‘oplossing’ eigenlijk beter dan de mijne.

Van der Lans erkent dat het onderscheid een hulpmiddel is dat een eigen leven is gaan leiden. Hij voegt toe:

Maar het omgekeerde: de werkelijkheid beschrijven zonder begripsmatige duidingen en abstracties is heden ten dage misschien nog wel een grotere illusie. Het riekt naar wat ik voor het gemak maar even als een naïef soort empirisme betitel: het idee dat je de werkelijkheid zou kunnen beschrijven en dat van daaruit een soort natuurlijk begrip zou opkomen.

Ik ben het met hem eens dat empirisme wat naïef kan zijn. Zoals ik mijn bijdrage ook zei is het illusie te denken dat je als onderzoeker als het ware over een kloof naar de werkelijkheid kijkt. Je staat er middenin. Je moet de werkelijkheid altijd een handje te helpen om zich aan je te tonen. Zelfs als je wilt onderzoeken of water zout bevat moet je ingrijpen, bijvoorbeeld door het te verhitten. Zo verdamp je het water en hou je zout over. Je verandert door het onderzoek dus de werkelijkheid, in dit geval door zout en water te scheiden.

Toch kun je denk ik verder komen met beschrijvingen dan Van der Lans suggereert. De filosoof Bruno Latour, die ik aanhaal in mijn bijdrage, zegt, bewust polemisch: als je na een beschrijving nog altijd een verklaring nodig hebt, dan was het een slechte beschrijving. Misschien is dat te kort door de bocht. Wel moet je ervoor waken om niet een verklaring aan de werkelijkheid ‘op te leggen’. Van der Lans lijkt die bezorgdheid te delen, waar hij zegt dat je nieuwe begrippen moet zoeken als je oude begrippen de werkelijkheid geweld aan doen. Je kunt nog meer doen dan dat: in je beschrijving kun je ook de ingrepen meenemen die je als onderzoeker doet. Wat dat betreft kunnen we nog veel van antropologen leren.

Een belangrijke vraag is dan wat voor soort begrippen je gaat gebruiken. Van der Lans suggereert dat het begrip ‘netwerk’ waarmee Latour komt aanzetten in feite ook een abstracties is, net zoals ‘systeemwereld’ en ‘leefwereld’. Dat is zeker waar. In zekere zin zijn alle begrippen abstracties. Van der Lans zegt zelf al dat sommige begrippen de werkelijkheid geweld aandoen, maar de Sloveense filosoof Slavoj Žižek gaat zelfs een stap verder. Hij noemt taal überhaupt ‘gewelddadig’, omdat een enkel woord altijd een sterke versimpeling is van hetgeen waarnaar het verwijst (een appel is echt niet perfect rond). We kunnen dan alleen maar proberen om begrippen te zoeken die zo min mogelijk ingrijpen in wat we bestuderen. Vaak kunnen we heel goed uit de voeten met de begrippen die de mensen die we onderzoeken zelf gebruiken.

In mijn bijdrage stelde ik voor om de begrippen ‘systeemwereld’ en ‘leefwereld’ maar niet meer te gebruiken, omdat ze alleen maar de nadruk vestigen op de kloof tussen ambtenaren, professionals en burgers. Door een kloof steeds maar te benadrukken loop je het risico dat hij alsmaar breder wordt. Maar Van der Lans stelt terecht dat het ook geen oplossing is om er dan maar niet meer over te praten. Of we de kloof nu zelf gemaakt hebben of niet, hij bestaat in zekere zin. Als je een kuil graaft en je wilt dat mensen er niet invallen, dan kun je er maar beter een hek omheen zetten. Erg duurzaam is die oplossing echter niet. Van der Lans heeft een mooiere suggestie. Hij zegt:

je ontmaskerd [begrippen en abstracties] niet door ze weg te gummen, maar door zorgvuldig en precies te analyseren, waarom ze kennelijk voor grote groepen mensen tot de verbeelding spreken.

Daarmee kom je in de buurt van wat ook wel een ideeëngeschiedenis heet. Ik sluit me hier graag bij aan: laten we goed analyseren hoe we ertoe gekomen zijn te denken dat er een kloof bestaat tussen burgers en overheid. Daarvoor zouden we wel eens ver terug de tijd in moeten gaan, tot het begin van wat we de ‘moderne tijd’ zijn gaan noemen. Als we er eenmaal uit zijn, dan kunnen we onze begrippen misschien ombuigen tot andere, die minder ingrijpend zijn.

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Systeem- en leefwereld: hoe de kloof te dichten (artikel op socialevraagstukken.nl)


123AAlogoOospronkelijk artikel op SocialeVraagstukken.nl

Een curieus verschijnsel: een aanzienlijk deel van de maatschappelijke en ambtelijke sector gaat aan de haal met een filosofisch concept, namelijk het onderscheid tussen systeemwereld en leefwereld. Jos van der Lans en anderen doen er goed aan minder over die kloof te praten.

De classificatie in systeemwereld en leefwereld, gepopulariseerd door de Duitse filosoof Jürgen Habermas (1987) in de jaren ‘80, heeft haar weg gevonden naar lokale beleidsplannen en pamfletten om de verhouding tussen burgers, overheid en professionals te duiden en opnieuw in te richten. Cultuurpsycholoog Jos van der Lans is een van de wegbereiders. Peel en Maas is een voorbeeld van een gemeente die een lans breekt voor de terminologie in de lokale context (Schmitz 2013; Schmitz et al. 2009).

Op zich is filosofische bespiegeling op de dagelijkse praktijk nastrevenswaardig. Er zijn echter drie problemen met de classificatie en de manier waarop die gebruikt wordt. Ten eerste wordt hij op verschillende manieren gebruikt, wat leidt tot verwarring: wat is nu eigenlijk het probleem? Ten tweede klopt de opdeling in twee werelden niet helemaal. Ten derde bestaat het gevaar van een selffulfilling prophecy: het idee dat we ons gaan gedragen alsof de tweedeling wel zou bestaan.

Habermas betoogt het tegenovergestelde van Van der Lans

Onder de titel Loslaten, vertrouwen, verbinden doet Jos van der Lans (2011) verslag van een serie workshops over het thema Binding. Hij beschrijft onder andere een sessie die uitmondt in een flap-over met twee rijtjes woorden erop. Aan de ene kant staan zaken die met de overheid en professionele instellingen verband houden, en aan de andere kant zaken die met burgers verband houden. Voor Van der Lans is dit het onderscheid tussen systeem- en leefwereld. Hij omschrijft onderscheid dit als volgt:

‘De systeemwereld is alles wat mensen ontwikkeld hebben aan instellingen en structuren op gebieden als economie, politiek, onderwijs, wetenschap, overheid, gezondheidszorg, verzorgingsstaat enz. enz. Dus een buitengewoon ongelijksoortige verzameling van systemen en subsystemen. De leefwereld is het ervaringsdomein, waarin mensen met elkaar omgaan in en buiten de systemen’ (van der Lans 2010: 46)

Dit komt nog redelijk overeen met hoe Habermas (1987) de twee werelden beschreef. Van der Lans wijkt echter af van diens ideeën af als het gaat om de verhouding tussen die twee werelden. Van der Lans betoogt ‘dat die twee sferen uit elkaar drijven, geen betekenisvolle overlap meer vertonen en elkaar dwars zitten’ (2011: 56). De systeemwereld is volgens hem ‘losgezongen’ van de leefwereld (2011: 75). Hoewel Habermas het eens zou zijn dat de sferen vanuit een andere logica opereren is het probleem dat hij signaleert nagenoeg het tegenovergestelde. Habermas spreekt over een ‘kolonisatie van de leefwereld’. De gemeente Peel en Maas neemt die analyse over (Schmitz 2013; Schmitz et al. 2009).

Het is nogal iets anders: een systeemwereld die is ‘losgezongen’ van de leefwereld of een systeemwereld die de leefwereld ‘koloniseert’. Kort door de bocht gezegd suggereert het eerste dat ambtenaren en professionals niet meer met burgers kunnen praten doordat ze uit andere werelden komen. Het tweede suggereert dat burgers net zo gaan praten als ambtenaren en professionals, als gevolg van de kolonisatie.

Beide implicaties zijn vermoedelijk onwenselijk. Maar ze leiden wel tot verschillende ‘oplossingen’. Van der Lans suggereert dat professionals zich juist weer moeten gaan manifesteren in de leefwereld van burgers, manifesteren zonder te koloniseren zou je kunnen zeggen. Hij noemt dit een ‘modern paternalisme’ (Kuypers en van der Lans 1994; Van der Lans et al. 2003). De wijkteams, waarover nu veel wordt gesproken, ziet hij als een voorbeeld hiervan (Hilhorst en Van der Lans 2015). Peel en Maas begint, in de geest van Habermas, andersom, en gaat uit van zelfsturende gemeenschappen, waarop professionals hooguit kunnen aanhaken.

Waarom denken we in tweedelingen?

Van der Lans geeft meteen toe dat een tweedeling van werelden een kunstmatig onderscheid is. Toch zou het verhelderend, omdat het zou laten zien dat de sferen uit elkaar drijven. Dat is een cirkelredenering. Van der Lans zegt in feite: als we uitgaan van dit onderscheid zien we dat het onderscheid er is en groter wordt. Zijn punt is vermoedelijk dat een dergelijke schematische weergave van de werkelijkheid ons kan helpen om bepaalde grote lijnen te begrijpen. Op zich is dat een valide argument. Het is een bepaalde manier om door conceptualisering orde aan te brengen in de chaos. In die zin is het onderscheid van Habermas zeker verhelderend.

Hoe zijn we ertoe gekomen om zo in tweedelingen te denken? De Franse filosoof en antropoloog Bruno Latour zou waarschijnlijk opmerken dat dit een manier van denken is die typisch past in de moderne tijd. Die begon grofweg in de 16e eeuw. Men is het er niet over eens of we nu nog steeds in dit tijdperk leven, of dat we inmiddels ‘postmodern’ zijn. Wel is men het erover eens dat classificatie, of het maken van onderscheid typisch een onderdeel van het moderne denken is. Het meest extreme voorbeeld is dat van het onderscheid tussen de onderzoeker en zijn object van onderzoek. De onderzoeker wordt voorgesteld als iemand die als het ware over een kloof naar de wereld kijkt, zonder er zelf iets mee te maken te hebben. Het onderscheid tussen systeemwereld en leefwereld is ook zo’n kloof. En die kloof is zo breed dat er aan weerszijden een verschillende logica is ontstaan. Op de flap-over van Van der Lans uit die kloof zich in de witte ruimte tussen de twee rijtjes woorden.

Een consequentie van het moderne denken is dat we daarmee in de inrichting van de samenleving daadwerkelijk dit soort kloven aanbrengen – denk ook aan rolpatronen, en de scheiding tussen het westen en de rest van de wereld – om vervolgens te verzinnen hoe we die kunnen overbruggen. De onderzoeker krijgt methoden en technieken aangereikt om toch iets te kunnen zeggen over objecten aan de andere kant van de kloof. En Van der Lans is erop uit te onderzoeken hoe we die kloof tussen systeem- en leefwereld kunnen dichten. Het ironische is volgens Latour dat wie die kloven zelf gemaakt hebben, al doen we heel erg alsof die van nature bestaan. Een titel van een van zijn boeken is dan ook: ‘We zijn nooit modern geweest’ (Latour 1993). We doen maar alsof; we denken niet van nature op de manier die ik hierboven als ‘modern’ beschreef. Modern zijn is een constructie, die we ook weer uit elkaar zouden kunnen halen.

In plaats van algemene dichotomieën: praktijken beschrijven

Wat zou er gebeuren als we er niet bij voorbaat van uit zouden gaan dat professionals en ambtenaren zich in een andere wereld begeven dan de rest van het land? Hoe zouden we dan moeten onderzoeken hoe die zich tot elkaar verhouden? Latour zou zeggen dat we om te beginnen moeten ophouden te denken in algemene, vage termen als ‘systemen’, ‘waarden’ en ‘bureaucratie’. Laten we eens heel praktisch beschrijven hoe ambtenaren, professionals en burgers zich tot elkaar verhouden. Waar spreken ze elkaar? Zijn er plekken waar ze regelmatig samenkomen? Wat voor afspraken maken ze, en hoe leggen ze die vast? Op die manier te kijken hoe dit soort actoren onderling netwerken vormen, of juist netwerkvorming afhouden, is onderdeel van wat Latour met een aantal andere denkers actor-network theory heeft genoemd (zie bijv. Latour 2005). Ongetwijfeld kom je dan ook voorbeelden tegen van professionals die burgers in een bepaald stramien proberen te duwen, of overlegmomenten waarop mensen inderdaad verschillende talen spreken. Maar dan is de insteek om precies te beschrijven waaraan dat nu ligt, in plaats van in algemene dichotomieën te vervallen.

De tweedeling gedicht: ophouden er zoveel over te praten

Stel dat Habermas en Van der Lans allebei gelijk hebben. Stel dat professionele instellingen en de overheid inderdaad volgens een andere logica opereren dan burgers. Of ze nu ‘losgezongen’ zijn van elkaar, of dat de een de ander ‘koloniseert’, we vinden zo’n taalverschil niet wenselijk. Stel nou verder nog eens dat óók Latour gelijk heeft, en dat dat verschil in logica en taal het gevolg is van een kloof die we zelf gemaakt hebben. Als dat het geval is, is het praten in termen van kloven een selffulfilling prophecy. Als we de kloof die we hebben gemaakt zouden willen dichten, dan zou een goed begin zijn om op te houden er zoveel over te praten.

Wouter Mensink is onderzoeker bij het Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau

 

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action, volume 2: the critique of functionalist reason. In: Polity, Cambridge, UK.
Hilhorst, P. en J. Van der Lans (2015). Nabij is beter. Essays over de beloften van de 3 decentralisaties. Den Haag: Kwaliteitsinstituut Nederlandse Gemeenten.
Kuypers, P. en J. van der Lans (1994). Naar een modern paternalisme: over de noodzaak van sociaal beleid: pamflet: De Balie. (Herdruk uit: Not in File).
Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern: Harvard Univ Pr.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory: Oxford University Press, USA.
Schmitz, G. (2013). Praten met elkaar en met de overheid. Essay over de communicatieve route naar vitale gemeenschappen. Peel en Maas: Gemeente Peel en Maas.
Schmitz, G., W. Van der Coelen, K. Ahaus, A. Hersevoort en A. Van de Wetering (2009). De ontwikkeling van een zelfsturende en vitale gemeenschap. Het brondocument. Helden: Gemeente Peel en Maas.
Lans, J., van der (2010). Eropaf! De nieuwe start van het sociaal werk. Amsterdam: Augustus.
Lans, J., van der (2011). Loslaten, vertrouwen, verbinden. Over burgers & binding. Verslag van een startconferentie en 8 workshops. Amsterdam: Stichting DOEN.
Lans, J., van der, N. Medema en M. Räkers (2003). Bemoeien werkt. Naar een pragmatisch paternalisme in de sociale sector. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Balie.

Movies that Matter 2012 II – Ai Weiwei: Making Matter Move


I am very happy that there are people like the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. The second film I watched at the 2012 Movies that Matter Festival, Alison Klayman‘s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2011), follows his work.

A ‘parrhesiast’

Ai Weiwei is a classical example of what the Greeks in ancient times referred to as a ‘parrhesiast’. This denotes a person who ‘courageously speaks the truth’. By most of his art, Ai Weiwei endangers his own life by calling our attention to all sorts of deplorable situations in China. He comes across as fearless, but admits being scared with many of his actions.

For a long time, he managed to keep his balance on the ‘razor’s edge’. He seemed to get away with a good deal more than other Chinese dissidents. However, in early 2011, he was arrested for 81 days. Since then, many of his basic freedoms have been taken from him. In spite of this, his motto remains ‘never retreat, retweet’. If you and your browser read Chinese, you can follow him as @aiww on Twitter.

Going government’s work

A good deal of his work deals with ‘showing the unshown’. An impressive example is his work about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 90.000. This included thousands of children, to a great extent due to the poor construction of school buildings. One of Ai’s works consisted of creating a horrendously long list of all the children that died. It covered an entire wall of his office.

On top of that, he invited families to send him voice recordings of the names of their children. For an exhibition at the Munch Haus der Kunst, he covered an enormous wall with 7.000 schoolbags. The image read: ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’. One commentator in the film says that he is doing the work that government should have done.

Publicising the self

His contribution is not appreciated. At some point, policemen break into a hotel room in which he is staying. He receives a serious blow to the head, for which he is eventually operated. Fortunately, he managed to take a picture of the event, just before being hit. He uploads it to Twitter, where is goes viral. His own case becomes a central node in portraying the misconduct of government and police. The pictures of his face after operation, and the occasional middle finger, are symbolic for the suffering many others.

Making things public

Image of crash investigation in Latour's introduction

The term ‘making things public’ is often used as a colloquial description of publicising, of showing the unshown. The French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-) has given a twist to this term. He first started this in his introduction to the catalogue of the 2005 exhibition Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy at ZKM in Karlsruhe. First of all, he focuses on the ‘thing’ that is made public. Often we are hardly aware of the role of material objects in creating public awareness, popular debate and democratic processes. Particularly in the case of art this is a major flaw. The long list of names, the voice recordings, the school bags, the images of his assault, all play a role in a much broader process.

John Dewey

The second element of Latour’s ‘twist’ is what it means to make something ‘public’. To make this clear, Latour refers to the notion of ‘the public’, which John Dewey (1859-1952) presented in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems. A public is a group of people that is confronted with the negative consequences of something that is beyond their control. A public might organise actions to turn the situation for the better. Latour argues that such ‘publics’ often evolve around ‘things’ or ‘matter’. For example, a hazardous crossing in a domestic area can turn into a ‘matter of concern’, as Latour calls it.

Making matter move

I would say that a lot of Ai Wei Wei’s work can be described as making ‘matters of concern’. Given the setting of the Movies that Matter Festival, perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘matters that matter’. An important idea in Latour’s philosophy, is that ‘things’ or ‘nonhumans’ should also be regarded  actors. Normally, this privilege is reserved for people by modern philosophers. Latour shows that some ‘things’ are more influential than some people. He defines an actor as ‘that was was made to act by others’. To act is always a collective process. It takes more than just humans.

The film shows clearly how the pieces of art that Ai Wei Wei creates can move people. They are actors that are ‘made to act’ by Ai, his workshop assistants, a bunch of tools, thousands of years of Chinese history and the billion of Chinese now living.Together, they turn ‘matters of concern’ into ‘matters that move’.

A public of sunflower seeds?

Exhibition at Tate Modern

One of Ai’s most acclaimed works was his 2010 exhibition of a 100 million sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. The sheer volume of seeds becomes even more impressive when you get to know that they are hand-painted pieces of porcelain. Sadly, the exhibition was changed when all the walking turned out to produce porcelain dusts that are harmful to people with asthma. It became a ‘matter of concern’, in its museum context. This piece of art created an unexpected public of its own.

Exhibition at De Pont

I went to see a smaller version of the exhibition in Museum de Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands, a week ago. This ‘matter of concern’ has some very unfortunate side-effects. It looses all its playful seriousness. The seeds are ‘squared in’, and are constantly guarded. There is a one-meter-distance norm.

Karl Marx is said to have asked: ‘How can you have a revolution if you can’t get people to walk on the grass’. This piece of art is made to be tread upon. What are we supposed to do when we are no allowed? I wish I had had the courage to defy the guards, take off my shoes, and run barefoot across the sunflower seeds. I think Ai Weiwei would have.

Movies that Matter 2012 I – Bitter seeds, bitter questions?


Yesterday was the first day of the annual Movies that Matter Festival in the Hague, the Netherlands. It was the beginning of  a week-long programme of films and debates on human rights issues. I attended Micha Peled‘s new film Bitter Seeds. It is the third installation of his globalization trilogy, also featuring Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001) and China Blue (2005).

The new film focuses on the suicide wave among Indian farmers. The challenge of keeping their families alive is immense. As a result of this, one farmer ends his life every 30 minutes. One while reading this blog, three while watching Bitter Seeds.

As in his previous films, Peled succeeds in presenting a compelling, personal story. The film follows Manjusha, a college student, in her efforts of providing journalistic coverage of the circumstances of the villagers in her surroundings. Peled is there at every step of the way, following the entire process from planting cotton seeds to selling the produce on the local market. It feels as if you could smell the soil, and feel the softness of the cotton on your skin.

A story of immunity?

Meet Bacillus thuringiensis

The film unfolds the connection between the suicides and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) seeds, by the US-based corporation Monsanto.

Meet the mealybug

This story reminded me of the work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (1947-). The notion of immunity is important in his latest books, as I noted in earlier posts. Monsanto claims that its genetically modified seeds make cotton ‘immune’ for attacks by certain insects. This is achieved by modifying the seeds with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. Nevertheless, such Bt cotton is not resistant against the mealybug. This requires additional treatment with chemical pesticides, which are typically applied without any safety precautions. The film shows how the spray is dripping down on the farmer’s bare feet. Despite all this hard labour, many crops get infected and fail to produce. The pesticide market in the Indian village is also dominated by Monsanto products, as the film shows. Before the invasion of Bt seeds, cow dung was used for pest control, a much cheaper and organic alternative.

Immunity and destruction

Industrialised production

The problem is bigger than that, however. Cotton production as envisaged by corporations like Monsanto seems to be only viable in an industrialised setup. It would require much larger farms, mechanisation of work and crop rotation. This implies the complete modernisation, and effectively,  the ‘creative destruction‘ of traditional cotton production as a way of life (for a similar example see my earlier post on the documentary Garbage Dreams). Whatever your opinion on such developments, it seems that such a choice should not be made by American corporations.

The immunity of communities?

Traditional cotton production

The suicide wave is also related to India’s prevailing social system. The film focuses on one aspect: the dowry that is traditionally paid at weddings by the father of the bride. This system has existed for centuries. According to the film, it is no longer sustainable now that the costs of cotton production have increased with the introduction of genetically modified seeds. Fathers can no longer ‘afford’ to have daughters. Despair over outstanding debts is the main cause of suicide. It seems that the introduction of a seed that is not as ‘immune’ as it was supposed to be, is also messing with the ‘immunity’ of families and the social system as a whole.

Due to the complete take-over of the cotton seed market by Monsanto, farmers can no longer protect themselves. Attempts to bring back the seeds that preceded genetic modification fail, as the film shows. There are small scale initiatives to introduce organic farming to a few Indian villages, however, by people like Vandana Shiva. This requires major subsidies, however, which are hard to find. So far, there is often no way out.

Bitter questions?

After the film, I had a drink with mr. Peled and a manager of a company that focuses on organic fruits and vegetables. I asked a question, which seemed to be perceived as impertinent by the manager. I wonder if it was. I invite you to leave your thoughts below.

Earlier, the issue had been raised that a film ought to be made that portrays ‘the consumer’. I would surely welcome such a film. Over the past weeks, I watched about 15 documentaries dealing with the ethics of trade. I was surprised to find that the position of the consumer received hardly any attention at all. I suggested that such a film, if it were made, ought to portray the challenges that consumers face. Increasingly, individuals are made responsible for the working conditions at the other end of the world. Many have suggested that fairtrade consumption is a ‘fix’ that stems from a neoliberal mindset, even though we tend to think of it as an alternative. In one of his lectures, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that fairtrade is an example of ‘cultural capitalism’: by consuming, you do good while sustaining the system of global capitalism. There is a short video of the lecture, with wonderful animations, which I would recommend to anyone.

This was considered a ‘boring topic’ by the manager. I asked if they happened to have seen the documentary The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey Into the World of Fairtrade (Borgen & Heinemann, 2008). This controversial film suggests that working conditions on fairtrade tea plantations are often not much better than on non-certified plantations. Assuming this is true, what does this mean for consumers? Can we trust the certificates that are presented to us, or do we need to open every ‘black box‘ ourselves, to speak with the French philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-)? My comments seemed to offend the manager at our table. He replied, rightly I think, that improving working conditions needs to happen step by step. He suggested that we shouldn’t criticise those who try.

Was he right? I partly agree. We cannot expect the world to change at once. However, I would argue we need to have fair but critical investigations of the attempts we make. This does not need to result in criticism, but in a discussion nonetheless. To what extent is certification possible as a guarantee, as the logo promises? Is it perhaps partly a utopia, given the current governance of global trade? What does it mean for me, as a consumer? Can I rely on the fairtrade logo, or do I need to do more?

IDFA Special I: Blood in the Mobile


The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is just over. In this special, I look back at some of the human rights films in which technology played a special role.

Bloody minerals

After the attention that blood diamonds received, we turn our attention to a less sparkly, but equally bloody mineral: coltan. Patrick Forestier already introduced the topic in his documentary Blood Coltan (2007). The cell phones that we carry in our pockets contain this material. Whether it is “bloody” or not, we don’t know. Director Frank Piasecki Poulsen wanted to figure this out about his own Nokia. He made Blood in the Mobile (2010), which was shown at this year’s IDFA.

What makes coltan bloody? Part of it is extracted in conditions of slavery in the mines of the Decmocratic Republic of the Congo. Passing through shady supply chains, warlords manage to bring their produce to our markets. The revenue is used to fund the civil war, which is estimated to have killed around 7 million Congolese since the late 1990s.

Discriminating the users

Technologies have politics, in many different ways. Langdon Winner famously uncovered the racism of New York bridges in his 1980 article Do Artifacts have Politics? They were made so low that buses wouldn’t fit underneath. As a result of this, poor black families were kept away from Jones beach, a white middle-class resort. In similar vein, Bruno Latour showed that some door closers can discriminate against ‘very old and very small persons’ (see his article Where are the Missing Masses?). They are too heavy for them to open. Morality is fundamentally embedded in such technologies, but in a particular way. In a sense, they select their users.

Discriminating the producers

Cell phones may also be “charged” with blood, but in a different way than the examples before. They don’t stop any user from calling. They don’t discriminate on the basis of race, age or bodily functions, at least not in the way that bridges or door closers do. In fact, one of the problems is that we can’t even know if there is blood in our mobile our not. What these technologies do, however, is to ruin the lives of miners and others in the Congo. Mobile phones don’t discriminate against users, but against producers.

It is hard to understand this problem, partly because the relation between one miner and my cell phone is less direct than the relation between a bridge and a black driver, or a door closer and an old lady. The coltan had to pass through a whole supply chain to go from a 15 year old miner’s hand into my pocket.

Reverse black-boxing

Many of the technologies we use are black-boxes. We don’t actually know how they work, or how they are made. Typically, we only figure this out when they break, and we have to re-assemble them. Talking about a simple case like an overhead project, Bruno Latour makes us understand that such an artefact is in fact the end station of a whole network of relations that had to come together for us to use it. If we want to trace this network to its roots, we have to reverse the process of black-boxing it, as Latour calls it.

The same applies to a phone. In an impressive effort, Poulsen, the director of the film, tries to trace the steps that were taken to produce his Nokia. Exposed to severe dangers, he actually gets to the source, the oppressive dark of the mines in the Congo. What he doesn’t know, however, is if this is where the coltan for his phone came from. There are also mines in Australia for instance. The steps that lead up to the (online) shop window are unknown. In vain, he besieges Nokia’s headquarters with his camera, trying to get them to disclose their supply chain on their website. You can read what they are currently doing in this area, but read it with a dose of skepticism.

Human right violations materialised

It’s incredible to realise to what an extent violations of human rights can be hard-coded into a piece of electronic equipment. Human rights are materialised this way. Cell phones are not the only example. Think of the jeans that are produced by child labour, for instance. Also the pocket that holds my phone might be compromised. This was shown very well in the documentary China Blue (Micha Peled, 2005). An underage Chinese girl slips a note into the pocket of one the pants she makes, for some Western customer to find it there. Kind of like a message in a bottle. Normally, there is no way to “transcend” the supply chain like that. If we want to stop these kinds of abuse, the relations need to be traced, the nodes of the network. Or, if one cell phone producer decided to put a bloodless phone in the market, others might follow. After all, we can also buy slave-free chocolate in Holland nowadays.

Bruno Latour is “Up in the air”


It sometimes happens that a philosopher and a film explain each other rather well, seemingly by chance. Such is the case with Bruno Latour and the 2009 motion picture Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman.

In the film, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer, flying all across the US to fire people. He maintains a romantic relation with Alex, a co-traveller, wherever their flight schedules meet. He even takes her as a date to his sister’s wedding. When he turns up at her doorstep unexpectedly afterwards, it turns out that she already has a family. The message is that he shouldn’t have intruded in her “real life”.

Reality in the making

Alex’ affair with Ryan is part of her unreal life, or so she seems to suggest. Also when Ryan discusses the relation between him and Alex with a colleague, he is asked whether he wouldn’t want the “chance at something real”.  This might seem like something that people just say, but it’s not like that in this film. The director refers to the Velveteen rabbit (Margey Williams, 1922), a children’s book in which toys turn real if their owners love them enough. Looking at Ryan from this point of view, it seems that his “unreal” life in airplanes and hotel rooms could turn “real” by being loved.

To me, this brings to mind the situation where Bruno Latour was asked: ‘Do you believe in reality?’ He is famous for his view that reality is constantly under construction, but that it is still reality in spite of that. It is “reality in the making”. What is it that makes reality what it is, though?

The film deals with connections, about how they are made and broken. Both Alex and Ryan’s colleagues seem to suggest that a “real life” is made up of human relations. Ryan fires people for a living. He breaks up relations between colleagues, employers and employees. Ironically, he is a relation-maker when talking to his sister’s fiancée, who gets cold feet. The film poster even says that the film tells ‘The story of a man ready to make a connection’. Taking Latour’s angle, we could wonder if this is all. Aren’t there any other “significant others”?

“Where are the missing masses?”

Apart from firing people, Ryan gives motivational lectures. He makes his audience imagine how heavy a back pack would be if you could stuff it with all the people and things in your life. In order not be weighed down in his own life, he tries to minimise the number of relations that he has going on. As a result, his home looks less comforting than a one-star hotel room. He has no possessions that do not fit in a carry-on suitcase. He has no stable relations.

Latour has written a nice article with the title Where are the Missing Masses? (1992). Just like Ryan, he makes people aware of the role that “things” can play in our lives. Ryan makes this even more concrete, by making us feel the weight that things can have. Is the film therefore anti-materialist? Many have suggested a similarity with the tag-line of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999): ‘The things you own end up owning you’. I would disagree with this comparison. First of all, Ryan suggests that also human relations weigh you down. In addition, even though he doesn’t own a lot of stuff, his lifestyle with expensive rental cars and five star hotels does not qualify as anti-materialist at all. For such a story, watch the film Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007). Even there, the protagonist relates to things, though.

People and technology influence each other. Firing someone is not the same if you do it in a video conference. The cameras, the computer screens and the empty room in which the person-to-be-fired is seated are all mediators. That does not mean that (this) technology determines whatever we do. In the film, corporate headquarters decides to return to old-fashioned face-to-face firing.

“Technology is society made durable”

If “things” can weigh you down, but don’t necessarily determine what you do, then what do they do? In another famous essay, Latour argues that Technology is society made durable (1991). I have already said that things mediate what people do, referring to video conferences. Even though Ryan may not have a lot of possessions, he still has a lot of relations with things. What he calls “home” is still described by a lot of “stuff”. He even says: ‘All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home’.

This comes out best in the role that cards play. His frequent flyer card is the materialisation of his loyalty to the airline he uses. He is even so loyal that he reaches 10 million air miles. This earns him another card that makes him part of a club with only seven members world wide. Another card identifies him as Mr. Bingham to a pretty hostess at the airport. Alex and him even go through the cards in their wallets as a getting-to-know-each-other ritual. The best is when Alex takes Ryan’s “concierge card” in her hand, and says: ‘I love the weight!’ Remember the weight of things… Cards are used to make relations. When trying to open a hotel room to spend the night with Alex, Ryan has to try all the cards in his wallet before finding the right key card. And when crashing a party, they even take over other people’s identities by stealing their badges.

Cards are keys, but clearly, they are still so much more than the pieces of metal that we used to use to open doors. What are we to think about the “real” key that Ryan’s neighbour (at his “home”) carries around her neck? The weight of keys plays a particular role in Latour’s work as well. He wrote a lot about ways in which hotel managers can remind their guests to return their keys before leaving. Instead of hanging up a sign in the lobby, they can attach a bulky key ring that feels uncomfortable in your pocket.

Pictures play a similar role. Early in the film, Ryan says that photos are for people who can’t remember. Quite involuntarily, he carries a cardboard photo of his sister and her fiancée with him, to take pictures of them at the places that he visits to fire people. Just like the garden gnome in Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001). Ryan’s sister says: ‘just because we can’t travel doesn’t mean we can’t have pictures’. Ironically, the cardboard doesn’t fit in Ryan’s suitcase. A last example of the role of photos: a middle-aged man who is fired by Ryan shows him pictures of his children. These “things” represent how bad the lives of people who are not in the scene are going to be. After Ryan pep-talks the guy into a career move, we see the pictures again. Even though they are the same as before, the children no longer seem to be in agony about their future, but seem proud of their father’s new life. Things make people, people make things. Things are our attachments or plug-ins, as Latour put it. After people are fired, they need to collect their personal things. Once they have left the office, it’s the stuff that stays behind. Empty desks and chairs.

Back to reality

Is Ryan’s life unreal? The planes on which he travels? His suitcase? The drinks with Alex in hotel lobbies? Another question is if you would like to live like Ryan. Latour cannot answer that question for you.

Who killed the trains of Uyuni?


In 2009 I travelled to Bolivia for the annual human rights film festival in Sucre. Like most other tourists, we were taken to the Uyuni train cemetery. Our guide told us that the rusty, disassembled trains had been at the mercy of nature since the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940s. The header of this website is a picture we took there. When we made our way back to the jeep, a most curious thing happened. A tiny blue and white spot appeared on the horizon. Within seconds, a small train flew by, as if pulled on a string from afar. It moved out of sight as rapidly as it had appeared. All spectators were left spellbound. We had no idea where it came from, or where it headed.

The cemetery is a nice case of innovation. It shows the whole image of technology, people, governing and change. Michael Jacobs wrote a popular novel based on the letters of his grandfather, who was an assistant engineer in the construction of the railroad before the First World War. The letters describes the hardships of the engineers in dealing with the extreme climate, the material and groups of bandits that roamed the area. The construction of such a massive transportation infrastructure cannot be separated from the interests of mining companies. At the same time, heavy support of the Bolivian president, Aniceto Arce, led to the invitation of British engineers. The steel of the rails materialised a vast network of embedded political and commercial interests that stretched from La Paz to the harbours of the Pacific Ocean. Other interests were completely ignored. As a result, the system was frequently sabotaged by Aymara Indians, who experienced the freight train of modernity as a serious intrusion of their lives. This resistance did not stop the engines of “progress”, even though it was delayed.

This story recalls Bruno Latour’s book on the failed Paris subway system Aramis. By this study, he legitimised the academic thriller genre, by posing the question “Who killed Aramis?” Thinking along these lines, we could ask: “Who killed the trains at Uyuni?” Was it purely the decline of mining that called a final stop? Can it be that the material of the rails decayed to such an extent that they failed to collaborate? Or did “nature” cause problems by timely landslides?

But, you may object, this innovation has failed. The trains are gathering rust in a salt dessert. This is undeniable. At the same time, Jacobs argues that there are many things that are durable after the rails connected Bolivia and British engineers. He claims, for instance, that the local drink chufflay is an output of this shared heritage, as well as the introduction of football and freemasonry. The little blue and white train remains a mystery, at least to me.