Recensie – Peter Sloterdijk, De verschrikkelijke kinderen van de nieuwe tijd


Peter Sloterdijks laatste boek vormt een aaneenrijging van historische gebeurtenissen. Ik miste er een, die misschien wel het best zijn punt illustreert. Ik denk aan een voorval op 24 juli 1965. Bob Dylan besloot op het Newport Folk Festival om zijn akoestische gitaar aan de wilgen te hangen en een elektrische set te spelen. Het verhaal gaat dat Pete Seeger, een nestor in de folk scene, met een bijl de kabels van de versterker te lijf wilde gaan om deze verkrachting van de muziek te stoppen. Van dit verhaal klopt weinig. Seeger had geen bijl, en als hij al iets aan de versterking wilde doen had het andere redenen. Dat dit verhaal niet klopt vergroot het belang ervan alleen maar. De legende is nog altijd illustratief voor iets dat daadwerkelijk gebeurde: de muzikale omslag van genres die nog sterk geworteld waren in traditie naar wat we nu pop muziek noemen. Ontworteling is wat Sloterdijk overal om zich heen ziet, en waar dan ook dit boek over gaat. Volgens hem leren we niet meer van de geschiedenis, hebben we gebroken met tradities en nemen we niets van onze ouders aan. Daardoor zijn we verschrikkelijke kinderen geworden. We proberen steeds alles zelf opnieuw uit te vinden.

 

Geschiedenisbril

Sloterdijk zou een waardeloze geschiedenisleraar zijn. Het is dan ook fijn dat hij dat niet is. Zijn historische anekdotes hebben niet meer met elkaar gemeen dan de interpretatie die hij erop legt. Soms zijn die niet overtuigend. Zo suggereert hij dat het idee van het duizend jaar durende Derde Rijk pure fictie was, alleen omdat Himmler er een toespraak over gaf op het moment dat hij er al niet meer in geloofde. Dat is nogal dunnetjes. Vaak weet hij echter uit een beroemde gebeurtenis iets te halen dat je er nog niet in had gezocht, en doet hij je ermee glimlachen. Hij lijkt te zeggen: probeer ook eens met deze bril naar de geschiedenis te kijken.

Dat is wat Michel Foucault, een van zijn leidsmannen, ook deed met zijn geschiedenis van het straffen. We waren lang geneigd te denken dat een overgang van lijfstraffen naar gevangenisstraffen op humanisering duidde. Foucault probeerde te laten zien dat er bij die ontwikkeling ook disciplinering in het straffen sloop. Zoals Nicholas Rose, een van Foucaults commentatoren opmerkte: hij claimde niet dat we na die omslag in gedisciplineerde samenlevingen leven, maar dat de tendens tot disciplinering bestaat. Zo moeten we Sloterdijk ook lezen: het is niet dat geschiedenis en traditie nergens meer een rol heeft, maar dat er een tendens is om meer in het heden te leven.
Verwondering of onbehagen?

Sloterdijk wordt vaak aangevallen op zijn conservatisme, dat inderdaad door al zijn werk heen sijpelt. In zijn Sferen trilogie schreef hij over manieren waarop we de ruimten waarin we leven proberen te beschermen tegen dreigingen van buitenaf. In zijn boek over de mondialisering (Kristalpaleis) keerde hij zich tegen het kosmopolitisme. We moeten ergens wortelen, zegt hij, ‘inwonen’ in een gemeenschap. En, ‘inwonen blijkt nu eenmaal iets te zijn wat ik alleen bij mezelf en de mijnen doen kan, de ander alleen bij zichzelf en de zijnen’, aldus Sloterdijk.

Dat ook onder de verschrikkelijke kinderen een conservatieve basishouding schuilgaat, blijkt al op de eerste pagina. Hij gebruikt de verbanning van Adam en Eva uit het paradijs als argument om te laten zien dat we sinds het begin van onze cultuur al in het ongewisse leven. Dit kun je opvatten als een aanleiding tot verwondering – hoe is die grote wereld buiten het paradijs eigenlijk? – of als het begin van onbehagen – waren we nog maar in dat paradijs. Sloterdijk gaat duidelijk van dat tweede uit. Het leven zonder geschiedenis, traditie en vaderlijke lessen lijkt voor hem op het balanceren op een losliggende evenwichtsbalk. De praktijk is (natuurlijk) niet zo zwart-wit. Bovendien zullen mensen die verwondering als levenshouding hebben, in plaats van onbehagen, het leven in het nu heel anders ervaren.

 

Alleen het heden is er nog

Net zoals Bob Dylan ontbreekt, zo mist ook een prachtig essay van Michel Foucault over een vraag die Immanuel Kant, een van de grondleggers van de moderne filosofie, in 1784 stelde, namelijk: Wat is Verlichting? Volgens Foucault moeten we de boodschap van het historische tijdperk dat we de verlichting noemen begrijpen als: laten we een kritische houding tot het heden aannemen. We moeten nog steeds het verleden begrijpen, maar puur om te snappen waarom we zijn waar we nu zijn. Op die manier gesteld kan het ‘in het heden leven’ ook een kracht zijn, in plaats van een bron van onzekerheid.

Door te sterk de nadruk te leggen op Sloterdijks conservatisme, zoals andere recensenten doen, missen we misschien een wel heel boeiende omdraaiing die hij in dit werk maakt. Naast zijn stelling dat we ontworteld, onhistorisch en vaderloos zijn, zegt hij ook nog eens dat de toekomst onvast is. Hij beschrijft historische events, die we vaak als progressief beschouwen – de Franse en Russische revolutie en het modernisme in de kunst. Verrassend genoeg betoogt hij dat ze allemaal toekomstloos zijn. Vooruitblikken naar een toekomst waarin we zijn ‘vooruitgegaan’ zijn eigenlijk onmogelijk. Zo buigt hij deze ‘progressieve’ ontwikkelingen eigenlijk om tot gebeurtenissen die zich radicaal op het heden richten. Dit is een interessant gezichtspunt dat best tot nadenken aanzet.

 

Oefenen op het nu

Sloterdijks boek lijkt een breuk te vormen met zijn vorige boek, Je moet je leven veranderen, zoals Hans Achterhuis in zijn recensie opmerkt. Het idee dat daar centraal stond, de moderne samenleving als een grote oefenschool, krijgt nu niet veel aandacht. Weg zijn de bespiegelingen over de manier waarop de gedurende de laatste eeuwen gevormde instituties van onderwijs, sport, psychiatrie en zorg een bepaald soort mens proberen op te leiden. Wel creëert het beeld van een ontwortelde, op het heden gerichte samenleving een nieuwe context om over oefening en zelfverbetering na te denken. Als zijn verhaal consistent is, dan moeten de oefensystemen die hij in zijn vorige boek beschreef ons aanleren hoe we steeds alles opnieuw moeten uitvinden, hoe we ons moeten verhouden tot dat heden waarin we leven.

Aan het einde van het boek blijkt dat hij zou willen dat we ons meer zouden richten op de toekomst, vanuit het idee van duurzaamheid van de economie en de omgang met de natuur. In de laatste zin krijgen wij, de verschrikkelijke kinderen, de opdracht mee ons ‘te oefenen in de in onbruik geraakte kunst van het voortduren’.

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?

Hurricane Katrina II: fighting for immune systems


In last week’s blog, I made a case for applying Peter Sloterdijk’s ideas on immune systems to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which hit the American gulf coast in 2005. In this week’s blog, I draw on examples from the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010) to show how this could be a way of examining practical politics.

City immune systems

The immune system of the city as a whole is targeted by a character of the first season of the popular HBO TV-series Treme: Creighton Bernette (John Goodman). Bernette is a writer with writer’s block, and a professor of literature at a local university. Befitting his societal status, his wooden house with a gigantic porch was built on higher grounds and was left untouched. His notion of space is the entire city, and its protection again future storms. He spends most of his non-writing time giving furious interviews to different kinds of journalists. Most of them concern the US Army Corps of Engineers, which were, and are responsible for the levees that need to be higher to maintain the city’s immune system. He only finds the proper medium to suit his voice when discovering YouTube. In one of his videos, he rants that ‘a bunch of idiot planners are busy running around putting green dots on maps deciding which neighbourhoods they think should return to cypress swampland’ (see last week’s blog for en explanation of the green dots). Bernette tries to accommodate to the space of the new city, taking part in mardi gras and community life, but cannot cope. His own living space is increasingly small: he withdraws to a dark room in the garden house and ends up sleeping on the porch. At the end of season one, he commits suicide, in the wide open of the Mississippi river, jumping off the ferry.

Neighbourhood immune systems

Another character, “big chief” Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), also “acts on” the green dots, but in an entirely different manner. He is not concerned with maps or the internet, but with the fenced off housing projects that he sees close to his own house, which was ruined in the storm. His politics concerns the issue of people not being able to come home. Unlike Bernette’s city-focus, he is concerned with the immune system of the space that used to house communities that are now dispersed across the land. With the aid of friends, he cuts through a fence and squats one of the sealed off houses. By breaking the “isolation” of the fence, he changes the ontological status of the housing project. In a single unitary space within a fence, he unveils the lot of micro-spaces that used to be people’s homes. By occupying such a house, he transforms it into a living space. His example is followed by others. Before long, the police remove him with disproportional force, in front of a large public of bystanders and TV cameras.

The two activists that call themselves the Yes Men perform a similar disclosure of green-dotted neighbourhoods. With one of them pretending to be a representative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they stage a hoax at a prestigious conference. Speaking after then-mayor Nagin, he announces that HUD is aware of its mistakes, and that he is proud to present that all the fenced-off housing projects will be ceremonially opened that afternoon. On top of that, Shell and Exxon will fund the renewal of the wetlands. The hoax is discovered, but not before they manage to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the projects. Media try to make them look bad by arguing that they played a cruel joke on all the people who were “not allowed to come home”. Interestingly, by such statements, media actually take over the activists’ slogans. Interviews with attending citizens, however, show the opposite. The Yes Men’s hoaxes usually meet wide support of the disadvantaged. Rebuilding an immune system, in this case, required creating the hope of a community. A small public was formed by “two guys in cheap suits”, as they describe themselves, but it will take more to “fix the world”. The documentary was a worldwide success.

House immune systems

When neighbourhoods are rebuilt, it is often through the introduction of “mixed housing”. This pushes up rents to such levels that the original inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. In this respect, the action of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project, as described in Spike Lee’s documentary, is highly interesting. Even though it targets green dotted neighbourhoods, the focus is on the immune systems of family houses. In sharp contrast with government- or market-driven building projects, the project constructs affordable, environmentally sustainable and storm-resistant houses. This extends beyond building houses on poles, capturing a holistic immune system’s view. Features included: green roofs, rainwater harvesting, pervious concrete, raingardens, tree-planting & protection (for water absorption) and porous streetscape. They are not over-isolated: all of them have escape hatches to the roof. From the point of view of micro-space immune systems, it is interesting that the project is criticised for being no more than ‘a few individual houses in a sea of empty lots, there are no sidewalks, schools or shops’. We are back to Sloterdijk’s islands. Perhaps they lack co-isolation.

Individual immune systems

For the individual level, we leave the green dots and return to the Yes Men. They crash another conference, this time dedicated to technologies for flood-victims. To their surprise, the tools offered would be more suitable for surviving heavy warfare than a storm. This brings them to stage their own (fake) technology, the SurvivaBall. The concept seems to draw on Sloterdijk’s work almost literally. The title of their presentation is “What Noah knew”, explaining that by creating the space of the ark, Noah effectively became ruler of all animals. The ball represents a one-man ark. Sloterdijk uses arks as an example of completely isolated islands. On top of that, the Yes Men show in their presentation that the balls can even connect to form a larger, co-isolated, foam-like organism that can float across a sea, like an actual island. To their surprise, their presentation is received with great approval by the audience.

Hurricane Katrina I: immune systems and green dots


Last year, Amnesty International presented its report – entitel Un-natural disaster. Human rights in the gulf coast – on the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Amnesty argues that ‘returning home is a human right’. Many former residents are still dispersed over a range of different states. The trauma that the storm caused to the United States is reflected in the number of films that cover it. In next week’s blog, I draw on the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010). Before that, a short tale of how to understand green dots and other spaces.

Immune systems

Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “spheres” is helpful for understanding the aftermath of Katrina. Sloterdijk attempts to bring the notion of space into philosophy more explicitly. Our “private sphere”, office spaces, homes, islands and cities, all are spaces that have their own characteristics and manners of sustaining. The first part of the trilogy that he composed on the topic encompassed micro-spheres, the second macro-spheres. The former applies to “interior spaces” (bells or bubbles) in which intimate human cohabitation unfolds. The latter extends the borders of such private spheres to spaces of living together (globes) villages, cities, empires and universes. In the third part, he attempts to show how all these spaces are interconnected, in a continuously transforming whole that is as liquid, bubbly and changeable as foam. Foam city is the culmination of urban forms of space-configurations. Sloterdijk argues explains that cities are:

‘co-isolated islands, interconnected to a network, which briefly or chronically ought to form medium or large structures with neighbouring islands – a national assembly, a club, a freemasons’ lodge, a gathering of co-workers, a shareholders meeting, an audience in a concert hall, a suburban neighbourhood, an accumulation of motorists in a traffic jam, a congress of tax payers’ (Spheres III)[1].

Co-isolation is the idea that neighbouring bubbles in the foam share a “wall”: the indoor wall of my private space might be the outdoor wall of yours.

The next point that Sloterdijk makes is that all these different bubbles, globes and spaces have their own immune systems. Partly, this is to be understood metaphorically. For instance, how do we protect the invasion of our private space from intruders? At the same time, it is translated to concrete material manifestations of architecture and urban planning. Pointing at technological advances such as climate control and air conditioning, he shows how modern houses have their distinct immune systems to make the space inhabitable.

We could regard politics in post-Katrina New Orleans as a debate about spaces and their immune systems. The system was tested by the storm, and failed. 53 levees that were to keep the water out collapsed, many long before the fury of the storm was at its peak. It was the water that destroyed the city, rather than the wind. Roughly 80% of the city was under water, sometimes up to 20 feet. Close to 2000 people died. Tragically, this was also due to “over-isolation”: many people were trapped in their attics, dying of heat and lack of water.

It was also the immune system of particular neighbourhoods that did not hold up, or even that of individual houses that had not been elevated properly. Some areas on higher grounds –built before 1900 – were safe. All these spaces are interconnected. Houses, some even sharing walls, are connected to particular neighbourhoods, all of which constitute the foam of the city, which was seriously shaken up by the storm. These spaces provide us with a more systematic approach to our search of publics and their problems.

Green dots

The term “green dot” is notorious for New Orleanians by now. Planners look for ways to improve the sustainability of the urban environment. Billy Fields shows that one of the tools that is popular in green urbanism is the notion of “greenways”: open spaces that function as a ‘buffer between ‘nature’ and urban areas’ . In Sloterdijk’s terms, such an “artificial” green zone can be regarded as an example of strengthening the co-isolation of nature and human space. In principle, it seems reasonable to argue for such an approach in New Orleans: a major reason for the severity of the damage was that the wetlands that had traditionally functioned as a buffer had slowly but surely been urbanised and economised during the 20th century. Fields speak of ‘the “conquest of wetlands within the city limits”’. Also the doings of major oil companies like Shell and Exxon contributed to destroying wetlands, as John Manard Jr. and others add. The expanded island was not protected well.As Fields shows, the idea of greenways was finally accepted in New Orleans. The idea that preceded it was less successful, however.

The Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) plan was presented to the public early 2006. A local newspaper ran an article in which the initial proposals for creating green spaces were represented as green dots on a map. These spaces did not relate to buffers between nature and urban areas, but to the more general notion of green spaces in a city. The map led to instant fury, considering that the green dots covered whole neighbourhoods. Maria Nelson and others argue that ‘[m]any residents understood that all green areas were slated for green space, and the green dot became a threat to neighborhood residents’. What is more, the dots generally covered low-income, black neighbourhoods. Planners stressed that no form of discrimination was intended. Nevertheless, they add that ‘“recommendations to reduce flood risk equal ‘ethnic cleansing’”. Intentional or not, the dots became political actors.

Next week’s blog will continue the discussion of immune systems in the aftermath of Katrina, showing examples in documentaries and TV-shows.


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[1] All quotations by Sloterdijk were translated from Dutch to English by the author. No English translation is available so far