Friday, November 11, 2011

A different message out of the same future: on Constant's New Babylon

On November 3, the reading group looked at the Nieuw Babylon project of Constant. Katja van Driel reports:

Sessions on utopian thought continue: This time the model of New Babylon by artist/architect Constant Niewenhuys, or to be more precise, a catalogue text in the form of a manifesto written by Constant himself, is the scaffolding of reflection on the possibilities of the Occupy movement and on the state of contemporary society. Right in the beginning we find a striking parallel image to the setting of Occupy: Constant developed the vision of New Babylon after he saw a miserable and precarious gipsy camp and thought about better structures for the nomads. While Occupy still is pretty much on the ground, Constant had something different in his mind: He wanted his architecture to fly and to circulate.

Constant designed architectural models for a utopian society where inhabitants live in a totally open and flexible city structure that can expand into every direction, just like liquid. The architecture is a mirror of the way of life of the New Babylonians. They are only guided by their creative drift which leads them, keeps them moving and finds no limits, neither in society nor in the physical structures that surround them. This way, the New Babylonians can act out their being human without boundaries and realize the ideal of the Homo ludens. This drift can also clearly be associated with libidinous propulsion. New Babylon has reached the terminal point of technological progress with a „society that knows neither famine nor exploitation nor work“. However, Constant depicts the New Babylonians as figures from a far future that speak to us which immediately reveals also the absolute utopian character of his model. What do they tell to us? Maybe we hear rather different things than Constant did.

The discussion starts with the question whether Constant's Utopia has not been, at least partly, realized, today. Couldn’t it be that we are now living in a kind of New Babylon but just without its fantastic, utopian aspects and if that is so how come?

With his vision Constant has anticipated a great deal of the flexibilisation of life and work circumstances which characterize our contemporary society. His ideas about networks and individual possibilities for broadcasting come rather close to the internet for example. His vision belongs to a period when the belief in progress was still undaunted and the welfare state wasn’t in question.

But similar to a notion that has been made earlier in connection to the text of Shukaitis, the dreams of the 60ies and 70ies have seemingly turned into the nightmares of today. We experience an increase of mobility but at the same time we are losing points of orientation and identification. Could it be that we are also less aggressive (as Constant states his New Babylonians will be)? The flexible worker is one of the major new figures that have appeared over the last decades. This mobile individual circulating inside our global economy is the symbol of a tendency towards alienation. As there is barely an opposition to the grievances these individuals encounter, the current system has possibly been able to channel aggression, but more as a perverted version of what is described for New Babylon, because it is not sublimated into something positive but makes the flex worker support the system that erodes him. Ownership is an important factor in this mechanism: the freedom as imagined by Constant was possible only because everything would be common property.

The dynamics which, in New Babylon, are born out of the unbridled creativity can also be compared to the mechanisms that are caused by the globalized flows of capital. All boundaries have been withdrawn so that if shockwaves run through it, the whole system is affected. This uncontrollable flow of energies is able to create unimagined consequences.

The question could then be how to channel the above mentioned dynamics in different ways. Some 40 years ago Constant was looking for ways to overcome constrictive social conventions. Today we are generally rather looking for alternatives which can also include having such things as a home or a family life, but without them leading to forms of oppression.

Katja van Driel

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rousseau at Occupy: session 16 (sunday)

On Sunday the 13th, our reading group will embark on an investigation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract. In this, our 16th session, we will take a look at the 2nd book. This session will take place at 13:00. Come and bring friends!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"And so then we ask ourselves again the question: is this a Rebellion?": reading Camus.

Wednesday, november 9, in the morning, Albert Camus' classic text l'Homme Révolté, a.k.a. The Rebel, a.k.a. De Mens in Opstand, gave rise to a lively discussion of some 8-10 voices at the green army tent at Occupy Amsterdam. Daniel Rovers reports:

- Why this text?

- And, why did Hans Achterhuis mention this text referring – in a positive way – to the Occupy Movement?

- Hans Achterhuis?

- He is the so called Thinker of the Fatherland in the Netherlands.

- Basically this is a text about saying No. It’s not about gradual improvement, it’s about radical change. That’s why it can be considered a text useful in thinking about this Occupy movement.

- But is Occupy really about beheading the master? Aren’t things a lot more complex, aren’t we all in a way involved in the system we want to radically change?

- This notion of a master-slave relationship as quintessential for a rebellion, as Camus writes, it is highly problematic. Specifically what he writes on page 14, saying that the ‘problem of rebellion only seems to assume precise meaning within Western thought’, and that, and he is agreeing here with Scheler, ‘that the spirit of rebellion finds few means of expression in societies where inequalities are very great (the Hindu Caste System) or, again, in those where there is absolute equality (certain primitive societies).’ That is to say that rebellion in the colonial world is not legitimate.

- And the interesting aspect is that he wrote this text in 1951, after the independence of India, Indonesia.

- The problem here is that Camus wants to counter Scheler in his thesis on humanism and resentment, arguing (Scheler was) that humanists are good at loving humanity, but do not love really human individuals. Camus wants to develop a more militant, or less vulnerable version of humanism. But in striving for a new universalism, he arrives only at (t)his Western version of universalism. This being the reason for a more post-structuralist thinker like Foucault being anti-humanist; arguing that humanism, as developed by European philosophers, was just a fancy way of universalising Western man.

- And that why it is so interesting that Achterhuis evokes this text. Him being a former Maoist who came to be a vehement critic of all sorts of utopian thought. He is a classic sort of post-ideological, post-political leftist thinker. Playing safe. Why not mention Fanon in this respect, or Zizek, or Rancière – who actually take universalism one or even several steps further.

- Ok, so in this respect this text is absolutely dated; but what about what Camus writes abouts values – that a rebellion already entails a specific value or set of values. I quote: ‘Not every value entails rebellion, but every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value.’

- That is the paradox or contradiction in this text; on the one hand denying the possible rebellion in non-Western cultures, on the other hand saying that every rebellion involves certain values – which then can or could be universalized.

- And could we then not say that in that respect what is lacking in Camus’ thinking, is what is lacking, or rather, what is so disturbing in the ideas of the current radical enlightenment, translated into politics by, for example F. Bolkestein and A. Hirsi Ali, namely the absence of a really universal way of thinking.

- A way of thinking that you could call multicultural?

- I don’t know if you should call it multicultural, being a highly contested term; although it can’t overstated that this kind of radical ‘enlightenment’ stops at the border, so to say, it draws a line between who is in (The West), and who is out (Islam and the Islamic World). Where as really Enlightenment is –

- Sorry, but the problem with these discussions is that we are having them for so long now. Let’s not forget why we are here, that is not because of some cultural difference, but because of this overwhelming, devastating system called capitalism. And multiculturalism, in the end, is a product of capitalism, in that it clearly defines a value system of different essential ‘cultures’.

- Ok, you’re right. Although I hesitate in making a classic Marxist move of blaming it all on the system, one should indeed focus on the economy. The economy of this Occupy movement and camp in the first place.

- What I found interesting to see here, is how Occupy deals with these problems, civic problems basically, or multicultural problems, if you will, on ground level. Dealing with the homeless, the drunk, the so called outcast of the system in an alternative that is set up around the idea of radical equality.

- That’s right, and I see two tendencies, two ways of thinking about these real problems here within the camp. The first one being of care, that Occupy should be a movement that through care makes a point, makes the world a better place as well, creates goodwill, and so forth. The second being that Occupy is not a charitable organisation, and that one should aim for higher, political goals.

- But it’s not about people who cause problems, and those who don’t. It’s about people who contribute, and those who don’t. In The Hague, for example, one of the most active people in Occupy is someone who has been homeless for more than 4 years.

- And so then we ask ourselves again the question: is this a Rebellion? We know the criticisms of the so called outside world – that we are just a bunch of spoiled brats who are not willing to go all the way and sacrifice themselves.

- Well, to again refer to Camus, maybe it is very important that this is not about all or nothing, about outside or inside, about rebellion or resentment. It is, and that is what I find so fascinating, being here with your body, sleeping here, and in that way sacrificing something, your time, your autonomy, in a way. And what I also observe is a reconfirmation of what classical marxism called the ‘Common’, the stage before property was being claimed, transferred, sold. This is also a very concrete way of thinking again about the common.

Daniël Rovers

[De vertaling in het Nederlands week, met name als Camus aan Scheler refereerde, af van het Engels, die bovendien enkele duidelijke fouten bevatte (‘turn fats into values’). De Franse tekst was niet voorhanden, maar werpt mogelijk een beter licht op Camus’ positie ten opzichte van Scheler en diens opvatting over de mogelijkheid van een opstand buiten de geschiedenis van het Westen.]

Monday, November 7, 2011

John Berger en de noodzaak van ontroering

Elke Uitentuis doet verslag van de leesgroepsessie rond John Berger's Ten Dispatches About Place:

John Berger beschrijft in 8 stappen een staat van vervreemding waarin de mens verkeerd; in een wereld door menselijk toedoen geconstrueerd doolt zij rond op zoek naar een bestemming die nooit wordt bereikt. Alles lijkt losgerukt van de oorsprong. De tekens die houvast zouden moeten bieden zijn ontrokken aan hun referentiekader en verworden tot holle symbolen die een enkel vage vorm van herkenning teweeg brengen. Het idee dat je de wereld overvliegt maar nooit in staat zult zijn enig vliegveld te verlaten. Een wereld die overal hetzelfde is maar tegelijkertijd van niemand. Muzak op de achtergrond en consumeren als enig optie. Oorspronkelijkheid is ook al niet te vinden op het platteland. Daar waar de natuurlijke grondstoffen worden gekaapt door globaal opererende coöperaties. Een oneerlijke concurrentie die leidt tot corruptie op lokaal niveau. Berooid blijft de populatie achter. Het is een hopeloze situatie zoals die door John Berger wordt geschetst. Een wereld waar geen plaats is voor enige vorm van geborgenheid.

Maar wanneer de wanhoop ons naar de keel grijpt en we geen uitweg meer zien, worden we verlicht door een gedetailleerde beschrijving van een groep grazende ezels die door middel van een enkele blik het bestaan van John Berger erkennen. Het moment waarop alle zintuigen open staan en je enkel absorbeert. Het geluid wordt harder, het zonlicht sterker en de minimale interactie heeft maximale impact. Ieder detail is ineens van groot belang en brandt op het netvlies, om je vervolgens nooit meer te verlaten.

De hectiek van het Occupy kamp doet een appel op het improvisatievermogen van een ieder die hier aanwezig is. Een constante urgentie die verslavend is, maar ook het uiterste van alle betrokkenen vraagt. Aan de hand van de tekst bespraken we de kleine dingen die ons hier ontroeren en de noodzakelijkheid deze momenten te registreren. De man die inplugt op onze aggregaat om zich te scheren, de vrouw die ons laat zien hoe ze zonder woorden mensen tot rust maant, de jongen die de stijve spieren van een ieder, verkleumd door de kou, los masseert en het kopje thee dat ons wordt geschonken in het midden van de nacht wanneer we de wacht houden. Om te overleven moeten we deze details in al hun volheid tot ons nemen. Alleen dan kunnen we ons staande houden in de chaos die het zoeken naar nieuwe politiek kenmerkt en kunnen we onze toewijding waarborgen.

Elke Uitentuis

Sunday, November 6, 2011

13, 14, 15: Toni Negri, Albert Camus, Chilean songs and virtuoso pianism

Session 13 will be on monday. The text will be an interview with Toni Negri by Pascal Gielen and Sonja Lavaert, published in the recent collection Community Art: the Politics of Trespassing. The interview text for the reading group can be downloaded here.

Tuesday's session is canceled.

Session 14 will be on wednesday. Text: The Rebel by Albert Camus (recently invoked by Hans Achterhuis to explain the Occupy movement).

Session 15 will be on thursday. This is the first session of what I hope will be a series, in which we "read" works of art and the way they deal with some of the recurrent themes of our reading. In this session, we'll look at the Chilean song El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido and Frederic Rzewski's grand set of piano variations on the song, The People United Will Never Be Defeated. We'll look at these works for how they think the unity of the people in its diversity: a motive that first came up in our discussion of Merijn Oudenampsen's text on populist imagery.

Here is a link to the text and an .mp3 of the song itself. Composer Christian Wolff's program notes on the music can be found here.

The Rzewski piece itself is extensive, consisting of a theme and 36 variations, taking about 50 minutes. I've uploaded some mp3s of the piece: these are the links for part one - part two - part three. The interpretation is Ursula Oppen's, who is the piece's dedicatee. On Youtube, there is a thrilling bravoura interpretation by the Liszt-specialist Marc André Hamelin, which projects the score at the same time; it is in 8 parts however, and the editing is imperfect, so two variations end up incomplete.

Update: I've just uploaded a .pdf of the score.

Enjoy - and hope to see you there!