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Antisocial Scenarios

Essay written by philosopher Eric Bolle for "Book for the Unstable Media," 1992.

Antisocial Scenarios

Book for the Unstable Media

At the moment we are faced with the problem that our belief in the community, our social ideology, no longer tallies with social reality, with what is really going on in our society. We have not yet learned how to cope with the antisocial scenarios with which we are confronted more and more often. What does 'community' still mean in a world where man-machine communication has become at least as important as communication between people? What is the meaning of work, when we are teleworking at home, at the computer, and interaction with clients and colleagues is becoming more and more minimized? In what way is the social field restructured when traffic is increasing and informatics and telematics are setting the tone? What kind of mutual relationships and living environment will people be left with, in the era of technology? There is a large discrepancy between, on the one hand, social ideology as the belief in the value of the community and the wish to restore the community, and social reality on the other. Contrary to the visions of social ideology, social reality is not as such resistant to modern technology; rather it is true that social reality is the place where new media and technologies can develop without hindrance. New media and technologies certainly create new jobs, but nobody familiar with the use of the cash dispenser will deny that this automat has made counter clerks redundant.

Nobody who pays with a credit card will confuse his own identity with the number on that card or with his PIN-code. Yet we accept the fact that the automat does precisely that, and only the ?soft? character and the convenience of the technological procedure have rendered this identification acceptable. It is generally the user-friendly nature, characteristic of recent technology, which makes it acceptable to most people.

This friendly nature and the convenience involved correspond with the tendency towards immaterialization. Modern design enhances this tendency, by eliminating everything reminiscent of gravity, and by aiming as much as possible at a state of floating, indeed, in a certain way at elimination of everything resisting the senses: you do not feel a good chair.

Meanwhile, man is noticeably being phased out by technology. What used to be the essence of humanity, identity and mortality, is increasingly constrained in a world of genetic experiments, organ transplants and intensive care. We are no longer alive, but we survive, often without knowing who we are. That is why discussions on the donor card, on abortion, euthanasia, and the right either to end the life of comatose patients or not, have become so crucial within our society in such a short time. Man-machine communication has now advanced to the point where machines are no longer just equipment at the disposal of man, but man has gradually become the embodiment of the machine.

The issue is not one of being in favor or against something, or that of embracing or rejecting the achievements of modern technology. The issue is to face up to the problems and to create the distance necessary for critical reflection.

Architecture and visual arts are tossed to and fro between utopia and nostalgia. Architects are allotted the task, by themselves as well as by others, of restoring the community to its former state (the origin of nostalgia) or of contributing towards the creation of a new community (the origin of utopia). Almost every story about architecture hovers between utopia and nostalgia, between the establishment of a new community and the longing for the community-of-old. A similar vision on the recovery of the social aspect is also a paramount motive in placing works of art in public places.

However, due to this, architecture and visual arts are faced with a dilemma, because the social aspect and the community on which they are supposed to be orientated are increasingly involved in a process of disintegration and disappearance. My thesis is that the new media and technologies have ushered in a crisis of the social, which requires the reassessment of the orientation of, for example, architectural design on criteria based on the belief in the community. In the era of technology, the social aspect can no longer be a self-evident starting point, but becomes a problematic issue with far-reaching consequences for the architectural design practice.

In my opinion, it is philosophy that should support architecture and visual arts in the development of a social consciousness which reflects the way in which the new media and technologies are transforming our space and our time, and the way in which this could be entered into and given shape to.

The debate on architecture and the forming of public opinion around it are rapidly reaching an impasse. Two parties are diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand, there are the architects of the Modern Movement and their descendants, on the other hand, those who regard this kind of architecture as a threat to their town, village or neighborhood. On the one hand, there are the engineers and the planners, using their rulers to draw a road through the polder or squared paper to lay out a district, on the other, the people who plead for the preservation of what is characteristic of a town or region and who are trying to protect the original spot. Utopia and nostalgia clash with each other everywhere.

Therefore, it is important to enter into the possibility of overcoming the deadlock by examining whether or not the approach to the problem is based on ill-considered assumptions. I think, for example, that the upholders of the original spot are overlooking something. The idea that town and landscape are being exploited by and submitted to the engineers? mentality and the mathemizability of space, and that the original spot should be protected from this approach, falls short, because we can only speak of an original spot after an area has been submitted to mathematical intervention. It is not as if there was an original spot first and then modern architecture; indeed no, it is only because of modern architecture that something in the way of a regional image language or historically sound conservation of monuments has become possible and necessary.

Supposing that, by some miraculous intervention from above or from outside, modern architecture could be undone, this would not redeem the original, pre-technology world which sometimes evokes such nostalgic longing in us. Along with modern architecture, we would also, and at the same time, loose the object of our nostalgia. Matters would not return to their original state, but disappear in the turmoil of an empty memory.

Anyone looking for an answer to the question of how the social ideology in architecture came about, should study the research into German architectural culture around the turn of the century by Francesco Dal Co (an Italian architecture historian). I would mention particularly his study Abitare nel Moderno, first published in 1982, with an extensive American version released in 1990 under the title FIGURES OF ARCHITECTURE AND THOUGHT, GERMAN ARCHITECTURE CULTURE 1880-1920. Dal Co sketches the origin of the alliance between utopia and nostalgia and demonstrates clearly that the craving for the restoration of a ?real' living culture with the relevant organic form language is caused by the inability to accept modernity and its accompanying technology in a down-to-earth way.

According to Dal Co, two important oppositions dominated the debate of that time on culture in general and architecture in particular. He is referring to the opposition between GEMEINSCHAFT (community) and GESELLSCHAFT (society) described by Tönnies, and to Spengler's opposition between KULTUR (culture) and ZIVILISATION (civilization). Community should be understood to be the communal living of people on the basis of a common religion, or a shared idea. Consequently, community is based on mutual agreement. Society, however, is primarily about mutual oppositions and their articulation. Divided societies crave the restoration of their old close-knit communities. Something similar applies to culture and civilization. Culture' is on the level of 'community' and 'civilization' on that of 'society'.

What links them together in spite of the great differences between them. Tönnies was a prominent theoretician of social democracy, whereas the notorious pessimist Spengler associated his ideas on the fall of the Occident with the conservative revolution is that they both resented and criticized the reality of the modern metropolis, with its non-authentic ways of living, from a nostalgic longing for the time when people still formed a true nation, and still believed in values shared by everyone. Both of them rejected the present society and civilization in favor of the restoration of community and culture. Community and culture, they argued, thrive on beliefs shared by everyone, whereas the current confusion characteristic of our society and civilization is caused by the fragmentation of modern life. In short, both of them longed to return to a concept of totality shared by and binding on everyone.

We have to agree with Dal Co when he claims that, since the introduction of the community ideology, the work of art in general and architecture in particular are incessantly expected to rehabilitate the community, whose disappearance into modernity is so deeply mourned over, and to bring the people, now so far removed from one another, closer together again. Consequently, design is more and more regarded as a social instrument and therefore an issue of political debate.

According to Dal Co architecture has thus become entangled in a fatal controversy, and now finds itself trapped in a labyrinth from which it can only escape if it breaks with social ideology. Indeed, this ideology turns architecture into a mere technological resort; it reduces architecture to the performance of no more than an intervention, an operation in the social field. All those views on home and living, which require of architecture that it restores man?s organic belonging to nature and the world by breaking with modernity and the metropolitan life style, disguise the fact that their advocates no less expect a technological intervention from architecture than any hard-core pragmatist.

As already mentioned, Dal Co retraces the origin of social ideology in architecture to the German turn-of-the-century debate on GEMEINSCHAFT versus GESELLSCHAFT and on KULTUR versus ZIVILISATION. It is precisely this self-concept of architecture as aninstrument to bridge oppositions and to restore the communal that has degraded architecture to a technocratic instrument, passing over its true task: that of giving shape to the space and time belonging to modern life and technology, on the basis of down-to-earth acceptance of the new situation. Architecture and visual arts should give shape to the social aspect and to technology, not give in to them.

The question of in what way architecture and visual arts can avoid the repression exerted by technology and the social aspect, or rather: in what way art and architecture can articulate the borderline between themselves on one side, and technology and the social aspect on the other side, is the central issue of L'INHUMAIN. CAUSERIES SUR LE TEMPS (1988), reflections on aesthetics by the post-modernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.

Lyotard's starting point is the central concept of the inhuman. His intention is to develop a non- or even an anti-humanist aesthetic. He criticizes humanism as the central doctrine of social ideology by arguing that, instead of the human, it could very well be precisely the inhuman that constitutes the essence of mankind.

Such a view will easily lead to misunderstandings. Therefore, in Lyotard's opinion, we will have to distinguish clearly between the inhuman of the totalitarian nations, of fascism and dictatorship on the one hand, and the inhuman in the sense of the divine and the sublime on the other. Lyotard regards the fact that both types of inhumanity have fallen into discredit, and that they are being rejected as irrational, as the writing on the wall. Indeed, people are all too easily tempted to reject everything undesirable in art or aesthetics as fascist. Just think of Nietzsche and Heidegger, whose work was never given a fair chance, because of the readers' bias over their alleged complicity in fascism. Lyotard correctly considers this as nonsense, and sees precisely the inhuman in the sense of the sublime and the sacred as the true substance with which art can help us communicate. However, the kind of communication that, according to Lyotard, the avant-garde in visual arts has in mind is of a totally different nature than communication as accomplished by information technology and the new media. His book is for the greater part devoted to research into the difference between both types of communication, into the distinction between artistic and technological interaction.

In Lyotard's opinion, we are all unconsciously carrying an idea of technological utopia, an information-technical wish dream and obsession which implies that our data should outlive us. More and more, we live in fear that the world is coming to an end and our solar system is dying. Indeed, astronomical calculations have proved that the sun has half its life span behind it and can best be compared with someone with a life expectancy of 80 years, who has just celebrated his 40th birthday. In one way or another we want to survive the explosion of the galaxy, and that by enabling our thinking, our artificial intelligence as it lies stored in the form of computer memories, to survive the catastrophe. According to Lyotard, our science is therefore governed by the obsession of being present at the moment of our own death and also of recording this dying in our own consciousness which is utterly impossible, of course. Along with the sun, mankind and everything it has created, will come to an end.

Lyotard does not disapprove of information technology, nor of computers on the contrary, in the past he devoted an exhibition to the subject, under the title LES IMMATERIAUX but he does reject the view that thinking could be reduced to logical operations and mathematical procedures. Particularly in philosophy, in literature and in art, we see that the real thinking is something completely different and is associated with the experience of a great emptiness and deep pain, It is precisely the tension belonging to the real thinking that is eliminated by informatics.

In Lyotard's view, informatics should be seen in connection with space travel, in connection with the obsessive wish to go into exile and to leave Earth. We always want to go somewhere else, in any case far away from here. As a result, the concept of house and home has disappeared from our sphere of interest, or at least has been reduced to an object of nostalgia. Lyotard points out that this kind of nostalgia can only arise when the technocratic megalopolis has become reality. The house, the oikos, the domus, the home, they have in Lyotard's opinion never been a place of security and intimacy. The house of antiquity was not a place of rustic comfort, but, on the contrary, a place of alienation and the stake of tragedy. Intimacy is something we project on 'home', in reality we do not dwell and we never did. Therefore, our nostalgia is a side-effect of our constant nomadizing in the big city, of our transit ports, our transfer traffic, our constant leaving and travelling on. We are doomed to an exile in the cosmos, an exile which reduces Earth to a mere spaceship and matter to the carrier do of immaterial information.

Lyotard regrets this development, but is level-headed enough to accept it and wonders whether the avant-garde should endorse this process or rather devote itself to other tasks. At any rate, Lyotard feels that art and architecture should no longer deny information technology, telematics, space travel, in short, the entire bulk of planetary technology, but should plug into it, should find the right ways to deal with it and display initiatives to create an alternative, on the basis of which technological developments can be reflected if not controlled. In any case, we should be careful not to confuse thinking with computing. On the contrary, thinking should be opened up to that which cannot be thought. Or in Lyotard's own words: "Only the capacity of being susceptible to that which presents itself to thought without the thinking being prepared for it, deserves to be called thinking."

To Lyotard, the social aspect is therefore no longer a referent when it comes to gaining an insight into the task of art and architecture in our time. Rather he considers it their task to teach us how to deal with technology and with the inhuman.

© Eric Bolle / V2_

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