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Expand the capacity of your imagination […] Increase your capacity for fear

Philosopher Ben Ware on the new ways of seeing 'distancing' within the social, political and aesthetic spheres

by Ben Ware
July 28, 2020

On June 11 took place the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano, entitled The Earth seen from the Moon. The symposium was part of a three-appointment series that address some key issues of our present. Here the speech by Ben Ware, the Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King's College, London.

The Earth seen from the Moon, the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano

Distance
In a 1977 lecture series on How to Live Together at the Collège de France, the theorist Roland Barthes investigates the concept of "distance".  How much distance, Barthes asks, can we tolerate in interpersonal situations, in our everyday lives, in politics and in social spaces? At what distance should I keep myself from others in order to build with them "a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile"? For Barthes, living together implies a science, an ethics and indeed an art of distances: a method for managing the relationship between proximity and desire.

These issues have returned with a vengeance during the time of the pandemic, in which "social distancing" has been a way of attempting to ensure our mutual survival. Some philosophers have responded problematically to this collective effort. Giorgio Agamben, for example, drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, has argued that such distancing amounts to nothing more than attempts on the part of the state to regulate bodies through the imposition of "exceptional measures". By remaining in our homes, in the interests of public safety, Agamben believes that we "abdicate our own ethical and political principles" and betray what he calls "the unity of our vital experience."

Contrary to Agamben’s views, however, it seems clear that corporeal distancing has, in many cases, strengthened the intensity of our links with others, allowing new forms of solidarity to emerge. We re-connect with old friends and old collaborators, picking up discarded threads and weaving them into something new, something beautiful and unexpected. When we speak and interact with comrades and loved ones, their words now assume a new weight, their faces a new significance, and we are reminded once again of our mutual interdependence. But there is a global dimension to all this, too: in the face of a common risk (a virus that knows no borders), possibilities emerge for a turning away from nationalist isolationism and a move towards a new internationalist, solidarity-oriented politics. Instead of hoping for a return to "normal" or a resumption of "business as usual" (whatever that might be) we might instead ask how we might produce new forms of life in which (as Barthes himself might put it) differences are brought together and new rhythmic variations play out simultaneously. 

There is, I think, another and related philosophical point that we might make here. The distance imposed upon us, and that we have imposed upon ourselves, during the recent lockdown has produced a new opening, a gap within the capitalist everyday, enabling a change of perspective. By being forced to take a step back, we begin to see things under a changed aspect. An example from art might here be illustrative. In Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors, the oblique object in the foreground is revealed to be a human skull only when the painting is viewed from a certain position. Looked at face on, it appears only as a grey-brown smear and the essential element of the work is missed. The production of distance is thus a condition of possibility of responding to the work itself. Given our current situation, then, we might ask what new ways of seeing "distancing" opens-up within the social, political and aesthetic spheres? Might distancing itself be a condition of possibility for seeing the everyday otherwise and for a re-awakening of the (collective) imagination of possible and alternate futures?   

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533

Extinction
In a recent article published in "Le Monde", the philosopher Bruno Latour asks whether the current pandemic can be understood as a "dress rehearsal" for climate change? Arguably, however, what Covid-19 makes abundantly clear is that the future of recurring natural disasters is already here. The catastrophe is no longer something ‘to come’, but something which has now in fact arrived.

In this new age of intersecting crises – new and deadly plagues, climate heating, ecocidal acceleration, racist state violence and economic and social meltdowns – we are being forced to ask serious questions about the direction in which we are heading. Understandably, many of us feel anxious and confused, like characters in a Kafka tale scrambling around and wondering who we might turn to for help. We are dealing with a situation which is, in one sense, unthinkable – the specter of mass extinction; and it often seems like the old Socratic question "How should we live?" has been replaced with the altogether more terrifying question "Will we live?"

In the face of such a situation, fear is neither irrational nor is it philosophically or politically redundant. According to the German philosopher Günther Anders, surviving the threat of extinction will entail, at least in part, expanding our capacity for fear and anxiety and cultivating a renewed sense of the apocalyptic. As Anders remarks: ‘“Expand the capacity of your imagination”…“Increase your capacity for fear.” Therefore: don’t fear fear, have the courage to be frightened, and to frighten others, too. Frighten your neighbor as yourself.’ But we shouldn’t get too caught up in fear, in survivalist fantasies or in apocalyptic jouissance. Rather, in response to the concrete question "what is to be done?", we should instead use the current pause brought about by the pandemic – and the new forms of solidarity it has generated – to begin the process of outlining a new, positive eco-political ethics.  

Ethics
Such an ethics, as I define it, has three stands (linguistic, temporal and political), which might be briefly outlined as follows.

Linguistic
We need the right kind of critical and theoretical vocabulary to make sense of our current situation. In this context, terms such as "anthropocene" (to give just one example) should, I think, be treated with a high degree of caution. According to the now standard narrative, the "anthropocene" marks the point at which the human species – the anthropos – ascends to biospheric supremacy, becoming a geological force in its own right. But this nomenclature serves only to reinforce a certain worldview: one in which mastery (anthropocenic "man" devastates the earth) and impotence (the human of the anthropocene is unable to act historically) catastrophically collide. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a picture of the anthropocene has come to "hold us captive"; and we therefore need to ask what it would now mean to remove the spectacles through which we see the current climate and ecological crisis? 

Temporal
The spectre of extinction comes back to haunt us when visions of the future disappear. If we believe that we are living at "the end of history", then all viable alternatives to the existing state of affairs are foreclosed, and the end can only be imagined as an "end of all things". One of the ways we might remove ourselves from this deadlock, is not just by recovering a sense of the future, but rather, and more specifically, by cultivating the capacity to imagine from the perspective of the future. I call this defamiliarizing strategy speculative hindsight.   

Political
A transvaluation of economic, ecological and political values is now more urgent than ever before. We need to proclaim – even at the risk of sounding, in certain situations, like Nietzsche’s Madman – that liberal capitalism as we have hitherto known it is simply a failed form of life. The "catastrophe", as Walter Benjamin once remarked, "is that “things just go on". What, we now need to ask, comes next? 

The Earth seen from the Moon, the second symposium of Towards the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano

Ben Ware is the Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King's College, London. He received his PhD from the University of Manchester, where he was also a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow. Ben has published widely on modern European philosophy, the philosophy of Wittgenstein, continental critical theory and modernist aesthetics. He is currently working on a book on philosophy and extinction for Verso.

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