POLTERZEITGEIST

Thoughts on the

Supernaturality

of our Culture

 

c o n s u m e

1. to destroy or expend by use; use up

2. to eat or drink up; devour

3. to destroy, as by decomposition or burning: Fire consumed the forest.

4. to spend (money, time, etc.) wastefully

5. to absorb; engross: consumed with curiosity

6. to undergo destruction; waste away

7. to use or use up consumer goods – Dictionary.com

 

s u p e r n a t u ra l

supra ‘above’ + naturalis ‘nature’

that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively,

that which is said to exist above and beyond nature – Wikipedia

 

e vi l

profound immorality, especially when regarded as a supernatural force – Wikipedia

 

 

Autumn 2007. I had just finished setting up my

installation on the Martyrs’ Square in Brussels.

My father had accompanied me to the opening

of the exhibition, and now we were heading

home towards Helsinki by train.

We travelled through Cologne, Hamburg and Copenhagen

to Stockholm, where we hopped on a ferry.

I was suffering from the lack of sleep, and felt thoroughly

stressed after months of designing and preparing my

installation. I wanted to wrench my thoughts elsewhere,

and chose as my travel book Pasi Toiviainen’s Ilmastonmuutos. Nyt. Muistiinpanoja maailmanlopusta [Climate

Change. Now. Thoughts on the end of the world]. The

book really transported me. Toiviainen evoked a world

of catastrophe films, which unfortunately wasn’t based

on his imagination, but on cold facts – the best climatological

research available. The book familiarised me

with pollution, the melting permafrost in Siberia, and

the methane clouds released from the oceanic stores

of methane clathrate – all of which were the result of

our actions. I was convinced that the environmental

crisis was the defining question of our age –some thing which even I, an artist, couldn’t

escape.

Toiviainen travelled from one climatological

research centre to another

and met several researchers in

a quest to find information for himself

and his readers, and also for the

scientists he kept meeting. Climatology,

just like all other academic

research, is defined by the fact that

researchers working in neighbouring

rooms don’t necessarily know

anything about each other’s studies,

results, or even research questions.

Therefore, even some climatologists

weren’t worried about their results.

Only when the different studies and

scientific models were brought together,

a horrific picture began to

emerge.

In this situation, the role of the

researcher – or indeed any citizen

eager to find facts – became crucial.

Academic communities weren’t

used to weaving together all the

knowledge they had produced, or

to reacting and producing solutions

to acute problems. It seemed that

they also lacked the skills to envision

the effects of the climatological

models on society and culture.

In addition to Toiviainen, there

emerged from Finland and elsewhere

in the world a myriad of great

environmental writers and bloggers1

who pieced together the big picture

better than any academic unit could.

I took part in this writing myself,

with texts published in the biggest

Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat,

in the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti,

and in my own blog2. It was

bewildering to discover how experts

in energy policies, long-time

politicians, and other prominentmembers of society could base their

views on complete untruths. Using

search engines, in half an hour I was

able to find respected studies and

articles which enabled even an artist

like myself to overthrow the arguments

of eminent professors in

technical science.

Despite strong evidence to the

contrary, there was widespread

doubt concerning the role of humans

in climate change. The doubters

most often disputed the existence

of other kinds of environ-

mental

problems as well, and rabidly

defended economic growth and the

right of citizens to unregulated consumerism.

It seemed clear that instead

of a natural scientific debate,

there was a discussion on society

and citizen rights going on. Despite

some massive greenwash, it was

clear that the neoliberalist societal

model is based on the denial of environmental

facts. The right to consume

and to get rich had more fundamental

value than the prevention

of an environmental crisis and the

maintaining of a stable society.

Already in 2007 it was common

knowledge that global warming

caused by the Western way of life

would ruin the lives of millions of

people. Or to put it more correctly,

in 2007 the latest it was clear that

predictions made decades ago about

an ecological disaster were true.

Now the direct and indirect effects

of global warming, along with other

problems caused by overconsumption

claim tens of thousands of casualties

per year.

The tone and the questions

raised by Toiviainen’s book differed

from the environmentalist revivalliterature of previous decades. Although

the book holds an enormous

amount of natural scientific fact, it’s

also a description of an individual’s

despair. Why doesn’t anything

change with given information, and

why do societies consciously move

towards destruction? These questions

lie outside the realm of natural

sciences, as they are deeply societal,

humanistic, psychological, cultural,

and even theological dilemmas.

At times I put the book aside,

looked at the scenery and talked

with my father. We went to the restaurant

car and walked along platforms

while changing trains. I discussed

the contents of the book

with my father, but I noticed that I

wanted to shield him from unpleasant

information. I had arranged our

journey by train for environmental

reasons, and I knew this pleased my

father. There was something luxurious

about this trip, at least compared

to flying. I didn’t want to break

the pleasant atmosphere in which

ecological deeds and right choices

still mattered. I thought that my father

had the right to gradually withdraw

from the most rigorous questions,

despite the fact that it was his

generation who had almost singlehandedly

created the very problem

Toiviainen’s book discussed.

My father being a psychiatrist and

a psychoanalyst, we also discussed

the reasons and effects of the environmental

crisis on the level of psyche.

The root of the problem didn’t

perhaps lie in the lack of knowledge,

but in the destructive actions

despite all knowledge. An individual

or a society doesn’t always act rationally

and seek the best option. According to my father, who’s an expert

in disaster after-treatment, our

reactions to danger aren’t always

constructive; we can deny the threat

using our defence mechanisms and

encase painful experiences and facts

deep inside us. A great deal of mental

problems are based on such

mechanisms, and untreated they

lead not only to psychiatric but also

physical symptoms.

According to Erich Fromm, one

of the central thinkers of the Frankfurt

school, societies can also be

unwell, and societal change can be

considered a healing process3. The

medical histories of individuals,

some of which my father has related

to me, seem to have a lot in common

with the state of societies, and

particularly the way in which they

react to information on climate

change and the consequent change

on our way of life. It’s possible that

this information, and the fear it

evokes, has been encased deep inside

an individual or a society. A real

threat can also be forgotten by projecting

it to a substitute. Fromm and

his contemporary Wilhelm Reich4

discussed in their work the psychosocial

reasons to the rise of fascism.

The analogy is hard to avoid: the rejection

of an obvious environmental

threat and the inability of the system

to take productive action can lead

to uncontrollable societal reactions,

in the same way as during the rise of

fascism in Europe in the 1930s.

Our journey by train and by ferry

terminated in the Helsinki harbour.

My eye was caught by the everyday

life going on around me. A big part

of this life and its actions is utterly

unsustainable – such a huge part,

in fact, that one must conclude that

unsustainability itself is important

to humankind. Perhaps through

consuming and consumerism we

can prove something crucial to ourselves? Perhaps humans are the only

species who can turn environmental

resources into something utterly

useless and toxic. Our actions transform

natural elements into another

sphere, into the world of abstractions.

We remove nature from its

organic framework and make it into

something which can never return

to its natural state (e.g. polystyrene).

In the absolute meaning of the word

we’re creators, and therefore it’s

no surprise that the contemporary economy is also called ‘creative’. The

concept of creative destruction

which forms a part of this creative

economy should be taken seriously.

We aren’t god’s gardeners: instead

we are destructive gods, in a similar

way as the biblical Satan is.

Donald A. Burke takes Immanuel

Kant’s concept of sublime to mean

the strong experience of a natural

element without the said element

having any unwanted effects on the

person’s life5. According to Burke,

nature itself isn’t sublime; the experience

of the sublime is only constructed

through a subject experiencing

nature. In this experience

the subject can feel aesthetic pleasure,

and also superiority in relation

to nature. In this sense, sublime is an

experience of a lofty mountain on

the slopes of which one can ski instead

of struggling through the cold

and avalanches; it means the raging

sea seen from a ship’s deck bar without

getting too close to the destructive

powers of the water. This structure

is repeated not only in ski

centres and on ferries, but also in

shopping centres, homes, cars, and ourplanes.

We want to differentiate ourselves

from nature, we want to show

that we don’t need to care about

natural phenomena. The cultural

dimension of climate change lies in

this fundamental pretension.

However, climate change itself

denies the chance to build sufficient

preventive structures or technologies

which would enable a sublime

dissociation from the ecological reality.

In the same way, the actions

trying to prevent climate change

deny us possibilities to experience

the Kantian dynamic sublime, as we

have to take the threat of the environment

(or, more to the point, ourselves)

into account in our every

action. According to Burke, Theodor

Adorno and Max Horkheimer

criticised the Kantian concept of

the sublime mainly because by placing

themselves above nature, humans

must at the same time subdue

their own inner nature. A life which

denies both the nature inside as well

as outside is not only unsustainable,

but also socially, societally, and intellectually

meaningless.

This is why we need art right now:

talking reason to consumer-destroyers

is like explaining images to a dying

hare6. Language itself can make

our culture unsustainable. By defining

ourselves as consumers we create

a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even

more meaningful than language are

different practices which often are

stronger and more primary structures

than our thinking. If we’re consumers

through and through living

in a consumerist culture it’s really

challenging to adopt a less destructive

kind of thinking and acting.

Change has to come from deep

within, from the muddy depths of

humanity where art lies. Thoughts

aren’t enough: something has to be

done in practice as well. When practice

is brought into the centre of attention

and thinking, we’re talking

about the practices of art. The task

of the artist, apart from creating

something new, is to hold on to the

enlightened concepts of creativity

and art which have been developed

through tradition, side by side with the talk of creativity and the revivalist movements of the

creative economy. The tradition of art can create a balancing

force to the forces of creative destruction.