The Responsibility ReligionBy Valeska N. Mangel, 2022
1 The self-contempt human-sloth in the medieval idea of paradise. Bruegel the Elder: Luilekkerland ("The Land of Cockaigne "), oil on panel (1567; Alte Pinakothek, Munich)
Humankind has been dreaming of a time without responsibilities for centuries. Embodied in notions of heaven, paradise or the idyll is the idea that we will one day be able to eternally laze in the sun, in perfect nature with wealth, health and an ever-full belly – no duties, no labour and nothing out of reach. The medieval paradise, the Cockaigne or Lubberland, was constructed to make the peasants’ pain, diseases, and starvation, worthwhile. Today, the vision of paradise has become reality for some. We found ways to realise conditions on earth so comfortable that humans wouldn’t first need to die in order to experience their ancestor’s wildest dreams. The Dutch historian Herman Pleji observes how in comparison to some lucky people’s lifes today, the historical idea of heaven is a downgrade: ‘By medieval standards, modern-day Europe represents in many respects the realisation of Cockaigne: fast food is available at all hours, as are climatic control, free sex, unemployment benefits, and plastic surgery that seemingly prolongs youth.’ (Pleij, Herman; 2003 p.5) The closer we come to what some might call “heaven on earth” in the West, the more we understand why paradise was always ever meant to be an illusion.
By turning the tables, we have not only made our lifes more paradisiacal we have also introduced humanity to the apocalypse. The term we so eagerly cultivate in blockbuster movies and near-reality science fiction, wasn’t originally a problem of the living but was, in a biblical sense, simply an unsuccessful end to life. In his book “The Meaning of Apocalypse” the writer Paul Corcoran reminds us, that the “apocalypse”, as a collapse of all civilisation, is only a product of the 19th century. For most time an apocalypse, according to its Greek origin, stood for “revealing a secret” or “intense sight”. In revealing the secret of our destiny, an apocalypse is then defined as troubles humankind may experience during the transcendence to heaven. With our paradise on earth, we uncover what we should’ve only seen on the verge of death: the way we developed, we are unworthy. In a literal sense we are wrong to believe the “end of times” is yet to come – the moment we see our project Eden fail we are already amid the ancient apocalypse. Maybe our aspirations were foolish if we consider that having everything anyone would want, at any time and in any amount, is only feasible in paradise because it was an afterlife and the world didn’t need to function anymore. Whereas we, as a living and growing population, rely on our environment more than ever. The climate crisis, among the many failures and shortcomings we see clearer the more comfortable we get, taught us that earth itself doesn’t agree with the ideals we pursued for so long. “Heaven on earth” is making us too laid back to keep a planet running, let alone a planet as complex as ours is today.
With the rise of globalisation our world has become limitless, and our connections are more intertwined than ever with foreign cultures, people, goods, ideas, and politics. Bruno Latour once said in response to the artists Tomás Saraceno’s giant, spiderweb-inspired installations, how he loves that one can physically understand the impact of every single interaction. Unlike the disguised mesh of dense relationships, we are entangled in on a daily basis, the sculptures show how pulling any end creates a shift of the overall net. (Latour, Bruno; 2013) Here we can see the weight of a single move like a cosmic pull and its factual response outside of ourselves. During the COVID-19 pandemic the networks we spun for generations for once became noticeable. We sensually experienced how a singular action accounts for the well-being of the whole world population and how the ones who are hit the hardest are the smallest drivers of the paradisiacal conditions. For once we have literal symptoms of our connectedness and are forced to respond with actions. What became visible in a pandemic doesn’t end with a single cure. Our relationship with our world is closer, yet more invisible than ever and the effects we have on each other’s futures are growing every day.
2 Thomas Saraceno’s sculptures make invisible attachments tangible
But instead of experiencing our impacts we lose sight of them. The more connected we are, the more we can have it all, whenever and wherever we want, the less anything really matters, and so, the individual slowly retreated from the equation. We learned to use our environment for individualistic purposes, and we use our achievements to take care of ourselves more than ever. But it comes at the cost of an increasing independence from our surroundings. With the growing detachment from our environment there is always a right here and an out there. And it becomes harder to understand the implications of individual actions right here for the global consequences out there. Without these tangible consequences to our actions, it is difficult to be accountable for our behaviour, and without this accountability it is difficult to be a responsible person. It almost appears like our broken connection to the consequences of our being made our being interchangeable. The Austrian writer and novelist Robert Musil frames the changes of our relationships with the world in his striking yet unfinished 1950s novel “The Man without Qualities”:
‘In earlier times, one had an easier conscience about being a person than one does today. People were like cornstalks in a field, probably more violently tossed back and forth by God, hail, fire, pestilence, and war than they are today, but as a whole, as a city, a region, a field, and as to what personal movement was left to the individual stalk – all this was clearly defined and could be answered for. […] Have we not noticed that experiences have made themselves independent of people? […] A world of qualities without a man has arisen, of experiences without the person who experiences them, and it almost looks as though ideally private experience is a thing of the past, and that the friendly burden of personal responsibility is to dissolve into a system of formulas of possible meanings.’ (Musil, Robert; 1954, p.195)
Because I can’t see my contributions to the experiences I witness, it takes rational thinking and common sense to reconnect the scientific reports on climate change, remaining humanitarian crises and injustices as well as political decisions to my own habits. We need to believe that statements made in the media somewhere out there are relevant to us and that I, as individuals, am part of the problem. So, it takes a strong conscious and a leap of faith to be responsible today – responsibility has itself become something between a strict diet and a religious faith.
Keeping the biblical metaphor, we can say that Trumps full refusal of climate change, is making him a prime example of the modern-day antichrist who is selling an easy way out. The sound of unrewarded efforts made him opt for the non-disciplinary, non-ethical choice to not believe and to not consider himself responsible for his actions – just because he could. If we say that responsibility has become a belief of religious qualities, it has also become deniable, which makes it difficult to curb. Maybe it is no accident that in gnostic writings (a collection of religious writings before the 2nd century, too bizarre for most Christians) evil forces that kept humanity from salvation were namesakes of former Greek bureaucrats. The Gnostic Archons were believed to be half men half women with distinctively undivine and beastly faces. Although they were often portrayed as incompetent idiots, they had the power to fuel people’s bloodthirsty passions and encourage ignorance, which would ultimately keep humans from rejoining heaven. Just like the cornstalks in Robert Musils metaphorical field, the material world in gnostic writings is understood as a minefield of traps and humans are not autonomous but swayed by whatever influence comes along.
3 A human kept from their paradise by the archons in “The Torment of Saint Anthony” by Michelangelo
Simultaneous with our growing distance to our environment, the minefield we call our world has become a dense mesh of globalised connections designed for our inner dopamine-thirsty hedonists. With a mounting accessibility to resources all over the planet, the number of wrong choices, we don’t intend but don’t experience, has also grown out of proportion. Turning what looks like an incredible menu of options into a delirious maze and giving the “forbidden fruit” a whole new meaning. [Spoiler alert: Don’t read this paragraph if you still want to watch the The Good Place] In Michael Schur’s Netflix series “The Good Place” we can watch a contemporary take on what our missteps mean for our potential afterlife today. In the series god is an all-encompassing intelligence system evaluates each earthly residents’ choices until the day they die, and we are put in heaven or different hells. It has been fed with a list of offences and a scoring-system that adds and subtracts points depending on someone’s (mis)behaviours. Once we learn that that almost all humankind was sent to different hells, we know that no one has achieved a high enough evaluation in decades to enter heaven. The outdated, virtuous point system simply doesn’t apply anymore. What was once a major offence, such as exploitation, is now accidentally performed by everyone who purchases a non-Fairtrade tomato.
‘Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough… These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you are unwillingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploited labour, contributing to global warming.’ (Netflix, The Good Place; 2016)
Today’s objects, from our juicers over the breakfast cereal, to the evening dress, not only professionally disguise their inner workings, but the social materials they are made off, including the working conditions and the environmental impact. Where past inventions were laying bare each screw and gear, most of the objects, goods and processes we interact with are far more complicated. The smartphone itself, that has become an important portal to the globalised world, is known for being a black box to humans. We accepted rocket science as our daily bread and the culture of inaccessibility is engrained in our mindsets as a commodity of our existence. But that’s just our consumer culture, right? What does it do to our relationship with the world when our daily rituals are spiked with things that are destructive to our living conditions?
In the “Vita Activae” Hannah Arendt explored the importance of the human-made world of things. According to Arendt, the objects we create for ourselves help us feel like we belong on earth. We can say we have decorated our home planet to serve us and now we see ourselves reflected through the decor. We see ourselves in them because, just like us, the human-made artifices would eventually lose their purpose and return to the soil to die. Immortality, Arendt says, is reserved for works of art that outlive us mortals and give us stability.
‘If left to itself or discarded from the human world, the chair will again become wood, and the wood will decay and return to the soil from which the tree sprang before it was cut off to become the material upon which to work and with which to build.’ (Arendt, Hannah; 2007)
While we watch generations of iPhones slip through our hands, we already know some of our human things have materials far too complex to become earthly again. They can merely vanish from our sight, but they will most likely have an eternal footprint and even outlive our artistic heritage. Which awards a plastic bottle today with more god-like features than myself, even though it sufficiently harms the very planet I live on. In this landscape of impossible choices, it takes time and effort to find goods and technologies that serve us with our regained responsibilities again. And most humane options we have are still a luxury that is only available to a limited part of the world population. Being good is not only difficult, but also a privilege which turns a good feeling into a USP and leaves everyone else with no other choice than playing the role of the ecological troublemakers. Those who can afford it can now purchase the warm fuzzy feeling for doing something right. It has, for instance, become an ironic indulgence to abandon the excesses of globalisation again and get back in touch with our immediate environment and human needs. There are fancy lifestyle guides to self-sustained living, DIY has had a revival since the 20th century and sleeping off-grid in a cabin in the wood’s sounds (at least in theory) like an expensive wellness retreat. When I was working on a study with international teenagers, we asked what they would do with VR-glasses in the future. The majority answered they would like to go for walk in (virtual) nature. May it be out for an attractive nostalgia, tiredness of being guilty, or out of genuine craving: Once we can have it all, simpler times become a desirable feature again.
Decluttering our life of its global connections is a coping mechanism that unloads some of the burden we carry since our responsibilities have been outsourced. As a result of our natural gravitation towards palpable feedback we focused on narrower peripheries. “Bubbles” are the brutally fragile metaphor for a limited ecosystems within our limitlessness world. In these comfort zones we still get an actual tap on the back or at least a digital heart for our actions. Contained by this reduced space of interaction we feel like we can somehow overlook our output. Our bubble is a bittersweet place on earth where we believe to be in control over our successes and failures, where our (wrong)doings are constraint to a manageable size and the punishments are mild and tangible. A micro-verse where the elsewhere outdated feedback systems still seem to apply. Here, it is easier to ignore that we are still connected to a much larger ecosystem. The German philosopher and cultural scientist Peter Sloterdijk suggest in his “Spheres” Trilogy that we have really become a social foam. Our safe and defined bubble is bouncing around in a soak of infinite comfort zones that highly influence each other and the overall movement of the global bubble bath.
Now, as a faithful responsible, what else is there to do? How can we ensure we don’t entirely lose sight of our impacts and contribute to resolve global crises? Or is there any positive change that comes out of this development? Besides pivotal movements such as Circular Economies and Anti-Growth Mindsets, it seems that with the realisation of formerly distant hopes and dreams we practically erased them. It has almost become easier to envision a world without humans, than a satisfactory future with them. Still many inventions are made for a sport of making, rather than finding alternative and global ideologies. But if genuine innovation needs a reasonable potential for improvement, climate change might be a saviour for our imagination. Now we urgently need to use our human creativity to get accustomed to responsible lifestyles again and find pleasing solutions that can be sustained. The call for a pivot has ever since encouraged scientists, art schools and startups to develop tools and ideas for a happy pivot from Dionysian wet dream we are still heading for.
Ludger Heidbrink, director of the CRR Center for Responsibility research, suggests using the intermezzo between our local sense of accountability and the global connections to universal crises and find a happy medium. Repurposing the term “Glocalisation” he believes in the power of communities located between global politics and local individuals but who still have the power to establish soft laws or guidelines. Heidbrink sees a potential in local actions groups, NGOs and private businesses that are benefitting from their close relationships to their environment but are still engaging with global problems. We may struggle to keep up our moral scores when it comes to distant problems and the globalist politics are easily disregarded. But the beauty of our networked lifes is that after all we share and exchange values and missions that can enable us to find a common sense of action in collaboration. The idea is to consciously support and interact with slightly larger forms of organisation to piggyback on collective debates and agreements but also hold each other accountable. It then lies in the responsibility of the national governance to take the decisions on this local level into considerations for rules that apply on a universal level and hold us all lawfully accountable.
On the other side of the spectrum there is the idea that maybe not experiencing one’s consequences can be a good thing. In the “School of no consequences” Friedrich van Borries, design theorist at the HFBK Hamburg, studies possible “Exercises for a New Life”. In his speculative project he engages students in the question if a future without consequences could also mean a fresh start, where we can finally choose to do nothing. Our contemporary responsibilities not only include sustainable behaviours but also forces us to make money for ourselves and others, to be diplomatic and fuel political and bureaucratic system out of our control. What if none of this would be in our hands and our decisions would stay detached for a reason? In the School of No Consequences’ own app, we can find exercises to train a counter-intuitive ideal of irresponsibility to explore what may come of it.
5 The detoxing intro in the SFG App, Schule der Folgenlosigkeit by Friedrich van Borries and his students.
Starting with letting go off one’s mistakes, the steak from last night and the unnecessary flights, we learn to embrace having had no footprint on earth and letting go of our guilt. After detoxing our system, we find out if we could begin with concepts that are more sustainable, diverse, and equal. Doing nothing is in the end the one thing we don’t get to do in the era of globalisation. With the same purpose the school gave away “Scholarships for doing nothing” for design and architecture students, hoping to erase the financial needs to enable not designing or building and instead finding out what else there is to do with a creative mind. Maybe the future will not consist of a responsibility for simply doing less, seeing that doing many things gave us the excesses that we are accountable for today.
Moving backwards in human progress doesn’t seem natural yet and will most likely always feel like a compromise. Unlearning a bigger-is-the-way-to-go mentality will most likely take more generations than we have. But we have also gained a new opportunity through our connectedness. We now have access to each other’s perspective, creativity, and knowledge. This article wouldn’t have been possible without the ideas and research of many other individuals who I have never met. Like a giant football club, we have the unique opportunity to solidarise us for a shared goal, love our global neighbours and hold each other accountable. We might have almost reached paradisiacal conditions in some places on earth, but our idea of paradise was no good. Just like permanently studying and working alone from home seemed like a great idea on paper, but now that we fast forwarded to it, we are looking for co-workspaces. Perhaps there is a medium place for everyone [fellow The Good Place fans will know] that turns out to be everything we ever really needed. A medium place to be constantly content and yet just uncomfortable enough to flourish in our imagination.
1 Pleij, Herman (2001) Dreaming of Cockaigne, Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life. New York: Columbia University Press books, Casebound Editions
2 Musil, Robert (1954) The Man Without Qualities. XX
3 Heidbrink, Ludger (2017) in Handbuch Verantwortung. Wiesbaden: Springer GmbH
4 Netflix (2017) The Good Place
5 Latour, Bruno in conversation with Hangar Bircocca (2013) On Space Time Foam. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjas5vqtsgQ
6 Arendt, Hannah (2002) Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben. Munich: Piper
7 Sloterdijk, Peter (2004) Sphären. Plurale Sphärologie: Band III: Schäume. Berlin: Suhrkamp
8 Heidbrink, Ludger (2008) The Limits of Responsibility in the Age of Globalisation. Essen: Working Papers of the CCR, Nr.5
9 van Borries, Friedrich in Schraml, Markus (2020) Schule der Folgenlosigkeit / Stipendien für Nichtstun. FormFaktor https://form-faktor.at/schule-der-folgenlosigkeit-stipendien-fuer-nichtstun#:~:text=%E2%80%9C,-Stipendien%20f%C3%BCr%20Nichtstun&text=Die%20Schule%20der%20Folgenlosigkeit%20vergibt,angeh%C3%B6rt%2C%20werden%20noch%20bekannt%20gegeben
4 Screenshots from: https://apps.apple.com/de/app/schule-der-folgenlosigkeit/id1540784396?l=en