After all, there have always been more than enough examples of the anti-thesis at all times, including the present day.
OUBEY came across the Monadology at an early age and was fascinated by the metaphysics of Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz on which it was based. As a philosopher, mathematician, physicist, metaphysician, mastermind of what we now call the computer and much more, he is still regarded by many as the last true universal genius.
And so OUBEY dedicated one of his early paintings not to the celebrated Isaac Newton but to Leibniz and his Monadology which had long gone unrecognised, calling it “The Journey of the Monads”.
Over the past four months, as part of the “Art of Resonance” show in the Mind Museum in Manila this painting has been viewed and enjoyed by more people than ever before. This alone would be reason enough to take a closer look at Leibniz’s Monadology
Then recently I read a commentary that referred to the thesis of the best of all possible worlds, only to reduce it to absurdity in light of the abysses into which peoples and nations are still plunging in the 21st century – as though history were nothing to learn from for the future and with this justification at the same time to call into question the divine origin of the world.
I do not feel called upon to philosophise on the existence of a God at this point. But I will say this much: it is striking how easily the inadequacy or even non-existence of a God comes to mind when bad things happen to us whether individually or collectively, caused by natural forces or by the brutal violence people and entire nations inflict on other people and other nations, as we are experiencing directly or indirectly today. And this is especially true when even the most barbaric atrocities are committed in the name of a god.
What fascinated OUBEY about Leibniz’s monadology was less its associated theodicy (justification of God) than its inherent understanding of the freedom, uniqueness and indivisibility of every monad, i.e. every soul in this universe. Bold and still far ahead of even many of today’s thinkers, for Leibniz not only his own human species, but everything that exists in the universe belonged to the animated beings.
Humans – at least according to the current state of knowledge – are the only species on this planet with a free will that goes beyond innate instinctive and generic behaviour and enables decisions that no other being can make. And, if the situation requires it, human will can even go against its own instincts and drives. Decisions such as whether one is prepared to harm another person for whatever reason, whether one is prepared to kill one or even many people, or whether one is able to forego one’s own advantage in favour of another living being are just a few examples of decisions of the will.
According to Leibniz, this world is not the best of all possible worlds because it is perfect, i.e. perfect and flawless in every respect. Rather, it is because it has endowed humans with free will as the only species in this world. A perfect world and the free will of its inhabitants to choose one behaviour or another are mutually exclusive. The question of how free human will really is has also been debated down the ages.
Let’s just imagine the opposite: a truly perfect world. People have been dreaming of a perfect world, a paradise on earth, not just since Thomas More published his philosophical treatise entitled “Utopia” in 1516. Just how intelligent Leibniz’s view of the world and mankind was can be seen from the attempts to realise such utopias. Both in the form of small, sectarian communities and in the form of large social attempts at realisation, all ended with the greatest possible lack of freedom for the individual. The fact that these systems are repeatedly abandoned by individuals or overcome by the social collective is a very strong testimony to the strength and power of free will.
For Leibniz, there is no perfect, ideal or even paradisiacal original state of this world and there never was. Quite unlike the belief that human sin was the reason for the expulsion from such a former paradise – as a kind of punishment – and that every human being since then has been born with an “original sin”. I clearly prefer the idea of a universe that accepts human error and even catastrophes and crimes in favour of freedom. In any case, neither the one nor the other can be proven.
Freedom creates space for the possible, for crossing boundaries – in thought and in action, in both positive and negative ways. But freedom also always means responsibility. Everyone decides every day how they use their freedom to make this world a better place or not, and bears the responsibility for doing so. Be it on a small or large scale.
In the “best of all possible worlds”, freedom is a prerequisite. This was probably one of the reasons why an irrepressible free spirit like OUBEY dedicated a painting to Leibniz’s idea. And perhaps this spirit of freedom lives on so strongly in this painting that to this day it immediately casts a spell over almost everyone who sees it.
In his opening address he called this museum a “ “living “house”, with doors open to the peoples of the whole world, where everyone feels represented and where the gaze of the Church leaves no one out.”
That the Catholic Church – notorious for centuries for the way it excludes people – should send such a signal is surprising. That it should do so under the present Pope Francis who ever since taking office has caused quite a few surprises is less of a cause for wonder. Coming from South America, as the first pope of non-European origin, he’s very familiar with the early and later art of non-European cultures.
The early high cultures of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs were centuries in advance of the European culture of that time. Until their countries were first discovered by Europeans, that is, and then brutally occupied, opening the way to a wave of smug and autocratic missionaries with the sole purpose of turning the unbelieving heathens into what they termed “better people”.
For many centuries this sordid chapter of Church history which is also part of our own western European history, was portrayed in our history books as an unabashed triumph.
With this in mind, I can see a certain sensitivity in Pope Francis’s words and perhaps even something you could call humility as they attempt to correct an arrogant outdate view held not just by the Catholic Church but by the whole of the western world. They’re a sign of respect to all the peoples of the world which our western world in its drive to colonisation has ruthlessly exploited and viciously treated, aided and abetted by the Church whose self-serving dogma proclaimed them subhuman. An attempt to come together in the living house of reconciliation.
Nobody knows where the soul lives in people. It’s not a physical organ but of spiritual nature. From Aristotle to Leibniz, philosophers have believed in the existence of the soul and that it isn’t just peculiar to humans but is found in every living thing. That’s what OUBEY also believed, particularly after studying the two philosophers.
This soul of the world – which was a part of his innermost being – finds its immediate expression in his art. And since this art is free of all the barriers of language which so often divide people from one another, it can be felt by people of a huge range of cultural backgrounds. It was an uplifting experience that I had time and again on my travels with OUBEYs paintings around the globe.
Take, for instance, a Maori woman I met in New Zealand, who at her first viewing of OUBEYs pictures spontaneously exclaimed “These paintings immediately start to speak to you when you just glance at them!”
At moments like this it became clear that OUBEYs vision of the universal language spoken by his pictures could be proven true if his pictures were allowed to travel. This is why I’m glad today that in 2010 I first packed my yellow packing case, to travel with OUBEYs paintings around the world because in that way I could make the astonishing experience that his art did indeed have universal significance. It moves people deeply whether they’re live in Uganda or New Zealand, whether they’ve never been to school or are research scientists.
As strange as art might appear to us sometimes in the first moment, it does reach us – and not only our minds. This is true of all kinds of art, and particularly the arts that do without words – music and painting. And especially for all those paintings and symphonies which the public at that time ignored or rejected and which have now become indispensable treasures in our lives.
At one and the same time art is an expression of the Anima Mundi and its incarnation. It takes us further – back into the old and forward to the new worlds of knowledge and self-knowledge. It was so in the early days of human history and it remains so today. Art can enrich and illuminate our inner being as nothing else but love can. It expands our souls, opens our hearts and can overcome barriers.
And at a time when we might be celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall yet are also pondering putting up new frontier zones and wall, such a thought is more than just a Christmas wish. I hear the message in Pope Francis’s opening address and I hope that it bears fruit. Art overcomes all barriers. And perhaps this has to first and foremost with those barriers which we have errected in ourselves.
In our modern age art and culture are mainly seen as an expression of individual thought processes and in terms of the inspiration of particular artists. Yet they also were and still are expressions of the world view and values that society holds. Like the culture of most preindustrial societies outside of Europe, the culture of North American Indians was marked by an extremely close affinity to, and great respect for, nature.
At the age of twelve I eagerly devoured one Karl May novel after the other. What I met with there was less the original Indian culture or if it did appear it came draped in the clichés of a well read and highly imaginative German who had never set foot in America. But there was one strand to the stories that always struck me as authentic and which coloured my understanding of the Indian culture of North America from a very early age, and this was Karl May’s descriptions of the ignorant, unscrupulous and brutal ways in which white immigrants to the New World asserted their interests – power, land, gold, and then later oil.
So at the age of twelve I asked myself for the first time what had become of the original inhabitants of North America, where and how they were now living, what kind of role they played in American society and what now remained of their culture. Over the years I learnt a great deal more about this dark chapter in American history that at its heart also holds a piece of European history for the conquerors were European, as we know. I learnt about the demise of many tribes and their cultures but I also learnt about the survival of Indian traditions and wisdom in the reservations up to the present day.
That in the year 2019 an exhibition on Indian art is staged in what must be the leading art museum in the USA, is, I think, a step in the direction of historical (self) awareness that’s overdue by several decades. And that it was staged by a white curator without any involvement of tribal representatives – a move that has been rightly criticised by Indians – shows that even today there is still a distinct lack of everyday, practical, effective respect for this culture. What might the exhibition have looked like if it was the result of cooperation?
Even so, what it does show is well worth seeing. The American Wing of the museum hosts an enormous spectrum of Native American works, from superbly crafted objects for everyday use to ritual masks and cultural artefacts. The beauty and the meticulous care with which everything, particularly the everyday objects, was lovingly and skilfully crafted – baskets, quivers, shoes, jackets, clothes, slings for carrying babies – is impressive and also strangely moving as it’s an expression of a relationship not just to nature but also to time and life which we in the civilised frenzied world of the 21st century have mostly lost.
The exhibits speak for themselves. Yet I also found the explanatory texts that accompany them very revealing as they explicitly show respect for the resistance and resilience of the North American Indians in their struggle to retain their land and their culture. A culture that didn’t seek to dominate the Earth but saw itself as an integral part of it. Ruthless exploitation and depletion of its resources was inimical to the Indian culture which saw trappers shooting countless thousands of buffaloes for no other motive than their own amusement as a premonition of the demise of their own way of life.
So whilst the UN Climate Action Summit was debating, furiously squabbling and wrangling to find arguments and money, I was getting quite a different positive take on the climate issue – in the evidence of an almost lost culture which showed planet Earth great esteem and respect – two things which it now needs more than ever.
And so, in spite of the criticism it has received, I would see this exhibition as a belated but auspicious first step, as a sign of recognition and esteem. Perhaps in ten or twenty years there’ll be a jointly curated exhibition in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which will be visited and taken seriously by far greater numbers of people than now. I, for one, would love to see it.
To prevent any possible misunderstanding let me say that obviously the Indians were not some superior kind of people. The ideal of the noble savage embodied by Karl May in the figure of Winnetou is not something I would subscribe to. Yet I do believe that Indian art and culture does contain an important message for us in our dealings with the world and all its myriad forms of life. It has to do with our consciously shouldering responsibility for what we do and how we act, a responsibility based on awareness of the complex web of interdependencies that first gave birth to us on this planet.
In my view this vital climate issue of respect for our Earth and the future of coming generations is now finally receiving the attention that industrial society has increasing denied it over the course of the past hundred and fifty years. Through the simple realisation that we are not lords of the ecosystem, merely a part of it.
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise that we cannot eat money.” (Proverb of the Cree Indians). This iconic piece of Native American wisdom is made wonderfully tangible in the art of Native Americans. Respect.
You can find some photos of this exhibition here in the Photo Gallery:
You’ve never heard of TED? The name is an acronym for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’. It began back in the 80s with an annual innovation conference in California. In 2002, Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine, took over the helm and under his curatorship TED has continually developed. For many years now the best talks have been published on the ‘TED Talks’ website where they can reach millions of people all over the world – naturally completely free of charge.
I’m always turning to this site to watch and listen to talks on a staggering number of topics – the sheer diversity of what’s on offer is fascinating. Stefan Sagmeister, the man who designed the OUBEY MINDKISS book has already appeared at several TED Conferences where one of the topics he talked about was whether design is productive of happiness. And it’s about happiness in connection with TED that I’d like to talk today.
Because TED is thoroughly positive. Even though some of the stories told there might be disturbing or dramatic, they never end in hopelessness, but always point to a way or an idea through which a problem can be solved or a question answered.
This I find invigorating and really refreshing. Day in, day out, we’re confronted with so much bad news and so many problems in this world that you could be forgiven for thinking that everything’s just getting worse and worse. One of the main reasons for this is that old media maxim which says that only bad news is good news. Turn on the TV or radio to watch or listen to the news and you can easily get the impression that the whole world’s going to hell in a handcart.
Is that the truth though? Is it reality? Far from it. Even though that’s what many people believe. Focus on what’s positive, what’s encouraging and they’ll say that you’re denying reality. Because many people hold fast to the view that darkness in this world is growing.
Naturally far too many horrid things happen and we’re beset with problems on all sides. And yet at least an equal number of good things happen every day, and everyday problems are solved or at least are tackled in a bid to find a solution. This too is reality, even though it doesn’t get much – if any – media attention.
Development needs positive impulses. Positive impulses inspire us, encourage us, they spur us on. They release energy. And this is exactly what the TED Talks also do by showing us how much ingenuity, intelligence and courage goes into solving some difficult or seemingly impossible situation. We get to know perfectly ordinary – and at the same time truly extraordinary – people who can set examples for us to follow. Perhaps it’s an ex-president of the USA who inspires us. Or an artist talking about happiness. I myself was particularly impressed by a little African boy who wanted to protect the village herd of cows from frequent nightly attacks by lions but without killing the beasts. He hit on the idea of building a light installation which switched on at night when the lions approached and scared them away. He put this idea into action and it worked. And he showed the grown-ups in the village that you didn’t necessarily have to shoot and kill in order to protect yourself. This is why his story made such a deep impression on me. Because the effect of what he did was just as important as protecting the herd – as it led to a new way of thinking in the village. You don’t need to be powerful or rich in order to bring about positive change. You only have to have the idea and the ability and the courage to put it into practice – even with the simplest of means.
“Ideas Worth Spreading” is the subline of the TED Talks. In my view there can never be enough of such ideas. And you don’t necessarily need an internet platform to spread them. Yet TED itself is a marvellous example of a good innovative idea that helps to make the world a little bit better by showcasing the positive and giving it a voice. Perhaps you’re curious enough to drop by and give it a glance like I did all those years ago when I first heard about it. I’d be so pleased if you did!
And the figures show that what I had seen in Paris is no longer the exception. The June issue of brandeins magazine tells us that 40% of British millennials now choose their holiday destination according to how well it will show up on Instagram – obviously always featuring the inevitable selfies.
The phenomenon of sightseeing-tourism and its banks of clicking cameras is nothing new. After all, the less time I have to familiarise myself with a place and really get to know it, the more important it is that I at least make a photo to prove that I was really there. Yet the exponential rise in the number of selfies posted on social media for me is a sign of new quality in the way we view reality, life and ourselves.
It reminds me of the story of Narcissus whose vanity was punished when he saw his own reflection in a pool of water and fell so in love with it that he became completely fixated – without ever knowing that it was his own reflection in the water so that the object of his impossible desire was simply himself. That’s the punishment. Probably very few people now know that in the ancient world self-love (narcissism) was considered a punishment. It was Nemesis – some sources say Artemis – who dammed Narcissus to such unrequited love in his reflection.
Some of the knowledge accumulated by the ancient Greeks has weathered well and at the very least is still a match for what we know now. And in this case they may even be well ahead of us since nobody nowadays would ever dream of the idea that narcissism could be the punishment for self-love. This makes the ancient story even more alluring when I think about the selfie mania we are now confronted with.
When it comes to selfies what we are doing is using the camera to see ourselves like we do with a mirror. Yet a camera, as Wim Wenders puts it so well, should be an eye, through which a person looks out onto the world.
Only we’ve gone a whole lot further now: we’re not satisfied with just gazing at ourselves lost in adulation, we want to share each and every one of our iconic selfies with the whole world. Yet when we do so, the world drops into the background, because the world is reduced to me. And the world is especially wonderful when I am seen by the maximum number of people who click me the greatest number of Likes. Or so the logic goes.
Of course everyone is free to do just what they want. Even so, I do still wonder from what kind of a cultural reference frame this selfie cult(ure) has sprung.
“In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, said Andy Warhol prophetically back in the 1960s. He’d recognised that we’re moving into a media age when anybody can take on star allures just because they’ve made a short appearance on TV. Today, the television still has a certain role to play, but it’s the internet that enables everyone at any time across the entire globe to shout out: Hey look here, see just how cool I am and what cool things I do!
Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s fantastic that everyone can now share their ideas in blogs and podcasts and videos on YouTube or other platforms. It’s particularly beneficial to the great many young people whose artistic or technical gifts or skills in practical matters entertain other people or help them through the day. Earlier on, and far too often, all this knowledge and know-how was hidden away in private, ignored by publishing houses and agencies, and never saw the light of day. How good it is that things have changed!
And yet – if I’m drinking a latte macchiato somewhere in the world or eating a sushi – honestly, who on earth has really got to know this? Who’s interested? Certainly not posterity! Only those people out there just like me whose only concern is that their next selfie is better than mine and picks up more Likes. It’s the affluent society in love with itself and brazenly flaunting its lifestyle. In love with itself without recognising that this is the only love it has. Just like Narcissus.
Yet whatever motives might be feeding it, one thing for sure gets lost in this rampant selfie mania: the pleasure in the passing of a lovely moment and the confidence that the best always remains embedded in our memories.
From time immemorial people have captured and preserved experiences, important events, and key figures in paintings and portraits – from the marvellous cave paintings of our ancestors over 30,000 years ago to the paintings, portraits and drawings of Dürer, da Vinci, Brueghel, Bosch and Goya. Then some 150 years ago the advent of photography opened up a host of new possibilities which are second nature for us today.
Yet when people spend a large part of their lives searching for the best selfie pose and the best selfie background, and when their eyes are permanently riveted on the display of their smartphones, they lose the freedom to seize and take immense pleasure in such moments, to enjoy them fully just as they are without any ulterior purpose. In short, here the digital world trumps the analogue.
I believe that we should use the possibilities offered us by the internet and digitalisation consciously and purposefully. But I also believe that the more we are enveloped by digital reality the more we will develop an equally strong need for experience in the analogue world. And I also have a definite hunch that our need for what’s original and what’s authentic will once more reaffirm itself. This makes me hopeful – even in times of the selfie mania.
At least I used to dream about flying in space when I was a kid. “Peterchens Mondfahrt – Little Peter flies to the Moon” was my favourite story. And later on like countless millions of people across the world I was fascinated and moved to tears by that legendary photo William Anders shot from Apollo 8 – of the brilliant blue globe of the Earth floating in the darkness of space. And through my meeting with OUBEY I also discovered my interest in science-fiction with its fantastic stories of manned missions to the distant depths of space and adventures of the type Perry Rhodan the hero of the sci-fi series that bears his name, used to brave. Do you also share this passion?
Even if nowadays we know a great deal about the universe, and can explain the way it’s structured and how it was created, the view of the sky at night with its moon and stars is still something breathtakingly beautiful, something mysterious whose magnitude and grandeur we can’t really understand but which still attracts us and preoccupies us like nothing else on Earth. In places like Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia where the nearest electric lights are hundreds of miles away, the night sky glows with a particularly strong intensity. People who have spent the night there say that the view of such a glorious star-studded heaven was a profound soul-stirring experience for them.
It’s in such moments that we feel our deep connection with outer space. The view alone opens us up to the unconscious knowledge we receive from the heavens and give back to them. Every astronaut who’s ever been into space says that they’re a different person when they return to Earth.
And of course there’s also the curiosity to discover unknown worlds and the hunger to conquer them, to test frontiers and push them back – in our imaginations as well as in reality. At the latest since Jules Verne, the idea of leaving the Earth to land on the moon or another planet has become so overriding that it has actually been realised by people in the short space of just one hundred years. Quite unbelievable but nonetheless true.
Just as explorers and adventurers once set out from the familiar harbours of Europe to sail to the New World, in future people might blast off from their home planet in search of a new home in space.
The colonisation of space is an exciting idea that OUBEY once touched on during his architectural studies in a project on “Creating the Design of a Prototype for a Space Colony”. Technical, architectural, biological-ecological, and social psychological issues were all examined from a scientific perspective, and answers given within the terms of the possibilities then available. Today the documentation of the project still makes for fascinating reading.
One of the driving thoughts behind the project was that “Through a happy chance we and a broad diversity of other life forms have taken root on this planet. And over the course of evolution we humans as a species on this Earth have taken a truly astonishing course of development. Especially during the past two hundred years we have multiplied at a prodigious rate, claiming ever more land. This is not good for our Earth. And this is the why we should leave it alone and seek a new home out there in space. What could or should this new home look like?”
What a daunting challenge this must have been to work on the realisation of such ideas!
Yet the step from space flights reserved exclusively for trained and selected astronauts to the possibility of space tourism is now well and truly upon us. That’s great, you might think…but is it really a cause for celebration?
Humankind has always dreamed of special places that embody our visions of an earthly paradise. And till about 70 or 80 years ago, such fantastic spots in remote corners of the world were exclusively the preserve of the wealthy with enough money to afford them. But with the advent of mass tourism, when more and more people could realise their dreams of holidaying in paradise, a reverse process kicked in which peeled the gloss from such dream destinations and destroyed them. After all, if every person dreaming of a lonely palm beach could actually go to one, then the beach can hardly be described as lonely anymore! Not to mention all the other undesirable side effects!
So for the foreseeable future a trip to the ISS will be reserved for the superrich who can afford the astronomical price tag without it making too much of a dent in their wallets. This and the fact that the ISS can only receive a very small number of visitors means that the numbers of tourists will be strictly limited. And whether this barrier to mass tourism will be removed – if ever! – is not as yet predictable. So the issue of what might happen if space tourism becomes affordable for people of average incomes is best left to science-fiction for the time being.
Our imaginations can dream up various scenarios. Would space tourism be a real advance for humankind, sharpening our awareness of the connections between the cosmos and Earth and ourselves as a species and enabling us to reposition ourselves in this cosmic order? Or would we as tourists continue to treat space just as we’ve treated all the dream destinations and tourist attractions on Earth so far?
The race for unscrupulous expansion in the terrestrial tourist sector continues unimpeded and in recent years has reached a new high water mark with the gigantic cruise liners that dominate the Laguna in Venice on a daily basis. Thousands of people are disgorged who swarm over the city for half a day and in the evening, when they’re all back on board, the floating monster moves on to its next destination. If you’ve seen the pictures, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I’ve always been enthusiastic about space exploration done by astronauts who are also experts in a range of scientific disciplines. And I still find the idea of colonising another planet in man-made space colonies truly fascinating. The great strides now being made in the development of artificial intelligence are now opening up new opportunities which just ten or twenty years ago would have been consigned to the realm of science fiction but which now present themselves as distinct possibilities. Even so, I still remain sceptical when I think of the possible side effects and consequences such a development might have, given the dismal track record of behaviour and attitudes our species has shown so far in such matters. Are we really capable of tackling these challenges we set ourselves in a way that doesn’t only take account of their technological and physical aspects but also pays heed to their ethical dimensions?
What do you think?
The social net in the internet is a permanent invitation to spontaneous reactions. And spontaneous means trust your gut instinct, don’t hesitate, no time for thought or reflection, shoot from the hip, a direct immediate reaction is best. Is this really authentic? And can’t it be that authenticity understood in this way is really being misunderstood? Or might even be problematic?
Whoever controls the keyboard of emotions can control the game. This is true of advertising and politics just as it is for our everyday interpersonal relations. Awakening desire and making promises is one side of the keyboard; fuelling envy, fear and anger is the other. Whether it’s selling diapers or making a political statement, emotions are the key means of seducing people and getting them on board. But especially when it comes to politics, one thing is very clear – and our German history is full of nightmarish examples that bear this out: if you place too much trust in your emotions you become open to seduction and quickly run the danger of being manipulated. If you take your emotions as the mainstay by which to judge all things, you can easily turn into a kind of puppet whose emotional strings are controlled by hands not your own.
For me it’s a misunderstanding to cloak pure emotion in an aura of authenticity. Because what we feel today can be quite different tomorrow. And if you look back at the history of your own emotional life, perhaps you’ll find that a lot of what you held to be the absolute emotional truth ten or twenty years ago, appears in a quite different light today. The contrary also applies: the cultivation of feeling so dominant in our present age, hides an awful lot of authenticity.
If feelings bubble and boil up in people, the language clearly says they are beside themselves – beside themselves with anger, beside themselves with joy, beside themselves with grief. In other words, they are out of control, no longer a coherent whole. They are not authentic.
To me being authentic means that I am capable of comparing my own thoughts and feelings with those of others who might agree or disagree with me and by doing so can develop a certain distance to them – before trumpeting them to the whole world. I call this self-leadership. And to me this is a central element in authenticity. A little flag flapping in a gale of emotions is not authentic.
And this also means that I must continually strive to put my own state of feelings to a rational examination. Emotions are important, of course they are, but they can also be deceptive. Blindly trusting them and following them might sometimes seem the obvious thing to do, but in no way is it a recommendable course of action.
“Shall I be authentic or shall I hide myself behind my emotions?” To me this is the key question which you, me and everyone else should ask themselves in order to put a soothing distance between ourselves and the emotional velocity that dominates our times. “There is strength in serenity” might be an old-fashioned saying, but it’s perhaps one that we can simply find cool.
As I myself use the various platforms of social media for my OUBEY MINDKISS project, I know the ways other users react, and the challenges associated with them, from my own experience. Here are a few of my personal thoughts on the subject.
Digital networking has made it incredibly easy for us to spread our own personal views. This is great because it gives a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard in public. And it also gives us all access to information and opinion which helps us to broaden our own understanding and gain new knowledge. Yet it can also have quite a different effect by reinforcing one particular human trait in us – our tendency to become assertively arrogant and self-opinionated.
How often do we only approve and pass on that which corresponds to what we already think – without ever stopping to check whether our opinion really is well-founded in each particular case. And conversely, how often do we simply ignore information and opinions that don’t fit into our own view of the world or even worse, troll and abuse views different from our own in firestorm attacks.
Probably people have always found it difficult not merely to tolerate different opinions but wherever possible to consider them as incentives to start fresh trains of thought. And we have always found it even more difficult to admit our own failures and errors in viewing or assessing a particular issue. Admitting to errors or mistakes is seen as a sign of weakness.
Both the speed and the structure of communication on the Social Web seem to actively encourage this human propensity to a righteous belief in the correctness of our opinions by affording us permanent endorsement of our own way of thinking – at the cost of a differentiated view of other ways of thinking that differ from our own.
True dialogue is thin on the ground. Because far too often we take too little trouble to question and probe the different opinions other people have. The ideological aspect of opinion-formation is playing an increasingly significant role in this because the less I’m prepared to critically examine the information that reaches me and debate it, the more I’m swimming on the cusp of a wave formed by the opinion-makers – and the more I am liable to be seduced by the seeming correctness of the opinion of the multitude.
In dialogue reality always has three sides: one that I see, one that you see and one that neither of us sees. In this sense reality can be compared to a dice cube all of whose sides I can never see from whatever standpoint I adopt. To see all its sides I must either turn it or ask other people who see the sides I can’t. This is poignant and highly telling, and it means that we should be able to admit that our own standpoint must not (necessarily) be the only correct one.
Being able to admit your own limitations and weaknesses to yourself – and others – is, I believe, a sign of strength. Nobody is infallible. Only if you can admit your own errors and mistakes can you be really strong and at the same time fully human. Personally, in this sense I believe that we could use the marvellous opportunities offered by social media in a completely different and much better way. Because social media offer us the possibility of constructive dialogue. Whether this possibility will be seized and used depends solely on the mindset of each and every one of its millions of users.
Perhaps you’re now thinking that sometimes it really does help if you’re able to speak about your thoughts and feelings with someone else and that it does do you good to have someone who listens to you. And I would completely agree with you. Only I wouldn’t call that moaning.
Real moaning is when the thoughts in your head spin in a continuous loop. Real moaning turns in a circle and never finds a true ending because its goal is never to find an end. It’s an expression of the peculiar pleasure of being discontented or – conversely – of never wanting to be content. It’s never enough and never good enough.
Studies have shown that on average people in affluent societies are much more dissatisfied with their lives than are people in poorer countries. Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to romanticize the state of poverty. What I’m talking about here is that “Jammern auf hohem Niveau“, that “high-level moaning” or whinging about problems only of concern to the affluent first world, as the German politician Lothar Späth once famously put it.
If I badmouth everything and become obsessed with all those things others have but I haven’t, then at some point my life really will take a turn for the worse – not materially but in terms of my view of myself and my outlook on the world. Because all such an attitude to life does is to spread negative energy; it will neither change the situation nor lead to any positive developments or solutions. Moaning is not therapeutic. The only thing to do is to try and change things, even if the first steps in this direction are ever so small.
But what if you can’t change the situation? What happens when a natural catastrophe destroys the very foundations of existence or the sudden unexpected death of a loved one tears your whole world apart? Naturally I can understand that people in such situations might moan now and then as they recognise that they can do nothing to change such blows of fate. I know the pain, the grief, the sadness but also the anger that arises from feeling completely powerless only too well from my own experience.
But even so, there is one question that I have never asked, a question that could easily have led into the realm of moaning and complaint, and that is the question of “why”. Why did OUBEY have to die so young? This question leads nowhere because it has no answer, at least not in this world. We are able to influence and shape our lives in such an infinite variety of ways and yet there are still things over which we simply have no control. It does help if we find it in ourselves to accept this. We haven’t understood the uncertainties of life if we blithely assume that we will be spared “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, because they are all destined for other people, not ourselves. This is not something to be taken for granted.
And this is why we should be grateful for all the good experiences and great times we’ve had and can still look forward to. Grateful people do not moan.
People who moan are caught in a perception trap whereby you overlook the good things to see only the bad. When you concentrate exclusively on the bad things and only talk about them, there’s a kind of amplifying washback effect that makes the bad appear even worse. In short, moaning grows strong by feeding on itself. Moaning is a letter of complaint addressed to nobody in particular. It’s a way of relinquishing responsibility. Because if you moan loudly, you’ll get attention but won’t have to change anything. And probably some people don’t want to change anything anyway.
I‘ll stick with those people who first recognise reality for what it is without moaning and complaining about it. Now this certainly doesn’t mean that they’re accommodating and comfortable with everything – quite the contrary: that’s how it is doesn’t mean that’s how it always must stay. For me it’s just a springboard, a vantage point from which I can look out and consider what I can do with this here and now, and how it can be developed and changed. This gives birth to new possibilities which put excitement in life and make it interesting.
For as long as we live, we are always capable of changing things – even of changing our own behaviour. There are the most incredible stories of people who have found their way out of seemingly hopeless situations which can serve as shining examples of what we can accomplish when we don’t moan even though life has tested us to our utmost limits.
That’s how I try to live. And that’s what I wish all of you – including the woman at the next table.
And in a combination of all these factors, we tend to overestimate the importance for us of what is big, loud and visible whilst simultaneously underestimating the importance for us of what is small, inaudible and invisible.
If we glance over the technological and industrial developments of the past 250 years and fix our attention particularly on the past twenty years, then these assertions assume a new and startling significance.
When I once spent several hours in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, my previous ideas about what was called the “First Industrial Revolution“ in Europe that took place in England 150-200 years ago and then spread were placed on a totally new footing by what I saw and learnt there.
Gigantic machines many meters high and many meters long, driven first by steam then by electric power, were lined up one against the other in the vast Power Hall. They are selected well-preserved examples representative of hundreds of their kind that were increasingly deployed in the wave of new factories that sprang up at that time.
What thoughts and feelings must the sight of such machines have evoked in the people of the 19th century who had never seen anything even remotely comparable to them before? People who up to then had lived by their own manual labour – whether working in the fields, in their own workshops or in manufacturing. How alien and how terrifying their first encounters with these monstrous clanking clattering machines must have been and how long it must have taken before people became accustomed to this new substance in their lives – not to mention the changes in their work and lives such machines brought with them which even today are still subsumed in the expression “Manchester Capitalism”.
This was radical brutal change. But above all else it was change that could be substantially apprehended by our physical senses. Change that, because it was visible, loud and large scale, could be apprehended by the human sensory system as it has developed over countless millennia. An enormous steam engine was recognisable for exactly what is was.
Today we stand on the threshold of another revolution determined by a new type of technology and machine which are no longer the huge self-evident monsters hissing steam, radiating heat and locking us into their rhythms. They are algorithms, invisible, inaudible yet immensely powerful mechanisms for which our sensory systems are not equipped to deal. Virtual worlds of no substance are emerging and at first glance we cannot recognise them for what they are. They don’t compel us, they seduce us. And so we stumble on from one snare to the next and yet still feel good, seeing ourselves as free beings living in a comfort zone.
Our species has created a world that lives from the shedding of substance. But what does that mean? Here we can call on Ludwig Wittgenstein from whose work the title of this blog is drawn: “If the world had no substance then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true. It would then be impossible to form a picture of the world (true or false).” (From:Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 2.0211/2.0212).
When Paul Watzlawick was writing his brilliant book How Real is Real? he had no notion of such a construction of reality. In a physically near imperceptible, very quiet, invisible yet immensely powerful way this new revolution is making us square up to the question of just how efficiently and how quickly can we develop and sharpen our system of sensory perception and our consciousness with the aim of dealing with these seemingly innocuous yet rapid currents of change in an intelligent and self-confident manner. The great confusion in which the real and the fake now contend is giving rise to an unprecedented loss of reality. Think of the Matrix film. Today there is no option other than that we continue to surrender information and data. Yet at the same time our knowledge and our awareness of such a development is expanding. And for as long as people are active in the game, no force will ever arise without producing its own counter-force.
The new age is still in its infancy. Its course will be set across the decades that lie before us.