The pleasure in doubt - Johan Siebers

18th Aug · Dawn Hawkins

The pleasure in doubt is taken from our 'Becoming Earthly' session led by Johan Siebers, associate Professor of Philosophy and Divinity at the University of Middlesex London. Siebers is concerned with developing philosophy as a practice within everyday life. This focus supports learning about the forces that shape society, the futures we might make, and we might imagine these futures individually and collectively.

Two claims about doubt and pleasure

As I am starting to think about becoming earthly, and I ask myself how come that we were not already, my mind circles around the concept of a specific kind of illusion, which Kant named transcendental. In Kant’s classical aesthetics art both imitates and completes nature in that it brings to explicit expression the goal that dwells in nature itself: purpose, fullness, beauty and awe. But art does so while labouring under an unavoidable illusion, which we can’t shake off and which acts as the condition of possibility of our relation to nature. This illusion is the experience that nature has a purpose, that there is design in the order we perceive. Without this bedrock of our relation to nature, we could not experience anything of meaning in it, Kant seems to have thought. The two sources of knowledge, sensible experience and understanding, appear to us again and again as conjoined harmoniously in nature, imprinting in us the unshakeable reality that it all hangs together awesomely beautifully, even down to the level of a basic chaotic contingency, about which more below.

What does the word “ecology” really mean more than this? In the encounter with on the one hand the beauty of nature, fitting to the human form, and on the other the sublime, overwhelming infinity of nature, which makes us realise we are nothing in comparison to it, while yet we can understand this state of affairs and so we are not completely cut off from it. The two states even reflect back into each other: we can experience awe in the face of the very fact that we feel natural beauty (that it is so that we should feel this) and the fact that we are aware of our own incommensurability compared to the infinity of the natural world can strike us as something beautiful in its own right, in a kind of tingly, hair-curling or blood-curdling way. But, for Kant, all this is transcendental illusion. A kind of framing of our existence that we can’t shake off but which at the same time could never be “demonstrated”, fully recovered for our own arbitrary usage. We stand in it and are given over to it. Beyond our own envelope lies the mystery of existence itself, forever out of our reach although alive within the core of our own being as much as of anything else. It guarantees that we are citizens of two worlds: the realm of necessity, the natural world, and the realm of freedom, our unknown, moral selves.

Siebers Context

Johan Siebers - the beauty & awe of nature

It is not difficult to hear the long Christian and Greek heritage in this way of thinking. The human being stands with one feet in nature and with another outside of it. Nature itself is shot through with a redemptive need, our earth, the place that has given us our very name, human, from humus, earth (as houmous is too), we the earthlings, are at home on the earth because we don’t fully belong to it. This is the old structure of experiencing awe and beauty, freedom and order, doubt and pleasure as intrinsically linked to the human being as a stranger in a strange land. We are a tear in nature and because of that a high hope and a grave danger. Called to live with it but not at home in it. This rendering of the human condition automatically leads to a psychology that is liable to the extremes of, on the one hand, fatalism and on the other of fear, control, violence and domination. Our language is shot through with it. Humanity has conditioned itself to find pleasure in these emotions, in the sight of nature as our other. The contingency of the human being has been read back into nature as we discovered a form of non-causality and spontaneous freedom at the most fundamental level of material existence. Our strangeness has found its way back into the deepest fabric of our strange land, but Kant would not have been surprised at all of course. We may well ask if the way the quantum view of the world is used outside of physics is not itself a contemporary form of myth that purports to put us in contact with yet another overarching interpretation of our condition while ignoring the pertinent problem of our creative, free subjectivity as we experience and live with it, oppress it or deny it, every day. I want to be a bit suspicious and ask to what extent the old mind-body, spirit-matter dualism is alive and well within us, too.

Who is this “us”? Are there different ways of thinking that we might enter into dialogue with in a non-imperialist way, or that we recognise as ours already, which carry a different experience of the human situation? What would such a dialogue look like and how are our feelings and needs affected by it?

My first claim: it is this implicit anthropology of our torn humanity, which has experienced many iterations throughout history, that still underpins our conception of art and what it means to be an artist. In other words, in our session I want to start from a problematization of the relation between art and nature. I would like us to become sensitized to the difficulties here, to the complex relation between doubt and pleasure in the practice of eco-arts. But this is just a starting point for a conversation and my claim is likely to be proven not to stand up to scrutiny unaltered. Questions we may want to explore could include the following: Can the artist ever become earthly in the way in which, for example, Latour talks about the terrestrial, claiming that art is necessary for us to learn to live on the earth, that art, in other words, is a human need in a whole new way from before? I hear a contrast between terrestrial and human. Both refer to the earth, but “terra”, related to “dry”, as in dry land perhaps, signals a creative emergence to my mind, while “human” signals an exodus and a return. There are vast cosmological differences at play here. Do we see reality as a perpetual creative advance (and could this be a way of thinking about becoming earthly) or do we see reality as an exitus-reditus process suspended between leaving home and coming back to it? What is the place of the word, our own emancipation from circumstance and the creation of a social world, in both these cosmological schemes?

What are the experiences you, as artists, have around doubt and pleasure in exploring what an ecological approach to art might be, what it might mean for art to become earthbound in a way that somehow changes our conception of the human, or perhaps does away with it altogether? Where are the contours of homelessness to be drawn in such a creative practice? Or is our transcendental homelessness itself a dangerous fiction that art can help us to overcome? How might we then experience the call to ecology as artistic in a significant way? How might our understanding of “art” as a praxis, an institution, but also a calling, change as a result of a reflection on nature as ecosystem? Or does nature have to tell us something beyond ecology? Can we find leads in the history of art, in our own artistic practice, or in our premonitions of the future of art for thinking about these questions? If art responds to human desire, and human desire is a wound that never closes, a lack that is never filled, a doubt in pleasure and a pleasure in doubt, given to us in the transcendental illusion of a lost object or home (call it Terra if you will), perhaps shared by all nature, by all that moves by itself, then what could ecology mean for our journey to develop a free relation to our wound that might enable us to live and to create? All of this boils down to the question how to think about the relation between nature and freedom.

I propose to think about the liberating function of art as that of a tear in being. When feelings and needs find words there is a possibility for us to stop making others responsible for our feelings and needs. When we can do that, we can communicate in freedom. We can encounter others, human and non-human, without appropriation or instrumentalisation. Art can be a way of showing where feelings and needs belong. Art is itself, as I said above, a need. It is the need to enlighten ourselves about our needs, to learn what it means to live with them. Art may perhaps help us to come to see an ecosystem as an open system of feelings and needs, the awesomely beautiful and incomprehensible conjunction of independence and togetherness. In my work I call this going together of independence and connection, of withholding and sharing, communication. In a way it replaces “system”. It also replaces “dialectics”, “causality”, “contingency”. In a basic and irreducible sense the whole world is in dialogue.

My second claim can now be formulated: From such a perspective, we might find our way to a different attitude towards ourselves, others and the natural world. A word for it could be generosity, or also natural giving (a term used by Marshall Rosenberg). It is closely related to presence in the sense in which Martin Buber used this word to signify a central dimension of what he called dialogue. Presence, being present with another, is the greatest gift, Buber said. If we can experience ecology in terms of this kind of presence and if we can experience the creative subjectivity of the artist as a free, even playful giving of it, we may find our way to do the old thing in a new way, like nature itself does again and again: for humans, not distinct, over or above the rest of nature, to speak a word that sets free.

We will explore the doubt and pleasure of eco-art against the background of this conception of the world in dialogue.

Johan Siebers Portrait

Johan Siebers is associate Professor of Philosophy and Divinity at the University of Middlesex London. Siebers is concerned with developing philosophy as a practice within everyday life. This focus supports learning about the forces that shape society, the futures we might make, and we might imagine these futures individually and collectively.