World-ing, or: How to Embrace the End of an Era. Federico Campagna, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
RIBOCA2, the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, titled and suddenly it all blossoms and curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, looks to reenchantment as a frame for building desirable futures, reimagining ways of being human in a context of deep ecological, economic, and social mutation. Against cynicism and political despair, transforming fear into possibility and peril into exuberance, the biennial seeks alternative actions, thoughts, and narratives for alternative futures. Initially planned to open on May 16, 2020, with a five-month duration and weekly talks, performances, and poetry imagined with Sofia Lemos, RIBOCA2 associate curator of public programs, RIBOCA2 was reformatted into a feature-length film introduced by a series of weekly online talks and conversations available on RIBOCA’s website.
Mousse will publish a range of contributions over the upcoming months, offering readers abridged versions of selected talks.
SOFIA LEMOS: Common sense has us believe that only certain things exist—molecules but not mythical creatures, fiber-optic connectivity but not ether—and also contradictory things, for instance border control and quantum non-locality. This is what we understand as “reality.” Federico Campagna argues that “reality” varies with each new era of the world and civilization, in turn shaping the field of what is possible to do, think, and imagine. To him, if we can change the common ground that sustains our common sense, the latter adapts with it. These are not utopias or far-flung historical realities, but practices of “world making.” Campagna believes that another reality principle can be assembled if its building blocks are not based on linguistic categories, but on what he defines as “the ineffable.” In his words, “We must imagine a new set of reality principles that would allow for a new range of the possible to emerge.”1
In the following exchange, the philosopher probes our Western understanding of time as linear, unidirectional, one-dimensional, and made up of spatial successions by looking at the radical shifts in reality currently taking place, from the toppling of statues and public monuments related to the colonial past to apocalyptic narratives of environmental catastrophe. He examines what it means for the artistic and poetic imaginaries to operate in the liminal spaces before and after the end of a world.
FEDERICO CAMPAGNA: As we speak, there is a very interesting situation unfolding and a highly heated debate about taking down statues of slave traders and colonial oppressors from early modernity. This is long overdue, of course, yet it opens a set of compelling questions. We are asked to confront symbols of oppression, but we cannot dismantle all symbols of oppression from all ages of history and from all over the world, simply because we would lose the near totality of ancient culture worldwide. We need to create, or at least be willing to imagine, a sort of methodology to address the problem of which statues we can confront. And not just statues but also novels, films, cultural artifacts, testimonies of regimes of oppression. It is a truly difficult and complex problem, and we could face it in many different ways.
One possible way of confronting it would be to imagine that certain elements of culture and of artistic production no longer belong to the age in which we live, as they date to a time that is in stark historical discontinuity with the present. Since their time is discontinuous with the present, we can look at them as historical artifacts that testify to and are testimonies of a certain age of the world. Conversely, there are other artifacts—think of the Confederate statues in the United States, or the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston just recently sunk in Bristol—that belong to the same exact historical era as the present. These would allow us to imagine that the culture acting on its own artifacts is a culture surviving, being alive and moving forward. Vice versa, a culture destroying artifacts from past ages and from other worlds is just a culture engaging in senseless vandalism.
But how do we define the discontinuity between different eras of the world? For this task I believe that metaphysics might offer some interesting and useful tools. Why? When we look around ourselves in a room, we see a world made of distinct items that exist in particular ways. For example, in this room there are books, pens, plants. There are no ghosts or spirits or gods. It is by ordering my perceptions of this room in a specific way that I make books appear but not ghosts or spirits.
In different moments in history, we have made worlds—we have world-ed, as a verb—differently. Different moments have witnessed physically different worlds appearing, as people in different moments in history have made worlds according to different parameters. Each of them, metaphysically speaking, is equally legitimate in the sense that when we decide how to order reality around ourselves, how to make a world out of an avalanche of elements, we cannot base our decision on anything prior—on prior logic or prior ethics, because ethics and logic derive from the particular way in which we understand the stuff of the world: they are axiomatic decisions.
It derives that each of these worlds is equally legitimate as it is equally arbitrary, but they’re not all equal in their consequences. According to the specific way in which we make the world around ourselves, we end up with different worlds—a different population around us, a different range of things, a different range of relationships with which we deal. Thus, we face a diverse field of the possible, of what is possible, what it makes sense to think, to do, and to imagine. On the basis of that, we have a certain range of options of what we can or cannot do, what is superstition and what is reasonable.
When we think of a discontinuity in history, aside from the socioeconomic and cultural aspects, which are of course very important, we should consider the metaphysical settings of particular times in the world. We have observed, throughout history, different eras engaging with the activity of world-ing differently, and we can detect in the great transformations of history not just shifts in the relationships of power and the distribution of resources or the means of production, but also different ways of making the world according to different settings.
Let’s be a little bit clearer about this. I said that making world is an activity, but what kind of activity is it? We “make world” usually by separating, by ordering, by putting things in their place and creating a connection between the things that we have decided to cut out of the world as separate. This particular manner of ordering is a typical way of organizing through language: the connections are the syntax, the positions are the grammar, and the items are the elements of language. I’m using language in particular as a metaphor, as this allows us to understand the process not just as cosmogonic (that which creates a cosmos, a universe, an order, a world), but also as narrative, a narration of the world.
When we think about narration, one thing comes to mind: it depends on the voice of the person narrating (or of the collective narrating), and this voice has a beginning and an end. For example, within this context, when we think about the movement of time—not only in terms of before and after but also in terms of past, present, and future—we’re not thinking about it in absolute, autonomous terms, as if time exists in itself, undisturbed by our “silly” activity of world-ing. We know well, through philosophy, through science, that time in itself doesn’t exist as an autonomous entity. If we consider the activity of world-ing as a narration, we realize that time is part of this narration.
A narration has a musical element to it—a certain pace, a certain rhythm. Time can be understood as the rhythm of the particular narration of a certain world. When a specific narration of the world begins, then a certain time segment begins, and a certain rhythm that ends with the end of that narration. Within that segment, you have past, present, and future that are not just relative, but also absolute within the segment, within the narration.
When we “make world” in a certain way, we give rise to a new segment of time. We do so in past, present, and future. The future is no longer just what comes next infinitely; nor does the past stretch back infinitely, but only to the beginning of the narration (discontinuity), and then it stretches forward to the end of the narration (discontinuity, again).
For people who specialize in cultural production—writers, architects, musicians, and so on—there is an interesting paradox here. If past, present, and future belong to a certain segment, it means that at the end of that segment, the future ends. The future then is no longer a horizon that moves as you walk, but becomes what Ernst Jünger calls “the wall of time”— a wall against which you crash. This is problematic for cultural producers, because when you produce cultural artifacts, you no longer do it for your contemporaries, people who share your exact same present. You do it for your contemporaries, the people who share your same time segment, people who “make world” like you, who understand the things you’re talking about, get the innuendos, the unwritten bits. And yet you also do it for the future of your own time segment.
But what happens if that future is about to end? Put very simply, not apocalyptically: What happens if the particular narration of the world in which you happen to live—in which the world is made of certain things, language is structured in a certain way, reality is composed physically of certain objects that we recognize—is approaching the end of its curve, like an arc? What happens if you’re toward the end? It happens that the future is no longer there for you to address, and it’s no longer there to receive whatever you do. This sounds quite daunting as a prospect, but we shouldn’t be too worried about it, as it’s a very normal occurrence that cultural producers have always had to face. Every age has ended.
The civilization at the moment in the present, the one in which we find ourselves, is what we could call “Westernized modernity.” This particular way of world-ing—which is connected very strongly with a precise social order and in turn with a particular economic system, certain infrastructures which range across the globe, certain transmissions of resources, people, goods, and so on—seems to be about to end. Not so much because it has implicit contradictions in the way that it makes world, but mostly because it is connected so strongly with a certain social order that, as this social order disintegrates, that particular form of world-ing disintegrates simultaneously.
This is quite unique of this specific civilization—that it is so connected with the technological mega machine, for example, that if the mega machine was ever to falter then the society would crumble and the particular voice that sings that story of the world equally breaks. We are finding ourselves in this situation of being toward the end of the historical curve of a certain future of a certain time segment. What do we do now, if nobody is there to take what we are going to say because there is no future left?
I think, to a certain extent, that this is the challenge we must face today. And we have to confront it, I believe, without anguish. It is absolutely identical to exist at the beginning of a certain narration of the world, at the triumphal middle, or at the end. There is no tragedy at being at the end of this particular world-ing. I don’t think we should mourn it too much. This particular form of world-ing had its own advantages—incredible technological breakthroughs, for example—and its very severe disadvantages. Just to mention a few: the invention of total war, the atomic bomb, the concentration camp, the police force, the prison industrial system, the devastation of the ecological environment.
Let us shift focus from ourselves and look at the people after the end of this world, or after the end of a world. Usually, when a civilization disintegrates, the period immediately after is a strange age of weak world-ing. There is a certain fragility. The world is as if permeable to elements that come through from unbridled, raw reality—more fiercely, more violently—and that makes it a bit problematic sometimes.
We cannot predict, of course, who these people will be. But we can have some ideas of what kind of people they will be, more or less. We can have some ideas of the type of subjectivity, the particular way of being in the world, of seeing themselves being in the world, that they will entertain, because this has happened before.
What do we know, from looking at history, about the people at the dawn of a new world?
First of all, we know that in history they are called Archaics—but Archaic people are not primitive people. In historiography, you define as “primitive” somebody at the very beginning of time, while an Archaic is somebody who comes after the end of a previous world (like archaic Greece, for example, after the end of the Mycenaean civilization). Archaic people tend to have similar characteristics to adolescents. Adolescence, coming right after the end of a world (namely childhood), is characterized by a fragility of world-ing and by a certain distrust of the promises of order and of the law of disorder. Disorder is, of course, a problem. The world, the structure, the way of making sense is quite unstable, and you need to tackle that problem by creating a landscape. But order is also a problem: the moment you create an order, you have lost the entirety of all the other possibilities that you could have enacted, and you will have to obey that order, and that order might crush and destroy you.
So, we know a little bit about the kind of subjectivity of the people who come after the end of a certain civilization, of a certain future. We also know that they have this particular concern about restarting to “make world” while trying not to be crushed by their own creation. If we wish to address them, this is most of what we can tell about them. We cannot know what specific language they will speak; we can only know that they will not speak our same language. If we speak with them, we need to use something that is not specific to our time.
We should furthermore consider that the legacy of the culture that we leave behind has somehow to be part of that new narration.
A little disclaimer: when we think about the environment, we understand very well our responsibility to leave behind a legacy that is environmentally sustainable. Not that we must freeze the environment in an absolutely perfect form, but we can’t devastate it, or at least can’t devastate it to an extent such that it is impossible for the environment to keep transforming itself the way it usually does. The same applies to culture. When we leave a certain cultural legacy behind, we have to confront also the idea that we must leave something behind that will become part of the new form of world-ing.
To some extent, we have to leave ruins behind. In this particular moment in time, cultural producers should think about what they are leaving behind of this segment of time in terms of its potential as a ruin—that is, the potential of what we leave for inspiring, helping, aiding, offering something, on the basis of which post-future people will be able to start their own narration of the world. The archaic Greeks looked to the Mycenaean heroes to write the Odyssey and the Iliad and start a unionization. The barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages looked at the world of Rome and its language and its institutions. Misunderstanding is part of this, obviously: the legacy of a lost civilization is misunderstood and retaken, but everybody always looks back to take elements and move forward.
The exercise at this point is, first of all, to consider that, from this perspective, our present is not so much the trampling toward the future, as we said. It is not what the “contemporary,” as an expression, tends to make us believe. “Contemporary” implies the idea of a present that will never end. This is a pathetic case of denial. We have to consider that the present is not just “contemporary,” but it is mostly the past—that we are the past of the post-future. And thus, we are equally the past. Whatever we make today cannot count on “coolness” or “hotness” any more than the relics of ancient Egypt or of the early Middle Ages or of the Vedic societies in India. From this perspective we have to understand what to leave—what can we offer that is of the same cosmogonic importance as the Iliad or the Bhagavad Gita or the Quran.
This is a massive challenge, obviously, yet being at the end of a certain historical era is a great opportunity because we are sealing the legacy of this time, and this gives us also the opportunity to betray the legacy of this time. Leading the legacy doesn’t mean that we have to record what this society really was, what its ideas really were, what this way of world-ing really was, and convey it in a time capsule. Who cares about that? We have no responsibility toward ourselves to be truthful. We can lie. We can invent a better past for ourselves and for the future. And probably we do want to create that.
Think about the idea of the statues again. If we don’t have to turn the present world into a museum, removing statues makes sense. Even lying, to a certain extent, refashioning what we have been, makes sense because we have no responsibility in terms of archival conservation of our own age. We can lie in the interest precisely of the people who will come after the end of this future. We have this particular opportunity, right now as cultural producers, to reinvent what we have been, to leave a different narration about the way in which we “make world,” and we have to do it with a specific language, a language that is understandable, that somehow speaks through the ages. Unluckily, language ages badly. So we have to be careful regarding how we speak, but we also have to be careful about the type of suggestion.
We have the opportunity to leave a suggestion that allows post-future Archaics, adolescents if you like, to “make world” in a way that tackles the problem of order and of disorder.
What I would suggest at the moment as a cultural producer who happens to live in the rhythm of a certain civilization that is coming to an end, is to consider the challenge of speaking beyond the end of this time segment, adapting the language, but especially taking up the challenge of leaving fertile ruins behind us—ruins that will allow post-future adolescents, Archaics, to “make world” differently, and also to accept the possibility of lying to do so. Reinventing. Not being faithful to what there is. To do so once again, it is important to look at ourselves as if we were looking at a past object—not with the eye of the contemporary, but with the familiarity, with the Mycenaeans, with the ancient Egyptians, with the Aztecs, with the Inca. We all share the same stages of being the past of the post-future—and also with the same quality standards.
SL: We appreciate the idea of “fertile ruins.” As you know, Riga, Latvia, and the Baltics are a central inspiration for RIBOCA’s program, since they are places where—having undergone occupations, wars, economic fluxes—worlds have ended many times. This region has built anew, has aged, died, and been reborn. As you mentioned before, apocalypses are not uncommon. Could you tell us about the role of practice, political work, and activism as ways of making another legacy for the post-future?
FC: I think they have an important role, but not an all-encompassing role. Political action today is significant because while we are the past of the post-future, we are also our own present, and in our own present it is important to struggle immediately. The people who lie defeated by history need, on the one hand, the consolation to be able to live through that defeat, through our defeat. But also they might want—and rightly so—to engage and try to subvert the balance of forces immediately, to make a better present for themselves now, and possibly a better present for the little bit of future that is left.
It is, I think, mostly an ethical imperative to engage in political activism and political work. That said, one must also consider the fact that political work doesn’t necessarily translate into any stable transformation of reality. Within certain time segments, there are political revolutions as in transformations, but also revolutions as in going around in an orbit all the way to the beginning. They are always in transformation, becoming and fragile. We cannot put all our hopes in this end of time, complete transformation of the universe through political work.
My belief is that we have to complement that with metaphysical work, since metaphysics has to do with the fundamental structures of reality. While political activity is important, it requests metaphysics both before and after, in the sense that to achieve certain political aims effectively, it is necessary to transform the understanding of reality. Furthermore, changing the metaphysics allows for better politics, also considering the fact that political action tends to have a certain effect, a certain echo, within the time segment in which it takes place, and metaphysics allows for the establishment of the bridge beyond that particular age.
SL: Looking at COVID-19 and the worldwide demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter, it looks indeed like we’re nearing an end to the law-like time of capital. A similar sense of hope emerged with the global upheavals of 1968 and more recently with WikiLeaks, yet in time, as reality “returned” to normal, we began experiencing renewed forms of situated violence, surveillance, and control. Could you comment on this in relation to the current moment?
FC: Of course there is always this attempt to go back to normality. I remember the pictures of people having breakfast among the ruins of Berlin in 1945, or in the Blitz in London. There was always an attempt to simulate normality. That’s understandable. It usually happens. In this particular moment I’ve noticed that what is really changing, and has been changing for a while, is that the way in which we are engaging with society, for good or bad reasons, is moving from the idea of engaging with reality, with society, through a discourse—through a certain debate that is based on shared and agreed-upon fundamental principles that allow for a certain discussion to take place, in a civilized and orderly fashion—to a challenge to that particular system.
This has emerged most strongly first with the alt-right, rather than with Black Lives Matter. They were the first that inserted this very strong conflictual element in society. Of course, within the realm of conflict, the items of discourse don’t quite apply in the same way. My impression is that the conflictual potential of the present is intensified on both sides, and on all sides. And the only way in which you disrupt a certain discourse is through conflict. But we have to keep in mind as an element of concern that usually when you shift from the order of a discourse to an element of conflict, the next step then typically is war.
It seems to me that the immediate horizon we are facing is not so much a return to a pre-conflict normality, but the intensification of conflict to an element of war, which could take many forms. In the United States, for example, there is this flirtation with civil war in every possible declination of the expression—going around armed, just to name one.
At the moment, we’re finding ourselves in a situation not dissimilar from 1914. There are many global powers, each of them competing for resources. My impression is that that particular scenario is the most likely to emerge in what is left of this future, and probably will be what seals the end of this particular future. I doubt that this moment will translate into an actual return to the normality of the discourse as we knew it.
SL: I’d like for us to pause here, before the end of this time segment, and in the space of total conflict. Let’s focus on the aesthetic and poetic possibilities of narrating a different legacy. How do we foster new aesthetic gestures for after the end of the future?
FC: New aesthetic acts are a typical problem of parenthood. Being a parent, you engage with another person whose only difference from you is not that they are at an earlier stage of development, or more primitive, but that they are living in another world. You don’t speak the same language, time doesn’t flow the same way, the world is not made of the same things. One thing that I would suggest is to try and adopt their particular perspective, not in the sense of trying to imagine what the world looks like to them, but more in the sense of looking at yourself as if you were somebody else, as if you were their past. You realize that what you’re creating at that particular moment is what will constitute their past.
This mode of estrangement from oneself is a small trick. But I think it allows for a certain relaxation, for example, of the concerns about the absolute domination of the present in your hands, and the projection toward the future, and also for a certain scenographic care. What you are curating, to a certain extent, is the atmosphere in which certain things become possible.
If I imagine the aesthetic acts that somehow speak to the people of the post-future, I imagine it not dissimilarly to the way we—for example an adult and a child, once again, not as hierarchically arranged, but as simply people who happen to live in the same room but in different worlds—interact. I suggest the main aesthetic act is the creation of the general atmosphere, the scenography, in which certain possibilities become reasonable.
It means dealing with the world as a theater, but with the substance of this theater being the substance of memory, and yourself as the substance of a memory. Realizing also in a selfish way that since the way in which we “make world” is aesthetic, it’s through aesthetics that we are able to make a landscape around ourselves that doesn’t exist. It exists because we create it, according to our own rules.
To make it happen, we need to use the aesthetic machine. If we want to “make world,” we need to respect the only demand of this aesthetic machine: that we allow for the machine to keep working after we are finished with it. Allowing post-future people to also “make worlds.” If we don’t respect this demand of the machine today, the machine jams. The epidemics of psychopathologies have multiple reasons—having to do with social structures, of course, but also with a certain jamming, so to speak, of the aesthetic machine. The ability to respect the only demand that it has, to allow for this continuous transformation, for what we do to become ruins. This is what I see as an ethical responsibility in dealing with post-future subjects.
SL: One of the intents of RIBOCA’s glossary is to understand how words make worlds and how this activity of “world making” can go beyond the linguistic structures that order the world. This is an immense problem, of course, for all beings who are un-assignable to particular categories of language such as gender, citizenship, and also the human, also in the post-future. Thank you for engaging us with another view of time, other ways of imagining what the end of a world might look like, and how we might narrate different political legacies and time frames.
 Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 7.
Federico Campagna is London-based philosopher and writer. After having studied economics in Milan and cultural studies in London, in 2009 he founded the multilingual journal for critical theory Through Europe, and started a long-term collaboration with the Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi editing his philosophical anthology Quarant’anni contro il lavoro (Forty Years against Work, DeriveApprodi, 2017). Campagna is the author of Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Post-Future Adolescents (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2020); Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (Bloomsbury, 2018); The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure (Zero Books, 2013); and What We Are Fighting For: A Radical Collective Manifesto (Pluto Press, 2012). He is a visiting lecturer and tutor at KABK in the Hague, and director of the rights department at Verso Books, London and New York.
and suddenly it all blossoms, RIBOCA2’s online series of talks and conversations, continues through October 1, 2020.
MAREUNROL’S Pattern is in some ways a tapestry in the RIBOCA2 and suddenly it all blossoms exhibition space, and simultaneously also a functional uniform designed for the art mediators on site. The wool used to produce these outfits was sourced from a local textile factory that went bankrupt at the end of the 1990s. When the factory closed its doors, all their unused textiles were stored in a hangar, where they remained for more than twenty years. Though this material has been configured into new garments, it still carries a heavy history, having been specifically manufactured to produce the shinel, a military overcoat worn by Russian soldiers during the Soviet regime.
While still embedded with memories of war and occupation, the wool now becomes a tool for reappropriating history, a testament to transformation and resilience, by way of its daily wearing and the tapestry’s shape of the Jumis, the Latvian mythological sign for the god of the harvest, consisting of two stylized crossed grain stalks. Traditionally, the Jumis symbol would be installed on a barn or on a house’s roof to protect the people who live there and ensure them prosperity and good fortune.
MAREUNROL’S is a fashion label from Latvia created by Mārīte Mastiņa-Pēterkopa and Rolands Pēterkops. Nurtured by literature and cinema, they call themselves “thinkers and storytellers who raise clothing outside of the familiar framework of functionality, using it as a thread for studying the world and the self.” The MAREUNROL’S collections occupy a surrealist universe, their clothing being only one part of a story that takes shape through photography, scenography, and video.