Ignorance as an accomplishment

Sergej Timofejev

Conversations — 05.08.2020

A conversation with German-American anthropologist Tobias Rees

We have grown used to the thought that an anthropologist is a person whose research involves “the human”, the behaviour of this particular biological species. And yet California-based German-born anthropologist Tobias Rees makes us all radically reconsider this perception.

During his recent online conversation with Sofia Lemos, associate curator of the public programmes of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA), Rees said, among other things: “About three or four years ago, it was first discovered that most neurotransmitters in our brain are made by bacteria that live in our gut. In the 18th century, the mind became the thing that defined the human; the idea at the time was that only humans have a mind. And over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the mind became the most intimate thing. Your mind – that’s you. It was the place that defines you, that’s home to your subjectivity. Then enter the microbiome, and you have an incredibly moving observation – your mind, the thing that defines you, that is most you, is actually contingent on something that is not you, your bacteria. I add that different bacterial populations make different kinds of neurotransmitters and that different kinds of neurotransmitters make different kinds of neural states. What kind of bacterial populations you have actually depend on the food you eat. So now you’ve transformed the ‘mind’, your most intimate interiority, into a series that goes from your brain, to bacteria, to food, to agriculture. It’s as if the mind, the internal, and agriculture, the external, become inseparable.”

In other words, the mind is hardly a product of the actions of a separate human consciousness but rather a whole world of interlinked elements ‒ one in which the human and nature are by no means two opposed concepts (according to Rees, this juxtaposition is a relatively recent phenomenon anyway, dating no further back than the 17th century and the ideas of Descartes) but rather something interpermeated, mutually complementing and, in fact, inseparable.

Rees is Reid Hoffman Professor of Humanities at the New York School for Social Research and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research as well as the author of several books, intellectual bestsellers setting new horizons. In his recent publication After Ethnos (2018), he critiques traditional methods of research and the very division of sciences into human and exact, which is a way of pigeonholing and separating the subjects of research. At the Los Angeles Berggruen Institute, the citadel of American thinktanks, Rees is the founding director of the Transformations of the Human programme.

For Rees personally, the concept of “the human” is linked with fundamental uncertainty and instability: “I do think that it’s important to recall, to constantly remind oneself, that ‘the human’ is not a given but a concept – a conceptualisation that always seems to imply a conceptualisation of the non-human as well, classically of animals and machines.” Rees is interested, as a practice of freedom, in rendering the human instable. “I am interested in finding or creating, through my research, situations of suspense, of uncertainty. I am interested in not knowing as the outcome of an inquiry. I want to fall on the side of the conceptual rather than on the side of the ontological: of not knowing, of uncertainty, of offering tentative statements from the perspective of uncertainty rather than certainty.”

And it was with the subject of uncertainty that I decided to open our conversation, which took place in two completely different time zones. It was early morning in California; there was a window behind Rees’ back and some trees visible outside.

In your talk with Sofia Lemos for the RIBOCA Public Programme you spoke quite a lot about uncertainty as one of the main principles of modern thinking and about “here and now”. You also mentioned the words of the poet German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Yes, there is a line by Rilke that has guided me. It goes like this: “Everything / is not itself.” To me, in my reading, it is as if Rilke were suggesting that things are not identical with themselves. As if there’s a discrepancy between the thing and itself. As if there is a kind of non-identity of things in things, an irreducible instability that one can imagine as a gap, a potential for escape, for being otherwise. Something that makes it impossible to know them, to reduce them to knowledge. When I conduct research, I often find myself driven by the wish to capture that which cannot be captured, that is, this  irreducibility of things, their always different non-identity.

I’ve found that the Rilke quote is useful to distinguish the kind of work I would like to produce from the obsession with the emergent. In the aftermath of Foucault, whom I love, many scholars and poets were focused on events: They focus on the slow or sudden arrival of something new and unexpected, something that transforms the given – an established way of thinking and doing – into the no longer valid. And then they ask what the new “it” is that emerges from the event. I admire these works and have no critique to offer. But...well, I have not been very interested in the new it, in that which emerges. Rather, what I’m intrigued by is that moment of suspense when the old has already been undermined and nothing new has yet emerged. I’m interested in this moment when the world suddenly seems to break open, when it’s released from how we knew it, that is, when it’s released from our concepts and practices. There’s an irreducible openness, a rawness, that can never become a new it. If I were to focus on the emergent, then only to discover that residue of unsteadiness that is there.

Thinking about Rilke and comparing the possibility of research that emerges from his poem led me to a lot of thinking about why one conducts research. Why and to what ends does one conducting research?

Instead of wanting to know something, I want to unknow something. I conduct research because I want to discover the uncertainty of things.

In my observation, which might be flawed, most people do research because they want to find out; they are curious to know, to understand. Research, most often, is a form of ordering something that seems disorderly. But that is not at all the reason why I conduct research. To put it a bit cheekily, instead of wanting to know something, I want to unknow something. I conduct research because I want to discover the uncertainty of things.

It may seem counterintuitive to do research in order to achieve ignorance, if only because most people perceive ignorance as undesirable. They view ignorance as a condition one has to leave behind. To be ignorant is to be stupid, naïve, unlearned, devoid of knowledge. But the kind of ignorance I refer to is very different, of course. It is not ignorance as a starting point but ignorance as an accomplishment, as an outcome. In some way, it is ignorance as knowledge, as an epistemic state.

Why do I value uncertainty – or epistemic uncertainty – so much? In many ways, I experience uncertainty as the highest good. Uncertainty is a form of freedom. It’s a politics that grounds in poetics. For me, uncertainty is a term that refers to irreducible openness. And when I say openness I do not mean some ontologically self-identical space that lies beyond things. Then I would defy my own argument. I would reintroduce identity through the backdoor. No, the open as such doesn’t exist. It is non-identical with itself, one could say.

Uncertainty is a form of freedom. It’s a politics that grounds in poetics.

Maybe this other form of research should be called examination.

Speaking about uncertainty, the first half of this year has absolutely been a time of uncertainty, in which most of our usual daily rituals and habits have come under question and even been deemed dangerous or unsafe. I think this feeling of uncertainty will move many people to think about this state of mind and this feeling, maybe even apply these philosophical concepts to their own lives. Do you agree that people are now more interested in this subject because of the changes going on in the world around them?

Maybe. It could be. I’m not sure. On the one hand, yes, of course. There is an increased experience of uncertainty. That’s easy enough to understand. The political certainties that organised the Western world since the end of the Second World War have dramatically fallen apart over the past few years. Brexit and the election of Trump are powerful, but in no way the only, indicators. In the United States, Trump marks – or so I hope – the last death rattle of a white, elitist infrastructure built on the back of slavery and the appropriation of native land. People wonder what new, different formation will come next, but for now they live amidst the uncertainty of the present. Add to that the economic downturn brought about by SARS-CoV-2, which has left many unemployed and afraid of death and disease. And on the planetary stage, anthropogenic climate change, mass species extinction and Covid make it clear that the old ways of living are so destructive that they cannot possibly be maintained – but no one really knows where to go from here.

This is a lot. I could easily get drunk on water and say that the whole world has slid into uncertainty.

On the other hand, this kind of uncertainty is something that happens to people; it is a loss, a loss of certainty. This is very different from uncertainty as the outcome of research or examination. It’s different from examination and from what I called ignorance as accomplishment.

Of course, the two are somehow related. But how? What specifically interests me is: could one ground a response to the loss of uncertainty that seems to define so many aspects of contemporary life in the kind of non-identity that the work of philosophers or artists have often aimed at? Can one offer responses that don’t ground in a new ontology, that are non-ontological?

I want to discuss this in a moment. But before we go there, I’d like to ask you to explain what you mean by non-ontology.

The non-ontological is for me still experimental territory. The challenge most clearly emerges from Rilke’s idea of a non-identity of things with themselves. Where they are irreducible to an ontological identity. Can one operate in this non-ontological space? Not just in the sense of releasing things from their “truth”, which is ultimately a poetic operation, but also in the sense of offering new possibilities, new experimental philosophies of living?

Let me give an example. There are a lot of authors and artists now who would like to overcome the human in the name of nature. The form that argument often assumes is the suggestion that the split of humans from nature – a split that is said to mark the beginning of modernity – was a mistake. The implication of this argument is that nature is somehow the baseline: It is the place of origin and, as such, or so the story goes, the ontological ground of everything that is. And what is nature? It’s a separate ontological domain, different from human and technical things. It’s made up of stuff one can study empirically: trees, birds, microbes, dogs, mycelia, etc.

The consequence of this argument is a sharp moralism: The differentiation of the human from nature, it is proclaimed, was an error, an error that must be corrected in the name of a timeless truth, nature. We have to undo the differentiation of humans from nature, or so the story goes, to undo a fatal error, to restore the cosmic unity.

One can easily see that what is at stake in this kind of argument is an ontological truth claim that indicates an error. However, if one begins to inquire where this concept of nature understood as made up of empirical, non-human things like trees and animals and microbes comes from, one finds it is of relatively recent origin. It doesn’t exist in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Nature was a metaphysical first principle, not an empirical domain. In short, one can only present the concept of nature we are familiar with as an ontological truth claim if one has ontologised a relatively recent concept. And I find such ontologisations most unfortunate. The concept of nature evoked by the critiques of the human is not an ontological truth at all. Instead, it’s a recent concept that first emerged in the early 17th century and that was actually invented to stabilise the modern concept of the human as more than nature (this is what my talk at RIBOCA was about).

If I were to summarise the idea of the non-ontological, then I’d say it consists in replacing the genre of ontology with the genre of conceptual inquiry and experimentalisation. Instead of taking a concept as a given, I ask where it comes from and how it transformed the field of experience. Or how it restructured the experience of reality, of how it’s organised. The question is, can one offer ways for how to overcome the human that do not ground in what I think of as the prison of ontology or ontological truth claims? Can one escape the whole formation of being, truth, error correction, morals, etc.?

I try to replace – even if this sounds a bit too grandiose – certainty with uncertainty and thereby enable an experimental search for new experimental philosophies that don’t need ontological grounds anymore. So non-ontology really means a shift away from being towards concepts and conceptual experimentation.

Reading Kahn, one gets the impression that Plato and Aristotle and all those who come after them are ultimately operating in the wake of Parmenides.

By the way, one can also apply this mode of working to being itself. For there is nothing obvious about the category of being. For example, there’s the very thought-provoking work by Charles Kahn, The Verb ‘Be’ in Ancient Greek. And also his Essays on Being. Kahn argues that Parmenides discovered – invented – the idea, the concept of Being. Kahn observes that, before Parmenides, the verb ‘to be’ existed only as copula. There was no noun ‘being’, no concept of being as such, call it pure Being. With Parmenides, this changed. The way Kahn puts it – and I’m simplifying here – is that Parmenides was the first abstract thinker. What I mean by abstract thinker is that he was, in the history of thought, the first who sought to abstract from the fleeting sensuous experience of things, say trees, something that in the abstract all trees have in common. And this led him to the idea that there was a general realm of Being that was different from the sensuous, haptic world. Reading Kahn, one gets the impression that Plato and Aristotle and all those who come after them are ultimately operating in the wake of Parmenides.

Whatever one makes of this, it’s easy to see how many Western thinkers were concerned with how things “are”, with their “nature”, etc. They tended to assume that the true being of things – what Aristotle called their nature – is immaterial. That is, the assumption is always that, on an ontological level, things have a kind of irreducible identity. Call it an obsession with a kind of identity politics written in the language of ontology.

Now, there are quite a few scholars who have observed that many non-European languages know neither the verb ‘to be’ nor the noun ‘being’. For example, scholars like Angus Graham have observed that ‘being’ doesn’t exist in ancient Chinese. The very idea that a thing – including the human thing – would always be identical with itself, as if it had a true ontological core, a true nature, is unknown. Instead, say in Confucianism, everything is relational: What a thing is depends on the constellation of relations within which you encounter that thing.

In Daoism, things have an emergent quality – think about the many Chinese landscape paintings and how mountains emerge from the fog.

Let me add, with respect to Confucius, that the idea is not that selves come together and are in relations, as if the self were independent from relations. No, that would imply that there is a self-identical thing. And this kind of concept of an ontological self-identity of things, this is precisely Graham’s point, is absent in ancient Chinese thought.

In Daoism, things have an emergent quality – think about the many Chinese landscape paintings and how mountains emerge from the fog.

What interests me about both the conceptual history of Being and the juxtaposition of Western and non-Western thought is that it transforms a given, something as obvious as being into a question mark. That is, it replaces a certainty with uncertainty, an uncertainty that allows to experimentally search for new forms of living beyond old certainties – and without the need for new ones.

It should be obvious that what is at stake is not a meticulous reconstruction of ancient Chinese thought as the truth, as the remedy for the present and its problems. As if the ancient Chinese got it right. Or as if non-Westerners, non-moderns got something right that Westerners got wrong. I don’t believe in the prior as the saving grace for the present. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that one shouldn’t read and engage with and think about, for example, ancient Chinese philosophy.

Thank you. Are we approaching a time when uncertainty is the new model of life? Or do we need some kind of certainty in order to exist as a society?

I assume that one could say that uncertainty is a signature of our moment in time. But if it’s the new model? I don’t know. The term “model” leaves me a little ambivalent. Why? Because it sounds like one tries to offer a grand answer for living a life: a model. I don’t want to be pretentious. One form being non-pretentious may take is that one doesn’t offer a new, one-size-fits- all replacement: moving from one model to another one. What interests me instead is the exploration of possibilities, ideally with others, for how to be human differently. I think much depends on how philosophers and artists and poets, and ultimately technologists, elaborate possibilities for making uncertainty a condition of a good life. Perhaps I could say that what is needed is not a model but a broad set of examples, of explorations, of tools and toolkits, ideally ones that do not add up to something consistent.

Can you give an example?

In my prior work I’ve often been content with derailment, with showing that a concept doesn’t hold anymore. But this has not been an end in itself. At stake is not undermining – or destruction – for undermining’s sake. No, what interested me, and continues to grip me very much, is the production of instances of non-identity, irreducible to any ontology. One could call it pure difference. In my last book, After Ethnos, I call it non-teleological movement. For me, it’s an instance of freedom.

But at one point I got intrigued by the idea that one could construct new modes of living, of being human, from within this space. That is, without succumbing to ontological arguments. So, instead of defining my work by way of transforming a given into a question, I became also interested in finding alternative possibilities – but from the perspective of the non-ontological.

Fields like neuro-technology or machine learning are, to put it mildly, questioning the distinction between the human and the machine.

Let me give you an example. We know today that the modern concept of “the human” as more than nature and as other than machines doesn’t quite hold up. On the one hand, we’re not more than nature at all. If anything, we’re bacterial and viral. And on the other hand, fields like neuro-technology or machine learning are, to put it mildly, questioning the distinction between the human and the machine.

So, the formation that we’re so familiar with and that only emerged about 400 years ago – the human – is dissolving. And yet, the modern vocabulary for talking about the human seems hardly affected by the recognition that the concept of the human it was meant to stabilise no longer works. We still talk about technology, art, culture, history, politics, society, the social as if they were the most obvious and most timeless ontological truths about humans. Each one of these concepts implies that there’s a separate human reality, one set apart from both the natural world and from machines. But really, that is simply not, or no longer, the case, no?

So, what to do? I think we need to invent a new vocabulary for thinking about the human that unfolds beyond the old concepts of the human, of nature and of technology. We need a vocabulary that simultaneously deanthropologises the world – and allows us to be human differently. A vocabulary that opens up a different comprehension of how reality is organised and how humans are part of it, produced by it. Inventing such a new vocabulary takes time. Provocatively put, it took us 400 years to invent the modern concept of the human as subject in a world of objects. We have to learn to patiently tame our impatience.

I think we need to invent a new vocabulary for thinking about the human that unfolds beyond the old concepts of the human, of nature and of technology.

But where to find such new vocabularies? For me, the answer is largely science and technology. I’ve been struck now for several years by the recognition that, today, the question concerning the human is no longer at stake in the faculties of arts but instead in those fields that were traditionally not concerned with the human at all: AI, climate change, microbiome research, etc. It’s in these fields of science and technology that new understandings of the human, of nature and of technology – of new continuities and differences between them – are elaborated.

But who pays attention to this? Who attends to AI and biotech labs as the philosophical laboratories they are? Who studies how they derail the old concepts and thus the old ontologies? Too few. This is why at the Berggruen Institute we insert philosophers and artists in labs, to work alongside engineers, and so that they can discover, together, how, in which sense, their work amounts to an experimental philosophy of the human.

Let me give an example that focuses on the distinction between the natural and the technical or the artificial. Most modern humans, at least in the West, take it for granted that nature is non-technical, that nature is the opposite of artificial. Here nature, there technology. Historically, though, the idea that nature and technology are two separate ontological domains is of relatively recent origin. In Greek antiquity and the European Middle Ages, for example, technology was, well, it was natural.

Aristotle, building on Plato’s Timaeus (28a), was clear on that: Technology either imitates nature or finishes what nature left unfinished, and therefore technology is derived and has no ontological status of its own. Technology cannot produce anything outside of nature (Physics 199a-17). That is, the idea that nature and technology are separate fields, an idea that led to an understanding of technology as in itself anti-natural, is a distinctive feature of modernity.

Today, things seem to be changing again, I think. Take a contemporary field like synthetic biology. Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, once told me that the currently existing life forms are not even the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg of possible life forms. That is, many more things could exist in nature than there are. So many more plants, animals, microbes, slime moulds and also new things for which we have no words yet. That’s interesting, because if you take seriously the concept of nature implicit in Endy’s suggestion, then it appears that nature is a vast field of possibility – and you could say that synthetic biology is the skill of bringing into existence organisms that could exist in nature but currently don’t. These new organism would be technically produced, and yet they would be fully natural; technology and nature would not be mutually exclusive.

The idea that nature and technology are separate fields, an idea that led to an understanding of technology as in itself anti-natural, is a distinctive feature of modernity.

I like to push this example a little further. Here’s a quote by Frank MacFarlane Burnet, the inventor of the modern theory of the immune system as a self versus not-self recognition system:

“Niels Jerne has spoken of the resemblance of the immune system to the nervous systems but has not stressed the extraordinary difference between the labyrinthine network of neural circuitry and switchgear, most of which is set up to last for life, and the momentary contact of mobile immune cells swirling through the blood- and lymph-circulatory systems. Nor does the immune system have any analogies with any manmade technological device (…). Instead, the immune system is an intensely biological invention. Any analogies must be sought in another set of biological systems.”

The question that inevitably, for me at least, emerges from these lines is: Could one imagine what such biological innovations could look like? I think one could. One example is CRISPR Cas9, a gene editing tool. We understand CRISPR to be the most cutting-edge technical innovation. However, CRISPR wasn’t invented by humans; it was invented by bacteria, roughly 3.5 billion years ago. CRISPR, this is to say, is a living, natural technology. A similar story could be told about antibiotics, also invented by bacteria.

In the face of this possibility of understanding technology as part of nature, a new comprehension of technology emerges. Technology could now be understood – and practised – as working with and alongside biological processes rather than against them, which is what we did when the goal of technology was either human control or the construction of a separate human reality. In fact, one could now argue that the modern notion of technology as the power of the artificial, which was underlying modern industrialism, was an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Technology doesn’t exist outside nature. Consequently, the modern idea that technology is a unique human power – the power of the artificial – that has led us humans to distance ourselves from nature...doesn’t make any sense anymore.

Now I could push this further still. Could I replace all the technologies that were built as artificial, all the infrastructure that was built in terms of the artificial, with technologies that were built in terms of the biological? Could one replace technologies with biologies? Could one biologise industry? Industry and capitalism are built on resource extraction, but with synthetic biology one could imagine some very different models.

Is this about being? Or even about becoming? Is it about getting technology ontologically “right”? Or nature? Is what is at stake here a timeless ontological truth? Not at all. What is at stake, instead, is the construction – via synthetic biology – of a different conception of the human, of nature and of technology; it’s a conceptual poetic exercise that allows us to imagine things otherwise – humans and nature and technology.

Industry and capitalism are built on resource extraction, but with synthetic biology one could imagine some very different models.

If I were to summarise the approach I offered here, then I’d call it exposure. I took a concept, in this case the modern concept of technology – implicit within which is a certain understanding of the human and of nature – and I exposed it to contemporary bioengineering and watched. I watched how the concept gets derailed, how it assumes new, unanticipated forms, forms that offer new possibilities of understanding and practising technology, of understanding and relating to nature, of being human.

One can practise exposure with so many concepts – and expose them in so many fields. From the study of mycelia to methane bubbles, from machine learning to anthropogenic climate change, from neuro-technology to the rise of networks.

Nature and technology are just one example. You and I together could imagine a whole series of further ones, examples that revolve around the poetic potential of our times, examples that revolve around allowing things to escape from the old ontological certainties without mistaking these routes of escape as breakthroughs to the true ontological structure of the world. The more examples we have, each a new experimental philosophy of the human, the better.

We have to steadily multiply these routes of escape. Chances are that they don’t overlap. And that’s a good thing if each one produces things differently – then no one can make a totalising new theory and sell it as the new ontology.

The biggest conflict of our times is probably between people who consider uncertainty a possibility and people who see it as a danger. I think the hardest, the most aggressive discussions in social media are about just that. There are people talking about gender and trying to open borders, and there are other people saying that without borders our world will collapse. Do you think it’s possible to “advertise” uncertainty in a way that might make it more acceptable to more people, instead of just to people who are interested in modern thinking, contemporary art and things like that?

The classic philosophical answer to this question, I think, is that people who shy away from uncertainty are dishonest. They construct closed worlds – a harmony of illusions – that they defend with everything they have. Heidegger’s critique of the inauthentic life, of the (in German) man, is perhaps the most prominent 20th-century example.

In a conversation in Davos in the late 1920s, Cassirer reportedly asked Heidegger: “Would you want to make people afraid?” (Ja wollen sie den Menschen denn Angst machen?). Heidegger replied, apparently a bit baffled, “What else?”

There is something kind of arrogant about this attitude. The philosopher as hero, who has seen the ontological truth, guiding the mere mortals. I find this form unfortunate. Both the heroism and the elitism.

A different way of going about it, I guess, is to calmly increase the alternatives and to make them available.

What would such an alternative look like?

You brought up borders, and, indeed, borders are shut in the times of Covid-19. This is a pity. It requires little creativity to imagine that the pandemic could have been an opportunity for a global humanity to come into being: a true planetary response infrastructure could have been built. What we see instead is immunopolitics in action. The background to immunopolitics is offered by Carl Schmitt, who suggested that the ur-political act, that is, the constitution of a political self, is the ultimately arbitrary shedding of some people as not self. The effect of this shedding – the arbitrary, violent attack of some as not-self – creates a line that separates in from out, self from not-self, belonging from exclusion. From the perspective of immunopolitics, it is the duty of those who are part of self to defend that line with everything they have, because the alternative appears to be annihilation. In this set-up, the virus always comes from outside the nation, from foreigners who are imagined as or at least associated with viruses, pathogens, things that make you sick.

I think we can offer alternatives and imagine “community” in terms that are not grounded in such an understanding of the immune system.

I turn again to the microbiome. Classically, the immune system was indeed understood as a self/not-self recognition system. This led to all the familiar metaphors of the immune system as a war machine. However, in the early 2000s it was discovered that bacteria that live in the human gut are a key constituent part of the immune system. That is, it was discovered that not-self is part of self. With this discovery, which led to series of articles that have sought to rethink the immune system, the classical Schmittian immunopolitics becomes obsolete and a whole new understanding of the body politic as a multi-species assemblage becomes possible. A multi-species assemblage fully integrated into the microbial, planetary ecology.

I’m really curious to embrace the way in which microbiome research undermines the immune system as an opportunity to articulate a new, planetary politics.

What new, what different concept of a political community could emerge from this novel understanding of the immune system? I’m really curious to embrace the way in which microbiome research undermines the immune system as an opportunity to articulate a new, planetary politics. For this to be possible, though, we need to understand microbiology as a kind of experimental political philosophy. We need to read microbiome research, we need philosophers and artists to work in labs, alongside the researchers and engineers.

Again, what is at stake is neither ontology nor the cosmos nor a metaphor nor truth. At stake is the conceptual opening up of new possibilities of being human differently. Of course, microbiology is by no means the only field that offers this. One has to steadily propose offers for how to think differently.

We have to write philosophies, we have to write novels, we have to write poems, we have to make movies that offer a different language for how to be human, that offer a different toolkit for self-reflection and self-experience, that provide a different vocabulary for how to be human.

I say we have to...but what I really mean is that this is the work I am committed to.

We have to write philosophies, we have to write novels, we have to write poems, we have to make movies that offer a different language for how to be human, that offer a different toolkit for self-reflection and self-experience, that provide a different vocabulary for how to be human.

But for that kind of new knowing we also need a new kind researchers, a new kind of people to introduce it and realise it. In one of your articles or interviews you mentioned the Bauhaus, which involved arts, techniques, human things and non-human things all together. Can you comment more on this?

It’s true, to build a new Bauhaus, or maybe a new Black Mountain College, is a dream I’ve pursued for some time now.

The initial impulse emerged from two observations that we’ve touched on multiple times during our conversation. The first one is that, today, the question concerning the human appears in fields that have classically not been considered to be concerned with the human at all. Artificial intelligence, climate science, microbiome research, bioengineering, and so on. The second observation is that the tentative answers that emerge from these fields radically undermine the old, modern conception of the human as more than nature and other than machine.

Who is attending to these contemporary mutations of the human? And also of nature and technology? Maybe we can agree that the university, as it now exists, is not really the place where this kind of work can happen. I have tried, multiple times, to build new centres at universities. And each time it failed because the university, ultimately, is the material infrastructure of the old concept of the human. It has a faculty of arts, concerned with the human insofar as the human is more than nature and other than machines. And it has a faculty of science and engineering, which is concerned with the vast field of the non-human. The arts cannot help but defend the old concept of the human on which their legitimacy seems to depend, and the sciences and engineering are not equipped to systematically attend to the philosophical stakes of their work. In a way, the university thus re-inscribes, qua its very set-up, the old distinctions between human and nature and technology.

But how can one bring these radical contemporary transformations of the human into view? And how can one own them? Or at the very least take part in them in such a way that one can shape them? You see, what I said before, that I wanted to move beyond the stage of poetic suspense, this is why: I wanted to find ways to embrace the contemporary transformation and give it shape.

I think the Bauhaus, under Gropius, did this with respect to modern, industrialist architecture. The early years of the 20th century brought new materials, glass and steel, and it brought standardisations and mass production on a massive scale. To Gropius it marked the end of the 19th century and the beginning of something radically new and different, something no one knew yet. He assembled philosophically inclined scholars, artists and engineers and invited them to study the difference today makes, and he asked them to give shape to this difference. The goal was not least, I think, to build objects – buildings and furniture and works of art – that have a philosophical agency, that are conducive to the radically new/different. At least this is how I understand the Bauhaus.

But if the integrative force of the Bauhaus was architecture, then today it seems to me to be technology. So, could one build a school where cutting-edge technology – a field in which the human is at stake, from AI to biotech, from neuro-tech to space travel to climate change – meets art and philosophy? Can one bring philosophy + art + technology into a single framework, so that one can conduct technical research in terms of an explicit experimental philosophy of the human?

Could one establish a school where you could write a new philosophy by way of inventing a new object? Whether it’s an art object or a technical object?

At stake is not necessarily agreement. Anni and Josef Albers, Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Gunta Stölzl – I don’t think they agreed on everything, certainly not on what the best response to the radical ruptures that surrounded them would have to be. But they shared the experience of the ruptures and agreed in a way on their irreversibility. They agreed on the problem or, better, on the opportunity.

I’m exquisitely excited about the possibility of bringing philosophy and art and technology together, in a single framework. The Transformations of the Human programme at the Berggruen Institute, which is about to become a Berggruen-Hoffman initiative, is designed as a first step towards such a school. We recruit young researchers, mostly philosophers and artists, and place them in AI and biotech labs with which we design specific projects. In addition, we have artist fellows and a series of working groups, both of which revolve around the philosophical ruptures and openings of today, in the field of technology and the human.

I’m exquisitely excited about the possibility of bringing philosophy and art and technology together, in a single framework.

We’ve now had maybe ten research projects, among others with Adobe, Element AI, Google, Facebook and with a series of academic and private biotech labs and companies in the Bay Area. Some of it has led to works of art, some of it was for the company, some of it has led to new essays and philosophical texts. And I think we’ve learned, or we’ve begun finding, a form that really could be institutionalised and could become a curriculum. And that is (laughs) grounded in the non-ontological.

We started our conversation with this idea of uncertainty and the idea of the human, and I was thinking that maybe the human is like a big question mark – something constantly questioning itself and the world around it… But maybe these new AI machines will do the same thing. Maybe they’ll ask questions about themselves, too. So that’s not really what makes as human. But what then? What is your feeling about the direction in which the understanding of the human is moving right now?

Is the human the thing that questions itself? Maybe. Who knows?

One of my favourite passages from Montaigne is when he reflects in how unsteady things humans are. “The human is a marvelous, vain, fickle and unstable subject, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgment.” I am intrigued by how Montaigne rendered the human instable just a few years before Descartes sought to make the human subject a steady and unshakable foundation of truth. And yet, wouldn’t one betray Montaigne if one were to make his observation into an ontological fact? If one were to treat his sentence as an ontological capture of what it “is” to be human?

As to the direction in which our understanding of the human moves, on bad days I think it’s not moving at all. Take Covid-19. To me, SARS-CoV-2 is a philosophical event. It’s an invitation to think differently about the human. For example, the virus went from a bat to a pangolin to maybe a palm civet and then to a human. For a virus, there’s apparently no difference between these organisms: they’re all mammals, they all have ACE2 receptors that regulate their blood pressure. A seamless continuity, due to shared descent. But then you take a term like “pandemic”, and it’s like an ontological policeman. It says: “As long as viruses circulate in bats and pangolins and civets and birds and camels and monkeys, everything is good. But when it moves from the world of nature into the human world, that is, when the boundary between humans and nature gets blurred, then we have a problem.”

To me, SARS-CoV-2 is a philosophical event. It’s an invitation to think differently about the human.

But what if one were to think from the perspective of the virus? Viruses are the most abundant biological agents in the world. They had a critical role to play in the emergence of the biosphere as much as in evolution, especially when it comes to mammals. What different understanding of the world, of how it is organised, would emerge from thinking from the perspective of the world that emerges from viruses? What new, experimental notion of the human might emerge? How could one rethink, with viruses, what politics is? I recently published an article in Noema Magazine, “From the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene”, that tries to address some of these questions.

The Microbiocene... Three and a half billion years ago the first single-cell organisms emerged. They built the biosphere, they built the air that we’re breathing, they built every single living system that exists right now – we’re all descendants of these microbes.

How to render the Microbiocene an experimental philosophy of the human?

And not just of the human but also of nature and of technology?