The New Forest

Nederlands - English

Sociologist Willem Schinkel: “Our reality is made up of fictions.”

Related shows:

First conversation, 3 December 2012
Click here for the second conversation with Willem Schinkel

Wunderbaum is engaged in a number of inspiring conversations with the sociologist Willem Schinkel about The New Forest, the state of democracy, and the significance of alternatives.

Wunderbaum opens the conversation and relates about the construction of a futuristic settlement: The New Forest. Architects and visual artists have helped to design this new society and when talking with them, they frequently say: ‘Aha, TNF will be a utopia’. But a utopian, non-existing, rosy society is not the intention. TNF is more inclined to bring new ideas together that might as well be contradictory and cause conflicts. For instance: the death penalty will be reinstated, but this time generated by green energy.

Willem Schinkel responds: “TNF is a heterotopia – a concept elaborated by the philosopher Michel Foucault. A heterotopia is a place where the existing order is not replaced by a utopia, but where you experience this order in another way. A heterotopia turns the existing order inside out. A heterotopia is a place where reality is folded in such a way that you can simultaneously observe the back of it.”

Fiction or reality?
Is TNF fiction or reality? Willem Schinkel: “Why should you make such a sharp distinction? In our own society, reality and fiction are continuously intertwined. ‘The society’ itself is fiction; no one has ever seen it, but it is everywhere. When politicians want something, they have to dramatize, give a performance. Where does reality end and where does fiction begin? That is hard to say. Just forget about that distinction. Now go ahead. Fictions continuously form the reality.”

Wunderbaum is playing with the idea to proclaim an eight year old Chinese girl leader of the TNF. Schinkel: “What you offer, in that case, is an alternative description of, let’s say, politics or polity. This is what is happening in real life all the time: providing an alternative description to reality. Our society is so complex, that it can no longer be grasped in one description. It is not only a network society, an information society, or a post-industrial society. All these concepts are occasional concepts, as there is no single concept to grasp society. There are always alternatives. And TNF simply is a new alternative. A suggestion: let’s try to see it this way this time.”

The power of the performative
Schinkel: “Our reality consists of fictions, all the time. The point is that this reality constantly works with performatives. We say that things are like that, and thus they become like that. An example: you have a relationship and your partner says ‘it’s over’. This is a performative act. The moment it is expressed, it is true. So a performative is a linguistic utterance that creates something. Something is described, but that what is described, does not yet exist before it is described. ‘It’s over’. Then you might say ‘it’s not over’, but it nevertheless is. It has already happened. Hence, realities can be made in one fell swoop.”

Wunderbaum recognizes the power of the performative: when we say ‘TNF is here’, then it is. Many potential partners immediately responded positively to the plan. Schinkel thinks he understands why they did: “TNF is an alternative description that surpasses the disciplines in which we are captured normally. The major part of what we experience of our social reality is merely the tip of the iceberg, which is the topicality of the present. However, an enormous potency can be found below that: the alternative, that what is not yet realized.”

Not fiction, but friction
Schinkel: “Alternative descriptions of the reality, such as TNF, can be a potential source of complexity, of inspiration too. You have to aim at irritation – this is what I always do – aim at people taking offence, in a positive sense. Irritation in a positive sense – a concept from the systems theory – actually means that there are social systems that take notice of you. You cannot influence a social system directly; no one can. However, you can cause irritation. That’s the best thing to do. This is what art does too, when it works well. In that case, we’re not talking about fiction, but about friction. Friction is much more interesting than fiction.”

Wunderbaum tells about their performance ‘Detroit Dealers’: a plea in favour of driving electric cars in a garage filled with big American cars which consume loads of petrol. Schinkel: “Yes, that’s an interesting form of friction. When combining contradictories, it will become particularly interesting. For instance, take note of the contradictions in ‘the green conscience on the left’. Often, someone ‘on the right’ shows much more consistency. Those who have the most problems, are the idealists. Very often, they do all sorts of incorrect things. An ecology freak such as Paul Rosenmüller who drives a car just for fun: that’s an interesting friction.”

Undemocratic democracy
Willem Schinkel harks back to the Chinese girl and states: “With her you turn around everything that we normally associate with politics: that it is comprehensible, that it has been given considerable thought, that it is rational, that it is mature, that it is Dutch. It comes from somewhere else, it is still a child, and it happens to be a woman too; it is incomprehensible. It is precisely this incomprehensibility that illustrates the core of our democracy.”

“The core of our democracy is undemocratic. You cannot start a democracy in a democratic way. Because then it would already have been there. A democracy is based on something outside itself; a moment that cannot form part of the democracy itself. And this outside moment is brought forward; this is in fact represented by the Chinese girl.”

“The beginning of a society is always a disruptive moment. In political philosophy people try to steamroll this beginning. For instance they say: ‘yes, but that is our social contract’. This social contract was never there. And it has never been signed either. This is an attempt to pretend that this society has created its own moment of inauguration. Of course, this is complete fiction. It is a way to legitimate the existing power. You are just fobbed off with this social contract.”

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, act 1, scene 4)
Schinkel: “Regarding the beginning of our democracy, you could wonder why it is actually like it is. Could it have been different? Yes of course it could have been different, but it proves very helpful for the existing order to pretend that this is impossible. As if it was the natural consequence of a forming moment, where everyone was present and everyone subscribed his signature. That is fiction used as a cover for a very authoritarian moment. And this authoritarian moment in fact has always been present; it is still spreading insidiously, according to the philosopher Walter Benjamin”

“An example: it is said that the people evidently wanted a government with the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) and PVDA (Dutch Labour Party) in 2012. But no one who voted for the PVDA, wanted the VVD in the government, and the reverse was probably also true. Indeed, supporters of the SP (Socialist Party) who did not want the VVD, strategically voted for the PVDA. Thereupon they were told that the people – so they also – wanted a PVDA and VVD coalition. That is a crazy step. But then again, we just go with the flow. ‘Yes, that’s true. Evidently we wanted that.’ And ‘we’ only exists as long as you don’t start thinking about who ‘we’ actually are. A moment of authoritarian imposing forms part of it: ‘no, we. You form part of it, whether you like it or not. You are supposed to comply with that. For that’s what democracy is.’ So the authoritarian beginning is still present.”

Democracy as a permanent experiment
Willem Schinkel terms democracy as a permanent experiment: “It is absurd to think that democracy is done: ‘once a couple of Greeks and Enlightenment philosophers have thought about it, so let it be, this is it’. Whereas democracy means the opposite: experimenting continuously. The fact is that democracy is something that can never be realised completely. You have to keep on searching for new forms to formulate it in an orderly way.”

Does democracy actually still exist in our country? Schinkel: “Yes it does, but an interesting question is: what does that mean? What does that mean at the moment? And what did it used to mean? Anyhow, democracy is more than just ‘elections’. Elections reduce democracy to a quantity, to one vote in favour or against, to a little cross or a button. All substance, all essence is gone.”

“More likely the substance of democracy can be found elsewhere: in the public sphere, in permanent discussions, in contemplation, in wondering about existing standards, in theatre companies, in supervisory bodies, in education, et cetera. This is precisely where democracy lives.”

The performative of Pim
Schinkel: “I believe in the power of the performative: when you start to shout other things from a public sphere, you also create those other things. In politics, Pim Fortuyn – the assassinated, flamboyant Dutch centre-right politician – is the best example of such a person. Everything was going well, and then all of a sudden, there was unrest, and a lot of things going wrong. Fortuyn created that. He knew how to combine these things. He did not mobilize what was already there; there was no one whatsoever who thought exactly what he said. A lot of the people from Rotterdam who voted for him, did not want to abolish social security at all, were no fans of gay people at all. So Fortuyn created that. That is an example of a performative in politics.”

“In the regular politics, no one seemed to understand that. Prosperity had never been so great, criminality was declining; they could prove all this. Den Haag presented itself as some sort of management team that had ticked off a number of issues. ‘People, when you come and vote once again, we will just continue doing this.’”

The philosopher Francis Fukuyama called this the ‘end of history’: according to him there will never ever be a better system than our current democracy, linked to the open market. Schinkel: “Such an ‘everything is done’ attitude removes antagonism from politics, a struggle that should form a fundamental part of it. Actually politics ultimately has everything to do with power. And if this is supplanted by management rhetoric too often, people start yearning for more antagonism. Fortuyn seemed to provide that.”

The confusion concerning ‘green’
‘Sustainability’, ‘Green’, ‘Bio’; currently, these are ethic trending topics concerning the alternative relations between our consumer behaviour and the climate. According to Wunderbaum, this subject also has some nasty features, giving reason for scepticism and confusion: are these green fronts as sound in their doctrine as they claim? All too often, green is wrapped up as a lifestyle. That green idealism behind it ends up in a tight corner, and the market value and image building, which form part of it, prevail.

At the same time, we are wresting with double morality continuously. Sometimes the Wunderbaum actors are completely at a loose end about how to really obtain a more sustainable lifestyle. Our current, consumer orientated economy is so omnipresent and complex, that a lot of these green attempts are sure to be useless drops in the ocean. What is to be gained by buying an organic chicken, when we constantly travel the whole world using transport that causes pollution? And often stories of exploitation are hidden behind the production of even the most simple food stuffs. Willem Schinkel adds: “The mere daily visit to the supermarket is no less than participating in mass murder.”

Should you change your life?
As a consequence, should we take ourselves as a standard and think that we, personally, can contribute under the guise of ‘every little helps’? Willem Schinkel: “I think it is dangerous to put everything on a personal level, and to assume that changes are sure to be made there. A lot of the things that are subversive or alternative, are sublimed – and therefore nipped in the bud – because they are placed on an individual level.”

“All sorts of collective decisions form the basis of the idea that we as individuals can make decisions. There is no regulation that makes flying very expensive or restricted to a maximum, or something else we could think of. So the fact that it is at an individual level, is in itself already collective. So it is dangerous to think: ultimately, we have to be the ones who make the effort.”

“Many so-called universal values – human rights and that sort of issues that form the basis of our democracy – turn out to be very private. They only apply to you and me and a few others within these borders. But at the same time, the outside world is breaking in, and it turns out that these values do not apply to that world. This shows exactly how crazy everyday life is!”

Borders make us forget
Willem Schinkel: “In addition, everyday life is filled with mechanisms that help us forget that madness. One of these mechanisms – a very powerful one – is the national border. Since it is possible for us to say: ‘these rules apply here, within these borders’; nothing whatsoever applies to the people outside the borders. Slavery forms the basis of many of the products we use every day. Apparently we don’t care at all.”

“There are all sorts of partitions in the world, so that we forget all those things. And therefore also make us forget the necessity of alternatives. When you want an alternative, you touch upon fundamental issues immediately. For instance the idea of nation states. On the other hand, a lot of things are shifted to an individual level – lifestyle and such – and thus are not politicized. The possibility of an alternative is covered by a blanket permanently.”

The necessity of alternatives
Willem Schinkel: “In particular due to these forget strategies, it is interesting to keep on making alternative descriptions. In my opinion the point is not to claim: ‘we need alternatives for our democracy’. But we have to demonstrate that our idea of democracy is only one possibility in a wide range of different possibilities, and that there are various options to provide alternative descriptions.”

“This is what I try to do in my book too: you can reflect on democracy in a completely different way. In a country such as the Netherlands, thoughts about that are very introvert, very ‘museum-like’. ‘Democracy, that is what we have right now, isn’t it? We don’t have to think about that anymore, do we?’ That is a very weird idea.”

“In fact, there are a lot of people who once thought: ‘a real democracy does not want to have anything to do with a state. Real democracy is adverse to a state.’ The idea that democracy is linked with a state is very strong in Europe. However, one could also say; the state is a rather violent authority, which tries to classify everything under a unity denominator. And that’s precisely what radical democracy is opposed to. Radical democracy does not try to totalize everything within one all-embracing frame; on the contrary, it tries to make heard the radical plurality of life.”

The New Forest – The Beginning
The conversation with Willem Schinkel ends with a provisional proposition. When you can use a performance to show that different alternatives, various models of democracy or society, are conceivable, then this might provide useful eye openers. Willem Schinkel: “You could start in an arbitrary way; show the contingency of our current democracy. Which means: our model is not the only conceivable model. Demonstrate that there other museums conceivable besides our ‘museum the Netherlands’.”

“I think the Greek concept ‘oikos’ is very interesting. It means ‘household’ and we have derived both our concepts ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ from this notion. Together they form a ‘collective house’ that we are building. However, you could also think up a completely different house. That’s not only a matter of interior decorating, but really a totally different sort of house, another sort of collective household. Another Oikos.”

Willem Schinkel once more refers to the idea of appointing a Chinese girl as the enlightened despot of The New Forest. “If you can demonstrate that our democracy rests on an irrational core too, on an infringement from outside, then this also offers the possibility to say: so there are other ‘beginnings’ possible. Actually, it is very logical. You have to begin at the beginning.”

Order the book written by Willem Schinkel; De Nieuwe Democratie (in Dutch)