Stedelijke onregelmatigheden / Urban anomalies

cover titel

Booklet with textual and visual contributions, 2001

This publication was commissioned by dance company Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, and accompanied their Rotterdam performance of Highway 101. Guest writers and artists reflected on normality, representation, human behavior and excess in a contemporary urban environment.

Introduction by Rudi Laermans and Myriam van Imschoot
The lifestyle of excess, the excess of lifestyle by Laurens ten Kate

Publisher: Damaged Goods, Brussels.
Editor: Peter Westenberg. Contributions: Laurens Ten Kate, Hugo Renirie, Martine Nederend, Hermelinde Hergenhahn,
Design: Femke Snelting.

Urban anomalies / Highway 101, the journal #4

Rudi Laermans & Myriam Van Imschoot

1. Postmodern urbanism obeys the logic of the spectacle society. Its representatives – its ideologists – primarily perceive the urban environment as a visual landscape, as a sequence of images that alternately connote pastness (the historical centre) and futureness (new estates). The prototypically postmodern city is not so much a place to live in or to die as a site for wanderers and consumers. Basic life is banished to the wings, the scene is dominated by trendy lifestylers who seem unsusceptible to biological time. This booklet is titled Urban Anomalies. According to Peter Westenberg, the Rotterdam publisher who issued Highway 101, the journal, this title should priorly be understood as a statement – for it has made a secret pact with the modernistic idea, that public urban space is still a locus of frictions and surprises, a place of mostly visual collisions (sometimes physical too) and ever-toppling impressions. It is only in a ‘temporary urban zone’ that the unusual becomes momentarily acceptable, the anomalous obvious. Even in its postmodern form the city as such continues to refer to a ‘state of physical emergency’: the city is the projection screen par excellence of the human longing for excessive experiences, as described by Laurens Ten Kate. The metropole aspires to be sheer image, and precisely these ephemeral forms of existence provide an exquisite locale for the nihilistic enactments of late modern man and woman.

2. Now the highway remains perhaps the utmost symbol of modernity: indefinite (nothing as flat and fringeless as a highway), solely aimed for movement and transport, in passing. Every ordinary highway is a twilight-zone, a lingering promise – not to live anywhere and to arrive somewhere sometime. Who, around 3 a.m. on the freeway, never met with the feeling of having fused with a very fast moving car has never been a modern human. The real Highway 101 is in America, once a fantasy continent but now a supremacy in search of an identity, an inspirational image. The project Highway 101 creates an imaginary, artistic highway between five European cities: Brussels, Vienna, Paris, Rotterdam and Zurich. Five cities for Meg Stuart & Damaged Goods, five intervals that may generate relationships; five stops where on site these booklets have been conceived as well.

3. Just like the entire project, Highway 101, the journal regards the urban stops as places where one can come home free from oppressive feelings and to find relatives that are no members of the family (and never will be). Flexible ties, temporary coalitions, instable social constellations, shifting networks…: the Highway project is dominated by the quest for an unidentifiable community – which indisputably has an urban nature. How do the journal and performance relate to each other? Here the text, there the performance – ‘the art’? Here the thinkers, there the performers? Actually no, that which separates the people, joins them too. In Highway 101 all participants – so the audience as well – are patient passers-by, waiting for the never provided explication of the knowing looks that brought them together. Therefore, Highway 101, the journal is considered a not manipulatable chance to cross-fertilise artistic ‘genres’ and ‘concepts’, texts and an artistic trajectory that – under the transient conditions of a local embedment, for instance in Rotterdam – strives at more than just provisionality. The opportunity was offered, the result remains – as a trace of a series of contacts, as a memory of a sequence of symbolic exchanges.

The lifestyle of excess, and the excess of lifestyle
(On the precarious nature of the remembrance of ghosts)
Laurens ten Kate

1. Learning to live: a paradox
How can we live? How should we live? How to learn to live? How to shape life? These simple questions are also the most awkward ones. Often, an annoying paradox is hidden behind them, as life is learning to live; the experience of life is life itself.
There is no experience of life, as if life would be the object of our experience. We cannot practice life before actually living it; no one can take a leave from life to examine it in order to teach or learn from it. Life cannot be the object of paideia or mathesis; life coincides with both yet simultaneously escapes from them too. There is no one – outside life or on its border – to initiate us; there is no ‘I’ to go through these rituals. As soon as we are trying to learn from life, and understand its ins and outs, it slips away, already on the move again.
Conclusively, there is no living person who can teach us to live, for this would be logically impossible. Paradoxically, only influences from outside life can shape lifestyle, which means that with respect to life we are confronted with the other – otherness or alterity – the realm of death, the dead. Is it possible that the other, precisely because of its non-existence, could well teach us to live? This would mean that we are dependent on the figments of imagination of many generations, the entities between life and death: the ghost, the spirit, the phantom, the spectre. These entities haunt us whenever we are trying to develop our lifestyle. They are the excess of lifestyle, the excessive moments that are continuously creeping into the process of learning to live and shaping our lives. Yet if lifestyle is not possible without the other – the strange excess, the interval between life and death, the home of the ghosts – it eventually cannot be anything else than that which we are looking and longing for, and from where we are offered ‘real’ life.
For this specific, fundamental reason lifestyle desires excess. Although post-modern lifestyle projects reluctantly admit and express this inherent desire, they are nonetheless structured around a fascination with excess. Excess, if taken in a philosophical sense, is the radical other, the uncanny and incomprehensible aspect of existence that ‘exceeds’ normality. So if lifestyle needs this other, it needs excess. When living and shaping our lives, we are inevitably under the illusion that we are in control of our lives, that we can be young and wild, and that we can greedily make the most of ourselves. If it is correct that post-modernity coincides with the crisis of the great modern ideologies that once directed and determined the lives of many people, then the project of lifestyle – or the care of the ‘self’ which is its more ethical variety – imposed upon us all is the only orientation left, the only orientation we can be obsessed with. On the stage of seeming normality we are still continuously confronted with abnormal ghosts of the excessive other despite a triumph of individuality.This confrontation, this tension, is the ‘condition humaine’. Taking it one step further, we may well assume that lifestyle cannot desire but its own excess, undermining its ability to shape and manipulate life, in order to become what it is. It will only achieve success if it plays with its own destruction; a success without success.
In my view, this explains the growing fascination with excess, which may be seen as a typically modern phenomenon. (1) It is this fascination that is continuously tracing its own source, the heterogeneous trigger which raises and invokes the ghosts, but immediately averts and exorcises them afterwards. In this short essay I will treat the double bind characteristics of our relation to excess, and the logic of lifestyle, which is in essence half-hearted and ambiguous. Short, as for this purpose I could write a brief analysis in which only a few lines of my thoughts have been sketched out.
My question is why ‘we moderns’ – our culture throughout history – have time and again great difficulties relating to excess and our ghosts? And why is it so hard to duly remember the ghosts, at the same time acknowledging the impossible nature of this relationship and this remembrance? And why does modern, and especially post-modern, culture respond to such an indecisiveness either by negating excess or by appropriating it? Finally, should we criticize the awkwardness of modern culture? Or, does it offer opportunities to re-expose ourselves to the specters of our time, to experiment with spectrality, and to exercise a new way of remembrance? (2)

2. Desiring excess: from modernity to postmodernity
Nowadays, there is a strong, almost natural tendency to attraction to and fascination by the phenomenon, or the ‘world’, of excess. We can extend the meaning of the word excess to a wider range than the usual references to inordinate aberrations of hardcore pornography, the sex life of a paedophile, a death camp in a totalitarian regime, De Sade’s narratives (in earlier days) and the movie Pulp Fiction (recently). Let us define excess as we have done previously, that is, as the radical, eerie alterity which literally exceeds normality without transcending it and thus disappearing from it: excess goes beyond everything, but at the same time remains entangled and engaged in this ‘everything’ , haunting it: so close and yet so far. In this sense, fascination with excess is probably a characteristic of modernity as a whole – we can think of Rousseau’s Noble Savage or Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil – that has reached its climax after World War II, or if you like, in our ‘post-modern’ age.
Since the beginning of modern times we seem to have been conscious of the necessity and moral obligation to make up in some way for the fact that reason was to dominate the totality of life. Separating politics and religion – a private religion for everyone – reason successfully marginalised its competitor religion which had sustained premodern life, conquering the horrors of the religious wars in Europe in this way. Although reason had deliberately abandoned the mysteries and the sense of the inhuman – the nonhuman, the fundamental excess – that had constituted the religious experience so far, it felt the desire to rescue and restore these mysteries concerning (in)humanity in a secular way. Consequently, we looked for the dark sides of existence in nature and its innocent savagery (Rousseau), in evil and its tragic sincerity as opposed to moral hypocrisy, in the mythical (Schelling), in the violence of the realm of urges, passions, and sexual fantasies (De Sade), in exotic non-Western cultures.
Although fascination with excess has marked modernity for centuries, we may ask why and in what way it achieved its peak, as said before, after World War II. First of all, the war, which was an extreme excess in itself, left a void in the memory of Western civilisation. The individual and collective boundaries that had necessarily maintained the order and liveability of modern existence became meaningless. How were we supposed to recover from the sufferings from war and restore the limits if these bounds had so easily been exceeded by the socio-political experiment of nazism and its terror, the technologically, universally devastating war that had executed massive bombing, and ultimately, by the coldness of the holocaust? After 1945 the reactions shown were ambivalent.
In a first reaction, the excesses of the Second World War were denied and attributed to an exceptional situation due to a temporary rise of barbarism in Germany and Italy, which should never occur again. Victims as well as survivors tried to forget, focused on the here and now, picking up the threads. Excess was thought to be a-typical and not part of modernity. Full attention was given to completely re-instrumentalise life. Reason reclaimed its monopoly, societies and economies were rebuilt, and soon progress and production – up to the idea that life and history themselves were (re)producible – became the new symbols. Of course, all this was merely an escape into the safe, familiar havens of capitalism; it did not restore order, and not a single limit exceeded by the war was restored either. Reason was intensifying, but covering up as well, the looming chaos of a postwar ‘late capitalistic’ culture, in which all the ‘Great Narratives’ would expire, so that our time was inevitably to be designated as ‘postmodern’. The war had fundamentally altered our relation to limits, thus to excess, and there was no way back.
Especially since the sixties a second reaction was shown; a different one, yet closely related to the first. I am in particular interested in this reaction which reveals an attempt to embrace the new limitless situation in order to do justice to the possibility of excess. Obviously not the horrible excess of the Second World War but a ‘better and friendlier’, more humane type of excess. Soon freedom, peace and unresticted self-expression were the symbols of naturalness. Unknown sides of our existence had to be explored, and then employed: sexual freedom, ecstasy as a natural commodity by means of drugs and music, creativity versus productivity, spontaneity versus calculation, the individual versus the crowd. These explorations should compensate for the one-dimensional regime of instrumentality and rationality: a strategy which perfectly resumes the typically modern thinking of the eighteenth and nineteenth century romanticists I described in previous publications. In fact, we find a double compensation: a compensation for the bad excesses of the war which invents new attitudes toward the realm of alterity, and a compensation for instrumental reason, which as an equally bad opposite of excess was considered a preclusion of alterity. Indeed, after the war ‘the times, they were a-changing’, and we had better welcome them.

3. Excess and its definition: the limit as such
We will leave the analysis of the cultural meaning of the Second World War and have a look at other writings, some of which were fairly recently published and some are to be published soon. (3) First, we go back to the provisional yet rather formal definition of excess which was given earlier: excess is the generic term of all the phenomena that exceed and push normality to its limit. Excess is the occurrance of this fundamental limit of alterity. It is the ‘happening’ of this very limit that frightens and attracts us at the same time. This limit should be regarded as some kind of verb that has a proper being and action, in the way Heidegger argued in favour of a strictly verbal and active comprehension of the term being, rather than a static noun simply indicating a division between two worlds – or two realms: for example the normal and the abnormal, the immanent and the transcendent. This leads to a quite vital conclusion of my line of thought, that is that the alterity of excess is not a ‘world’ or ‘realm’ and not a ‘place beyond’, but a boundary, a non-place close to nothingness. As such the limit has the strange duality of the ‘in between, the inter-, the impossible yet unavoidable reality’, which Maurice Blanchot calls the neuter (le neutre). (4) We seem to deal with a gap, an abyss, which we cannot handle, and which was not what we where looking for or what we could have transgressed. Excess is primarily an extraordinary limit world without substance, irreducible to the grasp of the human subject.
Having formulated this definition, let us follow the development from the sixties to the nineties into the new millenium. In the last decades the fascination with this limit has been increasingly growing. Our culture virtually stopped keeping the limits of excess at a distance, even desiring to encounter the haunting spectre.
Courageously and proudly, we think we can unreservedly perform this postmodern Hamlet without the tragically Shakespearean outcome, which was so cautiously enacted then, and without willing to sacrifice normality and order. No limit has the natural and indisputed inviolability anymore. We like to reach out for the limits, touch them, and dwell in their ‘liminality’ for a while. We want to refer to them, represent them, play and flirt with them. This fascination is based on the fantasy that we could meet with our limits, and linger at the uncanny non-place; that we could have a life in there, with the possibility to retreat, if necessary, into the safer place that the limits fenced off. ‘Postmodern’ people wish to do everything at once: to unlimit and delimit. We want to be in control of exactly that which is outside our control: the limit of excess, the alterity. As far as this fascination was ‘postmodern’, it is a perfect resumption of the modern interest in excess I referred to earlier. It demonstrates, by the way, that Jean-François Lyotard’s determination of ‘postmodernity’ was correct: the postmodern is simply a new relation to modernity, not a new era coming after modernity. Meanwhile, it is time to give a few examples of the fascination we are investigating.

4. Instances of desire for excess
First, there is the immense role of the media: television, newspapers, magazines and the web. Whenever there is an opportunity to zoom in on violence, wars, tragic accidents and other shocking events and situations, it will be taken with both hands. The media organise and fulfil our fascination with excess, and give the impression of being close to limits unseen and unheard of in the past. Not only do the media mediate the limit, they are the limit. They appropriate the uncanny in-between area of limit and excess, which I pointed out before, occupying and filling it with an all-embracing experience to which ‘we postmoderns’ surrender with pleasure: please come in this mediative place of culture; listen, watch, surf; in here you will find information, kicks, anything that can satisfy your needs; share in the extreme, we assure you the safety of voyeurism. In this way the media unconcernedly place themselves before the limit – like a transparant as well as impenetrable barrier – turning it into an instrument. At the end of the day the media present us with a virtual reality only. Sitting safely before the screens, reassuring ourselves that we just want to be kept informed or that we feel involved in the fate of the miserable, our approach to the horrors – hunger, genocide, the Gulf war, the Balkan conflicts – is purely a phantasmagorical affair. Still, the boundaries that interest and exite us these days, have largely been a mystery to preceding generations, because of absence of efficient media. The possibility to witness an entire war in detail over a cup of tea shows how drastically our relations to the limits of excess have changed. Second, the increasing liberty taken by advertisement campaigns: today it is not uncommon to see commercials in which a goodlooking man or an attractive woman – provocatively dressed or sometimes naked, supposedly living on the ‘wild side of life’- persuades the public into buying a product. Even passing a billboard is as if we are terribly close to excess. In the Netherlands some companies use billboards to spread the new evangelism explicitly: ‘There are no borders’ so Peter Stuyvesant claims.
We can go on with the new, unrestrained aspects of nightlife. Socializing in town, dancing and drinking increasingly means losing one’s head, let it all hang out, getting a kick. All to compensate for a week of either work or unemployment, both of which are results of instrumentality and rationality. Of course, we do not really want to be excessive, it is a game of laissez-faire temporarily only to close in on excess. The postmodern ritual of boundlessness, which is a ritual without rituality, is a surreality that can jump to the banality of the real world. Instability in the public realm, which finds expression in violence in the streets on Saturday night, may well be a symptom of this frequent turnabout. Flirting with excess is not as innocuous as it seems, and obviously, living our limits does not mean that we control them. As soon as we approach excess, excess might close in on us, and there is always a chance that excess takes over. If so, it means that excess is not something to play with, to activate whenever we like. The radical alterity of excess is not at a safe distance, while it is not up to us to beckon it whenever we wish to. The very alterity means that excess is haunting us continously, like a spectre too close to be visible. Precisely because of this nearness, excess is something to be feared. So, if we bask in the illusion that we could negotiate our fear of excess, it will surface in real life. We cannot control the thin line between mischief and violence. Surely, the awareness of this line and its uncontrollability is currently embedded in our fascination with the kind of excess we have examined to this point. For this reason, at least, the increase of violence in the public and private domains of Western societies in the last decades is less than surprising.
Entering an entirely different field, I would like to point out the way our relation to feelings and emotions has changed, particularly since the sixties. We have witnessed a massive liberation of our inner life, which prescribes that feelings be expressed rather than suppressed. The quest for our emotional core dominates the discourse on how to solve problems concerning life. A few examples taken from popsongs then and fairly recently: ‘Show some emotion’ (Joan Armatrading, 1970), and ‘I’ll follow my heart, it’s a very good place to start’ (Madonna, 20 years later) or, the more passionate version of the same plea for the primacy of feelings ‘To the limit here we go’, and ‘Express yourself’ by the same heroines of pop music respectively. Obviously, the vast majority believes that if we want to interact and communicate properly, we have to demonstrate ’emotional intelligence’, which is a typical invention of our time. Welfare workers, therapists, and eventually, a whole generation are the exponents of this discourse of sensitization. This development has undoubtly freed us from the burden of emotional repression, a general condition in previous times. But it has also moderated, neutralised and devaluated our feelings so as to have them appropriated by anyone, and neatly integrated into a daily routine. We have become fascinated with excess and the world of emotions, its irrationality and irresponsiblity. However, in our love for this excessive aspect of our being, we ‘de-excess’ it by presenting it as the most natural thing there is.

5. Learning to live: towards a sensitivity of the limit
So, nowadays it appears that we have not come any closer to otherness despite our fascination with excess. Lifestyle hunts for excess and releases it, but can not ‘live’ with its spectrality, and loses excess for that reason.
Apparently, only the ghosts are able to teach us to live, to teach us a sense of awareness of the boundaries of excess that cannot be disregarded, transgressed or surpassed. It means that we ought to honour and commemorate excess and their ghosts. We should respect and fear them, and relate to them even without exactly knowing how to deal with a ghostly relationship. Could our lifestyle be radically transformed into an ethics of remembrance, which accomodates the unavoidable spectrality, excessiveness and, ultimately, inhumanity of our life and lifestyle? For example, do we moderns, we Œlifestylers1, have any means to mourn our dead, to in a sense let them live on in our memory, so that they continue in our minds and Œspeak1 to the living? I am referring to the protest and appeal of a black woman who had lost her entire family in the Soweto riots and had to beg the Apartheid authorities to be at least allowed to look for the bodies and have them buried: ŒThe suffering of the dead shall teach the living.1
This commemoration does not only concern the past and those who passed away, but the future just as well. To what extent are we indeed capable of accommodating the future ghosts and spirits in our lifestyle, those who are yet to come? In what way can these absentees be placed in our immediate present which is priorly focused on physicality, visibility and Œreal time1 experiences? How can we achieve that future generations speak to us, helping us to adopt a new attitude toward life? Consequently, this ethics of remembrance would essentially be an ethics of awkardness, as we do not know how to relate to the remembered, to the ghosts. I would like to conclude my essay on the complexity of lifestyle and excess, of fascination and hesitation with Jacques Derrida’s contemplation on the companionship of ghosts: ŒIf it – learning to live – remains to be done, it can only happen between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between (S¼) life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. The time of the Œlearning to live1, a time without tutelary present, would amount to this (S¼): to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.1 (5)

1) I define both ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ as the period following the Middle Ages, that is from the 16th century to the 3rd millenium. ‘Postmodernity’, as I will point out later, can only be a specific phase of modernity, not its successor.
2) In my view Meg Stuart’s choreographies and performances are examples of such new experiments. Would the ‘fourth wall’ be an attempt to invoke the ghosts by dramatical means so to bring about the dual state of absence/presence between life and death? The actors calmly do what they have to do however deeply involve the audience in their acting activities simply by ignoring them.
3) To name just a few lesser known titles that are important to me: Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring. The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, New York etc. (Anchor) 1990 , especially ŒAct III1 on World War II; Daniel Pick, War Machine. The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, New Haven & London (Yale Univ. Press) 1993; and Odo Marquard, Abschied vom Prinzipiellen, Stuttgart (Reclam) 1981, especially ch. I on the post-war generation. See also ch. II of my book on Georges Bataille, The Empty Place. Revolts against Instrumental Life in Bataille1s Atheology, to be published in English in 2002.
4) Maurice Blanchot, L’entretien Infini, part III, Gallimard, Paris 1969
5) Jacques Derrida, Speccters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf, New York / London (Routledge), 1994, XVIII / XIX; original edition: Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Paris (Galilée), 1993.