Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest—forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.
(Hannah Arendt, First Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1950)
We are on our way again. After Cairo and Lisbon, Urban Heat now travels to Dro, and so these semi-regular reports will be arriving again for the next few days. This is Andy returning after the brilliant job that Deborah Pearson did looking after this diary in Lisbon.
Dro is by far the most uncityish of the cities we are visiting. So much so that it is not actually a city at all, but a small town in Northern Italy. An assortment of red tiled roofs gathered below tall mountains, or at least that’s what it seems to be from a google image search. I am not there yet. I am sitting in my kitchen listening to Cyndi Lauper songs on youtube and waiting to leave for the airport.
It feels like a good time to be leaving Britain for somewhere else, even if only temporarily. It feels like this country is currently gripped by a fever dream of angry, self-mutilating nationalism. We have voted to leave the European Union at the goading of preening demagogues waving Union Jacks and bellowing empty promises. On the news ordinary people are crying actual tears at the idea they have taken their country back.
Not only this but before the financial implications of this have even begun to be felt, the British parliament have voted to spend a deranged, fist-chewingly huge amount of money renewing our Trident nuclear missile system. As a military deterrent it has been described as completely useless, but as a seductive, self-deluding fiction it is apparently priceless – a lie we tell the world (and ourselves) about being still being a ‘great power’. Meanwhile in the United States Donald Trump has just taken a lead in the polls promising to make his nation great again, a statement so meaningless it might as well be painted gold and hung from the top of an otherwise empty skyscraper.
The things we do for the greatness of nations.
I started reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism recently. It is a useful reminder that the idea of the nation state is relatively recent fiction, yet one that we have since invested in with a destructive and ferocious energy. According to Arendt, it was only in the 19th century that loyalty to this semi-abstract, quasi-geographical entity called the nation state was really written into the European consciousness as a loyalty above all others. A loyalty worth fighting and dying for. From that initial re-ordering of our political universes sprang the antisemitism, imperialism and eventually the totalitarianism that would come to dominate the next century, the shadows of which seem to be once again gathering at the beginning of this new century.
As people such as Michael Serres have demonstrated, the violence and artificiality of the nation state is also manifested in our relationship to the actual land we claim as our own. National borders are a mirror to the re-ordering of the landscape through agriculture and deforestation – both made up of unnatural and arbitrary divisions that aggressively impose a human discourse on the non-human world. With the era of imperialism also came an increasingly aggressive colonisation of the land we inhabit. Vast mines penetrating deep into the ground. Incalculable amounts of rock extracted and displaced. Damns, reservoirs, the draining of flood plains, the rerouting of rivers. A process of subjection. Landscape becomes subject, becomes resource. A series of justified sacrifices in the making of our infinite greatness.
It is surely no coincidence that the politicians who speak so endlessly about the greatness of nations seem to have so little consideration for the material world from which such nations are brutally constructed. Trump called climate change a ‘Chinese hoax’. On becoming Prime Minster of the UK, one of Theresa May’s first acts was to close the government’s entire climate change department.
Even 60 years ago, Hannah Arendt knew that we need to escape this cycle of nationalist fervour. That we need ‘… a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.’ Perhaps this is a role that artists can play, in these suffocating nationalistic times – to imagine new principles of interrelation, to initiate new relationships between people and places. To conceive of a re-ordered world and to invite us to live, even if just temporarily, as if such a world already existed.
One of things we are going to be thinking about during this City Lab is the idea that perhaps the key to this new law on earth lies in thinking beyond humanity altogether. In a reordering of our world and our thinking that no longer prioritises people and their concerns above all else. A posthumanism, that attempts to go beyond vague We Are The World generalities and actually properly explore what it means to consider ourselves as part of the natural world and to forge new, more sustainable modes of co-existence with it. To think how a forest thinks.
And considering how tied to the exploitation of the nonhuman world our present political ideologies are, perhaps the most effective way we have of unpicking them is by reordering our relationship to that nonhuman world in this way. A remaking of society and its politics quite literally from the ground up. From the grass roots. Sous les paves, la plage.
But for now, though, Dro awaits. And the mountains.