Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

how much globalization can we bear?

In 2003, German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski published a little book with the intriguing title: 'How much globalization can we bear?' ('Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch?'). Ten years later and in the midst of several global crises, this question has lost none of its urgency.

Rather than wrestling with the many symptoms of globalization - winner takes all capitalism, social inequality and modern forms of slavery, ecological and climatological disaster, to name a few - Safranski is interested in a much simpler question: the effect all this has on the individual. How do we as individuals deal with the full-on confrontation with the global, which is advertized as the world at our fingertips but which turns out to be frighteningly and uncontrollably chaotic?

With this individual, anthropological approach, Safranski's book is in many ways the companion piece to Zygmunt Bauman's 'Liquid Times' (2007), which analyzed the problems of globalization on a more systemic, sociological level. Much as Bauman described the modern world as liquid, fragmented and endemically uncertain, Safranski sums up the overwhelming effects of globalization:

The total effect is like that of a worldwide natural disaster, man-made though unplanned. Yet the whole thing unfolds with the help of precise technologies and calculated strategies of profit maximization, rational in the particular but irrational overall.

Of course a central trait of modern globalization is information technology, creating real-time visibility and knowledge of (potentially) the entire world. This web of global media coverage has grown exponentially since 2003 - when social media were yet to be invented - and has in a very real sense exacerbated the problem. The result, for the individual, is a problem of complexity and information: the smaller the world gets, the more bewilderingly complex it seems to become.

Globality forms a complex context, and action within it usually brings consequences other than those originally intended. It is true that this has always been the case, but today we know more about it and can no longer remain blissfully ignorant. For the horizon of global problems now imposes itself even on our everyday consciousness, with the result that there are more and more occasions on which we feel our lack of power. Our particular lifeworld is no longer a sheltered area. Almost every change in our immediate surroundings - in our work, food, transport, media use or health matters - can be understood as the last link in a causal chain that we cannot see as a whole, but about which we know so much that it stretches far back into the highly complex global web.

There are vaguely problematic strings attached to everything we do, from the food we buy to the banks we use to the planes we take – we always leave a footprint (ecological, water, slavery, et cetera) and it always seems to result in damage somewhere. The point, however, is that we know about all this only in scattered factoids, half-read articles and alarming documentaries, leaving a residue of non-actionable guilt. Or as Safranski succinctly frames this globalized attitude:

Every new item of information also conveys a sense of impotence.

To put this situation in context, consider this quote from Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship' ('Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre', 1796):

Man is born to fit into a limited situation; he can understand simple, close and definite purposes, and he gets used to employing the means which are near at hand; but as soon as he goes any distance, he knows neither what he will nor what he should be doing, and it is all one whether he is distracted by the large number of objects or whether he is put out by their greatness and dignity. It is always a misfortune when a man is induced to strive for something with which he cannot associate himself through some regular spontaneous activity.

The translation of the last part is tricky in English: the German reads "eine regelmäßige Selbsttätigkeit", conveying self-directedness or autonomy more than spontaneity. And a new sense of autonomy is exactly what Safranski prescribes for us. We need new ways to filter the global stream of information, a new immune system to be able to function in the face of all these global processes.

In 'How much globalization can we bear?' Safranski doesn't get very practical on how to go about this – discussing possible solutions he becomes rather poetic and metaphorical. But since 2003 we've seen a number of other critical thinkers approach this problem, especially how to stem the global deluge of information.

Two recent examples, both from 2010, are Rolf Dobelli's essay 'Avoid News' and Nicholas Carr's book 'The Shallows'. Dobelli stated boldly that news is to the brain what sugar is to the body: addictive and debilitating. Carr warned sternly that our computers - always online, always logged in - are now distraction machines, steadily eroding our capacity for concentration and reflection. Both, in effect, pleaded for a media diet.

To be sure, this is only part of a solution: globalization poses much wider problems than only media consumption. What of our other consumption - food, clothing, housing, technology, transport, finances - all of which is now linked up in the too-complex-to-fathom global web, and all of which is now suspect. The question here is one of responsibility, and not surprisingly we've seen a host of initiatives for more responsible, local, ecological, social and sustainable consumption. In fact, we've already reached the point where some of these initiatives themselves have become suspect - another symptom, Bauman and Safranski would no doubt agree, of these liquid times.

Safranski's book remains an important voice in any serious discussion of globalization, both for his anthropological perspective and his philosophical context. (I haven't even touched on his chapters on Plato's concept of thymos, man's "passionate craving for difference", and Kant's views on humanity, solidarity and "the path from the I to the We".)

A decade on, his conclusion still stands, uncomfortably and urgently in need of further sensemaking.

The time is gone when the range of possible action was protected by lack of knowledge, when action was associated with a local area for which it was still possible to take responsibility. A life of improvisation in one's immediate surroundings has lost its innocence.


Middelheim Museum - Unidentified seated woman

Middelheim Museum - 'Yayoi' - Corey McCorkle

Middelheim Museum - 'Dialogue' - Albert Szukalski

Middelheim Museum - 'Firmament III' - Antony Gormley

Middelheim Museum - 'Firmament III' - Antony Gormley

Middelheim Museum - 'Shouting is breathing' - Honoré d’O

A sample of sculpture in Antwerp's Middelheim Museum, a large open air treasury showing classical bronzes, conceptual concretes and almost anything in between.

The seated woman adjusting her hair I've been unable to identify, but the other images show (details of):

Other highlights include Carl Milles, 'Pegasus' (1949), Wander Bertoni, 'Icarus' (1953), Vojin Bakic, 'Bull' (1955) - and that's without covering the entire park, on an overcast day.

hortus leaves

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - 1

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - 2

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - 3

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - 4

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - 5

A variety of leaves from the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the oldest in the Netherlands, dating back to 1590.

The Leiden Hortus also includes a Japanese garden dedicated to Philipp Franz von Siebold, the German physician who visited Japan through the Dutch trading post Dejima and sent back many plants to Leiden (as well as tea to Java).

Hortus Botanicus Leiden - Philipp Franz von Siebold

living on dog and cat food

The series of ten detective novels that Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote in the 1960s and '70s are still regarded as a model for modern police procedurals. Meticulously plotted, with a sharp eye for detail and the psychology of their characters, their stories are extremely realistic accounts of police investigations - including the tediousness, bureaucracy and human fumbling which make up the bulk of such work, but are usually minimized in more heroic crime fiction.

An important innovation in their novels was to regard crime as a symptom, a pretext for social commentary, and crucially, to do so not from a conservative, law and order perspective but from a progressive Marxist viewpoint.

It's not that their protagonist, the distinctly unglamorous and world-weary inspector Martin Beck, who operates on coffee, cigarettes and a dogged sense of duty, has much political consciousness. Indeed, he repeatedly vocalizes his aversion to anything political and goes to considerable length to avoid being promoted to a political position in the law enforcement pyramid.

Yet he often finds himself sympathizing more with the criminals he exposes - themselves often victims of poverty or injustice - than with his power-hungry superiors who demand swift justice and more helicopters. And Beck's world-weariness is acute enough for him to reflect on the moral rot around him, the pervasive sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the great post-war welfare state.

While the Sjöwall and Wahlöö style is usually economical and limited to the patient exposition of all aspects of the investigation, they occasionally allow themselves a digressionary rant on the "gangsterization" and other evils of contemporary Swedish society. As the series progresses, their anger becomes more pronounced and sometimes conflicts with their sober plotting. But even forty years later, their concerns have lost little of their urgency.

In homage, here's a small selection of Sjöwall and Wahlöö tirades...

...a roundup it was to be and a roundup it was. It started about eleven o'clock and the news spread like wildfire through condemned houses and junkies' pads. The result was discouraging. Thieves, fences, pimps, prostitutes, all lay low, even most of the junkies. Hour after hour passed and the raid continued with undiminished strength. They caught a burglar red-handed and a fence who had not enough instinct of self-preservation to go to earth. All that the police really succeeded in doing was to stir up the dregs - the homeless, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, those who had lost all hope, those who could not even crawl away when the welfare state turned the stone over.

From 'The Man on the Balcony' ('Mannen på balkongen', 1967).

The consumer society and its harassed citizens had other things to think of. Although it was over a month to Christmas, the advertising orgy had begun and the buying hysteria spread as swiftly and ruthlessly as the Black Death along the festooned shopping streets. The epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and apartments, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path. Children were already howling from exhaustion and fathers of families were plunged into death until their next vacation. The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere. The hospitals had a boom in cardiac infarctions, nervous breakdowns and burst stomach ulcers.

From 'The Laughing Policeman' ('Den skrattande polisen', 1968).

Nothing had been mentioned about [the dead man] in the newspapers. The story was far too banal. Stockholm has one of the highest suicide rates in the world - something everyone carefully avoids talking about or which, when put to the spot, they attempt to conceal by means of variously manipulated and untruthful statistics. The most usual explanation is the simplest: All other countries cheat much more with their statistics. For some years now, however, not even members of the government had dared to say this aloud or in public, perhaps from the feeling that, in spite of everything, people tend to rely more on the evidence of their own eyes than on political explanations. And if, after all, this should turn out not to be so, it only made the matter still more embarrassing. For the fact of the matter is that the so-called Welfare State abounds with sick, poor, and lonely people, living at best on dog food, who are left uncared for until they waste away and die in their rat-hole apartments. No, this was nothing for the public. Hardly even for the police.

From 'The Locked Room' ('Det slutna rummet', 1972).

Some years ago someone in the police force had discovered a way of manipulating crime statistics. The methods used, though simple, were not immediately transparant, and without being directly mendacious were nevertheless utterly misleading. It had all started with demands for a more militant and homogeneous police force, for greater technical resources in general, and for more firearms in particular. To get this it had been necessary to exaggerate the hazards that policemen faced. Since verbiage had not proved politically effective enough, recourse had then been made to another method: namely, the manipulation of statistics.
At this juncture the political demonstrations during the second half of the sixties had opened up magnificent possibilities. Demonstrators pleading for peace had been suppressed by violence. Hardly ever armed with anything but their banners and their convictions, they had been met by tear gas, water cannons, and rubber nightsticks. Few were the nonviolent demonstrations that had not ended in tumult and chaos. Those individuals who had tried to defend themselves had been mauled about, arrested, and prosecuted for "assaulting the police" or "resisting arrest". All this information had been fed into the statistics. The method had worked perfectly. Each time a few hundred policemen were sent out to "control" a demonstration, the figures for alleged assaults against the police had rocketed.
The uniformed police had been encouraged "not to pull their punches," as the expression went, orders with which many a patrolman had been only too delighted, in all possible situations, to comply. Tap a drunk with a nightstick and the chances of his hitting back are always fairly high.
A simple lesson, which anyone could learn.
These tactics had worked. Now the Swedish police were armed to the teeth. All of a sudden, situations that formerly could have been cleared up by a single man equipped with a lead pencil and a pinch of common sense required a busload of patrolmen equipped with automatics and bullet-proof vests.
The long-term result, however, was something no one had quite foreseen. Violence breeds not only antipathy and hatred but also insecurity and fear.
In the end things had come to such a pass that people were going about being scared of each other and Stockholm had become a city containing tens of thousands of terrified individuals. And frightened people are dangerous people.
Many of the six hundred patrolmen who suddenly no longer existed had in fact resigned because they were scared - yes, even though they were armed to the teeth and for the most part just sat locked inside their cars.
Many, of course, had fled from Stockholm for other reasons, either because they'd come to dislike the place in general, or because they were disgusted with the treatment they were now obliged to mete out.
The regime had backfired. As for its deepest motives, they remained shrouded in darkness - a darkness, however, in which some people detected a hint of Nazi brown.

From 'The Locked Room' ('Det slutna rummet', 1972).

Behind its spectacular topographical façade and under its polished, semi-fashionable surface, Stockholm had become an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever. Unscrupulous profiteers could make enormous profits quite legally on pornography of the smuttiest kind. Professional criminals became not only more numerous but also better organized. An impoverished proletariat was also being created, especially among the elderly. Inflation had given rise to one of the highest costs of living in the world, and the latest surveys showed that many pensioners had to live on dog and cat food in order to make ends meet.
The fact that juvenile delinquency and alcoholism (which had always been a problem) continued to increase surprised no one but those with responsible positions in the Civil Service and at the Cabinet level.

From 'Murder at the Savoy' ('Polis, polis, potatismos!', 1970).

The airport was a national disgrace and lived up to its reputation. [It] had been built - once the inhabitants were displaced - in one of the foggiest spots in Sweden. And as if that weren't enough, it lay in the middle of a well-known migratory bird route and at a very uncomfortable distance from the city.
In addition, it had destroyed a natural wilderness that should have been protected by law. The damage was extensive and irreparable and constituted an act of gross ecological malfeasance, typical of the anti-humanitarian cynicism that had become increasingly characteristic of what the government called A More Compassionate Society. This expression, in turn, represented a cynicism so boundless that the common man had difficulty grasping it.

From 'Cop Killer' ('Polismördaren', 1974).

Since Martin Beck and his generation had been children, Christmas had changed from a fine traditional family festival into something that might be called economic cheapjackery or commercial insanity. For over a month before Christmas Eve, almost deperate advertisements for practically everything hammered at people's nerves, intent on squeezing their money from them right down to the last possible coin. Christmas was supposed to be in many respects a festival for children, but many children suffered from nerves and exhaustion several weeks before the great day finally arrived.

From 'The Terrorists' ('Terroristerna', 1975).


Marnix Goossens - Yonder - 1

Marnix Goossens - Yonder - 2

Marnix Goossens - Yonder - 3

Shabby, rundown interiors with hints, or hopes, of the natural world outside - ranging from geometrical to Magrittian - in the exhibition 'Yonder', photographs by Marnix Goossens at Foam.