Principle of Hope Europe: Part 1
Principle of Hope Europe takes Ernst Bloch’s “militant optimism” as the starting point for a critical and artistic examination of the way history shapes the contemporary world, exploring the micro- and macrocosmic images, metaphors, stories and latent utopias with which we understand and design the present.[i]
In this project, students and professors working within the master’s program “Research in Design, Art and Media” at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart make and present work which was first inspired by questions raised at the House of European History. These works represent both an end and beginning point for an ongoing project that will investigate the historical conditions of present-day life in Europe, based on academic research but pursued in various media and following the methodologies and strategies of art and design.
One of the most interesting results of the research to date is that the task of representing Europe and European history is incredibly difficult…
Some basic questions arise: Is Europe more a place or an idea? (I guess a little bit of both). If it is a place, where does it begin and where does it end? (A question with far-reaching ramifications). How can we define Europe without resorting to either nationalist identities, mythological imagined communities or mere territoriality—or some combination thereof? Europe, this piece of land stretching between the Bosporus (Io!) and the Pillars of Hercules, named after a Phoenician princess (or was it a nymph?) who, it is said, was seduced by Zeus in the form of a bull…
If Europe is an idea, or ideal, how best to define it? Where does one begin both historically and intellectually? With the Roman Empire? With the Catholic Church? With Charles V of Habsburg? Historically…sure, OK, I guess…yes. But intellectually? Here one would probably begin with the Lumières, the French Revolution (maybe leaving out the subsequent Terreur and the Napoleonic Wars…). We could jump to the Italian Risorgimento (humming Verdi beneath our breath)…reading Heine in Vormärz…(but best to leave out the sectarianism of ethnic nationalisms)… And what about the bloody struggle for workers’ rights or the murderous regimes of colonialism? Should we celebrate the church and its role in supporting resistance in totalitarian communist states, but leave out where it was complicit with National Socialism and Fascism? And what of the history of socialism in Europe? Where to place Marx and Engels, Ferdinand Lassalle, Bakunin, Kautsky, Bebel? What of Rosa Luxemburg, whose political theory is definitely more radical than EU consensus, but who, unlike her more moderate Social Democrat colleagues, understood the folly of rushing into the First World War? Even such a relatively simple seeming thing as displaying the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners in the same room as Gulag prisoners’ uniforms can be seen as problematic. To what extent are these two regimes comparable? And most importantly, what are the contemporary implications of this comparison or equivocation? In the late 1980s in Germany, such an installation might have been seen to be taking sides in the so-called Historikerstreit set off by Ernst Nolte’s portrayal of these crimes as morally equivalent (thereby ‘absolving’ Germany from its past).
But it is not only difficult to decide what historical reference points might be necessary and how these reference points are to be portrayed (historiography has always been fraught with ideological conflicts)—it is equally difficult to find a firm footing in the contemporary intellectual landscape. What current thinkers does one read?[ii] Is there a philosophical school that one must study to understand the significance of the European Union? What theoretical or critical perspective should we take? Accustomed as we are of being suspicious of the power of the state, its anonymous bureaucracies, the inequalities it produces, its potential for injustice, etc., how can we be expected to play the role of merely defending rather than critiquing the powerful institutions that shape our world? Is it possible to find a critical but affirmative standpoint that is not complacent or even complicit in the inevitable injustices of power struggles?
Along with deciding which historical figures and which events and intellectual traditions are relevant, one is also confronted with the question of what kind of historical methodology we might base our research and presentation on. An institution such as the House of European History at first seems to suggest a kind of Neo-Hegelian triumphalism: Europe as the post-historic Aufhebung, a peaceful and prosperous universal synthesis overcoming the years of negation and metahistorical antithesis of totalitarianism and the Cold War. On the “other side” we have the disasters of war, on “our side” progress towards eternal peace, the final destination of European society…welcome to the end of history!
Needless to say, this line of teleological reasoning would be dangerous. For the early 20th century wars to not be possible again, that totalitarianism, whether communist or fascist, not repeat itself, this task is more complicated than evoking the horrors of the past century as distant memories. We might recall George Santayana’s often quoted “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…”,[iii] but at the same time we understand that this will not be enough. We must not only contemplate the past, we must be ready to deal with the unfolding of the present towards numerous potential futures.
It is in this context that I would claim that the task of the historian (and thus the task of a historical museum) is to continue to question, to critique, to de-construct—not merely to remember or commemorate. Historians must address their subject and the immediate present with what Ernst Bloch referred to as “informed discontent.”[iv] This discontent grows in response to, again quoting Bloch, “the darkness of the lived moment as the real world-knot, world-riddle.” But Bloch is careful to emphasize, “informed discontent” should not end with lethargy or fear. It is rather to be understood as belonging to an anticipatory and emancipatory intellectual process, the first part of envisioning a possible alternative path, creating “a field of hope” that is “a directing act of a cognitive kind”[v]:
Utopian consciousness wants to look far into the distance, but ultimately only in order to penetrate the darkness so near it of the just lived moment, in which everything that is, both drives and is hidden from itself. In other words: we need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness. Namely, the most immediate immediacy, in which the core of self-location and being-here still lies, in which at the same time the whole knot of the world-secret is to be found.[vi]
I would argue that we must go beyond the post-war, contemplative anti-totalitarian humanism that sought to “avoid repeating” the mistakes of the past, and turn our historical telescopes towards a more active affirmation in the present. At the heart of our informed discontent, would be Bloch’s “militant optimism,” the “principle of hope” as a cognitive tool where “thinking means venturing beyond,”[vii] where the (social, intellectual, political) problems of the present situation are to be overcome, not merely endured or administered.
It is a question of learning hope (…) The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them.[viii]
Following Bloch, we might see our historical research, while obviously based on the documents of and narratives about events, works and actions of the past, as working towards the “Not-Yet-Become, towards viable possibilities of the light.”[ix] And it is along these lines that we would like to envision our practice as artists, filmmakers and designers, looking to move within the fields of the political and the historical, but following different rules for our practice, using artistic methodologies and strategies that will broaden and not confine our future discourse.
Civil society is much more than just parliament. It is a complex tapestry of different institutions: primary and secondary schools, universities, art schools, theaters, museums, newspapers, etc. The European Union has perhaps not actively supported the development of these institutions enough—especially on the transnational level. The House of European History is a rare exception to this, and it is based on its example that we have begun our project which we hope will grow beyond these initial steps.
Our research began with the question of representing European History, following various more or less predictable lines of approach: beginning with the pathos of Beethoven and Schiller’s brotherhood of man (inspired by the European Anthem, but also allowing for Adorno’s dialectical interpretation of Beethoven and the contradictions of bourgeois reconciliation), looking at the mythological origins of Europe (through Aby Warburg), the limits of revolution symbolically addressed in David’s portrait of the dying Marat, moving on to the problem of the nation as “imagined community,” the challenges of post-colonialism and borders, the many difficulties of representing history especially with respect to the Shoah (and through this thinking about the fundamental problem of representation per se). We began with these larger than life questions and soon found ourselves looking for inspiration in more immediate experience, for a framework where questions of representation could be addressed beyond the level of the state, beyond the level of the “grand narrative.”
Lisa Tröger’s project took the “continental breakfast” as a starting point for a systemology of breakfast culture in Europe—but ended with an entirely different project following a much less rigid logic of design (where dinosaurs ride on escalators in front of the House of European History). Corinna Kiefer combined experimental typography with personal poetry, imagining a poster campaign that would appeal on an immediate level. Shashank Patel undertook a visual exploration of how Bauhaus ideas have travelled to and evolved in India. Matthias Rott, in a project loosely based on Chris Marker’s La Jetée, underscored impressions of a trip to Brussels with a single frequency of sound. Hanna Rittich created a fictitious and polemic information campaign for foreigners interested in buying European citizenship. Dario Renner began with investigating the historical design of posters in the museum, concentrating mostly on the 1920s and 1930s and from this created a series of drawings based on the architecture of the European Parliament. Daya Sieber investigated the Volksfest in Stuttgart called the Wasen both visually and in an autobiographical and theoretical text. Judith Engel let a volcano reminiscent of elementary school science projects erupt in the Kunstverein in Stuttgart, the documentation of the event is accompanied by a fictional online discussion about the cultural and philosophical significance of the eruption of Vesuvius. And Daphne Szlósarczyk retold the history of the relationship of power and painting, through a series of lighthearted speed-paintings based on some of the most iconic representative images in European history.
Out of the immediate mystery of the present, we begin to imagine an approach to representing European History that could be more enigmatic, abstract, poetic and untied from the fixed clichés representing the “world historical.” Far removed from Hegelian triumphalism, far away from the “end of history,” the project continues, the next chapter in the Principle of Hope Europe awaits…
[i] With the final words of Bloch’s work Das Prinzip Hoffnung in mind, underlining the idea that utopia as a home country is fundamentally a non-place: “There arises in the world something which appears to everyone in childhood and where no one has ever been: Heimat.” The non-place Utopia/Europe remains to be invented. . .
[ii] We would begin with the historians Erich Hobsbawm, Tony Judt, Timothy Snyder…theoretical positions of Habermas, Adorno, Bloch, Deleuze, Rancière, but also reading Fanon, Gilroy, Mbembe…digging in the past with Schiller, Hegel, Marx, Lukács, looking to create an intellectual framework within which we can work both academically and artistically, in general, it would be more a question of finding ways to rethink rather than merely “defend” the European Project…
[iii] George Santayana, The Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress. New York 1905. See: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=169068&pageno=115
[iv] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996, p.34.
[v] Ibid., p.12.
[vi] Ibid., p.12.
[vii] Ibid., p.4.
[viii] Ibid., p.3.
[ix] Ibid., p.446.