Matthias Ulrich

PEACE. Everything but PEACE

There was this Californian artist who always concluded his emails to me with the word “Peace” and his name. California, Venice Beach, Peace… now that makes sense. All the same, I couldn’t help thinking of a guy who had somehow fallen through Time’s net, such as John Lennon, complete with white robe and garland of flowers, whose incisive mission is to spread goodwill among people. The good, the positive, the polite, the human, even the very words swiftly seem tiring nowadays, and yet remain caught even in the tiniest of gaps between your teeth where your tongue keeps on trying to extract them as if they have to survive, soundlessly and inwardly. And the more I receive those emails, and have brightened up my own emails to others by adding the cliché at the end, the more clearly I recognized the arrogance of those who have no interest in something like peace, i.e. no political or intellectual interest, and prefer instead to simply attack the injustices of this world. No, wrong, peace is that little thing caught between your teeth and which originate with the fat pigs that are devoured with such gusto and have names like “the arms industry” “the pharma industry”, “the patriarchy”, “the spectacle”, “Hollywood”, “factory farming”, and so on.

Needless to say, that all sounds like some blunt banality or other, namely that only the equality of all can lead to peace. It is the nature of knowledge that it formulates general, universal and very tangible goals. What is more important it to identify that blind spot of knowledge to be that distinction on the basis of which knowledge can actually ensue. Which is to say: Knowledge doesn’t come from nowhere, but from knowledge, and distinguishes itself from other knowledge, is fueled by other knowledge, and spreads infinitely across the horizon of knowledge. On this horizon there is no center, all access to it repeats the form of distinction of something from everything else. And precisely for that reason each and every access to knowledge not only visualizes a distinction, but above all constitutes an offering to continue the distinction at this point in the horizon of knowledge and to move forward with other distinctions. Not a small part of the discourse has to do with appeal or rather an appealing, contemporary idiom, the Emperor’s new clothes as it were, in which various fields of the social participate. This is not the case to date with the idea of peace. Peace is sheer boredom compared to war. Values such as courage, heroism, hope and trust would, or so Bertolt Brecht’s opinion, not have been invented without war. Perhaps someone will succeed in finding a competing concept for agitation and heroic energy.

Peace is sheer boredom compared to war.
The history of peace

It also remains relatively uncontroversial that the history of peace is as old as is humanity itself. While war is often considered to be in human nature, peace is viewed as something far more fragile and fleeting. This view is wrong! What must be conceded, however, is that war and violence are profitable events in the media age and the politicians focus great attention on them. As a capitalist, economic variable, we can predict of peace that it will only receive broad recognition in society if growing further apart in economic terms becomes less important and instead collectively growing together becomes more appealing. This collective expands with post-humanism. In addition to a social contract, which according to Rousseau addresses the common weal (once again it is an external world in which the correctness of [good] deeds takes shape), we are increasingly perceiving the need for something Michel Serres has urgently recommended, namely a natural contract in which the guarantees for life itself first get negotiated, be it in the guise of the concept of Gaia, of holism or simply of everything-is-linked-to-everything-else.

This is the context in which the PEACE exhibition places itself. It forges links with the help of which different entry points into a life with and in peace become discernible. Peace is present, is withness, is being with the world and with others. To quote the philosopher of religion Martin Buber, who first became known for his “dialogical principle”: “It by no means needs to be a man of whom I become aware. It can be an animal, a plant, a stone. No kind of appearance or event is fundamentally excluded from the series of things through which from time to time, something is said to me. Nothing can refuse to be the vessel for the Word. The limits of the possibility of dialogue are the limits of awareness.”1

Peace is present, is withness, is being with the world and with others.

I remember a slogan that was note penned by Brecht: “Imagine there’s a war and no one shows up.” Simply rejecting the slogan as a platitude would be to ignore its subtle correctness. War and violence serve a lucrative, visual news industry which in turn influences how violence is exerted and war wages to a degree we should not underestimate. Think only of the virulence of terrorism triggered by 9/11 and since then part of everyday life in both the Global North and the Global South, be it the recruitment of new terrorists or the question of new security systems.

In art, with his 2008 film piece “Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty” Renzo Martens sharply criticized the perversion of the war-as-resource economy; the film shows that violence as a pure business model is better suited to prompt development assistance than moral words, because the latter lead to interest falling beneath the threshold of media attention and existence is then threatened by the distress (Renzo Martens, Trailer Episode 3). It may well be that the survival of the human species is not necessarily our human mission on Earth – unlike the plants, for example, in evolutionary terms humans’ 200,000-year existence is hardly worth talking about. If, however, cynicism and a lack of interest accelerate our demise, if the causes or at least the consequences are clear, and if the whole drama has already filled movie theaters numerous times in the form of major Hollywood productions, if solutions devised in the labs and the garages are kept back, if 100% of our energy could in 13 years’ time simply be generated by wind, water and the sun, and if,.. and so on and so forth.

Good times are not good – comes to mind, which a certain Martin Kippenberger once wrote, back in 1990. Nevertheless, the good has a good prospect of being taken seriously in times of deceleration, of inner and outer sustainability, of post-human ecology. The hybrid of Platonic altruism and cybernetic Buddhism provides a model of good action geared to an inner peace. Whether the world or optionally art can be saved and if so then from what can first be answered if it is clear that it means nothing to anyone, as long as this world or this art is only outside us. As far outside us as the environment, which can also for that reason be destroyed, because if it were inside and a part of us, then we would certainly not act this way. And precisely this view of things is part of the current trend and determines the need to fill the accepted concepts with new meaning. Peace, nature, the body, and so on. According to Timothy Morton this has to do with the ever recurring dualism of subject and object, which rests on the distinction of inside and outside (“The subject is ‘this’, ‘over here’, inside; the object is ‘that’, ‘over there’, outside.”) a dualism seen as “the fundamental philosophical reason for human beings’ destruction of the environment.” Morton’s attempt consists of a practice of ecological writing that allows us to overcome the distinction between ourselves and nature. “Ecological writing … is supposed not just to describe, but also to provide a working model for a dissolving of the difference between subject and object….”2

the good has a good prospect of being taken seriously in times of deceleration, of inner and outer sustainability.

In philosophy and religion ‘doing good’ is often geared to another, to the outside, from where it is then reflected. Plato, for example, believes unjust actions can threaten inner peace. However, this assumes that the justice of an action can be assumed without first obtaining positive feedback, that an action can per se and a priori be considered just or unjust. Is throwing a coin into the empty plastic cup of a person begging a good deed if it is not clear what the money will then be used for only because in the above Platonic sense one has to be able to believe that the coin will in its onward use be applied to a good end? Or is the initial effect of the action sufficient to deem it just/unjust, namely the effect we can assume on the addressee without taking into consideration the chain of effects? And to continue with this image, is it even possible to define a concept of justice that is not based on an underlying imbalance on the basis of which the question of just becomes relevant in the first place, meaning it is in truth always easier for the non-begging person to act justly? And the coin in no way alters the fact that poverty is on the rise in developed societies – to change that a far greater change would have to be made that would essentially have to focus on the social system per se. Perhaps good has been done simply if we can assume that the begging person is helped more by a coin in his/her cup than without the coin. Certainly, no justice has thus been done, not even the beginnings of such, but without perceiving other needs than one’s own a person such as the beggar does not even exist or simply upsets the otherwise smooth flow of capital in the pedestrian zone.

The isolation of the I

‘Escape the isolation of your I’ is easier said than done perhaps. In most cases the isolation of the I does not refer to some psychological illness but to the sheer normality of thinking and experience that each individual persons only experiences for themselves, irrespective of how many other people have the same thoughts or experiences. “Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”3 Communication and Language

It is wrong to conclude that therefore no real empathy, no real sympathy, not real compassion is possible. It is, however, also tur that no one can offer a 1:1 copy of a personal reality. So what is the consequence of the fact that I can never possibly escape my own I? Does this not also and above all mean that doing good is always only directed at the sender, but never reaches the recipient, even if we give ourselves over to the illusion that through our deed we can move, change, influence something that lies outside us?

“Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
David Foster Wallace


The problem of abstraction to which David Foster Wallace refers in his marvelously simple speech to students seems to my mind to be a dilemma that thinking itself produces, in order logically not to be able to escape the dilemma, unless by destroying the brain or by simplification – possibly also by simplification of the significance of humans per se. And looked at closely the doubts about humans are omnipresent – but what alternatives do we humans have? On top of which, in the ‘real world’ “(…) of men and money and power (that) hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught how to think.”4

“(...) there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.” (David Foster Wallace)

The alternative addressed in this long quotation bears hidden names such as mindfulness or responsibility. However much David Foster Wallace’s speech may shake us out of our complacencies, it does not seem new to me, which only serves to underscore the importance of this speech and also weaken our faith in the real progress to which humans ostensibly aspire. The collective world of plants has just decided to reduce photosynthesis in the future. “Social reality,” writes Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, “is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. (…) Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension of oppression, and so of possibility.”5 While Donna Haraway focuses on a feminist cyborg that oscillates between human and machine to overcome the holy dualisms, her critique of the Anthropocene can be equally applied to the animals and plants and even to an inanimate world, e.g., that of stones, as social relation occur wherever it is primarily men who allocate participants their places. In an era of communication, constant change is normal. Identities dissolve, ideologies have out-served their purposes as concepts. As soon as it becomes clear that freedom of thought consists in thinking of that which is worth thinking about, i.e., once the obscured other side of thinking is permitted as a possibility for creating meaning, then we could success in bathing in the flowing stream of thinking and the liquidity of thinking could be recognized as its only certainty. Together with the machines that increasingly implant themselves in human tissue a movement arises that ensures (a) constant dissolution and rewiring of all entities, the household, the workplace, the market, the public sphere, the body.

In an era of communication, constant change is normal.

A global peace, once reached, could for the first time set the drama of life moving, a drama the goal of which is to constantly change identities and the mechanisms for creating identity. Such a drama long since exists for most people in the so-called developed countries, and thus in this text, too, but yet again this text evidently also does not completely obey the rules. Another artist, Adrian Piper, offered a different drama in 2015 at the Venice Biennale, namely individual lectures (in total three different ones) of which one obliged the signatory/ies to always say what s/he thought. Even if in the very moment I signed up I knew I would break the contract, e.g. when answering a question from a colleague about how I found this year’s Biennale, I still note a slight touch of bad conscience when I once again utter an untruth. But even that will not solve the real injustice in the world, on that excludes peace. The fear of losing something owing to change is far greater than the guilt of a bad conscience.

As regards the threat of climate change and thus the greatest challenge of all. We fortunately, or so Naomi Klein says, have a chance to change life from the bottom up, i.e. to improve it and start the “rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights – all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.”6 nature

How to achieve PEACE?

This text is an example that many disparate and diverse aspects need to be attributed to the phenomenon of peace if it is to be illuminated and elucidated even approximately and that below the low peace has not and cannot be achieved by this text or by those other texts alluded to in it, as at least the other texts and books point out. The actual intention of this text is to explain embedding peace in an exhibition of contemporary works, one that cannot be associated with the contents and forms alluded to in the works mentioned in this text. Both works, that by Renzo Martens and that by Adrian Piper, are only to be found in this text, although, had there been more exhibition space, they could definitely have become part of the exhibition. Then not much would have been changed in this text on the exhibition, one sentence would have become superfluous, and of course all those sentences that follow from the change to the text in view of the two pieces that are not included in the exhibition but in this text on the exhibition. Perhaps we have managed to move the exhibition forwards, to advance it, by including the works not presented in the exhibition by mentioning them in the exhibition texts.