Philosophy, music and visual art: too many engagements? Too much on my plate? And all this with an educational background in science?

At the time I finished my studies in cosmology and nuclear physics, I was also making art, totally immersed in and inspired by the decadent-romantic era of the late 19th century. I also made experimental electronic and rock music with friends and started singing in a renaissance polyphony choir. In 1999, I decided to step away from science to philosophy and contemporary art because I got angry at science – that is: not at science itself, but about the way it is misused (and the way it allows misuse itself) by politics and the market. Some years later, a bit overwhelmed by the many things I was doing, I decided the way forward was not to choose and concentrate on one thing, but to accept that, with working on these parallel tracks, things would develop meaningfully but slow. I decided not to choose because I had realised that the transversal and cross-cutting between the tracks is an essential but underexplored focus as such. Moving from music and film through visual art and philosophy to philosophical activism and back is moving between atmospheres and arguments, between the aesthetics of ethics and the ethics of aesthetics. One cannot understand and critically approach rationality if not also perceived from the ethical and aesthetic perspective of emotions, the spiritual and the decadent – and the other way round. One cannot understand the meanings and functions of words, reason and dialogue without exploring how to express yourself facing perplexity, speechlessness and the unpronounceable.

atmospheres < > arguments

the aesthetics of ethics > < the ethics of aesthetics

art > < philosophy

Since then, I work and travel the world as a ‘philosophical activist’, researching and lecturing on ethics of science and technology and on how human rights should steer global politics dealing with the complex social problems we face. In 2006, I ‘officially’ established The Institute of Idle Curiosity for Elements of Seduction. That all-encompassing art project is at the same time a metaphor for this exploration of the spectrum ‘between atmospheres and arguments’ and a framework for my activities.

If holism is the way to look at ourselves ‘being in the world’ (in coexistence with nature, ourselves and the constructed environment), then we should understand that this ‘bigger picture’ of how things relate to one other can never be fully rationalised. It will always be a synergy and a clash of ‘reasoned’ insights and ‘intuitive’ feelings related to both the presumably knowable and the mysterious; a ‘picture’ we can never fully grasp, let stand jointly understand. That is no defeatist vision, but rather the ultimate argument for the value of and need for human ethical and aesthetic interaction in our private social and public political life. The ‘meta’ level, transgressing the move between atmospheres and arguments, is a state of reflexive melancholy (or melancholic reflexivity) which is for me the ‘highest’ intellectual state of being a human can reach. In the text below (which I wrote in 2016 for a workshop at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam) I explain why I think this is the case, and why I think this is meaningful for our human condition and for our living together today and in the future.

Revisiting Melancholy

Robert Burton published the first edition of his magnum opus ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ in 1621. His aim was to write a definite and comprehensive study of the meaning of melancholy. His book promised to explain ‘.. What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up…’. What looks at first sight as an exhaustive analysis of melancholy as a disease to be cured is in fact much more. Burton uses melancholy as a perspective to inquire into all human emotions and thought. In that sense, the Anatomy can also be seen as a total encyclopaedia of the human condition of that time.

Our modern times may now inspire us to re-read that meaning for the contemporary human condition, although not through a systematic re-interpretation of the encyclopaedic classes and categories, but on the basis of one simple idea….

Melancholy is not depression neither pessimism. Drawing on interpretations from the pre-modern Romantic and Decadent Era, it can be described as the aesthetical consolation that comes with the awareness of the impossibility of pure beauty, unity and harmony, and of the inevitability of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty. The idea however is that melancholy is not a detached but an ethical experience, and that this became apparent with modernity: melancholy is the human condition resulting from a deliberate awareness of the limits to rational instrumental reason in a context of social appeal. That social appeal may either be love, friendship or lust, or social or political engagement. The implications of modernity rendered melancholy with a social meaning: the impossibility of pure beauty, unity and harmony, and of the inevitability of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty, is not experienced by way of detached observation, but in a reflexive way in social interaction.

In this vision, the ‘end state’ of melancholy is still aesthetical consolation. But that state is not passive, as it arises from an ethical demand. In its recognition of the intrinsic ambiguity of human interaction and of the inherent complexity of social organisation and cohabitation, it is an intellectual withdrawal from the delusion of grandeur of a society obsessed with rationality, security, efficiency, predictability and competition. In its disdain for complacency, it is a consolatory practice of leaving the comfort zones constructed around strategies of conformism, positivism, populism and profitism. But as an active state of resignation, melancholy is not evasive. Its decadence is in the eyes of the conformists. Layered on reflexivity as an ethical experience, it feels the anger towards the detached. And as a meta-state of concern, it is aware of the fragile potential of intellectual solidarity among the capable, and of the melancholy of the capable as vulnerable.

Melancholy is practicing the aesthetics of imperfection, decadence and uncertainty, although with a constant awareness of – and care for – the possible of human possibilities.

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