Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

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Systems thinking is also political. This book offers a sophisticated, systemic perspective on how to live through these challenging times as a responsible and caring individual. It takes its cue from the observation that we are not showing any sign that we, individually and collectively, will be able to handle the existential challenge of climate change that is facing humanity. The book talks about crisis but the tone of voice is, however, not alarmist. Its aim is to bring us back to our senses and offer an actionable framework to make differences that matter while moving into a turbulent future.

Please note: the book is not yet available in English translation. A core chapter has been translated and can be downloaded from the author’s website.

Resistance as ‘reflaction’

The book is anchored in the concept of ‘resistance’. This may come across as rather monolithic, charged as it is with resonances of protest, subversion and sabotage. Oosterling’s conception of resistance and power, indebted to Foucault’s thinking, is, however, very nuanced. Power is not a monolithic thing ‘over there’, but a ‘dispositif’, a format embedded in discourses and institutions that guide our thinking and behaviour. This entails a subtle relationship between power and resistance beyond the merely oppositional. Oosterling characterises this relationship as ‘supplementary’. “(They) are two aspects of the same strategy in which both power (owners) and resistance (fighters) play a role. They need each other and are not opposed to each other.” This engenders a more liquid conception of resistance as ‘reflaction’ (a neologism born from the contraction of ‘reflection’ and ‘action’).

Henk Oosterling’s own trajectory might give us a hint as to how reflaction manifests itself within the contours of a particular life. His PhD thesis (on Foucault), written in the 1990s, was a springboard for a rich academic career as philosopher. Earlier he performed as an elite athlete in the martial arts discipline of Kendo (swordmanship). A varied palette of engagements as an educational professional and visionary constitutes a third major strand in his career. Clearly, Oosterling is a person with an surprising range of life experiences under his belt. He doesn’t seem to like to compartmentalise activism and deep reflection. Hence: reflaction.

Ecopanic and doom-and-gloom thinking

I’ll circle back to this notion of resistance further below as the ideas are more subtle than that. But first we need to understand why we need this more sophisticated conception of resistance now, at this particular moment in time. Oosterling characterises this time window with another neologism (unfortunately one that is somewhat less easy on the ear): we find ourselves stuck in a transitional age of ‘ecopanic’, characterised by a flight in all directions with no clear orientation. Sentiments of goodwill and a desire for change founder in the face of rampant doom-and-gloom thinking. This particular brand of fatalism has very deep roots in Western culture. From the late 18th century onward, the Christian perspective on the end of time has been reinforced with a dialectical-utopian line of thinking that meshes damnation and salvation. Today, the fretting about the Anthropocene shifts the doom “from the theological via the philosophical and the biological to the geological. This is a scaling up in which human psychology and imagination are disappearing from view.”

Interesse

This connects back to the initial discussion on power and resistance. Because in a dialectical vision the only option to change the status quo is revolution. “What is currently still managed top-down will have to be organised bottom-up. Whether that will happen is a matter of conjecture, but it goes without saying that this is how our imagination about resistance works. The question is, however, whether this representation of power and resistance is an adequate representation of twenty-first century reality. Is this view still in line with our current way of being?

How to understand our current way of being then? Oosterling points to our fundamental disposition of ‘interesse’. This Dutch word has remained very close to its Latin root. It refers to taking a position in an ‘in-between’ (‘inter-esse’). But it has also affective overtones in its reference to the undivided attention we bring to bear to our environment (‘interest’). ‘Interesse’ has therefore an ontological dimension — a way of being that reflects the interconnectedness of everything with everything — and a psychological dimension — an open attitude that is willing to connect. (The latter offers an intriguing opportunity for bridging into recent insights emerging from the ‘enactive’ line of research in cognitive science; see Vol. 15 in the Library)

Multi-level politics

Interesse is also the basis for a contemporary politics. Oosterling differentiates the notion along a vertical axis that defines three distinct political levels: “On a macropolitical scale, the agent is the national political pyramid, with the sovereign nation state as its ultimate legal form (…) But voters are citizens and consumers too. They work for companies, institutions and organisations within civil society (…): the mesopolitical scale. This is the scale on which citizenship develops. Lastly, as individuals, citizens always carry around their own ego. A constant battle is being fought within every ego, which is only ever resolved temporarily through decisive choices that ‘individualise’ the ego. In line with Foucault and Deleuze, I call this scale –on which individual people attempt to free themselves of their inner struggle that leaves the ego split by conflicting desires and troubled by addiction –the micropolitical scale.

Pyramids and Networks

An important theme in the book is the paradigmatic shift away from a deeply-ingrained pyramidal-hierarchical discourse that is not able anymore to provide coherence to our lived experience. Paradoxes are seeping out on all sides. The stranglehold that the sovereign nation-state, a disciplining normality and the autonomous subject are exercising on each other is becoming really suffocating. We are relying more and more on social imaginaries that are condensing around a more fluid logic of networks. But isn’t Oosterling smuggling then the pyramid back in via the back door by introducing his micro-to-macro tiered political spectrum? Not quite. He does in fact two things: he shows how network logics are precariously hybridising with pervasive pyramidal coordination mechanisms. And he articulates a cybernetic perspective by pointing out how these tiered political realms — micro, meso, macro — are connected by myriads of feedback loops.

Ecopolitics

If we take stock for a moment we can see more clearly where Oosterling is heading: at the intersection of 1) a discursive, ‘configurational’ conception of power 2) a fundamental human disposition of enactive ‘interesse’, 3) an increasingly network-oriented social imaginary, 4) a ‘circular’ perspective that connects interventions at all scales on which we move politically, and 5) growing self-consciousness as an animating, quintessential generative principle, emerges a new space for resistance. But one that is infinitely more subtle than the old dualist, dialectical templates that we have inherited from the past.

This is the space that we need to learn to navigate and cultivate as 21st century planetary citizens. This is also the space where we transition from macropolitics to the eco-political sphere of the earth itself. Oosterling: “The complexity of the transition to a sustainable society becomes visible at the interface between macropolitics and ecopolitics. In this inter-space, an individual becomes an intervidual. Within this interspace, an eco-emancipation can unfold. In this sphere, we conform to living ecosystems in which we participate.

‘Reflaction’ in health and education

In the final three chapters Oosterling digs deeper into the resistance practices that are systemically feeding on one another. On a macro-political scale we try to ward off political inertia and economic opportunism. On a mesopolitical scale we liquefy institutional rigidity. On the intersection of mesopolitcs and micropolitics the networked individual appears as ‘a porous ego’. “The porosity of the ‘individual’ thus goes two ways: to the ‘outside’ because, even in your resistance and rebellion, you are always connected to others in order to act meaningfully. A discourse provides that orientation. Thus, an individual becomes part of a collective subject. Inwardly, the individual is continually exposed to a resistance: competing affects that go straight through. We are touched by and recoil from what affects us.

Our Western, comfortable, technology-saturated lives are traversed by a paradox: our collective experience of freedom coincides with the excessive use of technological media and artifacts. Awareness of that pattern enables us to develop a more alert, interested sense of self. Oosterling sees education and health as two key areas in which, in a designerly and ‘reflactive spirit’, we can experiment with and give shape to ‘a medial enlightenment and a physical spirituality’ that form the basis of 21st century citizenship.

Understanding resistive patterns

I’ve taken a few shortcuts in my attempt to synthesise Henk Oosterling’s line of argument. There is more meat in this book. But the overall thrust of ecosophic project is hopefully clear. Its richly layered perspective helps me to understand my own resistive patterns, at micro, meso and macro-level. This reflection is both sobering and enabling. Sobering because it reminds me that there will be no revolutionary ‘deus ex machina’ — including technology — that will solve all our problems. The revolution has to take root within my own sense of self. From there, and through a patient process of collective learning, it bleeds into the frustrating, beauteous mess of life. It is enabling because it tells me that however badly the odds may be stacked against us, we are never powerless.

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?