PHILIPPE RAHM: CORONAVIRUS OR THE RETURN TO NORMAL
Philippe Rahm presenting at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit. All photos by Alpimages.
Swiss architect Philippe Rahm, 2020 Summit Speaker, wrote this opinion essay entitled "Coronavirus or the return to normal", originally published in the French Newspaper AOC. In this essay, Philippe reflects on the Coronavirus epidemic and global warming as part of a philosophical “return to reality” to rethink our ecological values.
If for fifty years antibiotics, vaccines and oil have taken us out of our natural condition, they have also taken away our awareness of the materiality of our existence. The coronavirus epidemic and global warming are part of a "stunning return of reality" that requires us to rethink our relationship with the environment.
In an article published in the New York Times on April 18, 1999, Italian semiologist Umberto Eco took measure of the extraordinarity of his time: if you were sick, you could take an antibiotic for a week to get over it; if you were cold, all you had to do was turn up the radiator to feel warm, and when you were hungry, you could take your car and go to the supermarket… Everything was so very different before the 1950s.
Since the beginning of mankind, you had a 50-50 chance of making it if you caught a viral or bacterial disease. We were cold to death every winter, and periods of scarcity took place before the arrival of each spring, if they weren’t turned into famine. For Umberto Eco, we should thank the invention of antibiotics and its distribution after the Second World War, the compulsory vaccination that began at the same time, and the oil that boosted our agricultural production, allowing to feed a humanity that took advantage of the situation to exponentially increase its numbers and double its life expectancy.
Philippe Rahm speaking at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit.
Philippe Rahm speaking with Jessica Morgan and Adrian Lahoud at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit.
Philippe Rahm Talk at the 2020 Verbier Art Summit | 27:19 | © Crossmark
Thanks to these antibiotics, vaccines and oil, humanity triumphed over its animal fate, largely extracted itself from its fragile natural condition, and opened a new era, the one that the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described as "post-modern", in which the human sciences triumphed over the natural sciences, social interpretations over natural facts, and subjectivity over objectivity.
This explosion of human power over the earth and its own body, and the consequent transformation of our environment – first to our advantage and now to our disadvantage because of pollution and global warming – is only a short history. One that started fifty years ago, and is only a drop in the ocean of human history, which began thousands of years ago, and which used to be made up largely of hunger, cold and disease. Today, however, in the face of global warming and the coronavirus epidemic, this extraordinary period of the human history seems to also be behind us.
In recent years, the post-modern philosophy born in the 1950s, has also taken a serious turn for the worse. In "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam", a seminal article published in the University of Chicago's Critical Inquiry in 2004, the philosopher Bruno Latour already questioned the validity of the Nietzschean creed that underlies post-modern thinking, "There are no facts, there are only interpretations". This creed provided the breeding ground for climate sceptics, who questioned the scientific facts and sought interpretations other than anthropogenic CO2 emissions to explain global warming.
More fundamentally, Bruno Latour questioned the denial of the dominant French thinking at the time, that of the structuralists, to attribute to the non-human (mainly climate and disease) a part of the responsibility in the unfolding of human history. Refusing that man can modify the climate, refusing that the climate can modify human history, was not only the point of view of a few marginal conspirators.
Today, a new moment in philosophy is unfolding and moving away from post-modern relativism.
In the 1980s, the great structuralist historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie denied that the climate was any real interference in human history and mocked his English colleague Hubert Horace Lamb who, at the same time, predicted the phenomenon of global warming with exceptional accuracy. According to the English researcher, the Hundred Years' War, during which the English regularly invaded France and particularly Bordeaux, came about because of the Little Ice Age which, from the 14th century onwards, made it impossible to cultivate vines in England, forcing people in vital search of wine (soft drinks being tainted at the time) to conquer the Bordeaux region.
Following in the footsteps of H.H. Lamb, the American historian Jared Diamond marks the end of the anthropocentric structuralist vision of human history, by adding viruses and animals as primordial actors in our history.
Today, a new moment in philosophy is unfolding under the terms of "realism" or "new realism" and is moving away from post-modern relativism, from the culturalist deciphering of structuralism, that was not seeking to understand the causes of human facts, but only its social meaning. Maurizio Ferraris in Italy, Markus Gabriel in Germany, Jocelyn Benoist in France, each of them is taking the measure of the existence of things outside of human consciousness, and in a certain way reintroducing into philosophy the importance of the non-human part, both in our lives and also generally on our Earth.
It rains, whether we are there or not. It's cold in winter, whether we like it or not. The change is important and already the radicality of this thought is beginning to emerge in the United States where a historian like Timothy J. LeCain, notes that 80% of the cells making up the human body are not human (they are those of bacteria that populate us), and reverses the hierarchies by describing human beings as a simple means of locomotion for microbes.
This provocative thought, however extreme it may be, is nevertheless necessary today in a debate that is reanimating and renewing our thinking in the face of the current challenges of global warming, and the telling episode of the coronavirus epidemic. For what are these two phenomena if not a staggering return to reality? We could even say that it is a return to normal. We have indeed lived through a very short time where antibiotics, vaccines and oil have extraordinarily taken us out of the natural condition. Contrary to some who blame modernity, and even more so the Enlightenment, for the current disaster, I believe that modernity and technology have nothing to do with it. For fifty years, it allowed us to live longer, to rescue our sick children from death, to provide us with food, and to get us through the winter.
The upcoming catastrophe is nothing new. It has been the daily existence of human beings since the dawn of time, with the exception of the last fifty years.
We should be reminded that during the Enlightenment and modernity, from the 18th century to the 1950s, there were no antibiotics, that life expectancy was only 40 years at the beginning of the 20th century and that, as late as in 1930, an architect like Le Corbusier, proposed to demolish the overcrowded and so-called insalubrious districts of Paris only to prevent the spread of cholera and tuberculosis, which could not be cured. And for those who might have some doubts about beauty being possible during the hardship before the 1950s, they should remember Villa Rotonda, Andrea Palladio's masterpiece built in the 16th century in the Veneto region, which owes its shape only to climatic principles: the summer heat, the evacuation of hot air through its dome and the shading of its rooms through its porticoes.
For man is a naked ape who survives only thanks to technology, and foremostly thanks to fire, which has warmed us in winter and made it possible to inhabit the planet's naturally uninhabitable climates. Fire, allowing us to precook food, externalizing the energy that used to exhaust us during digestion. Technology, giving us clothing, shelter, tools and allowing us to live on Earth. Today, we still owe it to modern medicine that the 15% of serious coronavirus cases are saved by respiratory machines in the hospitals. The upcoming catastrophe is nothing new... It has been the daily existence of human beings since the dawn of time, with the exception of the last fifty years.
More than modernity, I believe that it is post-modernity that is not responsible for the current crisis, but that has taken away our awareness of the materiality of our existence. It has removed our natural way in favour of a single cultural way, and with it our means of acting in a world that will always remain as non-human as ever. I do not know exactly how this 'realistic' shift will translate into other fields, but I do know how it is already being translated into urban planning and architecture. It is by no means reactionary, but on the contrary, it opens up new fields of emancipation, freedom, and imagination, and is a tremendous opportunity for a new social contract between humans and non-humans.
When we no longer speak of a square in a town but of "an island of urban freshness", when we no longer speak of perspectives on a statue of Louis XIV but of “an urban breeze to refresh and evacuate air pollution with fine particles”, when we no longer speak of the colour of a building from a cultural point of view (red means firemen, black means Rock n' Roll to make it quick) but of “the albedo”, when we no longer design apartment plans according to private-public principles but to “air humidity levels and atmospheric convection movements”, when we design a building façade no longer for prestige and for what it means, but to “thermally insulate the interior from the exterior and thus reduce the energy consumed”, then all this is indeed just a return to normal.