johannes klabbers : work

My work is three-fold: I write, I talk and I listen.

My work with people is, in part, a response to posthumanist and new materialist theories (Barad, Bennett and others including the Utrecht school 1) and an attempt to think about the application of those theories in everyday life.

I gave up making art and thinking about art more than ten years ago but I come from an art background, I was an artist. I did a creative arts practice PhD and for nearly two decades I taught in an art school in the Australian outback. 2

The question that continually arose as I was working through all the different ways of making art, showing art, thinking about art, responding to art was this: How do I make this meaningful? How do I make art that has an effect? Is it possible to make art that brings about change, that can change the world (by which is meant people’ - the world is fine!)? Of course this was a very important question for the early modernists, like De Stijl and the suprematists, and much later even for the abstract expressionists). For many of them art was a kind of spiritual practice. Unfortunately the point at which I came to make and think about art was in the eighties when postmodernism was having its day and the idea that artists and audiences ought to be interested in meaning and change was considered quite ludicrous. This was a time to celebrate surface and irony, although celebrate’ might be the wrong word since there was little joy in it.

The one unescapable fact, I’ve thought about this ever since I was a child, and it continues to astonish me on virtually a daily basis now) is that I am going to die - that everyone, everything that lives, is going to die. And this is what lead me to resign from the university and to go and work with people who are dying, and those who want to die and that work continues. I wrote about this in my book, I Am Here: Stories from a Cancer Ward.

What became obvious working with people in a cancer hospital is the obverse of that unescapable fact : I am alive! We are all alive! And we have energy and ideas. Let’s do something! But is art the best avenue for that, the best place to expend that energy? I am no longer convinced, as I once was, that it is - and that it is the only place left. Because art too has been chewed up and masticated over and over again and spat out and the vultures are continually pouring over its excrement. Is it possible to do anything interesting in an art context in 2017? Well I think perhaps it is not entirely impossible but for the most part any good work that is possibly being done will go unnoticed because 99.99999% of all the available bandwidth is taken up with noise.

So. We are alive! We have energy! We have time! We want to do something. What shall we do? The point that very quickly follows on from that is that we are limited. What is possible is limited. If I am an African farmworker what I am able to do is very limited. If I live in a country where random acts of mass violence are killing many people, what I can do, what I want to do, is very limited. I’ll want to do something that makes me feel safe. If I am a parent with several children in a difficult relationship with an exhausting job which I have to keep doing in order to make ends meet, what is possible is limited. And what I could do now is to create a catalogue of how all the different contexts in which people with energy and ideas find themselves, limit them. This is a political question. It is about how wealth is distributed in the world. It is about power. It is about how power is abused. It is about corruption. It is about injustice. The world is broken. How do we fix it? This is an urgent question, isn’t it?

The other important way in which people are limited is by their own highly individualised and complex limitations. These are the limitations that they either put there themselves or that have been put there by others and/or arisen through a combination of circumstances and people - in other words, this is the burden of the past operating in the present and being perpetuated in the present. I have studied various forms of therapy, reality therapy, narrative therapy, a long time ago I studied Chinese medicine, how the energy flows, what impedes the flow of energy, how can we make it flow again.

I came to the perhaps some would say not very useful or practical conclusion, that what stops each individual person from being what they could be, doing what they could do, is a combination of external political and economic forces which are perpetuated by those who have most to gain from them, that are most advantaged by them, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism and so on; and their own internal forces, the pain or humiliation they have suffered, encountering death at an early age and not being able to process it. Again what could follow here is an interminable catalogue of everything that haunts and impedes each individual person and prevents them from being what they are, from being in the world authentically, and more importantly, ethically.

Everyone is unique and every single one of us needs, craves, yearns for, is longing for individual attention from an other and that attention needs to be total. We need an other (a human being is preferred but we can make do with a dog) to give us 100% of their attention. The shorthand for this is love’ but we don’t know what love is. If there is one thing, one idea, which is talked about all the time, about which more movies and books and songs have been and continue to be written and produced than anything else and which is more misunderstood than anything else; it is love. What do we really mean by love? What we are longing for when we want to be loved, is respect, attention, engagement with an other. Why, when there are so many of us human beings, plenty to go around, are so many of us so desperately lonely, so alone in the world that close to a million of us feel compelled to kill ourselves every year? (Let me just say here, as an aside, that if you want to kill yourself, go right ahead. But can you please investigate how to do it ethically, painlessly, in a dignified way? I can give you some addresses. Or maybe you want to talk about it? I am available.)

What I would say in response to that is that there is a problem, an error, with the way humans perceive themselves and each other as well as all the other non-human beings and things in the world. This has crept in over time, there were a number of errors made over time, one of the most crucial by a bloke called Descartes who spent too much time in a hot room and when he came out he said, Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am. WRONG! What he should have said, what would have been much more useful, would have been, I think therefore I am not. This is what I think of as the error of the self.

This is not a new idea, I always have people come up to me and say, what you are saying is actually a Buddhist idea or it’s Zen or it is what Krishnamurti said and I say yes ok but to hell with all of that. There is nothing to be gained by saying you’re a Buddhist, or any kind of religion or spiritual tradition or for that matter. What is required is something entirely new, something which we create together, something which is relevant to us here and now and which we have made, are making for ourselves and each other and which suits what is required here and now. Surely that is obvious. Why would we spend our precious time pouring over historical documents, or listening to what others who have spent their precious time pouring over historical documents claim to have learned form them? The problem is obvious, if you will just look at it. But the solution is less obvious. The solution is immensely complex and very time consuming to implement. It will take generations, many generations, to implement. But if you see it, you see that it is the only thing to do and the only time to do it is right now. If you don’t start right now, this moment, what are you doing?

Why I think the work of posthumanist theorists and new materialists is useful is because de-centering the human and looking at the ethics that arises from that changed world view, helps enormously in beginning to dissolve that which limits us. Because that which limits us is ourselves (and I don’t mean some crappy self-help theory about who moved my cheese). What limits is is our view of ourselves as humans in the world, as individual selves acting independently. That is not freedom. That is limitation. What is needed is to see the intra-actions, the intricate interconnectedness, the interdependency, not only of humans but of every living and non-living thing, each subatomic particle in the entire universe, in the ten to the power of five hundred universes and the eleven dimensions, is connected, is aware of each other, is present to each other, is respectful of each other and is deserving of our respect and attention.

And it is within our power, our agency, this is evidenced by the fact that you have given me and these two thousand words your attention up to this point, to begin now. Open your eyes and look around you. What is the first thing you see? Give it your full and undivided attention for a minute and respect it. See it for what it is and experience your respect it and allow that respectful energy to flow to it. Now what is the next thing that you see?

I am no longer interested in art but what I am interested in is the ability of humans to do something, creativity, and what can come about through a speculative approach to thinking about problems and solutions, and working on them - what I think of as praxis which stands for the idea of giving form to theory.

A theorist from Utrecht, Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, writes:

Creation is speculation. To speculate is to consider, to think through and to guess. The uncertainty, the openness inherent in the verb speculate indicates our direction to think through creation. The oldest frame for conceptualizing creation is the speculation about absolute beginnings that bring in the new: to generate something new out of nothing. For a long time—we tend to say until the Romantic era —creatio ex nihilo was an activity preserved for the gods. It was an activity beyond existing knowledge, beyond existing rules: an act of freedom. 3

That is all.

It is only the beginning. It is so small, that it’s almost invisible, imperceptible, but it’s real…

Perhaps you’d like to read my book — or something else I have written?

Or you’ve read my book and you’d like to have a conversation with me (in English or Dutch)?

Or would you like me to come and give a talk (in English) for your group, community or organisation?

I also offer end-of-life conversations to people who are considering the options that are available and/or those working through the issues faced by them and their families in coming to a decision to end your life (in English or Dutch).

My work is strictly not-for-profit. You or your organisation cover any travel expenses and costs of suitable accommodation and, since I do seem to incur costs by living, I am not in a position to refuse donations but I charge no fees and there is no obligation.

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  1. The Utrecht school includes a range of writers/thinkers/theorists who may not necessarily identify as posthumanists or new materialists.

  2. My old mates from Wagga will have a good laugh about this and say: This is not the outback!’ but the fact remains that it is very different from a metropolitan centre and four and a half hours drive from Melbourne and five and a half from Sydney is seriously remote in European terms.)

  3. in Mercedes Bunz, Birgit Mara Kaiser and Kathrin Thiele (Eds) - Symptoms of the Planetary Condition: A Critical Vocabulary. Meson Press]( p.37