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Munich
Georg Seeßlen, journalist

Von Georg Seeßlen

Portrait of Georg Seeßlen, he has a white beard, wears glasses and a beig hat © Georg Seeßlen
What would you say are symbols of your current situation or the current situation in your country?

We are, as they put it, “thrown back on ourselves”. The images I associate with that: the sight of the Hölderlin Tower in its seemingly idyllic surroundings. A hotel in Basel located in what used to be a prison, which seeks to gratify its guests by re-enacting that former function. The feeling of oppressive emptiness after being abandoned by someone. Memories from my youth of carrying out the crazy idea of crossing the busy river alone in a folding boat. Moments in which the sublime and the dreadful seem all but mutually indistinguishable. Alone. Lonely. Isolated. And lots in between.
 
What’s left here is a heap of books, pictures and films relating to my work. There are other forms of memory: archives, imagination and dreams. But they tend to appear as islands amid a sea of news and images. Rarely do they seem as closely related to the shadows in Plato’s allegory of the cave as they do now, in such isolation. It’s as though we had to return to this cave with the shadows, which, according to Socrates, means returning to a state of human misery. It’s always a matter of returning to a point before the UNFOLDING of personality.
 
That’s right. Back in the cave we’ll be folded back up, which isn’t so miserable so long as we can look forward to a new unfolding. But how long will the power of anticipation last? And how strong might impatience grow? Which I conceal for a long time under routine, discipline, duty or (familial or intellectual) opportunities.
 
The books, music and images in which we have long desired to “immerse ourselves” – we just didn’t have time to – point one and all towards the past. They’d only be “good” if we could reach for them entirely of our own free will, if we had leisure to muse or to amuse ourselves. Or if we had Muses. But we’re more likely to encounter Sirens on this virtual odyssey. Death in resignation, death in regression, death in recession.
 
We can only look back joyfully to the past if we can look forward to a future. If everything is present, even culture does not avail.
 
People’s connection to others is already mostly mediated by digital media anyway, isn’t it? We’re isolated, but never alone. Our accessibility is nothing short of excessive. We have to actually want to be unreachable in order not to be reachable. This is a new and even, if you will, transcendental event: that we are isolated but perfectly reachable, invisible but utterly transparent, left alone but completely controlled.
 
We feel a peculiar pity for journalists and intermediaries, not only because they are now among the endangered and possibly even heroic people, but also because they have little left to do but “chatter”.
 
Taking a moment to stop and think (the only true liberty) is something you can only do between actions. Once you’ve reached your inner self, who knows whether you’ll ever get away from yourself again. Because when the world disappears, the self becomes unreal too. Just as we hate artists, legislators, scientists, critics and teachers whose words throw us back on ourselves.
 
Each of us a Robinson Crusoe? Oh no! There’s no crash course in the history of civilization and colonialism offered here. Rather, we’re part of an experiment, and our model is suffused with the experimenters’ anxiety as well as their indifference. What if they don’t even exist? Or what if they have cleared off like the gods before them, whose place they took?
 
It’s astonishing what most people now working from home bemoan about their new situation (apart from the difficulties of organizing everyday life): the lack of “rewards”. Electronic encouragement alone is clearly no substitute for those rewards, which involve the look in other people’s eyes, physical contact, sharing a real space.
 
We can imagine a future in which we’ve destroyed our planet in such a way as to make moving around freely and physical contact impossible. The only way of communicating now is through electronic media (even family members are, in some cases, separated by protective clothing); is this a taste of things to come? Or science fiction become reality, to issue a drastic warning?
 
A man thrown back on himself is damned; Othello and Lear, possibly, and in contrast to a man who transcends himself (although still far from achieving salvation), the man Ernst Bloch speaks of, who thinks beyond himself. Is it possible for us to think beyond ourselves at home and in isolation?
 

How will the pandemic change the world? What do you see as long-term consequences of the crisis?

The crisis can’t go on forever, otherwise it wouldn’t be a crisis, but the end. The crisis is an interruption; whether it is also a break with the past remains to be seen. All sorts of different forces are at work in it; it is a period in which some forms of action are curtailed or even completely prohibited, while others are expanding. So there are not only victims, heroes, villains, losers and beneficiaries; and political boundaries, like moral ones, are shifting too. The crisis is both at once: an interruption and an acceleration of history. History is being made (even invisibly) in the midst of the crisis. In other words, power and wealth, property and domination are being given and taken, defended and lost, distributed and destroyed, accumulated and reinforced and legitimized anew.
 
Three theories shine forth to counter the blindness that isolation seems to demand:
 
I call the first one a “Crisis Matryoshka”. A crisis within a crisis within a crisis ... and so on down to the very last one, which might be regarded as the “hard core”. Climate crisis, refugee crisis, crisis of democracy, financial crisis, the crisis of failed states, euro crisis, newspaper crisis, the crisis of logocentrism, even ordinary life is a series of crisis experiences.
 
We might call the second one a “Theory of the Dark Age”. The seven basic elements of a dark age are as follows:
  1. The collapse of big systems of order and legitimacy, of big and medium-sized “narratives”
  2. Regions in a permanent state of war or civil war, ruled (temporarily and locally) by warlords, bandits, sect leaders and every conceivable hybrid thereof...
  3. ...Concomitant forced migration, population displacement, refugees: mass misery
  4. The rise of doctrines of salvation and redemption, conspiracy theories, dogmatic/militant religions and cults, fundamentalisms and paranoia
  5. The isolation of individuals as “survivalists” (mass production of “anti-heroes”)
  6. The threat of wholesale ecological catastrophe (the Great Winter, the Great Drought), causing crop failures, famine, looting and, as a result, new migratory pressure
  7. The Great Disease that befalls mankind as a further trial or divine punishment
The corona crisis is the one that ties all the other crises together, even as it seems to eclipse them. It is forcing us to rethink the systems we live in. The healthcare system. The economic system. The political system. The system of knowledge. The systems of housing, transport, forms of entertainment. The system of taxation and fiscal justice. The systems of power. And it forces us to rethink our values. Is success more important than solidarity? Is distance a function of violence? How much freedom can we give up, and who guarantees it will be given back to us?
 
Based on the foregoing, the third theory would be that of power changing in the crisis. It is said that every crisis is also an opportunity to change things for the better. We hope the crisis will unmask some of the world’s autocratic populists, while we fear that autocrats and other anti-democratic forces will use the crisis to consolidate their power. We already have examples of the latter, but not really of the “unmasking” or democratization of autocrats. We hope a majority will be able to see the destructive features of neoliberalism thrown into stark relief by the crisis and will call for democratic socialism or at least a new form of social market economy. Meanwhile, the shamelessness with which the economical powerful enrich themselves even in a crisis is quite performative. Could governments and the people conceivably make a new pact based on trust (reason and morality), or will the state of emergency become the permanent form of government rule?

What gives you hope?

So we've come full circle. Only subjects who think critically can free themselves from the isolation that was all three things at once: a biographical crisis, a cultural crisis and a political crisis. At least one thing became clear during the crisis: that the dividing line between public and private, between political and biographical spheres, is not drawn by law and habit alone. The isolated self can only free itself by changing the world during its isolation. Otherwise it will step out of the cave again someday and realize that the world has become even more uninhabitable than it was before.

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