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Philosopher and political scientist Leszek Koczanowicz talks about the different aspects of societal ...
2021-07-20 09:00:00

I Collect Signs of the End
An Interview with Leszek Koczanowicz

Photo courtesy of Leszek Koczanowicz and SWPS University
I Collect Signs of the End
I Collect Signs of the End

As children we are afraid to go to sleep in the dark. As adults we can also have trouble falling asleep, although we fear the prospect of losing our jobs more than the thought of a monster under the bed. Where does this continuous anxiety come from? What new fears has the pandemic awoken? Aleksandra Pezda discusses the different aspects of fear with Leszek Koczanowicz.

Read in 15 minutes

During the third wave of the pandemic, when many sensible and not-so-sensible restrictions began, I was trying to lay my hands on a copy of Anxiety and Lucidity: Reflections on Culture in Times of Unrest, a volume of essays by Professor Leszek Koczanowicz. In the ubiquitous atmosphere of fear, I wanted to read about it. But I couldn’t. Warsaw’s library reading rooms were closed. In one, they scanned to order, but only 50 pages at a time, so I got just half a chapter. I could only ask for the other half 24 hours later. In another district, they decided to make the collection available for borrowing. However, I did not have a library card and they had stopped issuing new ones in order to limit face-to-face contact between people. The librarian kindly brought the book out to me, in front of the library building. On a little wall above a busy road, she slid the registration form towards me, keeping to the legally-required, two-metre distance. In return, I showed her my identity card, also from a distance. Finally, I could read.

I found out that anxiety is one of the main signs of our times, and that it manifests itself in many surprising ways. Everyday life is one. It is unbearable because although daily life should be repetitive and stable to give us a sense of security, for the very same reason it is also desperately boring. So we try to escape from it, yet constantly return, so that the boredom and stability can help us mask our anxiety once again. This invisible but ubiquitous anxiety that we deny, flares out, just occasionally, in times of crisis, through the cracks of our existence. One such crack is the pandemic. It allows us to look deep inside ourselves, understand a few things, to attain gnosis – only to return to the beaten track once again. Yet maybe this time we won’t go back to how things used to be? Maybe the pandemic foreshadows the end of our age? If so, is that good or bad? Unless our intimation of the fin de siècle, of some great change, is just an illusion. For the end of our age has been predicted since the moment it was born, and we know today that all the prophecies of collapse and radical change are just another way of expressing our fears, as well as an attempt to suppress them.

Aleksandra Pezda: Are you surprised by how anxiety has paralysed our lives?

Leszek Koczanowicz: I wrote about this in Anxiety and Lucidity, although I did not yet know of COVID-19’s existence when I was working on that book. Sadly, however, reality added an apt punch line: the pandemic and its associated restrictions. Today I see that the situation caused by the outbreak of a new disease is even more anxiety-inducing than during previous pandemics. Those occurred in a far more spectacular way: people were dying in the streets in plain sight; death seemed to be at one’s fingertips. Now everything is different. In theory, we know a lot about this disease, because publicly, in the media, we analyse it constantly. However, we don’t see what is going on in hospitals, we only hear secondary accounts. When many things are happening out of sight, our fear increases. In the right circumstances, those who are able to stay at home and, for example, work remotely, may see the pandemic as something surreal. This is why many people claim that the coronavirus does not exist or that it is not that dangerous.

That would contradict what you demonstrate in your book: that people are not scared after all.

When a patient talks to a therapist, they describe only the symptoms. “I can’t sleep at night, my hands shake,” they say. The therapist will immediately see that this person is plagued by anxiety. Anxiety is so widespread in our culture that we fail to notice it. However, that does not mean it is not there and that we don’t feel it. Anxiety is reflected in our behaviour towards the pandemic, but also in our approach towards, among other things, the climate crisis. Many deny the crisis. Why? They read, in article after article, that the world is ending, after which they leave the house and see the sun shining and the trees growing greener, as if nothing is happening. This discrepancy between the common experience and scientists’ predictions leads to uncertainty which, in turn, breeds angst. We either react to angst, excessively and neurotically, with irritation and anger, as when you were struggling to borrow my book, or, in more serious cases, with neurosis, anxiety and depression, or we go into denial. The latter response swells the ranks of the pandemic deniers and the anti-vaxxers. Or they join the climate crisis deniers, because they haven’t seen a melting glacier with their own eyes.

What fear lies behind the conspiracy theories of the pandemic deniers?

A desperate attempt to make sense of things. Psychoanalysts call this rationalization – we have a conspiracy, so we have meaning. And we don’t have to be scared anymore. As Slavoj Žižek said, we have a tendency to succumb to this temptation – the temptation of meaning. We do not like to think of accidents, illness or death as something random. A plane hit the ground in bad weather? Impossible, it must have been a conspiracy! Or we say: “He died in an accident, what a senseless death.” As if anyone’s death could make sense. This mechanism has appeared naturally during the pandemic, too. We don’t know where the new virus came from or when it will disappear; we have questions which are hard to answer and so anxiety is born. Instinctively, we try to suppress it. We think: This can’t be a coincidence, it must have happened for a reason. And maybe something good will come of it?

We hoped for that, especially at the start of the pandemic. Many believed that we were entering an age of empathy and greater solidarity between people.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Mission of the Vega illustrates this well. In an extra-terrestrial penal colony, conditions are so harsh that a radically unified society arises. At the same time, on Earth, there is an ongoing rivalry between superpowers; the play was written during the Cold War. Both sides plan to take over planet Vega, but the new society does not wish to join either side. As a result, the superpowers prefer to destroy the planet than to let it be independent. I am telling you about this because of the model scenario of forced solidarity. At the start of the pandemic, I asked myself whether we would see a similar situation in our society as on Vega. I quickly understood that this would not necessarily be the case because, where there is a crisis, there will always be people who will either take advantage of the crisis or deny it altogether. And indeed, no global human solidarity emerged. We were, once again, looking for meaning where there was none.

TOPOR – drawing from the archives (no. 2659/1996)
TOPOR – drawing from the archives (no. 2659/1996)

Do we often fall for such delusions?

Often, I would say: during each and every crisis. In reality, all we are doing is trying to suppress our fear. That is why it is worth telling ourselves that the pandemic doesn’t change our lives; it only shows, as if through a magnifying glass, their imperfections. It enhances the tendencies that were already there and forces us to confront them. To what extent should the state encroach on the freedom of individuals? Can you force a citizen to get vaccinated? How much can the authorities interfere with people’s biology? What sort of governance do we want during a crisis: strong and authoritarian, or centred round democratic dialogue? These are not new questions, but they have become more important and relevant. The pandemic has amplified our fears and brought us to the limits of what we know. We are standing on a ledge; some sort of change is definitely coming. But will it be good? Not necessarily. Nothing can be certain. Round the next corner we might find something positive, but it could equally be another disaster.

Do you think the Enlightenment’s split of Man from God is still responsible for the fears of today?

Ever since the French Revolution, we have been following the same paradigm that we call modernity, which assumes the superiority of reason. Even if we call more recent times ‘late modernity’, like Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, or – as Zygmunt Bauman did – ‘fluid modernity’, the core of the debate remains the anxiety-laden relationship between the individual and community, between freedom and dependence. This is the source of the fear you are asking about.

As existentialists say: “We are free regardless of the situation.” For good and for bad. The freedom of Man and his autonomy – in the spirit of the Enlightenment, both from God and from community – gives rise to fear. After all, constantly coming up against the fact that we face our fates alone, and lonely, must be difficult and painful.

Immanuel Kant, when defining the Enlightenment, claimed that humanity had matured. Maturity in turn is inherently linked with anxiety, which the philosopher did not say, but others did on his behalf. Why does childhood evoke positive emotions? Because other people made many of the decisions for us. Maturity scares us, because with it comes responsibility for our own lives.

It is possible to escape this fear?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think it would be a good plan. In my opinion, this modernist anxiety is not an entirely negative phenomenon. I’m not hoping for a return to the ‘old order’ that would free us from the chaos of modernity. I think that the fear that we are talking about is mobilizing. It forces us to stand on our own two feet. It opens, metaphorically speaking, some existential fissures through which we can see what we are really like. The pandemic is one such fissure.

You view democracy as another one. Why?

My favourite definition of democracy is that of the French philosopher, Claude Lefort. He noticed that democracy, as a system, is built around empty space. There is nothing in the centre. All the rules of life in society – the law, education, a system of protecting the weak, an electoral system – first have to be invented. We say, for example, that the people rule in a democracy. But first, we must define what ‘the people’ means: who are included and who are excluded; who has the right to vote and how the leaders are chosen; and, ultimately, who holds the power in the name of the people. This is very difficult. Although Lefort does not use the concept of ‘fear’, if we understand democracy the way he proposes, by definition it causes fear. There is no room for a reality where nothing has been defined in advance, so everything must be invented and agreed. What is more, we have further complicated all this. In order to involve as many groups as possible in the democratic process, we have created such complex procedures that the average person is not capable of understanding them.

Hence the success of populism: they simplify reality?

Populism provides easy, simple answers, compatible with the capacity of the ‘random access memory’ (RAM) of the average person’s brain – in contrast to the complicated democratic system in which we function. This is the reason behind Canadian researcher Shawn Rosenberg’s predictions of the fall of Western democracy. In his view, we have already become victims of our own success. How many of us are equally competent in understanding tax systems as international and domestic politics, education, health services and the legal procedures connected to them? And yet this is only a fragment of a reality whose development path we must choose. Without such extensive knowledge, nobody can realistically assess the proposals of any party or its candidates. We know, therefore, that, in order for society as a whole to be able to make informed electoral choices, the average person would have to take in more information than their brain is capable of processing.

What is the answer?

We must find new tools to help us find our bearings in the world and new methods of control. Or we will go back to simple tribal societies (or succumb to populism). A retreat like this from the achievement of democracy is always possible. However, I believe in human creativity and mobilization: humans kick-started modernity, which allows us to believe that we will not regress, but rather discover new forms.

Are you predicting the future? You say that predictions are also based on fear.

I try not to, fortune telling is a devilish trick, as I jokingly tell my friends who engage in ‘foresight’.

Fortune telling is the other side of fear, and the most obvious and dramatic way of reducing it. If we predict that something will happen, even a tragedy, then we feel that we can cope with it. We know what will happen, we give it meaning and are no longer scared. Here again, denial of fear is at work. Why is this so popular, at this stage of modernity? It is based on the feeling that we are in the terminal phase of our age. At the beginning of modernity, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed that history had ended and that there was nothing more to fear. The Prussian state under the rule of law was the perfect solution and therefore we should be happy to be living in a time when everything had been organized and all could be predicted. But then, as if from nowhere, the mysterious Kaspar Hauser appeared on the streets of Nuremberg. An orphan with no identity. Another sign that fear seeps through the cracks and shows us the truth about our reality. Hauser returns in many artistic and scientific incarnations. He is the counterpoint to ‘fortune telling’ as a way of controlling the future. His character reminds us that not only the future, but even the past can remain an undiscovered, inexplicable secret. We cannot count on finding out what is going to happen next. We can only collect signs and premonitions about nearing the end of an epoch.

What signs of the end of the age do you collect?

Amplified fear in many of its old and new forms, such as the fear of intimacy. Since I noticed a trend in hotels to install transparent bathrooms in double rooms, I began to doubt whether the phrase ‘post-intimacy’ is still valid. Just as, in earlier times, we pushed intimacy and sex into the sphere of taboo, we now operate under the rule ‘the more you show, the better’. On social media we post everything about ourselves – the more we reveal, the more we exist. We have gone from one extreme to the other, from total privacy to full disclosure. Despite this, we are still entrapped by the same fear. Let me say here that the precursor to this trend – the narcissistic revelation of everything about oneself – was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the 18th century, long before the time of Facebook, blogs and Instagram Stories, he advocated the idea of living in a model of social confession. “My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself,” he wrote in his famous Confessions. Today, no-one is surprised by the concept of celebrity, many disclose intimate personal truths and the internet has democratized this, made it commonplace, and it has rapidly become part of our culture.

Post-intimacy is a fear of what?

Of nature, of course. The fear stems from our limited control over our own organism. We do not have total control over it: we get sick and old, and eventually we die, and there’s not much we can do about it. As a result, we try to tame everything that is between culture and nature in any way possible. We try to master nature, and we reject, in any way we can, the awareness that this is not yet possible. To this end, we build various constructs, for example, the concept of man’s superiority over animals comes from this. It is much easier to believe that animals have ‘only’ a body, while we, humans, have also been gifted a soul, than to place ourselves in one category with the animal world. We see this same fear in our approach to sex, death and eating habits. We have even established a new disorder, orthorexia, which is an obsessive, pathological focus on healthy eating.

On the other hand, we are scared by the creations of culture, such as artificial intelligence. Are we afraid it will replace us?

No, that would be too banal. This is not a simple fear that the robots will revolt and finish us off. Rather, we fear that we will lose control of them and get lost in a reality designed with their help. We are seeing it already, when algorithms independently create new algorithms, with no need for human involvement. As we speak, robots from different countries are competing to be the first to make Wikipedia entries. When I read about it in The New York Times, it hit me that this is already happening, so quickly. So, inasmuch as I agree with the idea that artificial intelligence will never completely replace human intelligence, I expect that it may open up areas where we will become very lost.

In what way is the character Sherlock Holmes linked to cultural anxiety? You have written about this, but this is not just a simple fear of crime, is it?

I used the observation of the British sociologist and cultural anthropologist Ben Highmore, who researched the popularity of crime novels. It turns out that one of the ways of reducing the anxiety that our times have provoked is day-to-day life. Of course, day-to-day life has always existed, but we used to spend entire days on completing specific tasks (for example, working in a field), while our ‘real’ lives were conducted elsewhere – in the spiritual realm. And so we thumbed our noses at everyday life. Only since modernity has it been put on a pedestal. Why? Because repetitiveness, rules and predictability are excellent tools to reduce fear. To name a literary example: Hans Castorp, the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, sits down each day in his armchair and lights his favourite Maria Mancini cigar. This is his oasis of peace and, at the same time, of self-declaration: I am content, I am not afraid of anything. The cup of coffee that I have each morning, in specific and repetitive circumstances, plays a similar role in my life. Rituals like this on the one hand reduce fear, and, on the other, motivate change.

Because they bore us?

Exactly! Boredom is the bane of the day-to-day life we desire. Sherlock Holmes does plenty to escape it: he takes cocaine and plays the violin, and, above all, runs a detective agency. All this to tear up the daily monotony and introduce an element of surprise into his organized life. Crime stories show precisely the breaks in reality like these – situations where people have to come face-to-face with fear. From this stems the crucial role of the detective: to collect clues, catch the baddies and restore the peace that has been disturbed by the crime. Exactly like Sherlock Holmes, when he finally realizes that the mysterious Hound of the Baskervilles is a normal dog, just dressed in lights to cause confusion. This discovery immediately sends Holmes back to his boring, but safe reality. And we return with him.

I am also reminded of Ruben Östlund’s film Force Majeure. A picture-perfect Swedish family goes through terrifying moments in the Alps, caused, as it turns out, by the threat of an avalanche. They escape without a scratch, but it becomes the basis of a confrontation between them. They face each other without the masks and roles they wore beforehand and the crisis is so serious that we don’t know if the family will make it through the holiday. In the end, everything goes back to normal, to that ‘boring’ reality we speak of. The characters will once again take on poses and roles, and will stick with them until the next crisis. Maybe for a moment, however, they will be more real and honest.

And so, we need unusual events in order to escape from boredom and confirm our authenticity, but at the same time we need day-to-day life to suppress our fears.

Will the pandemic also only rock our routines for a short time?

The pandemic has accumulated anxiety to such a dramatic level that it will undoubtedly bring us closer to change; to the end of our age. As will the climate crisis, which sooner or later will force us to make radical transformations. Being conscious of this may even be more important than our approach to these phenomena. Of course, we cannot today predict the direction of these changes. It is hard to imagine, however, that our fear will disappear and that as humanity we will no longer experience it. I believe that full maturity – understood as maturely facing fate at every moment, both individual and social fate – is not and will never be possible. We will continue to delight in small things that allow us to forget about this huge weight on our shoulders and to suppress our own fears.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Photo courtesy of Leszek Koczanowicz and SWPS University
Photo courtesy of Leszek Koczanowicz and SWPS University

Leszek Koczanowicz:

A cultural anthropologist, philosopher, political scientist and psychologist. He teaches philosophy, social philosophy, history and the philosophy of psychology at the Wrocław department of SWPS University.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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