how to explain western civilisation to a dead hare

how to explain western civilisation to a dead hare


Joseph Beuys 1965 Wie man einem toten Hasen Bilder erklärt

Joseph Beuys 1965
Wie man einem toten Hasen Bilder erklärt /
How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare



It can be stated simply that there are two fundamental concepts on which Western civilisation is founded which have importance with regard to the situation we find ourselves in today. In the beginning there was Plato, whose primary contribution to the development of Western thinking can be seen as a formulation which states that the conceptual model of ideal forms is the only true reality and that everyday local manifestations of reality, that is, nature, are imperfect and inferior, as they are subject to change and are therefore not to be trusted.

The second founding concept can, if not be attributed solely to St. Augustine, be said to have been given by him its perfect expression. This is the concept that “the flesh is the nag on “which we make the journey to Jerusalem” meaning quite simply that the body cannot be trusted, indeed should be “punished”, to avoid having “the shadow of the fleshly self fall between the mind and its first principle to which it should cleave.” Hence of course. the symbolic importance of the crucifixion of the body of Christ in religion.

It is perhaps from these two concepts that a whole interwoven network of others emerges as an operating system for Western civilisation. It is not important to us the historical ordering of the appearance of these manifestations, it is more how these concepts have structured Western society. In having conceived of reality as separate from the model, with Plato we can say that apartheid had not only been born but that it has also become institutionalised as a founding father; and thus began the degeneration of Western civilisation. From there we see the development of all other manifestations of conceptual apartheid: subject/object. male/female, self/other, nature/culture, mind/emotion, rationalism/romanticism; so apparently necessary to our survival today.

Of course it is a small step from conceptual to physical apartheid and it does not demand much intelligence to see that Plato’s formulation of the imperfection of nature would give rise to a Western concept of “mastery and power over nature”. When the issue of power is introduced, the mastery (and “improvement”) of nature to make it conform ever more closely to the ideal model, soon becomes the ever more technical exploitation of nature. With regard to recent British history the enclosure of Common Land and the Industrial Revolution can be cited as particularly clear examples of physical apartheid’s contribution to the exploitation of nature.

It is also easy to see how Western man by referring to his founding father of institutionalized apartheid could justify not only the exploitation of nature but also of other human beings by simply defining them as “Nature”. We are becoming more aware of how in defining woman as nature (object, emotional, romantic) Western man has been able to institutionalize her exploitation, and how in defining non-Western cultures as ”Other” (that is, uncivilized and therefore closer to “nature”) they too were open to exploitation; and although the British Empire has for the most part disappeared we still live today with the legacy of both racism and sexism and, of course. neo-colonial, economic exploitation of the so-called Third World.

If nature is imperfect and not to be trusted then neither is the body. St. Augustine’s contempt for the body which must above all be suppressed in order to discover Divine Truth; just another ideal conceptual model; helps to institutionalize a generalized contempt for the body and all its senses. It is less important for us here that, from a religious point of view, the fleshy body is subject to worldly temptations. This gave rise to the disciplining of the body, firstly through religious instruction and confession themselves and then through civil state institutions, and which continues today through sport (and the obsession with the “healthy body”) and chat-shows, for instance. Much work has been done on the discipline of the body in recent Western history, most notably by Michel Foucault. Perhaps more relevant here is the simple fact that because the body and its senses decay over time it therefore cannot be trusted. With the “death of God” in contemporary society the divine model has been replaced with another conceptual model, that of “scientific objectivity”, which being beyond both nature and the body (and its decay) becomes today’s only true reality.

Clearly individual memory, for instance, cannot be trusted and must be objectified and institutionalized in the collective state memory of the library, the museum and now the computer data bank. As Marshall Mcluhan predicted technology objectifies all our senses, reproduces them outside us, and appears to make them dependable – making at the same time the body and its senses, if not completely disposable, certainly attempts to render them passive. We now measure our own memories of an event by the collective state media representation of it. In contemporary Western society the institutions of science, technology and economics (exploitation) manifest their distrust of the decay of the body in many ways; from the museum as the collective state memory; to video technology’s surveillance; laser night-time vision and instant replay; to cloning and consumerism. We all know by now that every manifestation of “spontaneous” indigenous culture is expropriated and turned into a commodity and sold back at a profit to willing bodies. From football as an amateur sport played by many in the community resold as a mass spectator sport; to music – where not so long ago, for instance, almost every home in Britain had a piano in the front room, and like in Africa today, everyone would sing – now resold as the mass consumption of the same songs by the same singers thanks to the “progress” of technology and the economics of scale in the form of the recording industry and its “stars”. As with almost all recent forms of “progress” this industry depends on oil and its by-products. Today, then, thanks to the corporate oil industry we measure our ability to sing against our pop heroes who are both forever superhuman and disposable.

The same forces operate on the role of language. To speak takes time, to communicate demands social trust and local bodies fixed in space, and language entails distortion. Language as the shared activity of disintegrating bodies cannot be trusted. It is the duty of technology to reduce distortion, to produce a perfectly transparent message instantaneously understood objectively by all. It goes without saying, of course, that distortion is the well­spring of creativity. As we have said concerning music, any shared language is expropriated and “sold back” to passive bodies, and the community implied by language – of transmitters and receivers – is reduced to simply a community of receivers. Any distortion of the message is blamed on lack of up-to-date state-of-the-art technology which necessitates further consumption or is simply reduced to a psychological problem in the receiver. The language of technology attempts to be Plato’s model and Augustine’s ideal. Distortion free and frozen it attempts to eradicate time, transcend nature and dispossess the body.

This mistrust of the decay of the body can be put another way and this is the fear of the passage of Time. It has been said that the health of a society can be judged by its relationship of Space to Time. In our Western society the inability to conquer Time has led to the continued quest to master Space. The British Empire had to send administrative bodies across the world to ensure its mastery of space. its eternal glory and its continued enrichment; but nowadays, thanks to technology, space can be mastered through instantaneous transmission. Speed. then, as a tromp l’oeuil to disguise the fact that Western civilisation cannot eradicate the decay of the body.

Western civilisation then, is a culture founded on apartheid. With a view of nature as not only separate from ‘man’ but also in need of improvement, a fundamental disrespect for the body because it decays over time and a mistrust of language as a shared social phenomena which necessarily entails distortion; it is a culture where narrative becomes “objective science” rather than collective myth. Techno-science and Speed, Growth and Exploitation, are twin operating concepts of modern Western society. A society where quite simply nature is shameful and bodies are disposable.

The founding act of apartheid was an act of violence which has produced a wound in Western society which can never be healed. The drive to abstraction as a sign of modernity is nothing more than an advertisement for the vampire-value of the model over the actual, where culture cannot be political because politics is of struggling forces in the present. Modernity abolishes politics through abstraction and apartheid.

The wound that is apartheid is a black hole where Western concepts reach their limit of explanation and mastery and stare bleakly into an abyss. Recent history is littered with the ruins of failed utopias where it was dreamt that apartheid had been abolished and human beings could live both in a state of nature and a State of culture. But techno-science and capital have no morality, expansion being their only aim. Sentimentality and cynicism are today’s twin panic response to techno-economic apartheid; where once again, neither sentimentality nor cynicism are concerned with actual bodies. This is nowhere more so than in America today where sentimentality is the driving force behind a constant search for “the real thing” always already, of course. technologically simulated for easy consumption; and where cynicism is the operating system of the “military-industrial complex” which is nowhere better expressed than in the current attitude towards the Third World in general, and the Gulf states in particular, and their ability to control their own resources.

In the Sixties. there was a veritable boom of wound-healing utopias on the market. as well as an outburst of more politically orientated activism. On the one hand there was a euphoria concerning the missionary role of technology which would “re-tribalize” society into a Global Village. This could be expressed as – technology has made you ill but it will make you better – media inoculation as a double-bind. Of course. what was ignored is the simple fact that technology does not need bodies (that is, it is beyond morals. ethics and politics). and we see the result of this amnesia in the form of the Gulf War where “our” pilots’ actual bodies are simply a sentimental extension of the technology of the planes; and the “smart” missiles, with their well-designed graphic-imaging systems which look so good on television and which simply “take out real-estate” and make such good advertising for surgical strikes of new technology. This precision propaganda cynically targets our fears and massages our senses so that we forget actual (dead) bodies and the fact that the Global Village is already the New World Order.

On the other hand, the Sixties witnessed the growth of the “counter-culture” as an alternative to a gas-guzzling throwaway society. While the Third World starved, well-fed middle-class youth “re-tribalized” and went native, mostly forgetting in the process, that whilst youthful America went back to the bush, Africa in particular struggled to break free of the expropriation of virtually all of its natural resources for the enrichment of the West – and “develop”.

When the novelty of being the Indian instead of the Cowboy wore off and middle-age set in, normal transmission was resumed and many left the bush to go into computer and video technology, publishing or architecture, whilst others however went on to begin the Green movement which began to gain so much ground in recent years: It has, of course, also produced a Green consumer market which aims to maintain business-as-usual by other means.

The phenomenon of what has recently become known as Postmodernism which seemed to promise so much to so few as another growth industry, from today’s recessionary perspective seems more like an ending than a return (to prosperity); more like an inventory of effects than a cultural glasnost. That is, a “generalised scene of panic and frenzy” as both concepts and oil run out. On the other hand, perhaps the recent challenges to the founding concepts of Western civilisation were too closely matched to the concurrent challenges to Western lifestyle by ecological issues. Concepts of origins, foundations and even rationality itself have been undermined and shown to be linguistic imperialism backed by military strength. Science has been shown to be nothing more than a “primitive” narrative; a story that we tell each other to describe the world, where the storyteller/scientist has to be included in the narrative; creating a situation of complicity and contamination, in other words a mythic narrative, rather than objectivity which depends on an imagined consensus for its “truth effect”. Perhaps war was the inevitable outcome and we should all have seen it coming, after all, we knew that in the Seventies ordinary Americans began to shoot each other because they had to queue for petrol; and that during the Eighties Reaganomics and Thatcherism wove a magic spell over reality, delivering a postmodern illusion of a return to the Eden of golden certainties as a defence against the advances of post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, ecology and recession.

The list of recent challenges to Western arrogance and self-delusion could go on and on. Perhaps, however, the most important of all is the challenge to the concept of Growth. Unlimited growth is, of course, impossible and as Andre Gorz had said, must turn into destruction at a certain point in order to maintain profits. New markets must continually be sought. Technology and fashion merge in the drive to the destruction of resources to maintain the illusion of growth. Growth is nothing more than the ever more perfect technical reproduction of what you were already doing, prevented by law and sold back to you as fashion. Growth is nothing more than a neo-colonialism which searches for ever more differentiated markets both externally and internally, and which advertises itself through fashion and war. Technological fascism has never been anything other than ecological terrorism. A “revenge-seeking-will” committing acts of violence against the body and nature to disguise both its panic that it cannot master time-decay and distortion – and its inability to conceive of how “within the domain of human experience, a principle might be discovered which could ensure identity through change”. A principle which, it goes without saying, refuses the fundamental wound of apartheid, of the separation of humankind from nature. North America is “the most peace-loving nation in the history of mankind” according to President George Bush, the architect of the New World Order. It is also a state, we should remember, which is founded on the almost complete annihilation of its original population. The American Indians had no concept of the ownership of land and saw themselves, like many other “primitive” peoples, as caretakers of nature. Unlike in the West these peoples see the Great Spirit, an abstract model, embodied within the local manifestations of actual reality and therefore respect(ed) nature. From the perspective of Speed and Growth these peoples are described as outside of History and their societies as static, and yet within those cultures the elders were/are respected as “libraries on fire”, carriers of traditional knowledge who pass on shared wisdom to the community through mythic narrative, which through the distortion of communication changed slowly over time. Just at the moment when “primitive” perspectives on the world were about to disappear, they have been recovered by post-structuralist philosophers, in much the same way that just as local difference has almost been eradicated it has been “re-discovered” by postmodern architects.

There is a photograph of an aborigine sitting on the ground in front of a tree. The trunk of the tree has been painted with a line which stretches down the trunk, along the ground and up over his body. Here is a perfect illustration of a refusal to see humankind as separate from nature and instead they are shown through ritual to be interdependent. Once again, just at the moment when such a “primitive” perspective was about to disappear it has been recovered in the West through the concern of ecology.

These cultures have survived just long enough then, to remind us of one thing, and that is that a post-structuralist, practical ecological realism is a fundamental challenge to the whole history of Western civilisation; and reveals the impossibility of “civilisation” in the West. Our brief Rough Guide is a re-writing of history to show that, founded as it is on apartheid, the history of the West is nothing more than the history of a mistake – a whole culture based on a concept of the “free-lunch” of short-term thinking where it is always for someone else to pay the bill.

Having learnt nothing from Chernobyl except how to turn an ecological disaster into an advertisement for even more technology, this civilisation has again gone to war. For the Third World of course, the Third World War began on the same day that the Second World War ended, except that the weapons used are economics, “development”, growth, structural adjustment, etc. and only as a last resort, military intervention. In having decided to continue the war against the Third World by military means, the failure of the transnational corporations to exploit their resources through economics alone is revealed; and at the same time, as the Third World stands on the brink of disaster, the West must gain control of all the world’s dwindling resources; the ever-more rapid destruction of natural resources will continue; the only uncertainty is the time scale.

As the American Indians and the Aborigines discovered to their cost, it is too much to hope that this so-called civilisation would see its mistake and change its ways, believing always that to go back is always worse than to go on. With the arrival of technological fascism, ecological realism has perhaps finally disappeared from view forever. We in the West are condemned to sit in our air-conditioned bunkers watching ever more advertisements for new technology, wishing that the image could be just a bit sharper, whilst outside Third World bodies will have a choice of dying fighting or dying of starvation. Technological fascism and more mindless consumption of the signs of our own repression for us, world revolution for them; the final solution of a civilisation founded on apartheid; this is the reality of the New World Order.

Finally, to return us to the beginning, a story of Ancient Greece. Once upon a time there were Plato and Socrates. Socrates commissioned artists to make perfectly proportioned statues of great beauty which astonished everyone in their perfect ugliness, for they were not human, not of the local and therefore not of nature – unnatural. Plato, on the other hand. commissioned artists to make perfectly proportioned statues of great beauty but which were then broken so that arms here, legs there, were missing – beauty in ruins. Plato, of course, was the smarter, for when they were seen everyone had to imagine them perfect, which whilst reminding them of their own human characteristics – their “imperfections” – would condition them to always look beyond the existing ruin, which is reality, to the perfect model. Unfortunately it came to pass that Plato’s statues were placed all over the country whilst those of Socrates were completely destroyed; and thus began the decline of Western civilisation. Today we still live with perfectly executed ruins, still dreaming of perfection, which blind us to the terroristic power of absolute beauty which goes about its work of creating “actual” ruins.



First published as:
Menace of the Absolute: Technological Fascism versus Ecological Realism
Feature by Art in Ruins
Building Design No 1030 April 12 1991
Reprinted as:
How to explain Western Civilisation to a Dead Hare: Technological Fascism versus Ecological Realism [English] and
Wie man einem toten Hasen die westliche Zivilisation erklärt: Technologischer Faschismus gegen ökologischen Realismus [German]
Catalogue Essay by Art in Ruins (download below)
Krieg: 1st Austrian Triennale on Photography Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz 1993
Video recording: