Shaking things up: earthquakes and the future of democracy
A professor from the Humanities Department at the University of Iceland – as we were chatting in the communal kitchen – told me: ‘Once you’re finished with your PhD you will know how to do it.’ It poignantly summarized my current state of mind as I am oscillating between the feeling of great joy due to the freedom to undertake this research and a glimpse of panic regarding the scope of the endeavor. Nevertheless, the very beginning of this project is an especially exciting moment in time because I am immersing myself in many ideas, research, art, and online happenings in order to get closer and closer to what I am truly interested in regarding my research project on socially engaged art and the future of democracy.
I am writing this while the earth is shaking in Reykjavík. A series of exceptionally strong earthquakes hit Iceland on 24 February and are now followed by aftershocks. Being in an earthquake is an unsettling experience and made me realize that the ground we are living on might not be as solid as we thought. Especially not in Iceland, as it is geologically the youngest country of the world and constantly evolving. Talking with other people here about experiencing earthquakes we found that it actually triggers the reptile brain part and causes fight-or-flight reactions like running away or freezing. A state in which we are mostly occupied with surviving and have no capacity for being creative. On the other hand, and maybe paradoxically, experiencing an earthquake creates a connection with the earth that reveals that our sovereignty over mother nature is an illusion and thereby surely evokes a feeling of powerlessness but also, and interestingly, an experience of resonance. I am suddenly aware that the earth is not dead and mute but that it is alive and moving under my feet which almost simultaneously sparked a feeling of excitement – admittedly because no one got hurt.
Resonance is a sociological concept by Hartmut Rosa that will be at the center of my research project. According to Rosa resonance is ‘a form of world-relation, in which subject and world meet and transform each other’ (Rosa 2016, p.298) that we naturally long for and aspire to. Resonance stands in a dialectical relationship with alienation and our experiences in the world move along a continuum of which resonance and alienation are the two poles. Alienation is known to be a paradigmatic experience in modern capitalistic societies which depend on what Rosa calls dynamic stabilization (economic growth, innovation, and constant acceleration) and thereby prevent world-relations of resonance. As politics in western democracies is mainly concerned with facilitating this imperative people loose trust in political institutions and in democracy itself.
My main research interest is therefore to explore how socially engaged art creates spheres in which the seeds for a new culture of being together are planted. If axes of resonance – as Hartmut Rosa calls them – are part of that new culture, in how far are socially engaged art projects creating them and thereby helping to build a bridge from the present crisis of democracy to a future with a thriving democracy? On that road we figuratively might experience some earthquakes. My first experience of a real earthquake though will always be connected to the start of my PhD in Iceland – a symbol for the energy of our times: things get shaken up.
Rosa, H. (2016). Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung. Berlin: Suhrkamp.