Sabine B. Vogel

Spaces for the possible*

I. Science and art

The paths could hardly be more different. Scientists look for regularities, they take soundings, they divide, and for centuries they have adhered to the same strict method: Logic rules. Provability, formulae, and falsifications rule out coincidence and contradiction. Art, on the other hand, has the whole world for a playroom. The physical inventory as well as subjective sensibilities, correlations experienced, guessed at, or assumed, scientific theories and inventions, in short, the whole, enormous diversity of the fabric we call reality serves for its material for to bring forth its own realities. Both of them weave, from this reality, patterns for experience, each of them their very own.

II. Conceptual narration

“Conceptual narration” is what Thomas Feuerstein calls his method. One crucial aspect about it is the even-handedness with which linguistic and visual parts are deployed. The method is effective only through their interaction. It is a method, however, that entails that there is no more interpretations to be added on. Feuerstein himself presents an interpretation, or rather a mosaic that draws a picture of our society. By weaving together the most diverse threads, from science and the humanities, from bio-politics and social theory, he is able to unfold a complex world model. This is a model neither self-contained nor structured in a coherent way, nor even following a scientific logic. It is artistic, overwhelming due to the amount and the diversity of the patterns, and convincing in its linguistic arguments and visual forms. Each element offers a specific access point at which to enter a world of thought that poses questions as to the future of humanity, a reality marked by a trust in science, yet also by personal experience and a social mandate.

His works evolve from associations and analogies, facts and fictions. In his 2002 project “Biophily” Feuerstein concentrates on turning points and interactions between past and present, between biology, technology, and mythology. The word “Biophily” itself harks back to “Biophilie”, the love of life, that Erich Fromm, in the 1960ies, set off against “Nekrophilie” (love of death), as the contemporary impetus for progress of a society in love with everything non-living, machine-like. Without reverting to Fromm’s polarisation and judgement Feuerstein adds, to this pattern, new threads from life and technology.

For his 2003 installation “Fiat” 1 at the Leopold Museum, Vienna, Feuerstein weaves together sociological (Negri’s “multitude”), philosophical (Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan”), bio-medical (cancer therapy), metaphorical (chandelier), and biological (the state as jellyfish) threads. His starting question: Which way is society heading, how does it get its bearings? His answer: To begin with, we have to realise that we are caught in a charged atmosphere between “radical individuals” on the one side and “social comrades” on the other.

The state jellyfish serves to symbolise the social body. It appears to be a single, self-contained organism that nonetheless consists of independent individual parts – a small society sharing tasks, a colony of individuals, closing ranks more tightly than a colony of bees or ants. Another symbol of the social body is the crystal chandelier: Only through the commonality and corresponding arrangement of cut pieces its singular glow is made possible, only the context produces the effect. Feuerstein christened the chandelier “Leviathan” – an ambiguous label. The bible thus denotes a monster, be it a monstrous snake, a sleeping dragon, or a hybrid creature with crocodile traits. In 1651 Thomas Hobbes employed this term, bearing negative connotations, to entitle his famous state theory – as an indirect warning? For his Leviathan is an absolute ruler, a synonym of a power state that may guarantee humans security and order, yet at all times entails the danger of misuse: the state may also turn into a monster.

The “radical individuals” are represented by tumour cells, “egoistic cells striving only for their self-preservation at the cost of all other cells, breaking with the genetic social contract of the body. The prospect of an unlimited, metastatic growth and eternal life relocates, metaphorically speaking, the social struggle raging between the poles of individuality and sociality from the Hobbesian state body to the human body of the citizen.”2

III. Confabulate

Thomas Hobbes went about transferring scientific methods to his state philosophy. “Thinking is calculating”, he writes at one point. Feuerstein’s method, on the other hand, proclaims that “thinking is interweaving”. The power of science he complements with the power of narratives based on exact observation and realities compounded.

On the one hand his “conceptual narrations” are method, on the other they are conviction. That is because Feuerstein, in his works, speaks up against dualisms, against divisions, and for heterogeneous arrangements in which nature and culture, matter and mind, art and science come face to face. “Art becomes a site of fictionalizations and conceptual narrations in order to deconstruct the confabulations of cultural narratives.”3 And yet, is Feuerstein able to avoid the danger of slipping into confabulation himself?

“Confabulation” refers to desultory statements not vindicated by reality, but equally to the filling of gaps in our memory with the help of imagination or the depiction of things invented as if we had in fact experienced them. Confabulation is a key term in current discussions in the field of brain science which thus denotes our penchant for causalities. We love to construct motifs and proofs, knit explanatory fabrics, underpin phenomena with regularities. Yet how threadbare these garments turn out to be we do not want to realize. This not only goes for everyday common practice, when coincidences in hindsight are built into a biographic logic, when unconnected experiences, reactions, observations, often in the most absurd manner, are given the same hue – be it merely aphoristically or in the form of metaphysical explanations. It also applies to the sciences. “A scientific explanation is an answer to a why-question. In the case of determinist laws it is a logical conclusion which makes us understand why a certain thing has happened.”4 What emerges – here as well as there – is theories that, above all, express one thing: the respective state of knowledge.

And all this took – and probably still takes – the most wondrous form(ulae)s in the sciences. Here are two examples: Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798) put forward the thesis that animal bodies could produce and store electricity. Galvani was a physician, bio-physicist, and professor for anatomy at the University of Bologna and proved his assumption by means of frog’s legs which, with the help of sparks from an electrical machine, he teased into spasmodic convulsions. Yet Galvani confused the sequence: It was not the frog’s legs that produced the electricity but the metals copper and iron combined for the experiment. It was a very short-lived theory which, as “Galvinism”, nonetheless laid the foundations for the discovery of electro-chemical cells by Alessandro Volta (1745 – 1827) and led to the invention of the battery.

Considerably more influential, however, was the so-called “doctrine of phlogiston” that left its mark on 18th century chemist thinking. Phlogiston (Greek “phlogistůs”, burnt) is a hypothetical substance presumed to escape from all combustible bodies when incinerated. Timber, accordingly, burned because trees absorbed phlogiston from the atmosphere, and a candle went out in a closed room because air could only absorb a limited amount of phlogiston which then simply was released again by the candle. Animals too gave off phlogiston which accounted for body heat. Just as with the candle, from a certain degree of saturation a further release of phlogiston was no longer possible, and the body would die. The discovery of hydrogen (Henry Cavendish) and oxygen (Joseph Priestley), and ultimately the oxidation theory by the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, disproved the doctrine ninety years after its inception and turned it upside down: Instead of releasing phlogiston, we learned, substances being incinerated absorb oxygen when heat is generated.

“Theories are, to put it simply, nothing but specially structured models for a group of phenomena resorted to by this very theory. Theories contain concepts and laws enabling explanations and predictions whose meaningfulness depends on the way the laws employed are constructed.”5 And Gerhard Fasching adds: “We have to be aware that facts, truths and reality only come about through the particular methodical outlook of the scientist.”6

IV. Contingency

What then makes such scientific investigations different from confabulation? No more than the underlying ambition – which latter is exactly what Feuerstein speaks up against. For what does it matter, at the end of the day, if a scientific theory goes astray for a hundred years, as long as nobody comes out the worse for it? Today we laugh about phlogiston or marvel at Galvin who concentrated so hard on his experiments that he turned blind when it came to observing the process of electrolysis. We see what we are looking for. Feuerstein examines our stories of a reality that believes in what is new, in progress. Newness lacks any foundation in reality and often enough has been revised by the proof of a “has been done”. Newness ultimately cannot be proven, is a pretension, but also an impetus than can be fatal, for there is always something that is replaced in the process, pushed aside, made superfluous. But, as we know from chemistry class, nothing vanishes. Everything persists, albeit in altered form. What are disproved theories and scientific laws transformed into? At the least into counter-examples that leave us in justifiable doubt as to the sciences’ almighty claim to power as the ultimate authority of enlightenment. And yet, it is not the creative wealth of explanations and, if need be, also of laws and the resulting inventions and apparatuses that shall be criticised. What truly irritates is the exclusiveness aiming for a claim to the truth, to an essence, yet also newness, while at the same time practising ever more forms of segregation.

If to “confabulate” is a compulsive neuronal act of us humans, then this naturally also goes for the neurosciences themselves and all other sciences. It goes without saying that Thomas Feuerstein too is not able to elude this common denominator of all explanations. And yet, is this not also a process of liberation? Let us consider this a game, take away the terrible severity of this claim to the truth, and concentrate on presenting our causal chains as invitations to play on, as colourful fabrics that demand no more truth than other chains do. And this is exactly what makes for the fascination of Thomas Feuerstein’s “conceptual narrations”: Be it the state jellyfish or Leviathan, the travels of Charles V under the motto “Plus Ultra” (further still) or an avatar, even the experiment of an artificial world called “Gene-sis” – all these elements Feuerstein reverts to can come together in his works for the very reason that they ultimately do not differ as to their degree of realness. What they are above all is this: narratives of states of consciousness on the basis of correlations of meaning.

V. Reality

Consciousness shapes reality. But what is that, “reality”? In his “Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life” Schopenhauer wrote: “All of which [i.e. the wealth of occurrences, authors note] rests upon the fact that every event, in order to be realized and appreciated, consists of two halves, namely, a subject and an object, although these are as closely and necessarily connected as oxygen and hydrogen in water.”7 Schopenhauer speaks of a “present reality” that depends on the respective individual consciousness. “Since everything which exists or happens for a man exists only in his consciousness and happens for it alone, the most essential thing for a man is the constitution of this consciousness, which is in most cases far more important than the circumstances which go to form its contents.”8 And even more to the point: “What is this world of perception other than my representation?”9

The German term “Wirklichkeit” (used by Schopenhauer in this context), translated here into English “reality”, in everyday usage is preferably used when referring to matters of individual personal experience, for all that we take in through our five senses. German “Realitšt”, on the other hand, bears more matter-of-fact, scientific connotations, often refers to things measurable.

So is reality a representation, a perception, or a measurable constant? Radical constructivism confirms Schopenhauer’s conclusion. According to Gerhard Roth brains cannot picture the world, they have to be constructive. Perception is a subjective, constructing process. What we perceive through our senses is an end product that evolves by way of selective perception, coding, disregard, neuronal guessing, and cut and paste montage. The cutting and dicing begins already in the eye which takes apart the input and reassembles it – or which may proceed altogether differently, but that at least is what contemporary science tells us. “Reality”, accordingly, simply is a neuronal feat. The picture of reality we form for ourselves is the result of a networked interpretation process on the basis of neuronal patterns formed at an early stage. The brain supplies the patterns. The emergence of meaning is an emergent act. It is not reality that is an illusion, therefore, but our conviction that we are dealing with a physical, unalterable fact. We do indeed possess an image of reality, but it is our very own creation.

And neither do the results of quantum physics leave any room for doubt: reality to all intents and purposes is without form and characteristic, and only if we observe or measure something we are able to ascribe properties. Whenever the observation arrangement is changed the properties too can change at any time. Reality, as a binding form or norm with collectively binding properties, does not exist. Reality is forever provisional – whoever cannot cope with that will escape into ideologies.

VI. Possibilities

From action to essence, from becoming to being, from the change of appearances to the permanent – it is not just the terminology that has changed. Our concept of reality and our self-image follow the same path. And in each of these steps coincidences are ruled out, replaced by the belief in regularities expected to facilitate action. The result is realities that wrap themselves around perception like all-too-tight clothes – or vice versa?

What a difficult task to unravel this fundamental pattern! But that is exactly what Feuerstein’s conceptual narrations have in mind. His intention is to present reality as a chain made up of nothing but colourful stones, each a pearl in its own right, all together an event, as a crystal chandelier that will only sparkle when its parts cooperate – and that above all produces a contingent scenario, a pattern full of coincidences. “Contingency is the gate leading to meaning and freedom in a world interpreting nomologically,”10 Hans-Dieter Mutschler claims and raises the question whether the world should not primarily be regarded as a “network of cross-references”, “which from different points of view appears as something completely different and not merely as the timeless expression of physical-mathematic laws.”11

Reality, a subjunctive, free of laws, determined by nothing but the principle of coincidence – this is one of the consequences from quantum physics. At this point the sciences meet with spiritual schools of thought. And here art too may assume a new meaning: art as a model reality. “Art as research into contingency”, Feuerstein entitles the last chapter to his essay “Plus ultra”. “Art is a place of nothing, a blank space within the necessary, creating space for what is possible.”12

* Klaus Thoman (Hg.), Thomas Feuerstein. Outcast of the Universe, Wien 2006, S. 47 - 54, translated by Daniel Ostermann.

  1. „fiat::radikale individuen soziale genossen“, Exhibition at Leopold Museum, Vienna 2003.
  2. Translated from Romana Schuler, “fiat::radikale individuen – soziale genossen. Einleitende Notizen zur Ausstellung von Thomas Feuerstein”, in: Romana Schuler (Ed.), Thomas Feuerstein. fiat::radikale individuen – soziale genossen, Exhibiton Catalogue Leopold Museum, Vienna 2003, p. 4.
  3. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, in: St. Bidner, T. Feuerstein (Eds.), Plus ultra. Jenseits der Moderne?/Beyond Modernity?, Frankfurt/M. 2005, p. 166.
  4. Translated from Gerhard Fasching, Illusion der Wirklichkeit, Vienna 2003, p. 24.
  5. Translated from ibid. p. 24.
  6. Translated from ibid. p. 25.
  7. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life (Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit),
  8. Ibid.
  9. Translated from Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung I, Zurich 1977, p. 47. (The World as Will and Representation)
  10. Translated from Hans-Dieter Mutschler, Natur und Religion, Darmstadt 2005, p. 162.
  11. Translated from ibid. p. 140.
  12. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, in: St. Bidner, T. Feuerstein (Eds.), Plus ultra. Jenseits der Moderne?/Beyond Modernity?, Frankfurt/M. 2005, p. 189.