Thomas Feuerstein

plus ultra
Between ecstasy and agony*

Is my tomorrow
It has no planes
Of sorrow

Sun Ra

The Hercules project

Hardly has young Hercules left off studying the sciences he finds himself at the crossroads of life. A ravishing woman, her make-up a little too brash, but well fed and opulent, promises him the fulfilment of his most secret wishes, greatest pleasure and uttermost delight. A rival beauty, virtuously dressed and holding back her charms, paints a future for him full of toil, work and deprivation, but rewarded with a heroic career as well as a potential ascension to the Olympian realm of gods. Hercules consults the Delphic oracle and opts for perpetual pleasure, for eternal life and endless happiness. He walks the path of virtue. And so he renounces all vices tempting and commits himself to humbly serve King Eurystheus who assigns him a number of duties. His tenth mission takes him to the west, to Gibraltar, where he steals the cattle of the tiple-bodied giant Geryon. To mark the remotest point his voyages lead him to he erects the pillars called after him, marking thus the end point of the Ancient world. After having fulfilled his adventurous toils Hercules settles in Trachis with his second wife Deianeira who there unwittingly sets in motion a fateful chain of events. Out of jealousy Hercules had struck down the Centaur Nessos with a poisoned arrow and the latter bequeathed a legacy on Deianeira in the shape of the blood flowing from his wound: She was to gather the red juice and, on a suitable occasion, dye the underclothes of her spouse, who would thus never be able to love another woman but herself. When Hercules prepares for another campaign tragedy takes its course. Unnoticed, Deianeira dabs the underclothes with the blood which, during the sacrifice of a bull, leaks through the wool and sears Hercules’ genitals. Thus robbed of the possibility of sexual reproduction and of earthly life as such he decides to evade the pains of burning to death. Lightning strikes the pyre and a cloud lifts him up to Mount Olympus. Athena introduces him into the circle of gods and the myth concludes with his marriage to Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth, who bears him immortal children.

The mythical adventure game, which might well have inspired the Puritan worldview respectively the devoted and absolute will to highest hedonism in the hereafter, contains an aspect that lies at the heart of the tale of modernity1 and the project of the West: the motif of potency. Hercules is bursting with energy, talent, and achievements all of which are rooted in his being a hybrid blend of god and human. If Hercules had done nothing but impregnate, pillage, murder, and free humanity from mythical mutants, he would not have differed from the mortal heroes. What makes him special, though, is the operative unity of serving and ruling revealed to him by his own apotheosis through the transformation of physical corporeality into ethereal divineness. Only after the unfortunate castration the energy, required for sublimation, is set free and the oracle is fulfilled. His potency does not prove itself in arbitrary demonstrations of power and strength – as, for instance, when he kills his teacher and his children in a choleric fit, or when in a single night he impregnates the fifty daughters of King Thespios – but instead in the constancy of the determination to transform possibility into necessity. As an early Conquistador of an expansionist and conquering culture Hercules is not interested in a purely philosophical potency, in the universe of possibilities per se. He does not suffer from the Bartleby syndrome, is no Monsieur Teste or Johan Nagel. Hercules manically strives for his eschatological potency. He is an ecstatic strategist of the project of immortality and of becoming a god.

In the Herculean sense, to be modern means to fight a battle against nature, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, against disorder, chaos, aging, and death. The probability of nature stands opposed to the improbability of culture which it is most necessary to defend, to expand, and to snatch from entropy. To deploy nature against nature in order to achieve civilisation, that is the will and goal of Herculean-technological omnipotence. Throughout its history modernity has proved to be a meticulous explication of hostile nature, a taming and reproduction of its laws in systems, programmes, and machines. And as it befits an honourable enmity, the modern spirit meets the natural and the so-called real with great interest and passion. The birth of the modern spirit unites nature and culture in a fraternal strife which, by now, has grown into an incestuous complicity in the “most real” and most natural cultural technologies, such as genetic and bio-technology, or particle physics. This omnipotence of an ultimate dominance over nature has branded our minds with fear since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At this point modernity comes up against the Herculean pillars that are being shifted and transgressed – plus ultra, further and ever further and beyond –, or in sight of which – non plus ultra – the decision is taken on whether to turn back.

The Pillars of Hercules

Whoever passes beyond the Pillars of Hercules and ignores the deterrent taboo, non plus ultra (no further), risks an infelix transmigratio and, according to Huldebert de Lavardin, enters the “remote land of dissimilarity to god”. Until the dawning of the modern era, to sail westward and navigate the mare tenebrosum (sea of darkness) was to enter the devil’s domain and to incur death. In antiquity and medieval times Atlantic voyages were penitential wanderings and odysseys, as the fate of Saint Brendan demonstrates or as is reported by Dante in the eighth circle of hell where Ulysses, under the spell of curiositas (curiosity), sails beyond the pillars. The pillars symbolise the ancient Faustian motif, for only who respects the boundary, keeps their curiosity in check, and does not leer at the unknown is guaranteed salvation. All others are doomed. They served as a disciplinary measure and marked an impending exclusion. Whoever transgressed lost the name and identity of the old culture, became persona non grata, and had to leave behind protection, experience and tradition, as well as their soul, as a sort of toll, as it were. To break the spell, this was the challenge for the dare-devils who had abandoned all hope and had nothing to lose. Beyond the pillars the fantastic and utopian lay in wait, as described in the “true story” by the late Greek classic Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD). It begins with the embarkation at the pillars and, after an eighty-day odyssey on a storm-lashed sea, resumes with inter-planetary battles in the vastness of space. To this day the pillars constitute an archetypal element in modern space utopias and science-fiction adventures in which they keep turning up in new shapes such as stargates and black holes.

Not until the modern age and early globalisation does the radical transformation take place of the admonishing prohibition non plus ultra into the programmatic battle-cry plus ultra. The taboo turns into a challenge for the futurist re-interpretation of history and present and, in the consistent transfer of the imaginary and new, is translated into realpolitik. With Charles V plus ultra becomes an imperial gesture and illustrates an altered self-image inspiring the modern disposition setting sail and beginning on its triumphal march.2 In the phase of its dynastic import plus ultra stands for a spatial and expansionist politics that opens up for itself new fields of operation with the help of nautical routines, the acquisition of land, and improved techniques of cartography. It is in this short period of plus ultra that Georg Simmel’s “spatial a priori of each socialisation”, Oswald Spengler’s “space as ancient symbol of culture”, or Michel Foucault’s age of “spatial philosophy” accumulate. A new global spirit enters the scene that swears all productive forces to an unflinching forward movement, irreversible expansion, and never-ending growth. Politics, economy, science, and technology are turned into media for the surpassing of self-imposed goals in order to serve the imperial topos of expansion subordinating everything to its own moral concepts. Whatever finds no place in it is marginalised as a “primitive” rest and nowadays discussed in terms of a “clash of civilizations”3. With plus ultra the fundamental project of the West starts out that, with the widening and surpassing of given boundaries, pushes forward the futurist outlook of national, entrepreneurial and epistemic activities and establishes a universal risk culture going far beyond archaic ventures. These new adventures are not restricted to expeditions to foreign places, to conquests and colonisations, but primarily encompass voyages of capital and the speculative passion of a tele-pecuniary presence. His economic plus ultra Charles V built on Flemish, Augsburg, and Genoese banking houses with whose loans he financed his overseas empire. With modern day expansion ships are set to sea as swimming loans and return loaded with interest to their ports of registry: Money makes the world go around. Seafaring is a risky business that promises high profits and with which the age of global players commences. The willingness to take risks and loans prepares the playing field for a game of Monopoly that, ever more and more still, out of the necessity of growing debt fuels invention and entrepreneurship4. The new paradigm of space is succeeded by a new economic paradigm including a new type of entrepreneur putting his money on derivatives, by investing in the new and unknown, without knowing exactly which resources or goods might be captured in the process. The pressure of having to pay interest brings about a pressure to be inventive, whereby the plus ultra of expansionist politics – more land! – and the plus ultra of risk investment – more capital! – are joined by the plus ultra of science – more knowledge!

For the seafaring Conquistadors and Enlightenment philosophers of the modern age the idea of sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules symbolises the departure for new worlds, exotic colonies, and unknown spaces of knowledge. With the expansion of political and economic constellations of power knowledge became a coveted resource. Nautical and economic information, in the shape of sea charts and maps, were guarded like state secrets. The Portuguese crown, for instance, sentenced to death whoever betrayed them. To Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and prime protagonist of Enlightenment in his country, who used the Pillars of Hercules for a frontispiece to his books5, the ships returning with goods and information of all kinds symbolised, just as in today’s meaning of the term knowledge agents, a new era, or better still, a new scientific paradigm characterised by an untameable drive for progress and knowledge, an emphatic belief in technology and the future. The surpassing of the Old World borders and the overseas voyages went hand in hand with an expansion in the fund of data enabling modern scholars to best the old order. In his New Organon published in 1620, centre piece of the unfinished Instauratio Magna, the great reformation of the sciences, Bacon added the motto “multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia” to the frontispiece mentioned above. The ambiguity of the motto is programmatic, for translated to spell “many will surpass them (the borders) and science thus will grow, be inspired and glorified” the inscription refers to the pillars themselves; interpreted as signifying “many will labour through it and science will be great” it points toward the spacious cogs importing new knowledge. The ecstasies of politics and of land acquired, as well as the ecstasies of economy and capital, Bacon follows up with the ecstasies of empiricism and epistemology. In this way a symmetrical conquest and world acquisition is propagated, with the Conquistador, explorer, or missionary setting out into the world on the one hand, and the speculator and the lab technician on the other.6 Whereas to the tele-workers staying at home the future lies with the return, what counts for the former is nothing but the overcoming of the origins, as is illustrated by an anecdote on Vasco da Gama: During a mutiny brewing just off the East African coast da Gama threw compasses, maps and instruments overboard in order to dispel all thoughts of turning back. In contrast to the tourist the explorer travels to foreign parts in order to arrive there and not in order to return from afar recuperated. This is the difference between the explorer James Cook and the travel agent Thomas Cook.

In the years of seafaring the new was in great demand and subjected traditions and old dogmas to an examination and correction. During the 15th and 16th centuries the new lost its negative aftertaste and became something of a recommendation or etiquette to be encountered in book titles, such as Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia nova, or Amerigo Vespucci’s neologism novus mundus, as well as today in arguments, extolling quality and recommending purchase, to be found on the packages of products and goods of all kinds. The right to satisfy scientific curiositas was going to guarantee, through an uninhibited quenching of the thirst for knowledge, the freedom of research and teaching and introduce a permanent scepticism toward intellectual goals achieved. In this way science has become the cultural form of the ceaseless criticism of its own results. Ever since the culture of the West has stopped orientating itself toward tradition and began disorientating or occidentating itself toward what is unknown and new. Whereas in the preceding centuries thinking was tied to the achievements of established and handed-down knowledge, with the dawning of the modern era a critique of everything old and an interest in everything new emerged. And a greed for things new creates a phobia about yesterday. And this is why, in the modern age, the restlessness of global curiosity has been transformed from being a vice into being a crucial virtue.7 An ideological relativism has thus come about that Bacon put his finger on with the phrase: “Truth is the daughter of time.” As, in Bacon’s opinion, the divine world code is fundamentally good, man is allowed to do everything, even manipulate creation. And so “relegion” (reading, scanning, and recoding) has become the new religion. For the first time reason ranked above tradition and the right to religious liberty from now on also entailed a possible freedom from religion. The divine book of nature was no longer a taboo and was subordinated to the laws of reason. The opening of new and the editing of old pages was given legitimacy, a fact today put into practice in genetic engineering and nanotechnology, in particle and quantum physics.

The westward gaze no longer was delimited by the Pillars of Hercules. Instead a new Hercules myth was projected. The myth turned technical and tilted the transcendental gaze from the vertical line of the heavenly beyond to the horizontal of analysis and immanence. With the westward course the emancipation of the occident from metaphysical orientation began and this “disorientation”, as a turn for a westernisation, subjected the world to a new intellectual order and cartography. plus ultra has become the perspective of science in search of the appropriate means to overcome all entropic ills, including the coveted finale of a heavenly beyond in the here and now.

Modern eschatology

In his utopian tale The New Atlantis Bacon, moving between literature and philosophy, outlines a new model of a knowledge society. Like legendary Atlantis, according to Plato (Timaios, 24e–25d) situated just beyond the Pillars of Hercules, Bacon’s New Atlantis, respectively the island called Bensalem by its inhabitants, is located somewhere off the sea route from Peru to China and Japan. A European ship is cast up on the island on which a society and culture have evolved representing, in the spirit of the enlightened modern era, the vision of a planable world improved by scientific progress. Science, technology, and politics contribute to a cooperative enterprise dedicated to the optimisation of the future. At the centre of New Atlantis an institute is situated, the “House of Solomon”, including observers, experimenters, authors, interpreters, etc. analysing and governing the knowledge brought along by the “Merchants of Light”. It is up to the sciences to select the best objectives for society and to put them into practice. 8 Progress here also implies that new circumstances, as compared to existing ones, are fictionalised and tested in simulations. Science-fiction, this means, with Bacon has become a socio-political category deciding on the development of culture. In this very context Bacon perceives the scientia nova as a matching up of actual states with possible target states. Future thus becomes contingent and it is the job of science to peel the best possible alternative from contingency. Man is put in an operative relation to the history of the future and the idea of progress is born, the idea that is that humans can take history in their own hands and ultimately can also decide on their “natural” fate and become auto-evolutionary. Science takes on the job of advancing categories of what the future holds, and heralds the hour of birth of scientific avant-gardes by diverting attention away from the present and directing it toward the future and bringing forth an un-topicality of being.

On New Atlantis we also come across the “College of the Six Days’ Works”. To set an example, people are put in a position to take a constructive influence on their own fate and, with the help of science and technology, advance progress toward the better and ultimately toward a Golden Age. Even though Bacon, in order not to expose himself to the allegation of hubris and blasphemy, adhered to the doctrine of double truth – the division of matters religious and scientific – the vision is put forth of an ultimate release of humanity into the paradise of the technological knowledge society of the future. In aphorism 93 of The New Organon the divine origin and the divine end of the sciences correspond to the development of the human race. The end of time is attained with the perfection of the sciences and humans will have attained divine status. “Nor should the prophecy of Daniel be forgotten touching the last ages of the world: ‘Many shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased’; clearly intimating that the thorough passage of the world (which now by so many distant voyages seems to be accomplished, or in course of accomplishment), and the advancement of the sciences, are destined by fate, that is, by Divine Providence, to meet in the same age.”9 The crucial significance of this statement for Bacon’s overall programme is underlined by the book’s frontispiece in which Daniel’s prophecy turns out a divination of the modern age.10 Religion and science cross-breed and found a single “sectarian” project: modernity. Modernity’s final goal, accordingly, is to reach, by means of technical media, the divine state of Messianic end time, or, in Herculean terms, to bring about a scientific apotheosis into a New Jerusalem of eternal youth and life eternal.

But is there such a thing as an eschatology of modernity? Does modernity not much rather believe in successive progress, in endless growth, in the development of knowledge and society without end? Does secular modernity not seem to feed its entelechy by again and again putting off any telos? Does it not refuse any exegesis of creation, history, or tradition by trying to make the future productive? Or has it gone too far so that time has become reversed and youth, as a last hope, awaits us in old age, the timeless within time, and the beginning within the end?

At any rate, Bacon’s future is the West’s present. The end of history, as it has been discussed at length by the postmodernists, is the time in which more scientists are at their work than in all the previous ages of human history taken together. The Solomonic knowledge society creates the capital of the global economic budget in which information has turned into the ultimate resource. And we are reminded of Bacon’s frontispiece when we think of the Cybernauts (Greek kyberne¯´te¯s = helmsman) and “knowledge navigators” navigating data oceans and information floods. Internet geographers and genetic cartographers have their heyday exploring unknown regions, colonising and developing them as markets. The neo-Atlantic Bensalem is no longer a utopia. It is the atopia of the Western community of values. To this day Christian faith, Puritan work ethic, personal responsibility, capitalism, reason, and technology make for the Baconism of the West, of the Wild West of the US in particular.

Non plus ultra11

Postmodern philosophy, breaking with the modernist zeal for innovation, progress, and rationalisation inexorably coming true, and speaking of agony and standstill, tells of Baconian paradise turning into hell. Whereas Bacon’s modernity on New Atlantis consisted in the “College of the Six Days’ Works”, Postmodernism dates the seventh day in order to keep the eighth day from dawning. Whereas Modernism broke with the past, Postmodernism negates the future. Since Postmodernism has come along Modernism frequently is described as the crossing of a border from history into post-history, as the transition into an end time without end. The motif of potency turns into impotency, for Postmodernism turns into the experience of the modern castration of phallic linearity in the course of which the avant-gardes have to curb their headlong rush – fuite en avant – and head for a new dimension. The relation between modernity and postmodernity presents itself as a topological change in which the narrative is altered. This becomes most conspicuous when we look at the conversions taking place, from subject to system, from nation state to global governance, from order to complexity, from politics to self-regulating markets. These ongoing transformations of all social systems strive toward the climax of their autopoiesis where everything culminates in a naturalisation of culture and a culturalisation of nature. It has been common knowledge for a while that the tale of modernity cannot be told to its end but merely further and ever further. Yet because of the sensitivities of the individual narrators the impression must arise that the tale seems to tell itself, and from their point of view this points to an alarmingly pre-modern, mythical state. At the end of modernity’s Hercules project and its derailed antagonisms, between acts of cleaning and acts of re-synthesis, the bonfire waits promising either an emergence leap into (Luhmann’s) heaven of gods, including the final stripping down of the subject through liberalised economy and unleashed technology, or a relapse into the irrational, archaic, oligarchic respectively into the typically un-modern. To turn into a Hercules means to rid oneself of the human qualities and to subject them to a formerly divine, now systemic precision.

What remains is a life without historical and spatial context, without time and place, in which stories and history are replaced by news. This state of the endless online moment forms the stream of medial memory which Proust or Musil, each of them in his very own fashion, have anticipated in literature a long time before it has become a “mass-individual” state of mind. The globe, as the dynamo of progress, may turn ever faster, yet the plus ultra of space and time gets tangled up in non plus ultra. The narrative of modernity, in Bacon’s terms flowing into the non plus ultra of Messianic end time, and the narrative of (philosophical) Postmodernism, wanting to tell no farther – non plus ultra – and ever farther tell about progress, these form the two sides of “the penny that has dropped”: They share a s’ymbolon. At the end what is at stake is the human factor which either – from humanism to homunculus – is incorporated in the machine or turns animal.

When Giorgio Agamben, in his reflections on animal end time, starts out from the depiction of the eschatological banquet showing the chosen just with animal heads, the “fulfilment of history necessarily implies the end of man and the transformation of the scholar’s countenance into an animal face watching, with satisfaction, that end at the end of time”12. Agamben investigates the hiatus, between the animal and the human factor, in order to peel from the eschatological, apocalyptic emptiness of post-histoire – what remains after history, after language, and the science and philosophy of man? – a radical contingency that has its place beyond modernity and postmodernity. Quoting the Hegelian (and Stalinist) Alexandre Kojève, Agamben points out that “the American way of life is the way of life appropriate to the post-historical period and that the current presence of the United States in the world symbolises the future ‘eternal presence’ of all humanity”. “Man’s return to animality thus no longer appears as a future possibility but as a present certainty.”13 This certainty of the late 1940s has, for the time being, been confirmed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism, and the victory of liberalism, capitalism, and Western democracy.

Yet do we feel democratically safe and do we wallow carelessly in consumerism at the end of this ideological evolution? Does the slogan “glamour is the grammar” fully express a global attitude to life inside “Beautopia”14 or does it merely hide a euphemistic order of capitalist inequity? And the first conferences on the global state of the planet held in Paris, London, and Amsterdam, in the year the Wall came down, are they not symptomatic for the onset of a new, considerably more momentous crisis?

End times, in a social-utopian, ideological or political sense, either do not take place at all or they are postponed to some other time. Like utopia the end is a plan to interrupt history or to seal its conclusion. In utopian and end-time society there is no change, only endless bliss or final apocalypse. The riding world-spirit Napoleon pronounced political history at its end, the writing world spirit Hegel did so for the history of ideas; Lyotard spoke of the end of the great tales, Fukuyama of the end of ideology, O’Brien spoke of the end of geography, etc. The end is an endless story with many names in the credits, but at some stage the film is over and man needs a new medium of survival; a new story with a new beginning that saves identity, frees it from contingency flooding in, and gives the real a bearable face.

The endless end is the oldest trick to repress the trauma of the real. Not only does it mirror the phantasm of plus ultra, perpetually putting off non plus ultra, but above all it does throw back at us the narcissistic slight of our own death, the non plus ultra of existence. The knowledge of his own finality distinguishes man from the animal, which is why all symbolic techniques put their money on transcendental overcoming or medial substitution: “The animal symbolicum rules reality, deadly to none other in the way it is to itself, by having it substituted; it looks away from what it deems uncanny, and toward that which it is familiar with.”15 The incursion of the real in the shape of death calls for distraction and diversion or for an alibi: I’m not dead. I’m in a different film. All of which amounts to a characterisation of the purposes of entertainment media, from Hollywood cinema to TV soaps and computer games: They act as psycho-social simulacra, as rehab centres for amputated idylls, or as training camps of the uncanny and shocking.

Without the beyond of the media and religion the finality of life appears devoid of sense. If there are no Herculean pillars waiting, on the threshold of death, as the gate to a better world, dying becomes a meaningless nuisance. Those who cannot believe in the eschatological non plus ultra and do not want to believe in the ultimate finale of non plus ultra look for a way out in the conserving of plus ultra. This is the paradox peculiar to the current state of modernity in which processes of materialisation and immaterialisation follow an antagonistic logic. Virtual reality, wellness, or the striving of biotechnologies for an extension of life must not be regarded ambivalently, but have to be comprehended symmetrically. Replacing and conserving, in equal measure, are slaving away at finality in order to project a plus ultra of the body and of lifetime. In the age of an endlessly multiplied meaning, in which everything seems contingently meaningless, body cult, cosmetics, fitness, aesthetic surgery, genetic engineering, our preoccupation with health matters, sport, and digital dreams of “uploading the mind” become substitutes for religion. What unites them is that they all struggle against physical finality and dream of outwitting the body and of optimising it. The body, as the transport vehicle of the subject, is to be transformed into a preserving tin keeping the spirit fresh and agile for as long possible. And from this Pandora’s Box the hopes and monsters of the post- and trans-human emerge presaging the geriatric industry of the future. Whereas in our daily lives and at the workplace physical exertion is marginalised, sport and medicine transform the body into an ontological safeguard of the hyper-medialised existence in Herculean culture. The body turns into the only and last thing to make sense, into an existential plus ultra within the state of non plus ultra.

At the myth’s end?

With the American conquest the Herculean pillars were relocated westward across the Atlantic Ocean where plus ultra was transformed into the trail west and the frontier spirit. In the New World pioneers and settlers carried on the search for Geryon’s cattle that has since been pursued not only by the cowboys of the prairie, the space cowboys of the cosmos, and the cyber cowboys of electronic space, but it also finds expression, as the shared etymology of the words cattle and capital suggests, in the rising markets symbolised by a snorting bull outside the Wall Street stock exchange. Up to this day many hope for the Golden Age, but only few succeed in joining the spiritual and economic ecumenism of the new homeland. To the system itself this is of no significance, for even in the gold rush few were rewarded with nuggets and these riches contributed but little to immediate social wealth. Much more crucial, though, was the boom set in motion bringing forth new infrastructure: In a way comparable to the hot phase of NASDAQ in the 1990s, when computers, fibre optic cables, and satellites contributed to the organisation and consolidation of a new economy, new tracks were laid, oil lamps and tools were sold in those days.

The progress of the human race moves westward, Henry David Thoreau remarked as he walked toward the sun setting, “as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure”. The Atlantic Ocean, in this image, corresponds to River Lethe “in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the old world and its institutions”. To blindly entrust oneself to fate, this is what, according to Thoreau, characterises the westward movement, and in the same context he refers to the golden fruit of the Hesperides and quotes Christopher Columbus: “The island of Atlantis, and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients (…).” And this “western impulse coming in contact with the barrier of the Atlantic”, which brought forth “the commerce and enterprise of modern times”, Columbus felt “more strongly than any before”16.

Yet the American settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries, importing Protestant values and moral codes into the unknown country, wanted to forget only partially and selectively. America, to them, was a tabula rasa from which natives or herds of buffalo were wiped in order to realise the old idea of the Promised Land. America’s fate, as Tocqueville remarked, was moulded by Puritans preaching the gospel of wealth and the commandment of success. Individualism and private ownership made possible a double experience of freedom, as the European restrictions and class ideologies were left behind and everyone could become a proprietor, for there was an abundance of land. The chosen people of America needed no ideology in order to form a nation. This nation was and is ideology in itself. Based on an unlimited mastery over nature the culture of a religious New Canaan was to emerge and until this day what is most characteristic about the US is this linking of nature and culture through religion. The politics of things and of people have remained under the great regime of the divine, whereby the plus ultra of the imperial, economic, and technical, now as ever, are feverishly anticipating the ultimate goal of a heavenly state.

Quite in keeping with Protestantism and Baconism, religion and rationalism here in no way contradict each other. Economy, technology, and religion blend into a plus ultra of morality, labour, and performance. For plus ultra, as a simple drive, infecting like a virus all media and all forces of production, it has been and is fairly easy, in this feverish state of the American dream, to reproduce at will. When everything is at the same time universal, economic, and moralistic, there is no immune system that could prevent a pandemic spreading. plus ultra could not exist on its own, it needs cells and bodies and above all novelty if it wants to multiply and mutate. The plus ultra virus inscribes itself into the meme of the social body and thus becomes the risk gene of Western culture that effaces its own shadow by turning its back on it.

The plus ultra of expansion and submission began with the annexation, exploitation, and colonisation of foreign parts. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries man himself became the foreigner. The human subject turned object to the sciences and to economy and, in accordance with its etymology (Latin subicere = subdue), was subjected to the new standards of quantifying measurement. Soul, body and genetic geographers are penetrating man, his psyche, and his cells. The Pillars of Hercules are transfigured into the double helix of DNA, the code of which no nec plus ultra is able to lock up. Whereas psychoanalysis was “the instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the id”17, genetic engineering goes beyond that in so far as the id, become pure information, promises to shape each ego.

plus ultra does not contend itself with man, his body, and his psyche. After the planet has been globalised, and all blank spots have been filled in, the Pillars of Hercules cannot be transposed to any territory except the microcosm, outer space, the supernatural, insanity, or cyberspace. Even if it seems justified to assume there were numerous pre-Columbian discoveries of America – from the Vikings Bjarne Herjulfson and Leif Erikson, to Friesian ships and their voyages to the Newfoundland sand banks, the Venetian brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno, and to the voyages of the Basques, Japanese, and Indians – even so the period from 1492 to 1945 has to be regarded as the age proper of the process of globalisation. After World War II mondiality is a given fact of a post-national and currently supra-national world system. Yet the beyond and ever further thus do not come to a standstill. They merely take on new characteristics and are shifted to other levels. The Hercules project opens up hitherto unknown dimensions and starts out from a higher “game level”, as it were. The train of the American settlers, which had reached its limit on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and there had to abandon the illusion of endless space, at the Californian “cutting edge” has formed up for the move into other spaces. After 1945 the difference between America and the rest of the world grows smaller. America has triumphed and the victorious wave, as the “American way of life”, is sweeping the globe. The expansionist drive, ever since, is at a post-global stage in which new ships, imploring history through their names, such as Navigator and Explorer, Discovery and Columbia, set out into virtual and cosmic spaces. But the voyages lead to stars beyond European transcendence, not to God or the subject, but to machine technology and capitalism coming together to shape the last great sparkling tale of humanity.

The linking of nature and culture, through religion, at this point seems to be abolished and secularised. Morality becomes a nostalgic category of a forgotten world. People are responsible for their own fate and should they continue to need gods they have to – non ora plus labora – pray less and work more. That which does not exist man has to create himself and this applies above all to gods who – deus ex machine – are either bred in the laboratory or forever remain dead images. The questions as to whether technologies and media serve man and his cultural evolution, or whether man functions as an in-between host to the machinic, i.e. whether he becomes “antiquated” and regresses (Günther Anders) compared to the machine and turns into the “construction kit of bio-physics” (Martin Heidegger), these questions are irrelevent. The dialectic conditions of Enlightenment make way for a logic that has turned away from man, as do all legitimate questions, which are replaced by illegitimate ones being far too amoral to be answered by humans. If there were such a thing as an end the myth would have come to an end.

The moral of the story

Here, finally, the politics of man is finished. Deprivation, through the superior power of the systems, is completed. Yet a moral veto calls for an interruption of the technocratic order. Secular ideologies and institutions cannot satisfy the need for belief and community, as the autopoiesis of the machines and systems is a bad replacement for the (moral) poetry of humanity.

In the postmodern age globalisation has been and still is witnessed as medialisation, as the birth of new systems and networks undermining the production of common ground and preferably forcing differentiation and hierarchical splits. The pluralisations and relativisations of moral and fundamental values, set in motion in the 1960s, have provoked complex world views giving new impetus to the hunger for meaning and religion since the 1980s. The postmodern conceptions of life have created no communities based on solidarity but communities based on solitariness, the ominously fruitful plural of which have introduced a social and psychological process of division.18 What, in a symptomatic fashion and in place of a much more fundamental phenomenon, has been discussed in Europe lately, in terms of a kind of parallel society of Islamic ways of living, is but an indication of the cultural rift within cultures.19 To describe the “clash of civilizations” in cultural, racial, religious, or geographical terms must fail because the conflict runs right through the shattered identities of multiple monads. When politicians coin phrases, such as “fifty years of complexity are enough”, when they implore an end to postmodern arbitrariness on the one hand, and absolute truth on the other, they return to one-dimensional concepts of attribution, including dualistic patterns of thought. According to this logic the “crisis of democracy” is down to a too-much of democracy that threatens the sovereignty of the state.20 Together with those post-Fordian informational conditions of production, taking root from the 1970s onwards, which have promoted the rapid growth in mobility, flexibility, immaterialisation, knowing/not-knowing, a democratic turbulence has come about that we try to counteract either with neo-liberal or with traditional nationalist policies. What emerges is a paradoxical alliance outwardly acting in a supra-national, yet inwardly in a nationalist spirit. Even though, under globalised conditions, conventional production factors such as land, labour, and capital become altogether less important, and a molecular conception of law and standardisation is gaining ground, the crisis of the nation state, having taken shape in the 19th century as a form of organisation, is ignored among those in power. “We have to realize that current geo-politics is based on the crisis of its traditional concepts”21, while “the crisis of governing has not yet arrived with those in government”22. As the paradoxical order has it, the nation state and globalisation do not contradict each other, as de-nationalisation progresses with the goal in mind of participating in global power structures without abandoning national interests of maintaining power.23 While public concerns such as the supply of energy and drinking water, or the access to knowledge are privatised, private civil rights are “published” in the interest of public safety. Democracy, as an unfinished project of modernity, thus slides into a postmodern state of emergency in which networked forms of global governance fall behind a policy relying on morality and dislocated war.

While up to the early 1990s what mattered most in the US was the economic situation, the 21st century starts out as the age of religion. Adherents of religious groups form up into fundamentalist forces in order to take up key positions in public life. Morality and religion are turned into a programme to fight the corruption of values and exert pressure on secular political models. This is demonstrated by the use of theological-dualist terminology such as Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire”, or George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, terminology not encountered in US politics since World War II. This general moral mobilisation is put to the service of cutting down on democracy and of transforming politics into a mixture of psychology and biblical instruction. The rallying behind conceptions of new enemies after the end of the cold war now is bringing in a cynical harvest tended, throughout decades, by way of surrogate wars and terrorists supported and trained all over the world.24 Together with the deficits of a neo-liberal economy out of control this amounts to a cocktail that makes people appeal to divine regimes of control. Fundamentalism turns out to be a struggle between modernity and postmodernity at the points of friction of which “super-modern” tensions emerge comparable to the belief in the supernatural. Explanation models, accounting for the growing desire for morality and religion with nothing more but the longing for a new spirituality and mystification within an over-secularised society, neglect the effects of unmastered contingency, social Darwinist competition and social unfairness to be witnessed everywhere. As there is a lack of alternative concepts of identity and living within current politics, and as the dreams of both republican and socialist utopias seem well finished, morality and religion serve as a kind of cure-all.

Conflicting cultural narratives

Yet in which beyond lies the future of humanity? The Herculean pillars, removed from Gibraltar to America, mark the departure of productive forces further and ever further into ulterior dimensions of the New World. They flank the entrances to laboratories, to political, economic as well as command centres of media corporations, and of late, once again, also to churches. The “conflict of values” is a conflict about direction in which navigation routes, either as wrong tracks or as a road to salvation, are at stake and in which one more and more often has to choose between further still and no further. “Plus” and “pro” (the profane, the progressive, probalism, prodigality, etc.) stand opposed to “minus” and “re” (respiritualisation, regression, reductionism, recycling, retro games, etc.). Next to the Pillars of Hercules the battle rages between plus ultra and non plus ultra, a battle occasionally putting its sights on the pillars themselves as being symbols of the West and of its triumphal march across the world.

When the “pillars” of the World Trade Center, which to many had been a modern allegory of the capital, were attacked, an imperial Hercules and his economic hegemony over the rest of the world was up for consideration. Since then we no longer associate 911 with a sports car, with speed and lifestyle, but with 9/11, with grief and terror. The overall mood is at its lowest and Ground Zero has become synonymous with a crisis of identity and “zero tolerance” on the part of Western civilisation. The disaster forms a turning point for the hangover of the New Economy including its failed hopes of unlimited growth and quick wealth. In the media and in politics, but also in philosophy and art the old longing for the real, the necessary, for dogmas and dualisms, and in connection with it the demand for separation and security are having a comeback. Politicians, managers and artists feign concern and call for the strengthening of morale by way of a new ethical front. The end of pleasure society is proclaimed while egoistic self-fulfilment and a hedonistic craving for pleasure have to make way for a new frugality and responsibility. But are such desires not an integral part of the logic of the system and does the hegemonic order not gratefully affirm any distraction and disruption thus to stabilise its own power?

Suicide attacks are desperate weapons within asymmetrical conflicts that know of no distinction between messenger and message. The burning body is the terrorist equivalent of the fitness cult and cosmetic surgery, and it brands its medium of flesh with the message: The almighty potency of the sovereign is limited! Through the negation of life the power over life and death shall be snatched away from the foreign sphere of influence. The terrorist body is a s’ymbolon torn to pieces whose diabolical splinters seek to poison the body of the state. At a time when the state is losing in importance these are the last fervent professions of faith in a sovereign nationhood. It appears that state and terrorism have in common a political romanticism of mutually dependant intimate constituents. What is postmodern about these clashes, though, is their atopian character, for under global conditions politics more and more resembles ecology. Political measures can no longer be taken locally and they are subject to no mechanical causality. Whereas historical plus ultra was the driving force of a geopolitical expansion of old circumscribed Europe – of a finis terrae that had to flee its narrowness by shifting borders and exporting them into the world – the geopolitical present is characterised by borders being dissolved and made more flexible. The question as to where the West ends is beside the point as the West has no external border. America is the world and just as global commerce will become the domestic trade of the United States, global tensions, no more than collateral damage, will take the form of dislocated conflicts. Even in the colonial England of the 17th and 18th centuries the mutinous revolts of sailors and slaves were compared to the many-headed Hydra Hercules had to fight. While the sovereign imperial state – the Herculean Leviathan – has got one powerful head the desperate masses have many that grow back again and again. Just like the borders the forms of resistance have dissolved and taken on different shapes, against a common background, in order to pursue different objectives. Al Qaeda attacks the imperial Hercules to gain religious and moral authority, whereas the critics of globalisation call him into question in order to stand up for a democratic world. The movements of Seattle, Genoa, and other North American and European cities as well as the revolts in Argentina, Turkey, or Nigeria in reaction to the politics of the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, have got nothing to do with terrorism. What they do have in common with the latter, however, is that thus peripheries are advancing into medial and political centres to gain attention for their demands. No matter how different their tactics, histories, and objectives may be, they share the same modern and postmodern narratives that, becoming mixed up, bear a lot of potential for conflict and constitute the symptom of a global crisis.

Yet which forms of narration recount which stories? Did the 11th of September 2001 amount to a “clash of civilizations” or was it a derailed, home-made mercenary revolt? Were the attacks an anti-modern, archaic act or a fundamentalist outcry of morality calling for a new political and economic mapping of global conditions? Was the final failure of Enlightenment and Humanism thus sealed? Had apocalyptic thought begun to replace utopian thought? Or was it all just a welcome cooling down of overheated markets after which new energy could go into entrenching cultural frontlines, spheres of economic influence, and global strategies?

All these assumptions arise from narratives telling stories about cultures and identities. Of course, for any legal system, and even more so for the victims, there is a vital need to distinguish between hard facts and soft fictions. Even so, cultural forms of speaking and narrating are subject to a certain haziness and indeterminacy brought forth in complex ways. If we perceive the modernist movements as narratives that produce societies and their conditions of coexistence, then politics also turns out an applied narrative technique that, for its part, has micro-narratives of all areas of life for its content. Modernists and postmodernists agree that with the stories we tell social cohesion is at stake. For some what this is about is the alternative between sovereignty and anarchy, and while they put their money on family, church, and fatherland, others project an inter-dependent notion of subject and society breaking with hierarchical concepts of attribution and representation. This becomes obvious, quite irrespective of content, when we look at the narrative forms employed and, not least, when we consider the respective attitude toward narratives per se which, as is well known, differs widely between Modernism and Postmodernism. The stories we tell – from cultural stories to media and news stories, and to life stories as well as meaning-of-life stories – often are characterised by the fact that we ignore other possible ways of telling the same story. Even if the distinction itself between including and excluding stories tells a simplifying story, the former think of themselves as being temporary, process-related, networking as well as affirmative, and adaptive in the face of contradictions. They are aware of their narrative modality, do not insist on eternity or any kind of truth and a post-modern way of life, and they operate in a viable fashion. Excluding stories, on the other hand, assert themselves through the monopolist claim to telling nothing but the truth. They are defined in terms of uniqueness respectively by way of a dual difference from other stories, especially those contradicting them. They fear a commingling and anything foreign, which they regard as a threat and potential disaster. They rely on repression and require totalitarian emergency programmes to keep the story’s system from crashing. In contrast to including, soft stories these excluding, hard stories have to take precautions against an outside and at all times keep ready a disaster recovery of their system. These stories work on the basis of a blind spot, a selective repression, and they operate as cultural programmes reducing and stabilising contingency. They serve the purpose of securing the identity, artificially established through their story, and providing simplifying orientation guides. All the while we are not conscious of the circumstance of the story being told.25 The term used in medical science, for phenomena of this kind, is confabulation, a term applied in connection with an illness called anosognosy (an inability to recognise ones own affliction). Patients ban neuronal defects from their consciousness by actively suppressing their afflictions (e.g. signs of paralysis) and, on being asked, providing a story respectively confabulation giving a seemingly logical explanation without containing deliberate lies. As it stands to reason, from the point of view of neuroscience, that also “healthy” brains repress things in order to organise, through confabulations, an ego and an identity as well as to artificially generate a homogeneous world view, we might also draw a speculative conclusion by analogy concerning societal macro-structures. The denial of hard narratives, as well as dualist ideologies and fundamentalist dogmas, operating via morality or the idea of evil, make use of confabulations to save unity from the threat of multiplicity. The production of common ground is thus prevented and politics perverted to become a moralist mission of “zero tolerance”. The danger hidden in hard narratives lies with the hysterical obsession of wanting to take hostage social contingency, i.e. the possibility or the potency of an open and freely designable future, and of forcing it into the realisation of a single inescapable necessity. The network of what is possible, imaginable, and open is being broken thus to consolidate the hierarchy of values and reinforce some kind of identity.

At a time when statistics tell us that data and information double in volume every five years, it is not only knowledge that increases but also ignorance. Future turns into a risky business and with the multiplication of indeterminacies the artificial monsters of the technical, economic, and social, or more generally of the bio-political, also begin to sprout. When the future becomes more and more difficult to calculate, to quantify, to formalise, or to prognosticate, the dangers of anosognostic narratives too grow exponentially. Instead of prophecy, eschatology, and apocalypse, what we need is a bio-political research into contingency so that the majority, marginalised into no more than a rest, does not end up collateral damage due to ill-advised politics.


It should be understood by now that the terror disaster of September 2001 was not so much an intrusion of the real into our world of images but rather a symptom become symbol. The rooks of global chess may have been checkmated, by overthrowing king and queen through a serious breach of the rules, but the fight of the pawns in the street continues. Politics as the production of common ground is in a deep crisis and what is at stake here is nothing less than freedom and democracy. The much quoted “clash of civilizations” turns out to be a struggle between modernity and postmodernity in which plus ultra and non plus ultra stand face to face.

When the Pruitt Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis was demolished in the early 1970s Charles Jencks saw the principles of Modernism blown to pieces and he heralded (architectural) Postmodernism. At present there is some indication that 9/11 could go down in history as the point in time when Postmodernism came to an end. The dividing up of past and present into eras and historical paradigms generally also entails conceiving of some kind of order and world view. When these are disrupted or destroyed the need emerges of seeing phenomena in a new light. The historical subdivision may rely either on cataclysms or on continuity, whereby the blowing-up of both Pruitt Igoe and the World Trade Center are to be subsumed under the category symbolical cataclysms perpetuating continuity. Lyotard claimed that it was part of Modernism’s constitution to carry Postmodernism within and in this regard “it can be observed that the dividing of history into periods derives from an obsession that is characteristic of Modernism”26. In relation to (philosophical) Postmodernism he spoke of a revision of Modernism, for the “post” is really a “re” which not so much attempts to “turn the hands of the clock back to zero, to make a clean sweep, and at one fell swoop introduce a new era and a new division of history”, but rather goes about something analytical that Freud called “Durcharbeitung” (working through), a job, that is, “that takes into consideration that which is hidden from us in the event and its meaning, and not because of past prejudice but also because of future dimensions”.27

Without a doubt more promises of modernity, at least such of a scientific ilk, were fulfilled in the age of Postmodernism than in the whole of the modern age before. Modernisation in the shape of things becoming ever more futuristic, artificial, and globalised has accelerated at an unheard of speed and a heightened state of modernity has emerged subjecting its very constituents to a threat of metastasis and hypertrophy. From counter-reformation to the romantic age and on to Postmodernism the modern project has been liable to crises and repressions, but each critique and each swan song only have once more revitalised modernity and have conveyed it to another state. In other words, modernity may be a project past its prime. Yet, as it operates by accumulation and irreversibly, it feeds off its own history and anticipates its futures by transferring the present into a futurist dimension. To be modern means to live a life in science-fiction, whereby the current utopia is an atopia of somewhere and of anytime that, by way of globalisation, aims at a homogenisation and synchronisation of cultures. Today globalisation, being the central modern age effect, culminates in a model of convergence, encompassing media and financial markets, for the establishment of a supra-national compatibility and comparability of all parameters of competition such as time, space, currency, and production. As we well know, this synchronised economic and media world, which defines the situation of post-colonialism, aspires to a global matrix of “real-time” for the universal conversion of all data, goods, and cultures. However, as conversions do never take place without losses of some kind, the expansive progress of this project brings forth more and more losers experiencing the global formatting as a system of inequality and injustice.

What the undertaking of Postmodernism has increasingly done, over these last few decades, and this ultimately has given it a bad name, is to withdraw bashfully from matters political and social as well as to take no more than a glancing interest in technologies, media, economy, and ecology under bio-political aspects. The perception of uncoupled systems and automated processes controlling themselves, the idealisation of a neo-liberal ideology to the status of a law of nature, or the impression of being powerless in the face of mass media, advertising, and the image industry, have given rise to a loss of subjective spaces of action while, at the same time, complexity and reality content have increased. Postmodernism has fallen prey to its own success by becoming a synonym of the phenomena it has sought to describe. The high demands of the revising could not keep pace with the accelerated transformations of subjective realities and the lasting changes in mental and social orientations so that the symptoms simply were named after the doctor. Ever since the name of Postmodernism has come to stand for a garrulous, licentious, and arbitrary modernity, for history at an end, or a static void in which the freedom promised in a slogan like “anything goes” amounts to nothing more than the impression that there is nothing left. And this means nothing less than that the crisis is down to a lack of krisis (Greek decision). It is this circumstance that the new right owes its rise since the 1980s to. And this is also what the consensus of the New Middle Ground is founded on. The longing for a simple management of complexity, ignoring any type of contingency and propagating the necessity of dual action, has emerged and has infested the Western world with arrogance and racism.

At a time when everything has become economy and capitalism knows no external border, revolutions will no longer be proclaimed as we are busy with the everyday revolution permanently unfolding. Counter cultures and forms of resistance seem to come to nothing because the subversive is contained in the amorality of normality. The utopian project of a direct democracy has become reality for consumers casting their votes, in monetary form, at the cash register. What remains, though, is the feeling of being left without a voice.

For a postmodern generation, growing up with the effects of globalisation, systemically networked technologies, and rampant capitalism, this promises neither heaven nor hell but merely that enlightenment will be followed by disillusionment. And those who, disillusioned, outgrow Postmodernism and believe neither in machines nor in gods, neither in the subject nor in its death, will realise that they had never been modern in the first place.28 What derives from this is a separation of these subjects, regarding themselves as wild flesh from now on, from the social body. The subject is no static cell inside Leviathan, it much rather forms, as Hardt and Negri have said, a singularity within the flesh that has to drive the process which temporarily produces the common.29 Disillusioned singularities do not believe in the grace of state or corporate group. They do not trust in effects of income and growth seeping through downward, in terms of the “trickle-down” theory30, in inequalities advancing economic development, and in accumulations of capital constituting the key to growth. To put up with states of dependence as inescapable, natural and ontological necessities they find just as difficult as to accept the nature of capital as a basically democratic one. To think that the globalisation of capital could automatically mean that democracy becomes global to them appears altogether naïve.

At the same rate as collateral damage expands the number of singularities, as compared to the number of subjected and integrated subjects, increases and the need emerges for new “trickle-up” models, even though in atopia this movement from the bottom up may equally be from the outside in or coming from all sides. Models of this kind, and with the term multitude they appear to have found a possible heading, are not in search of a personalised devil, although those in government at times make great efforts, instead they strive towards a revision of governing. When everything is networked and globally interwoven, networks, to put it simply, are able to organise a hierarchical forcing-into-line and control or to bring forth, via this ensnaring, a shared competence. Questions, as to whether there could be interaction between the singularities within the network respectively between the singularities and the network, fuel the demand for a dissipative politics as well as a new science for the production of common ground within bio-politics. The more knots and synaptic connections a singularity establishes within the social network the more power it has. While sovereign authorities try to tie all subjects to a central knot and to channel as many interactions as possible through this knot, singularity models rely on decentralised tie-ups, collective intelligence, and distributed control. An outside-the-net or a non plus ultra do not exist. On the contrary, each singularity is obliged to create its own network (plus ultra), or as Negri says: “As I myself am a multitude, I can find the common ground of the mass outside myself.”31

No matter how different the conceptions and distributions of power, the acceptance of “superconductive” networks, in which information and commands may be retrieved and transmitted anywhere and anytime, is as uniform as can be. The stories of dropouts, from Henry David Thoreau to Ted Kaczynski, appear like melancholic reminiscences to a lost world that still offered offline alternatives and options for unobservable observers. Today no negation of the network seems to be successful, for every alternative outside produces merely solipsisms instead of singularities. The superconductive principle, regardless of whether it stands for supra-nationality or supremacy, has attained universal validity. From which follows the paradigm of ultra-modernity, i.e. that everything further and ever further is linked up to everything else. The term enlightenment, in the context of supra-modern and ultra-modern networks, loses the philosophical claim to modern world improvement and turns into a technical term referring to the progress of global wiring, to military surveillance, or to health and security policies.

Ultra-modernity escapes traditional categories such as transcendence and immanence, because networks design their own topology. Attempts to describe ultra-modern society as a neuronal network, a social brain, collective intelligence, etc. are attempts at fathoming the incomprehensible and intangible. Metaphors from the fields of neuroscience, biology, physics, or esotericism and narratives for the explanation of the networked ecosphere hunt for images and comparisons supposed to formulate trans-disciplinary questions, as the languages and models of the individual disciplines do no longer suffice.

Does global society need a uniform identity, just as the human brain constructs an ego, i.e. does the networked Leviathan need a sovereign head, or might rambling, anarchic singularities be more suitable when it comes to reacting to chaotic processes, contingency, and disorder? Are singularities comparable to biological swarms organising common action without a leader? Or does the state of ultra-modernity rather resemble the Bose-Einstein condensation, that extreme state making the parts of a system distinguishable as all of them are caught in their quantum mechanical ground state? That is, do atomic singularities give up their individuality and do they behave like a single super-atom? Do the victorious languages of the West – the digital code, the US dollar, the brand names of the multi-nationals, capitalism, abstract art, Hollywood, and English – put all subjects into an in-phase spin? Does the Bose-Einstein condensation, able to force particles to give up their independence only near the point of absolute zero, illustrate the social coldness within the empire described by Hardt and Negri?32 And should even a small supply of energy be sufficient to destabilise the system so that the multitude descends upon the synchronised condensation like a Brownian movement?

Art as research into contingency

Singularities resist the sovereign, elude representation, they have no identity, no home, no conscience, no meaning, and no morality. They are either headless or, like Hydra, form a crowd with themselves. They are no indivisible individuals fraternising to form conformist condensations of meaning in the name of the father, the nation, or some other body, but “condividuals” working at the plural of themselves in order to invent the common. Within these multitudes of self-invention and self-reproduction auto-poietic processes combine with communicative action. They are thoroughbreds of a plethora of responsibility, for to be responsible, as Marcus Steinweg says, means to overextend oneself. “Responsibility exists only as a surplus event and as excess. (…) It surpasses god and conscience, morality and theology, only to be responsible to itself.”33 And this is the hyperbole contained in singularities which, out of a too-much of self, become selfless and focus their responsibility on the common instead of on property. The modern age ecstasy of the ego- and Eurocentric plus ultra aiming for more land, more capital, and more knowledge is being transformed into a plus ultra that surpasses what it has by way of this selflessness stepping into and standing up for common ground. In a way reminiscent of Plato’s idea of the synusia or of the ethics of the open source movement this auto-responsibility takes care of common action including free knowledge exchange. Singularities unite into swarms, called academy in antiquity and multitude today, as they are enthusiastic about something communal. And though they might be poor in terms of property, they are not with regard to possibilities. They accept poverty as the basic situation of human existence and, lacking any desire for subjugation or the expansion of power, the source of their wealth is the potency of contingency. Possibilities, just like knowledge, resist privatisation, because both are brought forth in complex ways, emerge from uncertainties, and evade the logic of property. Responsible growth is guaranteed only by knowledge being enthusiastically generated, exchanged, and increased within networked communes.

Singularities take shape where there is nothing. Without wanting to be avant-garde or to follow a teleological plus ultra, that forever overshoots its mark in its ambitious surpassing of self-imposed targets, they find themselves on the border of the necessary in order to set out into the unknown of the possible. Out of nothing a double movement emerges that on the one hand tries to transport the extant into the sphere of the possible and on the other tries to save the possible from being realised in the supposedly necessary. plus ultra and non plus ultra are becoming part of a discursive custom that, in an oscillating jumping to and fro, grants freedom to singularities. The consciousness of these singularities demands that everything, including themselves, could equally be completely different, and from this awareness of contingency springs the discourse and the interest in a common future.

As interests and discourses need media that grant them asylum, art offers a field of possibilities. Art is a place of nothing, a blank space within the necessary creating space for what is possible. Basically, art has no power and no property. Its potency and its wealth lies in the radical will of the possible to suspend the necessary. In a traditional sense, art – even if it operates factually and logocentrically – relies on fictions or the modality of the as-if. It is at the service of the symbolical and whenever it takes one step beyond the latter, in order to provoke a violation of order through an intrusion of the so-called real, it playfully takes on the “quality” of power or even of terror. Yet this desire to find a crime scene and to realise oneself, with all potential consequences, again leads back to the symbolical. Like in an act of terror, and in contrast to a natural disaster, it is not the real that is at stake here but the symbolical. The as-if, which as a consequence is both a privilege in relation to the exposure to contingency and a simple lack of reality, encroaches upon the real only via the symbolical. However, in a culture that, being wrapped in symbolical cotton wool, unfolds its power in virtual and non-territorial domains, the existing order can but be torpedoed in the as-if mode anyway. Art therefore does not act as reality’s double; it produces, in Artaud’s terms, its very own cruel reality.

In “The Theatre and the Plague” Artaud tells of the Sardinian Viceroy Saint-Rémys. In a dark dream the latter vividly experiences for himself the ravages of Black Death. The following day a ship approaches the harbour. He takes it to be the harbinger of death and flouts all conventions. On the sovereign’s orders the Grand-Saint-Antoine, that had started out from Beirut and wanted to call at Cagliari in 1720, has to turn and continue on to Marseille. The order, at first appearing utterly absurd to the Viceroy’s subjects, is only understood when they learn that the plague has hit Marseille. To Artaud art, like the plague dream, establishes the connection “between that which is and that which is not, between the force inhabiting the possible and that which exists in realised nature”. Art, called by him theatre, can be “only from the moment when the impossible really begins and when the poetry that occurs on the stage sustains and superheats the realized symbols”. The goal of art is a “virtual revolt”, “which moreover can have its full effect only if it remains virtual”34.

The ship’s non plus ultra results from the simulative plus ultra of the virtual dream that localises “all perverse possibilities of the mind”. Art turns into a laboratory in which the possible takes the role of the necessary and vice versa. That this should not only be taken in a transcendental and mystic sense is substantiated by the current upturn in simulation technologies and risk models supposed to calculate the dangers growing with the increase in artificiality. The phantasmic monsters of modernity, put in a position to infect the real like a virus, more and more desperately require theatrical and traumatic places of possibility for laboratories where to research contingency.

Modernity’s manic achievements in the field of differentiation, that put nature and culture in two different sectors, were not able to prevent that monsters and hybrids emerged and at present continue to crossbreed further and ever further. And this is what the changed plus ultra of our day and age consists in, which no longer runs straight off into nowhere but which anywhere, like cancer forming metastases, puts out its feelers and forms networks. The new “fiat” of the third Creation is not determined by the white cube, by pureness of thought, but by the dirty attractor perpetually mixing things up – the disciplines, the species, symbols with matter, and everything with everything. Divide and mix, dissect and sample, this is the methodical antagonism of modernity35 thus acquiring new qualities that are called risk, ignorance, and complexity.

With this amalgamation of nature and culture it is up to the Schisma between natural sciences and humanities as well as to all the painstakingly accomplished social classifications to make heterogeneous arrangements of mutuality. The imperative of modernity, for centuries striving for a dualism of nature and culture and demanding the deletion of the hybrid, has left homogenisation to the specialists or moralists who have brought forth nothing but monsters. The separation of one culture from the others, the rupture between subjectivity and objectivity, and the mind-body split have erected hierarchical structures including deep dark basements.

A science, that only deals with nature, and a politics, that only deals with economy, risk isolation and a cutting of links resulting in increased costs for bought propaganda or hypocritical morality. If art and science are to discover the fertile plural of complexity what is needed is not meta-science and aloof exteriority but a networked proceeding that gets itself involved in everything. The laboratory does not advance into every nook and cranny for the purpose of particularisation but in order to multiply the great narratives and to link them up. The barrier between the science of things and the politics of society thus seems to have collapsed and the dichotomy between natural sciences and humanities dissolves into a “third culture”.36

This is exactly where the blends and hybrids that art forms together with life, politics, science, economy, etc. start out from and these rehearse the much quoted intrusion of reality into the world of symbols and, vice versa, the escape of the symbolic into reality. Art thus becomes the site of fictionalisations and conceptional narrations in order to deconstruct the confabulations of cultural narratives. The artistic act, accordingly, is also the preoccupation with the mode of simulation respectively with as-if so that art does not end up the stipulated and legitimate context of convention and obedience. Leaving aside stylistic control, if it is Artaudian cruelty we are after, expectations and standards of consumption will have to be disrupted. Only when art drops the if of as-if and turns itself into “as” it will be in a position to network the powers of the possible with reality and to stand up for the impossible to occur.

What is required from art, when it comes to that, is no mere accumulation of artworks and oeuvres but performative processes aiming for societal impact. In contrast to power, bent on breaking up the possible and consolidating the necessary, art is highly unnecessary and it is pure potency. Art, which is about the construction of the experience of the possible as such, first and foremost looks for the “as” which establishes a relation between us and the other as a possible future of something that has not been, and neither the founding of identity or ontology (as such) nor mimesis or phenomenology (as if) have a part in this. Consequently, this art is a dirty para-art, an art as science, as philosophy, as sociology, as politics, etc. infiltrating non-artistic forces in order to undermine foreign (immune) systems. This type of art is a form of potentiality which, all at the same time (!), can be art, something else as well as art, and also not art. Which means it is not legislative art abolishing styles, precepts, and laws and passing new ones instead, as the avant-garde movements have tried to do, and neither is it art that redeems the world. It is a catalytic and enzymatic art setting off something and spurring on action, in the way Lacan’s “object a” or Hitchcock’s MacGuffin did.


*Stefan Bidner, Thomas Feuerstein (Eds.), plus ultra. Beyond Modernity?, Frankfurrt/Main 2005, p. 167 - 191, translated by Daniel Ostermann.


1 In which year and for which reason Western culture became specifically “modern”, is a purely academic question. Modernity here is taken to denote a modern age habitus of globalisation which, in the course of historical processes, has changed its aggregate state und keeps transforming up to this day. In the following the term modernity refers to the philosophical-cultural, and the term Modernism to the aesthetic-artistic – avant-gardistic as well as reflective – project of the modern age.

2 Cf. Markus Neuwirth’s essay on Charles V’s imprese in this volume.

3 The “clash of civilizations” topos, introduced by Bernard Lewis in 1990, was taken up and made popular by Samuel Huntington. With Huntinton the concepts of civilization and culture hark back to Oswald Spengler and are primarily used in racial and religious terms. Cf. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: And the Remaking of World Order, New York 1996.

4 “Die Europäer von 1500 sind nicht gieriger, grausamer oder phallischer als irgendein Geschlecht vor ihnen, sondern risikobereiter – das heißt im Blick auf Gläubiger kreditwilliger und in bezug auf Schuldner kreditabhängiger, wie es dem Wechsel des ökonomischen Paradigmas von antiker und mittelalterlicher Ressourcenausbeutung zu neuzeitlichem investierendem Wirtschaften entspricht.” Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären II. Globen, Frankfurt a. Main 1999, p.862. (“The Europeans of the year 1500 were no more greedy, cruel or phallic than any other generation before them, only more ready to take risks. In other words, creditors were more willing to hand out loans and debtors were more dependent on loans, as is consistent with the change, in the economic paradigm, from ancient and medieval exploitation of natural resources to modern age investment economy.”)

5 Francis Bacon employed the Pillars of Hercules as a frontispiece to both Instauratio Magna (1620) and Sylva Sylvarum (1627).

6 In The Advancement of Learning Bacon quotes a similar image and divides scholars into “digging” pioneers and “refining” smiths. In other words, “inquisition of causes” is contrasted to “production of effects”.

7 What results is a need for innovation, typical of the project of modernity, which encompasses all areas of life and becomes a universal principle until avant-garde movements expose it as nothing but an oscillation process of fluctuating fashions, while Postmodernism gives rise to a fundamental doubt as to the possibility of historical novelty. In the fields of psychology, cultural studies, as well as in genetic engineering, explorative behaviour and the new per se have become the starting point of investigations and new theories. Cf. e.g. Hans-Georg Voss, Heidi Keller (Eds.), Neugierforschung. Grundlagen-Theorien-Anwendungen, Basle 1981; also Boris Groys, Über das Neue. Versuch einer Kulturökonomie, Munich/Vienna 1992.

8 In The New Atlantis Bacon, who was no stranger to corruption and the misuse of power, reflects on the consequences of a hyper-technologised risk society. The ideal state, as devised by Plato, envisages a scientific regime that decides on the reasonableness of knowledge and technology for politics and society. Even at the very beginning of knowledge society the “principle of responsibility” emerges respectively a “will to the taboo”, to borrow two phrases coined by Hans Jonas.

9 Francis Bacon, The New Organon (URL http:/ ) Book One, Aphorism XCIII.

10 In the frontispiece the dictum “Multi pertransibunt et multiplex erit scientia” (Daniel 12,4) is rephrased to read “Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia”. In addition to the interpretations of the passing between the pillars mentioned another possible reading comes to mind here which probably comes closest to Bacon’s intentions. What awaits us behind the pillars is the eschatological empire of the knowledgeable. At the beginning of the text the reader is playfully transported to the paradisal place of the elect and invited to undertake an intellectual journey that shall take him closer to this state.

11 Non plus ultra, the unsurpassable, incomparable; non plus ultra, no further.

12 Translated from Giorgio Agamben, Das Offene. Der Mensch und das Tier, Frankfurt a. Main 2003, p. 16 (Engl. The Open: Man and Animal, Stanford 2004).

13 Quoted and translated from Giorgio Agamben, Das Offene. Der Mensch und das Tier, Frankfurt a. Main 2003, p.19. In the original: Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel. Lecons sur la phénoménologie de l’esprit. Réunies et publiées par Raymond Queneau, Paris 1979, p. 437.

14 Marketing guru Suzi Chauvel has coined the term “Beautopia” to refer to the overall rush for beauty and glamour.

15 Translated from Hans Blumenberg, Wirklichkeiten in denen wir leben, Stuttgart 1986, p. 16.

16 Henry David Thoreau, Walking (URL http:/ ).

17 Translated from Sigmund Freud, “Das Ich und das Es”, in: Gesammelte Werke Band XIII, Frankfurt 1969, p. 286 (Engl. “The Ego and the Id”).

18 “What begins to emerge is a (still to be defined) group of heterogeneous spaces, a great patchwork of minority singularities. (…) This movement of fragmentation not only affects nations, but also societies. Important new groups enter the stage which hitherto have not been mentioned in the official registers: women, homosexuals, divorcees, prostitutes, the dispossessed, Gastarbeiter, etc. The more the number of these categories grows the more complicated and cumbersome their centralised administration will be. In the process also the tendency will grow to take things into ones own hands, without passing through all the interventions of the CENTRE, or to cynically short-circuit them – as in the case of kidnappings.” Translated from Jean-Francois Lyotard, Das Patchwork der Minderheiten. Für eine herrenlose Politik, Berlin 1976, pp. 37ff.

19 To simply regard Islamic extremism as pre-modern fundamentalism only serves to promote something of a blind spot within Western culture. Islamism has to be seen as an integral part of modernity and of the West itself and is much closer to RAF terror than to some idea of latter-day crusades. “Islamic fundamentalism, however, is not – and this is crucial – a traditionalist movement. (…) This is why Islamic identity is (re)constructed by the fundamentalists in direct opposition to capitalism, to socialism, and to nationalism, be it Arabian or of a different kind. All these, in their eyes, are failed ideologies of the post-colonial order.” Translated from Manuel Castells, Die Macht der Identität. Teil 2 der Trilogie Das Informationszeitalter, Opladen 2002, p. 19f. (Engl. The Power of Identity. Vol. 2 of the trilogy The Information Age, Oxford and Malden, MA 1997).

20 The active participation, in political life, of the most diverse groups and interests leads to an overheating of democracy which, to use a metaphor from physics, due to thermal energy and Brownian movement threatens to break apart. The thesis, that it were necessary for democracy to cool down, emerged against the background of the students’, women’s, anti-Apartheid, peace, hippie, and minority movements of the 1960s and 70s and, by order of the Trilateral Commission, was put to paper by Samuel Huntington as a diagnosis and cautionary recommendation to the US government. Cf. Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, New York 1975; also Samuel P. Huntington, Who are we? Die Krise der amerikanischen Identität, Hamburg 2004.

21 Translated from Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Multitude. Krieg und Demokratie im Empire, Frankfurt a. Main 2004, p. 347 (Engl. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York 2004).

22 Translated from Helmut Willke, „Selbststilisierung und Selbstkonsternierung der Politik in der Wissensgesellschaft. Zur Metabolik des Nichtwissens in der Politik“, in: G.J. Lischka, Peter Weibel (Eds.), ACT! Handlungsformen in Kunst und Politik, Bern 2004, p. 188.

23 Cf. Saskia Sassen, “The State and Globalization”, in Rodney Hall, Thomas Biersteker (Eds.), The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance, Cambridge 2002.

24 Cf. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York 2004.

25 “I would rather urge for a more stringent formal conclusion, namely that the rejection and the disavowal of narration causes a kind of narrative return of what has been repressed and thus involuntarily tends to justify the latter’s anti-narrative position through yet another narrative which, by all means, would like to discreetly hide the assertion. But instead of trying to give this principle an ontological wording, I would prefer to transform it into a methodological form, into a recommendation to search out the concealed, ideological narratives at work within all seemingly non-narrative concepts, especially when these are directed against the narratives themselves.” Translated from Fredric Jameson, Mythen der Moderne, Berlin 2004, p. 12.

26 Translated from Jean-Francois Lyotard, Die Moderne redigieren, Bern 1988, p. 6.

27 Translated from ibid. p. 9.

28 Cf. Bruno Latour, Wir sind nie modern gewesen. Versuch einer symmetrischen Anthropologie, Frankfurt a. Main 1998.

29 Cf. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York 2004.

30 The Trickle Down Effect was formulated by the Nobel Prize winner Arthur Lewis. According to it, inequality is what creates prosperity because the rich put aside more money than the poor and only this way an economic fluctuation of labour, goods, and capital is made possible. When the model failed even in the Reagan era, it sank into oblivion. For the Bush era it once again is an article of faith, as Joseph Stieglitz, another Nobel Prize winner, has criticised. Cf. Joseph Stieglitz, Die Schatten der Globalisierung, Munich 2004, pp. 111ff. (Engl. Globalization and its Discontents, New York 2002).

31 Translated from Antonio Negri, Rückkehr, Frankfurt a. Main, New York 2003, p. 140.

32 Cf. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, London 2000.

33 Translated from Marcus Steinweg, Subjektsingularitäten, Berlin 2004, p. 73.

34 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, 1938.

35 The antagonism between cutting and sampling, particularising and hybridising makes for the specifically modern in modernity. For Francis Bacon, who anticipates bio- and gene-technologies in his New Atlantis, it is an integral part of the new sciences: “We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials; that thereby we may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man. Wherein we find many strange effects; as continuing life in them, though divers parts, which you account vital, be perished and taken forth; resuscitating of some that seem dead in appearance; and the like. (…) By art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is; and contrariwise dwarf them, and stay their growth: we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is; and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also we make them differ in colour, shape, activity, many ways. We find means to make commixtures and copulations of different kinds; which have produced many new kinds …” Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (URL http:/ ).

36 “Third culture, that is scientists and other thinkers in the world of empiricism, taking up, with their written analyses, the place of traditional intellectuals by making visible and redefine the deeper meaning of our life, who and what we are.” Translated from John Brockmann, Die dritte Kultur. Das Weltbild der modernen Naturwissenschaft, Munich 1996, p. 15 (originally The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, New York 1996). In view of Brockmann’s polemics against intellectuals, humanists, and philosophers let us remind ourselves of Heidegger’s fear that scientists cannot think because they cannot estimate the effects of their innovations. An attempt to abolish the dualism of nature and culture via a hierarchy of empiricism and theory here fall into a trap, as merely one “narrative” is replaced by another. More viable concepts for a third culture counteracting the dualism of nature and culture have been forwarded by Bruno Latour among others. Cf. Bruno Latour, Das Parlament der Dinge. Für eine politische Ökologie, Frankfurt a. Main 2001.

Thomas Feuerstein
english | deutsch

F. E. Rakuschan
english | deutsch

Helmut Willke
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Thomas Rainer
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