Ambience. Life & Its Spaces

September 12th-13th 2008, Barocke Suiten, quartier21/ MQ

The ambience has to be right. This is true for nightclubs, panda bear enclosures, and vacations as well as for the nidation environment in the uterus. Ambience leads us towards the paradigm of life and the environment. Modernity is concerned with “life” as an object in two ways: as the object of knowledge and as the object of political activity. According to the thesis which is to subsume this conference, both became possible only after the requirements for life, its implicit prerequisites and its boundaries were gradually made explicit. Only by making visible and effable what precedes life as a necessary stipulation and what therefore makes life possible in the first place by providing an appropriate environment, the field of biopolitics could emerge and ambience became designable.

By that, we would like to present an alternative approach to an archaeology of biopolitics, which does not use the juridical categories of sovereignty or the ontology of life as starting points (Agamben), but rather investigates the types of knowledge, the technical gestures and phantasms that were dealing with the movement of explication as an ‘uncovered involvement of background realities in manifest operations’ (Sloterdijk) at the various historical moments, which determine Modernity.

Taking this into account, three heuristic historical phases are to be distinguished: during the first – which comprises the 18th century – man, along with all other creatures, is embedded in an Economy of Nature (Linné). Man’s duty is to shape nature by technical, mainly agrarian and landscaping means, in a way as to guarantee the maintenance of this dynamic equilibrium. Here, nature is seen as a totality in which even social structure is included and where each element has its fixed place and predetermined function.

During the second phase (approximately: in the 19th century) this wholeness seems to be lost: the discovery of ‘ambiences’ results in the duplication of heterogeneous environments in sociology as well as in biology. These become the objects of separate scientific disciplines mainly concerned with experimental research. Thus, various systems of preconditions for life emerge which are no longer intertransformable: the environmental conditions, now considered to be alterable (Lamarck, Darwin), the physiological ‘internal environment’ (Bernard), the social surroundings (Durkheim, Zola). The political culmination of the concept of the ambient environment into a living space that needs to be conquered also occurred during this phase.

In the course of the third phase (approximately: from the first third of the 20th century onwards) these different environments tend to be colonised more and more by the term ‘system’. While this thinking in systems abstains from an antecedent, ordered totality, it also enables a new holistic view which is now directly linked to the technical phantasm of improvement and efficiency increase, and again to holisms which are partially religion-based. At the same time, the idea of a quasi bio-cybernetic regulation of ‘life’ emerges as a leeway within the boundaries of the seed’s ‘ultimate potentiality’, the rules of the organism’s ‘development mechanics’, and the environmental conditions. The ideal of coupling the individual and the system - as smoothly and with as little loss as possible, with relish even -, the development of technical and ecological paradigms of space, the de-anthropologisation of behaviour in behaviourism and cybernetics as well as various attempts to overcome these ‘two cultures’ (culture and its sciences, nature and its sciences) dividing human existence into a cultural and a natural part, are landmarks of this development.

One might even dub this turn Wiener Turn: Norbert Wiener is one of the founding fathers of Cybernetics; Heinz von Förster who happens to be Viennese (a Wiener, in German), is said to be the translator of analytical philosophy in cybernetics; and one of its most important spokespersons, Oswald Wiener, who already in the 60s authored – as an appendix to his novel ‘die verbesserung von mitteleuropa’ [‘the improvement of central europe’] - the lucid concept of a bio-adapter, withdrawing people from their surroundings by means of a ‘happy suit’ while at the same time stimulating them with life-sustaining measures, thus envisioning the concept of cyberspace 20 years prior to Gibson. At the same time, neurophysiologist and musician Manfred Clynes, also a Wiener (Viennese) by birth, is said to be – together with Nathan Kline – the inventor of the term ‘Cyborg’, which is linked to the concept of life-sustaining measures for astronauts.