Interview with René ten Bos: Life in the Anthropocene

On Friday, 16th February a group of students, academics and other inquisitive attendants came together to listen to a lecture by ‘Thinker Laureate’ René ten Bos, Professor of Philosophy at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. He was granted the title of ‘Thinker Laureate’ in the Spring of 2017, and will bear this honour for two years. His most recent book is titled ‘Roaming in the Anthropocene’ (Dwalen in het Anthropoceen, 2017) which urged the Environmental Humanities Centre to invite him to speak on the philosophical consequences of this relatively novel concept. Preceding the talk, our student board member Omar Kleiss spoke with Ten Bos and asked him some questions about his work, his vision on the place of philosophy in society and the difficulties surrounding the use of the term ‘Anthropocene’.

 

 

 

 


Omar Kleiss (O): Can you pinpoint an exact moment or insight that drove you to pick up philosophy and pursue it since?

 

 

 

 

René ten Bos (R): Yes, the passing of my sister. Our family received a children’s book about philosophy after her passing. Afterwards, I explained to my mother: I will become a philosopher. The word came into my life then and hasn’t let go of me ever since.

O: The great variety of subject matters that are touched upon in your publications show that you do not just adhere to a traditional academic way of doing philosophy, but employ a more modern, open method. How important do you regard this openness?

R: Yes, that might be a bit characteristic. However, I do see myself as a very systematic philosopher, in the sense that I always try to work towards a certain theme in all this diversity. That is clarity and opaqueness: transparency. It plays a role in my book about animals, as a reflection on an old saying by Heraclitus: “Nature is wont to hide herself.” It also plays a role in my work about gesture as a form of communication. You won’t ever fully understand a gesture. If I apologize to you, when I did something mean to you, you will never know for certain that you can trust me.

O: That ambivalence.

 R: Yes, for instance: water is a transparent medium. But it also warps. The notion that transparency is only ever pure see-through… that is untrue. Transparency also warps. That’s what I am interested in. I just finished a book called ‘The People in the Cave’ (Het Volk in de Grot, 2018) which deals with the messages sent into the cave by knowledgeable people. Do people really understand that? It deals with the question if we can handle too much truth.

 O: About that transparency. People often notice that the academy is a closed off world; an ivory tower. Do we invest enough in the humanities, to promote transparency and openness?

 R: No of course not. We publish in journals nobody reads. It is the great paradox of publication. The only publications that matter are the ones nobody reads and the publications that people do read are of no interest. You can’t really count those. That’s something that is very strange.

 O: And are you trying to change that throughout your oeuvre?

R: Yes. I’m interested in different forms of expression. But the sciences are evidently highly sequestered in an academic garden. It’s no coincidence that today the discourse surrounding valorization is of such vital importance. People are slowly learning that indeed there is a huge chasm. But, of course, I’m not the only one who is saying this.

O: Yes, it’s a big issue at the moment. This leads us into the following question. In the first chapter of your book ‘Roaming in the Anthropocene’, you lay out various motivations for the writing of the work. It concerns some directly tangible changes in the environment you grew up in (in the eastern area of Twente) that you connect to bigger global transitions in surprising ways. Do you think it is of utmost importance, in society right now, to shed a light on this subject?

R: I want to show that the Anthropocene discussion is something that happens right in our backyard as well. I have witnessed the industrialization of my place of birth. One needs only to look at the sad situation that the eastern part of Groningen finds itself in today. The point is, what is far away is also close and what is close is also far away.

O: You think that is not expressed enough?

R: No not at all. People often think about the Arctic Ocean, or Kiribati, or the Maldives. Those are of course great concerns. But traces of the Anthropocene are everywhere. The book was ultimately the result of great frustration. There was a big conference in Nijmegen with two great thinkers, Peter Sloterdijk and Bernard Stiegler, but they didn’t manage to properly communicate with the audience. I thought to myself: it’s complicated, but there should be a way to talk about this, right? I do not intend to play it down too much, of course it is highly complicated: it’s about complexity and opaqueness.

O: In your book you warn against a overly alarmist attitude towards the concept of the Anthropocene. Simple answers only result in a false sense of security. “In a labyrinth you don’t discover the exit, at most you discover yourself.” (p. 167) But is this calmness truly warranted? Should we discover who we really are before we try to avoid the multiple catastrophes underway?

R: I think the Anthropocene urges us to think about who the Anthropos is. If we don’t, I don’t know what will happen. Look, we can all put our trust in fancy solutions in the realm of geo- and climate engineering. But who we are, how we relate to our desires, those issues, have to be a part of the solution. We don’t nearly do enough to make it so. The book is emphatically not apocalyptic. That’s a very anti-ecological notion.

O: The question, “Who constitutes the Anthropos in the Anthropocene?” is a central issue of the debate, something you also highlight in the book. Recently we had a guest lecture by T. J. Demos at the Environmental Humanities Centre. Arguably, he takes a more activist approach. His most recent book is called ‘Against the Anthropocene’ (2017). Obviously, he doesn’t obfuscate his stance in the debate. Is it correct to say you are more careful and, perhaps, less determined?

R: Well look, it doesn’t really matter to me how you call it. The Anthropocene is a name with all kinds of objections, but so is the Capitalocene. You can’t blame everything on capitalism. Capital is a part of the problem but not uniquely. Long before capitalism humanity was already an invasive species. Those kinds of notions are in direct conflict with the idea that capitalism is solely responsible for what is happening. But I stay away from the whole discussions about blame and responsibility, the moralizing part of the discussion.

O: At a certain point, when discovering who is the Anthropos in the Anthropocene, one is bound to come up to demarcations of who is part of this and who is not. Or do you think there is a sort of common sense of humanity to be found in the shared experience of the Anthropocene?

R: No not particularly. It is something that is an issue for the entire earth, all over the globe. Some people will be affected by it differently than others. So yes, it’s true what you say. But at the same time, the awareness that very possibly a catastrophe is happening is not universal. You can see people are making an assessment about their relative vulnerability. To put it simply, the melting of the Arctic Ocean is a possible disaster for the Netherlands, but a business opportunity to the Russians.

O: Is that a major stumbling block?

R: Politics and the Anthropocene are a huge problem. Politics is about partial interests. Whenever people pursue partial interests difficulties arise.

O: Thank you very much for your time.

R: You’re welcome.

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