Being and Neonness, a Review by Professor Moulier-Boutang

 

The text below is a translation of the foreword that Yann Moulier-Boutang wrote for the French edition of Luis de Miranda’s book Being and Neonness, published by MIT Press in 2019.

 

I didn’t know Luis de Miranda, I hadn’t read his books. It was through a few exchanges on the Internet that we became virtual “friends.” The strength of the weak ties allows for encounters that would have otherwise required a lot of time and a lot of luck. I learned that Luis de Miranda is at the same time a philosopher, a writer, an editor, and a lover of “creativity”, or more exactly firmly decided to give a status to this notion which became otherwise, like “sustainable development”, a convenient decor to hide a staggering void of thought. So when he asked me to write a preface for his book, I said yes, despite the time constraints (time is happily expandable, despite what the complainers say). And I did not regret the little madness of adding his text to my to-do-list. Because this little book is a jewel of intelligence, finesse, culture, which takes a  technical object without froaning and turns and turns it around like Heidegger taught us to do with Van Gogh’s shoes.

This is not a hoax. Of course, when you read the title inspired by Boris Vian’s La Lettre et le Néon, you might say to yourself: I’m going to spend a pleasant hour going back to the existentialism of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Isn’t the city a mental thing and rumination or rumor of the past? Like me, no doubt, you hate utility neons – office neon, not that of city signs, for the evil that they did to our eyes in the classroom, with their light as intermittent as a television screen. And then after the first ten pages, you understand very quickly that this essay “à la française”, in the footsteps of Baudrillard and Vaneigem, advances modestly and masked, but with a youthful bravery. The promenade is anchored in the city, in the tradition of the situationist rediscovery of wandering. It is also a disillusioned and critical observation on Luna Parks, commodification, the entertainment society – but this is not the most original.

What is more striking is the ambition of meditation on the maps of  contemporary modernity, on the famous Grand Paris, without the evasiveness of the postmodern, and without the usual absurd quote. Luis de Miranda is strolling, he tells you that he is strolling, but he leads you with great mastery and knows where he wants to go.  Nothing arbitrary, nor surrealistic, in this meeting of the kebab sign on the dissection table of the Neon City. It is rather a second Cartesian meditation after Descartes and Husserl: where the stove and its heat gave way to the roaring sound of gas in a tube. I am, I create, therefore I hear. It is invigorating to finally hear an ambition: that of philosophising and thinking the “epoch” of the city, of the subject (the “superjet”), the movement, the plural, chaosmos. Be careful, then! Here, a philosophical project begins. The path narrows. Slow down, work-in-progress, reduced speed in reading!  Savour it! Luis de Miranda speaks neither of speed nor of slowness, this true movement of the senses which reconquers the city, but his essay takes a powerful part in it. 

Who knows that the Opéra Garnier was illuminated by colored neon strips in 1919? Neon is a technical object about which, usually, little is said that is significant. It is exposed here during the day, out of its halo of luminous magic, as the limit of the visible, its exhaustion (because it is a light without heat, without risk of kindling) – but it is a happy exhaustion, because it turns us towards and beyond the visible, a totally immanent beyond: “The infinite in the finite.” There are many intercessors on this journey: Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, David Harvey, the Sublimes: the Paris of the nineteenth and first-twentieth century is narrated and this technique of light is inherently fascinating for urban planners and architects, or rather “urbatects”, according to the beautiful word coined by Schuiten and Peters.  But Plato, Heraclitus, Marx, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Proust, are also part of the journey.  Luis de Miranda does not mention Bergson much this time, and only a little Félix Guattari with whom he shares the same taste for unbridled neologisms, bending language to his thought and to the construction of reality. I love his neologism, the Creal, for the real which dismisses the naivety of a matter or a spirit. His crealist perspective gives his mediation on the City a joyful tone, a stamp of copper and light horn. 

In that, this book does not resemble the great French moralist tradition to which the situationists owe much. A sentence like “The neon is a metonymy of the current identity, energetic, visible, illuminated, connected” could have been signed Baudrillard or Virilio. But I also hear a jubilation and a confidence in the future which is unique, in the aeon developed at length in the last chapters.

The other singular aspect of this little book lies in its way of dealing with technique and technology by deeply integrating it into culture. Scientific and erudite details blend into the expressiveness of the historicity of urban man. “Can we build a code that does not carry identity? Can we conceive of an individuation which is not a form, a neon, a being?”, questions the author. This recurrent question becomes one with the detailed history of Johann Heinrich Winckler’s invention of the first fluorescent tube in 1745 in Germany, up to Georges Claude, discoverer of neon in Paris in 1912, with the sign Cinzano. Who remembers today that Paris was  the absolute capital of neon signs before Los Angeles and Las Vegas, since Claude’s patent was not sold in the United States until 1923? The great Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz explored the society of his island through the opposition of  sugar and tobacco (1939). He invented transculturalism, of which Malinowski, who read it before his Argonauts of the Pacific (1940), retained only the ugly term of acculturation. Let us say that too often, the disputants of the lights of the city ​​and the reign of commodity, rely, even if unconsciously, on acculturation which distills a scent of alienation, of degradation of being. Luis de Miranda is clearly in his book on the side of  transculturalism. Why?

Because in our opinion, he is developing a theory of possible and practicable freedom, an anti-alienation, not another “look”, but another perception and construction of reality, a Creal as he fiercely calls it. Admittedly, heritage-Paris is transformed into a dead icon, a museum.  But nearby the Louvre, it is the Benjaminian experience of banal kitsch signs of small shops which opens the experience of a passage. Neon, this perfect image of cold light without apparent risk, vibrates, makes noise. When our tired, worn out, eyes, stuffed with icons, operate what Husserl would have called a radical phenomenological reduction, when they are temporarily blinded, then they hear something.

Let’s not look for the access to the city in a supervoyance, beyond The Cave, nor in a reasoned disruption of the eyes. In a strong sentence, like many of those that feed this nervous essay, Luis de Miranda writes: “Ecology must become an “echo-logy”, the poet must be more than a seer: a listener.” Ecology, economy, oikos or the surrounding, halo, rather than the overused word environment, must hear, “see with the ears” as recommended by the brilliant Shakespeare.

Primacy of hearing over sight; a recurring, Deleuzian ritournelle, the Wagnerian or Proustian leitmotif, ends almost every chapter. It dethrones the primacy of the visible in Western metaphysics. Where Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who in opposite ways both turned towards language, where Derrida wanted to come to writing, to the trace, Luis de Miranda wants to hear the voice, the music, and come to an acousmatics. The stroke of the paw also applies to Michel  Foucault: “The making of the self has light as its absolute model. Being is indeed a neon.”

Does Luis de Miranda return to Exodus, when the “I am the one who is”, echoing the supreme creator, is a voice which makes us hear the crackling noise of the consuming fire? The part of the invisible, of the inexpressible and the joy of creation are very close to the Music of the Spheres and to this City of Music mentioned in the final chapter. “To create is to listen to the invisible, the unheard-of, and maintain a loyalty to this hearing.  But incessantly, comes up the temptation to manifest this creation, to make it tangible, visible, measurable “: this sentence signals an ontological difference that is quite different from  Heidegger, in spite of the proximity of timbre. In the end we want to know more. And that’s very well; a conclusion that does not open does not increase our power to act.

 

Professor Yann Moulier-Boutang, author of Cognitive Capitalism.

 

 

5 Optimistic Predictions on What Will Change For You After The 2020 Pandemic

The current global pandemic is a gigantic social experiment on humanity. There is already plenty of dramatising information, so my contribution here will be on the positive side. Here are 5 predictions/recommendations for a better post-Corona world.

1: A new paradigm of slow growth

Few would disagree that the current events demonstrate, once more, the epidermic fragility of capitalism as we know it. The system has been praised as the only viable form of economic protocol, but it proves once again to be volatile and all but robust in its exponential growth mindset. Would you build your house on a roller coaster? Yet this is somewhat what we tolerate with under-regulated forms of financial capitalism. Of course things could eventually go back to “normal”, the “normal” being a relatively small group of privileged and anxious finance junkies playing with fire while the majority of citizens struggle to have a decent and balanced life while being treated as mere consumers or dopamine receptors. We are all on a mindless roller coaster. It’s time to try the tunnel of love boat ride. Less adrenalin perhaps, but more wonder.

The fact that the capitalist system is dependent on fears and the caprices of nature — when it does not create itself those caprices — demonstrates that we need a more robust system, one with more structural integrity (in the engineering and moral sense), yet one that does not discourage creativity and growth. A more robust economy will be based on slow growth. Slow growth is a successful model in nature and in education. We fear exponential curves in viruses – we should also refrain from desiring them in relation to financial profit. A tree needs to grow solid roots and not just rise to the sky like Icarus. For example, more welfare safety nets should be developed in places where they have been lacking.

2: More citizen resilience and philosophical health

The second conclusion we can draw from the current situation: many are mentally fragile, many have overwhelming fears and lack of self-confidence to the point that they are influenced by panic and paranoia, as well as excesses of irrational hope. This is not new but is today critically augmented by our social media addiction and their echo chambers. In sociology, the Thomas Theorem  says: “If humans define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” What makes the 2020 pandemic phenomenon dangerous is to a certain extent our global perception of it. If we nurture a collective reaction according to which a situation is dramatic and catastrophic, then, even if it is a collective hallucination, this might become a self-fulfilled prophecy. If on the contrary we remain calm, pragmatic and collected, we will avoid trying, as the French saying goes, to harm water with a sword; in other words, over-reacting in vain. Here a good philosophical reading is Nietzsche’s distinction between the active and the reactive people: to lead a healthy life, instead of reacting out of ressentiment, we need affirm healthy, fruitful and loving values and act coherently according to these axioms. We can more confidently and slowly actualise at least part of what we admire if we develop our capacity to be self-rational, to think, intuit and feel by ourselves.

Some politicians seem to be enjoying pandemic situations because it allows them to demonstrate that they can still have control over people, by forcing them to stay home for example. Here a pertinent reading is Deleuze and Foucault on societies of control. The extent to which martial states of emergency can so easily be inflicted upon us shows the fragility of our democracies. Citizens should be empowered, educated and trusted to judge by themselves what is the right thing to do in a given situation. A forced lockdown of a society is a politician’s dream but potentially a citizen’s nightmare. A philosophically healthy society is one where citizens are not considered mostly as lab-rat consumers or immature statistical instruments. Here a good philosophical reading is Kant on Enlightenment. If anything, crisis decisions should be taken more democratically, and we should not treat people as minors but help them to become fully adult, which is why education and research on philosophical health is needed.

3: Less nationalism and protectionism, more collaboration toward a global shared cosmology

The world has definitely become global. We are on the same boat and interconnected, and now we feel it. The big climate change menace was perhaps not enough to create a shared worldview. We can now thank a well-travelled virus for allowing more people to feel in the flesh that we need a shared cosmology and a global vision for our planet, not just ecological but also philosophical. I wrote the book Ensemblance to explain, via a thorough historical analysis on the phenomenon of group belonging in modernity, the limits of tribalism, competition and groupthink. This does not mean creative collaboration is to be rejected: in this paper from 2017 I explained why I think it’s time for a global social contract based on the hypothesis I call Creal.

4: The Decline of Big Cities and the Rise of Nature-Centred Remote Work

I lived in Paris for several decades, and have always considered large capitals as physically and mentally damaging for their inhabitants, even if they can be amusing for tourists. I now live in a nature-friendly area in the Stockholm archipelago and go for a walk along the water and woods every day. I have always worked from home a great deal, which does not feel claustrophobic when we surround ourselves with nature. Residential surfaces can be larger further from the city centres and rents less expensive, while our digital connections allow us to discover and co-create remote possibilities for work, communication, education and collaboration. In the next years, more people are going to distance themselves from unhealthy oversized capitals and realise they can have a much more balanced and ecological form of life by embracing remote-work and letting go of the city madness and its hazardous ecological and existential footprint. Intermediary-sized cities should become more important for cultural life and intellectual growth.

5: More courage.

Most humans today have a hard time with three co-related fears (perhaps these are aspects of the same fear): their fear of loss, the fear of daring what is good for them and the fear of being abnormal. The anxiety of missing opportunities, or making the wrong choices, of not having what others have, or being alone and not belonging generates panic, stress, procrastination or apathy (mental and physical). When we see a virus, we want to flatten the curve and avoid its becoming exponential. We ought to be consequent and get rid of the unhealthy exponential mentality for what we desire also. If we continue to think that the good should be exponentially so, then the bad will also feel exponential. This is explained in more detail in my book on Lacan, jouissance and capitalism.

As we say here in Sweden, growth should be natural, healthy and slow, in other words, “lagom.” In more philosophical terms, this is what the Ancient philosophers called the golden mean. In the sustained middle way and persistent and creative equilibrium of forces is the healing power. For Aristotle, courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness. Courage is the only thing that can prevent timidity and rage, which are two sides of the same harmful attitude. Now you will perhaps go for a walk and ask yourself: at this moment of my biography, am I being coward, rash or sanely courageous?