Pause, contemplate, take a breather: philosopher Svenja Flaßpöhler sees a ray of light in the current standstill. She sees it as a chance to break out of the endless cycle of consumption and to start rethinking society.
Philosopher Svenja Flaßpöhler is editor-in-chief of the Philosophie Magazin. Since 2013, she has been co-managing the international philosophy festival Phil.Cologne along with Wolfram Eilenberger, Gert Scobel and Jürgen Wiebicke. Previously editor-in-chief of literature and humanities at the German public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk Kultur, she has written numerous essays and books.
Deutsche Welle: Ms. Flaßpöhler, we meet here in your allotment garden. In light of all the hoarding people have been doing at supermarkets in recent days, do you think we are now experiencing a renaissance of self-sufficiency?
Svenja Flasspöhler: The garden's previous renters were an older married couple who had used it since their childhood in the 1920s. They moved here with their children when there were acute shortages of goods and housing in Germany in the 1950s.
So are continuing a certain tradition here. I also find it important to say that I am in a comparatively privileged situation. I don't have to work at a supermarket checkout or in crowded hospital. I'm not permanently exposed to the risk of infection but can retreat to the countryside and work from here.
We can't shake hands now. The culture of greeting and the way we all meet is currently changing. How can we compensate for this?
I don't know if it's really possible to compensate for it. We are at the beginning of an experience that we will probably never forget. It is very interesting that closeness, solidarity and caring are usually shown by hugging people or inviting them into your home. All that is being turned around now. This reversal is still difficult for all of us, and that is a good thing.
In the history of mankind there have repeatedly been epidemics such as the plague in the Middle Ages or the Spanish flu in 1918. To what extent is the virus now also a stress test for society?
The first thing that comes to my mind is Michel Foucault's book Discipline and Punish. The French historian and philosopher studied the plague at the beginning of the 17th century in great detail and believes that the fight against infection is more than just a medical measure.
Taking a clear standpoint: Svenja Flaßpöhler (center) with Martin Walser and Aleida Assmann at phil.cologne (2019)
Instead, it is actually the primal scene of the disciplinarian society, because we are separated from one another, parceled out, observed and controlled. We are currently experiencing the same thing: All spaces where people meet, like theaters and public places, are being closed. We no longer meet each other. Everyone is pushed back into the private realm.
To what extent does this crisis make us aware of the weaknesses of our economic system?
Astonishingly clearly. What comes to mind is the tension between production and reproduction, which feminist philosophy has been emphasizing since the 1970s. Throughout history it has always been the case that production has been prioritized over reproduction. Reproduction, i.e. everything that is usually done by women without pay, took place in the background.
Now we realize how important it is to care, to worry and to be cared for. And at the same time, we realize how much our whole system is designed to consume and produce in order to keep this endless loop going. Now we realize how fragile this capitalist system is and that it might be time to rethink this hierarchy.
Soberly, the climate crisis is the much greater threat than the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the current health crisis is taken much more seriously in corona times. Why is this?
To put these two crises in context is quite revealing. At the moment, we are being asked to show solidarity with the elderly. In the case of climate change, the situation is exactly the opposite, with the young demanding solidarity from the old as they try to prevent a future catastrophe.
And the difference is precisely that we now have people springing into action worldwide against an enemy, this virus, which is simply absent in other crises. Now we see that if the world wants to, it can really mobilize.
Nevertheless, we must not now lapse into naïve optimism, but must also see that the economy and jobs are threatened. We do not even want to imagine what happens when an overstretched health system coincides with a recession. Then it becomes really dangerous politically.
Is there anything positive to be gained from the shutdown?
This crisis and this shutdown is time that has been given to us to think. I would not go so far as to say that we need an anti-capitalist struggle and the great revolution, but of course we can rethink individual elements of this system which have been the subject of discussion for a long time.
That absolutely includes home office, greater flexibility and family compatibility. It's criminal how some institutions and employers block this and still feel the need to monitor their employees. That is no longer appropriate at all.
I also like the experience that our consumer behavior is very severely restricted and we must rely on ourselves. Everyone knows intuitively that consumption gives you a boost in the short term, but that in the long term it is not what you associate with happiness.
One could take a closer look at the concept of happiness philosophically, especially in this crisis. In the ancient concept of happiness, morality plays an essential role: only a moral life is also a good life.
I would like mention the famous saying of the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: All people's misfortune stems from the fact that they can't stay quietly in a room. How can we deal with the boredom of isolation?
From a philosophical point of view, it was not only Blaise Pascal, but also Martin Heidegger, who was very eager that people should find their true nature. Instead of worrying about what to get, one has to worry about one's own existence.
And we feel this certainly in moments of existential exposure to a nothing, as he puts it. In these very quiet moments, when we are sitting alone in the room, we become aware of our transience: we are surrounded by death waiting for us.
With Hannah Arendt (German-American philosopher/1906-1975, editor's note), who always thought about sociality, in the Vita Activa (active life), things look quite different. It's all about political joint action. I have to say that I like that more.
So perhaps the crisis also promotes a return to what really matters in life?
I think it's now simply up to us how we act in this crisis, how much we can mobilize this positive energy. I am basically a very optimistic person and can therefore encourage people to take advantage of this opportunity and its positive effects.
The interview was conducted by Thorsten Glotzmann.