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WHAT’S GOING ON? By Bart Verschaffel

Dirk Braeckman, “S.O.-H.O.-96,” 1996

Dirk Braeckman, “S.O.-H.O.-96,” 1996

At a time when public life is largely confined to activities such as work and online consumption, activities that can take place in domestic space, the question of what concept of humankind this presupposes arises, as well as the question of what happens when supposedly nothing at all happens. In his contribution, philosopher and scholar of architectural theory Bart Verschaffel approaches these questions by focusing on what disappears as a result of the pandemic: the surrounding murmur, the movements, and the lives of others, existences that we do not know and have nothing to do with, but that open up our monadic lives.

These days, it is not so easy to say what’s going on. Are we doing more or less the same we always did, merely adapting it to the changed circumstances? Are we only temporarily seeking shelter, solving a problem, overcoming an obstacle, holding our breath and waiting for everything to return to normal? Does “normal” mean “as before”? Or has something changed for good? Is there irreparable damage? And, assuming we find answers to these questions, what can we do with these insights? Get wiser, know what to do, how to live?

Life is now squeezed between two massively different but highly oppressive forms of presence. On the one hand, one’s own living space and living environment has become small and constraining. The lockdown implies, somehow, being locked up. One’s own place, the smallest social circle and the neighborhood, have become much more present and real. The range of life has shrunk – that is what there is, and that’s it. A reduced, more simple life has certain advantages: much of the rushing back and forth and the usual social bustle suddenly seem superfluous, and our immediate surroundings turn out to have more to offer than we ever knew. Life slows down, becomes quieter, the days become longer, there is more time. And one of the soothing features of the new media is that reduced lives are nevertheless not entirely closed, and that we can stay in touch with friends and family easily.

On the other hand, there is the Big Wide World, which, as a tsunami of continuous interactive communication, breaks into our lives from morning to night, demands attention and immediate reactions. Most white-collar workers spend most of their day “communicating” in one virtual way or another, and keeping abreast of what is happening. And yet, at the end of the hectic day, there appears to be some kind of hard-to-fathom experiential poverty (Erfahrungsarmut). What exactly is it that is lacking?

Our current sense of things is probably not about the classic existential “loneliness,” but about a new kind of “aloneness”: the experience that nothing is happening outside, nothing is going on, there’s nothing worth going out for. The world we see out of the window, the streets and the squares, appears empty. There are people walking around, yes, but they seem like they are moving in De Chirico’s cityscapes.

In Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, Rilke writes about the “wide choir” (der breite Chor) and “the powerful melody of background” (die mächtige Melodie des Hintergrundes).#A1 It is indeed not only confrontation or direct contact that connects people, but, we come to realize, first and foremost the landscape, or the “background”: a shared hinterland. Everyone is, of course, very involved with his or her partner, children, occasionally with close friends. But we become aware that we also need contact of a different kind, an unintended friction with reality that makes those small, intimate lives not only have an “outside” but also be embedded in an often barely noticeable texture that makes up a “world” – like a conversation in a café that happens not only against, but also with the surrounding murmur. This murmur is the background that opens up our monadic lives; it is the hinterland that is neither close nor far, that consists of the presence, the movements, and the lives of others, of existences that we do not know and have nothing to do with, but that fill the world with tumult and sound, with noise that we hear without listening to it. This murmur carries the unknown. And it is this murmur, this presence of other lives, we miss when it is lacking. It also comes with objects, like a tangible book or a traditional letter, which are things in the world and create reality. This sense of things disappears on the screen: without attention and care, or even joy in the materiality of things, meaning becomes disembodied, interchangeable. The effect of the virtual space on the screen creates, in Musil’s words, not only an “expansion without center” (Ausbreitung ohne Mittelpunkt)#A2 but a world without contrasts, where everything and everyone is always and equally available, compelling and emphatic, identical and replaceable, where distinctions and contours dissolve into the insignificant.

It is worrisome that the ubiquity and mediation of social interaction by the new media and, concomitantly, the dissolution of the material public space situated between the closed, intimate spheres of life on the one hand and the distant lure of the World on the other, are not only temporary. Even more frightening than the prospect that this state might be going on and on is the sense that today’s flexibility may come down to thoughtless adaptation, and that this is what the world and life are all about. What if the deserted and deflated corridors and halls of universities, theatres, and libraries merely prefigure a “new normal,” in which people may occasionally leave their comfortable indoors and “go out” to see each other or take a walk, but where this is the exceptional occurrence in an otherwise still and barren world? What is truly terrifying is the thought that this emptiness is simply what there is, that it is the answer to the question “What’s going on?”

Bart Verschaffel (1956) is a philosopher, teaching Theory of Architecture and Architectural Criticism at Ghent University (Belgium). He has published widely in the fields of Architectural Theory, Aesthetics and Visual Arts, and serves as the director of the VANDENHOVE Centre for Architecture & Art at Ghent University, in charge of the Charles Vandenhove art collection.

Image credit: Dirk Braeckman, Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, Thomas Fischer Gallery, Berlin, and Grimm Gallery, NYC.


[1]Rainer Maria Rilke, “Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge,” in: Sämtliche Werke, Werkausgabe 10 (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1975), pp. xx, xxvi.
[2]Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978), Bd. 1: p. 5.