Romana Schuler

fiat::radical individuals – social comrades

Introductory notes on the Thomas Feuerstein exhibition

fiat (Lat.) 1. (after the Creation dictum 'fiat lux!' = 'let there be light', Genesis 1:3): 'let there be!', 2. process into... (in prescriptions, med.)

The exhibition title quotes the divine word of creation with which the biblical program of genesis and the formation of matter and life begins. The first creation story ends with the banishment from paradise, marking the beginning of a second creation: thus the project takes as its point of departure an autoevolution and autopoiesis of culture shaped by science, technology, politics and economics. Currently society is at a turning point where the first creation of nature is being short-circuited with the second of culture, giving rise to a third creation of artificial nature and natural culture – in the form of biotechnology, genetics and nanotechnology or of a laissez-faire market economy seemingly governed by natural law, for instance.

The English philosopher of the state Thomas Hobbes sought to account for state, society, law and morality on purely naturalistic grounds and to derive them from the individual’s instinctual structure. As a forethinker of modern capitalism and social Darwinism he conceived of the state of nature as a state of war, as a struggle of each individual against every other. It is not altruism but fear that causes human beings to come together and form societies. The instinct of self-preservation lays the foundation for a pragmatic social contract, which is sanctioned by an external sovereign authority, the state. The state regulates and orders the community of individuals and is symbolized by Leviathan, a monster described in the Book of Job, which in Hobbes’s book of the same name is composed of the body of citizens and crowned by the all-seeing ruler.

With 'homo homini lupus' – literally 'man is a wolf to man' but in English more commonly expressed as 'man's inhumanity to man' – an aphorism borrowed from Plutarch, Hobbes anticipates and warns against the Darwinian law of the survival of the fittest. It is not the individual entity in the wilderness of unchained competition that creates trade, markets and prosperity, but the state, which assures a prospering society for the advantage of everyone, whereby according to Hobbes 'man becomes a god to man'. As a mythological pendant to Leviathan, Hobbes picks the four-footed monster Behemoth as a symbol of civil war and the collapse of the state.

At the center of the Thomas Feuerstein exhibition are two interrelated installations that investigate the social tensions between individuality and sociality in the context of the aforementioned third creation story. Using two biological metaphors, questions are posed regarding the condition and future of the human and its social forms. The work Leviathan - a physalia as a metaphor for a social metaorganism - makes reference to both the biblical sea monster and to Thomas Hobbes's book of the same name. Furthermore, it makes reference to a hydrozoan body that in nature is built up of thousands of polyps. Comparable to a beehive or an anthill, physalia are, in contrast to common jellyfish, swimming colonies of differentiated individuals. [Translator’s note: The German word for the genus Physalia – Staatsqualle, meaning literally 'state jellyfish' – makes the metaphor all the more cogent.] Flooded by light of changing colors, Feuerstein’s Leviathan is made up of over ten thousand crystals and refers to the oldest description of society as a network: the net of the god Indra. In this Hindu myth, society is understood as a network made up of a plethora of facetted individual diamonds, with each of them sparkling only through reciprocative interplay. Singularity shines in the communal reflection of light that is conducted from one crystal to the next, becoming stronger with each step. Here fiat lux refers to enlightenment in two senses. The light object Leviathan, which captivates through its precision and beauty in the classical sense, is not an aesthetic end in itself for Feuerstein. It plays a critical and ironic game with the apotheosis of an absolute state in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, who drew upon Euclid’s geometry as a model for the precision and order of his state machine. In view of economic liberalization and politics that trade off solidarity for subsidiarity, the naturalistic explanation of social processes is brought explosively up to date. Individuality and sociality in the arena of a state governance turned biopolitical become the decisive cornerstones of a social blueprint where the struggles regarding law and morality, fundamentalism and social equality, are fought out. What is under negotiation thereby is a social contract that, as with Hobbes, either derives from individual equality independent of possessions and power or risks war.

The work Behemoth (as Heifer) shows the chimerical figure of a laboratory worker lying on a sand bank in front of four plaques. The mixture of cow and cowboy evokes associations to phenomena of cultural history that reach from the mad scientist to the frontier spirit, from the prairie cowboy to the space (and cyber) cowboy. It also makes reference to fundamentalist currents and the ways in which they influence politics in the United States: Behemoth, which in biblical tradition is usually depicted as a steer, becomes a red cow in Feuerstein’s work, a heifer heralding to fundamentalist Christians and Jews the arrival of the Messiah and the eschatological Last Day. In the four plaques adapted into bioreactors, immortal tumor cells write the letters of the word fiat in a special nourishment fluid with a marker tincture. A gas bottle provides the cells with an oxygen mixture that corresponds exactly to the proportions of venous human blood, while a heat pump on the back of the images keeps the cells at body temperature. In this context tumor cells are understood as radical individuals that sheer out of the organism’s cell collective. As egotistical cells that strive for their own self-preservation at the cost of all other cells, they break with the body’s genetic social contract. The prospect of unlimited metastatic growth and of eternal life metaphorically transfers the tensions roiling in the social struggle between individuality and sociality from the Hobbesian state body into the human body of the citizen. Here biopolitics evoke a double meaning that quite literally gets under our skin.