Thinking the unthinkable

A strange sequence of events: last Saturday I was on a personal finance event (I’m a financial journalist) in Brussels, Belgium, and the day after I went to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (Belgium). I visited the exposition of the work of Willy Kessels (1898-1974), who is considered as one of the most important Belgian representatives of a new, ‘modernistic’ photography which came to the foreground from the end of the 1920’s onward. His body of works is particularly illustrative of the practise of the professional photographer in the 1930’s, so the museum site explains. Strangely enough, visiting that exposition made me muse about futurism.

Maybe it was not that strange after all: in the thirties Kessels made pictures of the modernist headquarters of the socialist newspaper Le Peuple, of the at the time very modern installations of the national broadcasting organization NIR, of new installations of factories and breweries. The pictures show us an optimistic, modern wold which seems very familiar to us, even in this day and age.

It was that familiarity which made me feel uneasy. The people in those modern interiors and buildings, would they have realized what horror and collapse of civilization would take place a few year later (the Second World War, the holocaust… )?

Kessels’ career was rather strange. He made those modernist pictures, and also pictures of the making of the movie Misère au Borinage about the suffering of workers. But he would also befriend Joris Van Severen of the Verdinaso, a very right-wing organization. Kessels would become a photographer of rural Flanders, trying to capture a sense of authenticity.

While many observers think Kessels was an opportunist, he also demonstrates an important cultural tension in the West: on the one hand the optimism, a belief in progress (economically, socially, politically, technologically) and on the other hand a Romantic rejection of all this in favor of the (often imaginary) virtues of the past, of local roots versus cosmopolitanism and globalization.

This tension increases when the social fabric of society is threatened. This was one of the themes we discussed at the investment seminars the day before and it is one of the big underlying issues in the trade discussions between the US and China: which of both countries will end up with an unemployment of 10 percent to 20 percent of the labor force? About 42 million people, more than one in eight Americans, are now on food stamps.

It’s rather difficult to have constructive political debates in such a context – on the contrary, it’s an ideal environment for extremists.

All of which explains my rather depressing thoughts: will museum visitors of the future look at pictures of our time, with our technological dreams and our modernist buildings and interiors, and wonder whether we realized what horror would happen to us a few year later?

As financial experts said during the seminar, the shift toward the East of the world economy is not that strange. Before the Industrial Revolution about 70 percent of the world economy was non-Western, so the fact that we return to that situation should not surprise us.

The road toward that new world order will be bumpy. How bumpy, we cannot know at this point in time. Will discussion about trade and exchange rates lead to war? Will extremists and fundamentalists use of the technological empowerment of the individual in order to commit horrible acts of mass destruction?

It’s strange that experts these days often work in ignorance of each other’s work. While security experts study issues like nuclear- cyber- and bio-terrorism, urbanists and economists often just don’t take these dreadful possibilities into account in their risk assessments. It’s one of the reasons that I like near-future science fiction so much: it constitutes one of the few accessible places where scenarios are developed and knowledge from various fields is combined into possible futures. It helps us imagine the unthinkable, so that we can try to prevent it.

Roland Legrand

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About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
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