Origins and Possible Futures
There has been quite a firestorm about a new SAS airlines ad, which says “What’s Scandinavian?”, and answers it with “Absolutely nothing. Everything is copied.”[i] Then it goes into all kinds of things and ideas that are imported, even though those are considered “Scandinavian,” such as democracy from Greece, windmills from Persia etc. Much of the attack has been driven by the cultural Right and those with Right-leaning politics. But the person who showed it to me was struck that I was not at all impressed as someone who genuinely believes in the strength of multiculturalism. The long and short of it is that it is an airline ad, so it tries to sell the message that Scandinavian travellers travel, bring ideas home. Things can have their origins anywhere, but they are at home in Scandinavia.
The ad conflates genuine achievement that might have been invented in any part of the world, whether in Scandinavia or elsewhere, with the facile facts about origins of Swedish meatballs and Danish pastries. I live in Norway, and every single banana pack in the supermarket says where it was grown, every box of tea carries country of origin. I don’t think any Scandinavian would claim a banana or tea while enjoying it. The biggest visibility of China is in that tiny string of words in almost everything we use: “Made in China.” This is just how the world is. Perhaps every person who has some elementary civic education knows about democracy having one of its important origin points in Ancient Greece (Grecian democracy was undemocratic by today’s standards – and Norwegian democracy is probably one of the best in the world at present).[ii] But does that trivia tell us anything useful about democracy today? Technology-wise, I’m fairly certain that there are many technologies invented or innovated in the Scandinavian region, because that is true for every place. Technology and knowledge transfer is precisely what helps us grow as a species. I genuinely think the Danish LEGO is one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, since it trains in and accelerates modular thinking. Scale that up and one can turn to everything from everyday furniture from IKEA, the principles of programming, Minecraft, to millions of kids around the world who grow up with a spectacular method for problem solving and learning basic engineering skills (I want to go into games and education in another blog post soon, so won’t press the point here). But is LEGO Scandinavian culture? What would that even mean?
Not that there isn’t a genuine problem of conflation: people think yoga poses are Indian or spiritual or some such shit,[iii] for instance, and love or hate it for that reason,[iv] instead of going after Swedish turn of the century gym routines, where they originate. And many people think the Arabic numerals and the number system we use are Arabic and have something to do with Islam so shouldn’t be taught in schools.[v] The ad tells us that Scandinavia was brought here piece by piece – and makes no reference whatsoever for instance to the Sami populations. It often becomes necessary to question origins when those origins are tied to questions of violent nationalism. In wartime nationalism serves a different purpose, including promoting a mindset geared towards freedom, community values, and individuality. But only in peacetime can it be questioned enough to prevent war to begin with. Humanities especially and all its wings whether in academia or in any other field have to deal with this fact if they are to be objective and critical, which is why humanities is often the first target of governments when nationalism grows in peacetime. But one must question stupidity in all its forms, including replacing one centre with another. The ad expects us to be mind-blown by the trivia it digs up, couching it in provocative language of “What’s Scandinavian?” and saying “Absolutely nothing”, but the looseness of terms means we can just as easily say, “Everything.” And it would be equally pointless. The ad seeks to be provocative and succeeds, but it also pretends to be historical without an understanding of history, and thus fails.
Perhaps a much better question is: what allows/allowed the development of certain technologies and their transfer, rather than others, and, for the future, how can we learn and make better, faster, and smoother processes of technology and knowledge transfer that do not rely on epistemic or other violence? The first one takes us into the domain of historical enquiry, a pathway that is essentially turned towards the past as a mechanism for understanding the present. The other takes us in the domain of the future and speculation for working on strategies for the present, or, in CoFutures terms, pathways to possible presents. The two are not mutually exclusive, and they depend on each other, but the two are not to be conflated in terms of their goals. For the former, an enquiry into origins is often important, and invaluable. A historical enquiry can put things into perspective, including the conditions under which knowledge is produced, technology created, innovations made and so on. It can lead us to questions such as the treatment of the working classes, labour, slavery, capitalism etc. After all, modern day industrial production, whether technology or food, is built on top of exploitative structures, and a historical enquiry can indeed get us to the origins of these structures. There is also the clear question of disproportionality in innovation and in visibility of innovation, and the money to generate new technologies and to disseminate them is also tied to different kinds of exploitative structures. But then how far do we go with all of it? Which historical era or eras do these enquires lead to? What time? Whose time? Where does it begin? History is not metaphysics, but the quest for origins is a metaphysical one. Ultimately, it only reveals the origins and sources of the problem, and knowledge correction – filling in gaps in what we know about the past – is useful but only part of the solution.
The second one takes us towards a different track, where origin is the nightmare. The second seeks to go beyond those futile quests in order to find some other way of being. This other way of being is not ahistorical, but decidedly transhistorical – where scale is transformed so completely that we are no longer reliant on the limitations of ancestry, blood, or origin, to feel like we belong. The more flexible the scale the more the abundance. The other reason for the second is that if the problems we are facing are global, then the solutions must come from everywhere. If the world is burning no place, no country, no people can escape it. The rich might hold out longer and have greater capacities for survival, but it will eventually destroy everyone. That’s the nature of catastrophe and violence, including climate violence. Point of origin becomes irrelevant in this view. It doesn’t matter if windmills came from Persia – is the region today a primarily oil economy? Yes! And that’s a far more important issue to raise.
My partner is still amused at times by the fact that I love walking around the city so much, and spend so much time at kitchen, hardware, miscellaneous tools stores. I have tried to explain that it’s because these places give me a sense of human imagination, history, and ingenuity. The rolling pin or stone that is in every kitchen connects us across all lands to much of human history. A simple, smooth tool, purely mechanical, timeless. And while knowledge or technology may not save us – human ingenuity is often expressed through that which we make. That human ingenuity may save us yet.