“Genuine creativity involves a certain reticence in the exercise of power, keeping a space open for larger things to take their course; for larger patterns to emerge.”
Philosopher & Writer
On the Different kinds of power, Living with equilibrium, and what governments can learn from The Moomins.
Power. The mere sight of the word can evoke feelings of both seduction and disgust, yet it remains an immovable presence, woven into the very heart of human history. But are there – beyond the desire to control and influence the behavior of others – hidden essences of power that behave in ways we cannot see? What are the differences between the power that is gained from grasping, and the power that is gained from letting go?
One thing is for certain – despite the innately fluid nature that makes it difficult to measure – power is something that affects us all, whether we are aware of it or not.
On a sunlit terrace in Ubud, below a convocation of writers and readers, Manusia took a moment to interview a man who has spent years contemplating and writing about the human experience. Captivated by what he sees as the “sheer malleability of human existence,” Will Buckingham has lived in the spaces in between philosophy, storytelling and anthropology – forging new imaginative paths of deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
His curiosity took him to Indonesia’s Tanimbar Islands in 1994, where the then new anthropologist’s visceral experiences eventually led to him leaving the practice of anthropology behind. Will later wrote about anthropology and the ambivalences of power in his memoir Stealing With Eyes – one among the many works he has published in various genres. He is also co-founder of Wind and Bones, a project exploring the intersection between creativity, writing and social justice currently based in Yangon, Myanmar.
In this brief interview, Will addresses different ways of approaching philosophy – reflecting on the ones that have made the biggest impact on his life, as well as his intriguing relationship with power. He concludes, smilingly, with the one book he feels should be required reading for all governments.
Was there a moment in your life that sparked your passion and curiosity for philosophy?
I’ve always liked to step back and think about life whilst living it, and appreciated this kind of double perspective. But I actually found philosophy quite boring when I was younger. I still do at times, to be honest, even if I’ve always had philosophical tendencies. Because of this, back when I was studying anthropology, I had friends who would say to me, ‘ You really should be a philosopher,’ and my response was usually, ‘Why would I want to be one of those? They don’t seem to be much fun.’
But there’s a big distinction between philosophy as an academic discipline – which is something I have never been particularly interested in – and philosophy as a process of deeper reflection on life. I’ve always been preoccupied by questions about what it actually means to exist and to be human, what it means to relate to others and the world of which we are a part. So it is this latter approach which I find more engaging.
The philosophers of the ancient world were not academics. They weren’t writing scholarly papers. They were engaging in experiments in how to live thoughtfully and how to think better about how to live. So the kinds of philosophers that interest me are philosophers like Confucius, going around and trying to demonstrate to people how to better order their lives, or the Epicureans in ancient Greece, living in their experimental communities. What I’m interested in is this thoughtful engagement with life. I am interested in how we can do something creative about the fact of living.
What are a few different philosophies that you personally have found to be the most intriguing and why?
My PhD in Philosophy was on Ethics and the work of Emmanuel Levinas. His main focus was the face-to-face relationship with others – the responsibility you have when encountering another human being, the fact that you are answerable for your existence. I was fascinated by Levinas’s emphasis on the primacy of responsibility, before you’ve even had a chance to ask yourself “What ought I do?” But as I went on there was also a lot about Levinas that I found increasingly unappealing, particularly his taste for high drama, and the religious tenor of his language.
“As I went on there was also a lot about Levinas that I found increasingly unappealing.”
Increasingly I am drawn to the Chinese traditions of thought. One book that I particularly love is a book by Francois Jullien called In Praise of Blandness. For me at least, Jullien’s book highlights something central to the Western philosophical tradition, and the culture that has come from it: the emphasis upon drama. In much Western philosophy, life is seen as a kind of drama, with the self as the heroic protagonist (usually a tragic hero) in this drama. What Jullien highlights in his book, as a counterbalance to this, is the whole aesthetic in Chinese thought of ‘That which has no taste,’ ‘That which is bland’, or ‘That which has no color’. To Western-trained ears, ‘blandness’ might seem like a bad thing; but Jullien shows how in the Chinese tradition, it has had a strongly positive value.
“To Western-trained ears, ‘blandness’ might seem like a bad thing; but Jullien shows how in the Chinese tradition, it has had a strongly positive value.”
Reading Jullien led me to something that I now think about all the time: the idea of the de-escalation of internal drama as one of the most important arts of living. It’s not something I’ve written much about yet, nor something I’ve found a particularly rigorous or systematic way of practicing, but it is something I am hugely preoccupied by.
By nature, I’m quite a drama queen. But since reading Jullien, I have engaged in quite a few little experiments in practicing blandness, in the de-escalation of internal drama, and I can see that there is a huge value in this.
When I manage to practice this a little more systematically, I find that life takes on a very different flavor. There aren’t all these ups and downs, all these upheavals. It isn’t a deep spiritual experience – I’m suspicious of those as well (because they are often expressed in dramatic terms). Instead, it is more a sense of equilibrium, a sense of things being simply what they are, without adding all that intensity and drama. I think there’s something in all that! I think that Edward Slingerland’s book on Trying not to Try, which also has the advantage of being nice and accessible, also touches on some of these themes.
How is humanity, at our time, transforming and evolving from a philosophical standpoint? Are we seeing new philosophies sprout out? Or old ones re-emerging?
Academic philosophy is often quite hung up on the ‘next big thing’, although I’m not sure that philosophy really progresses or evolves like this or whether the next big thing in academic philosophy is ever that big, or that interesting. However, in terms of genuine and thoughtful engagement with life, I’m sure there are wider cultural transformations going on all around us, even if it’s hard to see where things are heading. I neither have great hope, nor great despair, but that’s perhaps just me trying to de-escalate the drama!
One thing that is interesting at the moment is the questioning or even dissolving of certain distinctions and categories. One obvious example is that of gender. It’s fascinating how uneasy people are when you start questioning gender categories. And obviously anthropology has a role here as well (I was reading recently about the five genders of Buginese culture). The current exploration of the nature of gender is another thing that feels like a work-in-progress, without any clarity about where things are going. But when it comes to the breakdown of old certainties, the interesting thing may not be the replacing of old certainties with new one. Instead, the interesting thing may be the opportunity this breakdown gives us to face the genuine complexity of being human.
Another quite common narrative about cultural change is that through globalization everything in the world is being flattened out. Traditional cultures are dying, we’re all becoming more interconnected and more the same. But I don’t know if that’s true. Difference seems to spread and multiply wherever you are, especially when you’re not looking. So the world remains interesting.
“Difference seems to spread and multiply wherever you are, especially when you’re not looking.”
I was in the Tanimbar islands over 20 years ago, and I remember meeting a French guy who was outraged because the island and culture weren’t “primitive” enough! He got really angry with me about it, although I wasn’t sure that it was entirely my fault! And it’s true that there has been massive cultural change in Tanimbar over the past century. Since the first Catholic missions came in 1910, Tanimbar that has experienced huge, and probably often traumatic, cultural upheavals. Nevertheless, after some time in Tanimbar, I realized that it really was quite a unique and singular place. I remember saying to the French guy, “Yes, this place is rather ordinary, but it is also quite strange.” You just need to know how or where to look.
Since then, things have continued to change in Tanimbar. Today I can I read tweets on my Twitter timeline from once remote villages. But if I were to return (which I hope to), I suspect I’d find that there is still something stubbornly Tanimbarese about the place, across all of these changes. Recently, I wrote about how everywhere is both exotic, and mundane. Both of those things are true, I think, wherever you are. And I think that they will go on being true.
What is your relationship to power; of yours and of others around you?
Suddenly I start squirming! My main relationship with power would be one of unease, I think. One of the philosophers I love, Michel Serres, talks about investing some of your power in holding back from power. For Serres, genuine creativity involves a certain reticence in the exercise of power, keeping a space open for larger things to take their course, for larger patterns to emerge. We’re back again with trying not to try, I think.
I myself am increasingly aware that I’m in a massively privileged position. I’m a white, more-or-less heterosexual male who comes from a fairly comfortable middle-class background in one of the richest countries in the world. So that does put me in a position of power. These days, part of my strategy in dealing with the fact of power is to try and hold back, to attempt to slip away from that power and privilege to leave room for others.
One of the interesting things about the current cultural moment is that people are much more aware of aware of the dynamics of power, so people like me are increasingly held accountable for the power that we have. And that can’t be a bad thing.
“Genuine creativity involves a certain reticence in the exercise of power, keeping a space open for larger things to take their course, for larger patterns to emerge.”
Nevertheless, power works in all sorts of different ways, so our assumptions about who has power and who doesn’t, and in which situations, are not always accurate. There are different kinds of power.
Coming back to the philosopher, Levinas, one of the things he argues is that in encountering another person, we are always subject to a demand. Levinas says that the other person we encounter has a certain height and destitution. By ‘destitution’ he means that we encounter the other person’s need. This might seem like a position of lesser power. But Levinas also emphasizes the other person’s ‘height’, meaning that in encountering them we encounter an ethical demand to respond to and meet their need, and so in a very real sense, they have a power over us.
For example, if I encounter somebody begging on the street, putting out their hand for money, from one point of view I have the power and they don’t. But on a subtle level, in that gesture of putting a hand out, I am now subject to them. Being aware of the ways in which we are subject to others in our face-to-face encounters, holding back and making space for this demand, can open us up to a greater awareness of the complexities of power dynamics, and how they play out in human life.
“Our assumptions about who has power and who doesn’t, and in which situations, are not always accurate.”
My book Stealing With the Eyes is all about navigating these dynamics in the Tanimbar islands of Indonesia. I was in Tanimbar to study the work of sculptors who worked in wood and stone, and the book is an attempt to respond to the charge put to me by one of the sculptors I met: the charge that I came to Tanimbar to ‘curi mata’, to steal with my eyes. The power dynamics of my time in Tanimbar were complex: the book explores adat, the power of the ancestors, the power of witches and the power to heal, the power of church and state, and my own power and culpability as a researcher.
In the end, I gave up the practice of anthropology due to my unease with all of these power imbalances involved, and the book explores all this. But even in saying ‘I gave up the practice of anthropology’, I realize that I’m not being quite accurate. The picture was much more complex. It wasn’t that I made an empowered decision to give up anthropology out of my unease. Instead, I crashed out of my PhD in anthropology with some kind of sickness that, I knew, my Tanimbarese friends would either blame on bad adat, or on witchcraft.
The decision to turn my back on anthropology was the end-result of recurrent fever, sickness, endless sleepless nights, and a rumbling ethical discomfort about my culpability in all these power imbalances that, in many ways, made life more difficult for those who were so kind to me in Tanimbar. So, in a way, the collapse of my anthropological career was not an autonomous decision to give up, so much as it was a justifiable stripping of my power when I came to the realization that I simply couldn’t do this anymore.
“The decision to turn my back on anthropology was the end-result of recurrent fever, sickness, endless sleepless nights, and a rumbling ethical discomfort about my culpability in all these power imbalances.”
If you could recommend one book that would be required reading for those working in government, what would it be?
It would have to be the children’s book, Comet in Moominland (Tove Jansson), which was written during the tensions of the Cold War. Effectively, the story is about a great disaster looming – a comet coming to Moominland – and the Moomins don’t know what to do about it. In the book, there is no heroic saving-of-the-world. Instead the Moomin characters, knowing that perhaps there is nothing they can do to stop the comet, commit themselves to finding out more about the comet, to understanding the reality of the situation they are in. They go on a long and dangerous journey to the lonely mountains and talk the astronomers, who tell them the comet is going to hit at a particular time, maybe 3 or 4 seconds before or after. And then they come home, gather together in a cave, and together they eat cake. Fortunately, the comet misses, and after an anxious night, a new day dawns and the world goes on.
I find this vision compelling: it suggests that the two things worth cultivating in the face of disaster are knowledge and friendship. The Moomin characters cultivate knowledge of the comet, but also a deeper knowledge of each other. And they cultivate friendship not only with each other, but also with the world as a whole, and even – in one extraordinary passage where the character Moomintroll meditates on the loneliness of comets –with the comet that is coming to potentially destroy them.
“The two things worth cultivating in the face of disaster are knowledge and friendship.”
So I read Comet in Moominland as a book is about what to do when the end of the world, or the apocalypse, is almost upon us. And this is a situation that we are all in with the looming threat of global warming. What Comet in Moominland teaches is the terrifying thought that such problems may or may not be solvable.
Of course, if there are potential solutions, we should put them in place. But on the other hand, not all problems have solutions. Here’s the terrifying thought: maybe we are all fucked. What then? Well, even then, there are things we can do. We can keep cultivating knowledge and understanding, and we can commit ourselves to friendship with each other and with the world. This may in fact be the best way of finding solutions to our problems. But if it turns out that there are no solutions, it may also be the very best we can do for each other, and for the planet as a whole.
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