On the occasional productive day, or on the regular days where productivity is mandatory, an attempt is made to do some work on my laptop. Oftentimes, this attempt stays an attempt and is followed by the accomplishment of hiding my laptop out of sight again. Working on a train simply does not work.
A brief moment of uncertainty strikes me as I am wondering what I could do next. After experiencing a life full of desires while time to fulfil all of these desires is scarce, I am left with myself and a sense of estrangement; I have all the time in the world and I can do whatever I want. How often can we truly say this?
After years of disdain towards the Dutch landscape along the train tracks, I now find myself gazing over the wide fields with appreciation. Sometimes there are hundreds of them, green fields reaching past the horizon. Orthogonally oriented and strictly measured to reach the highest efficiency.
As the train slowly deviates, the sun starts to shine on my side and the weight of my eyelids increases until a fellow traveller speaks up. “That is a beautiful plant that you have there.” A woman points to the Monstera that I bought with a generous discount at some supermarket. Perhaps, it could have been the departure of a great conversation, but after a short response I reach for the book that I brought with me and begin reading where I left off weeks ago.
It is funny that the money I spend on a train ticket buys me such a moment. “Humor me,” is what I have to tell myself. It is in stark contrast with the condensed series of events outside, which offer an abundance of temptations to all of us. We all seem to be cursed with having to live in eventful times. Times where life is presented to us as an immense accumulation of spectacles. The mass media, but also far more materialised things, provide us with a filter that only reveals desire; desire that could only be fulfilled through buying commodities.
Throughout the history of human civilization there have been different modes of living, or different modes of production. Nowadays the most dominant mode of production, in the West at least, is this thing called capitalism. From its conception onwards, a big prerequisite of capitalism has been the presence of necessity – which made it very effective in the first place. But it also meant that an emphasis had been placed on possession; in such a mode of living it matters how much you have and especially how much you do not have.
We got more and more of the stuff of life and now we have everything. But in order for this system to work, maintenance of necessity is essential. So the emphasis on having shifted towards an emphasis on pseudo-having, i.e. appearing.
The need to appear a certain way – appearance becoming a commodity – has now become the new productive force of capitalism, and the world presents itself as a market offering appearances that we lack and therefore need. We become alienated from ourselves and only strive to become something else which we can only become by consuming endlessly.
What, then, does this imply for the experiences that we have today? Are they still real experiences, or do they merely appear to be real?
Writing my articles for Bnieuws tends to go in shorter or longer bursts of productive activity. I like to follow each of these bursts up with gazing sessions out of my four by three metre window which has this immense size because it used to be a shop window. Looking out on the street I become the spectator of the day, the people and the life that drift by quickly.
Within a few days after moving to this place, I got familiar with all the neighbours from my building block. Almost all of them are happy to see me and I, of course, am happy to see them. We wave at each other, we smile and make gestures. I got familiar with these people, but from within my room I never got fully acquainted with them. Who these people are remained a question, and all I could and would do was speculate about this question without having many preconceptions.
After a while, the people that would drift by would become actual characters. Never fully developed since this game is a game of guessing. My ideas about them would change every now and then, and nothing could be said with certainty. But that is what is the interesting part of it; things drift by, but without prejudice these things could entail many things. Where does anyone come from, and where do they go? Relations, work and leisure activities, and motives for action and movement through space remain unknown, yet I remain aware of all the input that is given to me.
Guy Debord has dedicated much of his efforts to theorize about the spectacles that we are presented with; these appearances that have become commodities as I have pointed out earlier. A way to counteract spectacles is by constructing situations, which are “the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality” (Debord, 2006). These situations should enable us to become aware of our authentic desires again, in order to pursue these instead of the appearances that we so often strive for. Situations are meant to have a revolutionary effect that leads to the liberation of everyday life. They include humans and span across an urban scale in order to attain a multitude of experiences.
In order to develop hypotheses on the creation of situations, Debord has come up with a technique to make active observations of our current urban space: the dérive, which translates to drift and is a way of quickly making your way through urban space. It differs from a stroll or a journey in its goal to make the participant aware of relations in urban space, while at the same time it is aimed to construct new relations in a playful and adventurous way. It is therefore both an active analysis of the current state of an agglomeration of places and an active speculation on the possibilities of these places. It cannot be denied that there is a material terrain available to us with measurable constants and relations, but it can neither be denied that our image of this terrain is – unfairly – prejudiced because of our current mode of living.
To successfully drift through urban space, and discover new and authentic experiences, one should “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” (Debord, 1956)