“Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck. To be shipwrecked is not to drown. The poor human being, feeling himself sinking into the abyss, moves his arms to keep afloat. This movement of the arms which is his reaction against his own destruction, is culture — a swimming stroke.... But ten centuries of cultural continuity brings with it — among many advantages the great disadvantage that man believes himself safe, loses the feeling of shipwreck, and his culture proceeds to burden itself with parasitic and lymphatic matter. Some discontinuity must therefore intervene, in order that man may renew his feeling of peril, the substance of his life. All his life-saving equipment must fail, then his arms will once again move redeemingly.”
- José Ortega y Gasset
Life is a task. To Bakhtin, the task was to make meaning from the experiences around us, and to be cautious of ideologies that insist on a particular approach to organizing those experiences. To Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, it was the “swimming stroke”, the creation of culture as a reaction to existential shipwreck. However, he argued, 1000 years of continuity has distanced us from that swimming stroke, and our ability to stay above water is hindered both by our lack of practice and by the “parasitic and lymphatic matter” that accumulates over time.
A “discontinuity must intervene” he argued, so that we might find again that feeling of peril and begin to use our arms, to create a culture that responds to the world within which we find ourselves.
UKAI’s programming and projects for 2024 will be organized around the theme of shipwreck. How might cultural production emulate that swimming stroke? How might it reveal how close to the water we are? How might we build a capacity to act when our life-saving equipment fails?
We are not talking about technical responses, but rather changes in belief and how we understand the events around us. The most decisive changes in humanity are changes in belief. And culture is where those beliefs are formed and embedded.
We inherit our beliefs from those around us and are immersed in a bath of assumptions and behaviours that eventually seep in. The moral positions of capitalism – efficiency and size – have taken on the authority of universal values and we are kept afloat by systems that push to the side other ways of being.
Actions grounded in the beliefs of others are of a different quality. Perhaps not weaker, but certainly less adaptive. Our borrowed boat is starting to leak, and we have long forgotten how to mend it.
Beliefs are ideas we ... believe in. They shape the way that we engage in living. To Ortega y Gasset, “living beliefs” are adequate, in themselves, to live by. Faith in God, for many centuries in Europe, was a living belief, and offered a sense of meaning and purpose. A belief in reason followed, and there was a period of confidence that all mysteries could be untangled through conscious and structured thought.
Dead beliefs are those that no longer prove adequate as a basis for a meaningful life. A faith in consumption drove incredible development and still provides meaning to some. However, the clear harm of endless growth and the persistent emptiness that accompanies “more and more” has eroded our faith in this idea.
We continue to carry around these dead beliefs, the “parasitic and lymphatic matter” of Ortega y Gasset but they offer us little.
How does this come about?
Institutions are occupied by living faiths. First it was the church, then those tasked with building nations in the 19th century, and then the needs of capital ascended. The current moment seems to be defined by a faith in control, that the worst of outcomes can be avoided if we simply develop more and better tools.
People that believe in these living faiths apply their efforts to transforming institutions to their ends. Faiths may die but they continue to reside in the unthinking systems and routines of the institutions that housed them. New tenants arrive and sometimes do the work of cleaning out the bodies, but too often they remain, stuffed away in some back room. Western culture is a ship covered in barnacles of past ideas stubbornly holding on.
At UKAI we are interested in understanding what conditions might support living faith(s) appropriate to the world that's coming. Faith in progress and comfort are quickly dying. Faith in a a better future has given way. What faiths will arise to replace them?
2024 will see UKAI explore the theme of Shipwreck in a range of ways. We are in Bristol in November 2023 to engage with the community at Watershed around these questions. We will do research and prototyping and we will provide workshops based on what we learn. We will invite audiences into ‘situations’ that facilitate multiple perspectives on shipwreck, and thereby suggest multiple pathways forward. We will deliver on infrastructure that acknowledges the need for the “swimming stroke”. We will work with partners internationally who are asking similar questions in their own way.
Like gravity, social faiths influence our lives whether we believe in them or not. Over time, these social faiths ossify and become social dogmas. Are our current social dogmas working for us?
Ortega y Gasset offered that “the idea of progress, placing truth in a vague tomorrow has proved a dulling opiate to humanity”. Faith in progress is dead or dying, yet we remain burdened by its assumptions. Efficiency, hurrying toward the future, only make sense if we believe the future will be better than the present. So we invest in making things faster, easier, smoother.
There is an obscure fairy tale of a boy that so loves a girl that when they go swimming at night, he adorns her with weeds he pulls from the bottom of the lake. Dive after dive, the weeds accumulate and grow heavy, but she is unwilling to refuse his gifts. The boy dives deep to grab another handful of weeds and when he surfaces, she is gone. Whether she drowned or was rescued by the gods isn’t answered. The boy, in either case, finds himself alone and heartbroken.
Living beliefs are a gift. They provide meaning and joy in the experience of living. When beliefs die, however, we need ways to clear away the detritus and accumulation or risk sinking under.
We would love to hear from you! Reach out if you are interested in participating or supporting this programming or if you just want to chat. Also, see below for an upcoming event at our home, The Bridge!