By HARMAA | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
We have all hidden gardens and plantations in us; and by another simile, we are all growing volcanoes, which will have their hours of eruption: – how near or how distant this is, nobody of course knows, not even the good God.
Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science (1882)
The HARMAA Work Group consists of four philosophers (Erika Ruonakoski, Jaakko Vuori, Irina Poleshchuk and Joonas Martikainen) and the artist-illustrator Pauliina Mäkelä. The group develops new forms of communication that make space for an acceptance of the state of epistemic uncertainty. The group’s point of departure can be found in the idea of “indirect philosophy”, which combines philosophical tools with those of the visual arts. But what have growing volcanoes and Nietzsche to do with HARMAA?
Erika: The key question of the project is: what can philosophy and the visual arts do to question and break down the aggressive way of communication that currently dominates social media but also, to some extent, traditional media? The idea of an indirect philosophy came into being as a response to political and discursive changes: the goal is to make visible those discursive forms that give space for personal thought processes and invite us to explore reality in all its complexity, without simplifications. I found examples of such philosophising in the history of philosophy, for instance in the dialogues of Christine de Pizan and texts by Friedrich Nietzsche. The longer title of the project, “Indirect Philosophy as a Form of Resistance”, is meant to encapsulate this idea of soft resistance, but when we were looking for a shorter name for the project, we settled on the word “harmaa”, that is, the Finnish for “grey”, suggested by Pauliina. Pauliina, what does grey mean to you?
Pauliina: “Harmaa” or grey is something that falls between the opposites. It is not even a colour but a colourless, achromatic hue. Considering the ambivalent nature of grey, “harmaa” seemed like a good name for our work group. I was also attracted by the fact that the word ends with “maa” (land) – so I think of HARMAA also as a kind of terrain. For me, grey reflects a hazy landscape, where figures and things stand out from the mist, leaving space for imagination and interpretation.
We have been working together for more than two years and, in that time, we have made experimentation and experimentality a meeting point that brings together our different disciplines. Working in a group has thrown the unconscious processes of creative work into relief. How can we communicate to the others about things that are still in their early stages and in a state of uncertainty? Uncertainty can feel awkward in a group, even though it is a perfectly natural part of the working process. But it is rewarding and interesting to see how, in a group, vague ideas start to develop into something and how they take shape in unexpected directions. In the best cases, our processes have been interactive, with images and texts nourishing each other. For example, my Oculotopia installation, which I created for the 356 m² Olohuone Urban Art Festival in Turku, inspired texts that differed from the group’s previous works precisely because of this interactivity. We have also experimented with collaborative writing. This resulted in the Ajatusharjoituksia (Thought Exercises) Series, which deals with non-human alterity. The series was published in the Finnish philosophy journal niin & näin (2/2023) as a part of the thematic section on indirect philosophy. The intuitive process in which we have engaged in a shared space, at the Chamber of Kone Foundation, has given rise to the experience of working as a single organism.
Irina: For me the image of grey stands for a dimension of productivity, which allows a free manner of thinking, a reflective approach without reducing ideas, processes and concepts to the rigidness of academic argumentation. To a certain extent, grey is a volcano that might erupt one day but is still growing, accumulating the potential of different phenomena, situations and events. Grey is about being in-between, about lingering between visible and invisible, between the saying and the said. Grey refers also to knowing how to maintain silence in a conversation and create spaces for comfortable intellectual dwelling.
Erika: Nietzsche’s idea of growing and erupting volcanoes describes quite well the process that we have undergone during our project. The strength of the group is in brainstorming and collaboration, and while academic research takes a big part of our time, our shared creative moments have felt particularly liberating.
The inspiring aspect of Nietzsche, who, true enough, is a controversial thinker, is his philosophical courage. He shows us how much our actions and writings are directed by a desire to please. I don’t mean by this that we should attack each other in the name of freedom of speech and courage but that it healthy to be aware of the conformism in our own thinking. This critical point of departure is central for the work of the HARMAA Work Group.
The HARMAA Work Group investigates the existential undercurrents of the post-truth era and looks for alternatives for its aggressive modes of action. But how do we find or create space for thought? Are we claiming new ways of doing philosophy?
Joonas: Or are we claiming room for old ways of doing new philosophy? Of the kind of timeless practice, where the relaxation of our optic nerves allows new things to appear in the field of vision? The grey of HARMAA is also an invitation for something to emerge, something that has been there but has remained unnoticed… and yet it also feels like the project attempts to achieve something that has not been tried before.
Erika: In a way, we are indeed reappropriating something old while opening up philosophical expression to something new. If philosophy functions only through scholarly articles and popularisations, it makes itself poor. As for myself, I got into the rhythm of dialogical and ironic writing and a kind of visionary thinking when I was translating parts of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405/2021) into Finnish. I applied this approach to an experimental text that deals with the current political and environmental issues through the character of the Queen of Extreme Positivity. As a group, we are open to experimenting with all kinds of new things, which can involve new technologies and new forms of communication. While the discourse of academic philosophy is strictly controlled, indirect philosophising has no external constraints.
Jaakko: Personally, I find the forms of practising philosophy even more interesting than its content or themes, whether the theme is something related to the post-truth era or, say, to the classical philosophical question of the temporal unity of the person. Philosophy is often mediated to us in written form, although we do remember from the history of philosophy, for example, Plato’s critique of writing. Today, philosophy is most often practised by writing peer-reviewed articles for scholarly journals – frequently in a language other than the author’s own.
But are there other ways of practising philosophy in written form? For example, can we find a form of philosophising in an essay that makes use of literary means or presents a theme by means of association rather than by argument, or that has some kind of performative contradiction – in other words, that says something other than what it “does”? Would it be possible to write new philosophical dialogues or, say, poems?
Erika: Many of our texts have been fairly traditional philosophical essays, but typically we have left some “air” in them, some space where the reader can engage in the process of thinking together – we are often asking questions to which we may not give an explicit answer. At least I get the feeling, when I read the texts of the other group members, that they are asking you to think about something but not necessarily demanding that you agree with them. The visual element adds to the sensuous dimension of the texts and opens them up in a new direction.
Irina: We could indeed say that we are showing empty loci, where philosophy could go – without damaging anyone or anything. We can likewise ask how we could reformulate the ways of questioning, describing and revealing in academia. Is it at all possible to shake off the dominance of peer-reviewed texts or even replace them by, say, verbal and visual collaging? Can we disassemble academic language to make it more appealing and palatable for our cultural digestion? And finally, how do we reach the most ambitious goal, that is, how do we incorporate these new practices in contemporary philosophy?
Erika: The question is whether the world around us is opportune, in other words, if we have reached the point where things that are important to us resonate with the interests of other people strongly enough. Some people may be inspired by some of our ideas and practices and make them a part of their own action, all in their own ways. For someone the essential thing may be to find alternative modes of philosophising, somebody else may be interested in the interface between art and philosophy, whereas a third person may think that the crux of the matter is in a peaceful alternative for the current culture of communication. I like to see us as one agent among others articulating these things, bringing out something that is bubbling under the surface. Quite a few people are tired of the constant slander and needling that is taking place particularly on social media, and through it, in political and public life.
Indirect philosophy invites us to probe the diverse paths of thinking and to enjoy floating in unclear waters, without a need to immediately take a stand for or against. Instead of mockery and accusations, it encourages us to engage in gentle playfulness and self-criticism. What does the question of truth look like from this perspective? Does the post-truth era signify the death of truth?
Joonas: Thinking indirectly feels to me like working with the intuition that something is broken or even shattered, that we are looking at the world through a broken mirror and everyone will soon have only their own fragment to call real or the truth. Yet it seems that we speak in public as if nothing had happened, that there is just one voice that speaks and that we listen to, that we are presented with an image of a world that is still whole. We are looking at the reflection that is missing more and more pieces, and it is the task of thinking to demand that these too are brought out for examination. When philosophy puts these shards together in new ways, it may find something new that we didn’t even notice we were sharing.
Irina: The question of truth may not be relevant any more, and it is more important to undo concepts, unmark borders, merge everything together, mix, connect and not to separate, as has been the custom in philosophical production of knowledge.
Joonas: Uprooting the deceptive signposts of certainty that led us this far… More fodder for the composts of our hidden gardens!
Erika: The concept of truth is needed even when we recognise the significance of perspective in the formation of knowledge – namely that we always perceive things from a limited perspective. I don’t know why I would do research if I weren’t pursuing the truth in one way or another. If I say that I am seeking a deeper understanding of things, the assumption is still that you can understand things better or worse. I would say that there is an ideal of universally shareable accurateness that can be called the truth, but it is another matter what we can know with absolute certainty. This has to do also with the idea of the incompleteness of scientific knowledge.
Irina: There will certainly always be an urge to search for the truth. This search is a moving force and a powerful intellectual aspiration, even though the truth always remains “out there” somewhere, in the air, without a complete articulation.
Pauliina: In the visual arts, however, the relationship between lie and truth is of its own kind. You can use indirect or reverse methods, where the spectator or experiencer is lead towards “the truth” by means that are untruthful or deceptive. In art everything is, in a way, true and completely false at the same time. The materiality and composition of a painting, for example, are undeniable facts. Nevertheless, the content of the work can be illogical and completely imagined: its reality is something else than our everyday reality. The imagined reality of the painting can, however, reveal something truthful that resonates with our lives and experiences. What counts is that when we look at a work of art, we know that we are looking at the “reality” of the visual arts. The specificity of the visual arts separates it clearly from the reality of the news feed, which means that we can fairly safely examine the absurd and ambivalent intermix of truth and lie, which the spectator/experiencer can participate in through their own interpretation.
Erika: I agree that art offers a safe place where we can examine our relationship to the surrounding world without having to act or take a stand on issues in it immediately. To be sure, art can be polemical or didactic, but I doubt if it is the most own possibility of art or philosophy to serve as propaganda. Art and indirect philosophy provide the viewers and readers with kinds of mirror worlds and places of reflective dwelling, where the “right” view or interpretation has not yet been fixed.
How should we see the relationship of the individual to the future and history? Do we sow seeds of ideas or do we ourselves grow fruit trees, whose seeds were sown by earlier generations? What does Nietzsche mean when he talks about hidden gardens and plantations?
Joonas: Hidden gardens and plantations do give peace to those chancing upon them – maybe even power to reveal something that is not immediately obvious, yet something we share on a level which might be actually be too close for us to see distinctly through our everyday gaze. Such hidden truths and subterranean powers remain invisible to any approach that attempts to theorise them head-on… and yet speaking about them is something more than just idle talk or bad metaphysics.
Jaakko: I think there are also dangers involved in the idea of hidden truth… Isn’t it one of the features of the post-truth era that various extremist movements, conspiracy theorists and so on claim that they are the ones who have discovered the “hidden truth”? All the others, in this view, are just “sheep” seduced by the mass media. Is it not, then, one of the signs of a kind of extremism to claim to have discovered a truth that has been kept in the dark and hidden?
Erika: Conspiracy theories do, indeed, operate under this kind of assumption. Yet Nietzsche’s idea of hidden gardens and plantations can be interpreted also from the perspective of growth: there is something growing in all of us that is not yet visible but which, if the situation allows, can come to the surface and blossom. In this case we do not have to presuppose an “underlying” truth; instead, we are dealing with the activation of our own capacities and ability to act.
On the other hand, Nietzsche writes in the same aphorism of The Gay Science (9. Our Eruptions), that the grandchildren and great grandchildren “bring the interior of their grandfathers into the sun, that interior of which the grandfathers themselves were unconscious”. In this sense we are dealing with a historical development: there is something culturally planted in us that can blossom in us or in our descendants. This rather chilling thought describes the movement of human history, and it is possible to think that in some of us the eruption of the volcano signifies a step into open destructiveness. I do find Nietzsche’s view plausible, though, when he suggests that the time has to be ripe for the volcano to erupt or for a garden to bloom. As a matter fact, I even think that times of crisis and catastrophes bring out quite peculiar blossoms – both good and bad.
Irina: There is always “something to come”, something that is shimmering on the horizon. This something is always in the future and yet it has an effect on how we feel about the present moment. Or, it might be that there is always something hidden – hidden mystical roots, hidden seeds, a hidden tree or flower. We can find these in different mythologies. What is hidden holds and enroots the visible, and this is something that should be said and articulated more. It inspires curiosity and questions, stimulates new intellectual motivations and moves us from our habitual places and from fixed – often already wasted – concepts.
I also see Nietzsche’s hidden gardens as cultural foundations, which bring history and today together and sometimes fluctuate. They are still to be revealed or reinvented. The metaphor of the hidden garden can also mean that we cannot accurately represent the world or our identities, because the garden is always still growing.
Is HARMAA confined to what its members do together, or is it something more? Can it even be thought of as a kind of movement? What would the grey movement be about?
Jaakko: Perhaps we can indeed think of the HARMAA project also as a kind of “movement”. In that case what we do together would be something that is not limited to the framework of a momentary project or the doings of its participants. But what kind of movement would it be? Is this movement still to come or merely imagined?
We could use the garden metaphor here. Gardens need taking care of, but the plants and flowers that grow in the garden need to be planted, too. The German philosopher and poet Novalis refers to the philosophical fragments he wrote as kinds of “seeds” that may germinate…
Erika: When I was developing the project idea, I tried to think what philosophy could do in a post-truth era to change the prevailing antagonistic culture of communication. The initial idea was to create products that would in some way question that culture and encourage people to engage in personal, slow processes of thought. I thought that we could this way make space for thinking in the deepest meaning of the word and to move away from the fast-paced formation of opinions for or against. I soon realised, however, that social media itself makes the spreading of alternative ways of communicating difficult. On social media, there is a competition for people’s attention, and brevity, tough talk and exaggeration are the ways to get attention. As a result, I have started to think about our goals more through the idea of “grey movement”. One does not have to be a philosopher or artist to engage in a movement of this type. It is enough that you long for a non-aggressive alternative to the current culture of communication and are ready to do something for its promotion. A grey movement could be a peace movement of communication. Anybody could join a grey movement of this kind.
Joonas: Movement implies space to move in, and sometimes it even creates that space! The topos of HARMAA and indirect philosophy has been an indirect or tilted approach to reality as it is given to us in public discourse and in the field of academic philosophy, which demands that we position ourselves in an unequivocal manner. A grey movement is also temporally surreptitious and simultaneously surprising: it may open up syncopations of different tempos, which cannot fit in the accelerating rhythm and numbing antagonisms of social media.
Pauliina: Speaking of movement and space: in our project there is often first the question, “what can this become?”, and then it starts becoming. Maybe the “purpose” of the grey movement is exactly this: to create space.
Irina: We create spaces and silent moments that are needed to liberate philosophical thinking. We initiate a particular style or practice of approaching both the thinkable and unthinkable without harming either – a practice of responding, being respectful and responsible for others when we communicate with them by writing, speaking or drawing. You could even say that we attempt to initiate the becoming of something while creating a space that is based on reciprocity and a non-judgemental attitude.