The Parliament: a new public space

Facilitating the Parliament of Things: that is the mission of Partizan Publik, an Amsterdam-based initiative headed by Joost Janmaat (38) Thijs Middeldorp (37).

An interview by Marjan Slob for a publication of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving). See the text below.

You can read the contributions by Bruno Latour, Roger Scruton, Wilhelm Schmid and Matthijs Schouten via this link.

Facilitating the Parliament of Things

“Latour made his call to summon the Parliament of Things in 1991. You might say we have accepted his challenge. We really want to organise such a Parliament, that is: a space where bacteria, squirrels, lakes, people, ferns will come together to commonly make decisions. Our founding meeting took place in September 2015. Recently we launched a writing contest. It’s commission: write a short story or poem in which an Animal or a Thing states its interests for the Parliament of Things. We have received almost 500 contributions. The contest attracted a lot of media-attention and brought us new allies. An architect and a theatre director now puzzle with us on how to further design the Parliament. Is it a physical place, a website, a story, a dream? Is it a building, a ritual? That is what we hope to find out.

For us, the Parliament of Things is a way to escape the worries and fears surrounding climate-change. As we see it, reactions to climate-change are either apocalyptic, or all hope is set on some sort of technological fix. Our aim is to investigate and criticize the opposition between nature and culture underpinning both reactions. Our mode may be playful and merry, but the outset is serious.

In cooperation with the theatre director we are currently designing a ritual, which will transform attendants into a mountain, a forest, a goldfish – you name it – and will enable them to speak by means of the communication-techniques we will provide. As you might appreciate, communication is rather an issue in the Parliament of Things! We don’t yet know what will happen. Maybe the North Sea will be making a case in Parliament against humans, and state that the interests of humans are far too dominant. Maybe the algae will react: ‘That does not bother us; we will survive no matter what humans will do’. Whatever happens: we will have to judge the interests of the North Sea from a broader scope than that of economy, or even sustainability, alone. We will have to take the wellbeing of the Sea itself into account. It will demand of us to see non-humans as autonomous actors with their own pace and their own value-systems.

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. If a company can be a legal person, why might a sea not be one as well? And it is not without precedent either. The Ecuadorian constitution acknowledges the rights of its rainforest as an ecosystem. Recently a New-Zealand river, the Whanganui, has become a legal person. We have visited this river, to learn more about this new way of relating with nature as a subject. This approach is not wholly unknown in the West. Do you know that story of an American general who returned from the civil war? He was so happy and grateful to see the familiar tree before his house that he decided to free the tree. He drafted an act in which he assigned the plot of land on which the tree stands to the tree itself. This tree has become known as The Tree that Owns Itself.

We fancy ourselves to be part of a longer emancipation history, in which blacks and women have become political subjects. Granted, it is hard to see how animals and things might become subjects. Perhaps we can work along the analogy with children: children have personalities, interests and rights, but they cannot legally speak for themselves – so we have set up a system of guardians. Maybe you might become the legal guardian of a particular animal or natural object. Of course all sorts of problems are bound to appear: demarcations problems (can subspecies make a case for themselves?), weighing problems (does every voice count in the same manner?). You might even ask whether legalisation of natural things is the right and proper way to proceed. But questions like these are exactly the ones we find exciting.

For us, the Parliament of Things is a public space in which we communicate with non-humans on an equal basis. A parliament is a place where laws are designed; in that respect it is a place of power. But it is also a house of communication, which centres more around ethics and spirituality. As yet, we do not know which aspect will eventually dominate. But we certainly hope to become smarter in our design of the whole process.”

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