Contemporary space is rapidly growing less homogeneous. Fenced-in spaces, such as American ‘gated communities’, proliferate. The tendency towards enclosure is reflected in the symptomatic fiction of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show: the protagonist lives in the little town of Seahaven which is, in fact, a huge, domed TV studio—a simulation of life. The Seahaven scenes were filmed in a real Florida resort, Seaside, a neo-Victorian fantasy for the wealthy. Built between 1984 and 1991, Seaside also inspired Disney’s new urban development project, Celebration—a settlement completely controlled by the Walt Disney Corporation, where anything that might be a blemish on ‘small-town America’ is banned. Celebration, like Seaside, defines the good life in terms of a secession from the rest of society—the big bad world has to be kept at bay. A theme-park town such as this shows that real and fictional fenced-in spaces cannot be neatly kept apart: Celebration is a phantasmagorical reality. If The Truman Show is ‘just’ fiction, and gated communities ‘just’ social and political reality, they all function nonetheless within the symbolic register of contemporary culture.
The rationale behind these settlements, with their varying degrees of fictionality, may be elucidated through the term ‘human park’, introduced by Peter Sloterdijk in his notorious 1999 lecture ‘Rules for the Human Park’.footnote1 Sloterdijk here made some references to genetic engineering, which were ambiguous enough for many critics—Jürgen Habermas among them—to assume that he was advocating some sort of eugenic programme to ‘improve’ the human race. Indeed, Sloterdijk does seem to take it for granted that genetic engineering might actually be able to control the complex totality of human behaviour—an assumption that could as well be criticized on grounds of scientific naïveté as for its political implications. Sloterdijk’s remarks were triggered by his despair at the state of the ‘humanist’ tradition. In his view, the Schriftkultur is under attack from Dionysian mass media that threaten to destroy civilization by appealing to the beast in man. Whereas traditional Bildung, with its emphasis on text, has represented a humanizing, civilizing impulse, image-saturated mass media loosen inhibitions.
Sloterdijk sees a similar conflict between word and image in ancient Rome, where the culture of the amphitheatre—gladiators and other similarly brutal entertainments—triumphed over that of classical orators, with well-known consequences. The decadence of ancient Rome may seem overfamiliar as a trope of cultural pessimism, but Sloterdijk is original insofar as he sees Rome’s decline in terms of a clash between media—the spectacular medium of gladiatorial conflict versus the medium of writing. ‘As the book lost the fight against theatre in antiquity, so the school could now lose the fight against indirect forms of violence, in television, in the cinema and other disinhibiting media.’footnote2 Sloterdijk might have paused to ask himself whether he was not projecting a post-Gutenberg view of the central role of ‘the book’ back on to the culture of Antiquity; or how useful it is, in the present situation, to complain about the decline of writing and to accuse image culture, as such, of being dehumanizing. But it is striking how the very culture he attacks does like to mirror itself in ancient Roman spectacles. One of last year’s blockbusters, Gladiator, depicted the decadence of imperial Rome and its addiction to watching live acts of cruelty in the most lavish detail—a violent spectacle of which Sloterdijk would surely disapprove.
Sloterdijk conceives of society as a human park, a sort of zoo where order must be maintained by the keepers. Although this ‘pastoral’ view of society is based on Plato, contemporary references creep in, too: ‘Since the Politikos and the Politeia, there has been a discourse that describes human society as a zoological garden, which is the same as a theme park; from then on, keeping people in parks or cities has seemed like a zoo-political task.’footnote3 Traditionally, parks are places where nature has been tamed and ‘refined’, made suitable for human consumption. Plants are carefully grouped and groomed; animals are domesticated or kept in cages. In a theme park, nature’s dangers are simulated in thrilling ‘rides’: an excursion there is portrayed as an adventure—but one as safe as a visit to the zoo. In the ‘human park’ vision, society is a kind of zoo for people: their dangerous instincts must be curbed. Sloterdijk sees people as ‘animals under the influence’ of culture; the guardians of the park have to make sure these influences are beneficial.footnote4
It was the question of how to maintain stability inside the park in the face of the growing influence of the Dionysian mass media that led Sloterdijk to his remarks on genetic engineering. The polemics over this have tended to obscure the fact that Sloterdijk’s text, for all its fantastical aspects—or indeed because of them—has the virtue of making explicit a pervasive tendency in today’s culture. Despite its references to Plato, and a technocratic paternalism reminiscent of the modern state in its various guises (communist, fascist, democratic-welfarist), ‘Rules for the Human Park’ is above all marked by a contemporary fear of social disintegration. Sloterdijk is closer to Disney than to Plato. In Celebration, the disintegrating tendencies of a society seen as succumbing to Dionysian Enthemmungsmedien are locked out as much as possible.footnote5 And Celebration is just one famous example of a new kind of urbanism, in which towns are created as a refuge from the larger community. If the big human parks that used to be called nations have become unmanageable, then smaller, safer ones must be created for those who want to live a quiet life.
In nineteenth-century America, a new conception of the park was born: the National Park, where a large tract of virgin land is placed under protection. Here it is no longer man who tames nature, and hence protects himself from the wild, but nature that is protected from human interference. This kind of park has become ever more dominant: the wilderness has to be left pure and untainted, and if there is none left it must be created—as in the areas of pseudo-authentic ‘new nature’ in Holland. In his writings of the late sixties and early seventies, American artist Robert Smithson attacked the ideology of nature parks, then receiving fresh impetus from the counterculture. In his view, conservationists traded one myth (that of progress) for another (‘untouched wilderness’). He advocated a ‘dialectical landscape’, in which the human and the natural, the modern and the ancient could co-exist and interact. Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park, was the master here. Central Park is an artificial creation, a wasteland turned into a superior ‘new nature’ which has continued to evolve through the decades. Smithson described how, in the early seventies, the section called the Ramble—with winding paths intended for thoughtful walks—teemed with ‘hoods, hobos, hustlers, homosexuals’, whom he apparently regarded as forces of untamed nature: ‘Olmsted has brought a primordial condition into the heart of Manhattan.’footnote6 Whereas communities like Celebration are based on the premise that society as a whole has evolved into a place full of scary ‘animals’, Smithson delighted in a dialectical park that was far from ‘well kept’.
Smithson’s critique of the ideology of progress in postwar America went hand-in-hand with a fascination for the primordial, the prehistoric. He found Charles Knight’s kitschy dinosaur paintings as compelling as anything in the canon of modern art (‘Note impressionistic treatment of water’).footnote7 Smithson did not so much want to oppose the ancient and the contemporary as to show how and when the latter becomes post-historical, post-apocalyptic. He wanted to identify points where the limits of the accepted view of historical progress might be surpassed, creating a post-historical condition which becomes one with its opposite, prehistory—also outside conventional history’s bounds. The industrial ‘monuments’ of Passaic, New Jersey, provided an illustration: