Responsibility and the Event

Königin Europa, älteste Darstellung

Should I flee a situation that makes it impossible to follow my conviction properly?
Am I complicit of the situation’s wrongdoings if I do not escape?
Am I a traitor if I leave the situation if it’s rules go against my vision?
Do I have the responsibility to do my part to transform the situation?

These questions could be asked in a variety of contexts:
1. A judge in the Nazi regime
2. An engineer that is ordered to trick the emission tests
3. A politician who has to realize an unpopular decision
4. A citizen of a rural area or of a country with low income levels

The openness of the future contains both risks and opportunities. We can trace the openness back to the constraints of  the past though.

Let’s start with two types of disillusionment that come together with two sorts of priorities:

1. Disappointed by the idea, we prioritize the situation: A situation is not utopia. There will always be obstacles. What matters is doing the best one can and as much as the situation allows, in good and bad times, trying to realize the maximum of positive possibililities from within the situation.

2. Disappointed by the situation, we prioritize the idea: A situation is not an unavoidable destiny. I realize that it is not possible to realize my ideas in this situation and I come to the conclusion that what one needs is another situation, in order to go beyond the possibilities of the current situation.

Both of these require a decision to either sacrifice some of my ideas and ‘adapt’ to the situation, or to sacrifice the situation and choose the ideas.

There is a third path, which we can call: infusing the situation with ideas. I frequently compare ideas and situation with the aim to change the situation towards the idea. This is what one could call participation of the ideas, or making the impossible possible. Is this what we today call a project?

A project will have a mission and a vision. A project is guided by the mission. A mission is informed by the vision.

There is one piece missing. What makes the vision convincing? What makes me believe that this is the right direction?

To keep it short: A calling by the circumstances. Circumstances that are not identical with the situation. Because the situation is what one ought to change. There must be something in addition to the status quo that triggers the thrive for change. This is the calling. The calling is very fragile, and its consequences unclear. I have to decide if I will answer it. The outcome cannot be predicted. Because I will instantiate a project, that can succeed or fail… that can succeed but make things worse…. that can fail and still make things better. It will change the situation and will change the way I have arranged myself in it (more or less comfortably) previously.

However, it is not just a fresh start. The circumstances call for a change in the situation. The situation is still around. And the goal is, if I decide so, to change the situation, according to the calling.

This is not just a one-time decision. In every moment, the question will be: “Shall I continue?” Shall I remain faithful to this calling? How will I shape my faithfulness of this calling in everyday-life? Over time, I – and those with me – will develop our own history in relation to this calling. This relation over years become a tradition. The tradition can fossify the relation to the calling over time and hide it’s origin. It became part of the situation. Just the name for this calling stayed the same. It refers to two things: the calling (quite intangible), and all the things it had been over time when people answered that calling, and called the calling by a name.

Now it is more clear how we came into the legacy of any situation. People answered to a calling and that changed the situation. There will often be traces left that make it possible to pick up the thread again. Here we can say that relying on a calling that comes accidentally might not be enough. Sometimes it helps to reverse engineer the callings that is supposedly realted to the generation of the situation. So it requires to find the traces of this calling in the situation. But as was pointed out by Michel de Certeau, it is an illusion to go ‘back to the origins’ if it is in order to gain a foundation or certainty for the future.


How do the circumstances that call me relate to the initial questions of responsibility? Consider the following tentative answer:

Let’s differentiate between the global situation, that I cannot escape at all (this is just the time and the world I was born into), and the local place that is changing constantly, either because I am moving, or because the local situation is changing. The circumstances that triggered the calling start at a particular place and time. It might not be possible to stay in this local situation.

Let’s say my calling is the profession of a doctor and help humans when they suffer from health issues. And the economic situation of a country forbids me to do certain treatments because they are too expensive for the state.

Then we have again the following options:

  1. I act according to my professional calling, still do the treatment, and bear the consequences that this place will impose on me if they find out.
  2. Leave this place and seek for another place where my calling is compatible with the rules of the place.
  3. Adapt to the place.
  4. An extension to 1: Form a collective organization of other doctors in this place with the aim to change the rules of the place.

Why not leaving the place that initially triggered the calling? Was it really the place that triggered the calling? Or the global situation, combined with my personality structure?

Reverse Engineering and studying the legacy of this calling in detail might help. I might not be the only doctor facing this issue, now or previously. Whatever my investigatiton will find, it will not be possible to predetermine the decision about my reaction to this calling. Will I risk the calling by leaving the place? Will I save it by leaving, because I think at this place it would be dissolved over time?

Scanning the history of this calling / of this name / tradition might help constraining the decision at least, and provide more data points for thinking the decision through.

“Twofold is the lesson: [1] Modesty when encountering large scale utopias, in which the universal is just the new face of a particular tradition; [2] freedom facing the past, to the extent in which the homogenity between each of the stages of this tradtition and it’s respective time shows us that an appropriate alignment for our time is real and urgent.
[…] We can neither flee the present by calling upon the continuation of the past, nor can we escape the past by hiding it with tricky use of ideology. History is read again and again with others and in front of them, and hence it becomes a psychoanalysis of the present: In the course of this dialog “scenes of the early days” appear again and change itself to an extent in which we discover in them the conditions of a new venture.”
– Michel de Certeau: GlaubensSchwachheit. Der Mythos von den Ursprüngen. Kohlhammer 2009. Translated into English by A. Kirchner

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Andreas Kirchner

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