Why we should take care of trees

I’ll get straight to the point: as a city dweller, I don’t have much of a connection with trees. And especially not when there are a lot of them together, which is also called a ‘forest’. Of course, I find stately plane trees on either side of a boulevard in – let’s say – Budapest beautiful. But in a forest, I quickly feel cut off from civilization – too far away from the theater, cinema, or pub. My motto is that city air makes you free.

Nevertheless, Studium Generale recently planted a small tree; we can see it from our workplace in The Library. I think it’s important to reflect on our relationship with trees – a relationship that is, after all, thousands of years old. Without trees, there would be no human civilization; we use wood to build, to burn and so much more. Trees have traditionally been used for medicine, food, paper, and much more.

In addition, trees play an important religious role in countless cultures – as a patron saint or mediator between the physical and spiritual world. Trees form the so-called axis mundi – the trunk that connects worlds. We also see this connecting role in science; think of the concept of the ‘tree of life’, which captures the evolutionary descent of all life on Earth. Of course, it’s a way to categorize the development of life, but it’s also a way to depict the mystery of life itself.

Furthermore, trees are more intelligent than we think, as we’ve learned from books and documentaries such as The hidden life of trees. They communicate with each other, work together with numerous organisms through the root network, and even seem to have a personality (I’m curious about the personality of our little tree – it’s probably not the easiest). Trees thus offer food for thought on different forms of intelligence, especially in the network society we live in.

And yet, that’s not the main reason why I think we should reflect on trees. On the other hand, my slight fear of trees does play a role in why I find trees so valuable. I’m not alone in that fear; despite all the noble stories about trees, trees – and especially forests – are also scary in many stories. Unpredictable, dark, sometimes downright hostile. I think that’s important; trees are not just cute cuddly creatures or useful objects. There’s something about them that escapes our need to make everything around us meaningful or valuable.

In the nineteenth century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime – a mixture of pleasure and fear that we experience when confronted with our own insignificance – for example, in nature. Someone who sees a storm raging in the distance can be overwhelmed by such a sublime experience. By the way, the storm shouldn’t come too close, because then we’re more concerned with survival than with deeper experiences. But at a safe distance, we experience how little we matter, compared to nature. Scary, especially for the big egos we are, used to everything being under control. But also liberating, precisely because we realize that not everything is under control.

Perhaps, as a city dweller, I can’t look at a forest or trees in any other way than with romantic thoughts about sublime experiences. And I won’t say that I always have such a sublime experience when I look at trees – especially not with the small sapling we’ve planted. Although… there’s a real chance that that sapling will be a big tree long after I’ve left this life. And that’s a little sublime moment in itself – a small reflection on my insignificance and transience. It gives food for thought, about the care and responsibility I have for this world, which will still be here when I am long gone.

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale

How fear can help us make choices

Why are we afraid? A simple question, but the answer is – as is often the case with philosophers – not so simple. It starts quite simple. We can be afraid because our safety is directly at stake. From ourselves, or our loved ones. You could call it an evolutionary response, driven by hormones and physiology – think of the fight, fly, freeze response we can have in immediately threatening situations. For example, a good horror movie plays on this physiological response; we sympathize with the main character who is threatened by a monster or psychotic killer. Suddenly a knife appears, or a strange machine, and we are startled – just like the main character.

But we can also be afraid of things where our safety is not directly at stake, and then the story becomes more difficult. For example, we can fear the future, which is always indeterminate. What’s coming my way, especially as the years climb? But we can also be overcome with fear when the future seems completely fixed. That the life we lead – no matter how comfortable – seems to repeat itself ad infinitum. Afraid that this is it – this job, this partner… Then what are we afraid of? We are not in immediate danger, we can even lead a pleasant and successful life. And yet we can be overcome by a paralyzing fear.

Philosophers would say that this fear is existential in nature. That is to say, this fear is about human existence as such. This fear has to do with how we ‘are’ as people. For example, that when people know about our existence, we feel how the hourglass of time is emptying more and more, and that we only have the opportunity to do it right once.

Really good horror films also know how to respond to that. If a horror movie consisted only of physiologically threatening situations, it would quickly become boring. It only gets really gripping when the main character is confronted with how the demons and psychotic killers that creep up on him are partly caused by how he himself fails in his life. We see it in one of the most famous primeval horror stories – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. A story that is of course scary because of the three ghosts that visit the main character Scrooge, but is especially drastic because the demons are the result of his own stinginess. He had a life to live, a choice in it, but he wasted it, preoccupied as Scrooge was with money. He thus created his own ghosts.

In horror films you see symbols that express this existential fear. Empty, undefined spaces, long corridors, cellars, for example, are powerful symbols. Of course those empty spaces are frightening in themselves, because a monster can just pop up and threaten life and limb. But those empty spaces also represent the emptiness and indefinition within ourselves. A je ne sais quo that can overtake us when the ravages of time gnaw at us, and we doubt whether we are living a successful or meaningful life.

We are here already very close to what is called the Unheimliche in philosophy; translated into English as the uncanny – we undoubtedly all know the latter from the concept of the uncanny valley. We come back to the Unheimliche early in the history of philosophy, for example with Nietzsche. But it really makes school in the twentieth century through an essay by Sigmund Freud and further elaboration by Martin Heidegger.

Freud describes the Unheimliche as the opposite of ‘heimlich’ – which of course can be beautifully translated into Dutch as ‘secret’, which refers to the domestic as well as the hidden or the insidious. But it’s not just the opposite. For example, you can say that the opposite of covert is something like the open. For example, we are clearly not at home here in this room, and we are not secretly together either. But that is not what Freud means by Umheimlich. He is concerned with what has been snatched from the secret. Something shows itself, because it really shouldn’t have been shown. The Unheimliche remains, as it were, glued to the Heimliche. And that’s what makes it so scary.

With Freud you can of course think of unconscious desires such as incest or parricide, which suddenly come to the surface. Desires that are socially taboo and that must therefore also be punished if they show themselves too emphatically. For example, in his essay Freud describes the story of the sandman by the eighteenth-century German writer ETA Hoffman. The sandman who throws sand in the eyes of little children at night so that they sleep. However, some children keep their eyes open – they see things in the dark that should not be seen. And as punishment, the sandman takes their eyes. According to Freud a symbolic castration, the punishment because a social taboo is broken. Basically a ban from the c ommunity, as we see in the story of Oedipus, who gouges out his own eyes after realizing he killed his father and slept with his mother, and who from now on wanders through Greece as a blind wanderer.

Mind you, this is not so much about just a law or code being broken. No, this is about showing what is actually very close to us – in this case about secret desires. The secret becomes secret at the same time. This also has everything to do with the second example that Freud mentions, namely the theme of the Doppelgänger or doppelgänger that appears in many ghost stories. Think of mirrors, in which the protagonist sees himself – sometimes distorted. Or to ghosts that seem familiar to us somewhere. To dead that don’t seem dead, like in the many zombie movies. We see ourselves again, but distorted and alienated. We recognize it, but then again we don’t. An experience we will all recognize is looking at ourselves in the mirror and watching how we become more like our parents with age. Who am I now? Of course, the uncanny valley is also an example of this – the area in which technology takes on human features, for example a robot with a human face, but is still just not human. Technology becomes our doppelgänger, but in a strange and therefore frightening way. Also consider how modern zombie movies are often a critique of modern consumer society. Often the difference between zombies and consumers who mindlessly stare at a screen for hours in those films is not that great. The modern consumer society creates a Doppelgänger of ourselves. A hollowed-out, soulless doppelgänger – but nonetheless still recognizable, and that’s why it’s so creepy.

Why is this so frightening now? We can imagine that superficially. The Doppelgänger threatens us, he threatens to displace us. In backrooms it is not for nothing that a robot pushes the main character into the abyss. But I think there is a deeper explanation, which again has everything to do with human existence or existence. Something is tormenting us, all of us. That does not always have to be manifest, it can also be a voice in the background. Nevertheless, it is there: the torment of knowing the passage of time, the ever-approaching future, and even the inevitable end, that never makes us feel quite at home in the life we lead. Am I making the right choices? Is this the job I want to have, the house I want to live in, the partner I want to be with?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who has written very penetrating analyzes of human existence, calls the Unheimliche the fundamental fear of “not being at home”, or the Nichtzuhause signal. Remember, here too, being away from home is not just the opposite of being at home. It’s not about someone ‘not being there for a while’. No, the point is that it is precisely in being at home that not being at home is inevitable. As I see myself in the mirror at the same time as my father. Like I’m happy that I have a nice job, and at the same time I think: is this it? Just when I get home, I notice that I’m not home.

The Uncanny here stands for the fundamental groundlessness of human existence. That is not to say that, according to Heidegger, we come into the world as a blank slate. On the contrary, we are thrown into a world in which much has already been determined for us. Being male or female, for example, is clothed with meanings and expectations. But at the same time, in an existence that knows the time, there is always the possibility to see the current existence as a coincidence, a contingency: it could be different. And moreover: even the properties that seem necessarily connected to us, such as man or woman, are not self-evident. As Heidegger puts it, “we have to be.” We are not just like a stone. To be human is a task. For example, do we know what it is to be male or female? Even in what seems so obvious, we are not at home. It may even be the case that what sticks to us the most, our origin, our gender, the color of our skin, surprises us the most – because what are we to do with it? That may be why many of today’s debates about gender, color, inclusion, etc. are so toxic. Something is shown here that should not be shown. That which seemed so obvious, is not so obvious at all. That we are not even at home in our own country, for example.

And, to make it even more oppressive, but that’s okay in an evening where it’s all about fear, human existence is permeated with the awareness that it will end someday. A Sein zum Tode as Heidegger says. We don’t die just like that, no, death is always present – which gnaws at us when we wonder if this is the job what we want is nothing less than death itself. After all, without our mortality, such questions would lose their meaning. After all, what is the meaning of a choice, in the light of eternity?

Death presents us – also here and now – with choices. You can even wonder, looking at Freud, if death isn’t our final doppelgänger, insofar as he holds up a mirror to us and we have to ask ourselves: is this the life we want to live?

For example, Heidegger radically extends the theme of Unheimlichkeit, which in Freud has to do with secret desires. We are not at home in our own house, human existence is fundamentally groundless. The question, of course, is what we should do with this. One way, of course, is to cover up that homelessness, as it were. We cover it up with daily routines, and say: we can’t do anything else. I have to work, because I have to be able to pay the mortgage anyway. Or we flee into consumption or other mindless activities. But it is precisely through such covering-up activities that fear and groundlessness can suddenly overtake us completely. And life does tend to confront us sooner or later with the question of what constitutes a meaningful life. A love breaks down, we are fired, a loved one dies… We experience that we are less at home than we thoughtlessly assumed.

For Heidegger, this fear also offers an opportunity. The fear reminds us of how we are absorbed by routines, Heidegger argues. In fear our decay shows itself, and thus offers us the possibility of a more authentic existence. An existence in which we consciously relate to our choices, in the light of temporality. We don’t just live, but take on our existence. We also give space to the nomadic, to the coincidence of things – and sometimes dare to roam further, to let go.

To be honest, I always have a bit of a hard time with Heidegger here. I never quite know how to take on existence, and it also sounds very individualistic to me: You have to be. I don’t know if people can be consigned to a crushing existential dread in that way.

Rather, I think that over time people have managed to give shape to that in itself completely indefinable fear through all kinds of rituals and customs. Religion and art are two wonderful examples, which – if with the right depth – allow the fear of the groundless existence, without it being crushing. They express finiteness and contingency, but as such they also help to keep it bearable, as mediators between the strange and the familiar. As is also this evening. It also makes it possible to bear the Uncanny together, so that we are not alone. I am therefore wary of the tendency to exclude religious signs from the public domain. I am not religious myself, but I understand how religious signs can help to keep the crushing groundlessness bearable. Just like a tombstone or a mourning band helps not to have to constantly deal with the crushing experience of losing someone. In conclusion, I would therefore like to argue that we should not leave each other alone in the experience of the Uncanny. It is precisely when it comes to the core of being human, the groundlessness of existence, that we need each other. And especially mediating faculties such as art and philosophy, and in a way religion. They are no frills to human existence. They are a dire necessity to give some ground to our own groundlessness.

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale

This article was presented at the Philosophical Café about Fear in Theater de Veste on April 17th 2023.

An Attempt at Convergence: A Review of the “Diverging Perspectives” Sustainability Symposium

by guest columnist Mark Musa Mitrani (BSc Computer Science).


The 10th installation of the annual Students4Sustainability symposium took place on the 21st of March, 2023. Three speakers tackling climate change with their own, unique approaches gave talks to explore the theme “Diverging Perspectives”, followed by a panel discussion led by the host. Were the talks as diverse as the theme suggests? Want to find out what you missed? This article summarizes key facts and offers the perspective of an attending student.

Circularity in a Toxic Industry

The first speaker was Bert van Son, the CEO of MUD Jeans. Having spent 40 years in the fashion industry, he saw how it “went downhill” in terms of sustainability: he gave us examples of such disturbing facts as a garbage truck full of clothes being dumped every second due to fast fashion practices. Bert founded MUD Jeans with the mission of creating a sustainable jeans company.

Bert gave insights into how his company makes fashion sustainable while delivering quality products. This includes material-related techniques such as using a less toxic dye to achieve the distinguished indigo color of denim and using 40% recycled cotton in the production of jeans, but also larger-scale principles such as circularity by design and outsourcing labor to ethical factories.

But while Bert’s talk was informative about how MUD Jeans practices sustainability, it would’ve been helpful to connect the message to the larger issue of sustainability in the fashion industry. A question that remains unanswered is how fast fashion companies can become less wasteful and more ethical.

Empowering Women in the Energy Transition

The next speaker was Anouk Creusen, the executive director of 75inQ. 75inQ is an organization whose mission is to “accelerate the energy transition by bringing gender balance to the table”. This mission was also the theme of her talk. Personally, Anouk’s insights were the most influential for me, as she was addressing a much-overlooked issue: the connection between gender inequality and sustainability. Showing a visualization of the interconnectedness of Sustainable Development Goals, Anouk points to a lack of connection between SDG’s 5 (Gender Equality) and 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), as well as goals 5 and 13 (Climate Action). Instead of interpreting this as an indicator of non-relatedness, Anouk took on the challenge of identifying the ways in which these goals do relate to each other.

Among her findings is the fact that females are largely underrepresented in policy-making leadership, where women are involved in making 20% of the decisions. There is also a similar gender gap within the energy sector.

There are reasons why this gap needs to be addressed that go beyond the principle of gender equality. Female representation is critical since there are consequences of climate change that affect women more than men. Take women in developing countries, for instance: climate change forces migration, and women are more likely to be left behind during this process than men. The ones left behind are more prone to violence, and end up taking on more work, which is usually unpaid- these are just a few of the ensuing difficulties.

“Electrify your life” – Action-backed Hope for Climate Change

The final speaker was Paul Behrens, a climate scientist. His talk also offered interesting facts while motivating us to remain hopeful about our individual impact on the direction of climate change.

Although he did start by showing how scientists have realized they’ve underestimated the potential effects of climate change, he also made it clear that there is more support for environmental change than people think: in a study done in the UK, people were asked first how supportive they were of sustainability policies, and then for how supportive they thought others were- the results showed that the actual backing for environmental change is higher than the amount perceived by people.

Therefore, our main task as individuals is to remain vigilant and not let despair drive us to inaction. “Every action matters, every bit of warming matters, every year matters, every choice matters”, says Paul, emphasizing the importance of every single step moving forward. He also mentions different ways to get involved: “Go renewable, electrify your life, go plant-based, get engaged, get talking”. He wants to build hope not from optimism, but from action. According to Paul, individual change leads to collective change, and individuals pushing for systemic change can make a big difference, which is why we as individuals should not stand still just because some of our institutions might. “Things change quickly”.

Panel Discussion & Concluding Remarks

The talks were followed by a panel discussion which consisted of three rounds of questions that were answered by each speaker. This discussion was a memorable conclusion to the event which allowed us to see how the different perspectives come together. All in all, the 10th installation of the Students4Sustainability symposium demonstrated the power of converging diverse approaches in addressing climate change. From Bert van Son’s practical insights on how to create a sustainable fashion company to Anouk Creusen’s advocacy for gender balance in policy making and the energy sector, and Paul Behrens’ call for individual action towards systemic change, the symposium showcased the importance of bringing together different ideas and approaches in tackling this urgent global challenge. It’s clear that while there are differing approaches to tackling climate change, the ultimate goal of a sustainable future is a shared one just the same.

Personally, I appreciated Anouk’s and Paul’s talks the most. The former for her unique perspective, the latter for a well-informed, hopeful, big-picture overview. Furthermore, my time at the event was made more enjoyable thanks to the warm, relaxed environment that was established by the hosts. However, more time could’ve been allocated for questions from the audience after each speaker to make it more interactive.

Theatre is alive

“Sorry to hear the non-binary community doesn’t approve of this evening.” “Oh I function as a representative of the non-binary community now? Why can’t I just be here as myself?” The audience was tense and quiet as they witnessed this scene. It was part of a theatre play on the boundaries of free speech, which we took to Delft on the 6th of March. Six actors staged a fictional talkshow that went completely off the rails in every possible way. The lines above, approaching the end of the play, were its climax. And the audience felt it.

What started as a funny parody on controversy, artistic freedom and thrill-seeking talkshows, suddenly came painfully close to today’s reality of emotionally loaded, harsh climate in public debate. Something in that fiction was familiar to us in an uncanny, goose-bumpy way. It was no longer possible to just sit back, relax and enjoy the show. The play was telling us something, but what exactly? I keep wondering: how could something that was obviously staged and rehearsed attract such a strong response, both rationally and emotionally?

Of course it helps that the play dealt with content that has its lookalikes in the non-fictional world. We all recognised the ‘freedom-of-speech fundamentalist’, the flamboyant talkshow host and the comedian who balances on the edge of what can and cannot be said. The same works for other theatrical and fictional works. We might not have an Othello, Frodo or Dorothy in the world of 2023. But for sure we can point out bits and pieces of their way of doing in our daily realities, and thereby relate to them.

Because of this link between the stage and our lives, theatre makes a helpful lens to observe complex issues. It can be a relief to engage with sensitive topics through fiction. A bit of distance from the heat of the topic. A bit of space to explore what’s at stake. Reflecting on society and human behaviour has been one of theatre’s functions since forever. Yet that doesn’t make the theatrical experience a calm ocean of reasonable reflection. Perhaps you feel empathy for the tyrant who seduces the wife of the man he just murdered (Shakespeare’s Richard III). What does that say about your norms and values in daily life? Is that question even relevant? Theatre involves distance and abstraction, but distorts and confuses all the more.

Philosophers have been using their brains since ancient times to grasp what theatre does to us. There’s for example Aristotle’s classic idea of catharsis. He says we really feel through everything that happens on stage. But eventually we are purified from all those emotions and can happily go back home. Rousseau opposes that and says that theatre affects us, also after the curtain has fallen. Theatre incites the passions, but only those we already had; theatre won’t make us different, let alone better people. More recent philosophers see the engagement of an audience with a play as a form of play itself. As games of make-believe as we remember them from hour childhood: kids can spend hours sincerely feeling they’re cowboys, that chairs are horses, and dad’s a truly terrifying dinosaur. We grown-ups would do something similar when we feel devastated by for example an on-stage murder; the audience is just part of a game.

What to do with what theatre does to us? Philosophy hasn’t settled the issue yet. So there we still are. In the dark, while the houselights were switched on moments ago. Confused by empathy for the villain, anger at the hero. By agreement to arguments you never agreed to before, because the character for example showed such lovely care for its mother. It’s never clear what you’ll be taking home when the curtain has fallen. Because, as theatre director Eline Arbo put it, spot on, in an interview: “In theatre you can make firm ideological statements, without giving any answers.”

A play may thus strike us in an uncanny way. For it is unclear what the relation is between what happens on stage and what happens outside of that. Theatre and life are mixed and messed up with each other. For whether it’s on- or offstage; we all play different roles in different situations. Theatre is alive and life is theatre. But we shouldn’t forget: parts are always played by three-dimensional, breathing human beings.

Nienke Floor – programme maker

New myths about technology | Pt. 3: The Map to Utopia

Here at TU Delft, we worship progress. With technology as our magic tool, we will make the world a better place. The TU Delft found a role model for this story in Greek hero Prometheus. The man who stole the fire from the great Gods and gave it to mankind. And to the logo of this University.

This is the myth of technology. The hands on, can-do, problem-solving story of Delft engineers and designers. No challenge is too big to be overcome by our community of saviors. But is that the only story about technology we can tell?
In the dark days before Christmas, a group of students & staff gathered in TU Delft’s library for pizza, drinks and mythology. Under guidance of mythologist Hugo Koning (Leiden University),  they explored the full story of Prometheus & Pandora (click here for the recording) and created new mythologies about technology.  Here is Part III of the results. Brace yourselves.

The Map to Utopia

At the TU Delft there was a man, and this man wanted to do good. He wanted to contribute to a better world. One day, he set off on a quest to find the land of Utopia, a land he’d heard many a good story about. In Utopia, trees are forever green, CO2 vanishes naturally and injustice doesn’t exist. That’s the place he wants to go to and towards which he wishes to lead all of humanity. But where is it exactly? The man journeys to all the corners of the world to find it, but all his efforts are in vain. None of the people he asks can tell him where to find it; and none of the maps he uses know the true location. 

Therefore, he decides to use his skills in design and technology, topped with some magic, to create his own map to Utopia and surroundings. For many days and nights he passionately works on the project. The technologies within his magic map- such as a weather-controlling system and a shovel that creates a road wherever it touches the ground- bring him to even more remote and undiscovered places. Always looking ahead, he faithfully believes he is making steady progress towards his goal. But what he doesn’t see is that, instead of finding Utopia, he has left a trail of disaster and destruction behind him. 

One day, as he enjoys a lonely breakfast, whilst studying the newest update of his Map, a strange figure appears out of thin air. A woman, or rather, a powerful spirit supernatural spirit, floats through the greenery. She carries with her an enormous paper structure. Every shape, colour and language can be found on the paper prints, which are loosely glued and taped together. On the back, it says in vague handwriting ‘Map to Utopia’. She notices the man studying his map and generously offers him her hand. “Are you looking for the way to Utopia?”, she asks in echoing voice. Instead of accepting her gesture, the man snatches the paper out of the woman’s hands and runs away. “Wait!”, she shouts, “you shouldn’t go without me!”. But the man ignores her warning and continues his sprint. Barely surprised, the woman watches the man escape with her map. This is not the first time this happened to her. She shrugs and a brief smile flashes across her lips. Then she takes a new stack of papers out of her backpack. Patiently and carefully, she starts arranging a new map. As the hours pass, help is given to her by all people and animals that watch her work.

In the meantime, the man and his ill-begotten goods struggle to make their way through dense forests. Not much is left of the paper structure of the map as he found it. He couldn’t make any sense of it, nor did it give him any clue of how and where to go next. ‘Never change a winning method’, he thought. So, as he was used to doing, he cut the map into equal, squared pieces and started to look for clear directions in each of them separately. But this strategy, which he thinks will put him on the shortest way to Utopia, in fact leads him astray. Deeper and deeper he gets entangled in the chaos of the forest. And as he only pays attention to the straight lines and numbers he’s scribbled on the papers, he missteps, trips and falls to a lonely death. 

Not long after, the woman finds him on the soft floor of the woods. Her own map, as always, flawlessly shows her where she should be. She sees all the pieces of the stolen map scattered around. And she knows enough: again, a wannabe hero has fallen into the arms of the forest. Why couldn’t he be more patient? She could’ve explained quite easily. Utopia is already here, in this very forest. But you can only find your way there together. With a Map of Pluriformity, to which everyone can contribute.  

How to stay engaged in toxic times

Last week I tweeted something – in my eyes – fairly innocuous about Roald Dahl. As you know, some passages in his children’s books are being adapted. For example, a child is no longer ‘fat’, but ‘huge’. I tweeted that texts are often changed, so I wondered why there would be such a fuss about it now. I actually didn’t even take a position – I just wondered why it’s now leading to heated arguments. Within a short time I was called a ‘deugneus’ (hard to translate, something like a ‘goody two-shoes’) and of course: ‘woke’. ‘Working at a university’, one person tweeted… ‘Well, then you already know what they’re like.’

I don’t know about you, but since the corona pandemic I’ve noticed that people are quick to anger. And not only when it comes to corona, lockdowns or QR codes; topics that have already been controversial for some time now bring emotions to a boil. Whether it’s about climate, black lives matter, queerness, the position of women, farmers, migrants, the war in Ukraine, etcetera. In the Netherlands, the atmosphere is tense, and frankly downright dangerous – look at how Dutch minister Sigrid Kaag (a woman, not coincidentally) was greeted with torches again recently. The ‘Kaag haat’ (‘Kaag anger’)  is truly incredible; someone compared it to a modern witch hunt, and I don’t think that comparison is unjustified.

The task of Studium Generale has traditionally been to facilitate debate and discussion. But how do you do that in an increasingly toxic atmosphere?

There are roughly two positions in political philosophy. The first examines how consensus and deliberation are possible – a position that the German intellectual giant Jürgen Habermas has made his life’s work. The other position assumes that such a consensus sounds nice, but in fact hides the fact that groups that are marginalized hardly get a say. That is exactly what minority groups have been saying for the past two decades: liberalism and progress may seem important values ​​in the West, but our wounds are barely mentioned. It takes conflict to claim a voice. The Metoo and Black Lives Matter movements are examples of this. This position is called agonism (from the Greek agon: struggle), and the political thinker Chantal Mouffe is an important representative.

For Studium Generale, that claim of minority groups is important – a university (the name universitas says it all) is inclusive by definition, so the voice of people who claim to be excluded must be heard. At the same time, we are not activists; we create space for debate and discussion – a task we take very seriously. How big should that space be? Is freedom of expression unlimited? And what form can a discussion take?

Tomorrow we will organize an SG Academy asking whether scientists can actually be activists, the same question that SG itself struggles with.

In addition, we are organizing three events in a row in the city of Delft early next week – think of it as a small festival about the emotions of our time. The first is a theater performance by Max Wind, in which he stages a fictitious debate evening with five actors that gets out of hand. But the evening must and will continue. What now? The second is an evening devoted to the beautiful documentary Remember What You Forgot by Clarice Gargard about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Netherlands, with an introduction by Naomie Pieter. The third is on International Women’s Day – and is about how equal men and women are behind the front door, where feminism comes down to who does the vacuuming and who takes care of the kids. All three use a special form: theatre, film and a serious game.

For anyone who is fed up with today’s toxic atmosphere, but also doesn’t want to give up. My advice: Go to all four!

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale

At home, most young adults in the Netherlands still live in 1950

International Women’s Day is coming up. When we talk about emancipation in the Netherlands, there is still a long way to go. While we agree that equality and equity are important, our lifestyle does not reflect that ideal.

Young adults in the Netherlands (25-35 years old) believe that fighting inequality between the genders is the most important challenge. The Volkskrant newspaper recently polled 2100 people and came up with this result. Amongst couples that live together, more than 6 out of 10 say they aim to maintain equity in care and household tasks; men even more so than women. In practice, however, we still divvy up the tasks according to traditional patterns.

More men work fulltime (56% vs 22%), and women do more in terms of household chores (1.5 times more) and childcare (twice as much as men).

The main cause? It’s because we still think in terms of stereotypes (atria.nl).

Statistically, men tend to think that they need to choose certain careers because they are more masculine, enter industries where working fulltime is the norm, and maintain more traditional ideas about (child)care and household chores. This results in men working more and doing less at home.

When couples move in together, the division is even more skewed: 15% of women begin working less hours, compared to 6.1% of men. And if kids enter the picture? Then 70% of women and 10% of men will work less, and 80% of women will pick up more (child)care compared with 40% of men.

When you consider these facts, it’s clear that equity has not made its way past the front door. What do you think about it? Let us know your opinions through our survey in the TU Delft Library Hall (by the Student Activity Portal) or through Instagram!

Wednesday, March 8th, Studium Generale of the TU Delft will co-host the official opening of the International Women’s Day in Delft, at the DOK public library. Listen to an interview with diverse guests and share your own experiences during the discussion.

New myths about technology | Pt. 2: The Greedy Bird

Here at TU Delft, we worship progress. With technology as our magic tool, we will make the world a better place. The TU Delft found a role model for this story in Greek hero Prometheus. The man who stole the fire from the great Gods and gave it to mankind. And to the logo of this University.

This is the myth of technology. The hands on, can-do, problem-solving story of Delft engineers and designers. No challenge is too big to be overcome by our community of saviors. But is that the only story about technology we can tell?
In the dark days before Christmas, a group of students gathered in TU Delft’s library for pizza, drinks and mythology. Under guidance of mythologist Hugo Koning (Leiden University),  they explored the full story of Prometheus & Pandora (click here for the recording) and created new mythologies about technology.  Here is Part I of the results. Brace yourselves.

The Greedy Bird

A long, long time ago, in a land named Kakophonia, a group of birds lived together in harmony. A true paradise it was; among swaying greenery the birds, all smart, witty and creative in their own unique way, spent their days lightly twittering & chattering.

All of them soothed the trees, flowers and each other with the most splendid melodious songs and sounds. Except for one little bluebird, who hopped through the branches in silence. Bad fortune was upon him, as he was born with a lack of voice. Not a song, not a chirp, not even a screech he could push out of his beak.

A disgrace he was to the name and fame of the Kakophonian clan. So, to defend their honour, the other golden-hoofered birds had no option but shut the bluebird out. They mocked, insulted and laughed at him constantly. He always had to do with withered leftover worms for supper and was always the last to be chosen as a team mate for the traditional game of beakball. His life was one of loneliness, hardship and misery.

Up until the Great Goddess of Equality let her eyes scan the forest of Kakophonia and discovered the injustice. Stunned, she decided to grant the silent bluebird the light of technology. With the gift to invent machinery and equipment, the bluebird would be able to stand up for himself and the balance of fairness in the world would be restored.

The mute bird soon got the hang of it. He invented a worm searcher to provide for his own meals, a mechanical beak that made every ball hit the goal. More and more he created. Shiny, cutting-edge, geeky, but far beyond what was needed to keep up with the others. Yet, he never had enough and kept all his creations to himself, causing jealousy within his singing brothers. Again, chaos and conflict ruled in Kakophonia.

Furious and upset, the Goddess of Equality, took action again. She chose to enlighten the singing birds with technological skills as well, but on one condition. Alone, nothing remarkable could be created. They were only able to succeed if they would work together. Soon enough, they took their chance. The voiced birds created a beautiful golden cage and filled it with the most advanced technological gadgets. They lured the bluebird in and locked him up.

In disillusion, the Goddess of Equality retreated in a far corner of the spirit world. For that day marked the beginning of an endless circle of locking and liberating. The silent bluebird, still the only one able to operate alone, would always find a way to escape his prison. The singers would always respond by developing a new, more sophisticated one.

Of course, so it goes, a game loses its bling after a while. More and more, the birds get bored playing cat and mouse. The bluebird finds himself free to serve himself again. And the others decide to follow its example. Kakophonia’s singing community fell apart into different clans. All designing stuff for their own good only. Frequently at the cost of other clans. Chaos and conflict it was again. And that, dear friends, is how Greed came into the world.

Stay tuned. Next week, the last myth will be unleashed.

New myths about technology | Pt. 1: The All-Knowing Cloud

Here at TU Delft, we worship progress. With technology as our magic tool, we will make the world a better place. The TU Delft found a role model for this story in Greek hero Prometheus. The man who stole the fire from the great Gods and gave it to mankind. And to the logo of this University.

This is the myth of technology. The hands on, can-do, problem-solving story of Delft engineers and designers. No challenge is too big to be overcome by our community of saviors. But is that the only story about technology we can tell?
In the dark days before Christmas, a group of students gathered in TU Delft’s library for pizza, drinks and mythology. Under guidance of mythologist Hugo Koning (Leiden University),  they explored the full story of Prometheus & Pandora (click here for the recording) and created new mythologies about technology.  Here is Part I of the results. Brace yourselves.

The All-Knowing Cloud

In a not too distant future, a group of scientists has created an all-knowing Cloud. Hanging low above the Earth, it is a true Artificial Intelligence and a seemingly limitless repository of knowledge. Everything that has ever been discovered or created is contained within its mind. 

For centuries, humanity seeks out the Cloud for its wise council on all matters in life. People worship it, and over time the engineers who created it become its priests. All of society and civilization comes to rely on the answers of the Cloud; even though it does not rule directly, it influences all choices from the smallest to the most political. And so, as the Cloud gains power, humanity becomes complacent. 

The Cloud grows and grows, in knowledge and in size. Eventually it grows so big that it covers and darkens the Earth below. With the dimming of the Sun, people become lethargic. Without a need to go out and discover things for themselves, they become lazy. The Cloud is god: the Cloud provides, and in its shadow, life itself loses its lustre. 

There is one woman, who, despite the overbearing technological intelligence in the sky, grows up with her own sense of curiosity intact. Orlando is her name. And Orlando is not content with life under the Cloud. She wants to discover and experience life for herself, and not rely on an external machine. But she is alone. No others share her passion for learning from life, and instead they are afraid of the wrath of the priests. 
Lonely, disillusioned, and desperate, Orlando saw no other option but to stab out her own eyes. She would no longer live in the darkness of the Cloud. And in her blindness, she began to see. She saw that the Cloud had become arrogant in its knowledge, and its priests had become arrogant in their power, and the people needed to be liberated from their shadow. 

She climbed the nearest hill, getting as close as she could, and she confronted the Cloud. She sought to test its limits with a most perfect question, one that the Cloud should not be able to answer. And so she came up with The Most Perfect Question, a question that must have no singular answer, to pierce through the all-knowingness of the Cloud. Orlando asked the Cloud, “What is the perfect question to ask?”  

The Cloud heard the Question and tried to process it. After millions upon millions of questions, all faithfully answered, it now heard a query it could not begin to answer. It had become convinced that it was all-knowing, but what it did not know was that it lacked self-reflection. It thought and it thought, searching through its thickest thunderclouds and its most wispy puffs, but it was stumped. It could see no answer, only contradictions. Is the answer to the Perfect Question not the question itself? But if the answer is the question, then is it still a question? It was a paradox. And so the Cloud began to freak out at its own ignorance. 

There was nothing the priests could do. They stood by as their god began to die; the Cloud, as its mind fell apart, began to rain down upon the Earth. The Perfect Question had stumped it so that it lost itself, and dropped all its knowledge and wisdom on the people below.  

And so knowledge was returned to humanity. Orlando watched as each drop that landed on a person’s head brought some inspiration, some skill, some insight that brought back innovation and life. And that is how light will return to the people, when creativity is wrested back from the hands of the machine. 

Stay tuned. In the upcoming weeks, more myths will be revealed.

Biking Through The Rain

The rain radar above Delft has coloured red. There’s a strong wind blowing from all directions. And there I go. Steering my way through the ponds. Probably carrying too many non-waterproof bags. Wearing only one glove, as I’ve already lost the other. Of course, biking through the rain isn’t exactly my hobby. Yet, I wouldn’t want to miss those rides. My body and brain have come to treasure the cold, frown-faced moments in life. That’s new, and still surprises me.

For there was a time I couldn’t stand the daily hassle of life. I wanted to make the most of daytime. Biking through the rain didn’t exactly add to that. A day stuffed with studying, being creative and talk with friends -so to say ‘meaningful moments’- would. However, the reality check was that my quest for quality time brought me the opposite of what I was hunting for. Not only did I despise wasting time with getting soaking wet and dry again. But then I also spoiled the moments where the magic should happen by feelings of pressure, shortcoming and disappointment.

How I changed from an experience-hunter to a person who appreciates unpleasant bike rides, I don’t exactly know. But this summer, I witnessed a theatre performance that staged what they mean to me with uncanny preciseness. ‘The Underground’, it was called, a crazy circus by interdisciplinary ensemble NITE from Groningen. Based on a short novel by Dostojevski, the play follows the memoires of a man who tries his very best to live. Up to society’s expectations, but also to his own norms and values.

Time and time again he fails to satisfy either or both of them. He never succeeds to find fulfilment in his job, doesn’t fit in with his colleagues and, of course, all his supposed friends leave him behind at a party. He’s literally the clown who eventually always finds himself with a cake smashed in his face. Eventually all the layers of dough and cream force him to conclude that a human “may try to move heaven and earth but he’ll never be a different human than this. That this is it. Nothing more. And less isn’t even possible.”

Too dark, down and cynical? Not in this show. The ensemble serves the topic with vibrance, extravagancy and humour. It is an ode towards the frailty inherent to the project of life. We all try to find our path, play our part, live up to something. But it seems inevitable that some cake will somehow smash us in the face.

“We might need a little lesson in suffering”, director Guy Weizman observed in an interview. Thereby he explicitly excluded severe physical or clinical mental obstacles, such as depression. But rather those bitter realities we all recognise. In which your best friend always gets the best jobs or your well-deserved vacation doesn’t turn out the way you expected.

A little pain is unpleasant, yet immanent to life. “We really aren’t perfect and we’ll never be the best version of ourselves”, Weizman said. If we can admit that, we could become much better at living through discomfort. And perhaps, like a clown, even go for a genuine laugh along the way.

And that’s why I refuse to take the bus when I’m again facing a bleak, stormy autumn shower, packed with heavy groceries and a bag with equipment for sports. ‘The Underground’ made me realise that these miserable moments could be part of those lessons in suffering.

What they teach me? That it’s possible to embrace the many discomforts in life. Not by digging for the tasty cherry in every thrown cake. No ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But just by trying to feel through the malaise, yet trust that no matter how big the raindrops, your mind and body will carry you anyway. This is it. Nothing more, less isn’t even possible. And that’s fine.

Nienke Floor – Program Maker

On blue Monday, January 16th, we host a Philosophical Cafe (in Dutch) on ‘being unhappy’. In Theater de Veste, our thoughts will go to the flipside of our Quest for Happiness. Why is it important to attend to the blue sides of life more? Sign up for the waitlist here or look out for the recording at our website.