Constructive Guilt

“Often we speak so arrogantly about those that served the enemy. Right, but what do we think of the pines and firs that submitted themselves fully and still submit to any enemy whosoever. Look at the images where the enemy is busy: the trees, they stand there laughing in the background. And not only pines and firs, the other trees as well.

Shouldn’t something be said about this?

I’d say so, because sometimes they are still there, the trees, the forest‘s edge and the trees, the same place they were at that time; do not think they’ve moved on, they’re still standing there like indifferent eyewitnesses.

I observe them, I look at them, and something frightful occurs: they are beautiful, I think them beautiful […] The beauty of sites where the enemy was, where the enemy was located, where the enemy housed and ravaged, where the enemy exercised terror, where traces of the enemy’s terror are still to be found. Right there. Beauty should be ashamed.”

Armando, 19881

‘Guilty landscape’ is a notion borrowed from the Dutch painter, sculptor, writer, and musician Armando, who wrote about such landscapes more than once. Living in Amersfoort before, during, and after the Second World War, close to a concentration camp situated in the woods, he was very aware that the innocent forest of his youth had witnessed the horrors of war and the Holocaust.

As the quote indicates, the experience of this place (and of such places) is complex; the beauty of the site is intensified by the knowledge of what happened. Nature as a place of retreat and relaxation, experience of beauty and peace, is complicated by memory and knowledge. The resulting aesthetic experience produces feelings of guilt; one shouldn’t allow oneself to be aesthetically moved by such scenes, it doesn’t seem right.

This captures the first impression of most of the guilty landscapes included in this issue: shockingly beautiful. Most of them not related to warfare, but to exploitation. Sometimes with known consequences, sometimes with unpredicted ones, sometimes with very visible implications, sometimes without perceptual traces, but mostly the result of the application of technology. What started as an exploration of large-scale human impact on nature soon became research into the modalities of guilt. There are two assumptions underpinning this issue of Volume:

  1. Globally, we’re running out of places to start anew. The habit to dump or to destruct and leave it to nature to ‘deal’ with the resulting situation is no longer tenable. We’re simply with too many souls on planet Earth.
  2. Guilt is a productive emotion. Like pain – an early warning system alerting to the destructive impact on the body or internal disturbances – guilt can be thought of as a warning system and trigger behavior to reduce the impact, to prevent (further) spread, and to undo the effects of a disturbance.

Guilt can be thought of as one of the mechanisms to restore and maintain balance – maintaining too, since there is also a form of pre-emptive guilt. Like Marcel Duchamps’ snow shovel titled ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’, there are guilty feelings preventing one from acting negatively. But mostly guilt is about something negative that cannot be undone. Hiding, restoring, and compensating are then the most used strategies to reduce the stress levels connected to guilty feelings. Rarer, but used to much greater effect is the strategy of interpreting the negative element as neutral, or even positive. Take biodiversity. It is common understanding that more bio- diversity is better than less – and that the extinction of a species is tragic and problematic. So we’re guilty when we hear of yet another fish or mammal becoming extinct. In his book Plastic Pandas, philosopher Bas Haring explores the option that less biodiversity is not such a big deal.2 A pity, maybe, but nothing dramatic. At least not something we can’t deal with. Interesting. In one move we are liberated from our guilty feelings. We can enjoy again what we’re doing, be happy and relaxed and not change at all our behavior towards, or impact on this world’s nature. This clearly shows how influential and potent guilt as a behavior-correcting mechanism is.

Knowledge is at the core of guilt. Without knowing and awareness there is no guilt. This seems to suggest that we live in guiltier times than ever. The general level of information has increased exponentially within decades. And there is so much more knowledge on the effects of whatever we do. Does this imply we’re more guilty too? It looks to be so. It at least supports the idea that the human species by existing at all is jeopardizing nature and the Earth at large: so guilty by definition. Not born innocent, but born guilty.

There is another aspect to it. If conviction, deter- mination, and belief produce guilt as collateral damage, these days the absence of conviction, determination, and belief, leave us with only guilt. As long as ideology ruled, inflicted pain or destruction was supposed to be the other’s problem, his or her own fault. Now we know that we’re all in it together, blaming the other for the consequences of one’s actions is no longer productive and to silence and bypass one’s guilty feelings for the sake of the good cause is no longer an option.

Guilt has been effectively used to control and manipulate the masses. But it can also be the start of a change for the better: awareness, concern, action. Engagement and guilt are never far apart. Engagement is sublimated guilt. So we can use guilt to improve and transform. We can build on guilt (interestingly ‘guilt’ and ‘debt’ are the same word in Dutch: schuld), but can we build with guilt? Is guilt a material we can design with? Last year Volume, in collaboration with Premsela, explored trust as a goal and a tool. We’ll continue to do so, but here we would like to propose guilt as a material to work with. Happiness is beyond the architect’s capacities, but trust and guilt might not.


1. Armando, De straat en het struikgewas [Street and Scrub] (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1988), pp. 245-247 [transl. AO].
2. Bas Haring, Plastic panda’s [Plastic Pandas] (Amsterdam: Nijgh & van Ditmar, 2011).

Martyr Street