The Project Society

Aarhus: Unipress,2012


Released on January 27 2012 in Europe and February 15 in the USA.






1. Everyone Has a Project
2. This Is How Project People Dance
3. From Plan to Project
4. Space in the Project Society
5. Time in the Project Society
6. Acting in the Project Society
7. Connections in the Project Society
8. System and Style, Combination and Improvisation
9. Being Human in the Project Society
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


CHAPTER 1: Everyone Has a Project

Everyone has a project. People have projects on behalf of themselves and on behalf of others; they have their own projects and they have collective projects. We do projects at school and we carry out projects at work. Add to that all our spare time projects, and how it is sometimes hard to tell work projects from spare time projects. Projects cut across.

People have always had projects. Caesar had projects, Napoleon had projects. Columbus also had a project. The difference is that today everyone speaks about their projects. They speak of everything they do as projects. “So, what is your project?” we ask our dinner partners. We used to ask people where they worked, if they had any children and how they spent their spare time.

Why does everyone speak in terms of projects? There is no doubt that it has a far more heroic sound to it to have a project than to have tasks to do or orders to fill. Projects express a kind of will or determination, something directed to the future, and something that exudes creativity. You are in the middle of doing something that will one day make good.

What is a project, then? It is something someone launches. Something someone is up to with someone else, with a certain aim in mind. Actually ‘project’ means to throw something forward – something that is issued in a jet: pro-jacere. When Galileo spoke of the law of falling bodies, he spoke of pro-jectae, thrown objects in free fall. Someone who has a project has made a throw forward. So, a project is something that we do now with an aim to the future.

A project involves an activity which in most cases takes place in interaction with others. The rules, execution or aims of this activity are not laid down in advance; they are defined and elaborated as the project develops. In addition the project incarnates a spirit of shaping the future. The project is sustained by its activity – it works like pedalling a dynamo lamp: the project exists as long as activity is induced into it. When shut down, the project may be turned on again in different places only if you are doing something active with it or communicating with someone about it. It does not run all by itself: no building has ever erected itself nor has any thesis ever written itself just because time was passing.

The Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg spoke of projektmagere –‘project-makers’ – already in 1724 in his play Ulysses von Itaca. A ‘project-maker’ was someone who went about conceiving ideas all the time which always came to nothing. At that time ‘projektmager’ was a derogatory term, corresponding to the English term ‘crank’. This is not the case anymore. In the mid-nineteenth century the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard delineated the ‘project-maker’ or the crank as someone who is too preoccupied with possibilities to be able to see any necessities. According to Kierkegaard, man is a compound of possibility and necessity and the task of becoming a successful human being is about causing the compound to balance, or to form a ‘synthesis’ as Kierkegaard put it. One has to balance life’s possibilities and necessities in a way that makes it possible for one to see that certain circumstances are necessary while retaining the ability to see that something else is actually possible. That it is possible to do something else. In a sense the kind of person who is capable of seeing only necessities is just as unfree as the kind of person who is incapable of seeing any necessities at all and constantly issues new projects without ever completing any. The former does not have the power to bend the world. The latter does not have the power to bend him-/herself. This way of being human holds a certain danger of living one’s life inauthentically. Kierkegaard refers to such inauthentic living as ‘despair’. In Kierkegaard, Holberg’s ‘projectmaker’ is the kind of person who is driven to despair by the possible. When you are at a party with a person like that, he or she will keep talking about the next party.

In 1927 the German philosopher Martin Heidegger identified man as a being that constantly relates to the future. It has been claimed that man lives in the present, Heidegger said. But actually living in the present is essentially to be constantly oriented towards the future. When I am cooking I think ahead: I want to slice tomatoes so I have to find a knife. The mere fact that I started cooking at all was because I intended to eat. To be human means to be set on the future at all times. In 1943 this caused the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre to define man as a being who has projects. To Sartre man is characterised as a being that is capable of denying the present. The power of imagination is an absolutely decisive quality of being human. To imagine, to envision, is to deny what is present now in order to be able to see something else. It is a matter of rejecting something in order to project something else. I want to go to Palermo, I envision myself in Palermo, i.e. my imagination rejects the actual: that I am here, in Copenhagen. What Sartre meant when he said that man is condemned to freedom was that he or she cannot but live in the future, as a being who envisions the future, who projects ideas into the future.

If Sartre is right there is nothing surprising about people always speaking about projects. Rather, it is surprising that they have not always done so. Indeed, people have always had projects, but to have projects has not always been crucial to the definition of what it means to be human. I believe that Sartre – apart from being good at describing the human condition – was also about to capture something that was in the offing at his time: that people were beginning to define themselves through their projects.

Already half a century before that, Friedrich Nietzsche had defined man as the animal that was yet to be determined. Until then philosophers had busied themselves for millennia with definitions of what man was supposed to be. Nietzsche’s definition of man is closely connected with what is often referred to as the death of God: what happens when we no longer see ourselves as God’s creation? Well, then it is up to us to create ourselves. How are we supposed to create ourselves? Though projects, Sartre replied.

I think that if we content ourselves with noting that now everyone is speaking about projects and that today everyone has projects, and that is just the way it is, we will fail to see an important connection between what it means to be human, on the one hand, and the way our societies have been shaped historically on the other. For in all this ado about projects there is a key to understanding how the universal raw material of being human is shaped by our time. I think that this ‘homo projectus’ is a being that has come about. Not because people have not had projects before but because the issue of having projects has never before been a pivotal point in society, has never before been the defining feature of an age. Likewise we would miss a useful conceptual key if we take it that people have always had projects. The first notion (now everyone speaks about projects) is a sociological notion, the other (people have always had projects) is an anthropological one. As a contrast to these – pardon me – superficial theses, ‘so now we have projects’ and ‘man has always had projects’, I would like to put forward the following thesis: our way of being human in the world is shaped by our time, our society being a society that organises itself through projects.

For many years philosophers have described what it means to be human – in fact, what it means to exist at all – by speaking of our dealings with some absolutely fundamental dimensions: space, time, actions and relations. In trying to understand what it means to be human now it is useful to carry on this long-established tradition by asking: how are activities and people organised in our epoch, in our society? Which formations of life conditions are people offered and asked to deal with? My attempt at answering such questions has caused me to believe that ‘the project’ is a basic figure of organisation in our society and that it is decisive for the ways in which we unfurl space, time, actions and establish relations. In other words, my intention in the following is to describe the project society in order that we may get to understand what it is like to live in the project society, to be a projecting human being.

The project society did not appear out of nowhere. It is something that has slowly been developing in the course of the twentieth century. When defining man as a being who has projects, Sartre put into words something that was happening at his time. Twenty-five years later a revolt broke out: the revolt of ‘68, named after the student revolt in Paris that year. In reality a far more wide-ranging showdown with traditions and hierarchies was at stake. Now, much later, the current experimentations with alternative ways of living may seem like pubescent revolts against the order of a father figure or a mother’s cleanly home. But what is really at issue is a protracted rebellion against certain ways of organising and governing people, a protest that stretches from the early sixties to the late seventies.

Then everything suddenly fell silent in the 1980s. What happened? Apparently the revolt had failed. Everyone moved back into families, got a car and a dog, and a steady job. True, there was a little bit of punk and squatter movements but most of all they looked like someone who were late by half a generation.

My first claim is that society and our ways of living have actually been changed by the revolt of the sixties, but what was tossed up into the air by the long revolt did not land as expected. In that respect I also make the claim that the revolt was not as spontaneous and independent as it sometimes pretended to be, that it was the continuation of a far longer movement, voiced by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, among others, and a number of writers like Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and Robert Musil.

My second claim is that that which was tossed up into the air landed again in the form of a project. Everything became quiet in the 1980s not because the showdown with the system and the forces of order had failed, but because the calls of the showdown for the breakdown of hierarchies, flat structures, human interaction and methods of working resulted in the project society.

If I am right that the showdown with earlier structures would later take the form of the project, it is no coincidence that everyone has projects and speaks about projects today. Or at least: this is an order that has been produced by history. Today the project is the very focal point of man, society and history. This leads me to a third claim: that the projectual organisation goes far deeper than being something that one simply has to say all the time, at work, in schools and in the civil service, it is a way of living. A way of being present in space and time. A way of making connections. A way of doing things. A way of living that we have not invented ourselves but have been dealt into our hands, that we have taken over and that we are now administering. The project society is not something we may choose, it is something that overarches us and is within us. It is something that is everywhere. When in a moment I set to examine what the project society consists in, I do so in order to understand contemporary man and his or her conditions.

By speaking of society as a project society I do not mean to say that all of society is organised by projects – nor do I mean that society is a project. What I mean is that the project as a certain way of unfurling space and time, of establishing relations and carrying out activities is becoming increasingly prevalent. Needless to say, there are other forms of organisation than that of the project, but as the project gains ground it relates to these earlier forms of organisation. In order for a project to be cross-disciplinary, for instance, there has to be specialist traditions with methods, practices and truths that the project may cross. The project constantly plays against or along with other ways of organisation – or disciplines. A cross-disciplinary project presupposes disciplines. Another example is the project of terror. Terror projects are organised in networks, which makes it difficult for conventional armies, organised by discipline in a pyramid shape, to counter the project. Projectual organisation challenges other forms of organisation, and as it does not reign supreme it constantly interplays with them. Hence, it is not only a true claim that I make when I say that the revolt landed as a project, which gave us the project society, it is also a claim that becomes truer day by day.

The project is not a form that just grew from one place, as for instance the project-organised firm. The rearrangement of our dealings with fundamental human conditions (time, space, actions, relations) may be explained as the transition to a project-organised society. As I will explain in more detail later, this is primarily a matter of transition from a disciplinarily organised society. New problems, solutions and possibilities arise in the project society, which pertain to the way in which we organise ourselves. These new ways of being may be experienced very differently within different areas, like football, dancing, the education of children, the construction of buildings, work, hospital service or warfare, even if rearrangements take place in more or less the same way. Yet there are basic features that are shared by all rearrangements which make it possible for us to speak of an overall transition to the project society.

To demonstrate how the project society works I would like to begin in one of the corners that, to me, breeds experiences of these new projectual conditions in striking ways: the way we dance.