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There is no life without light

An interview with Emanuele Coccia on light and living

Published: 14 Jun 2022
Philosopher and professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Emanuele Coccia (b. 1976) has been, for several years now, a well-known face not only in academic circles. He has written a number of profound but accessible books that allow us to understood reality and the world we live in more readily. In La vita delle piante (pubd. by Mulino), for example, he explores our relationship with nature before progressing to the entirety of life in his latest work, published first in French and then by Einaudi Stile Libero, and entitled: Metamorfosi. Siamo un’unica, sola vita. Coccia has often succeeded in anticipating the themes the human race has to tackle sooner or later, given that changes are taking place in both society and the planet in general. For example, before most of the human population had to find a new domestic dimension due to Covid-19 measures, Coccia was writing Filosofia della casa. Lo spazio domestico e la felicità, published in 2021 by Einaudi Stile Libero. Along with autobiographical anecdotes, the book proposes a new way of understanding space and conceiving living both at home and in the city. “Living does not mean being surrounded by something or occupying a certain portion of terrestrial space. It means interweaving a highly intense relationship with certain things and certain people to make our happiness and our breath inseparable,” he writes in the introduction.

At a certain point in the book Filosofia della casa you say that the home is a “moral event”: in what way?

Well, just think that every time you move house, you do so to live “better”. This adverb contains the entire nature of the home, as a home is a machine that allows us to breathe more inspiration into our lives. Its job is moral, not spatial.

You often talk about light, as if it were a necessary ingredient for living. Is it true?

There is no life without light. In fact, we, ourselves, are animated by light. The energy we seek every time we eat is just a transformation of solar energy that plants have released into the mineral flesh of the planet. We are talking about “extra-terrestrial” energy, which makes us half-aliens. We are animated by a force that does not come from this planet. And diet is a strange trade in light that never stops circulating from body to body and kingdom to kingdom.

You also talk about movement. At a certain point you say: “Entering a house is always a journey in time and space. It is an intergalactic cruise that takes us to another atmosphere, in another ecosystem.” You say that “we become planetary migrants, tourists in the psychedelia of others.” Is domestic space really so powerful?

All new platforms and social media are virtual spaces modelled on domestic space. They all have virtual rooms and corridors that allow us to bypass urban space and connect up to each other in our different homes. From this point of view, domestic space is the new model for thinking about shared and planetary space. And as domestic space changes, political space is born from it: Airbnb demonstrates that. We no longer think of the home as the opposite of shared space, but as something through which the common and political can be imagined and structured.
Filosofia della casa
Looking to the future, on the other hand, you write that the construction of the individual in the modern age is founded on two cornerstones: work and love. The first is provided by the city and the second by the home. Is that true for everyone?

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says that modernity is not the result of scientific discovery, technological invention or geopolitical conquest. It is the result of a moral revolution that has led us to consider what we do and what we love as the most important things in our lives. Today when we try to understand who someone is, we do it by asking what they do and who they live with. What is changing is the division of tasks between home and city. Once again work and the production of wealth have become focused on the home, and this will change the balance of things radically. The geometries of domestic love are also changing drastically.

What do you think are the most universal human-design items in the home? And which is the most curious, mysterious and difficult to analyse?

Clothes. They are the most universal artefacts. Everyone uses them and wears them, whatever their age, class, genre, religion and ethnicity. And we wear them every day. And all day long. This is why fashion is so powerful. It is the art that designs the most universal items in our lives. Clothes are still the most difficult items to analyse and the most mysterious as every garment redefines the identity of the person who wears them.

In one of your books, Il bene nelle cose, you quote Locke who says that things “receive their value from the industry of man”. Are you talking about design?

Everything is design. Everything that surrounds us has been designed by someone.

With regard to design, even if you live in Paris, have spent part of your academic life in Germany, and toured half the world’s universities, you have a close relationship with Milan, and you worked with Stefano Boeri, on the Triennale, for example…

I work a lot with Stefano Boeri. IO have made a video and I am curating the catalogue for the 23rd Triennale. But Milan, for me, is also linked to other central figures I have worked with, like Carla Sozzani and 10 Corso Como or Patricia Urquiola.