Inaudible radio hits echo from the impact-resistant loudspeakers of the craftsmen on the ground floor across the street. They drill, hammer, grind, chisel, screw, scrape, shovel, wash their hands and lie down to be able to do it all over again. This is the only way everything can come about, the substance of the civil must be defended, confirmed and expanded every day. Progress, one might almost think, is the most humane form of war from which there is no way out, because standing still is too close to today’s common understanding of being dead. But who is our enemy in this invisible struggle?
Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an apparently uninhabited island, is confronted with this question and with this deadness. The tropical island, part of a tiny atoll off the coast of Venezuela, is the antithesis of Western belief in progress and the epitome of timeless and static primitiveness. After he has retrieved tools, food, weapons and other useful items from the ship lying in the surf, he immediately begins erecting buildings, protective walls, reclamation of the soil and domestication of wild goats and other animals. The fact that it finally takes years and decades to build this solitary civilization is not an obstacle but a fortunate circumstance for the shipwrecked. It is Defoe’s parable of the individual’s strength in overcoming hardship and adversity, the need for progress, and the fruits of capital and labor - all relatively new concepts at the time the novel was published in 1719.
With the constant improvement of his living conditions, the stranded reinvents time: for himself but even more so for the island as a whole. He defines a prime meridian, a time axis and a coordinate system in which he can locate himself and the progress of his projects. More than just securing his survival, Crusoe thereby delimits himself from the medieval idea of a divine order, a predetermined fate, the contemplative world view and, last but not least, the outlawing of private property and consumption. For the stranded, the logic of progress becomes a self-protection mechanism that is equated with the preservation of his humanity. Even more than sheer subsistence, Defoe’s often lengthy and detailed descriptions show the becoming of a new person.
The colonial logic of this modern creation story in the tropical-earthly paradise dictates for Homo Robinsoniensis instead of the sinful woman the anti-progressive savage as a counterpart. On the one hand there is a threat of standstill as the dissolution of the western ego and thus recourse to a timeless and therefore senseless semi-humanity, embodied by Freitag and his cannibalist tribesmen. On the other hand, the necessity of progress can neither be defined nor measured without this reflection.
The spaces of supposed backwardness and standstill - the tropics, the Orient and all those branded with the term “developing country” - finally also offer the moral justification for the compulsion for innovation and growth. It seems to many to be an obligation to educate their residents according to their own example, that is, to “develop” them from the pitfalls of their traditions that are perceived as outdated or reprehensible - ideally through the consumption of material and cultural goods from the already developed world. The way out of this logic, as the stranded man realizes soon after his arrival on the island, consists either in the annihilation of all that cannot be developed or in the acknowledgment not only of the shipwreck of his person, but of the shipwreck of the self who believes in progress.