On Surveillance Capitalism

(Copied from an internet forum)

To X:

Thank you, X, for your thoughtful post.  Yes, I agree with many of the things you say, but let me express some skepticism over the overall “optimistic” tone.   Indeed, over the last few days I have watched two documentaries and read a book that put very important indications on the table, if we needed them, that optimism may be a form of collective (and ideological) self-delusion.  And, trust me, those indications do not come from any sort of ultraleftist delirium.  So, I seriously recommend that Heidegger Circle scholars watch The Social Dilemma documentary in Netflix, the Brexit documentary in HBO, and that they read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

I do not want to make this too long, so let me only refer to Zuboff’s detailed claim (her book has been in the making for most of the last twenty years) that we are in the midst, but at the same time only the beginning, of a paradigmatic phase in capitalism, which is the move to what she calls surveillance and instrumentarian capitalism.   In the same way that the exploitation of the “dark continent” was at some point in the 19th century a largely lawless condition of capitalist expansion, she claims, and demonstrates, that the dark continent today is human experience as such, now open to thievery and expoliation.  Surveillance capitalism continues and makes a paradigmatic leap onto ongoing primitive accumulation processes by colonizing the deepest recesses of individuation in order to use individuation itself as raw material for economic benefit–this is of course an instance of productionism as the very motor of collective life as we know it.  She is a reformist, and believes it could eventually be controlled by democratic policies, which are the very policies being radically dismantled in effect–and this is the reason why I very much doubt it.

She makes the point, repeatedly and emphatically, that technology has little to do with it: that these are massive decisions made at the economic and political level for a particular instrumentalization of technology that is, as such, contingent and could be reversed.   No doubt this has become the commonplace assumption for many of those who think about these issues, namely: “there is nothing wrong with technology, it is really politics, stupid!”  But I think Heidegger, precisely, makes a different case, which could be summarized as: ongoing primitive accumulation is technologically driven, and the economic and political system just follows suit and adapts to it.  Will to power is first technological, secondarily capitalist.

I recognize the above raises a huge problem.  Is Heidegger right?  Was Max Weber right?  One needs to make a choice.

Remember the interplay between Wegsein and Dasein in Contributions to Philosophy?  When I think about what “transformative thinking” might mean I am not thinking about poetico-mystical pieties or political revolutions–I prefer to stay around, and to stick to, the notion of Da-sein as the key to the “other beginning.”  Which is just about all I personally can do.

Surveillance capitalism expropriates us, radically.  It is the most extreme historical development of Wegsein, most precisely because, as James Osborn has said a couple of times, it hides itself, it proceeds through secrecy, and will not let us see what it is doing to us.

Gelassenheit, or Seinlassen, cannot happen within the context of an embrace of technology in the epoch of surveillance capitalism, which does not liberate but secretly robs us of the very possibility of experience, and therefore changes our very humanity–without us noticing it.  For the most part.   Also here, or primarily here, a step back, the famous Schritt zurück, needs to be taken.

When I was living in Scotland a few years ago I was returning home from the university and I ran into an old man holding a screwdriver and walking aimlessly in the middle of the street.  He looked thoroughly disoriented, so I asked him whether I could help him.  He thanked me profusely, a bit incoherently, and told me that his tv had stopped functioning two days ago, and could I please fix it for him.  I cannot tell you the despair in his eyes, the absolute need he felt for a functioning tv, which was his only resource against radical loneliness and death.  I have often thought about him.  I was not able to help him, could only offer the phone number of some technical service for him to use.  Never knew whether he called them.

All the very best, Alberto

Notes on the Exordium and Introduction of Gareth Williams’ Infrapolitical Passages (Fordham UP, 2020)

One of the epigraphs in Gareth’s book comes from Reiner Schürmann, and it includes the lines “To think is to linger on the conditions in which one is living, to linger on the site where we live . . .  This assigns to philosophy, or to whatever takes its place, the task of showing the tragic condition beneath all principled constructions.”  But if principled constructions are or can be shown to be tragic, it is because they are fundamentally misleading, and dissembling: they hide the fact that the principle does not hold. 

The following notes are meant to help accomplish three things: 1) to provide an echo that might contribute to the dissemination of the ideas in this powerful book; 2) to prepare an upcoming working group meeting where what is to be discussed is the possible connection between infrapolitics and Afropessimism; 3) to help me think out what I want to say in a review of the book I have promised to a journal. 

Full disclosure: Gareth is not just my brother in law, but an old friend and comrade.  And his book—the first English-language book where the tendency of thought some of us have been calling infrapolitics since approximately 2006 is fully named, presented, and developed– seems to me to provide not just a certain public legitimation but also a great occasion to dwell on infrapolitics as a form of thought, and to attempt to show, or to continue to show, its promise.  Which is something in which we have not very successful so far.  But we persist—and even if at some point we give up on the name and attempt other paths we shall continue to persist, since, as the last lines of the Introduction say, “there might be absolutely everything at stake therein” (32). 

I think it is fair to say that infrapolitics is a tendency that has been so far exclusively developed in the context of Latin American Studies, although at the end of the day it does not come from Latin American Studies.  It was born out of the frustrations and the dissatisfaction that the available theoretical tendencies within the field of study provoked in us.  Rather than a form of militancy, it is therefore its opposite: an exodus and a line of flight from endemic pieties of academic thought, endlessly bent on consuming and reproducing itself, reproducing and consuming itself.   So it was a novelty and, insofar as it has not yet been taken up by others outside the core group, it is still a novelty.   But of course our main contention is that it should NOT be a novelty, it should never have been allowed to become a novelty, and it is only a novelty because of an abysmal default of thinking, a blindness, a willed and self-willed disavowal of what, once you see it, can only become increasingly obvious to everyone.  It is not for me to investigate and reveal the reasons for such blindness—I will leave it to others of a more historicist bent.  At this point I will limit myself to praising Gareth’s generous citational strategy in the middle pages of his Introduction.  He quotes me, and the chapter of my book Línea de sombra (2006) where I initiated a presentation of the idea, and immediately he quotes Jaime Rodríguez Matos’s Writing of the Formless, and then various essays by Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, Ronald Mendoza de Jesús, Angel Octavio Alvarez Solís, Jorge Alvarez Yágüez, and Maddalena Cerrato.  While this list of names does not exhaust the infrapolitical nomenklatura, as there are a few others whose ongoing contributions have been extremely welcome (they know who they are: I cannot name them here, as I would not want to offend anyone not named), they serve as an indication that there was indeed a core group of people whose collective will and commitment enabled some of these thoughts to come forward.  I do not think this is trivial—at the very least it takes care of the thought that infrapolitics is some sort of whimsical solipsism.  The group itself, if none of the individual participants, ought to command some respect in practical terms and force others to take stock of what is being said.  Which has not happened yet, not to my knowledge.  Ignoring things—an active ignoring: it is not that they did not know, they simply preferred to neglect it–has been the habitual modus operandi of our blessed field. 

And how could they?  It is not as if the claims made, even if they were to prove absolutely wrong and misguided, or evil, were trivial.  Gareth says, for instance:  “It is a proposal for the deconstruction of every illegitimate appropriation and expropriation that is presented as legitimate” (24);  “infrapolitics inaugurates a diagnosis of the epochal collapse of modern thought” (26); “It is the unconditional nonplace of politics in retreat, which is understood as the potential uncovering of what cannot be captured and remobilized from within the Hegelian metaphysics of absolute knowledge, political consciousness, subjective will, and the dialectic of experience” (26); [infrapolitics is] “the task of denarrativizing the contemporary inheritance of the political” (27-28).  Those do not seem minor claims.  They appear in fact as tremendous claims, and one, a relative fan of horror films, cannot obviate the certainty that a shudder ought to go down the spine every time a tremendous claim gets made.  But it seems that, in our day and age, horror claims are better left alone, unbothered.  It is of course another way of running away from them.  That may have the undesirable and counterproductive effect of making the claimers exaggerate, in the impossibility of generating proper attention otherwise.  And yet that is not the point.

Because infrapolitics actually makes no grandiose claims.  It is inconspicuous thought, of the kind named by Schürmann in Gareth’s epigraph: “linger where you are, open your eyes.”   If only we could know where we are.  At some point in the Introduction Gareth quotes Walter Benjamin’s short text on “the destructive character,” and compares it to infrapolitical work: “The destructive character sees nothing permanent.  But for this reason he sees ways everywhere.  Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way.  But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere.  Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined.  Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads.  No moment can know what the next will bring.  What exists he reduces to rubble—not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it” (Benjamin quoted by Gareth, 27).   And this is of course the site from which the word passage comes to the title of the book: Infrapolitical Passages.  There is a need to open a way through the rubble of the present, but to where? 

Gareth does not say.  “The story [the book] tells, from start to finish,” is only “the experience of a border, of a boundary, and therefore of a (non)crossing” (28).  It is a (non)crossing where principles collapse, and where it is only possible “to strive to clear a path” towards “the possibility of a decision of existence . . . from within the endemic violence of a world of war” (29).  Which does not mean that, thereby, existence needs to take shelter in some non-political exteriority, much less an interiority.  “Rather, it is a movement toward a quasi-conceptual attunement in thinking formulated in order to inquire into the determining power of our given conceptual systems and to propose the contours for an alternative (for example, nonsubjectivist, nontranscendental, nonutopian, postmessianic) relation to the political in the age of total (that is, of planetary) subsumption” (20).  It is a movement of raw politicity, opposed to any thought of an accomplished passage like the one the Introduction finds maximally represented in Alain Badiou’s notion of an “intervallic period” leading to true life through the enactment of the Idea.

Gareth’s reading of Badiou’s formulations of the Idea in The True Life (2017) and The Rebirth of History (2012) is magisterial, and so is his reading of Jacques Lacan’s 1972 Milan lecture on “capitalist discourse.”  But they are in fact opposed to one another, insofar as Badiou’s intervallic periods, which are the periods of the wait for true life and rebirth, “would stand as flawed monuments to a largely unexamined will to close over any potential abyss in thinking the political, via the language of a metaphysical doctrine of political subjectivism in an age in which the history of that metaphysics has already run its course” (17).  Lacan, instead, is the portentous announcer of a different message: “Lacan indicates that the question of Being precedes and is occluded in the Cartesian certainty of the ‘therefore’ that situates logos and the subject as coextensive and coterminous, together and complementary in the everyday (ontic) experience of subjectivity and its representations.  Lacan announced in these formulations that a fundamental historical limit—a limit inaugurating the full planetary accomplishment of the ontology of the commodity—had been crossed.  It is too late, he said in reference to the capitalist discourse, thereby implying that the history of the modern can no longer be salvaged” (15).   

What is to be done amidst the ruins of an unsalvageable political modernity?  The Exordium takes up some words of Greta Thunberg’s, pronounced during the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, in April 2019.  In her words, Gareth says, “we merely encounter an a-principial, infrapolitical recollection of being and nothing else, little more than a call, by saying its matter, to let being be in a way that it is not being allowed to be” (3).  In that call, Gareth says, we are summoned to “two intertwined transmissions of the infrapolitical register,” namely, “the everyday ontic, or sociological, distance from the modern metaphysics of subjectivity and the technical calculations of sovereignty, in conjunction with that distance’s simultaneous touch upon a thinking of being uncaptured by the ontology of commodity fetishism” (7).

To finish this brief examination of the first pages of Gareth’s book—I will continue this with later chapters—I will reproduce the passage he quotes from one of Heidegger’s poietic writings of the early 1940s, namely, The History of Beying: “nothing remains any longer in which the hitherto accustomed world of humankind could be salvaged; nothing of what has gone before offers itself as something that could still be erected as a goal for the accustomed self-securing of human beings” (Heidegger quoted by Gareth, 8).   

Infrapolitics points to a passage in the nothing, but it is an enabling one.  And is this not also, mutatis mutandis, the radical core experience of Afropessimism, which is an experience, in its reverse side, of the accomplishment of subjective triumph at the cost of antiblackness?  Ontotheology is antiblackness, and infrapolitics is, wishes to be, a way out of ontotheology.  But more on this in the future.   

Digital as Third-Degree

To David XXX:

If you are ultimately asking whether we would prefer an analog over a digital world, my answer is an unequivocal yes.  I think yellow slips, phone calls during office hours for work, and evenings and weekends for family and friends, and a couple of hours a day for typewritten or long-hand correspondence, did a much better job for me.  Yes, now I can easily share with my nephews and nieces in Spain the story of the Florida man who liberated his Spaniel puppy from the jaws of an alligator without dropping his cigar, but I have not had a proper conversation with any of them since the last time I was in Spain, when most of them were busy anyway texting their friends.

I have been privileged enough to have access to adequate libraries, so that using the card catalog and walking through the stacks, and then going downstairs to read a couple of newspapers in the newspapers section, was good enough for me.  Of course it is more comfortable, physically, to order books from Amazon and to download everything else into my computer, but at the end of the day that kind of hyperaccess, which I enjoy professionally, has not done much for me in terms of thinking and writing about what is important (for me).  And the pleasures of posting in Academia.com or Facebook are offset by the pain they produce on a constant basis.  Just think about what it has done to your friendships, together with email.  There are now for the most part only nominal friendships having to do with a steady digital contact.  But you are dead in the water if that contact vanishes, for one reason or another.  Nothing easier.

Even writing here in the Heidegger Circle is painful, no matter its compensations.

I have no choice, however, or my choice is very limited.  Yes, I may drop out of Facebook and my Slack chat rooms and even the Heidegger Circle, and willingly assume a heroic, radical solitude that will feel very much like what I imagine prison time to be.  Or I may assiduously continue the activities I engage in, and this letter is part of it, in full awareness that they are radically compensatory in nature and far from any kind of “real thing.”  So that the isolation regime becomes more like a third-degree jail regime, where I am given some communication benefits in exchange for good behavior, if I manage to keep it.

Given that situation, I will of course try to make the most of my options as they are, never knowing whether I am doing it right or, indeed, the costs it enacts.  But I am pretty damn sure I cannot call that “a free relation to technology.”  That would only be self-delusion, and a corrupt use of the very notion of freedom.

In the meantime, the regime of work and permanent evaluation on quantitative factors the university imposes on us–definitely Ge-Stell and Bestand-based, and digitally motivated and empowered to the core–has gutted any conceivable academic stimulus for me.  As far as I am concerned, social networks have taken the place of university discourse, since proper university discourse is to be found nowhere.  But they have not really taken its place, except as farce.

So, yes, I will continue to try to make the most of present conditions, but I think they generally suck, even though they suck for me less than they suck for others.

All the very best, Alberto

PS: It would of course be naive of me to expect, even to hope for, a good discussion concerning these issues.


David, thanks.  Likewise, I have no reason or inclination to question your experience.  I realize the world is complicated.  And it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I do not try to extract as much as I can extract from the digital world as it is.  I am successful enough at it at any rate to sustain my life as it is.  And of course there is no alternative life I can countenance at this point.   I am, for instance, enjoying this exchange, and I would not give it up.

So perhaps the key here is not to take absolute or dogmatic positions and try to make the most of the possibilities we do have–there is certainly no return to the analog world, as it cannot be done on an individual basis–to be the one analog in a digital world is to be in a position a lot worse than the ugly duckling’s, as there will be no redeeming swan flying by.  We have to make do.

The difficulty, then, at least for me, is how to continue to produce some thinking that I believe is good enough for my possibilities in the face of a net of digital relationships that are only receptive rarely, infrequently.   In the notion that thinking can only happen relationally, that there can be no thinking in the absence of interlocution.  (Unless one is some kind of saintly genius.)

Say, you produce a text here, or in Facebook, and there is no response.  How many times can you bear it without throwing in the towel?   And then, what do you do: do you adjust your discourse to your prospective audience, meaning that you will have to come in your thinking as close to producing a cat picture as you can, or do you just opt for silence and withdrawal?

Of course those are two bad options.  Today a friend of mine posted a picture of the cover of a book I had co-edited with him, and I posted a reflection on the issue we are currently discussing.  Within half an hour that cover picture had 102 likes, and my reflection had 9 likes.  But I know that well above 90% of the people that “liked” the cover picture will forget that the book exists within half an hour.

I find that kind of thing endlessly frustrating, and precisely because people’s digital commitments have made them become very scarce when it comes to facilitating serious conversation, and there is nothing but facebook, say, available any more.  There is no alternative.  Even email is failing now, compared to its function in, say, the 1990s.

I believe the tendency of thought associated with Heidegger helps endure all of this, which definitely has existential implications.   Actually, this is why I am interested in the notion of an existentially transformative thinking.   While I know present conditions are not to be ignored, cannot be ignored, I find it hard to inhabit them, and I need something else.  Please do not think of this as overly dramatic on my part.  I think it is what we all feel.  At some level.

All the very best, Alberto

On Lying in Politics (in an Extramoral Sense)

I think I have a certain responsibility, as a teacher if for no other reason (although there are always other reasons), to say something, and to make it public.  So here it is. 

It is becoming increasingly clear, if immediately after November 4 there was some possible room for doubt, that the battle of the Republican Party to impugn the recent presidential elections has now moved, well away from partisan zeal, into a region of straightforward lies and willful deceit that is nothing but massive in intent.  At first one could think that people’s natural tendency to believe in good faith what others on their side of things say was excusable, understandable even.  But everyone knows by now that not just the President but the Republican Party leadership, and all who side with them on this issue, are lying shamelessly when they continue to state that only systematic fraud explains the majority in both the popular and the Electoral College votes favoring President-Elect Joseph Biden, and that the fraud will be corrected and there will be a second term for President Trump. That all of this is a lie is as close to a simple fact as one can possibly come in the political world.  Not only are they lying, but they know they are lying, and they are doing it anyway.  Let us not call this “ideology,” let us not call it self-deceit.  Those people are lying, their intent is to deceive others, they want to do damage, and, in the process, they are losing their integrity, their decency, and they are consequently losing their very capacity to ask for and expect respect from the rest of us.  I think this is a serious problem and they have created it.

I suppose, like most everybody else, I have come to terms with the fact that other people can and will have political opinions and projections that do not accord with mine, and I accept the democratic game, sometimes begrudgingly so.  But I know that, short of declaring war, where I could die as easily as anybody else, I do not have an alternative, other than just leaving the site where disagreement is too strong for me to stomach, which I have done in the past.  When the stage where willful and destructive lying takes place is the national stage, then it is difficult to leave it.  It is difficult to abandon your country, even if you are tempted to do so when political life in it becomes so fraught, so contaminated with falsity that your own integrity and respect for obvious, everyday truth becomes endangered.  When you can no longer trust your neighbor you start to lose the ability to trust yourself.

I do not want to preach.  The reason I am writing this is not anxious moralism on my part.  It is true that I do not believe in lying for almost any reason, I think it always backfires, but I have no specific moral reproach for the liars.  They may have reasons for their lying that I know nothing about.  The same goes for corruption or indeed for other vices.  To that extent I do not pass judgment on them, I prefer to abstain, although I will do my best to shut people who have them out of my life as I prefer not to have complications derived from such behaviors.  But we are talking about politics here, and I have no way of shutting an undetermined half of the country out of my life.  I have to deal with them, and I have to pay the price for doing so.  I resent that very much.  Have any political opinions you like.  I may like them or dislike them, and I might learn from them.  But be truthful about them and be truthful about the situations they generate for you and for others. That at least.

When I talk about infrapolitics I mean first of all precisely that.  There are potential liars everywhere in the political spectrum, and they are all dishonorable and they all create trouble for the rest of us.  Infrapolitics has nothing to do with your politics to that extent.  But when your politics lead you to lie, or when your lying leads you to politics, then you have betrayed yourself as an existent, you break a certain interdiction that turns you into a broken person, no matter how petulant it makes you look at first.  And you risk breaking others.  There is a very difficult return from that pit.  In fact, I do not think there is one.  This is also a situation similar to the one I like to confront my students with: if you betray someone, are you a traitor?  Can you ever stop being a traitor after your betrayal?  My students always respond: “No, once a traitor, always a traitor.”  Being a traitor, being a liar, being dishonorable—those are not political issues, they are not even primarily moral issues, or if they are let them be: as far as the other is concerned, they are first of all infrapolitical issues, as they define your existence even before politics.  The problem is: they affect mine as well.  And that is unacceptable.  When politics moves into a situation of infrapolitical unacceptability, that is when civil war raises its ugly head.  It is only latent now, initiated by the liars.  We need to step back, even if that means leaving the liars behind. 

A Note on Donatella di Cesare’s Marranos. The Other of the Other

What, then, remains of the marrano and of the Jew?  There remains the fidelity to the secret that they have not chosen.  “It is for this reason that I call myself marrano: not out of the pilgrimages of a wandering Jew, not out of the series of exiles, but out of the clandestine search for a secret bigger and older than I am.”

Marranos 107

In the last pages of her book Marranos.  The Other of the Other (Cambridge: Polity, 2020) Donatella Di Cesare says, as rendered by her translator, David Broder:  “One highly controversial question concerns whether, as some historians claim, the phenomenon of marranism ought to be archived forever, or if one ought instead to speak of a marrano condition that transcends the limits of any historical definition” (117).  And she continues: “Risky . . . is the tendency to make the marrano into a metaphor, as happens here and there in some essays, especially works of comparative literature” (118).  It would seem that Di Cesare leans towards the ban: “Do not speak of marranos, do not even speak marrano, unless you speak of the literal phenomenon.”  But it may only seem so, since she starts her book by claiming that marrano history is “unarchivable” (4).  How would you then proceed to archiving the unarchiveable?  And, were you to manage to do so, would that not immediately turn you into another inquisitor, doomed to spend the rest of your time on earth policing the resurgence of marrano metaphors, or of the marrano as metaphor?  Even in literature, brought in as a especially propitious field for metaphoric proliferation, which would not be all that surprising.[i]

It is “risky” to make marrano metaphors, Di Cesare says, but there is usually a risk to metaphor, so there is nothing new there.  Except that the risk is meant to be political: by turning the marrano into a metaphor, by speaking about the “marrano condition” as unmoored to its historical referent, one might be stealing someone else’s property, even someone else’s proper name.  And yet one needs to wonder under what if any conceivable definition it is or it would be legitimate to consider “marrano” something like a proper name.  Remember that “marrano” was originally an insult and an accusation, or an accusation and an insult.  In that case, marrano would be proper to whom?  To the accused?  Are we certain we ought to allow the accusers the power of proper nomination?  I prefer to take those sentences by Di Cesare as themselves a marrano symptom, a marrano dissimulation, a marrano strategy.  The marrano, that is, someone who has discovered in herself a marrano condition, says: “it is improper to use the term marrano, only some dead people can claim it legitimately, and we know very few of them, most of them remain and have remained unknown.  Only the dead, the marrano dead, should we know who they are but even if we do not, have the right to the proper name. The rest of us are impostors.”  But then we know that all marranos have been impostors, we know that marrano can only name an impostor’s position.  So those words are already an imposture; a dissimulation; something like a negative metaphor, where the figural plane is denied only in order to provide it with a secret and free life.  It is an interesting figure, the non-literal marrano: a figure where the risk is produced through its very disavowal. 

Di Cesare has already taken the risk: “How many marranos still exist?  How many know they are marranos and have always known it, and how many are so well hidden that they don’t know it or, rather, have never suspected as much?  And who can say that they are not a marrano?” (102).  If you cannot say that you are not a marrano, and if, by the same token, you can never be quite certain that you are one, then all talk of marrano metaphoricity flounders: it is not that we have risked a metaphor, we have rather ruined the metaphorical field.  And the political risk shifts then to the definition one uses, and dictating it is no longer the function of any inquisitorial master of words.  Let me however say that, a few years ago, when some friends of mine and I attempted to propose a book series under the name “Marrano Hispanisms,” we were censored, we were not allowed to do it.  The term, they said, carried too much risk.  It is better to do it, if you want, without saying it, without admitting it.  So there must be something to Di Cesare’s caveat that one must perhaps attend to.  The question, and it seems to me a decisive one, is whether the proper marrano position is to flaunt the risk, to let the chips fall where they might, or to submit to the injunction, to obey the inquisitorial mandate, which is always of the order of a negation:  “Don”t!”

So let me cut to the chase and propose a marrano metaphor of sorts, taking my own risks.  At its most extreme, which of course nobody can or does hold existentially, if being black in the US, in terms of the imperative of “becoming who you are,” is accepting the “invitation to social death,” as Frank Wilderson puts it, let me posit that being a US Latinx is marked, again at its most extreme, which I unashamedly tend to consider its position of truth, by the “marrano condition” of double exclusion.  Over the last few years mainstream Latinx writing has blessedly, for the most part, abandoned the thematics of familial and group identity, although not yet enough.  Instead there is a growing focus on the border, on crossing the border, on immigrant narratives.  Which seems to me something like double exclusion degree zero.  Let me produce a random list of books on the US Mexico/Border as an example (the list is random to the extent those books happen to on my bookshelves and I did not search for them): Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway; Fernando Flores’ Tears of the Truffle Pig; A K Sandoval-Strausz’s Barrio America; Stephanie Elizondo’s All the Agents and Saints; Ana Castillo’s So Far From God; Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home; Oscar Casares’ Where We Come From; Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion; Alfredo Corchado’s Homelands.  Are these not marrano works, all of them crossed by a more or less explicit autographic drive (but one no longer identitarian)?  I would claim they are. 

And I will make a second claim, based on Di Cesare’s words: “There is nothing to say that politics must be the site of the total apparition of the human–all the more so if this is taken to mean the exteriority commanded by the state, which would then be the sole principle for ordering and articulating humanity. The marranos stood opposed to this” (96).  Yes, the marranos and the US Latinxs, always at its most extreme, that is, at the moment of maximum self-consciousness.  These words, which apparently or in principle seem to deny a certain politicity to the marrano condition, are words that, on the contrary, inaugurate the possibility of an archipolitics that is always already an infrapolitics.  They reject the metaphor that equates politics and humanity, the “becoming-subject of the citizen as the becoming-citizen of the subject,” as someone has recently put it.   By denying or disavowing the non-literal meaning of politics, which is its equation with the humanity of the human, they perform an archipolitical cathexis, as they simultaneously call for a different articulation of the notion of politics.  And, by denying or disavowing the non-literal meaning of humanity, which is its equation with politics, they perform an infrapolitical gesture, they indeed open an infrapolitics, as they simultaneously call for a different understanding of the human. 

[i] I understand that I should be providing the definitions Di Cesare offers regarding the “marrano condition,” “double exclusion,” and other necessary precisions for the reader to understand what it is that Di Cesare’s book brings to the discussion.  But this is only a blog note, to be continued with a fuller review of the book, whose reading I really recommend to anyone interested in these issues, at some point in the near future. 

Nota a la segunda edición revisada de Línea de sombra. El no sujeto de lo político. (Borrador.)

Es difícil nadar contra la corriente.  A menudo tales esfuerzos son vanos e irrisorios y por eso es doblemente iluso esperar reconocimiento público en consecuencia.  En esta nota a la reedición de Línea de sombra.  El no sujeto de lo político, cuya primera edición fue publicada en Santiago de Chile por Palinodia en 2006, me toca hacer dos cosas: en primer lugar, expresar mi agradecimiento sincero a Bernard McGuirk y a Macdonald Daly por haberla propuesto y facilitado; en segundo lugar, tratar de justificar su necesidad o, más modestamente, su oportunidad, en el caso de que ya hoy, como espero, la presentación que este libro ofrece no pueda desestimarse como intempestiva, ya no prematura sino ajustada al tiempo en el que vivimos.  Porque lo cierto es que el libro, aunque su distribución fuera limitada (aunque para eso está internet, al fin y al cabo), atravesó en su momento el cuerpo lector más o menos como el rayo del ángel atravesó a María, pero con escasos resultados en el orden de la fecundación.  Creo que es correcto afirmar que este es un libro que no ha sido todavía leído, fuera de círculos restringidos de amistad, y solo cabe esperar que ahora lo sea.  Que su intempestividad pueda haber quedado compensada por el movimiento histórico mismo es en todo caso la apuesta que subyace a esta nueva publicación.

            A mí me cuesta releerme, y hacerlo dieciséis años después todavía más.  Pero lo hice, y no pude evitar cierta constatación melancólica: el libro merece la pena.  Hubiera sido mejor, desde cierta perspectiva, constatar su inutilidad o su ruina. Pero no: el libro, que es, en resumidas cuentas, una deconstrucción rigurosa de la noción de sujeto de la política, y en consecuencia una primera aproximación a las nociones de posthegemonía e infrapolítica—todo eso está en juego en la mención del no sujeto de lo político–, se sostiene, para bien o para mal, y ofrece una reflexión que espero tenga ahora recibo efectivo.  A mi juicio el recibo es urgente, todavía lo es o lo es hoy más que nunca.  Su pregunta central es la pregunta política por excelencia, si es que todavía podemos esperar que el registro apropiado para ella sea cabalmente el de la pregunta por la emancipación—por la igualdad y por la libertad.  Queda formulada como pregunta por la relación entre deconstrucción y subalternidad a partir de la noción de no sujeto como resto enigmático de toda (des)articulación política. Esta es, para mí, la fuerza del libro, su fuerza crítica en primer lugar, pero se trata de una fuerza que, para funcionar en cuanto fuerza, precisaba de una recepción en el campo de pensamiento que no ha tenido todavía. Es extraño pensar que dos de las nociones con más presencia en las discusiones universitarias de los años noventa, las de deconstrucción y subalternidad, hayan encontrado tanto silencio en el intento mismo de ponerlas en común.

            No es para mí, sin embargo, tratar de dilucidar si las respuestas que Línea de sombra ofrece o propone sean adecuadas, o las más adecuadas.  En todo caso la pertinencia de sus preguntas no ha sufrido menoscabo: al revés, la situación que las motiva sólo parece haberse intensificado en todos los órdenes de experiencia.  El libro buscaba interlocución con formaciones de pensamiento poderosas en nuestro presente, capaces de orientarnos hacia problemáticas reales e intensas—con las obras de Carl Schmitt, de Alain Badiou y Slavoj Zizek, de Ernesto Laclau y de Judith Butler, de Michael Hardt y Antonio Negri, de Jacques Lacan y Jacques Derrida, de Giorgio Agamben y Emmanuel Lévinas.  Por supuesto es un diálogo selectivo, y en el caso de los que están vivos entre ellos podría haberse complicado con el análisis de obras publicadas por ellos después de 2006.  Pero no se ha complicado excesivamente: me atrevo a suponer que el trabajo de Línea de sombra subsiste y sobrevive en su relativa efectividad y que sus preguntas, en la medida en que no fueron contestadas en el libro mismo, tampoco lo han sido por la obra subsiguiente de los autores interpelados, ni por ninguna otra obra de la que yo tenga noticia.  Las preguntas están vivas. 

            Por supuesto no han dejado de ocurrir cosas, entre ellas la elaboración todavía en curso de la noción de infrapolítica (ver Infrapolítica.  Instrucciones de uso, Madrid, 2020).  Y han aparecido nuevas formaciones de pensamiento que es preciso medir, como las vinculadas a Comité invisible y al grupo de intelectuales en Black Study que trabaja en afropesimismo y black ops.  La aceleración del estado de vigilancia y la aceleración del cambio climático son problemas de los que Línea de sombra no se hizo cargo y que resultan ya ineludibles.  Pero la continuada crisis teórica de la izquierda política contemporánea es un grave obstáculo para lograr respuestas a ellas. 

            Propongo a los lectores que busquen en Línea de sombra no más que las trazas de ciertas aporías de pensamiento cuya confrontación es inevitable y que atañen, en primer y último lugar, a dos regiones de reflexión: la posibilidad de pensar políticamente un fin de la subalternidad desde presupuestos no vinculados a la noción moderna de subjetividad, que convierte al mundo en objeto de uso y extracción; y la posibilidad de pensar infrapolíticamente cómo vivir, cómo estar en existencia.  Si esa primera posibilidad es deconstructiva, la segunda es propositiva. Ambas son necesarias para cruzar la línea de sombra que amenaza crecientemente con ocupar nuestro horizonte, si es que no se lo ha comido ya irreversiblemente.   

A Note for Discussion Concerning Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. October 15, 2020.

I think it is possible to reflect on Saidiya Hartman’s 1996 book from the point of view of the text that has arguably summarized the political stakes of modernity most decisively: the handful of pages in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit about the master-slave dialectic, which predict its own resolution through labor in history and through history as labor.  What is consequently decisive in Hartman’s book, and presumably the motor or at least one of the motors of the frame of mind that has come to be known as Afropessimism, is the fact that Hartman’s book presumes no political or even social resolution in final reconciliation of the tension between mastery and servitude.   Labor in history will not do the Hegelian trick.  Mastery will continue to assert its privilege. 

The book shows how, from antebellum slavery through Emancipation and Reconstruction all the way through to the liquidation of the separate-but-equal statutes around 1967, servitude only managed to modulate its position of servitude while mastery kept its dominion in the form of white supremacy, white privilege.  I think it is fair to say that the issue of race is historically contingent to the very extent that it is not primarily a matter of white versus black as a function of any imagined racial hierarchy; it is precisely a matter of the fact that mastery needs an other to exert itself, and slavery, which means the slavery of Africans, propitiated the structure both directly, in antebellum times, and indirectly, through the maintenance or resurgence of black subjugation after emancipation.   

Which makes it no less poignant for blacks.  They are the symbolic subaltern in a social structure where political assertions of equality have not managed to achieve the factical elimination of racial subjugation.  But this means that the Hegelian master-slave dialectic proves itself to be just another story, and a wrong and misleading story at that.  Under those conditions, the narrative of emancipation, which emblematizes the predicament of the black slave, has no visible happy ending, that is, no political resolution in an equalitarian symbolization of the social.  Subalternity will not be eliminated; racial subalternity is an irreducible condition of the social as we know it, against and in the face of every piety of the liberal-democratic argument.  What is to be done under those conditions?

Fred Moten, in a review published in 2003, says: “There is an intense dialogue with Douglass that structures Scenes of Subjection.  The dialogue is opened by a refusal of recitation that reproduces what it refuses.  Hartman swerves away from Douglass and thereby runs right back to him.  She also runs through him into territory he could not have recognized, territory no one has charted as thoroughly and as convincingly as she has done.  Still, the structure of this turn away from, to, and through Douglass is familiar, perhaps disturbingly so.  Is there any other way for Hartman to have done what she has done?  This is to ask: Is Douglass inescapable for the theory of (black) performance and the theory of (black) subjectivity?  Can one simply opt out of this primal scene?  Can we think the generativity of that scene in its generality?”  (171).

Douglass’s primal scene is the primal scene of direct, sadistic domination of the human by the human.   It is also the primal scene hidden in the Phenomenology pages.  Hence the question about opting out is also a question about opting out of the political categories of modernity; that is, of modernity’s narratives of tendential democratic equality through labor as production, through social and economic development, through the various adjustments, reforms, even revolutions history will provide through its own teleology of fettered but still inevitable progress. 

In page 65, in the context of a discussion of slave infrapolitics, Hartman says “Even the Gramscian model, with its reformulation of the relation of state and civil society in the concept of the historical bloc and its expanded definition of the political, maintains a notion of the political inseparable from the effort and the ability of a class to effect hegemony.”  It is a rather subdued statement in the context of the book, which nevertheless amounts to a straightforward denunciation of the radical insufficiency of hegemony theory in any guise or form.  Essentially, the contention is that equality is not to be found as a consequence of any inclusionist strategy on the side of dominant culture–that hegemony, that is, mastery, is always to be maintained means that the rhetoric of liberation must be purchased in every case at the price of mimicry, and mimicry is subjugation, which means that, where it succeeds as mimicry, it fails as emancipation.  Already in Anita Patterson’s review of Scenes of Subjection Patterson, who was nevertheless enthusiastic about the book, felt compelled to finish by saying: “I remain unpersuaded by Hartman’s suggestion that we dispense with notions of individuality, freedom, and civil rights just because the discourse of democracy has at times been put to bad use.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding, very tedious twenty plus years later.  Hartman does not “dispense with” those notions. She simply thinks that they are notions that, when wielded by hegemony or as hegemony’s mimicry, that is, even through counterhegemonic efforts, will double down on subjection, and will perpetuate subjection. This should alert us, should have alerted us, to the fact that counterhegemonic applications of hegemonic procedures will not suffice and have not sufficed for any equalitarian symbolization of the social.

This is where the claims for posthegemony and infrapolitics come together and meet and, in the case of the notion of infrapolitics that interests me, exceed subaltern studies.   Hartman refers to infrapolitics and to the “infrapolitics of the dominated” in obvious dialogue with James Scott’s theorization of infrapolitics.  It is clear enough, in Hartman’s book, that politics is a limited tool that cannot account for existential emancipation and that dooms the subaltern to endless subjugation.  The contention, which is made only in the form of a repeated question in Scenes of Subjection, is that infrapolitical practice can at least provide pleasure; that it is the very site of pleasure for subaltern sectors of the population.   Through infrapolitical practice subjugation is bracketed and negated. 

It is interesting that Scott, Robin Kelly, Hartman, Moten and Stefano Harney, seem still somewhat unwilling, at least to me, to take their very thoughts regarding infrapolitical practice to their logical next step and choose to remain constrained by an understanding of posthegemonic infrapolitics still circumscribed to its negative determination.   For them, infrapolitics names a restriction in the concept of politics, given the insufficiency of politics for black emancipation.   Am I right in this?  In any case, this is what I would like to submit to discussion.  In my view, it is a change in the notion of infrapolitics as somehow “prepolitical,” to make use of Ranajit Guha’s unfortunate term in reference to similar phenomena of subaltern revolt and subaltern pleasure that would not be registered in political terms, that could replace “pessimism” in order to open another horizon.  Infrapolitics is not to be thought of as simply a way out of politics.  Can we expand the notion and make it good for an other beginning of politics not constrained or circumscribed to Hegelian dialectics and its implicit philosophy of history? 

I think the notion of the “wayward subject” in Saidiya’s more recent book, Wayward Lives, is a step forward.   Can we continue to push that thought, and see where it takes us? 

Adaptability and Education

As students of contemporary technology will tell you, we are already in a historical time, perhaps for the first time in the history of humanity, where people cannot keep up with technological advancement, and the trend will continue. Technology is already exceeding human adaptability, and the gap will keep growing. We have not seen much yet, compared to what is coming.  And yet we have seen enough already.  But this means most of us will become roadkill if we have not yet become that.  This is in some ways an opening premise of Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late.  An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Picador 2020).  I have only started reading the book, so I do not know where Friedman wants to take us.   What follows are reflections that result from a Facebook discussion, which I may supplement with other considerations as I make progress in Friedman’s book. 

The problem then is to have legions of roadkill zombies organizing not just our education and the education of our children, but also our politics and our labor relations and our everyday life for us, through procedures we are becoming quite familiar with: an absolute disconnect between claims and the real, a thorough falsification of the commons, delusions and ideology ruling our lives everywhere. I do not think there are any easy solutions to this but do believe if the humanities do not help out, by trying somehow to assuage the gap between technical innovation and human adaptability, we are irretrievably screwed. But the humanities are still looking the other way, hence increasingly populated by what Friedman calls roadkill with a chip on their shoulders. Take a minor but symptomatic example: most humanities courses in the North American university are a repetition of the courses that were taught in the 1980s and 1990s, and very little has changed. But this is precisely the reason why students have turned away from us. Is it not high time to have a serious conversation about this? Could we do it, or is the very conversation already too difficult or impossible?

Are the humanities capable of innovation in thinking, can they help contemporary humanity understand their predicament in the face of technological change, market globalization, and climate change, or are they condemned to repeat themselves from parameters that come from a tradition and a world that has largely been left behind, for better or for worse, but for real in any case?  One would want to respond that yes, the humanities can do it.  I think the humanities can do it, but I am not so sure present-day humanists can do it.  I am not such an optimist.  I have reasons to believe humanists today are largely out of touch with the real world and much prefer to have their heads comfortably stuck up their backsides. 

My precarious intuition, since I have no massive empirical data on it: the humanities today are by and large, with minor modifications, in the position of my one-time colleague, a graduate of some prominent university in the late 1970s, who still thinks Wayne Booth, Russian formalism, and Reader-Response is the way to go—the fellow had simply stopped growing intellectually when he graduated, and forty years later he was still using his old dog-eared notes on yellowing paper to continue to teach his classes. Students could only be dumbfounded, I doubt they would have thought it was charming.  But the same is true of course for those who think their alleged courageous political commitment to various identity causes, to which they woke in the 1990’s, is enough to justify their careers.  And one wonders about the rest: those are the very people who prefer to use their social media to issue conventional opinions and would reject any substantive discussion, for instance: the so-called intellectuals who no longer bother to read much, and prefer rereading at most.   And the thing is: they are still proud of themselves, think there is nothing wrong, their real work, I suppose, happens when they prepare an article for PMLA.  Except that very few people are now preparing articles for PMLA. That is not where things are, as everybody knows, if it ever was. 

I think the humanities should assume this task of radical innovation, which can and should probably be seen as no more than a necessary massive updating of presuppositions, but the difficulties are immense, given our own inertia and all kinds of embedded resistance. Now, these two latter things, given the simultaneous recognition of the crisis of the humanities, about which nobody does anything at all, can be summed up in one word: incompetence. Or two words: hopeless incompetence. And notice this: I can only have this conversation on Facebook or in the blog–I already know posting this on the blog will bring at most a hundred readers, and no discussion, or barely any.  If I attempted to have it in my own institution, provided I were allowed to do it, it would mean that my head, toward which I still feel some residual love, would be put on the chopping block. And of course I think that is beyond pathetic, because I am fairly certain that the folks in Engineering or Business do not enjoy the same limitations. But let us attempt to imagine what it would take.  Just two ideas to start with:

Firstly, we need a fundamental revision of our majors and our doctoral programs, most of which are obsolete and worse. Nothing less than a new kind of education in the humanities is needed.  More on this below.

And then, second thing, we would have to reinvent the parameters under which professional advancement in our fields is granted: i think we have had enough of the little paper-producing industry we have laboriously loved for several generations, I think the parameters for tenure are hopelessly anachronistic and useless, and I think the issue of “publishing in adequate venues” is as stilted as seventeenth-century wigs for males.  Nobody reads journal articles as journal articles any more, and hardly any books from their own professional field: at best they read them because someone posts a PDF of them on Facebook or Twitter, normally the author, for her or his own circle of friends.  Or in Academia.edu.  This reinforces a cycle of intellectual narcissism probably never seen before in the history of the humanities. 

It is a matter of survival, and not our survival, but rather the survival of a mode of thought not based on endless technical acceleration and quantifiable h-indexes for licking everybody’s asses (quotations: normally used today to enhance one’s own status, to secure others’ quotations of oneself, given the race for quotations as a measure of impact our own universities have set us up for, on the management model of the flea circus or perhaps the ant farm). Or we could just move out of the university, easy for some of us to say, since we are already eligible for social security checks. But there is a future for others, it simply cannot be based on publishing seven articles on Don Quixote or exploring the affective investments in José Eustasio Rivera’s interesting but somewhat mediocre famous novel. Can we facilitate that future, pointing the way to it, or do we do it by continuing to ruin our present, and see what the children come up with?

The world has changed, and it is useless to dwell on whether the change has been for the better or the worse. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that students have urgencies we did not have and dismiss the urgencies we did have. Trying to impose ourselves on them, rather than learning about their urgencies, is a losing game, but the ones who lose the most are precisely the students. I think the experience of pandemic confinement will have had some positive uses for all of us. I just hope they are not squandered if and when there is a return to so-called normality.

Regarding fundamental curricular revisions, let us grab the bull by the horns.  Our distribution in the academic humanities is obsolete, which means we should move toward a liquidation of the disciplines as they are for the sake of new inventions. Which does not mean liquidating the need to know and explore the historical archive. But the historical archive in Spanish, say, is no longer a priority, as it may have been at times of nation-state hegemony, of national citizenship as first allegiance, and so forth. What I am proposing is not so far-fetched. For instance, we have a PhD program called something like “Multidisciplinary PhD Program in Hispanic Studies.” Let us replace it with something called “Multidisciplinary PhD Program in the Humanities.” Let us give up on field-coverage and area expertise, which really has done nothing for intellectual life in the last fifty years. Let us imagine a new education with new questions and new thought produced in the way of provisional answers. Let us concentrate on what people need to learn in order to face the chaos of their lives.

Forgive me for the autobiographical note here, but I think we all speak from our own life experience, and I want to make mine visible.  There may have been a time in which, to respond to the chaos of my life, I needed to know what Unamuno and Baroja had said. Or what the criollista novelists were proposing to the nation. When it may have been useful personally to know how Clarice Lispector understood female lives in the Brazil of her time. When taking stock of pre-Boom writers could have helped me take on and reflect on varieties of a form of life necessary for my own. I do not think we are any longer there, but in any case: I certainly believe our undergraduates are not there at all, and do not need any of that. It doesn´t mean Baroja, or the rest, are not worth reading. But they must be read, if they must, from a different set of questions, new configurations of thought that “the discipline” is not only not promoting but is actively stifling. With a vengeance.

Yes, I thought at the time that it was just not possible or relevant to think except within your own language’s archive. Which is why I abandoned philosophy in favor of literature, since philosophy in Spanish was just not worth bothering about. It is of course one of my fundamental life mistakes. Equivalent to an American thinking he could only think out of American literature or American thought traditions. Preposterous, if you think about it. And maybe a residue of either Francoism or anti-Francoism, which came to the same thing here.

For our own students, the operative word is “think.” They do not need a national archive, unless they want to make a hobby of it. But no national archive can today sustain an intellectual life not buried in the sand. This is one of the consequences of the very real market globalization.

By the time I finished my seven-year-long doctoral training in the late 1980s, I had read most everything relevant in the Spanish archive. Including Fray Gerundio de Campazas and Diego de Torres Villarroel. And I came to think that rereading it to comment on it as a career was somehow less than attractive. It was because I actually was unsatisfied that I became a Latin Americanist–there were things in the Latin American archive I had not yet read, so at least that would keep me curious.  But all of that was part of my original and fateful mistake, which was precisely to think that an archive, any given archive, could give me the thinking resources I might need. So I kept going from one place to another: middle ages, renaissance, contemporary novel, Golden Age theatre, chronicles, etc., finding compensations here and there, of course, but keeping at a fundamental distance from most of it. With some sustaining exceptions– Libro de Buen Amor, La Celestina, Cervantes, Borges, Valente, some of the classical poetry, Goytisolo. I kept trying, not understanding that the very nature of the questions I was asking should have made me move away a lot earlier than I finally did from most of it, already in my late forties. But I am not bragging about anything. I did what a good student of the discipline would have done (I have always been a good student) and paid the price most paid. Until I felt I had had enough, and switched gears and went through the normal difficulties of it. But I would not put myself as an example of anything. I have never insisted, though, that my approach—i.e., my mistakes, which may have included some partial virtues–should be replicated by my students’. That tendency of mine is today more extreme, in the sense that I think my students should not even be asking the questions I was asking at their age. The questions today should be quite different, and I think they are being asked, but no longer in the humanities.  Or only marginally. 

I would say that there is a crisis of thought in the disciplines, certainly in Latin American Studies. Would not want to guess whether that is also the case for, say, African Studies, or Latinx Studies (but I would not be surprised.) There is, however, no crisis of thought, in the sense that there are plenty of absolutely necessary issues to think about. I suppose the claim I am making is that it is no longer possible to think about those issues from constrained institutional spaces, and particularly from constrained institutional spaces that are and have always been overdetermined in their limitations for a variety of reasons. Say, in the 1990s the mirage of Latin American Cultural Studies created a path that enabled some of us to step away from literary hermeneutics, which had become a dead space for me. But that did not last long. And then what?

The point is not to say that people should stop doing what they love, if they love it.  It is rather to say that we have an obligation and a responsibility to save reflection in the humanities from our own boredom in order to be open to conditions of existence today, which are no longer comparable to those we had up until the 1990s, for instance.  Dramatic changes in the last twenty years in particular have made most of our arrangements and presuppositions obsolete. 

Intellectual Life as Strategic Calculation

Universities were for a time the natural refuge or shelter of a particular form of life, or a particular choice for a form of life.  I suppose the pretense, once upon a time, was that choosing a life of study and reflection over alternative possibilities was in itself worthwhile—something to do, not necessarily for its own sake, rather in view of remaining open to what we might sum up as experiences of existential truth.  It was believed, rightly or wrongly, that a life of study simply created time for a deeper engagement with existential truth, and that the search itself was its own reward.  What was the goal of that search?  What could one possibly expect to gain from the loneliness and obscurity of a life not primarily turned to efforts for glory or wealth, to efforts for mastery, technical or political, in the abdication of the most obvious pretenses for fame, recognition, professional success, payment, in a word?  One chose a certain simple probity, a wage-earning probity, presumably understanding the stakes.  Not that the option was self-defeating.  For a time the university could justify its own function through pedagogical projections: the thinker could talk to the students, and that would have been formative for the latter.  Beyond pedagogical projections, however, the one who chose study and reflection over everything else, provided the choice was open, provided that it was as free a choice as choices can be free in any human existence, obviously hoped to obtain something in return.  I know of no better formulation of this than the one offered by a still young Friedrich Nietzsche at the beginning of Human, All Too Human (and precisely the year, by the way, in which he decided to leave his own university behind):        

From this sickly isolation, from the desert of such years of trial, it is still a long way to the tremendous, overflowing certainty and health that cannot dispense even with sickness as a means and a hook for knowledge, to the ripened freedom of spirit that is just as much self-mastery and discipline of the heart and that permits one to take the paths of many varied and opposed ways of thinking—to the inner comprehensiveness and pampered overabundance that exclude the danger that the spirit may somehow lose itself, even upon its own paths, fall in love with them, and remain sitting, intoxicated, somewhere in a corner, to the excess of plastic, healing, imitating, and restoring forces that is the sign of great health, the excess that gives to the free spirit the dangerous privilege of living for experiments and of being allowed to offer itself to adventure: the master privilege of the free spirit!  (Stanford edition, 1995, 9)

 Nietzsche’s great health of the spirit, summed up in a certain notion of freedom premised on the avoidance of counterfeiting: this is what I call existential truth, or truths.  It could seem desperately old-fashioned today.  It might be desperately old-fashioned in a world where the old virtues of an intellectual life, namely, probity, frugality, self-restraint, courtesy, dignity, and an aspiration to refinement in every sense have been rejected in favor of what the ideologues and lackeys of our time prefer to call a “positive psychology” of happiness and optimism, conducive to an allegedly seamless adjustment to service-oriented, consumerist society where everything is either a resource or an obstacle for personal advancement.   And today the masters in charge have decided that only “social impact,” as measured by contests and competitions that they themselves determine to the detriment of any possible notion of academic freedom, counts as a measure of advancement at the university.   

There are many possible ways of living one’s life, and I do not begrudge any of them.  What seems to me wrong is the travesty of imposing on a certain form of life procedures and expectations that do not belong to it, that the said form of life has always already rejected in order to constitute itself as such.  When it is done massively and systematically, we need to confront the fact that we are witnessing an attempt to erase the form of life itself.  This should be no laughing matter, as it has the status of a gesture for civilizational change, and clearly for the worse.  It is no laughing matter for my generation, but I wonder whether it has become one for more recent generations.  It is a genuine question, and I would appreciate attempts at answering it.   

All of this comes to what current university administrations are now calling “faculty excellence.”  Of course it is only one dimension of the ridiculously pretentious and counterproductive but all-pervasive notion of “excellence” that has flourished on our campus at the hands of its worst elements.  But it is a symptomatic one.  What do you make of a paragraph like this? (for obvious reasons I am redacting names from the paragraph, which is in any case generic and in that sense not the property of any single institution, unfortunately: they are all doing it):

The dean agrees with the University Distinguished Professors that the Department of … and the College should support Dr. … in pursuing avenues, including competitive university-wide research awards, that would be springboards for more prestigious national and international prizes and awards. Therefore, I encourage you to support Dr. … in seeking and attaining one or two highly prestigious national and/or international awards that would further affirm …’s already distinguished scholarly profile. Such an addition to … ‘s scholarly eminence would better position Dr. … for a possible successful future UDP nomination. 

To sum it up: either you pay your way to professional recognition in monetary terms or you will not get professional recognition.  The damage that such a mind structure does is probably unmeasurable.  It is beyond measure to the very precise extent that it aims to subject everything to calculative measure.   The one who chose to devote himself or herself to a life of study and reflection must recant, must turn back on his or her choice, must understand that at the end of the day everything was about the instrumentalization of spirit, now quantifiable in “international prizes and awards,” which have become a sine qua non condition not just of advancement, but merely of recognizable presence. 

But I am still reluctant, and probably terminally so, to educate my students to become nothing but strategic calculators, whatever form of life they end up choosing, even if they want to go into finances and become famously wealthy.  There is something properly repugnant about it.  Perhaps feeling this way is in itself old-fashioned. Well, then, so be it.

Fools and Free Spirits.

In his Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento.  Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit  (U of Chicago P, 2016) Paolo D’Iorio notes a particular jotting in one of Nietzsche’s 1877 notebooks: “Walking along the windless, twilight pathways, while above us the trees rustle, agitated by violent gales in a brighter light” (Nietzsche quoted by D’Iorio 75).  Nietzsche repeats the same thought in a March letter to Reinhart von Seydlitz (75), but of course the reappearance of the thought in Human, All Too Human is more significant.  It happens in #275, entitled Cynic and Epicurean.  D’Iorio points out that the position of the Epicurean is the one occupied by Nietzsche (76).  He also says that the aphorism is a characterization of “one of the great antitheses of the philosophical tradition” (75), that is, that of Cynics and Epicureans.  But I think perhaps Nietzsche was after something more significant for his own project than the rehearsal of a style difference in post-Platonic philosophy.  Here is aphorism 275, which I transcribe in full:

The Cynic perceives the connection between the multiplied and magnified pains of more highly cultivated people and the abundance of their needs; he therefore conceives that the host of opinions about what is beautiful, proper, seemly, delightful must give rise to copious sources not only of enjoyment, but also of displeasure.  In accordance with this insight, he moves backward in his development by relinquishing many of these opinions and withdrawing from certain demands made by culture; he thereby obtains a feeling of freedom and empowerment; and gradually, once habit has made his way of life tolerable for him, he will in fact have fewer and fewer sensations of displeasure than cultivated people and will become very much like a domestic animal; in addition, everything that he does feel has the charm of contrast and—he can also curse to his heart’s content, so that he thereby gets well beyond the animal’s world of sensations. –The Epicurean adopts the same point of view as the Cynic; generally, only a difference of temperament sets them apart.  And so the Epicurean uses his higher culture to make himself independent of prevailing opinions; he raises himself above them, whereas the Cynic merely continues to negate them.  It is as if the former were strolling along in windless, well-protected, twilight avenues, while above him the treetops were being tossed in the wind and betrayed to him how violently the world outside was moving.  The Cynic, on the other hand, acts as if he were going naked outside into the blowing wind and hardens himself to the point of insensibility.

(Human, All Too Human 1. A Book for Free Spirits.  Translated with an Afterword by Gary Handwerk.  Stanford UP, 1995, 186-87)

            Let us imagine that both Epicureans and Cynics are potential examples of “free spirits” in the Nietzschean sense.  The difference between them is a difference of “temperament,” it is said.  The Cynic “negates” prevailing opinion while the Epicurean “raises himself above” it.  The Cynic’s negation has two effects from which the Epicurean is shielded: on the one hand, he must “curse to his heart’s content,” as negation is necessarily militant and calls for a ceaseless fight.  On the other hand, and consequently, and because he goes “naked outside into the blowing wind,” he must harden himself “to the point of insensibility.”  The Epicurean seems to have an advantage:  he has simplified his life, has given up on a host of things that, while they may bring occasional enjoyment, are also sources of displeasure.  He obtains thereby “a feeling of freedom and empowerment” that he may share with the Cynic, but his freedom does not make him curse endlessly, does not make him expose himself to the bitter winds.  The difference may be a difference of style, but the impression is that the Epicurean is also smarter, less of a fool than the Cynic.  Does that mean the Epicurean is no fool? 

            Are Epicureans or Cynics potential examples of free spirits in the Nietzschean sense?  Both kinds of thinkers find their motivation in a desire for freedom.  This seems to be the definition of a free spirit in Human, All Too Human.  Again, I transcribe the full aphorism:

Cautiousness of free spirits.—Free-minded people who live only for knowledge will quickly find they have reached their external goal in life, their final position in relation to society and the state, and will, for example, be content with a small official position or with only as much property as barely suffices for living; for they will arrange their lives in such a way that that neither a great transformation in economic circumstances nor even the overthrow of the political order will overturn their life along with it.  They expend as little energy as possible on all these things so that they can dive with all their collected forces and with a deep breath, as it were, into the element of knowledge.  Thus, they can hope to dive deeply and even to see to the very bottom.—Such a spirit prefers to take in only the fringes of an event; he does not love things in all the breadth and vastness of their folds: for he does not want to entangle himself in them. –He, too, knows the weekdays of unfreedom, of dependence, of servitude.  But from time to time a Sunday of freedom must come to him, or else he will not be able to endure life. –It is likely that even his love for humanity will be cautious and somewhat shortwinded, for he wants to have only as much to do with the world of inclinations and blindness as is necessary for the purpose of knowledge. He must trust that the guiding spirit of justice will say something on behalf of its adherent and protegé if accusing voices describe him as poor in love.—There is in his way of living life and of thinking a refined heroism that disdains offering itself to the reverence of the masses, as his coarser brothers do, and that tends to pass quietly through and out of the world.  Through whatever labyrinths he may wander, through whatever rocks his stream may make its torturous way—when he reaches the light, he goes his way clearly, lightly, and almost soundlessly and lets the sunlight play down into his depths. 

(Human 193-94)

            A Sunday of freedom, if I may have it: that would be my compensation as a cautious man of knowledge.  Because, in the face of protracted unfreedom, dependence, servitude, I too have chosen to minimize my sources of potential displeasure, and I have consequently gone about that task in the only way I know how: by minimizing everything else as well, so as not to risk too much, never to risk too much.   I do not have a lot of property, I do not have a lot of power, I do not get involved in much, or only marginally when I do so.  I am a refined hero for the sake of diving into the element of knowledge.  I may choose to walk my walks protectedly, never to venture beyond the treetops, stay in the lanes, or I may choose to bark my throat off like an enraged dog at the bitter gales of unfreedom. That is just a difference of temperament.  But I am still a fool.  Something else is needed if I am to stop being a fool.  Did Nietzsche–this Nietzsche of the so-called middle period–know it?