Opposition or Composition?

In social life the polarization about which there is so much talk today is not in an irreducible contrast of ideological positions, but rather a pathological way of negotiating and managing differences. Polarization is a formal perversion that destroys coexistence.

Roland Barthes, whose courses I followed in 1978 at the Collège de France, was a prophet of ambiguity. His courses, offered on Saturday morning, were a series of lectures on varied subtleties, for example, the relation between painting and food in Japanese culture, the importance of silence, the vision contained in a haiku, or an epiphany that can happen around the corner, as without knowing and much earlier happened to Celedonio Fernandez in Buenos Aires.

I still have my class notes. One of his first courses was titled “How to live together.” His were master lectures, but without tuition or grades. One attended them simply to listen and learn, surrounded by all types of people. For example, I remember listening to Barthes in a packed classroom, with a clochard on my left and Jean (“Bill”) Baudrillard on my right, the three of us sitting on the floor. Barthes’ voice (le grain de sa voix) was slow, clear, and cooing[1]. He followed some note cards he carried around in his pocket. Barthes belonged to a today disappeared race of great thinkers with genius sparkles and great though soft and cool charisma.

I was in the Paris of the cultural parenthesis between the 1968 rebellion and the postmodern frivolity of the 80s—a defunct era that long predates the current Internet cretinism. I imagine that something similar must have been George Simmel’s lessons in Berlin prior to the Great War. His were also the wise words of a great seducer. However, from all of Barthes’ talks during those days, the one that impressed me the most was one lecture given in Spring that Barthes called “déjouer le paradigme” (“circumventing the paradigm” ). It was part of a course about the desire of the neutral. For Barthes, the paradigm is any categorical and binary opposition without appealing to a third, without the third player (tertius gaudens) which Simmel talked about[2].

To understand Barthes, we must refer, at least a little, to his structural linguistics. According to such linguistics, the basis of every language is the binary code that computers currently use: 0-1. Here, there is no place for a third party. Language develops like an algorithmic tree of successive oppositions or, in Borges’ language, as a garden of forking paths. For Barthes, this matrix is repressive. In Barthes’ own words, language is not leftist or rightist, conservative or progressive, it is simply fascist because it forces us to make categorical decisions in order to talk[3]. Our era is fascist, Barthes would say, not for endorsing one or another ideology, but rather because it transforms any issue into a tweeting polarization, with the obligation to choose peremptorily.

Tout est dans la manière, say the French, and today’s way (manière)_ is the Manichaean opposition between good and evil, between I and the other, between my tribe and that in front of me. Instead, the function, or better yet the mission, of literary writing is to puzzle and mock such opposition, suggesting complications, negations, deviations, digressions. For Barthes, writing aspires to overcome the fascism of language. Before the categorical style of a police interrogation: “Answer: this or that!” the literary answer is “neither this nor that,” or “both this and that, and also neither.” Literary desire is not a search of identity (that today has become desperate and verging on terrorism: “I exist because I kill and blow up”), but the pleasure of indetermination: le désir du neutre

Déjouer le paradigme, insisted Barthes, between puffs of smoke (horror of horrors: in my time, people smoked in class). The approximate translation would be “frustrate, impede, or dissolve the paradigm,” but I prefer to translate it as “mocking the dichotomies.”

In political terms, the paradigmatic opposition between friend and foe was first formulated in the 20th century by the extreme right, in a book published in 1932 by the jurist and later enthusiastic subscriber of Nazism, Carl Schmitt, under the title The Concept of the Political (Begriff des Politischen)[4]. However, the extreme left did not take long to appropriate the same distinction in its own way. In the particular case of the unfortunate Weimar Republic, these two extremes joined against the center in a perverse majority of opposites, and made the democratic system fall.

Modern democracy (today in full retreat) was based precisely on “frustrating the paradigm” through two basic procedures: inter-party compromise and the regular alternation in power. Such system is dissolved when one of the parties monopolizes power and pretends to remain indefinitely in power.  But single-party systems eventually exhaust themselves either in the disorder or in the sudden turn to the other extreme. Thus, a perverse pendular alternation emerges between extreme poles. Currently, Latin America is suffering such bipolar alternation: between a quasi or pseudo popular socialism and rightist regimes also with populist or pseudo-populist traits[5]. Both types use the democratic system as a means and not as an end, that is, as a scaffold for reaching a monopoly of power—but they can’t quite do it.

From a geopolitical point of view, such pendular oscillation undermines socio-economic development and favors the negative traits of both poles. In the medium and long run, the oscillation weakens national and regional sovereignty, despite each part’s pretension of doing the opposite. Instead, a democratic system of alternation and compromise favors not only economic development[6] but also the development of civil coexistence.

A first important step in recovering civil coexistence and disarm the Manichean tendency is to stimulate face-to-face dialogue and the discussion of different social proposals, in forums of real and not virtual interaction.

The mistakenly called “social media or networks” destroy sociability and favor irresponsibility, the seduction of being able to “throw a stone and hide one’s hand.” While fragmenting society into strictly irresponsible monads, networks do not eliminate coexistence (an impossible task), but enervate and irritate sociability, thus producing another form of perverse coexistence, which today we can witness and endure in the crass behavior in public places and also in other former private places, now diminished and degraded by intrusion: the car, the bedroom, the elevator, the store, airports and a thousand other spaces that today come dangerously close to the antithesis of coexistence in a sort of shared absence.

The best everydayness is in dialogue, in the interpersonal game of give and take, and in team collaboration at work. The best vacations are those with cellular silence and a lack of monitors. Who knows? Maybe, we will learn again to think and abandon the self (selfish, identity-obsessed, and manipulative) in favor of being with  others and in the environment[7].

[1] . Today, thanks to YouTube we can listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQUIwoik8vY

[2] . http://cisolog.com/sociologia/el-conflicto-sociologia-del-antagonismo/

[3] . La langue, comme performance de tout langage, n’est ni réactionnaire ni progressiste ; elle est tout simplement fasciste ; car le fascisme, ce n’est pas d’empêcher de dire, c’est d’obliger à dire. » http://rhuthmos.eu/IMG/article_PDF/Roland-Barthes-Leon-inaugurale-au_a1346.pdf

[4] . https://crucecontemporaneo.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/carl-schmitt-el-concepto-de-lo-politico.pdf

[5] . Populism, being of one sign or the other, is actually a mask to disguise other shortcomings.

[6] . As I argue in my book Strategic Impasse (2018), also in economic terms it is possible to obtain sustainable compromises and mixtures between capitalism and socialism.

[7] . For an educational approximation of this proposal see the presentation of Martin Buber’s philosophy in his poetic book Yo y Tu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbewaNDhGBY.  Another presentation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3P_J_k3yCU

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