Amador Fernández-Savater: The rebelliousness of non-knowing

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese

A reflection on radical thought and politics – or thought and politics tout court – as grounded in non-knowing …

To think, so as to be able to breathe

Amador Fernández-Savater (Lobo suelto! 07/12/2019)

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

For Rita Segato, against the trial and the hemlock

Someone, or something, says “it’s like that”, and saturates the situation.

What there is, what exists, closes in a kind of square – or quadrilateral, like a boxing ring – where the possible is bounded, where you can only say yes or no, lower your head or polarize from another “it’s like that”.

To saturate is to fill or occupy a thing to the limit of its capacity.

In the saturated situation we feel that we lack air, that we cannot breathe. The same thing is repeated again and again, with hardly any movement or variation. There are no gaps, nothing happens. There is nothing new, nothing different.

Everywhere there are saturated situations.

Saturation can be organized from a variety of options, identities or opinions. It is not necessarily, as perhaps it was in the past, a tyranny of the unique. In a gathering with many discordant voices, in a space with thousands of interesting activities, in elections with many parties present, we can feel the saturation.

They tell us that there are many points of view, but in reality they are only different shades of the same sadness.” (Housemartins)

All possible options and opinions confirm and reproduce the same framework, leaving no room for the unknown, for the unheard of, for the unscheduled. The One is said in many ways, but all of them confirm the power of the One. We ourselves reproduce the saturated situation by enthusiastically adhering to one of the options offered, repeating stereotypes, mobilising ourselves.

We rob each other of the air …

Saturation can also install itself through a polarising conflict. Then the entire space is organised like a chess board and we are forced to choose sides, to take sides, to choose a position hiding doubts, leaving aside the autonomy of our own voice. One is divided into two, but always to maintain the power of the One: the saturated situation, without flawless, without rest.

How to disassemble the board without placing oneself upon it?

2. Let us now artificially distinguish between saturated situations of power-knowing and saturated situations of power-doing – I say artificially because in doing there is also a knowing and in knowing there is a doing. Let’s go with the first ones.

An excess of knowing saturates. Everything is known and then the situation closes. There is no interrogation mark, there is no enigma or mystery, a problem shared and not solved beforehand.

In the media talk, there may be many discordant opinions, but they all know. Each position is complete and collides with the others like a billiard ball, trying to win, to convince, to defeat the adversary opinion, bouncing without altering itself or altering the situation. Everyone present goes out as s/he entered, thinking the same as s/he thought. And the same happens to the public. Nothing happens because nothing has happened.

In class, a teacher’s voice saturates the classroom situation through their explanations. It does not saturate because only s/he speaks – a voice that runs alone can open the situation, make something happen, make people think – but it fails in this instance because it moves along a beaten path towards an already known end. Through the test it is verified that everyone has understood, that is, that everyone can repeat exactly what has been said, without altering or transforming it. That voice leaves no space, does not create space, does not open space.

Space for what? For the other to make her/his own journey, to embark on her/his own thought adventure, find and unfold her/his own path.

3. What is it to think? It is precisely to open up a gap, a hole, a void, in the saturated situation.

Thought is in the first place a hole, a hole in the wall of the established senses, in the mass of evidence, a fissure and a crack where we can breathe again.

A life without thought is a life without air, a life-without-life. The somewhat crazy joy of thought is a very physical sensation: we feel how the stifling consistency of the saturated situation is undone, how we stop being trapped in it even if we are still inside, how it is now we who read the situation instead of being read by it. And so we take in air again.

To Conspire means breathing together. Every association of thought – in twos, in a group of friends, in a collective – is a small conspiracy against the saturation of the world, against saturation as a privileged form of the world, against the closure of the senses.

A friend is anyone with whom life is thought. Friendship in thought consists of giving ourselves air. We rescue ourselves by mouth to mouth, the brain awakens and the heart pumps oxygen; from the apnoea of the saturated situation that melts our fuses and kills us slowly.

4. The first digger of holes was perhaps Socrates [trans. note: I am tempted here to describe the thinker as a mole]. Socrates was fed up with the saturating power of his time – the power of myth, the power of opinion – that imposed the reproduction of what existed without question.

Everything has been seen, said, thought, says the power of myth. There was history, in the time of our ancestors, but there is no more. The story of what the ancestors did speaks the Law and it is recorded orally in bodies.

Socrates interpellates persons who know: he asks a military man about courage, a poet about beauty, a politician about justice. He asks the good questions, the uncomfortable questions to each one and shows that nobody knows what he thought he knew, the real inconsistency of what appeared as pure consistency and security. He interrupts, disassembles knowledge and opens up space to think.

To think means going beyond what is known, going into unknown territory, learning.

The good question opens a hole inside the saturated situation. And that hole is what allows us to think. It not only allows Socrates to think, but anyone who inhabits the situation with him. To interrupt and to pierce is to give anyone an opportunity to think, to open up space for the other’s journey of thought. That hole is a point of non-knowing from which it becomes possible to interrogate and produce new meanings. It is enough not to fear the newly opened gap, to not want to cover it at all costs, to not defend oneself against it.

There is no sign of Socrates in the contemporary public-media space. Not even the spark of a Socratic moment, a moment of interruption of saturating knowledge, the opening of an interrogating hole. The saturating power cannot afford an empty point or an interrogation mark: that gap opens the possibility of going beyond the framework of possible knowledge, options and opinions, overflowing it. You have to close it at all costs, and, quickly, fill up any sudden openings with explanations, limit what is possible, distribute the authorised positions, load yourself up with the right reasons. The same social networks have become repeating stations of stereotypes, the staff is confirmed in their knowledge and attacks the opposite, instead of seeking company and friendship in thought.

Let no one think of looking through the hole, let no one think of passing through the hole.

Philosophy is born as a gap in the fabric of established knowledge. It is, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, a “strange tear” through which everything can be queried and put into question.

But then it too becomes a saturating power. And surely one of the most fearsome, capable of leaving anyone without space, able to take away the floor from anyone, capable of imposing a reign of resigned silence so at to embrace “it’s like that” of the wise. It is the desire for total knowledge about the world, a series of definitive answers. It is the oscillation between Socrates and Plato.

According to the saturating philosophy, Socrates interrupts and pierces, yes, but only to give way to the one who knows, Plato. He interrupts and pierces the knowledge of opinion and the body, to make room for the knowledge of Science. He demolishes so as to build on the ruins of the demolished.

The paradox “I only know that I know nothing” is logically impossible. You cannot advance from non-knowing. Ignorance is impotence. To challenge one knowledge is only possible in the name of another knowledge. Only s/he who knows can ask, but then s/he already knows the answer. Rhetorical or pedagogical question: who asks awaits the other installed in a knowledge, a superior knowledge, a judging knowledge.

André Glucksmann says it in Les maîtres penseurs, a beautiful book that we can read more freely today than when it appeared in 1977 – context and contextualization also saturate very often, limiting the possible effects of a work to its historical framework.

Saturating philosophy seeks to solve the paradoxes and the holes that the different Socrateses continue to open, closing knowledge upon itself, eliminating (“solving”) everything that does not fit, all of the contradictions; to heal wounds.

But we are only given to breathe through wounds, although it hurts to keep them open.

Philosophy always oscillates between saturation and interruption, between the master thinkers and the masters who take us nowhere, between knowledge as the privilege of some elites and the non-knowledge common to the most common of mortals, such as language, the ability to question.

5. Just as questions and paradoxes are holes in the realm of power-knowing, social movements are holes in the realm of power-doing. Interruptions of the authorised order of what is possible and opening up of new ones, experimentation with other forms of life.

“Things are like this” repeat all the speeches of the left and the right. All existing options fight each other so as to seize power. But “everything that competes, basically collaborates,” as our local Socrates, Agustín García Calvo, said. The struggle for power leaves power intact, power changes hands but not its nature.

A movement is the irruption of thought in society. It opens up questions about life in common that did not exist before: questions about the relationship with work (labor movement), about the relationship between the sexes (feminist movement), about the relationship with nature (ecological movement). They are interruptions of the order through questions that are asked by placing the body in the street, interruptions of the answers without a question that fight each other to impose themselves.

It is the only possible democracy, a democracy of ignorant people, of those who do not know.

Politics is born as an opening of questions about how to live together through movements of society, but – just as we said about philosophy – it soon becomes the idea of a science of politics as government, as a vertical domain, as power separated from ordinary people.

The saturating power then also says: “movements are impossible”. For the same reasons that Socrates was in the end impossible: those who contest an order must have a proposed replacement order in their head – or they have it, but they hide it.

“And what do you propose?”, says the saturating power to the one who interrupts. It is not possible to challenge an order without having a replacement solution in mind. Whoever challenges power wants power or is at the service of the power of a foreign power. If you question A, it is because you are in favor of B or at the service of B. The one who does not know and asks should know – or already knows, but hides it. The issue is always to cover over the question, to not have to listen to it, to not get carried away by it, to not have to think. All the while, there is the desire to put the one who interrupts back on the chess board, to make him a functional adversary, the blacks of the whites or vice versa.

Above all, let no space of shared questions be opened, a space of ignorant people who rely on the power of non-knowing, a space where anyone fits, a space of common language.

The same movements always run the risk of producing a new saturation. The power that declassifies a certain order of things and asks can become a new power that reclassifies and knows.

A movement opens up the question of what it means to be male or female, black and white. It interrupts and pierces what was saturated. This movement gives anyone the possibility of a new doing, of a new experimentation on what it means to be male or female, white or black (and their relationships). But it is always possible that there is a new saturation, a new response, a new knowledge about what men and women are, whites and blacks (and their relationships). The non-knowing that opened the situation then becomes a new knowledge that defines – beforehand and a priori – what a body can be or do, without leaving room for change or becoming.

How to think without saturating?

How to act without saturating?

6. Saturation is not deactivated by opposing to it other knowledge, but through questions and paradoxes. Paradox is an ungovernable remainder in power-knowing, a social movement is an ungovernable remainder in power-doing. Not everything closes, not everything fits, not everything is known, the possible is not limited forever.

All saturating knowledge and power is anti-Socratic: “define yourself”, “what is your program?”, etc. Only paradox is inclusive, we are all invited to sneak through the crack that opens. “Transversality” does not happen by adding the existing identities, by putting the maximum number of identitarian billiard balls in the same bag, but precisely by subtracting them: letting ourselves go through a non-identity, a common question, a common problem, a common search.

How much paradox can we bear? In the practice of thought or in the practice of a social movement, how much non-knowing, how much incoherence, how much impurity.

The sociologist Michel Lianos, who has accompanied the french yellow vests from the beginning, describes in numerous texts how the strength of the movement that still endures passes through its refusal to solve the paradoxes – its refusal of an absolute leader, a coherent identity, a serious programme, a proper political party, a demand for power. Paradox is life, what there is when there really is diversity. Common experience makes possible what logic indicates as impossible. Lianos speaks of the yellow vests as a new “experiential politics”: getting together, doing and living from – and not despite – differences, contradictions and shocks.

All of the most interesting movements of recent years are paradoxical movements – ambivalent, ambiguous, impure – that have sustained tensions instead of resolving them into a new identity, a new knowledge, a new saturation. What is lost in terms of conquest of power is gained in terms of social interpellation. And the situation remains open.

Paradox is something “impossible” within a certain logical order. But at the same time it points to another order of thought and life where A and not-A are both possible, where we can think and organise common life through open forms and not by exclusive determinations, where experience can gather what certain logical schema separate and oppose. When there is a paradox, the air circulates and we can breathe. It is like life itself: impossible, contradictory, impure, incoherent and still effective.

“The revolution,” says Merleau-Ponty, “is true as a movement and false as a regime.”

The same applies to the movement of thought: the truth is true as displacement (Santiago López Petit) and false as a regime or institution.

(This text was presented at the Festival Valladolid Piensa, on the 23rd of November 2019. Thanks to Adam, Mary, for the invitation. Thanks always to the old and new friends in thought, Sergio, Hugo, Marta, Natasa, Pedro, the workshops on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays. More info: Filosofía Pirata.)

To close, Augustín García Calvo reciting (in castilian) the poem, La Cara del que sabe/The face of the one who knows

Cuando veas al hombre de banca
dinámico y grave
que en la ranura de su coche
introduce la llave
mientras habla con un cliente
y con mano segura
agarra el volante,
verás, si te fijas, en el cristal
la cara del que sabe.

En la escuela, al salir de recreo
al patio empujándose,
si ves a uno que lo llaman
el Capacobardes,
que le escupe en la oreja al tonto
de la clase
y se planta aguardando
que el otro se arranque,
helados de vidrio verás allí
los ojos del que sabe.

O si ves por la turbia ventana
de frente a su amante
a la querida que, ya seca,
se aferra al cadáver
de su amor, y a cuchillo dice
«Como escapes,
te lo juro, aquí mismo
me siego el gaznate»,
grabado verás en su blanca piel
la marca del que sabe.

En la foto del Jefe de Estado
que fija el instante
en que él, sentado ante un decreto
de muerte de alguien,
en penoso deber la pluma
de oro blande,
cuando firme la firma
de un trazo la trace,
trazada en su frente la puedes ver,
la marca del que sabe.

O si no, en el neón del espejo
del bar de ‘My darling’
si ves al chulo que a su rubia
le dice, fumándole
de nariz, «Que nanay, nenita,
que tu padre,
y cuidao con el rímel,
que no se te empaste»,
posada en sus párpados la verás,
la fuerza del que sabe.

Y si asomas, en fin, al estudio
de altos cristales
donde el cerebro de la empresa
dibuja los planes
de la ruta futura, y corre
recto el lápiz
y a derecho y a regla
los borra los árboles,
guiada verás de la pura ley
la mano del que sabe.

Todos tienen su idea: son ellos
los reyes del aire.
Y si tú ves que, cuando a todos
los cierre en la cárcel
de estos versos y que la música
ya se apague,
yo me quedo a las nubes
mirando distante,
recuérdame y dime «La veo ahí,
la cara del que sabe”.

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