Amador Fernández-Savater: Having superpowers – Reading as an experience of emancipation

Erik Desmazières, Library of Babel

For N al-K …

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.

Toni Morrison

In celebration of the storyteller and the reader of stories, a short essay by Amador Fernández-Savater.

I remember/ the exact moment in which I realised that/ I had learned to read/ not as when I pretended to do so/ but as when/ I actually read/ a space opened up in space/ it seemed unreal and then/ it seemed real to me / and I came of age and I went in / sorry, I wanted to say / and I went in and I came of age

María Salgado, Salitre

Is reading a kind of subversive experience today? Does it enable heterogeneous ways of being in the world, against the current or in rupture with hegemonic ones?

We know that it was so in the past. This is demonstrated, for example, by Germán Labrador in Culpables por la literatura, a brilliant historical essay on the Spanish counterculture over three generations: the progressives of 68, the libertarians of 77 and the moderns of 84.

Labrador starts from the idea that Francoism was not only a political regime or an authoritarian ideology, but that it also produced and reproduced a type of body: affections and habits, perceptions and sensitivities, capacities and intolerances. Through the disciplinary institutions of the time, through repression and violence, Francoism serially manufactured a type of body based on the same pattern: the body of the leader – and of his consort, a female model – as an image to imitate, replicate, embody.

If power has a somatic dimension, so does revolt: the counterculture consisted of getting rid of that imposed body and giving oneself another, capable of feeling, thinking and doing differently; a transformation that is both happy and painful, festive and violent at the same time, as testified by the figure of Leopoldo Panero who said: “I destroy myself to know that it is me and not all of them”.

It was about physically unlearning the dictatorship: in student movements, homosexual spaces, through music, drugs… or literature. This functioned then as a technology of liberation, as a territory and materiality of transformations. Reading mobilised the desire to live another life, to become another, to be another, a steppe wolf, the volcano of Lowry, Rimbaud, Artaud or Capitán Trueno for children; to be in any case a body capable of living adventures, beyond the life that withered under Franco.

Literature granted “a Superman suit”, says Labrador, through which to live two lives, many lives, with the imagination spurring on the desire to function differently and want other things. The reader is “seized, enraptured”, willing to live according to the language, to believe what they read, to embody the readings. Emancipation not only occurred in properly political spaces, but also in rooms, in apparently private activities, in dreams.

Francoism collapses when it is no longer capable of inscribing itself in bodies. This is the dark and inadvertent background of the battle for change upon which the Spanish transition takes place. And it is what allows us to better see and value Germán Labrador’s book.

And today, does reading imply some kind of revolt? I can think of at least two possible positive answers.

The first goes more or less like this: we currently live in the society of the spectacle where the world is presented to us daily as a set of media flashes without ties or memory. Nothing leads to anything and everything evaporates immediately. What this society manufactures is the serial “spectator” or the “opinion-maker” of social networks: a gregarious and morbid subject, manipulated and misinformed, volatile and amnesiac; basically, a non-subject.

In his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord rightly opposes the reader to the spectator, the body of the reader to the body of the spectator. Before an image where “everything can be juxtaposed”, which “does not leave any time for reflection” and calls for pure “adherence to what exists”, reading is subversive because it “demands making veritable judgments at every line; and it is the only access to the vast areas of pre-spectacular human experience.”

Reading for Debord is the critical exercise par excellence. Through a linear and progressive effort, reasoning is followed, to see if it is justified, to see if one thing is deducible from another. Reading is a practice of decoding meaning where the true is discriminated from the false, the good from the bad. The critical subject is a reader and, above all, a reader of the world, capable of traversing the strategic opacity of the spectacle and reading reality as one reads a text. In this book, Debord presents himself as the last great reader, qualified to relate the facts and think historically about what is presented as isolated phenomena without a past.

The subversive dimension of reading should no longer be sought in its utopian capacity to posit other possible worlds, but rather in the superpowers of reason, logic, and historical knowledge within a world that fundamentally wants us to be stupid.

A second positive response would be reading as an exercise in transforming oneself. Reading as a “spiritual exercise”, we could say, following Pierre Hadot, who so names the practices of self-transformation among the philosophers (Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics) of ancient Greece. In what sense would reading as a spiritual exercise be subversive today?

Neoliberalism is also a power that produces and reproduces a type of body: in this case that of a subject always mobilised, always available and connected, in constant self-improvement and in competition with others, fuelled by the obsession of “always more” (more performance and yield, more productivity, more consumption, etc.). The body-model to imitate today would be that of the athlete, the YouTuber, the celebrity …

Reading, understood as a spiritual exercise, creates a very different way of life: as a discipline of attention, of being-there and not in a thousand places and none at the same time; as an interruption through the silence and retreat from the hamster’s mad running in a wheel; as an activity that incorporates its own reward within itself, not being merely a means to or an instrument for an external purpose…

Reading is an exercise in “active passivity”: on the one hand, it means entering the world that another proposes, exiting from oneself and allowing oneself to be affected; on the other hand, it requires responding to what is read and being able to create one’s own meanings. The body that reads is therefore very different from the subject incapable of dealing with alterity and from the subject who limits themselves to consuming what is presented in a package.

The reader does not disconnect from the world, but inhabits it in another way, experimenting with the senses, relating what is read and what has been read, what is read and what is lived.  The reader’s body cuts short the forward flight of the subject of neoliberal performance, having a full experience of the present, in a highly intensive way that is only apparently immobile.

From the enraptured reader to the disciplined reader: the superpowers that reading gives us today are different from those of the past; not so much imagining different beings, as being more present; not so much living two lives, as intensifying the life that exists; not so much escaping to an alternative world, as being here and now.

Reading as a utopian exercise, reading as a critical exercise, reading as a spiritual exercise: the world and the forms of domination change, but reading always finds a way to be a kind of revolt.


From Filosofía Pirata (13/09/2019) and Lobo Suelto (17/08/2022).

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