Poetry against the state

Luis Andrés Bredlow (left) and Agustín García Calvo

From Lundi Matin (#420, 18/03/2024), we share below an interview with Luis Andrés Bredlow and a memorial to him by Anselm Jappe (Lundi Matin #115, 30/09/2017) after Bredlow’s death. Our hope is that these may serve as a modest introduction to an author who is largely unknown in the English speaking world.

We take the opportunity of the publication of Luis Andrés Bredlow’s Essais d’hérésie by Éditions Crise & Critique editions, to publish the translation that we received of an unpublished interview dating from 1995 and briefly present this author whose work we have published before, with the article “De la machine sociale à la révolution biologique”. For a more detailed presentation, we refer the reader to the portrait “Souvenir de Luis Bredlow” that his friend Anselm Jappe wrote at the time of his death.

Luis Andrés Bredlow (1958-2017) taught the history of philosophy at the University of Barcelona. Poet, translator, essayist, philosopher, specialist in Parmenides, after having contributed to the dissemination of Situationist ideas in Germany from the end of the 1970s through the journal Ausschreitungen, which he co-founded with the publisher Klaus Bittermann. He also participated in the Barcelona magazines Archipiélago, Mania and Etcétera, in which he published numerous articles of social criticism, as well as translations of texts of critical value theory. We owe him, among other things, a translation of the passage “The fetish character of the commodity and its secret” from Marx’s Capital (introduced by Anselm Jappe), an edition of Max Stirner’s Minor Writings [Écrits mineurs], commented translations of the works of Gorgias and Diogenes Laertius, an introduction to the philosophy of Plato and that of Kant, as well as a critical edition of the Parmenides’ Poem, in collaboration with Agustín García Calvo. In addition to the Essais d’hérésie, the reader will be able to read in French his article “La contradiction et le sacré” published in issue nº 6 of the journal Jaggernaut, as well as his introductions to the works translated into French by Agustín García Calvo (La société du Bien-être, Le pas de côté, 2014; Histoire contre tradition. Tradition contre Histoire, La Tempête, 2020 ; Qu’est-ce que l’État?, Atelier de création libertaire, 2021 and Apophtegmes sur le marxisme, Crise & Critique, 2022).

Poetry against the state: An interview with Luis Andrés Bredlow

We discuss with Luis Andrés Bredlow, a Barcelona poet with distant Slavic origins, a sociologist by profession – which he says he has never practiced –, known as a translator of English, Italian and German literature and a researcher in philosophical and social questions, on the occasion of the publication of his last book of poems, Limbario de aturdimientos (Ediciones Ribera, Barcelona [1995]): a pretext to talk about art and life, utopia and the state of things …

In an interview that I listened to recently on the radio, you defined poetry as a form of resistance against power. Could you explain this a little more?

Poetry can be a subversive force, not so much for what it says or does not say, nor for the contents that the author tries to express, but for the way of saying them, for the capacity it has to make us see and feel things in a new, unforeseen, unknown way, in a way that clashes with the dominant organisation of perception, with the domestication and atrophy of sensitivity that power tries to impose upon us by all the means available, from school to the media via town planning, and which in turn conditions our way of acting: in a planned, controlled, programmed way in advance.

This is the essence of power, of the State: that nothing happens that is not planned; and this begins as soon as we think we know what things are and what each of them is for. When you walk in the street, if you know that what is there is a street, which is used to get somewhere, then nothing happens there: what is there, you no longer see or hear anything, well no more than what is strictly necessary to avoid being knocked down and, above all, to know where you are; in other words, you are crossing an empty space, a dead time, which is a pure formality to arrive at something else. And you can spend your whole life like this: work, transport, studies, everything is just a simple means or formality to achieve something else. You are no longer where you are, but elsewhere, in a future, in the pure idea, and everything that can happen in the middle, if it is not what you expected, can only be an obstacle to get where you wanted to get to, an obstacle that must be eliminated, of course: this is where all the cruelty and lack of affection with which we treat things and people come from, to believe that we know what things are and where we are going, what those in power want people to believe in above all else. On the other hand, if you try to forget that this is a street, or whatever, and you stop and just see what’s going on, then it’s possible that something is happening, or maybe not: it is this openness to the unexpected, to what is not controlled, that poetry, art, with its modest means – the metaphor, the image, the rhythm – that is to say, they put into crisis this faith which is imposed on us and according to which we know what things are.

But a lot of reactionary poetry was also written, apologising for established powers and the most abominable ideologies, and since you’re talking about art in general, this is also the case for painting, music…

Yes, but no: when poetry – or any work of art – is reduced to simple propaganda, to a simple means of transmitting an ideology, whatever its side, it is already neither art nor poetry, it is simply propaganda. But when a work, a poem, or anything else, still manages to have a certain charm or a certain grace, then there is something more, something that slips away, very often despite the conscious intentions of the author and the ideology behind it, something which is perhaps truly the voice of the people and nostalgia for what is not there, for happiness or for the good life; or at least the denunciation of the suffering of the people below, even if it is concealed by ideological, religious or other pretexts. Virgil, for example, wrote the Bucolics to order, as a work of propaganda for the agrarian policy of Augustus, propaganda which is moreover misleading, since he depicts a pastoral life which never existed, of shepherds who spend their days composing verses, playing the flute and frolicking with young girls in the woods and meadows: if, reading it today, it still fills us with pure joy and we don’t care at all about Augustus and the fact that there never were such shepherds, it is that from beneath the author and his more or less ideological and venal intentions that we glimpse what it is to truly live.

…which was, in fact, the good life of a few, the idle life of the ruling class, which lived at the expense of others…

Of course. But this good life of the gentlemen of yesteryear, which was then purchased at the price of the misery and slavery of the majority, could nowadays be within the reach of everyone, without exploiting or enslaving anyone: if we took advantage of the technical possibilities that are already there, it would be enough to work a few hours per week or per month so that everyone could have, not only what is necessary, but everything that is useful and pleasant for living. Who prevents this? We know it well: the dominant order, Capital, the State, money, property…

So are we moving towards the leisure society?

There would be many misunderstandings to clear up. To begin with, it must be clear that the current order can never do without one form of work or another, as a means of keeping the mass of the population occupied, even if it is a matter of completely useless and absurd work, which produces nothing that is minimally useful or necessary to people, like the vast majority of work that is carried out today: banking, bureaucracy, surveillance, advertising, sale and production of armaments, etc. private automobiles, all kinds of trinkets and gadgets that no one asked for, or products that are knowingly manufactured so that they deteriorate as quickly as possible so that they can sell more. What is all this for? Precisely for that: to keep people busy, to keep the system functioning, to ensure that the order does not collapse, because this order needs people to live dominated by fear, by the permanent need to secure the future. We must therefore have no illusions about the fact that a life without work, that is to say without this constant agitation so that they grant you the right to survive, is compatible with money, property, the market, whose cursed grace consists precisely in establishing a difference between the one who has and the one who does not have; and that’s why they are there.

Certainly, but you have to work a little, whatever society you live in, right? There are also useful and even necessary jobs, such as taking care of the elderly, the sick, educating children, etc., activities that are undoubtedly carried out too little today. Rather than work as such, we must fight alienated work, salaried work.

There is no other. Of course there are useful things to do, take care of the poor, teach and many other things that we did before, in less advanced forms of the state, out of habit, out of affection or simply because we had nothing else to do. It’s the dominant order that transforms this into work, into something you do for money, that is to say out of obligation, because if you don’t do it, you don’t eat, with the resulting total indifference to the content of what you are doing; and we thus prevent people from doing anything else which is neither work nor consumption of goods which are bought and sold, consumption of work or of the products of work. Even sewing and singing has become a professional job! In short, we must fight as hard as possible so that the useful things we can do in life cease to be work…

It seems, from what you say and write, that you are one of those who do not give up on utopia…

I don’t like talking about it like that. Of utopia, in truth, there is only one, theirs, the “capital utopia” as the poet Cesarano said: the aspiration for a perfect order, always in the future, for which we must sacrifice the present. Please note that the dominant ideas today — the free market, democracy, the rule of law — represent something that has never existed anywhere, except in an approximate and defective way and, at least as regards the free market, with frankly disastrous results. Thus, this determination to impose this form of society as the only possible path expresses a utopianism no less fanatical and bloodthirsty than that of the supposed communism of the Soviets. On the other hand, the fact, for example, of simply recognising that food can and must be eaten and not thrown away or burned when others are starving, and that a social order incapable of satisfying the most basic necessities of the majority of humanity, despite the immense abundance of means, is an intolerable order and without any justification, this is not a utopia, but comes from the most elementary common sense, although you are told the opposite.

What do you think of anarchism?

To put it briefly, I trust anarchy, not anarchism. Because anarchy is one thing, as pure and simple negation of the state, negation of the fact that things are as they are, the “no” of the people from below in the face of everything that is imposed on them from above, a “no” which allows the unknown to surface, and allows something to perhaps happen that was neither foreseen nor planned; and it is another thing for this negation to be conceived, in turn, as if it were a positive and defined idea, as one more “-ism” that could be placed alongside nationalism or Catholicism, as one ideology among others, and with the same function, of course, of giving you an identity, allowing you to believe that you know who you are and where you are going, a fundamental illusion on which domination is based.

Are you connected, or have you been, with the libertarian movement?

Well, very young, I participated, more or less actively, in some small, rather informal and ephemeral anarchist groups that no one remembers today, or more simply in groups of people who gathered to protest against this or that; subsequently, towards the end of the seventies, I was involved in circles of people who had been affected by the diffuse influence of the situationists, but I never affiliated with any political organisation, neither anarchist nor anything else. In general, I rather fled all these militant circles, which always tend to close in on themselves, establishing a rigid separation between those “inside” and those “outside”, and who then spend their lives discussing how to “reach the masses”. I prefer to avoid this detour and stay directly with the “masses”, to discuss with the people present; although ultimately, whether you like it or not, you always end up bonding more with people with whom you have affinities, but I don’t believe in making a virtue of that.

So you are against all organised activism?

The problem of organisation is another misunderstanding. It is obvious that, whatever we do – strikes, newspapers, public debates, etc. – we organise what we do, with the degree of organisation or structure that each thing requires. But it is something else when the supposed necessity to organise, no longer this or that, but the organisation itself, is proposed as the most urgent task. From then on, the same thing happens as with other institutions: the means eat away at the ends, and the organisation only serves to organise itself.

What is the meaning, in your opinion, of the experience of the workers’ movement and, in particular, of the Spanish libertarian movement?

The experience of the libertarian movement, particularly here in Spain, where it was a movement, let’s say, much less ideological than in other countries and more the direct expression of the life and resistance of the people from below, continues to be a lesson in dignity and insubordination which can still teach us many things today. In particular, the experience of the Catalan and Aragonese communities during the first phase of the civil war – described so splendidly by my friend Abel Paz in his most recent book, Viaje al pasado – provided the most lucid example about what the people are capable of without a government that orders it about, nor a bureaucracy that plans for it; of what a society can be, in short, that is not based on money or private enterprise, despite all the constraints imposed by circumstances.

But we must point out that, since then, the situation has changed at least in one fundamental aspect. These movements – from the civil war and before – were movements of workers who, basically, defended their function as producers of useful things against a class of exploiters who dominated this production process rather from the outside, in order to extract from it profits, but that did not prevent this work from having, at least potentially, a certain usefulness for people in general, including when the effective enjoyment of wealth was reserved for a few. These were labor processes that could have functioned the same or better without the capitalist owners, and this is what the old workers’ movements aspired to: that the same work that was already being done, to be managed by the producers themselves.

But this is radically different once the vast majority of work has no other purpose than ensuring the maintenance of the reigning order: changing society to self-manage supermarkets, car factories, banks, all of the production and buying and selling of waste that we call work today would amount to changing nothing. In this sense, we can no longer attack Capital without attacking at the same time, and in the same act, work itself…

There is of course much more to say, but let’s leave that for another time. Thank you very much for this interview, and see you soon…

Translated from Spanish by Manuel Martinez, with the collaboration of Marjolaine François.

Memories of Luis Bredlow

Luis Bredlow died on September 8, 2017, at the age of only 59, in a hospital in Terrassa, near Barcelona, from cancer which he had been battling for 6 months. With him died a brilliant and profound mind, who contributed as much to social criticism as to the study of classical and ancient philosophy.

He was born on August 3, 1958, with the first name Lutz, in the German city of Augsburg. He was the only son of parents of Slavic origins. He then attended the schools of Cologne, where I met him in 1976. Influenced by the post-68 climate, he began to be interested in Marxism and anarchism at a very young age, in search as much of a radical social critique, far from the dogmas of ambient leftism, as of a radical practice of anti-bourgeois life. His intellectual precocity, his seriousness, his erudition and his writing ability then struck even people with ideas different from his and some of his teachers. At the age of 18 he could write real essays, but also live like a hippie on Greek beaches. He was one of the very few people who knew Situationist ideas in Germany at that time. With two or three others (including the future publisher Klaus Bittermann), he published the journal Ausschreitungen between 1978 and 1981. The brilliant but difficult style, the polemical verve, particularly against the entire left, even that which was considered the most radical, the references to “mysterious” situationist theories, the call for radical subjectivity and the criticism of activism, made this confidential magazine a fascinating object in my eyes, almost esoteric, disturbing for my good conscience as a leftist at the time. The rather harsh style of communication, even in personal relationships, characteristic of pro-situationists, disconcerted me, but was in truth contrary to Luis’ character. While being implacable in his demand for intellectual rigor, he was generally “Socratically” patient in his availability to discuss with everyone.

Forging links between the participants of an “international subversive current”, something that he dearly hoped for, brought him numerous contacts in other countries. Having never liked Germany, he was happy to gradually settle in Barcelona in the early 1980s. He never left this city, which he loved very much, especially in its popular aspects; he made Spanish his main language and travelled less and less.

In the early days, he broke even more clearly with commonly accepted lifestyles, paying for his choices with a certain material inconvenience – without ever ceasing his reading, writing and translations. After a few years, he resumed studies at the universities of Barcelona, first in sociology, then in philosophy, making a living from translation work, notably for the publisher, Anagrama. Gradually becoming fascinated by classical philosophy, he finally turned to ancient philosophy. Taking advantage of the Greek he had learned in secondary school in Germany, he specialised in the study of the Presocratics, and in particular Parmenides (subject of his doctoral thesis) and Gorgias. In approaching philology, he published various critical editions of the works of these authors as well as essays in specialised journals and became an authority in this field. He also published the first modern Spanish translation of Diogenes Laertes’ Lives of the Philosophers and introductions to the thought of Plato and Kant, which demonstrated his growing attention to ontology and metaphysics. The cultural magazine Mania, founded in 1995 with a few study colleagues and of which he was the mastermind, was also remarkable. This journal published both translations and original articles and introduced important authors to the Spanish-speaking public. Luis also contributed to Archipelagoma and other journals with essays of social criticism often based on observations, tinged with irony, of modern life. Some were republished by Julian Lacalle at Pepitas de Calabaza (Logroño) in the collection Ensayos de herejia [Heretical Essays]. Another, larger anthology has also been announced by the same publisher. However, Luis still wanted to write a much larger work of social criticism, of which these essays are ultimately only fragments – which are unfortunately all that survives. The last fifteen years have not allowed him to bring his project to fruition, his attention being increasingly taken up by his philosophy studies and the demands of his university teaching. As foreign as Luis was to any academic attitude and any interest in a “career”, he gradually rose through the ranks of the University of Barcelona. He really enjoyed giving his lessons which he carefully prepared and also followed plentifully.

He really enjoyed giving his courses, which he carefully prepared, and also oversaw several doctoral theses.

Luis lived the last twenty years with Felicidad, a biology professor, who communicated her serenity to him and knew how to soften the rough edges of his character. Luis was very attached to his daily lifestyle, which often did not harmonise quite well with the lives of his contemporaries. He was very skeptical of new technologies, indifferent to material comfort, but demanding about his personal autonomy. Suspicious of any “militant” practice and intolerant of any external constraint, he felt at ease at his desk, writing by hand, with his inseparable pipes, his thermos of tea and his cat. He not only studied Greek philosophy, but he could bring to mind a pre-Socratic sage or Diogenes.

His studious, almost monastic existence, however, was tempered by his love of good food and wine, his long walks and a strong sense of humour – he knew how to weave unforgettable witticisms. While being solitary in temperament and avoiding any worldliness or superficial social life, he could give himself strongly to friends, among them Diego Camacho (Abel Paz) whose Durruti he had translated into German.

Luis practiced poetry – when he was young, in German, and later more extensively in Spanish, publishing two volumes.

Very important for Luis was the relationship with Agustín García Calvo, a great adept of ancient philosophy, translator, poet and critic of capitalism, just like Luis himself. He was probably the living person that Luis most admired and whose writings he had promoted to be published abroad.

While having been, in my humble opinion, one of the major minds of our time, Bredlow is little known to the general public, and even to the public of social criticism. This is primarily due to the fact that he never published a “real” book, but only essays, often in journals with limited circulation. Why didn’t he go as far as he could have? Firstly, because, a curious mind and at the same time a perfectionist, he was one of those who think they must study a subject in depth before making a decision and who then inevitably find that they have not yet studied it enough. Thus, enormous studies (at the age of 16, he had compiled a chronology of universal history with maps of around a hundred pages) sometimes resulted in no accomplished writing. Added to this was the diversity of his interests, which, apart from the fields already mentioned, also included logic and mathematics, literature and the study of languages. The translations came first, out of necessity, and university work later, also took up a lot of his time. Then, a healthy scepticism prevented him from simply adhering to already existing theories. Attracted over the years by anarchism, critical Marxism, Situationist and post-Situationist ideas (he was also very interested in the works of Giorgio Cesarano, which he had translated), Georges Bataille, the criticism of value, anti-industrial criticism, he always retained his independence. Foreign to all personal vanity and to all consideration of critical activity as a way of imposing oneself, even in restricted circles, he renounced all self-promotion. He gave conference lectures on social criticism when they were proposed to him and discussed them fervently, but he did not seek notoriety.

Anselm Jappe, September 11, 2017

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