Intellectuals in the pandemic (and elsewhere) I

Arturo Romero Contreras

Professor and researcher, BUAP, Mexico.

Many seek from intellectuals some orientation in the world. After all, they are the ones claiming to see beyond immediacy and to have access to a wider frame for interpretation. At the same time, however, it is criticized that intellectuals give their opinion on everything, not letting experts formulate well-founded statements. They should say something about the world, but they shouldn’t say anything concrete, or invading experts’ domains. Herein lies the very modern problem of theory and praxis. Philosophers who dwell on the concrete world, who take part in every possible discussion and conjuncture, are seen as opportunists, as snake-oil salesmen. The others, writing about being, existence and truth, are, on the contrary, accused of living in an ivory tower. This is what happens when philosophers talk about the coronavirus. They either remain enclosed in their conceptual worlds or they speak about the virus as mere laymen.

Créditos BBC

This is not the only double-bind to which intellectuals, especially philosophers, are subject to. Regarding the experiences of totalitarianism and fascism in the 20th century, it is the philosopher who is pointed out as responsible. Take Marx, for instance. It wasn’t politicians or bureaucrats but Marx himself who was considered to be the sole person at fault for the ruin of communism. Liberals advise us not to do as Marx, or Hegel, or Plato (take the infamous Popper, for instance), or any of the thinkers that aimed at big intellectual constructions. We are told that thoughts are dangerous, very dangerous when they fly too high, when they intend to cover all possible domains of existence, to speak about everything. Hybris is the cancer of thoughts. But, at the same time, we hear everyday of the impotence of thoughts, that the world needs only practical people. Even in academia, we hear about the so-called “grounded theory” (an oxymoron or a tautology), but that is, as the Germans say, neither fish, nor meat.

Hegel’s famous statement in the Philosophy of Right comes to our mind; Minerva’s owl spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. This means that philosophy has as its sole task the explanation of facts, and only shows the reasons of what has already happened. There is no philosophy of the future. Schelling, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Rosenzweig thought otherwise. Philosophy shouldn’t have any other aim but the future. However, are we philosophically entitled to speak about the future? On which grounds? And if not, aren’t we doomed to only be able to think about the past? We rely today on the concept of “event” as that which surprises us, that which renders every knowledge useless, for it exceeds our normal world. But an event is only an event because it means something in and for this world and thus gives us a new knowledge about it. Derrida spoke about the aporia of the event: if we interpret it, if we name it, we kill it. If we don’t, we let it vanish and thus we kill it too. Is the coronavirus an event? For many, like Badiou, it is not the case since it does not come from the productive-inventive subjectivity. For others, like Zizek, this is a real event, something that changes everything, even if only at a subjective level. This only represents the struggle around what is considered a relevant event for humans, and the necessity/impossibility of naming it. 

Let’s return to our current crisis. As intellectuals and philosophers, we could continue our philosophical discussions cut off from the concrete world, claiming that a disease is not philosophical, but an affair for doctors and biologists. Or we could, on the contrary, be concrete, express all sorts of opinions about the immediate world, namely, to take part in our world, to think at its pace. Yes, philosophy is untimely (unzeitgemäß, writes Nietzsche), out of joint, as Derrida says quoting Hamlet. But is philosophy also doomed to come either too early or too late? Is this the constitutive tragedy of philosophical thought?

There are no a priori answers for this. We can only do both things: to be late and early at the same time, so that we can draw a line, and then another until we have a sheaf. We should consider the present time as nothing but a crossing, a knot, between pasts and futures, or between lines connecting a past with a future. To put it otherwise, when we think, we connect dots, and we thus construct a constellation. A constellation has dots in the past and in the future. The present is only “crossed” by those lines. We never have one single line, but many. The present emerges out of this bundle, somewhere in the “middle”, in medias res, but not in the “middle point” (Aristotle). This is what we have called in another “topology” a frame for interpretation. Philosophy provides a frame to think and act. As such, it can never be a frame for the world if it doesn’t include in it elements of that world. In our sheaf-metaphor, there is no frame, no “interior”, but several sketched lines, crossing here and there. Many lines will meet at some points (or area) showing the recurrent topics, the problems and obsessions. The set of these points will give us a space, the space of the present; of its problems, obsessions and topics. To grasp an epoch, we must not pay attention to one thinker, but to the constellation of problems giving shape to different approaches to the same knot of issues. In that, we may lose the present as a point, but we will gain it as a space. The next step is to recognize the “attractors” of that space, the issues that capture our attention, our words, our desire. That is our present time: a formed cloud of probabilities, to use an “atomic metaphor”. Some points are present, some points are future, some points belong to speculation, some to the world. What we care about is, however, the form, paths, and possibilities in this space.

In this sense, the current project “The international pandemic project” will show different views and approaches about the pandemic. But its real contribution will be to reveal the issues at stake among us. “Reality” is not this or that, nor could be described as being such and such. It is rather a problem, a question, actualized from different perspectives. The spectrum (such as light spectrum) of all such perspectives is part of reality itself. It goes without saying that there are many levels of reality. What we call facts can vary widely. There is science, because more or less accurate descriptions of reality are possible. But there is philosophy because not everything can be treated like a scientific fact. There are also different types of beings in science, like physics, biology, sociology, and in philosophy, with perceptions, ideas and expectations. We should pay attention to these levels.

This is what we intend when approaching the pandemic, to recognize different levels of analysis, different aims, different registers. But we should not choose simply among them. We should try to reconstruct for ourselves the whole spectrum of issues at stake. Maybe then, we will learn something from this pandemonium.

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