Interview with Agustín García Calvo: The future is a vacuum that doesnt let us live
Interview with Agustín García Calvo: "The future is a vacuum that doesn't let us live"
Text Javier Bassas Vila | Felip Martí-Jufresa
Agustín García Calvo (Zamora, 1926) is one of Spain’s most radical thinkers. His work, which displays a firm stance of indiscipline towards the dominant reality, combines reflection on language and politics with literary creation and translations. His books include Del lenguaje (On Language), Contra la realidad (Against Reality), Contra la democracia (Against Democracy), De Dios (On God), Contra el tiempo (Against Time), Contra la pareja (Against the Couple) and Sermón de ser y no ser (Sermon on Being and Not Being).
Called by some “the master”, Agustín García Calvo has for many years been a referent for any young, or not so young, undisciplined thinker – some of the current leading Spanish thinkers have declared themselves, at one time or another, his disciples. Having known and rejected the forms and technical jargon of the philosophical academy, García Calvo has drawn up an itinerary of thought that tackles, deepens and rips apart topics fundamental for philosophy (God, reality, time, the individual, democracy, etc.), always preserving the liveliness and simplicity of common or garden language both in essays and, often, in the form of a conversation with those present.
So a master, yes, in the art of denouncing rigorously and directly the deceitful tricks of the system and in making that “I that lies beneath our personality”, that voice that arises out of the common and is the voice of the people, speak. An expert on grammar, language and literature who also writes and knows how to communicate the deceptions we suffer with the power of simple words, Agustín García Calvo affirms that the force speech can deploy against the dominant power was, is and will be the force that can exist in each of those present. Without demagogy in what he says, with no half measures in his commitment: “It is said that [democracy] is the only form of power we happen to have and therefore the only one against which it is worth speaking. Speaking, which is doing. It is understood that here, as in any conversation or piece of writing in which I can always intervene, it is not a question of reaching conclusions and drawing out programmes, which is regarded as boring and useless, but, on the contrary, it is understood that this which we are doing here and now is a doing, no more, without expecting any more; that will do what it can, but at all events is not conceived of as a preparation for another form of action; that, on the contrary, this speaking is thought of as an action, and all that is allowed to it is that the result of that action on each one, on the collectivity, among the people, be what it may be"1 .
García Calvo was one of the speakers at the Second Philosophical Workshops – on the subject of “The Indiscipline of Thought” – organised in Barcelona last May by Arts Santa Mònica and the French Institute, and coordinated by the authors of this interview.
A good number of your books have a title consisting of a syntagma signifying a gesture of complete head-on opposition to ultrapowerful legalities such as “time”, in Contra el tiempo (Against Time), and “reality”, in Contra la realidad (Against Reality). Might we interpret this as meaning that this gesture of opposition is in an unfaithful relationship to the old Gnostic tradition? Rather like an atheistic version of that hatred of the world proclaimed by the old Gnosticism...
The truth is No, I don’t think that interpretation would be right, because any form of Gnosticism would also imply something that I am also against, which is the positivisation of the negation. In other words, turning the act, the action of negating right now, into an attitude or even a doctrine is one of the first things that have to be rejected. The against that appears in the books is not, in principle, directly against reality, but against the pretension of truth in reality. It has become increasingly clear to me that reality doesn’t make sense, that truth doesn’t fit into it; it has become increasingly clear to me in recent times that reality must be understood as though it were an intermediate situation between the attempt to impose from above ideals such as “All”, “Nothing”, “God”, “Pure Numbers”, etc., and the resistance from below to what is mistakenly called “Nature” or something like that (not to mention if it is called “Universe” or things of that kind), because it is simply what remains unknown, the unknown, the always unknown. And reality makes no sense unless it is understood as an encounter, struggle, clash, war between the one and the other.
So any other philosophy or science that fails to recognise this contradictory character of reality is going to do what has always habitually been done, that is help to maintain the established ideas about the world, etc. And this involves, mainly, two confusions leading in opposite directions: one, taking reality as though it were “natural”, and the other, helping to take reality as though it were “true”. Reality is neither of these two things. And if a summary could be given of all this struggle I have been engaged in, it would be that negation.
In relation to this against, you also published a talk entitled “Contra la democracia” (Against Democracy), in which you showed that democracy is directly associated with power and what you call “technodemocracy”. Now Jacques Rancière, who was among those at the Second Philosophical Workshops, is opposed to abandoning the notion and adduces that in the foundations of democracy there is a principle that is worth keeping and for which we must fight: equality. So isn’t democracy essentially defined by equality? And in this sense, wouldn’t democracy correspond to what you call “the common dimension” or “people”?
The mistake I am going to speak against now is one I have spoken against time and again since the “Against Democracy” talk you mention. A mistake that shouldn’t be associated so directly with the present development of democracy as “technodemocracy”, “welfare state”, etc., but is to be found in its origin, when the mistake and lie prevailed in many cities in Ancient Greece: the term democracy, composed of demo and krato, is already an image of this very deception. So I can’t agree, not just with Rancière, but with many of the friends I have gradually lost because they insisted, in spite of everything, on defending the form of regime we suffer from today, at least as “the lesser evil”, as they say – taking for granted that power is bad, always against someone. I was already attacking all this at the time of my last years in Paris – when I published the book ¿Qué es el Estado? (What is the State?) in La Gaya Ciencia – and have renewed the attack in one way or another since then. The equality argument makes no sense, because it implies a belief in the individual – alluded to in the element demo, which is something composed of individuals, which are populations of the State or clienteles of Capital with a certain number of souls. For me, this is the other side of power: they are slaves of power, slaves power relies on and who, because of each one’s own interest, cannot but agree with the faith that is preached to them, with the power that imposes itself on them. I want my voice to rise up from that other thing that resides in the unknown, to which one can allude with care using the term “people”, saying always “people which doesn’t exist, but that there is such a thing”, and that it is certainly not composed of individuals.
But the “people which doesn’t exist” is characterised by equality...
No it isn’t, because equality always refers to populations, to individuals. And “people” hasn’t got individuals, doesn’t recognise persons, is impersonal, rather like the sense of controversy that some politicians have discovered: impersonality. So it makes no sense to talk of equality. In this region of the unknown that is beneath reality, the same thing happens to persons as to things: in so far as they are still alive there and don’t realise themselves under an idea or occasionally under their own name, each of them is not what it is, they are not defined and, therefore, there is no sense in computing them or counting their privileges or misfortunes in terms of equality or inequality – it doesn’t make sense. To do that, what is required is for persons and things to be what they are, and, if they are already what they are, then they are subjects of the State, subjects of Capital. So, in this sense, I would regard democracy simply as the latest of the regimes we have suffered.
A large part of what I am saying “against democracy”, against the present regime, I learned – and it stuck – from the student revolt in 1965, when the wave reached Madrid, via California, via Tokyo, also via other places, later via France. This regime was becoming established then, the one we are enduring today, which is characterised by the disappearance of any separation between State and Capital. The regime of money, more or less hidden, in which government executives in no way differ from company executives. This brazen regime of money was becoming established in the sixties and, in my view, the revolt by a lot of students in the most advanced places in the world stemmed from a more or less subconscious presentiment of what was coming our way.
And how did you experience the 1965 student revolt, how did you react?
I let myself be swept along by the students, by what it was my lot to live through at that moment, quite joyfully. It cost me my chair and things like that, which were nothing in comparison with that joy. And I have remained faithful: I continue not only remembering it historically, but also living in it. And with all the more reason in the most advanced form of the welfare regime.
Taking advantage of this biographical remark, and before going on with more precise questions about your thought, can it be said that your awareness against reality, against democracy – in short, this struggle you are engaged in – has been present in your life since the beginning? How was this struggle waged? What intellectual panoramas have you encountered over the past fifty years?
The first time I came to Catalonia, for example, was because I had entered some sonnets for a poetry competition being held in Reus; sonnets in Castilian, of course, as this was the post-Civil War period. I was fourteen and they gave me an honourable mention: I didn’t get a prize, but I was sent a first class ticket from Zamora to Reus. I came here and, in the theatre in Reus, the speech was given by a falangist, Eugenio Montes, who was an extremely fluent speaker. He spoke and went on speaking; it was after two, time for lunch, and he went on talking; there was no time left for the poets to recite their poems, and the bourgeois of Reus were still sitting tight. Until, when there was no-one else left before the winner, the Master of Salamanca, recited his love poems, they saw me, fourteen years old, looking wretched, and they let me read my sonnets. That was how I came into contact with a poet and other things, German Schröder. I recall this to show just how far removed from any situation of struggle in the sense in which I am engaged in it now. I was, at that time, more or less, a conformist. I argued with my mother, who was not very devout, but was a great believer. Ever since I was a teenager I argued with her about God and fought with the teachers at school.
So was it with the student revolt in Madrid in 1965 that you began this struggle you are engaged in?
Yes, it was there when I learned the major part of the attitude I maintain as a living memory. The following year I came to Barcelona, because here too there was a notable student revolt, la Caputxinada, a few months later. And the only non-Catalan it occurred to them to call was me. I took a plane, although even then, since they had sacked me from my professorship, I was already being arrested by the police every five minutes. In Barcelona I met some extremely venerable figures of that time, such as the poet Pere Quart and the person who had been the vice-chancellor of Barcelona University during the Republic.
I don’t know whether now we would find any university vice-chancellors involved in social struggles, such as the student protests against budget cuts in education and other movements.
In the Caputxinada there were also one or two non-Catalans such as Manuel Sacristán. And Tàpies, whom the young people asked to speak and he didn’t want to, as he said he already did so with his paintbrushes and other such nonsense; if I already had a dislike of him, I disliked him even more then. The Capuchin monks took us into their convent; we were all crammed in there, and there were lots of us. Also the poet Salvador Espriu, even though he was ill. The friars had loads of potatoes and that’s what kept us going, and we slept on the floor. We stayed in the convent in Sarrià for three days, then the bishop and the Interior Ministry reached an agreement and they stormed in – on the fourth day if I remember correctly – and arrested us all and put us in the cells for the next three days.
That struggle lasted until I grew tired. When I couldn’t stand it any longer and I saw they were going to put me in prison, I came to Catalonia, and then I crossed the Pyrenees clandestinely thanks to the young people who knew the paths. They took me along a path to a shrine that was visited by devout people from France and Spain, and on the other side was Ceret. From there a friend drove me to Paris where I stayed for eight years. So, with all this fuss, I can’t say either how this struggle I’m engaged in gradually became more precise.
Which circles of philosophers did you come into contact with in Paris?
Practically none. I used to take part in the discussions in cafés with people from anywhere. I was in Nanterre teaching – it was my first year – with the Hispanicists. They wanted me to talk about the Spanish social novel, which I really couldn’t stand, but I pulled through. The next year I was in Lille as a maître-assistant, teaching Latin and medieval Spanish to the Hispanicists. But I mustn’t exaggerate. I sat on the panel that judged Gómez Pin’s doctoral thesis – a thesis about Aristotle – with Deleuze, François Châtelet, etc. I had most contact with the last one. When I went back to Spain in 1976 he called me and I gave a talk with him.
Ever since those early years as a lecturer and right up to this day, your interest and main speciality has always been language: poetry, linguistics, translations, etc. Let’s get back to precise questions about your thought, more exactly, your conception of language. Because you distinguish between “common language” which doesn’t exist – perhaps like the “people which doesn’t exist”, to quote what you were just saying – and languages.
Common language, common reason, don’t appear in reality. They would be what has not yet been reduced to reality and is there. Common language, common reason, are located in reality in so far as they are making and unmaking all things, realising them and unrealising them, but it is precisely because of this that they remain outside reality. The only thing that appears in reality as language are actual languages. I usually say that there is no common reality, but the reality of each tribe, which is the reality established and conditioned by the semantic vocabulary of its dialect or language. And all this resides in the subconscious. In the course of the discoveries I was making in the books on language I suddenly saw clearly this use of the Freudian term, not to designate the truly unknown, but that other thing that, simply for practical reasons, has been known and forgotten. Any speaker speaks a language well in so far as they don’t know what they are doing; because when the awareness of language gets in there all it does is ruin the mechanism. The condition for people to speak well is that they have no idea about the grammar of their language.
In this sense, as you well know, grammar also has a history or evolution.
It is languages that have a history.
But, for instance, the grammatical invention of the future tense of the verb is fairly recent in our languages. It would seem to come from ancient forms of modal expression of obligations and projects.* In other words, a transformation of grammar.
Yes, and not just in ancient languages – in the Homeric dialect, for example – is there no future tense; neither is there in modern languages. I have demonstrated this in Elementos gramaticales2 . I treat the future as what I call “moods” in a second sense, the “eventual”, the “potential”, etc., which attenuate the affirmation: because affirming categorically is excessive [escesivo in the original, see note]. That is why there are quantifiers of the certainty of the affirmation. What are called “moods” are not a tense of any kind.
However, the real time** of calendars and clocks – which is not the time that passes, which is inconceivable – is made with the idea that there is a future. And not just that; with the idea also that the future is first. Only on the basis of this faith in the future does the past then become mere history instead of allowing it to become a living memory that will continue to fulfil its task. Thus the past becomes dates, documents, history. But this happens due to imitation of the future that has been invented for us and in which common language does not participate, only the superior dialects, including mathematics, in the service of science. Nothing happens in that future and, therefore, it is possible to play with numbers, with the budgets of the banks, with the budgets of the states, with the laws that foresee and forecast what should be done: whatever one wants, as the future is a vacuum that doesn’t let us live, exchanging life for a future.
So you would distinguish, on the one hand, grammar from common language and, on the other, grammar from languages.
The scientific and philosophical dialects of the theological and ecclesiastical periods are clearly separated from true language, which is the language of ordinary people, everyday language. My practice seeks to be exemplary: I have adopted the habit of not using learned terms when I speak. I find a way of saying everything in ordinary language. I am constantly against the superior dialects, including mathematics, which I have dealt with most recently.
In this connection, I have seen that there are two quite different attitudes among philosophers of science: some have seen the ideal condition possessed by mathematical entities – to begin with, numbers and series – and are content to say that the idealisation of facts helps to understand what happens in them. This is, let us say, the modest attitude: the idealisation that mathematical language imposes on the brute facts of reality is simply a route to understanding what those facts are and how they behave. The other, haughtier, attitude is the one it seems Galileo argued for in his time: that Nature itself is made mathematically, so the only thing physical study does is discover what was already in Nature. Although Galileo did not say Nature, but Universe. However, generally speaking, I think the attitude I have called “modest” is the one that predominates.
I would like to pursue the question of the future. You always associate it with possible ideals, constructions, hopes and, in this way, with what They make us believe. The future, in short, is one of the mechanisms of power: believing in the future deceives us and diverts us from the now we are living in. However, there is also a future of ordinary people, of common or garden language in expressions such as “What will I eat tomorrow? Where will I sleep? What will I read?” I would like to know whether it is possible to distinguish between a Future, that is deceit and belongs to Them as a strategy of power, and a commoner or more existential future, so to speak, that is not a dimension of power.
I don’t know why they should be different. They’re the same thing. If you separate them like that, all you do is separate power from personal individuals, who are the same as the State and Capital. Personal individuals, in so far as they are subject to reality, are condemned to believe everything they’re made to swallow, though not because the State imposes it on them, but because it corresponds to their own personal interest. They’ve been made to believe that it goes without saying. Faith, of course, is imposed and preached from above; the television preaches every day faith in the future, in reality. But the personal individual has it inside them, because they actually do need a future, or think they need one, with which the slender chance of living they had left is taken from them and exchanged for having a future. The organs of power and the media exaggerate in an effort to convince young people that having a future is a very good thing. But they are killing them with future tests, future competitive exams; they are literally killing them, although at the same time they convince them that that is living.
But there are degrees, aren’t there? There is a difference between an Olympic Games planned from above and our daily bread every morning.
Yes, but, in short, there is the matter of the origin: all the ideas they impose on us come from a first idea, the idea of future death; there is no more primitive future. Let’s say, with somewhat exaggerated precision, that by the time a child is one and a half or two years old, when it has completed the struggle between what it was left with of the common language and the language received from its parents or its surroundings – with the parents’ language coming out on top, of course –, the first thing that is communicated to the child is: “You’re going to die tomorrow”. That is the first piece of information; all the other information about the future stems from there and so do the formulations of past converted into history. This is a specifically human phenomenon. I also wrote Contra el hombre (Against Man), many years ago now, against any form of humanism; it’s not good enough for me to believe that what is specifically human is language, or laughing or crying. These are patriotic interpretations: we think the form of our language is that of language in general, like the Ancient Greeks believed that language was Greek and what the others – the barbarians – did was babble. The only thing that truly distinguishes us is knowing death, knowing what is not here. There is no future other than that established by death, and that is specifically human; things have no future and neither do animals. That is our constitution [costitución in the original, see note], our sin.
Why don’t animals have a future? What does the fact that knowing about death is specifically human mean?
A short while ago, as I was fed up – because it seems that nobody reads anything unless it is written in English – I sent the people at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science something on this matter; it was a question of being clear in a short space. And I said to them the following: it wouldn’t occur to anyone to think that when a spider, instead of killing its prey, anaesthetises it simply to be able to have it fresh when it comes to eat it... it wouldn’t occur to anyone to think that the spider knows this. The spider knows nothing, what it does has a much deeper origin: it forms part of the mechanism. Our knowledge of death does not form part of the mechanism, it is knowledge strictly speaking.
In relation to that knowing about death, then, might there be in you a wish to be a spider, to pursue your example?
No... There is no wish to be things, that is to say, those things that have not yet been realised, that have not yet received their name or been counted, nor are numbers. My wish is to die, let myself die like grass, like the moon, which is dying too, but knows nothing. My wish is this: to let myself die like that, without future, without any future death, to free myself from that.
1 “Contra la democracia” (Against Democracy), a talk followed by a conversation with those attending which took place in the Cotxeres de Sants community centre in Barcelona in April 1991 and was published by Virus in 1993. The quotation comes from pp. 69 and 70. As the reader will be able to see by referring to the original in Castilian, some of the words in this interview do not follow the official spelling rules, eg “costitución” instead of “constitución”, “escesivo” instead of “excesivo”. These spellings, which are closer to the way the words are generally pronounced, are part of what may be called Agustín García Calvo’s language policy.
2 A. G. Calvo, Elementos gramaticales, 3 vols., Lucina, Zamora, 2009.
*Translator’s note: In Castilian a forward-looking construction with a modal verb, such as “mañana ir he a la iglesia” (tomorrow go I must to church – one of the examples given by the interviewers), eventually evolved, with the modal combining with the root, into a simple (one-word) future form: “mañana iré a la iglesia” (tomorrow I will go to church). Similarly “mañana trabajar he en el campo” (tomorrow work I must in the field) would have become “mañana iré al campo” (tomorrow I will work in the field).
**Translator’s note: In Castilian, “time” and “tense” are expressed by the same word, “tiempo”.
Autumn (October – December 2011)