Edgar Morin – Lessons from a Centenary

Marina Gusmão, Espiral Preta


Life, experience and thought

On July 8, 1921, Edgar Morin was born, one of the greatest contemporary thinkers, author of a vast work, with more than 60 titles. The last, Lessons d'un siècle de vie, published by the French publisher Denoël, came out a few months ago. A tireless writer, in September 2019 he had already released another 450-page autobiography by Fayard, Les souvenirs come to you again. Far from being a narcissistic exercise, both books are memoirs by an active witness of virtually the entire XNUMXth century and part of the XNUMXst century. This text is a short walk through his life and work.


Edgar Morin was born Edgar Nahoun, the only child of a Sephardic Jewish family, the result of the marriage between Vidal Nahoun, a merchant originally from Salonica, and Luna Beressi, who died when Edgar was only 10 years old. Luna was the person he loved most in his life. The multicultural family environment marked the first “imprinting” on her personality, socially skilled and intellectually open. In another of his autobiographies, “Meus Demônios”, he identifies himself as a “cultural omnivore” since childhood. He learned to love music, from classical to popular. He liked radio, television and comic books. He went to the movies daily and loves mass culture since childhood, themes of some of his books.

On one of his trips to Brazil, asked by a journalist who he would like to meet, he declared admiration for Maitê Proença. He didn't miss a single chapter of Miss Kisses, a soap opera that was shown in France. He is also passionate about literature and the author of two novels, written decades ago and published a couple of years ago. Dostoyevsky, Proust and Beethoven figure alongside Heraclitus, Hegel, Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Freud and Lacan among what he calls My Philosophers, another one of his writings published here. But literature, cinema, music and poetry strongly fed his transdisciplinary training.

Years of training and militancy

At the age of 18, in 1939, already starting higher education, he heard the drums of war beating closer and closer. In 1941, he decided to join the French Communist Party and the French Resistance against Germany, which had occupied half of the territory. That's when Nahoun became Morin, a code name incorporated into the name. He worked as a journalist and editor in the newspaper distributed by the PCF. The first years of World War II were difficult for Europe, the Germans demonstrating military and strategic superiority.

However, “where danger grows, that which saves also grows”. This phrase, which Morin had read ironically in a German poet, Hölderlin, helped him to formulate one of the strongest foundations of his thought: the principle of uncertainty. You have to know how to expect the unexpected. When all seemed lost, in December 1941 the Japanese attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, forced the United States to enter the war and began to change the course of history.

The following year, the German army did not resist the harsh Soviet winter, and in February 1943 it was defeated in the famous Battle of Stalingrad. A lighthouse lights up at the end of the tunnel. In 1944 Paris is liberated. A year later, the improbable becomes probable and Germany surrenders to the allies. You learn that a small deviation, almost always invisible, can cause great transformations.

All these facts are not minor in his biography, but they contributed greatly to the elaboration of his way of thinking. In this sense, it is impossible to separate life and theory. A subject involved in what he says and writes does not hide behind apparently impersonal theories. That kind of attitude doesn't absolve anyone. There is always a choice, of a theme, an author, a theory. Science, however neutral or abstract it may seem, has a passion at its heart. We are not just the Homo sapiens of labor, of reason, of calculation, but the homo sapiens demens, whose counterpart is madness, insanity, excessive pride, spending, hate and love.

We research what we love, what we fear or don't understand. They are our “demons”, our obsessions. It is moved by these driving ideas that, in 1946, Morin leaves for the land of Hölderlin in order to write his first book, Germany's Year Zero, a historical-sociological-journalistic investigation also published in Brazil. He had a notebook in his hand and two ideas in his head: how a country so culturally rich could reach this level of barbarism and how to prevent it from happening again. He realized that he liked to study life like a hot gun, in the heat of events. He toured ruins, bunkers, talked to the local population, collected testimonies, collected documents signed by the Führer himself.

Sociology of the present

Even in the midst of the conflict of the Second World War, between the Resistance and the university, Morin managed to complete three degrees in 1942: Law, History and Geography. But he did not directly exercise any of the professions. On the contrary, he was always a master of indiscipline, an advocate of transdisciplinarity. Not that they, the disciplines, are not important, but the disciplinary fragmentation ends up generating barbarism in thought, as each one knows only their own small piece, without establishing a dialogue with the other areas of knowledge, thus forming a partial subject, unable to address increasingly complex phenomena. He believes that the greatest revolutions in thought take place in meeting differences.

The phase that goes from 1946 to 1973 we can call “sociology of the present”, just for didactic purposes. This classification we make is arbitrary and each one can conceive their own, since Morin conceives the subject in its entirety, and not in “phases”. It's the time, let's say, of field work. In 1951, without a job, having left the PCF after scathing criticism of the USSR, he practically moved to the French National Library. He wanted to understand what death was, which so soon snatched his mother away. It was a sort of reckoning. With her and with the world.

From this experience came Man and Death, a book that seeks to understand the various representations of this biosocial phenomenon, from antiquity to the present day, seeking to know the different knowledge already produced on the subject. And rewire them, as you always do. Still in the 1950s, he published his research on cinema, trying to understand the fascination that images, stars and stars (Marilyn Monroe, James Dean), a mixture of gods and myths, exert on people and what they say about the human condition. . This concern resulted in “The stars: myth and seduction in cinema” and “Cinema and the imaginary man. Essay on Sociological Anthropology”.

The 1960s are especially productive. Morin is not looking for a specific theme, but for a method of approximation and a multidimensional approach to social phenomena, preferably those that are still in effusion. The sociology of the present has as principles the concepts of “crisis”, “event” and “phenomenographic observation”. The latter concerns the sensitivity of the researcher in the observation and construction of a good report, between the literary and the scientific.

These principles are evident in an award-winning documentary film from 1961, “Chronicle of a Summer”, directed by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, in which he applies his methods of research in development. But also in his following works: Mass Culture in the XNUMXth Century: Neurosis, 1962; Plózevet's metamorphosis, 1967; May 68: The Breach, published in 1968, in partnership with friends Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis, about the events that shook the world and promoted a cultural revolution that is still important today; It is The Rumor of Orleans, from 1969, research on the phenomenon of rumors and their historical roots.

Although he built a consistent work in sociology, he was never recognized as an effective member of this field. About this, we can advance here some hypotheses. In the first place, he never received the blessing (nor did he ever ask for it) from the greatest consecrator of sociology in France, Pierre Bourdieu. Second, because he does not identify himself as a sociologist, but as someone who thinks about certain facts using the theoretical-methodological tools available, crossing borders, areas and theories when necessary.

Third, it's uncomfortable trying to move people out of their comfort zones. This is one of the challenges of transdisciplinary thinking. And Morin is an heir to the encyclopedic tradition of the French. Finally, due to the very difficulty of fitting him into a specific area, as he navigated through different themes, in addition to preferring the margins to the centers, the in-betweens to the entities, nomadism to sedentary lifestyle, outsiders to established ones. It ended up being very well received by the area of ​​education, also a little in communication, almost nothing in other domains.

The Complexity Thinker

In 1969, an unusual experience reorganizes his thinking. He is invited to spend a sabbatical year at the Salk Institute, in the United States, among thinkers of different orientations, a season abundantly narrated in his “California Diary”. The US, like much of the world, was also going through its revolution of customs. From an intellectual point of view, Morin had contact with theories that would forever change his way of thinking: systems theory, information theory and cybernetics, in addition to having access to the theories of biology in vogue. From a personal point of view, the trip was a real immersion in North American counterculture.

From the 1970s onwards, his thinking gained another dimension. In 1973, he publishes “The Lost Paradigm”, in which he tries to understand the question of the separation between nature and culture established in the West. We are 100% nature and 100% culture, he likes to say. In 1977, he began the elaboration of his most ambitious work, The method, approximately 2500 pages divided into six volumes, which took almost 30 years to complete. The work establishes a relationship between physics, biology, life, the nature of knowledge and ends with an innovative approach to ethics.

It is precisely in the 1970s that his intellectual project begins to gain more defined contours. It begins its properly epistemological phase, known as “complexity”. Complex is simply “that which is woven together”. Morin realizes that everything is interconnected, connected, in relation, in communication. Matter, the atom, a community of insects, the human individual, society or the universe, as systems, cannot be studied as in a linear process of cause and effect. “All things are cause caused and causative, helped and helpers”, he says in some of his works, recalling Pascal.

In this process of building a complex thought, he conceives some fundamental principles opposed to modern science produced since the XNUMXth century, whose main characteristics are the fragmentation and disjunction of knowledge. Its objective is to disseminate a new scientific paradigm, more suited to contemporaneity and the advances of science. This “new science” is based on: the non-separation of subject/object; the principles of uncertainty and incompleteness of reality; the dialogic of thought, according to which the opposite of a profound truth is not necessarily a lie, but can also be another profound truth; the non-duality of thought; the fact that some ideas can be both antagonistic and complementary.

All of this can be summarized in what Morin called the tetragram of complexity. All systems are in constant order-disorder-interaction-reorganization, recursively, when elements interact on top of each other. It is called the principle of recursion: the cause is in the effect which, in turn, retroacts on the cause. And this complements the hologramatic principle, also inspired by Pascal: the whole is in the parts, just as the parts make up the whole.

The challenge of homo complexus

A third phase of Morinian thought, from the 2000s onwards, is dedicated to the construction of a global thought for a planetary ethics in a world heading for the abyss. It defends a cosmopolitics of being, capable of including the subject in the cosmos and the cosmos in the subject. In the sixth and final volume of The method, published in 2004, simply called Ethics, Morin proposes a triple ethics for the new millennium: an autoethics (focused on self-care), a socioethics (concerning life in society) and an anthropoethics (able to think of the subject and society as belonging to a species, the human species, always in relation with the planetary ecosystem).

Despite the importance of all the struggles for social rights in the last 60 years, Morin insists on the need to build another path for the future of humanity that recognizes at the same time the unity and diversity of the human. Changing lives and changing paths are the new categorical imperatives for the XNUMXst century. This other path necessarily involves a reform of thought, capable of reconnecting knowledge with a view to building a whole subject, a homo complexus, less specialized (the type that knows infinitely everything about the infinitely small), but that, on the contrary, from their place of specialization, can find spaces of openness and dialogue with the other, with the difference, in search of a common .

This commonality, says Morin, may be the fact that we all inhabit the same Motherland, that is, we share a community of destiny. Hence the importance of a planetary ethics, an ethics of the common. In short, complex thinking oscillates between the microsocial and the macroplanetary; defends an open rationality and the subject's permanent self-criticism; understands that we have ideas, just as they have us; run away from easy and ready answers; seeks to open dialogue between knowledge; he knows that it is impossible for us to build the best of all worlds, but he defends the concrete utopia of a better world, where the fight for equality and fraternity does not harm freedom.

*Fagner Torres from France is a journalist.

*Eugenia Maria Dantas Professor at the Department of Geography at UFRN.

*Josineide Silveira de Oliveira is a professor at the State University of Rio Grande do Norte (UERN) and accredited professor in the Graduate Program in Education at UFRN.



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