For a phenomenology of destruction

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By RENATO LESSA*

It is a disaster marked by a double paroxysm – pandemic and pandemonium. We excel in these two dimensions

 “The name of the destroyer is Destroyer, it is the name of the destroyer” (Arnaldo Antunes, The face of the destroyer).

What we designate as “Bolsonarism” is a phenomenon without a concept. The obsession with assigning one to it – fascism, populism, authoritarianism, necropolitics, whatever – stems from the disturbance we feel in the face of formless objects, endowed with an unusual concentration of negativity, expressions of an unbearable “absolutism of the real”. The human propensity to conceptual fabrication is, in fact, a self-protection resource that propitiates a feeling of familiarity in the face of the unprecedented. Sensation that results from having a name for each thing, however frightening it may be.

An archaic question, already inscribed in the Platonic dialogue Fedon and resumed in contemporary times by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996), when he dealt with the themes of “non-conceptuality”, metaphorical regimes and the “absolutism of the real” itself.[I] Furthermore, the logic of self-protection, through conceptual attribution, follows the model of fulfilling an expectation: the concept, applied to the thing, induces predictability. We are filled with the feeling of “knowing what it is”: the psychological value of the concept sometimes exceeds its supposed cognitive reach. In the relationship between fulfillment and expectation, it is up to the latter to configure the former.

In any case, moved by the feeling of the uselessness of the concept, I think about the possibility – and the imperative – of a phenomenology of destruction, supported by the following intuition: “Bolsonarism” does not have an intellectual history and not even a political history that elucidates it. It must, in my judgment, be shown by means of a natural history, or a history of its destructive effects. The object – or the name – in question is not here referred to as a “concept”: it has more to do with the label placed on the drawer to indicate that there we house a collection of records of extreme and abject things. A type of collection that, under normal conditions, would reveal its collector as a subject subject to special care. That's what names are for: concepts not preceded and commanded by intuitions are nothing more than positivistic delusions; intuitions without names for things are like generic city maps, devoid of roadmaps.

Nowadays, the thing is not to pay too much attention to it and follow the maxim of the great British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007): “put filth in focus”.[ii] Something that, as he warned, will affect our usual modes of cognition, usually concentrated in the search for an elucidation of things, through the detection of causes and precise conceptual determination. In the platonic dialogue Fedon, Socrates “saw” in the concept of the Sun what he could not see in the thing itself, under penalty of burning his retinas. I fear that, in order to adjust the eye, we will have to burn our own.

 

Make the country an example

In the current state of affairs, the cognitive interest in Brazil, on the part of the international scientific community, seems to be directly proportional to the success of the country's projection as a planetary pariah. An interest, certainly, driven by widespread abjection and astonishment, given the global health risk factor involved: the term “Brazil”, in disastrous re-signification, serves as an invitation to prophylaxis. cuius guilt? Exclusive merit of a consulate that, although averse to the very idea of ​​globalization, globalized Brazil as a pariah. A projection resulting from the most extreme process of “disfiguration of democracy”[iii] ongoing on the planet. A process whose signs are detectable on an equally global scale, but which affects Brazilian plagues more radically. Noble feat of collusion directed by the friend-of-death”, an expression that serves as a real substratum of the fantasy brand “Head of State”.

After all, it is a disaster marked by a double paroxysm – pandemic and pandemonium. We exceeded ourselves in these two dimensions, something worthy of great hosts of misfortunes. It's not for anyone. The country, with more than ninety viral variations, has become a privileged laboratory for research on the pandemic. It also qualifies as an excellent opportunity for case studies on civilizing deconstruction processes. In any case, it is about being at the forefront and having a lot to teach the world: we follow the motto of the remarkable country, on the slope of infinite negatives. If we continue like this, we have to fear the future in which we would supposedly be, according to Stefan Zweig, “the country”. Around the world, however, fragments of widespread sympathy persist.

In a smaller and personal key, this is what I could see in the gesture of the Mr. Mayer, a veteran Parisian pharmacist on the Avenue de Saxe, not far from the Institute Pasteur. When inoculating me with the first dose of the anti-covid 19 vaccine, he said to me: “c'est pour l'amitié franco-brésilienne”. Inoculated, I left touched by the discreet and devoid of solemnity, and I thought: M. Mayer must be from the strain of the French who behaved well during the German occupation (1940-1944). Without armed heroism, but somehow observing a rule as basic as it is obsolete: hallucinate the whole of humanity in each individual; treat each one as an end, never as a means.

M. Mayer knows nothing about this inoculate, other than the distinction of the polite declension “M. Lessa”. The ephemeral minute and the cramped space of the cubicle – in addition to the liquid and the needle – were enough for a curious mixture of impersonality and solidarity to compose the moment. M. Mayer is part of the myriad of solidarity operators in action around the world. Like those in Brazil who persist in combating the disease and the sulphurous emanations of the friend of death, as well as in caring for the immense contingent of victims.

 

tacit dimension

The non-solemnity of acts performed by solidarity operators brings with it an intriguing question: the absence of the imposed declension of what would be the foundation of the solidarity act causes it to take the form of an automatic and thoughtless gesture. The contrary would be somewhat absurd and ridiculous: to suppose that any ordinary act or gesture must be preceded by an extensive and noisy exordium, as a justification and condition of intelligibility. In other terms, the boutade of M. Mayer, just referred to, -- "c'est pour l'amitié franco-brésilienne” – is worth what it's worth: just a polite formula, which involves the particular implication of something not declared, endowed with a general character and less specific incidence: vaccinate everyone, no matter who. This was, I believe, the small and silent metaphysics that sustained the act of solidarity of the Kantian pharmacist – without knowing – from Avenue de Saxe.

What seems to underlie simple and common gestures and actions of solidarity and care is something related to what the Hungarian philosopher-chemist Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) called “tacit knowledge”.[iv] Polanyi, certainly, spoke of something inherent to each human being, regarding the practice of “personal knowledge”: each one knows more than he is able to say and is the holder and practitioner of knowledge that sustains a determined capacity to act. . Something, therefore, that does not appear in words, but emerges in action itself, a faculty not based on knowing how to say, but on knowing how to do.

Polanyi's intuition, although focusing specifically on the process of knowing, can be extended to other aspects of human experience. Just as there is “tacit knowledge”, it is possible to imagine the presence of tacit dimensions in which moral feelings and beliefs of reciprocity are fixed. Of course, it is not a question of assuming them to be natural and innate, since they result in fixed cultural accumulations – who knows how – over time, both on individual and intersubjective and shared scales. I speak of an invisible complex of behavioral expectations and beliefs of reciprocity and belonging that, although present, do not require explicit enunciation when they produce their effects.

It is also clear that such an underlying and tacit sphere is not the exclusive home of beliefs and feelings of empathy. Empathy is not measured according to exclusionary markers of absence or presence, but by observing its scope and incidence: when and where it is, with what implications, to whom it is addressed, to whom it is denied. The tacit sphere to which I am referring is present in a more diffuse way, in the variety of our judgments and actions endowed with practical and moral implications. It fulfills the function of primary marker of what seems acceptable or not to us. Its consistency is evident in the setting of reasonable and expected limits: this is what can be seen in sentences as simple as everyday, such as “this crossed the line” or “it is not possible for this to have happened”.

It seems reasonable to assume that such sentences stem from a feeling that something already established and tacitly established has been attacked by some kind of action or declaratory act. The generalization of a political language in which everything can be said, associated with eschatological and eliminationist exhortations, supposes the rarefaction – or even disfiguration – of a tacit dimension.

The declaration of a legitimate representative of the new occupation group of the Palácio da Alvorada, in January 2019, sets the tone well: “we know no limits”. Here we have the clear vocalization of the desire to pierce a tacit dimension, whose minimal consistency stems from the very principle of the existence of limits. Perhaps this was the most radical declaratory act uttered by the elements of the new order, since it enunciates the transcendental principle – or the metaphysics – of the singular acts of destruction that followed in the order of time. Not having a limit is taking yourself as a limit; it is to establish it in each action, to surpass it in the next. Pure situationism: in such a libertarian paradise, each act sets its own limit, to be overcome afterwards. The possible final effect is the radical reconfiguration of the tacit dimension from the naturalization of the anti-rule that “there are no limits”.

 

rotten word

“The old vulture is wise and preens his feathers. Rottenness pleases him and his speeches have the gift of making souls smaller”. (Sophia de Mello Andersen, Book Six, 1962)

Nothing new. Destruction takes place by word and deed. The mode of destruction resides in the possibility of a direct passage to the act: no mediation between the brutal preamble word and its purest consequence. Furthermore, the use of the language of threat and offense seems to follow the model of the plague, according to an infestation logic analogous to the uncontrolled viral expansion underway. The analogy helps to understand the, let's say, deeper reasons for the perception of the pandemic as a fact of nature – “nothing to do”; "and?".[v] There is, at the very least, a formal analogy between the ways of the language plague and the ways of viral contamination. From this angle, the friend-of-death horror of the vaccine and the defense of “freedom” make perfect sense.

The Scottish philosopher and psychologist Alexander Bain (1818-1903) defined in his most important book – The Emotions and the Will, 1859 – belief as a “habit of action”. Endowed with their own contents, beliefs are fed by their practical ability to establish habits and models of action. A fixation that in no way dispenses with the use of language, which both describes and prescribes ways of acting. In the very act of naming things, the word serves as a preamble to passages to the act and possible futures. Language, at the same time that it moves within the shared hallucination of living within limits – the tacit dimension – can give passage and shelter to the rotten word, the formula that, when uttered, destroys the very environment on which it affects.

The rotten word destroys, first of all, tacit limits. As a model of action, it prototypes the habit of destroying habits. Conversely, the model of destruction follows the potency and script of the rotten word, and it is through the word that the thing comes. The subject of the rotten word, more than the executioner of grammar, is the enemy of semantics and the way of life associated with it. There are words that fall into the void, dissolved by the inertia of what is already in place and established. The distinctive feature of the rotten word is that between itself and its practical consequence there is no mediation. Even if it doesn't make sense, it does damage. Even repudiated, it has already been said. Its sender, moreover, is a subject endowed with remarkable consistency: he is capable of doing everything he says, without any mental reservations.

Even if he is not able to carry out the complete passage to the act, due to the action of external impediments, the emitter of the rotten word believes that you can do it and that means freedom. That's enough to make it very dangerous, as an operator of an eliminationist imagination. He is obsessed with the desire to kill language; do it thing; suppress any metaphorical or figurative content for the word “death”. The issuer of the rotten word is, above all, a subject endowed with prophetic airs: he anticipates at all times the dystopian scenario of a way of life adorned by waste and lifeless bodies.

It is possible to assume that the relationship between the tacit dimension, to which I alluded, and the emission of the rotten word is not one of exteriority. What would distinguish it, in this case, would be the emphatic and brutal character of the emission, but not the content, a nucleus of meaning already sheltered by patterns of subjectivity and habitual forms of expression. A somewhat tragic scenario, of dissolution of the very logic of a tacit dimension, which brings with it a marker of limits and signaling, albeit imprecise, of patterns of predictability, while the rotten word is based on the premise of the non-limit.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable to imagine that such a tacit dimension harbors an extensive zone of indifference. In place of the perception of infestation, the assumption of indifference as a tacit principle is based on disbelief in the performative capacity of the rotten word, as something that should not be taken seriously. In a certain sense, the indifferent person believes in the consistency of the tacit dimension, to such an extent that he considers contamination unlikely, or supposes that, in due time, the inertia and amnesia of life-as-it-is would end up neutralizing the rotten effect. Both hypotheses make sense and, in fact, are not mutually exclusive. It is not forbidden to imagine the tacit dimension as an irregular and heterogeneous space, endowed with different contents and attitudes regarding what is tacit. In other words, the rotten word can either be welcomed as an appropriate name for what is already familiar – and therefore rotten – or be received with indifference and diluted in many forms of appeasement.

In fact, understanding the reasons and forms of fit and indifference, in the face of the rotten word, requires a prehistory and an ethnography of the tacit dimension: how was it filled, what variety of attitudes can it harbor? In direct notation, it would be about reflecting on the torturous question: how did we get here?

The complexity of the tacit dimension reveals, however, the possibility of a different attitude. This is what reveals the perception of the dissemination of the rotten word as something that, in addition to political indignation, produces a feeling of perplexity, at the same time existential and cognitive. In this case, instead of asking “how did we get here?”, the resulting question is “what is this in which we got here?”. In other words, we would lack the intelligibility of this here we arrive at: what is this, what is this here?

 

From the feeling of bewilderment

The feeling of bewilderment does not necessarily lead to political paralysis. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense to seek in civic and political action and in the sharing of astonishment resources to deal with extreme and unprecedented events. The basic fact that gave rise to perplexity is the occupation of the government, through elections, by an extremist, at the end of an extensive campaign in which he invariably and explicitly spread rottenness throughout the country: values ​​and expressions that are completely out of tune with regard to to the civilizing accumulation that we thought we had achieved, starting in the 1980s. The desire to eliminate the opponent and the diverse was presented without reservation, alongside the reluctant praise of the torturers of the military dictatorship of 1964. The paroxysm occurred in what became could be referred to as the Pronouncement of Ponta da Praia, in which, a few days before the elections, the head of the Brazilian extreme right announced exile, imprisonment and death for his left-wing opponents, without any reaction from the electoral authorities.[vi]

It is not the case of reconstituting a sadly known and lived history. What is most important here is to emphasize and explore the dimension of cognitive perplexity: what is it about; what is this; how to say what is this? French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, in his book Le Differend, from 1984, compared the Shoah to an earthquake that not only destroyed lives, buildings or objects, but the very instruments for detecting and measuring earthquakes.[vii] This is not to suggest any possible comparison between the scale of misfortune imposed on Brazil by the current occupant of the government of the Republic and that which was present in the context of the Shoah. I only indicate the probable physiognomy of a feeling of cognitive helplessness, which does not prevent or eliminate the necessary certainty of political and civilizing revulsion, in the face of unprecedented configurations.

Our earthquake took the form of an accelerated process of disfiguring democracy. The excellent image is by political philosopher Nadia Urbinatti, in a luminous book, under the same title. Since democracy is not a static “model”, but a mobile figuration, its main internal elements – the forms of popular sovereignty, the legal and institutional mechanisms for controlling political power and the universe of opinion – have their own movements and times, affected by at the same time by broader social dynamics. The idea of ​​disfiguration indicates the possibility of progressive deterioration of these elements: the reduction of the aspect of popular sovereignty to a purely majoritarian dimension, the impulse to neutralize the factors controlling the exercise of power and the orchestrated infestation of the sphere of opinion, facilitated by the occupation exercised by the “social media” in the field of (mis)information and dissemination of values.

The direction of disfiguration – be it a stage for something that is yet to come or a political form of its own, nourished by its own exceptionality – does not present clear contours: everything leads to believe that it feeds on its own process, which makes its “spirit” – in the sense given by Montesquieu to the term – is occupied by a will to destroy what has already been configured. In short, the fact of destruction, in addition to the implicit disaster it entails, is disturbing as an object of knowledge. How to deal with it?

The times that preceded the acceleration of deconfiguration harbored, among specialists in the study of politics, a somewhat optimistic mode of knowledge. The mantra of “consolidated democracy” and the “functioning of institutions”, with few islands of reserve and skepticism, constituted the background and common sense of the specialized evaluations on the subject. In the jargon adopted by conservative political science, the political system as a whole was long perceived as a dynamic of fits and misfits between “incentives” and “preferences”, like a large behaviorist theme park. The horizon of the best of all possible worlds was fixed in the good “design of institutions”, in the sanctification of “accountability”, in the technical quality of decision-making processes and public policies, in the wisdom of evaluators and in the consecration of “good practices”. Serious research programs will have to – force majeure – focusing on “defacement” instead of “consolidation”. Indeed, one of the advantages of redirection – and not the least one – is that of being able to reassess common knowledge about what the “consolidation” of a democracy can mean.

 

The name of the destroyer

Despite the perplexity that overcame us, there is the inevitable impulse to name the unheard of: the emergence of the thing demands the attribution of a name. The name, put that way, is still a sound or graphic effect of our own astonishment. Made of language and astonishment, the feeling of unfamiliarity in the world sounds like the dawn of dystopia.

Giving a name or a concept to something, for the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, involves taking a distance. It is about replacing an immediate present – ​​strange and, in a way, unavailable – by resorting to an “available absent”. In this key, both the act of naming and the metaphorical elaboration can be seen as provoked by an unbearability of the “absolutism of the real”. The “boldness of conjecture” – as an original act of detachment – ​​becomes an inherent element in the effort to understand, in fact a way of avoiding direct confrontation with “physical means”. The path, still according to Blumenberg, stems from a demand for self-preservation of the human subject, present in the logic of conceptual elaboration. A familiarity effect stems from this imaginary act of appeasement of the “physical means”: by saying the name and the concept, I affirm that I know what the thing is; I re-present it in the form of a name and thereby make it familiar by integrating it into an already established complex of meanings.

Blumenberg's terms, in addition to being formidable, are useful to shed light on what I'm looking to focus on here: “absolutism of the real”, “physical means”, “absent availability”, “boldness of conjecture”.

The application of the concept of “authoritarianism” to frame the phenomena that make up the ongoing framework of the Brazilian government's occupation exemplifies the projection of a familiar term onto something unprecedented. Problems of adaptation, however, are evident. The term “authoritarianism” is a confused and indistinct idea; diluted and applicable to a varied set of phenomena, as an effect of an epistemological inertia. It seems to have signaling advantages for its negative content, although this was not always the case. It is enough to remember the significant essay production, in Brazil and elsewhere, in which the terms “authoritarian” and “authoritarianism” indicated positive alternatives to liberal democracy.[viii]

In Brazil in the 1970s, “authoritarianism” was a prudent euphemism mobilized to name the fact of the dictatorship, with emphasis on the important book published in 1977 by the Brazilianist Alfred Stepan, called authoritarian Brazil[ix]. In the following decade, the concept would survive through copious literature on the “transitions from authoritarianism to democracy”, encompassing numerous “case studies” on countries at that time occupied by dictatorships. In fact, the name authoritarianism, in a non-negligible measure, contained one of the attributes indicated by Blumenberg, present in the conceptual logic, that of the donation of the name based on an expectation.

In other words, “authoritarianism”, from the 1970s onwards, was above all the name of the absence of democracy. Its simple declination brought with it the imaginary of the urgency of recovering – or building – democracy. Moreover, the authoritarian and democratic phenomena are seen as excluding: the incidence of the first over the second takes the form of an exogenous intervention, according to the political and criminal criminology of coups d'état. Democracy disfiguration processes are, on the contrary, endogenous, since they are promoted by the electoral emergence of the extreme right, through the regular mechanisms of democracy and the rule of law.

A possible refutation would consist in saying that none of this prevents one of the possible trajectories of the process of disfiguration of democracy underway in Brazil being the implementation of an “authoritarian regime”. This will depend, however, on a semantic agreement, endowed with the following premise: any non-democratic political configuration must have in the word “authoritarianism” its intelligibility seal. Although in a somber key, the concept makes us assume that we know what awaits us. The term also brings as its effect the dilution of the current disfigurement into something similar to a tradition. The so-called “Bolsonarism” would actually be a chapter – even if the most scalene of all – of an “authoritarian tradition”, which semantically assigns it the place of a reiteration, and not of a novelty.

The use of the term “fascism” as “absent available” and like the notion of “authoritarianism”, has a double value: expressing abjection and saying, at the same time, what it is about. Indeed, at the heart of every concept lies an aversion, and in the case of "fascism" this is evident. We learn from Primo Levi that fascism is polymorphous and is not limited to its experience as a political regime. Let's see what he says: “Each era has its fascism; its premonitory signs are noticed wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and ability to express and carry out their will. This is achieved in many ways, not necessarily with the terror of police intimidation, but also by denying or distorting information, corrupting justice, paralyzing education, divulging in many subtle ways the longing for a world in which order reigned supreme and security of the privileged few rested on forced labor and the enforced silence of the majority”.[X]

Levi's passage is eloquent in its warning of the survival of fascism through the disfiguration of aspects inherent to democratic societies: justice, education and the world of opinion. But either fascism is a regime or it is a polymorphous set of practices, inscribed in a non-fascist regime. In the latter case, although the term “fascist” can be used as a sign of specific practices – distorting information, paralyzing education or corrupting justice – it will not be up to it to designate the broader space in which fascist practices are present. What else can be said is “there is fascism”.

But, the nature of the regime that suffers or tolerates its practices remains undetermined, in light of the polymorphous definition of fascism.

If we opt for the idea of ​​fascism as a regime or as, let's say, a “project”, to name our present hardships, the problems are no less. Historical fascism was marked by the obsession to include society as a whole in the orbit of the State.[xi] Its implementation took place through a model of corporate organization of society, whose central element was constituted by work and professions, and no longer by the liberal-democratic citizen, subject of universal rights. Fascism countered this with the idea of ​​a concrete right, based on the social division of labor. The horizon of corporatist institutional architecture aimed to include all social dynamics in state spaces and eliminate all civic and political energy associated with liberal and democratic indetermination.

The picture that Brazil faces today is quite different: it is not a question of placing society within the State, but of returning society to the state of nature; of removing from society the degrees of “statality” and normativity that it contains, in order to bring it closer and closer to an ideal of a spontaneous state of nature. Scenario in which human interactions are governed by wills, instincts, drives and whatever else comes up, and in which artificial mediation is minimal, or even non-existent. Such is the background of the idea of ​​destruction, which indicates something broader than the nature of political regimes.

About three years ago, when I began to reflect – more – and write – less – about the ongoing destruction in the country, I started by refusing to name its main operator. I gave him, in fact, a non-name: “the unnameable”.[xii] An act, certainly, fictional of putting it outside language or, at least, fixing it in the place reserved by linguistic systems for what cannot be said and accepted in the common semantic horizon: the pre-linguistic space of indiscernibles. But, that's not what it's about. Denying the thing the dictionary perspective is just as good as an ethical or aesthetic sign and nausea, but the “physical means” remain active and indifferent to the refusal of conceptual shelter.

There is, however, more than idiosyncrasy and foolishness to this refusal. In fact, there is astonishment in the face of the enormous difficulty of dealing with something that shows itself exactly as it is. The so-called “bolsonarismo” has nothing to hide, from the point of view of its constituent elements, although it does, from the criminal point of view. He shows himself as he is: in the face of death, he does not hide it; transforms it into unavoidable evidence of the natural course of life. Our habitual standards of knowledge, on the contrary, always suppose an opacity in things, a principle according to which what appears to be is never what it is; the veiled element being what gives it meaning. It is, in effect, a Gnostic atavism present in an attraction to veiling. Conceptual logic consists, in the opposite direction, in revealing what the phenomenon hides and what it does not manifest as a description of itself or in its mode of appearance.

Showing yourself as you are is extremely disturbing. Something valued in the experience of affections: spontaneity, pregnancy, corporeality, an easy shelter for nameless occurrences that carry their own meaning, instantaneous and situational. In another motto, and from the perspective opened by the American philosopher Elaine Scarry[xiii] in a memorable work, we learn how much non-opacity is present in the experience with pain; how irrefutable it is and harbors the deepest possible feeling of certainty.

The pain model constitutes the dynamics of destructive events, whose real effect resides directly in their immediate impacts. The name conferred, as a distant absentee, does not deal with the truth inscribed in the act and in the effects. Moreover, it arrives late: it must be a post-factual addition. When it arrives, the effects are already there: topography of ruins, rubble and shattered expectations.

 

Phenomenology of Destruction

When Hans Erich Nossack (1901-1977), in June 1943, returned to his city – Hamburg – literally wiped off the map by 1800 British bombing raids, during eight successive days –, he did not carry with him the concept of what he saw. He walked in astonishment through the ruins, amid formless organic remains, effects of what we could call the paroxysm of “physical means”: the destruction of an entire city. He took pictures of the sinking: destruction, sinking, abyss; a mineralized bottom, consisting of rubble and melted or charred human remains. When he wrote his main book, demise of 1948, recorded things like the following: "the bold and fat rats, who played in the streets, but even more disgusting were the flies, huge and iridescent green, flies as never seen before".[xiv]

Nossack's description was considered by WG Sebald to model a natural history of destruction.[xv] In an approximation with Blumenberg's terms, such a story can be seen as the most direct possible narrative of the predominance of “physical means”. It is necessary to recognize the epistemological advantage of observing destruction. The analytical sensitivity that results from observing and reporting extreme events is great training in talking about destruction. They should appear as required readings in “Methodology” courses. Acts of destruction are what they are: acts of destruction. Its operators do what they say and say what they do: a symptom of a direct link between the “physical means” and the operation of the rotten word. Primo Levi would see in this a certain logic of the offense: to produce pain and punishment, of course, but also to destroy with the precise word. Another image by Primo Levi allows the passage to a final exercise in observing destruction, that of “going to the bottom”.[xvi]

What I intend to do is indicate the opening of abysses, through which destruction does its work of sinking. It is not a question of giving destruction any metaphysical or sublime dimension. The term serves here as a sign – an arrow – pointing to circumstances of disfiguration of the normative mesh that, since the 1988 Constitution, prefigured a way of life. “Destruction” is the name given to such destruction. More than revealing a ciphered name, capable of revealing its deepest core or “projects”, it is worth showing its circumstances and areas of incidence. The primary facts are legionnaires. What I will do next is not so much to record them as to proceed with the non-exhaustive presentation of more general configurations on which destruction operators exert their effects. In order, such configurations can be presented as follows: (i) Language, (ii) Life, (iii) Territory and Original Populations and (iv) Imaginary-Normative Complex.

 

Language

One of the most notable texts on the experience of the Third Reich was written by Victor Klemperer, a Jewish convert to Protestantism and professor of Romance literature at the University of Dresden. A conversion of little value, since for having remained in Germany after 1933, he suffered all sorts of persecutions and interdictions. He eventually escaped extermination thanks to the devastating bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which disrupted the transport system to the death camps. Klemperer left behind a valuable diary and a masterpiece, which he gave a title in Latin: Language Tertii Imperii, better known as LTI or Language of the Third Reich, according to the Brazilian edition.[xvii] There, its author diligently collected, during the 12 years of life under Nazism, the impacts of the rotten Nazi speech on the German language, which invented its own variant of the language, practiced by supporters and by those who were forced to do so.

Klemperer was concerned with new terms, euphemisms and distortions of meaning. I think it is of great importance to collect records of rotten speech, segregated by the operators of the ongoing destruction in Brazil today. However, this case is less about vocabulary innovation than about the consecration of language as an immediate bearer of its effects of violence. This is what I have tried to designate by the expression rotten word: a speech act that, when uttered, degrades the semantic space.

I confess that I am shy about giving direct examples, but come on: just remember what one of the most prominent operators of destruction, a federal deputy and son of the current occupant of the presidency of the republic, said when referring to fellow deputies as “carriers of vaginas”. It is, in fact, a rotten metonymy, whose emission contains strong elements of infestation: dehumanization, misogyny, sexism, unprecedented brutality. This terrible example is enough for me to make clear the scope of the rotten word. As every word or expression is always preceded by generic intuitions, one can imagine the specter of putrefaction sheltered by them.

In a more abstract way, the rotten word is a modality of expression that brings with it its immediate effect, whether as a preamble to a violent action, as a prior warning of a deleterious action or as a power to infest the symbolic field. He certainly did not invent its terms and many of its formulas. Compulsory to recognize that they are among us. What is new in the matter is the occupation carried out by this language of emission spaces endowed with a great capacity for dissemination. The head of the consulate certainly did not invent the violent subject who uses words as a preamble to a physical and painful blow. What was disturbing was the systematization of the use of the word rotten and its enthronement in the speeches of the Republic. They count as statements about the “state of the nation”. I hope all these speech acts are being collected by diligent researchers. The day we publish, in a critical, annotated and commented edition, the complete works of Destroyer is going to be a blast.

There is no need to confuse the rotten word with the lie. This, more than human, is inherent to politics. Ultimately, it is vulnerable to factual refutation. This does not happen with the rotten word which, in this sense, is invulnerable to unmasking. This is due to the fact that the operators capable of judging and assessing the rotten word are, themselves and increasingly, delimited by the semantics of rottenness. There is, therefore, a halo of transcendental rottenness that welcomes and justifies specific rotten propositions. Thus an explicit and implicit repertoire is formed, according to which the rotten word infects both ordinary language and draws the contours of the faculty of judgment.

 

Life

The centrality of the theme of life, in the horizon of modern political philosophy, was definitively stated by Thomas Hobbes, in the XNUMXth century. To him we owe the finding that the State is an artificial animal, instituted by human ingenuity, endowed with the basic justification of providing protection to life. Far from being something vague and generic, such protection stems from the horror of the possibility of early and violent death, a prize to be won by practitioners and supporters of an absolutely free life, devoid of containment factors, both external and internal to human subjects. Regarded as absolutist – which it was for reasons of circumstance –, for Hobbes, adherence to a common pact for the protection of life must be absolute.

What is worth retaining from this quick summary is the idea that the theme of life goes beyond the biological dimension and is inscribed in the foundation of the very legitimacy of political power. In other words, life becomes a figure of public law, and not just something restricted to nature, providence and each biological body. The Hobbesian argument, fixed in the prosody of political philosophy, can be taken as the political metaphysics of a double process, erratic and unintentionally configured in the experiment of the modern world: the long civilizing process, as described by Norbert Elias – with its multiple mechanisms of mediation and reduction of violent lethality in social relations – and the experiment of the Welfare State, whose imperious character was finely defined by Karl Polanyi.[xviii] In a more precise formula: the theme of life is associated with the control of violence – or the predominance of “physical means”, in Blumenberg's lyrics – and the minimization of suffering, helplessness and insolidarity.

I think it is not difficult to envision how much the perspective of reducing violent lethality is affected by the open praise of armaments and administrative measures to pass the act. The destruction induced by the rotten word increasingly relies on its armed rearguard, with expansive firepower, associated with the consolidation and expansion of a militia power, one of the rearguards supporting the more general process of defacement of democracy. Likewise, the dimension of the Welfare State becomes more vulnerable than ever. Its inertial weight, of course, makes sudden collapses difficult, but the process of disfiguration is on the agenda.

The scope of the attack on the perspective of life as a value and basic marker of the State's legitimacy has its prime setting in the “management” of the pandemic. Here is a privileged field for observing the destruction of the common. The pandemic provides us with the image and reality of the presence of a common space. A domain, certainly, marked by negativity, such as in “communities of distress”, in the wise expression of the British anthropologist Victor Turner[xx]. Albert Camus, in his classic book The plague, from 1947, wrote about the plague that ravaged the city of Oran, in what was then French Algeria.[xx] Through the action of its main character, Dr. Rieux, the negative common misfortune provides its translation as an opportunity for solidarity. The common negative of the disease and the positive common of care maintain complementary relationships with each other.

Denialism represents, more than a sanitarily lethal attitude, a denial of the common. Denying the disease is a direct way of denying the relevance of a sphere marked by the interdependence of subjects and the possibility of establishing extensive ties of solidarity and reciprocity. The freedom ofHomo Bolsonarus” represents the negation of the common.[xxx] The circumstance of death, given back to the perishable nature of individual bodies, means that life ceases to be an issue related to Public Law as well.

The extent of lethality is sadly measurable, as is the scale of the injured and traumatized. The dissolution of the common and the official spread of insolidarism are difficult to measure. They remain silent and constant factors, essential for the good work of disfigurement.

 

Territory and original populations

There is an unequivocal meaning in the treatment of the territory and the environmental question that implies a normative redefinition of the Brazilian space. It is a displacement of the idea of ​​country – as a dense and lasting cultural experiment – ​​towards the image of place – a spatial category that brings with it the possibility of physical appropriation. The idea of ​​country is an abstraction, that of place a really existing geographic point. The extent of the difference between country and place can be gauged by the degree to which nature is included in a normative network, which encompasses both dimensions of formal law and traditional modes of knowledge and management of natural resources. The aseptic idea of ​​place dispenses with the long and slow precipitation of meanings over space over time, which defines the always confused and impure idea of ​​country.

The brilliant South African plastic artist William Kentridge, in his work strongly marked by the observation of the territoriality of his country during apartheid, developed a fine theory of the landscape, which he represented as a spatial and sensory experience in which forms of life are hidden. Kentridge tells us: there are many things in the landscape: decomposed bodies, incorporated into the earth; a land that is a place of combat, dispute, racial segregation. In short, the landscape as a place where memories remain as coagulated deposits; set of ingrained experiences, as if mixed with the earth.[xxiii]

Environmental devastation goes in the opposite direction of this landscape theory. The predominance of the place, without the enchantment that it imposed on the first foreigners, from the XNUMXth century onwards, demands the possibility of an open territory for the greatest possible use, according to logic dictated by the users themselves, in an act of pure freedom. Expel the territory of Law, not to mention the erasure of traditional modes of occupation; return the land to nature, understanding by the term its absolute availability for the purposes of economic exploitation. Rampant deforestation is, in this sense, unstoppable, as it has a myriad of destruction operators, encouraged by the promotion of their values ​​and interests within the scope of State reasons.

The original peoples are among the main enemies of the occupants of the government of the Republic, a symptom, above all, of the refusal to admit a plurality of ways of life in the common territory of the country and of the shelter of the ethnocidal belief in the imperative of its “acculturation”. Between invaders of reserves – as subjects of natural freedom – and indigenous peoples – subjects of law as legitimate occupants of reserves, recognized in their cultural specificity and, for that reason, recipients of state protection -, the option assumed leaves no room for doubt . Like the territory, indigenous peoples must be expelled from the normative network that, to some extent, contains mechanisms and norms for protection and regulation.

The treatment of the territory and the original populations by the current occupants of the Republic is marked by a dystopian and atavistic inclination: making the defense of freedom the replacement of the original conditions of colonization: exploration of the territory and preying on the Indians. Nostalgia for what would have been an unrestricted freedom to deal with the land, nature and human beings makes up the archaic core of the disfiguration program. 4. Imaginary and Normative Complex:

In this last item, I gather a vast set of dimensions endowed with a common property: they represent the weight of abstraction in the configuration of the country. In other words, our “abstratostera” and reservation of denial of the predominance of “physical means”. Here I inscribe both the dimension of constitutional rights, which define a normative floor for the figuration of the social, and new expansive rights within the scope of civil rights. The characteristics of the 1988 Charter, conceived as an image of what the country should be and not restricted to the establishment of rules for a game defined upstream, restored the preeminence of Public Law to the general design of the country[xxiii]. In more specific terms, the Charter represented the full constitutionalization of social, political and individual rights, around the idea of ​​a “democratic state of law”. Despite the large number of amendments suffered, the Charter contains important barriers to contain the impetus of defacement, even if it is far from invincible. The occupation by the extreme right of important positions within the scope of the justice system and in the field of human rights indicates how much the abstract arrangement of fundamental rights constitutes an opponent to be slaughtered.

The abstract sphere also includes the fields of Culture and Education. In addition to the declaratory evidence, the first of them was neutralized by unprecedented institutional immobilization. In the second, one of the portfolio's main projects concerns the “homeschooling”, also based on the principle of “freedom”, which in this case means full family control over the education of children. Families, like churches, are defined as privileged places of socialization, thus composing a general picture of the disfiguration of the common.

The scope of the Work, although hard as a rock, is not entirely exempt from the presence of factors presented here as abstract. Just as there is a difference between country and place, it is possible to imagine the same logic of opposition for the ideas of work and employment. The first, more than limited to the occupational domain, is a cultural and civic category; the second belongs to the semantic space of the economy and the market.

“Work” was a central category in the country's experience from the 1930s onwards. From then on, the theme was never absent from the Brazilian constitutional framework: all Constitutions welcomed it and expanded the scope of social rights instituted during that decade. Likewise, the issue has had permanent shelter within the scope of the Executive Branch, since the creation of the Ministry of Labor. The extinction of the same, in the current consulate, was preceded by laborious preparatory work, carried out by the Temer government, which changed important aspects of the Labor Court and made the sustainability of most of the Brazilian union mesh unfeasible, with the end of the union tax. In the name of freedom, the right to organize unions has been seriously undermined. The perspective of disfiguration of Labor Law, although on the initiative of a previous consulate, was fully assumed by the current. The natural freedom celebrated by the current occupants welcomes, in the scope of the labor issue, the dictates of ultraneoliberal freedom, a traditional ironclad clause of those who came to the world on business.

The possible disfiguration of democracy can be detected in several spaces not considered here. There is, in fact, hard work to be done, which is to systematize all the actions that, in their specific areas, carry out the work of destroying what was best in the country, accepting all that was and is worse. This is what must be done, so that we can proceed with the imperious deconstruction of destruction.

The disfigurements are mobile. Very difficult to foresee its fixation in some permanent way. As it is, it feeds on its daily capacity to produce effects of destruction, both through deeds and words. There is no need for a magical and elucidating concept of the thing. What matters is following the signs of destruction and showing them as relentlessly as systematically. Perhaps, the concept of the thing is the face of the Destroyer, the “place of speech” par excellence of the rotten word.

*Renato Lessa is professor of political philosophy at PUC-Rio. Author, among other books, of Animation presidentialism and other essays on Brazilian politics (Scallop & Lent).

Text based on a conference script given at École des Hautes Études in Social Sciences (Paris, 29/03/2021). A condensed version of it was published in the magazine Piauí (issue 178, July 2021).

Notes


[I] See Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms pour une métaphorologie, Paris: Vrin, 2006 and Idem, Description of the Human Being, Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2010 and Idem, Theory of non-conceptuality, Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG, 2013.

[ii] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2010 (1st edition 1966).

[iii] The expression – “disfiguration of democracy” – is coined by the political philosopher Nadia Urbinatti, in her book, as brilliant as it is unavoidable Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

[iv] The theme was developed by Michael Polanyi in exemplary works such as Personal Knowledge, London: Routledge, 1958 and The Tacit Dimension, New York: Doubleday, 1966.

[v] Expressions of the occupant of the Brazilian Executive Branch, in the face of questions regarding the escalation of victims of the pandemic.

[vi] The expression “ponta da praia” was used by agents of political repression, during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), to refer to a military establishment, in the sandbank of Marambaia, close to the city of Rio de Janeiro, the logistical base for the disappearance of political prisoners.

[vii] See Jean-Francois Lyotard, Le Differend, Paris: Les Editions du Minuit, 1984.

[viii] It is worth mentioning, among others, for Brazil the book by Azevedo Amaral, Authoritarian State and National Reality, Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1938, one of the most important for understanding the authoritarian turn of the 1930s. For an excellent analysis, see Angela de Castro Gomes, “Azevedo Amaral e o o Century of Corporatism by Michail Manoilesco in Vargas' Brazil", in:

Sociology & Anthropology, Vol. 2, # 4, pp. 185-209, 2012.

[ix] Alfred Stepan (Ed.), Authoritarian Brazil: Origins, Policies, and Future, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

[X] Cf. Primo Levi, “A past we believed would never come back”, In: Primo Levi, Asymmetry and Life: articles and essays, (Org. Marco Belpoliti), Translation by Ivone Benedetti, São Paulo: Editora da Unesp, p. 56

[xi] For a more extensive treatment of this issue, see Renato Lessa, “Haunting Presidentialism: autocracy, state of nature, dissolution of the social (notes on the ongoing Brazilian political-social-cultural experiment)”, In: Adauto Novaes (Org.), still under the storm, São Paulo: Edições SESC, 2020, pp. 187-209.

[xii] Cf. Renato Lessa, “The unnameable and the abject”, Carta Capital, 3/8/2018.

[xiii] See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: the making and the unmaking of the world, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985 and also J.-D. Nasio, Physical pain: a psychoanalytic theory of bodily pain, Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2008.

[xiv] See Hans Erich Nossack, The End: Hamburg, 1943, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[xv] See WG Sebald, Air warfare and literature, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011.

[xvi] On the idea of ​​“offense”, see Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Survivors, Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 2004, in particular the chapter “The memory of the offense”. About the expression “go to the bottom”, the reference is Primo Levi, Is this a man?, São Paulo: Rocco, 1988, in particular the chapter “In the background”.

[xvii] See Victor Klemperer, LTI: The Language of the Third Reich, Rio de Janeiro: Contraponto, 2009. For the diaries, there is an abbreviated Brazilian edition: Victor Klemperer, Os Victor Klemperer Diaries, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999.

[xviii] See respectively Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1990 (1st ed. 1939) and Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Rio de Janeiro: Campus, 2011 (1st ed. 1944).

[xx] See Victor Turner, The Drums of Affliction, London: Routledge, 1968.

[xx] See Albert Camus, The Plague, Paris: Gallimard, 1947.

[xxx] On “homo bolsonarus”, see Renato Lessa, “Homo Bolsonarus”, serrote 37, 2020.

[xxiii] William Kentridge, “Felix in Exile: Geography of Memory”, In: William Kentridge, William Kentridge, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p. 122.

[xxiii] . For an excellent analysis of the programmatic aspect of the 1988 Charter, see Gisele Citadito, Pluralism, Law and Distributive Justice, Rio de Janeiro: Lumen Juris, 1999.

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