In previous letters I have given my views on society, human groups, and individuals in relation to this moment of change and loss of references in which we happen to live. I critiqued certain negative tendencies in the development of events and outlined the better-known positions held by those who claim to have answers to the urgent concerns of these times.
It should be clear that all of these considerations, whether well or badly formulated, correspond to my particular point of view, and this in turn finds its foundation in a certain set of ideas. No doubt due to an awareness of this on the part of some of my correspondents, I have received encouragement to make more explicit from what point of view, from “where,” my critiques and proposals are developed.
After all, in the course of our daily lives ideas occur to us that may or may not be very original, but that in any case we don’t claim to justify. And increasingly we find that we hold one idea today and the opposite one tomorrow, without going beyond the capriciousness of an everyday appreciation of things. Each day, then, we believe less—not only in the opinions of others but even in our own—as we become accustomed to seeing opinions as something transient, changing from hour to hour as they fluctuate with the volatility of the stock market. And if, among these varied opinions, some do possess greater permanence, it is only because they are consecrated by the fashion of the day, which will always be replaced by the fashion of tomorrow.
I am not defending the value of unchanging opinions, I am simply pointing out the current lack of consistency among opinions generally. In truth it would be very interesting for changes in people’s opinions to come about based on an internal logic and not simply as though bending before every erratic wind. But who today has any taste for internal logic, with so many flailing around as though drowning in these turbulent times. Even as I write this, I am keenly aware that what I say will not even be able to enter the heads of certain readers, because they will have failed to find one of the three possible codes they demand, which are: (1) that this letter provides them with entertainment; (2) that this letter provides them with something they can use at once in their business; or (3) that this letter coincides with what is consecrated by fashion.
I am certain that these few paragraphs beginning with “Dear Friends” and extending to here will leave some readers as thoroughly bewildered as if they were written in Sanskrit. Yet every day these same persons understand matters of great difficulty, ranging from sophisticated banking operations to the exquisite niceties of computer network administration. Somehow, however, such people find it impossible to understand that in this letter I am speaking of opinions, of certain points of view, and of the ideas that serve as their foundation—and of the impossibility that they will understand even the simplest of these things if these matters do not correspond to the landscape they have assembled in the course of their educations and their compulsions. So this is how things stand!
Having addressed that question, I will now try to summarize in this letter the ideas that form the foundation of my views, critiques, and proposals. In presenting things I will exercise care not to go much beyond the level of advertising slogans because, as we are cautioned by many learned and expert journalists, organized ideas are “ideologies,” and these, like doctrines, are today only instruments of brainwashing employed by those who oppose free trade and social economics in the marketplace of opinion, which these guardians so carefully regulate for our benefit.
Those people who conform to the demands of postmodernism today—who heed the requisites of haute couture with evening wear, flashy ties, shoulder pads, running shoes, and dapper jackets, who follow the dictums of deconstructionist architecture and destructured decor—demand of us that the elements of our discourse not fit together. And let us not forget that their critique of language repudiates as well all that is systematic, all that is structural, and everything related to processes!
Of course, it will come as no surprise that this position corresponds to the dominant ideology of the Company, in whose representatives there is a horror of history, just as they are horrified at ideas in whose formation they have not had a hand and in which they have not been able to purchase a substantial percentage of shares.
All bantering aside, let us now begin with a brief inventory of our ideas, at least those that seem most important. [Much of the following was included in a talk given by the author in Santiago, Chile, on May 23, 1991].
1. The Starting Point for Our Ideas
We do not initiate our conception of things with the affirmation of generalities, but rather in the study of the particulars of human life: what is particular to existence, what is particular to the personal register of thinking, feeling, and acting. This initial position means that the conception outlined here is incompatible with any system that starts from an idea, the material, the unconscious, the will, society, and so forth.
If someone accepts or rejects a given conception of things—however logical or eccentric it may be—it is always the person who is in play, accepting or rejecting this conception. The person does this, not society, or the unconscious, or matter.
Let us speak, then, of human life. When I observe myself, not from a physiological point of view but from an existential one, I find myself here, in a world that is given, neither made nor chosen by me. I find that I am in situation with, in relationship with phenomena that, beginning with my own body, are inescapable. My body is at once the fundamental constituent of my existence and, at the same time, a phenomenon homogenous with the natural world in which it acts and on which the world acts. But the nature of my body has important differences for me from other phenomena, to wit: (1) I have an immediate register of my body; (2) I have a register, mediated by my body, of external phenomena; and (3) some of my body’s operations are accessible to my immediate intention.
2. The Human Being: Nature, Intention, and Opening
It happens, however, that the world appears not simply as a conglomeration of natural objects, it appears as an articulation of other human beings and of objects, signs, and codes they have produced or modified. The intention that I am aware of in myself appears as a fundamental element for the interpretation of the behavior of others, and just as I constitute the social world by comprehending intentions, so am I constituted by it.
Of course, I am speaking here of intentions that manifest in corporal action. It is through the corporal expressions of, or by perceiving the situation of the other, that I am able to comprehend the meanings of the other, the intention of the other. Moreover, natural or human objects appear as either pleasurable or painful to me, and so I modify my situation, trying to place myself in favorable relationship to them.
In this way, I am not closed to the world of the natural and other human beings, rather precisely what characterizes me is opening. My consciousness has been configured intersubjectively in that it uses codes of reasoning, emotional models, and schemes of action that I register as “mine,” but that I also recognize in others. And, of course, my body is open to the world insofar as I both perceive and act over the world.
The natural world, as distinct from the human, appears to me as without intention. Of course, I can imagine that the stones, plants, and stars possess intention, but I find no way to hold an effective dialogue with them. Even those animals in which at times I glimpse the spark of intelligence appear as basically impenetrable to me and changing only slowly from within their own natures. I observe insect societies that are completely structured, higher mammals that employ rudimentary technology, but still only replicate such codes in a slow process of genetic change, as if they were always the first representatives of their respective species. And when I observe the benefits of those plants and animals that have been modified and domesticated by humanity, I see human intention opening its way and humanizing the world.
3. The Human Being: Social and Historical Opening
To define human beings in terms of their sociability seems to be inadequate, because this does not distinguish them from many other species. Nor does capacity for work stand out as their most notable characteristic when compared to that of more powerful animals. Not even language defines them in their essence, for we know of numerous animals that use various codes and forms of communication.
All new human beings, in contrast, find themselves living in a world that is modified by others, and it is in their being constituted by this world of intentions that I discover their human capacity of accumulation within and incorporation to the temporal—that is, I discover not simply a social dimension but a socio-historical one.
Viewing things in this way, we can attempt a definition of the human being as follows: Human beings are historical beings whose mode of social action transforms their own nature. If I accept the above, I will also have to accept that such beings are capable of intentionally transforming their own physical constitutions. And this is just what is taking place.
This process began with the use of instruments by human beings which, placed before their bodies as external “prostheses,” allowed them to extend the reach of their hands and their senses and to increase both their capacity for work and its quality. Although not endowed by nature to function in either aerial or aquatic environments, they have nevertheless created means to move through these media and have even begun to leave their natural environment, the planet Earth. Today, moreover, they have begun to penetrate their bodies, replacing organs, intervening in their brain chemistry, carrying out fertilization in vitro, and even manipulating their own genes.
If by the word “nature” one is trying to indicate something permanent and unchanging, then today this idea has been rendered seriously inadequate, even when applied to what is most object-like about human beings, that is, to their bodies. And in light of this, regarding any “natural morality,” “natural law,” or “natural institutions,” it is clear that nothing in this field exists through nature, but on the contrary that everything is socio-historical.
4. The Transforming Action of the Human Being
Along with the conception of a human nature is another prevalent conception that has asserted the passivity of the consciousness. This ideology has considered the human being to be an entity that functions primarily in response to stimuli from the natural world. What began as crude sensualism has gradually been displaced by historicist currents that, at their core, have preserved the same conception of a passive consciousness. And even when they have emphasized the consciousness’s activity in and transformation of the world more than the interpretation of its activities, they have still conceived of its activity as resulting from conditions external to the consciousness.
Today, these old prejudices regarding human nature and the passivity of the consciousness are once again being asserted, this time transformed into neo-evolutionary theories embodying such views as natural selection, determined through the struggle for the survival of the fittest.
In the version currently in fashion, now transplanted into the human world, this sort of zoological conception attempts to go beyond earlier dialectics of race or class by asserting a dialectic in which it is supposed that all social activity regulates itself automatically according to “natural” economic laws. Thus, once again, the concrete human being is overwhelmed and objectified.
I have noted those conceptions that, to explain the human being, have begun from theoretical generalities and maintained the existence of an unchanging human nature and a passive consciousness. We maintain, quite the opposite, the need to start from human particularity, that the human being is a socio-historical and non-natural phenomenon, and that the human consciousness is active in transforming the world in accordance with its intention. We see human life as always taking place in situation, and the human body as an immediately perceived natural object, immediately subject as well to numerous dictates of each person’s intention. The following questions therefore arise:
• How is it that the consciousness is active; that is, how is it that its intentions can act upon the body, and through the body transform the world?
• How is it that the human being is constituted as a socio-historical being?
These questions must be answered from particular existence so as not to fall again into theoretical generalities, from which a dubious system of interpretation might be derived.
To answer the first question, one must apprehend with immediate evidence how human intention acts over the body. To answer the second, one must begin from evidence of the temporality and intersubjectivity of the human being, rather than beginning from supposed general laws of history and society.
I will not go into greater detail here regarding these questions, as this would take us away from the broad themes of the present letter. For a more extensive treatment I refer you to two essays in the work Contributions to Thought that deal with the above questions. The first essay, “Psychology of the Image,” studies the function that the image fulfills in the consciousness, highlighting its aptitude for moving the body through space. The second essay, “Historiological Discussions,” studies the theme of historicity and sociability.
5. Overcoming Pain and Suffering as Basic Vital Projects
In the work Contributions to Thought it is observed that the natural destiny of the human body is the world, and to verify this it is sufficient to observe the body’s conformation. The body’s sensory apparatus and those for feeding, locomotion, reproduction, and so on are naturally shaped to be in the world. Further, it is through the body that the image launches its transforming charge—not to copy the world, not to be a reflection of a given situation, but on the contrary to modify a given situation.
In the course of daily events, objects are either limitations on or amplifications of corporal possibilities, and the bodies of others appear as a multiplication of those possibilities insofar as they are governed by intentions that are recognized as similar to those governing one’s own body.
Owing to the condition of finiteness and temporo-spatial limitation in which they find themselves and which they register as physical pain and mental suffering, human beings find it necessary to transform both the world and themselves. Overcoming pain is not simply an animal response, then, but a temporal configuration in which the future is paramount, and which becomes transformed into a fundamental impulse of life, even though it may not be present as something urgent at any given moment. In this way, and aside from the immediate, reflex, and natural response to pain, the deferred response to avoid pain is spurred by psychological suffering in the face of danger, re-presented as future possibility or as present fact when pain is present in other human beings.
Overcoming pain, then, appears as a basic project that guides action. This is what has made possible communication among distinct human bodies and intentions in what is known as the social constitution. The social constitution is as historical as human life; it configures human life. Its transformation is ongoing, but in a different way than in nature, where change does not occur as the result of intentions.
6. Image, Belief, Look, and Landscape
Let us suppose that one day I go into my room, and I see the window. I recognize it, it is familiar to me. I have not only a fresh perception of it, but also acting in me are my previous perceptions of it which, converted into images, have been retained within me. Suddenly, I notice a crack in one corner of the windowpane. “That wasn’t there,” I say to myself, on comparing the new perception with what I retain from my previous perceptions. And I also feel a sense of surprise.
The window of previous acts of perception has been retained in me, but not passively as in a photograph, rather actively, in the way that images function. What has been retained in me operates in the present with respect to what I perceive, even though the formation of those retentions pertains to the past. In this way the past is always present, always being updated.
Before entering my room I took it for granted, it was a given, that the window would be there in good condition. It was not that I was thinking about it, but simply that I was counting on it. The window itself was not explicitly present in my thoughts at that moment, rather it was copresent. It was within the horizon of objects contained in my room.
It is due to what is copresent, to this retention that is updated and superimposed on the perception, that the consciousness infers more than it perceives. And it is in this phenomenon that it is possible to see the most elemental functioning of belief. In this example I would say to myself: “I believed the window was in good condition.”
If upon entering my room I had seen phenomena proper to a different field of objects, for example a motorboat or a camel, this surrealistic situation would have seemed unbelievable, not because those objects do not exist but simply because their location in my room would be outside the field of my copresence, outside the landscape I have formed that acts within me, superimposing itself on every single thing that I perceive.
Now then, in any present instant of my consciousness I can observe the intercrossing of what has been retained and what is being futurized in me as they act copresently and in structure. In my consciousness, the present instant is constituted as an active temporal field of three different times. Here things take place very differently from the way they occur in calendar time, where today is separate and distinct from yesterday or tomorrow. On the calendar and on the clock, now is different from no longer and from not yet, and events are ordered one after the other in a linear succession that I cannot claim to be a structure, but is rather a subgroup within a complete series that I call a calendar. I will return to these ideas again when we consider the themes of historicity and temporality later on.
For now, let us continue with the previous notion that the consciousness infers more than it perceives, through its use of what comes from the past as retentions, superimposed on present perception. In each look or act of looking that I direct toward an object, what I see is distorted. This is not meant in the same sense that modern physics explains our inability to see the atom or wavelengths that lie above or below our thresholds of perception. What I am referring to is the distortion related to the superposition of the images of retentions and futurizations on perceptions in the present.
Thus, when I contemplate a beautiful sunset in the countryside, the natural landscape that I observe is not determined by and in itself. Rather, I determine it, I constitute it through the aesthetic ideal that I hold. And the special peace that I feel gives me the illusion that I contemplate passively, when in reality I am actively superimposing numerous of my own internal contents on the natural object itself. This phenomenon holds not only for the present example, but for all looks that I direct toward reality.
7. The Generations and Historical Moments
Social organization continues and expands, but this cannot take place solely through the presence of social objects that have been produced in the past, that we make use of in the present, and that we project into the future. Such a mechanism is too simple to explain the process of civilization.
Continuity is given by the different generations of human beings, which do not exist side by side, separate and apart from each other, but rather coexist, interact, and transform each other. These distinct generations, which make continuity and development possible, are dynamic structures. They are social time in motion, without which civilization would fall into a natural state, losing its character of being a society.
It happens, moreover, that in every historical moment the generations that coexist have distinct temporal levels, retentions, and futurizations that configure different landscapes of situation and belief. For the active generations, the bodies and behavior of children and the elderly constitute a presence that betrays where they have come from and where they are going. So, too, both ends of this triple relationship can recognize their extreme temporal positions. And this situation never stops or remains static, because while the active generations age and the elderly die, the children grow up and begin to occupy active positions. In the meantime, new births continuously reconstitute society.
When, as an abstraction, we “interrupt” this ceaseless flow, we can speak of a certain historical moment in which all members located in the same social setting can be considered contemporaries, living in one same time. But it should be noted that not all contemporaries are coetaneous, that is, they are not all the same age, nor do they have the same internal temporality in terms of landscapes of formation, present situation, and projects. What happens in fact is that a generational dialectic is established between those who are in the “layers” that lie closest to each other and who are trying to occupy the central activity, the social present, in accordance with their different interests and beliefs.
It is this internal social temporality, and not as some philosophies of history would have it the succession of phenomena placed linearly one after another as in calendar time, that structurally explains the historical becoming in which the different generational accumulations—that is, the accumulating landscapes of the distinct generations—interact.
Constituted socially in an historical world in which I continue to configure my landscape, I interpret that toward which I direct my look. This is my personal landscape, but it is in addition a collective landscape for large numbers of people in this time.
As has been previously observed, different generations coexist in the same present time. As an elementary example, those who were born before the transistor was invented and those born into the world of computers are both now living in the same moment. Numerous such coexisting configurations differ from each other in their experiences—not only in the ways that they act, but also in how they think and how they feel—and what used to work in one epoch regarding social relationships and modes of production has slowly, or at times abruptly, ceased to function.
People expected a certain result in the future; that future arrived, but things did not turn out as projected. And that former mode of action, that former sensibility, that former ideology—none of these any longer coincide with the new landscape now asserting itself in society.
8. Violence, the State, and the Concentration of Power
Human beings, through their opening, their freedom to choose between situations, their ability both to defer responses and to imagine their future, also have the possibility to negate themselves, to negate aspects of their bodies, to negate their bodies completely as in suicide, or to negate other human beings. It is this freedom that has allowed a few to illegitimately appropriate the social whole, that is, to negate the freedom and intentionality of others, reducing those others to prostheses, to instruments of the intentions of the few. Therein lies the essence of discrimination, with physical, economic, racial, sexual, religious and other forms violence as its methodology.
It is through power over the apparatus of social regulation and control, that is, the State, that violence can be established and perpetuated. Because of this, social organization will require an advanced type of coordination that is safe from any concentration of power, whether private or of the State.
When it is claimed that privatizing all areas of the economy will make society safe from the power of the State, what is not disclosed in this is that the real problem lies in the monopoly or oligopoly, which simply transfers power from the hands of the State to the hands of a Parastate, no longer managed by a bureaucratic minority but now by that private minority itself as it continues to advance this process of concentration.
The various social structures from the most primitive to the most sophisticated are all proceeding toward ever greater concentration. Eventually they will reach the point that they become immobilized and begin a stage of dissolution, a stage that will give rise to new processes of reorganization, but at a higher level than before.
From the beginning of history, society has proceeded toward globalization, and there will come a time of maximum concentration of arbitrary power, displaying the character of a world empire, which will be without any further possibilities of expansion. The collapse of this global system will follow the logic of the structural dynamics of all closed systems, in which disorder necessarily tends to increase.
Just as the process of the current structures tends toward globalization, however, so does the process of humanization proceed toward increasing opening of the human being, moving beyond both the State and Parastate toward decentralization and de-concentration in favor of a superior form of coordination among autonomous social particularities.
Whether everything ends up in chaos and civilization starts anew, or we begin a stage of progressive humanization, does not depend on inexorable mechanical designs, but on the intentions of individuals and peoples, on their commitment to changing the world, and on an ethic of liberty, which by definition is something that cannot be imposed. And we will aspire no longer to formal democracy, controlled until now by the special interests of the various factions, but instead to real democracy in which direct participation can be realized instantaneously, thanks to communication technologies that are every day more able to bring this about.
9. The Human Process
Those who have diminished the humanity of others have in so doing necessarily brought about new pain and suffering, rekindling in the heart of society the age-old struggle against natural adversity—but now between on one side those who wish to “naturalize” other human beings, society, and history, and on the other side the oppressed, who need to humanize themselves in humanizing the world. That is why to humanize is to move beyond objectification to affirm the intentionality of every human being and the primacy of the future over the present situation.
It is the image and representation of a future that is both better and possible that allows the modification of the present and makes every revolution and all change possible. This is why the pressure of oppressive conditions is not in itself sufficient to set change in motion, rather it is necessary to realize that such change is possible and that it depends on human actions.
This struggle is not between mechanical forces, it is not a natural reflex. It is, rather, a struggle between human intentions. And that is precisely what permits us to speak of oppressors and the oppressed, of the just and the unjust, of heroes and cowards. This is the only thing that allows the meaningful practice of social solidarity and commitment to the liberation of those who suffer discrimination, whether they are a majority or a minority.
For more detailed considerations regarding violence, the State, institutions, the law, and religion, and so as not to exceed the limits of this brief letter, I refer you to the work entitled The Human Landscape.
I do not believe that the meaning of human actions has to do with senseless upheavals or “useless passions” that end in nothing but absurd disintegration. I believe that the destiny of humanity is oriented by intention, and that as people become increasingly conscious of this intention it opens the way toward a universal human nation.
From what we have previously seen it is abundantly clear that human existence does not simply begin and end in a vicious circle of self-enclosure, and that a life aspiring to coherence must open itself, expanding its influence toward people and social ambits, advancing not only a concept or a few ideas but precise actions that extend the growth of freedom.
In the next letter I will leave aside these strictly doctrinal themes in order to focus once more on themes involving the current situation and personal action in the social world.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
December 19, 1991