An interview with Félix de Azúa

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What is the meaning of life?
The question has two parts. One, personal convictions, which are not relevant but which may have some interest in order to understand why I’ll say the following: my personal opinion is there’s no meaning, not in the Universe, not in humans or in societies. The problem of meaning is a problem of linguistic interaction and, thus, of social creation, but there’s no meaning above the pure constant creation of meaning. This as a personal conviction. What I often say is that the great meaning-creating machines that we humans have built, which are Religion, Philosophy and Science (I don’t distinguish between them, I always put them together because they seem to be the same to me) and Art. These three. And I don’t see any others which can produce meaning. They’re three great machines which have been losing strength, slowing down and they’re on the verge of stopping. Religion, for obvious reasons. Bear in mind, though, that I’m always referring to Western society and advanced countries. Religion has disappeared, it has a private function. A private function, almost like sexuality. That is, people should not care about whether someone is a homosexual, zoophile, coprophile, etc. In the same way, people should not care about whether someone is a Buddhist, a Muslim, etc. Religion has disappeared from reality, from the impact it may have on reality. It hasn’t disappeared from Muslim countries or Israel, where the religious element still has a legislating function, it is present in society. In our societies that doesn’t happen anymore. Thus, the first great meaning-creating machine is not useful anymore as a mechanism of meaning creation. The second one, Philosophy-Science: on one hand Philosophy, properly called, is also disappearing, in the sense that nowadays we have Philosophy teachers, but not philosophers. There are universities, which serve as warehouses that sell the “Philosophy” product, but that doesn’t mean that is Philosophy. Even the last philosophers, like Heidegger, reject the word “philosopher”. Heidegger said he didn’t want to be called philosopher, but thinker. Science? Science, what can I say, has become some kind of investment-attracting effect through enormous companies. What works as science, Hawkins, etc., are just mass-media phenomena. If we speak about real and true Science, in the classic sense of the world, we must conclude we don’t know if there’s any. It’s almost impossible to coordinate the different departments to create unitary visions. And Art is going down the same road. The road not only to disappearing but even to become the representation of its own disappearance. If these three mechanisms end up stopping, we will be living for the first time in a society which has no resources for meaning. That’s when things become really interesting. The experiment of living in a society which not only has no meaning, but which in a certain way is built on that, a society which assumes itself to be nihilistic, is a fantastic experiment. We will not see it, but I think it’s really interesting. I don’t speak about these things with nostalgia, not at all. I don’t know how it will be, it will be a very hard world, without a doubt, but it will be very interesting. You’ll remember that it was Nietzsche who said that the thought of the disappearance of meaning is the heaviest one. The one which can end up crushing you. That’s the challenge now: can we or can we not survive on our own, without external help?

Is there knowledge? What is it?

On one hand, of course there is knowledge. Or there’s something we call knowledge. On the other hand, we don’t know if what we know is real, and that’s a great problem. What I mean by that is that it is the story of Philosophy in the West: determining what on Earth is real. Of course, right now I couldn’t tell you if, when we speak about what’s real, we are talking in a scientific way, that is: what does Science call reality? That which can be falsified, simply? What does our linguistic structure, which may be redundant, call reality? In a nutshell, defining what’s real has problems. But if we put aside the notion of reality, we are also putting aside the notion of truth. That’s the worst problem. But then, we are left with knowledge as the set of elements which allow us to live socially given some consensus which is, in a way, authoritarian. That is: it is assumed by everyone and, if someone doesn’t, he or she is called mad and set apart from the tribe. For example, if someone seriously states that the Earth is flat, he or she will be in trouble. If he or she states that seriously, of course; in an office meeting nothing will happen, but in a serious article in a newspaper, saying “everybody’s wrong, the Earth is flat”, he or she will be in trouble. I would call knowledge simply that. I guess it’s insufficient, but that’s all I can get.

That would back up the creationists’ claim to postulate their theories as knowledge.

Yes, but actually it hasn’t worked too well for them. It’s a typical case, like saying the Earth is flat. Some guys come out and say the World was created by God. And they crash and burn. Of course, they will enjoy popular success. In the USA, in the polls, 80% believes in Heaven. We’re never going to be able to avoid that. When we speak about knowledge we speak about knowledge for people who are interested in knowledge. The populus, the mass, is not interested in knowledge, it’s interested in beliefs. Knowledge is only interesting for some of us. In this group of people who are interested in knowledge, when someone defends the Universe was created by God he or she invalidates herself. Some days ago I read an interview with this Catalan physicist called Jou (of course, he’s not a physicist: he’s a Catalan who’s a physicist, which sets him apart from the rest of the physicists) and, as expected in a nationalist, he believes in God. And he said it in the interview. And I thought: if a physicist believes in God, he is not valid as a scientist. He cannot be a scientist. In any case, he should keep quiet about it: be a hypocrite and believe in God like someone who has some vice. As if he was a heroin addict. Because, how can he be a physicist if he believes in God? There’s an absolute incompatibility. He maybe doesn’t realize, but it’s absolutely incompatible to defend current Physics and God’s existence. But that, in certain societies, such as the Catalan one, doesn’t matter.

Is there an external reality?

There’s one, there’s no doubt about it. English, with analysis, have been fighting the subject-object problem for centuries. Mind-body. It is evident there is something outside, what happens is that we’re part of the exterior. We’re a weird bug which can be considered internal sometimes, external some other times. When I say we are part of the exterior I don’t mean we have to believe in something external but that, for example, I can buy a liver. That’s part of being external. We start to be a part of the exterior after the birth of compared anatomy, when humans, as apes, start being a part of the animal kingdom. With Darwin, with Cuvier, we start being real animals. We start being external. A XI century Christian was not part of the exterior. He believed in Universe which was absolutely holistic and spiritual. Whether he believed in God or not! Because we’re not talking about personal beliefs, but state ones, social ones. Maybe in the XI century there was someone who didn’t believe in God, but it’s impossible for us to know. If there was, he or she lasted little. If someone found out, they got killed. For us it’s the same: the exterior is now a part of us; we are exterior and thus the interior, that old romantic subjectivity, has become very damaged, in the sense that a great deal of the current Philosophy can deny it and say: “no, there’s no such thing as the interior”, the subject. All the French school, from Foucault on, denies the existence of the subject, in the sens that the human essence does not exist. Posthumanism, nihilism, I insist, mainly French -which is a bit more vain, to put it some way- clearly state that we are now posthuman. We are not human. If we are not human, the internal-external division suffers a devastating attack.

What is consciousness?

In Spanish, by consciousness one can mean two different things. Moral awareness is simply morals. In that case, someone may use the word “consciousness” when not paying attention, but morals are morals and it can be called moral awareness, in the sense that you’re aware of your morals. But by consciousness I simply understand the knowledge of death. I would call consciousness strictly that possibility that a point, a tiny part of the Cosmos, has, of being aware of its own disappearance, which it calls death and which does not mean annihilation. A cat dies and its hair becomes keratin, a great part of its body is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and it disappears. It’s annihilated. Where there’s consciousness, a really strange idea appears: the belief that death does not mean annihilation. Thus, from the age of cavemen, the corpse is preserved. The dead person is kept. They’re buried. Since there’s an awareness of death, from that moment on there’s also an awareness of immortality. Unfortunately one thing leads to the other, it’s impossible for it no to. From that comes this construction we talked about before, the construction of meaning. But it’s true that only humans are aware of death. There’s nothing else in the Universe which has it. So what is it? After 30 years reading Philosophy, I don’t know. I think nobody does. The most daring philosophers say that we don’t need to know. For example, a substantial part of the English school, Wittgenstein’s intellectual progeny, points out the problem doesn’t lie in the what but in the how, in the where. Let’s work on linguistic questions, but what consciousness is is not a philosophical question, it belongs to a different level and thus we should not raise it. That question can never be scientific. And it’s possible that it is this question precisely the one that determines us as the weird species we are, and which simultaneously has taken us where it has, that is, than in a certain way everything we’ve done may be the effect of that question. And then Freud may appear and say, “Look, I can explain it to you: this is the product of…” and then he gives you a technical schema, made of notions, which are supposedly the builders of consciousness. Of course, that’s a seductive idea, but in the end it still is a bunch of words which back each other up based on their credibility, that is, their capacity, and you can take them or leave them. There isn’t much difference with Hegelian propositions, which are the same linguistic scaffolding which lead straight to immortality. What Hegel finally promises is immortality. Not exactly immortality, but the overcoming of the idea of death. Freud, in his way, does more or less the same. Summarizing: on one hand I would call consciousness strictly that problem, the problem of the invention of death and immortality and all the consequences that brings with it.

What is life?

We know that, biologically, we evolved from an ape. But we don’t know at all what that evolution represents from a mental point of view. We see the drawing, because basically what we understand is the movie, we see the Darwinian drawing, the monkey which progressively becomes more upright and which ends up with a tie and a Samsonite. And we understand the movie. A movies which is very convincing. But what does it mean, exactly? If you stop to think for a while and say “I’m going to forget the symbol, I’m going to forget the artistic representation” and ask “what on Earth does that mean?” In my book Autobiografía sin vida I start there. I start saying: let’s see, here’s something that hasn’t been explained well enough. The first signs of humanity we have are the little drawings on deer bones and the prehistoric paintings on caves. They’re 30,000 years old, which is the age of what we consider more or less human. There’s a kind of previous humanity, an anthropological one, the humanization dating 500,000 years. Atapuerca goes further back, but we don’t know anything in the sense that these humans may be in the pure bios state. For example, recently it’s been discovered they were cannibals, which has puzzled the whole community. Let’s say that, from the appearance of certain signs on, we can tell for sure there’s humanity: when there’s symbolism, burials, a certain care for the body, in the mind’s sense. Body and mind have an exchange which allows humans to say that the first hasn’t died completely, that it’s in transit or whatever. We don’t know what it is, but just in case we keep it. En that moment, of course, there’s representation. Problem: the horses in the cave of Chouveux, which is where the book starts, are perfect. Perfect means that not only their technical realization is perfect, which is a mystery in itself, because there’s no preparation, we don’t have the slightest piece of documentation on people who are learning to draw horses. Technically they’re already perfect. But that wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is they’re perfect from the representational point of view. You look at those horses and they’re alive, they’re real, there’s absolutely no difference with, let’s say, Velázquez’s horses, they may even be better. How do we explain the fact that those evolved primates who lived in the cave produced that? Which mind do we have to assign to that primate which looks like an ape, when we look at those horses? This is a difficult problem which, to my understanding, has been buried by the revolutionary bourgeois progressive thinking. The idea of progress, which Darwin’s movie represents perfectly: there’s a progress, because the idea of progress emanates from the bourgeois, which have replaced aristocracy up until today. That is, even today, even though they constantly speak ill of the bourgeois, unfortunately, all the progressive people are nothing but bourgeois. They cannot be anything else. The idea of progress is the bourgeois idea par excellence. There would be no bourgeois without progress, no progress without bourgeois. No notion of progress. And that notion has destroyed the possibility to seriously think about things like that. We cannot think cavemen may have been exactly the same or even better than us. And that their life could be perfectly livable, even more livable than others. That’s forbidden. It’s forbidden by that about which we talked before: shared knowledge. And if you say: “what a wonderful society the Lords and Peasants of the XII century had!” people will jump on you. Because they’ve never thought about that possibility, it’s forbidden to do so. Only some voices have sometimes said: “look, be careful, because they may actually have lived better than us.”

Better but less.

One of the typical notions derived from the idea of progress is that people live longer. About that we should make some corrections straight away. First: we are not sure about that. Measuring age can be quite extraordinary. One of the bosses in Atapuerca has a book about the Neanderthals living there with a chapter entirely devoted to that. He is a scientist, not an ideologist. And, with the data we have, their age pyramid wasn’t so different from ours. What happens is they were less. Many, many less. It’s something which surprises you when you read the classics. The Greeks, for example. When they speak about an elderly person, they really are old. That is, people made it perfectly to 80 years old. You say, how is that possible, if their life expectancy was 40? There should be a jump from 40 to 80 but no, there’s normal elderly people. The Roman Senate. But, even supposing our life is longer compared to, let’s say, our grandparents, which would already be a lot, the questions are: first, in exchange for what? Penicillin. Penicillin, indeed, makes the newborn survive and the elder live longer. Which causes, on one hand, in our societies, huge structural and economical problems; but in others, such as the African one, pure and simple destruction. African societies, this has been well researched, before colonization, that is, before the arrival of penicillin, quinine and all that, had an organic growth. An ecological, biological growth. They died and were born in a balanced way, without any need for intervention. Resources had the last word on who had to live or die. And, from the arrival of those elements, growth has been gigantic and hunger started. And we’re not talking about hunger where some thousands of people die: we’re talking about the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. That is, we have risen the life expectancy of some and lower that of others. This, looking at it from the quantitative side. On the other, the qualitative side, I always remember Javier Echevarría’s perplexity, when he was working on Leibniz, on the mathematical works of Leibniz (he’s a member of the research society of Hamburg) and there he has a library with all of Leibniz’s writings. The real ones, written by hand. And that’s where they work, to see what they can rescue. And he told me: “only writing what’s in there, we would spend three lives. A team of 50 people are working only on mathematical manuscripts, which are but an eighth of the whole, we’ve been working for 10 years and we still haven’t finished half.” We can see this kind of effect in almost the whole of the XVIII century. How was it possible to create such a huge production in medieval abbeys, in humanistic renaissance groups, in the Baroque science, in the XVIII century science? In Oxford I used to work in Voltaire’s room, where you can find the whole of Voltaire’s works, and I thought the same: “I would never have time to write all this. If I was now seven and started writing, I would finish by the time I was 130.” So I don’t think age registries and age increase are significant. A bit like height. It’s true we’re a bit taller, a bit more than our grandparents. Does that really give us an advantage, is it really progress?

In fact, some authors like Marvin Harris point out that, in prehistoric societies, humans worked a lot less.

That’s what happened, and we have all the documents, with Indian societies when the Spanish arrived. And here I have to say I favor Spanish conquest over Anglosaxon one. Angosaxon conquest was about killing them all, our conquest was about fucking every Indian. It seems preferable. From a philosophical point of view. Partly, I think some of the horrible things that were done were caused by the realization than a different life was possible. If they had found some dying, devastated societies, that wouldn’t have happened. In Mexico, Cortés did find ruined villages in a dire situation. And thanks to that he conquered Mexico, because all these people joined him against the Aztecs, which were Nazi beasts. But the ones who entered Peru encountered perfectly possible societies, the one described by Levi Strauss in Tristes Tropiques, perfectly possible and alternative. I guess that must have totally confused them. Because they not only had to accept these other people were human: they had to accept humans could have a totally different organization and there was nothing wrong with it. That was unbearable.

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