Recent Brazilian elections staged anew for the world the spectacle of the deflation of meaning. Meaning deflates by means of a very quick circulation of meanings, rendered possible by social media, WhatsApp and Twitter, which are widely used in Brazil. Because meaning builds up through strategies of approximation, association, agglutination, and phonetic glissando, the quicker these strategies are performed, the more absurd the combinations that emerge from them. Hence, seeing that National Socialism is what defines Nazism, repeating fast and several times “National Socialism is Nazism”, leads one to say with ease ‘Socialism is Nazism’. And, because socialism is also easily confused with communism, it is not difficult to arrive to the conclusion that “Communism is Nazism”, which is a completely distorted historical statement that circulated broadly during the electoral campaign in Brazil.
Following the same dynamics of the circulation of meanings, Occidentalism emerged as synonymous with nationalism, nationalism with Americanism, while the religious commandment “thou shalt not kill” was also easily transformed into “they shall not; kill them”, and the party that worked for the people was turned into the biggest enemy of the people. The language circulating on every device was the language of information, with affirmative statements “X is Y”, with numerical data and statistics; it was the language of facts. What may be seen in this spectacle was information as the means of disinformation, facts as the means of faking and denying the facts. What happened was not the discrediting of meaning, a lack of belief, but an excessive credit and credence given to whatever meaning and the extravagance of belief in whatever information.
Meaning deflates in the measure that belief in whatever meaning inflates. Meaning emerges as balloons in the air, inflated and deflated by every mouth. In the electoral campaign, everyone became their own source of information; as such, everyone became an agent of general disinformation. Each phrase could be easily turned against itself. A strange phenomenon takes place here: the phenomenon of a sensure (spelled with an “s”, using an expression proposed by the French writer Bernard Noël), of the senses becoming the own censors. For example: to be against the system, which traditionally is a leftwing position, is now a rightwing device. The difference is that in rightwing mouths “anti-system” means an aggressive avanti-system discourse—indeed, the defense of a system even more efficient than the system itself. Because of this plundering of meaning, discourses that are presumably “anti-system” end up avoiding what is anti-system. The meaning of anti-system begins to sensor itself. The elections thus showed how democracy defeats democracy, how freedom became an instrument to sensor the open and free meaning of freedom.
The deflation of meaning happens not when a meaning becomes senseless but when the possibility to open sense within consolidated meanings is closed through a continuous exchange of arbitrary meanings. Every meaning has degrees of ambiguity in the sense that it can mean this or that and may be understood or misunderstood in one way or another. This intrinsic ambiguity, which is present in every meaning, makes possible the opening of a sense, the work of creation and liberation from rigid and dogmatic meanings. When ambiguity becomes a means and goal for the sake of manipulation, it is unambiguously ambiguous and, in this way, it becomes the only meaning. The inversions and confusions of meanings not only give place to dogmatic and insensate arbitrary meanings, but also to the despair of having lost the language of the senses and the very sense of a saying. Thus, when freedom is said to be the necessity to choose, the necessity of freedom and the freedom of freedom are misunderstood as the need to liberate the people from the discourses of freedom. It appears as the possibility of choosing not to choose (thus, choosing non-freedom). The choice of servitude can, therefore, be experienced as an act of freedom and, thereby, one feels free to act as much as to be free from acting. Freedom turns freedom against itself.
Etienne de la Boétie brilliantly observed this excess of freedom turning against itself in the beginning of the sixteenth century, in his book, ever more relevant today, titled On Voluntary Servitude. The elections in Brazil showed how freedom of choice was responsible for choosing the non-freedom of choice, that is, voluntary servitude. So, what is meant by choice here? Elections were conducted in the manner of emotional “emojis”, expressing one’s “likes” and “not-likes” with quick and reflex-like movements of fingers upon buttons. One attached small hearts as a way of saying “yes” to slogans and clichés, ready-made statements, pronouncements in tones of joke and wordplays of utmost hatred attached to violent views and plans.
Choice is reduced to a finger-pressing action, from the “like” buttons in social media to electronic votes, from the digital codes of credit cards to online application forms. The old sense of the verb to choose—to distinguish, discern, perceive, see—that demands critical reflection and discussion is rendered obsolete when the citizen is reduced to nothing but an interactive player on a number of devices and a consumer of political video games and products. When this consumerist meaning of choice supplants the voice of each one, freedom is perverted into voluntary servitude to the consumption of meanings. The elections staged a spectacle of the consumption of ready-made meanings—indeed, the spectacle of a video game of meanings.
Meaning deflates when it becomes a product. In fact, products are not merely things one needs for this or that. Products are not even only means for one goal or another. Products are the devices of meaning and values. Therefore, they are not only useful but, above all, exchangeable, and they are now the more useful, the more exchangeable they are. At the extreme, they can be replaced by anything whatsoever. They are, in this sense, totally equivalent, even when some of them are the opposite of others. It does not really matter what something means; the only thing that matters is that a meaning can be replaced by anything.
This logic of exchangeability is the logic of consumption, a logic that today encompasses not only things but also everything that exists, including human beings. This is the logic of money, in which everything can be reduced to a price and thereby continuously exchanged, replaced, substituted. It gives a closed sense to freedom, the sense of being able to become anything or anyone whatsoever, without limits and restrictions. Such a meaning of freedom is realized by a technology that enables everything to become anything whatsoever, to receive whatever shape and form, to be continuously transformed despite spatial and temporal constraints.
The logic in question swallows everything, including human beings and all forms of life. It is, moreover, very clear in the transformation of the conditions of human work. The more work is transformed into services in contemporary society, the more the workers have to live up to the condition of being exchangeable, replaceable, substitutable and very much redundant. If this “liberal” condition has been enacted for centuries through slavery and other modes of exploitation, whereby the worker had to submit to a master, now a subtler strategy is added to these old ones. Each worker has not only to choose to become a servant of the system’s tyranny, but also has to do so by introjecting the whole logic into her- or himself. The precariousness of the worker’s condition is not only the uncertainty and instability of the labor conditions, but also the introduction of the neoliberal order into oneself. Thereby, each becomes the miniature of the whole system.
Faking to herself or himself that she or he is also the manager and the “boss”, a worker surrenders voluntarily and with excitement to the system, which appears to be one and the same as the worker. Discourses on self-management, self-empowerment, self-agency expressly contribute to this miniaturization of the whole logic inside each. All the worker protections that historically were conquered through centuries of struggle are now gone. The self itself must become an enterprise that, for the sake of surviving in the world of high competition, has to produce its own image to be exhibited on the different screens of competition.
The feeling of “freedom” and release provided by becoming one’s own boss and manager is, however, not free from insecurity, at once personal and social. Both the singular and the common are experienced as precarious, formless, unsure and unstable. The new fascist forms of desire for order and security, for control and surveillance that are growing and taking power in different parts of the world belong together with the condition of insecurity and instability, upon which the new liberal global order is based. What could be called new-fascism is a new form of fascism that, intrinsically hybrid, aims to produce ever greater insecurity, to render flexibility even more inflexible and the liberal economic meaning of transformation even more un-transformable. This may explain in general terms why the new form of fascism is hybrid, using the state as an empty form and opportunistically shaping it as a corporation.
Because the new hybrid form of fascism has to increase not only production but the very increase of production, because it is profit itself that has to become more and more profitable and consumption even more consumptive, the amount and velocity of exchanges draws up and empties not only productive relations but also the whole system of life. New-fascism has to be thought in relation to the drawing up and the emptying of the resources of life. The aggressive avanti-system campaign in Brazil, using a “fake” anti-system discourse, involved the demand of the big corporations to appropriate a big portion of life’s own resistance that, for instance, the Amazon region represents. In fact, it showed the “weakness” of high technology that, despite the production of prostheses for almost every part and component of life, still requires the “natural life” of elements: water, air, fire and earth. Technology cannot really substitute what renders it possible, namely life itself. Technology still needs life in order to pursue its mad dream of supplanting life for the sake of a “better”, meaning “more profitable”, life.
There is a moment in Melville’s Moby Dick when Captain Ahab says: “madness went mad”. Madness goes mad when whatever meaning takes the place of meaning. When each word can signify itself and its contrary the sense of the world gets stuck and empty. How to find a language of resistance? Is there still a way to engage in the “Great Refusal,” once proposed by Marcuse? How to find words that make sense in a world where even the meaning of meaning is experienced as meaningless? How to pierce through the veil of the unambiguous ambiguity of all meanings?
It seems that the only morsels of resistance might be, precisely, this very ambiguity in which we are entangled. What remains, then, is the need to listen more than ever to the accents of a saying from within ambiguity and the exchangeability of meanings. The poet Paul Celan wrote once that there is a need for poetry in the world of today. This need is, however, not dictated by consolation or sublimation, and even less so by finding the compensation of beauty in our everyday life that becomes more and more violent and ugly. The need for poetry is the need to listen to the “acute accent of the present”. It is the need to listen for the sake of distinguishing and discerning, in the noisy clutter of the ambiguity of all meanings, where meaningful senses are pronounced almost inaudibly in the linguistic waste of our world.
Just as an example of this listening to the saying of words, I would like to quote a short poem of a great Brazilian woman poet, Orides Fontela, who died almost unknown in 1998 and who is now being discovered in Brazil. In the poem, titled O Aristocrata (“The Aristocrat”), we hear:
The savages don’t
the savages don’t
the savages don’t
(the mythological savages)
o selvagem não
o selvagem não
o selvagem não
(o mitológico selvagem)
In Portuguese, the savage is in the singular, but in order to give a hint of the ambiguity of the negation central in the poem, I translated the singular “the savage” into the plural “the savages”. If we read without breathing according to the verses, the poem seems to say: the savages don’t learn, don’t mend, don’t bow. But listening to the breathing and accents, it reads: the savages don’t, learn, mend, bow. Here the ambiguity of the don’t, of the no (which would be a more literal translation of the Portuguese não) appears in all its savage force. “Savage, don’t” can mean: “Savage, you shall not come here; you shall not be included; you shall not exist.” But it also says: “Savage, don’t harm the savage, don’t damage or destroy the savage; learn with him/her; mend yourself in an encounter with the savage; bow before the savage.” This also means: “Don’t teach the savage to teach, don’t mend the savage mending, don’t teach the savage to mend and bow.” These and many other possible readings result from a listening to the energy of a no in a now and of the now in a no. When all meanings are perverted, converted, inverted, reverted, meaning anything whatsoever and nothing at the same time, there is more than a need for listening to the saying of words. There is an urgency to listen to the accents of the saying of the world itself as an act of renewing existence in a world that seems less and less able to resist the collapse of its meaning.