Coughing Has Become Almost a Terrorist Act: A Conversation with Srečko Horvat

One of Europe's leading philosophers and co-founder of DiEM25 on Covid-19-related infodemic, living in “the Mediterranean as in once was”, the climate and ecological apocalypse and much more

Week of The Festival: Goran's Spring, Zagreb and Split, Croatia

MP: Your latest book, Poetry from the future, starts with an invocation directed to the foreseeable future — a future depicted as all but bright. The very cry, though, comes from the picturesque Dalmatian island of Vis, an oasis in the middle of what is becoming a fast-filling thumb of the Mediterranean. Historically, utopias were often located in islands — from the Atlantis, via Huxley’s Pala and Swift’s Lilliput, to the Utopia itself. However, the history of Vis tells us a very palpable story of resistance; in essence — an example of the real, possible alternative. Where can it take us? 

SH: Unfortunately, it can take us to a reality where, only a few days ago, one of the first 5G antennas in Croatia was built on the island of Vis, just above Komiža, although around the same time Slovenia and Switzerland had just banned 5G over health concerns. The historical Theirs we don't wantours we don't give, that was famously proclaimed by Tito precisely on the island of Vis in 1944, when it was one of the rare liberated territories in Nazi-occupied Europe, can bring us to the island today where you have a Polish supermarket chain, an Austrian bank and Austrian telecommunication company experimenting with new technologies. That's what we call “progress”. It brings us to an island that is rather empty throughout winter and spring, but filled with tourists during summer seasons, who are glued to their iPhones and leaving plastic bottles behind. An island that is, like so many places in Croatia, dependent on tourism and service economy. It can also take us to the year 2048. That's when, according to a recent scientific study, the world's oceans would be empty of fish. The cause: “the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change”. You can already see that in the Adriatic Sea. It's dying out. Or take another new research that recently suggested that the scale of plastic pollution in our oceans could be million times worse than previously recorded. What really surprised the biological oceanographer who led this research, published in the science journal Limnology and Oceanography Letters, was that “every salp, regardless of year collected, species, life stage, or part of the ocean collected, had plastics in its stomach”. The problem with that is not just that the fish is already full of plastics, but that microplastics are subsequently entering the food chain, which means that in the end humans themselves are eating them. Now that's what Homo sapiens calls “progress”. But at the same time, I believe the emancipatory legacy of a place such as the island of Vis is not necessarily something located in past, it can as well be in the future. It is a place that is part of the Mediterranean that the great Predrag Matvejević was writing about. And without thinking this long-term perspective beyond nation states, of a place that has been developing over thousands of years, we will not be able to think of real alternatives. Generally speaking, I believe islands are the future. Not just in a dystopian way because of rising sea levels. So the sooner we think of them as places where the future can already be built, the better. You have been to Vis plenty of times, since the time you were living in Split back in the 1990s. I'd be curious to hear how you see it? Where do you see the traces of what we could call “real existing” alternatives?   

MP: It seems that, almost 30 years after the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, we failed to develop something that would supersede the aims and results of its emancipatory modernist project. Both Yugoslav socialism and modernity were for sure unfinished projects, with a myriad of failures and blind spots, but the idea behind it, as well as the way that society and its natural habitat were reflected upon, were arguably superior to the one we’re facing today. Not to be forgotten: it was also acted accordingly, and certain relicts of those politics are helping us survive today. In the context of the island of Vis — which was once among the first territories in occupied Europe to offer a real existing alternative, no quotation marks needed — the first step would be to stop its total commodification and careless touristification, and reestablish it as a sustainable community, focusing its resources for its own well-being. However, that by no means implies any kind of autarchy. Croatian islands —especially the deep-sea ones — might soon face the migrant waves instead of the tourist ones, just like islands in Greece, or Italy. And that’s gonna be the great test for their people. Will they be up to their heroic past once the visitors will ask for solidarity, instead of the solid stream of foreign currency?  

Srečko Horvat by Oliver Abraham

MP: You quote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The social revolution (…) cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”. Does the heritage of the successful historical resistance, present all across what used to be Yugoslavia, also warn us that “the future is not always that what comes after”? 

SH: Precisely. This is why besides Marx, I return to Walter Benjamin and his understanding of time which seems to me more relevant than ever. Writing his Theses on the Philosophy of History in occupied Paris, with a gas mask hanging above his writing table, Benjamin notes that to articulate what is past does not mean to recognise “how it really was”. It rather means “to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger”. The island of Vis is not only in a moment of danger because of historical revisionism but also because of global capitalism, as exemplified in mass tourism and new technologies such as 5G. Why Benjamin remains so important today is his deconstruction of the capitalist notion of time, the calendar-universe in which time always flows from the past to the future, from the “before” to the “after”. Today, it is not so much philosophy but quantum physics, read the poet among the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, who shows that this prevalent understanding of time is completely wrong. The future is past. And the past is future. The fact that we count time in hours, days and years, that we live in 24/7 capitalism, is a rather recent human invention that has nothing to do with the true nature of time. And you can see it clearly on islands and the Mediterranean, where you still have a sort of “slow” time, in Vis they literally call it “pomalo” (“take it slow”), which is not just a phrase but a philosophy of time that somewhat still remains outside of the temporality of capitalism even if there is now a 5G antenna on the island. What the historical resistance of the island shows is that you can indeed create not only “temporary autonomous zones” but perhaps also create seeds for the future resistance that only needs to be rediscovered. And if we take Benjamin and quantum physics seriously, this emancipatory potential is here and now, in the present.

MP: “Poetry” has multiple meanings within the concept of the book. Of course, we can find it in its original medium — language, but it also serves as a much more general force. Can you dismantle your central theoretical metaphor for us, at least as a simplified sketch? 

SH: Well, it's rather inconvenient to explain it to a poet. What seemed necessary to me was to go back to the original meaning of poiesis, from the ancient Greek verb poiein, which would literally mean “to produce”, but not simply to “produce”, rather to bring something into being. There is as you know a long philosophical tradition of making a distinction between praxis (from prattein, “to do”, in the sense of acting) and poiesis that goes back to Aristotle. But the truly “revolutionary thesis” of Marx is that this is not really like that — you can be acting by creating, and vice versa, praxis and poiesis constantly change positions, praxis can bring into being (poiesis) something new, and poetry can also change the world. But again, I would be interested to hear how you, as a poet, see it? I found it funny that at the book launch in Bristol last winter, someone in the audience raised a question but before asking the question, he told me, honestly disappointed, that because of a book called Poetry from the Future, he thought there would be some “real poetry” that evening.

MP: Let us take a metaphor as a sort of condensation of the proposed relation, a dash connecting poiesis and praxis. The metaphor is, in its very logic and essence, not just par excellence political, but carries a truly subversive potential too. It has power to change perspectives, to de-hierarchise, to play with the dominant and structures of power and to literally make present but unnoticed things visible, and possible consequences of that are immense. Though, there’s a long way, a great deal of political work in many different fields to be undertaken in order to make that potential real, significant, readable political force. The metaphor has to emancipate itself from the academic areal of the elite. The opposite can be extremely dangerous — metaphors are a strong tool for the system too, and they’re widely used in mass manipulation. The daily politics that we’re forced to live with is, to a certain radical extent, a graveyard of metaphors; the zombie, undead cluster of rotten metaphors working against us. The metaphor, its subversive potential, needs to be reclaimed. 

MP: You have just finished working on a book dealing with one of the central topics of the western eschatology — the Apocalypse. Of course, from a specific point of a view. What’s waiting us on the social “other side”? Or in terms of the popular TV series — what happens in between Leftovers, which is analysed in your latest book, and Chernobyl, which could serve as a prequel to the soon to be published volume?

SH: We are already living after the Apocalypse. Coronavirus is nothing compared to the future opened by Hiroshima, the nuclear age that left such a trace with Chernobyl. But it opens an eschatological threat that was almost forgotten by the West. Add to this the climate crisis and mass extinction, including a highly contagious virus that is transforming whole countries such as Italy into quarantine, and you will get a rather dystopian sequel to Poetry from the Future. Last year I visited Chernobyl, it's becoming a tourist hotspot. And it's not only post-apocalyptic tourism that is flourishing. The Apocalypse is on everyone's mind and lips.

MP: The media — tabloids as well as the liberal ones — have recently overloaded us with a moral panic that is coded in often explicitly apocalyptic terms. How do you read the ideology behind the dominant narratives on the Coronavirus? 

SH: One of the points of the forthcoming book is that the Apocalypse is always ideological. Remember the “empathy the whole world felt over the burning Notre-Dame”, as many newspapers were describing it? Well, the truth was that not the whole world felt the same. And the same goes for coronavirus. It is surely presents a global threat. But an even bigger threat is, for instance, air pollution. According to a study published the other day, which didn't end up on so many newspaper covers or in people's imagination as coronavirus, air pollution causes around 8,8 million premature deaths every year. Did you see a similar outcry regarding this serious issue? Of course not. Coronavirus is a highly interesting epidemic, but so is the “infodemic”, which leads to something that the Germans would call Die Lust am Untergang, this wide-spreading desire towards the Apocalypse. But it is nothing alike the Fröhliche Apokalypse (joyful Apocalypse) that Hermann Broch was writing about before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Today fear has become the main currency. And the more our governments are incompetent, the more they breed more fear. That's why you have all that panic buying in the supermarkets. No one really believes the authorities anymore. And at the same time, as always during times of uncertainty, there is the hunt for scapegoats, whether it is the Chinese or Italians, or anyone who seems suspicious. Coughing today has become almost a terrorist act. 

MP: What happens when the metaphor of the epidemic — what we are already witnessing — is applied to people? The new full-scale migrant wave from the Middle East is already facing a discourse as well as actions which are worse than the ones — already super severe — that have been “greeting” the people in need during the past few years. How’s Fortress Europe acting?

SH: The best place to see it is Hungary. Once coronavirus arrived in the most protected fortress in Europe, which is literally encircled by a wall, what was the reaction of Viktor Orbán's government? They closed its “transit zones”, they closed camps for asylum seekers along its southern border with Serbia, indefinitely, saying in a statement that “coronavirus and illegal migration go hand in hand”. This is also the discourse Mateo Salvini uses in Italy. And the more migrants will come from Turkey, the more this metaphor of a “virus” will become mainstream. But never forget that it is today's establishment of the so called “European project” that is legitimising the militarisation of Europe's external (and internal) borders and proclaiming that we have to “stand with Greece” (whose police and army is shooting at refugees and their children) instead of “standing with refugees”. This might as well be the last nail in the coffin of the idea of Europe. And it is such impotent and useless politics if you just imagine for a moment what will be the solution once, in a few decades already, hundreds of millions of refugees start leaving their devastated homelands because of rising sea levels. We don't need more walls or re-imagined nation-states, we need more transnational cooperation and solidarity.

MP: You are active as one of the founding members of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. Sticking to the literature-bound comparison, we can imagine this Europe also as the one evolving in the opposite direction to the one proposed in Orwell’s 1984. How do you see it? And how do you see DiEM25 five years from now? 

SH: I'd rather refrain from making any prediction. Did you notice that even with scientists once they make a calculation, for instance about how quickly the sea levels will rise, there is already a few months later another scientific paper saying it was a miscalculation? But it is certainly an interesting question as we took the year 2025 as our horizon. If in the next five years the current trends accelerate even more, our only alternative will really be barbarism or a revolution. Today's reality is already much worse than Orwell's 1984, it seems closer to Aldous Huxley’s, a sort of narco-capitalism in which technology anaesthetises the social body to a degree that many are not even aware anymore that they are enslaved. Ironically, coronavirus stopped the global machine, at least for a moment, and even showed that it is, in fact, possible to radically stop carbon emissions. If a virus can do it, why wouldn't we? My good friend Franco Berardi Bifo recently sent me an inspiring letter from quarantined Italy, saying that La Repubblica had just published a headline Salutiamoci a distanza e niente baci. Stop kissing. Even if everyone is scared at the moment, I find it interesting — and even hopeful — that kissing has become subversive again. Perhaps the current dystopia, the fact that capitalism is undergoing one of its deepest crisis, offers not just a much needed “pause” — even in quarantine — to reflect upon this major challenge for humanity, but confronts us with the urgent necessity to create a profound system change. The only alternative, if we don't organise and mobilise, is barbarism.

Srećko Horvat, born in 1983 in former Yugoslavia, is the author of a dozen of books, translated in more than 10 languages: The Radicality of Love (Polity Press, 2015), What Does Europe Want? (with Slavoj Žižek, Columbia University Press, 2014), Subversion (Zero Books, 2017) and most recently Poetry from the Future (Allen Lane, 2019). He was one of the founders of the legendary Subversive Festival and is the co-founder, with Yánis Varoufákis, of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25).