Towards a sociology of absences

This is 1913, we are at the hub of Europe’s cultural and political life, a hub that basically includes Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Paris, Munich, and, from a distance, also London. Cultural elites go on increasing their knowledge through newspapers, feuilletons and literary soirees, art galleries, concerts, and cultural gatherings in cafés. They feverishly keep abreast of the latest artistic and cultural developments, and, although somewhat distantly, they follow the much less exciting political topicalities. However, among these elites, there are young revolutionaries who clandestinely organize a new future. This can be imagined as a time of formidable and plural creativity, innovation, and irreverence breaking routine, inertia, convention. This is the new century in the full effervescence of its early youth. Names, works, and events are discussed, many of which are still familiar to us a century later. Kafka finishes Metamorphosis, one of his most genial works, which is published in 1915. Joseph Stalin arrives in Vienna, under a false name, to study the national question, a topic to which Austro-Hungarian Marxists had given particular attention. Since Stalin could not speak German, Nicholai Bukharin, another Russian revolutionary in exile, helps him with the bibliography. However, his assistance and support failed to win Stalin’s gratitude. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, Bukharin, who was definitely one of the most brilliant minds of the Russian Revolution, was executed on Stalin’s orders during the infamous Moscow trials. Around the same time and in the same city, a young man paints rather mediocre watercolors depicting cathedrals, with the intention of selling them to tourists. His name was Adolf Hitler. Sigmund Freud publishes Totem and Taboo, a book where psychoanalysis is applied to social and cultural anthropology and which was to become as influential as it was controversial. Within the psychoanalytical movement, the conflict between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung becomes more serious, reaching proportions that go much beyond mere scientific debate. Thomas Mann has just published Death in Venice, a novel which, according to gossipy experts/the gossip intelligentsia, betrays the secret homosexuality of its author. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa is found in a hotel in Florence, after having been stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian “nationalist”. In a typically “equalitarian” sharing gesture, according to Eurocentric criteria, the Germans fund the costs of archeological excavations in Egypt; half of the objects found are kept in the Museum of Cairo and the other half is taken to Berlin. This is the year when the most famous bust in the world, Nefertiti’s, travels to Europe. In Vienna, Karl Kraus, one of the most brilliant journalists and essayists of his day regularly publishes his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch). He rails against corruption, nationalism, psychoanalysis, bad taste; polemics and legal actions abundantly follow one another. In Kraus, the pleasure of thinking and the miracle of language realize their full potential. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are the great pioneers of Cubism, which reaches a new dimension at this point with synthetic Cubism. In 1913, Duchamp practices his “delirium of imagination” by installing a bicycle wheel in his studio in order to show that there are other movements besides the linear movement of progress. This is the year when he exhibits his Nude Descending a Staircase in New York. Painters, from Gustav Klimt to Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, discover the nude. Kokoschka falls in love with Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s widow, and despite the masterpieces that she required him to produce as a condition to be “conquered” by him, the painter eventually lost her to Walter Gropius, the great architect who was the founder of Bauhaus and the father of modernist architecture. This is the time when decorum and public morals give in to the pornographic nature of The Memoirs of Josefine Mutzenbacher, a novel by Viennese writer Felix Salten which porn film fans will have the opportunity of watching in the 1970s, featuring the famous porn actress Patricia Rhomberg, who was also Austrian. Another child of this Viennese cultural effervescence is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher who, in 1913, travels to a small village in Norway with his boyfriend to write Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Arnold Schonberg shocks Vienna with his innovative way of composing music. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is presented in Paris: 33 minutes that changed the musical taste of the so-called cultured world. The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is published, while Max Beckmann writes that “man is and remains a first-class swine”. 1913 is also the year when Virginia Wolf attempts suicide for a second time (her first attempt had occurred in 1904). She will only “succeed” on her third attempt, in 1941, in the face of the devastating sight of her home wrecked by a bomb.

What is lacking in this narrative?

Nothing, apparently. The hegemonic cultural world has indeed been portrayed in its entirety, and the fact that all these names are still familiar to us only goes to prove it. However, after deeper thought, two fatal absences are revealed. The first is that the cultural discourse of 1913 totally fails to mention the possibility of the catastrophe that will soon shake both Europe and the world that depended on it: the First World War. 17 million people, military and civilians, will die, amongst them many Africans whose existence Europe is unaware of or simply chooses to ignore. 263,000 dead in the French colonies; 141,000 in the British colonies; 123,000 in the German colonies; 52,000 in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. This is the most catastrophic event since the Black Death, which killed between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia between 1346 and 1353. Why this omission on the part of the cultural elites? Perhaps Karl Kraus was the only one who was alert to the impending events in his criticism of generals, of industrialists who would make a profit from the war, and of the press that sided with them. That was why, between 1915 and 1922, he wrote his mega-drama The Last Days of Mankind, which has just been brilliantly translated into Portuguese by António Sousa Ribeiro, my colleague at the Center for Social Studies. And, in an entirely different register, in 1913, in Munich, Oswald Spengler, a depressed young man, was writing a book that was to become the bible of European reactionaries, The Decline of the West. There was an abundance of signs pointing to the possibility that the worst might come to happen, but cultural (and also political) elites refused to see them. The normality of excess was becoming an excess of normality. And what about today?

The second absence has to do with the fact that everything that happens outside Europe, or even outside Northern and Central Europe, does not exist, that is, it is constructed as nonexistent by hegemonic thinking. This thinking covers only a tiny bit of the world, and it nonetheless purports to be a manifestation of “European universalism” (an oxymoron in itself). This becomes possible because, after the European colonial expansion in the late 15th century, an abyssal line, as extreme as it was invisible, was drawn between social relationships in the world of European metropolises and social relationships in the world of extra-European colonies. According to this line, which is a geopolitical, ideological, and epistemological divide, the only relevant social, political, cultural, and ethical reality, the reality that counts when principles, values, and criteria of sociability are defined, happens on this side of the line, i.e., in metropolitan societies. On the other side of the line there live sub-human beings, there is a world of perils to be conquered and of resources to be appropriated, through violent means if need be. Europeans experience this abyssal division in an imperial mode, never doubting that consciousness is what regulates social interaction in the metropolitan world, while in the colonial world it is regulated by convenience.

Therefore, the hegemonic narrative is unable to imagine the relevance of the fact that in 1913 Gandhi organized in South Africa the first protest march in defense of Indian miners, a key moment as concerns their struggle though also an ambiguous moment as concerns Gandhi’s attitude towards the British empire; or the fact that the Natives Land Act, the law that reserved the ownership of land for whites, leaving only 7% of the land for blacks, who were the majority of the population, was passed in that same year. Indeed, on the other side of the abyssal line, thinking in terms of discrete, dated events is an epistemological trap, since this is a continuing process of violent appropriation of colonial resources as a result of the first ‘scramble for Africa’ at the Berlin Conference (1884-85), the genocide of native populations, both in the Americas and in the “Congo Free State”, a pathetic euphemism: there, King Leopold of Belgium presided over the most cruel of atrocities, known as “the Congo horrors”, which ravaged the country’s population by several millions between 1885 and 1908. Contrary to appearances, the abyssal line has not been erased with the end of territorial colonialism. It is still there today, just like colonialism is, albeit in new forms. It is this abyssal line that justifies racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, the destruction of countries like Iraq, Libya, or Syria, the Palestinian “final solution” perpetrated by victims turned into aggressors, the massive incarceration of young Black people in the United States, the inhuman treatment of refugees. How different and yet how similar today’s absences and those of 1913.

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