It was in the late 1970s when Roland Barthes alerted Europeans that fascism was not so much about preventing people to speak up as about compelling them to do it. His conclusion came from a cold, methodical analysis of language as a constitutive exercise of power: language, Barthes said, as a performance of any language, is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is simply fascist, “for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech”. In a Latin American dictatorship, any secret police checkpoint could confirm this assertion. At its worst, public censorship finds its ultimate definition in the private torture of the bodies that are martyred until conscience gives up and is literally forced to “speak” in the code that is familiar to power: speak up who does what, and with whom. The idea is to discipline and punish. Thus, through guilty confession and public discredit, the true punitive nature of its language is exposed: “I call the discourse of power any discourse which engenders blame, hence guilt, in its recipient”.
It is difficult to find a better diagnosis for our times of cancel culture than this brief summary of the lecture with which Barthes thanked his inclusion into the Collège de France. From the naïve belief of changing power dynamics by moving the letter e wherever the mark of the devil is present, to the compulsion of repeating what has already been said as a new revealed truth in social and normative behavior, fact is we live in dark times hidden under rainbows. Of course, the reason of State has done its part to promote this climate of intolerance, gagging of any critical spirit, punishment of dissent, demonization of politics and summary execution of the truth against the wall of social networks.
Encouraged or excited by its inbuilt impunity, cancel culture has fed a radical mistrust towards any sign of nonconformity in the way of dealing with demands of social justice, gender equality and racial vindication in the face of the sins of liberal society. The results of this effort have not been as symmetrical as might be expected: now Citibank and Univision are also paying for their own anti-systemic racism ads in the newspapers, which is apparently a great victory, while the list of excommunicated, silent culprits and accused people grows exponentially: journalists, unredeemed scholars, overly-flirtatious actresses, small entrepreneurs who board up their businesses, clandestine WhatsApp groups, Woody Allen followers, readers who sit under a Nabokov statue, and so on. The world shaped by this other pandemic of cancel culture, where we all dangerously fit, has a door as wide as narrow is the entrance to the club of enlightened people who run it.
This was probably the motivation behind the 153 signatories of “The Letter,” as this declaration on the need for open debate and free circulation of ideas is known, published as an alert in Harper’s magazine on July 7. While denouncing the prevalence of a cultural and institutional climate of “ideological conformity” undermining the foundational pluralism that is supposed to distinguish US society, the letter argues that protests against racism and inequality spreading across the country’s main cities after the assassination of George Floyd have unleashed a feeling of “moral certainty” that promotes punishment and public ostracism of those who express the need to make the discussion more complex. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” stated the signatories, who include names like Martin Amis and J.K. Rowling, musician Wynton Marsalis and journalist Michelle Goldberg, in a motley ensemble that is perhaps its greatest weakness.
For, beyond the facts it contains, the Harper’s letter falls into the same vice it indicts: collecting signatures upon signatures from the liberal elite, as if such a team of celebrities alone would guarantee the truth of the rhetoric it proclaims. This is a sophisticated replica of the massive support through which promoters of cancel culture seek to ensure that truth is on their side.
“Forbidden to forbid,” stated the walls of Paris in 1968. “Say his name: George Floyd!” cry out the protesters in the streets of 2020. What has changed in militant discourse is not only the protest’s libertarian impulse, but also its interpellation: I forbid you to forbid is to open a space of imagination and desire; I force you to say his name is the urgency of a corpse that demands to be recognized, a closing of the space of the possible that considers neither theoretical speculation nor political imagination. What it conceives, though, is the exercise of a counter-power, its deployment and conquest of spaces instead of its lyrical distance, which is why such space no longer represents the values of liberalism, and the latter can no longer count on this militancy to ensure its soul’s survival amid the tolerance of ideas.
In his article “The death of imagination”, published in the Spanish magazine Contexto y Acción, editor and critic Andreu Jaume shows how liberalism built its own decadence throughout the 20th century, up to the present moment when “after winning the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems to have lost peace”. The scene depicted by Jaume is as desolate as it is accurate: classical conservatism yields to the extreme right in much of the globe; progressivism falls apart under a dogmatic, retrograde left increasingly betraying itself and its ideals, while an infantilized society submits politics to its demands and to new technologies. “The global deterioration of education and the technological revolution have shaped a society governed by emotion and spectacle, capable only of the most basic reactions and sensitive only to absolute ideas. As Jaron Lanier has denounced time and again, social media are begetting a society of resentful, short-sighted, sad, hysterical, and vindictive citizens. On the other hand, the discrediting of reason has unleashed a war between the factual and the mendacious, between truth and post-truth, which is in itself the state of our imagination.”
Jaume emphasizes literature as a space where the possibility of a reinvention of moral imagination is played out, drawing from Lionel Trilling’s book [The Liberal Imagination] that inspires a good part of his text. It is not an arbitrary choice: literature is a question rather than an answer, “the space where the life of truth had traditionally been represented”, says Jaume, and it is from that space, from the articulation and development of the world as we know it today, with the ideas and examples that have been hijacked and forgotten by this present of cancel culture, that we need to re-imagine a vigorous and multiple world, rather than persist in the destruction of what we have left.
It is forbidden to forbid Céline, however anti-Semitic his Bagatelles pour un Massacre may be; it is forbidden to ban Lolita despite Humphrey’s twisted form of love; it is forbidden to ban Anaïs Nin and her Little Birds however commercial her purposes were; it is forbidden to ban Aristotle, Bruno, Sade, Rabelais and Twain, because it must be forbidden to forbid literary fiction and literature itself from raising the questions that concern human beings most deeply and constitute their natural domain, however monstrous their quests may be. Above all, it must be forbidden to take literature for what it is not, subjecting its representations to an agenda of any kind of cultural cancellation, be it in order to build socialism or restructure capitalism, to serve as a code of conduct, or to instruct women in self-defense tactics.
Especially, it is forbidden to forbid renegades of all kinds, who, like Hannah Arendt, are capable of supporting “the life of truth” in all its complexity and richness, undeterred by nationalisms, race, gender, fashion, pressure groups and tribal gang-ups. Between a health pandemic that exposes our frailty and a cultural pandemic that seeks to cancel the past, there is no alternative but to fight off darkness and work against it, rather than being passively swept away by “the storm of ignorance and fury that surrounds us”, as Jaume writes.
Woke, which means “awake” or “having awakened”, is the word that connects the street protests with the determination to stand against the injustices and impunities that the liberal order inflicts on minorities and vulnerable communities. From a less orthodox but equally combative perspective, woke is also, or should be, the signal to oppose, and not be crushed by the liberalism and cultural defeat that control us today. If you are forced to say something and speak up, use your imagination and be brave: say your name, even if it is useless.