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José Arthur Giannotti: Playing on the fringe

The philosopher thinks that Brazil should avoid bumping into the currentcomplex of monopolizing technoscience

Provocative and polemical, Professor José Arthur Giannotti, 73 years old, can be seen in many different ways. As he himself observes, there are those who regard him as a traitor to Marxist thinking. Or rather, to the positions and practices of the Brazilian left, although he was removed by the military dictatorship from office at the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1969, precisely for his critical views and left wing practice. For his part, Giannotti, in whose language one can easily descry the influence of the fundamental analyses of capitalism by Marx, in parallel with the dialog that he is always establishing with various other thinkers, like Wittgenstein, to interpret the contemporary crisis of reason, prefers to define himself as “the last of the Marxists” – thereby letting escape a smattering of the amusing irony that so frequently punctuates his words.

Whatever one thinks of Professor Giannotti, whether one agrees or not with his analyses, one must consider that his theoretical contributions in the field of philosophy, his public interventions in his capacity as an engaged intellectual about politics in Brazil, and his concrete work as a professor and researcher, makes him one of the most important personages in the attempts to draw up a consistent critical thinking to provide support for the country to transcend its poverty and its underdevelopment. And he has been like this since the 60’s, wherever he was: at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), which, together with former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, he founded and ran for 11 years, or at USP, and where he went back to after the general amnesty of 1979 and where he is today an emeritus professor.

To fulfil the task that he set himself to think about the problem of rationality in the contemporary world, Professor Giannotti has, for some time, been sharpening the instruments for exploring one of its central aspects, which is the field of science and technology. He recently published two articles in the Folha de S. Paulo, “Feiticeiros do Saber” [Sorcerers of Wisdom] and “Fetiche na Razão” [Fetish in Reason] (Caderno Mais – A Sunday supplement in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, May 25 and June 15), which right from their titles give notice of his vocation for polemics.

These articles were the most immediate pretext for use to interview Professor Giannotti in his fine house in Morumbi, where he has been living for 30 years. After a fascinating conversation, punctuated by much laughter, of which we are publishing below the main excerpts, we left with the conviction that, swaying between views of more concern and other more optimistic, Professor Giannotti nurtures one certainty: that Brazil really does have a chance of turning into a great country, if it shies away from bumping into the powerful complex of monopolizing technoscience that exists in the world today and knows how to play, very well, on the fringe. How so? He himself explains how.

We have wanted to interview you for the magazine ever since 2000, when you launched Uma certa herança marxista [A Certain Marxist Heritage]. But at that time, we were covering almost only projects supported by FAPESP, which was not the case.
That would have been good. There has been an almost absolute silence about that work. I think it is because, even while it maintained the dialectical Marxist positions, the essay was a dismantling of closed Marxism. And afterwards, I get the impression that these are political things; to the extent that I had gone towards the center together with Fernando Henrique Cardoso or something like that, for a long time I was regarded as a traitor. Until the moment that Lula also came close to the same position, and now I am together with him in the same concentration camp.

In the book, you said, in other words, of course, that if the process of capitalist development depends essentially on technological development, then the concept of value-work is put into question, and doubt is cast on the idea of capitalism being exhausted and overcome, as Marx conceived them in the third volume of The Capital.
He was already saying this in the first volume. Look, the notion of value-work finds a measure in the time socially necessary for the production of goods. But this time is a clock time and therefore depends, for it to be a good measure, on the productivity of work. Well, for you to arrive at this measure, you need to have processes by which all the areas that work in the system can avail themselves, at least in theory, of the same technology or of a same mix of technologies. But when you have a situation in which one part of the system appropriates not only technology, but also the capacity for developing it, you have changed the system. That is to say, the capitalist system – and this is trite, because it has been known ever since Adam Smith and Ricardo – depends essentially on technological development. The exploratory process is linked to the invention and construction of new products. If you have a process that upsets the market, if in this process of technological development, you create strategic points that are power points in the field of science, then the value-work theory has gone up in smoke, hasn’t it? What is left over is the sociology of the relationship between workers and capital, which in my view is still very strong. It is a very special relationship of power, in which one has control over the work of others, anonymously, done by the rules of the market. But from the economic point of view, the value-work theory, in my view, is a museum piece.

In “Feiticeiros do Saber”, we felt there certain echoes of the first chapter of he German Ideology, by Marx and Engels, albeit as irony. Because right away in the subtitle of the article you say that “the researchers in the vanguard, nowadays (…) are researchers in the morning; and they run a little molecular biology company in the afternoon”, which calls to mind the claim that communist society “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, to raise cattle in the evening, and to be a critic after supper?” Was playing with this idea what you wanted?
Yes, I’m not a fellow who talks seriously, I never say things without there being some other thing behind it. It’s a bit of fun with regard to Marx, obviously, but I am also showing, on the one hand, the enormous advantages that there are in this joining together of intellectual work with the actual work of technological and social transformation, and, on the other hand, the loss that this brings to some. After all, I am not going to be a businessman, I think that Luiz Henrique (a professor in philosophy who takes part in the conversation as an interviewer) is not going to be a businessman, and we are really a species facing extinction. These isolated researchers, who live in their cabins in Morumbi and so forth, are disappearing.

Counterbalancing this, these joining together of the researcher and the businessman can be good, socially speaking.
No, I’m not denying that. I’m not acting like a mandarin, contrary to mass culture. I have nothing to do with the Frankfurt School. On the contrary. I think that the mass society has defects, absolutely terrible alienations, but it has unheard-of virtues. Unheard-of! Both in culture and in, for example, healthcare. We aren’t going to forget that people are living longer, they have more assistance, even in the poorer countries, they suffer less. I am not an enthusiast of capitalism, I would like it to be different, but I prefer capitalism to the brutality of agrarian societies.

When you join together the words sorcerer and wisdom, what is the intention?
Another bit of fun. A lot is said about fetish in merchandise, right? I wouldn’t say “the fetishism of wisdom”, because it would be very…

Not just pedantic. It is worth recalling that fetish, in Portuguese is a corruption of sorcery (fetiche andfeitiço), then let’s speak the normal language. It so happens that, starting with the classical tradition, the wise have been opposed to sorcery, science is what is opposed to myth, the scientist is someone opposed to the shaman. But science can also become a fetish. And this is one of the most terrible things of the mass society: the fact that the good secondary schools are disappearing, good basic education, with people learning by having their ears pulled, using concepts without having any notion of the techniques for applying these concepts.

That is, wisdom is learnt in the same way that merchandise is consumed.
Even worse, it is more like something toxic, because consuming merchandise, at least you digest, you feed your body. Everybody is capable of talking about space-time when they go to watch Kubrick’s film, and obviously this is a kind of make-believe. If on the one hand I go to a bookshop and I have a pile of good books to read and good CDs to listen to, on the other, I have a fascinating quantity of rubbish, an Augean stable. Everything is very ambiguous, and there is no reason for us to keep pointing a finger and saying; “Look!, this capitalist world is this and that”! It really is bad, but it has brought positive things as well.

What we are talking about is alienation. Wouldn’t a critical work of overcoming this alienation be fitting? What do you think of this, politically?
We can pick up again certain Marxist theses, but we cannot pick up Hegelian dialectic again, that it, a dialectic of overcoming contradictions, provided that one really understands what a contradiction is and understands that a unification of contradictories can only take place at the level of discourse. This is a basic sentence of Hegel’s – that contradiction is resolved at the level of discourse. Hegel could say: well, it is resolved in the spirit of the world, because the world is discourse. As we no longer believe in this, we have to think about putting up with contradiction, as another of our bandy-legged dialecticians says, which is Wittgenstein. Well, putting up with contradiction is to try to explore these more, shall we say, creative, more vital, more movable and hence more distressing part of daily life, and leave aside that part that is more dead and more repetitive. I think that the idea is disappearing that we can be a kind of demiurges of the world.

In your articles in Mais (Sunday section of the Newspaper Folha de São Paulo) besides the criticism of a situation, there is a certain lamentation for the fetishizing of science.
The example that I mean to talk about is already in Comte himself. On the one hand, we have one of the best analyses of how scientific method works, to end in what? In the invention of a new science, sociology, with the task of regenerating the whole of scientific knowledge. The moment Comtism comes with this idea of regeneration, with the idea of a scientific policy, and prostrates itself in front of the images of Clotilde de Veau, there, obviously, the same movement that led to the deepening of scientific knowledge, ends in an alienation, in a religion, in the fetish of science. In other words, I would say the following: it is very difficult to separate the two processes. I get the impression that the alienation of science is routine.

In the first article, you deal with a certain monopolization, of the enormous economic and political advantage achieved by one who besides knowing how to develop technologies has a powerful machine at its disposal to make as short as possible the path from scientific discovery to the product. That means the United States.
Not only them, there are also some important corporations, and not just from the United States. I am not denying that, in a series of small nucleuses, they are inventing things and getting patents, that would be silly. But when we consider the overall workings of the system, it is the large corporation that counts.

In this process, what place is actually left for a country on the periphery of capitalism?
Well, I need a link here. These large corporations, as we know, are basically transnational, but that does not mean that they become independent of the State, or that the State is completely massacred by them. On the contrary, the dialectics of the State and of the large corporations have changed. Why? Because there is a kind of division of work: the State does pure science, takes care of the training of researchers, or even guarantees, not the market in the old sense, but strategic points in the market. The recent Gulf War is a precise example in this sense. Iraq is not occupied in the traditional way, but there they are, defining how the oil is going to be exploited or otherwise, and in a short while we will have scientific development from that point onwards. It is inevitable: new ways of producing oil, of exploring for minerals, etc. These corporations have 20-year plans. So we have a very particular division of work between the State and the corporation: it loses sovereignty, but it can gain effectiveness and control daily life in a way that was inconceivable 30 years ago. Suffice it to remember the deterioration in human rights in the United States. And this is done by the State. It is the State that is massacring human rights. The idea of putting folks in cages in Guantánamo is somethingreminiscent of totalitarianism.

But, to insist, what room is left over for a peripheral country?
Playing on the fringe. I can?t see any other possibility. The idea that we have some possibility of facing up to this complex is preposterous, so we can only play on the fringe. But there we have to avoid a very great danger. The other day, at a conference, I heard a colleague who presented the general system of the development of modern capitalism, and it was such a closed circle, that we had no way, we would go to hell. At the following conference, by Barros de Castro, from Rio, he said: “We have a way out. There are goods, like Embraer’s aircraft, on which we can get certain prizes, besides added value, because of certain market advantages…” In other words, what he was saying is something new: instead of proposing an industrial policy, systematic or systemic, as Cepal, the Economic Commission for Latin America, would have it, we are going towards a product policy. In accordance with our inventiveness, we may earn more or less ? and this is our point. In fact, I despair when I see these people who keep on saying: “I can’t do anything”, as if the world were a Laplacian system. There are things to be done, and if we don’t do them, the consequences will be very serious. We saw the demolition of Argentina, and we are seeing the dreadful thing that Africa is. Moreover, we also know that not everyone is tarred with the same brush, as we used to think. Bush or Clinton, for us, makes an enormous difference.

If we do the right things, will we not be able to abandon the fringe? Can you not see that possibility?
For us to be a great country? This will probably be in the long term, and then we will all be dead, as Keynes would say. But there is a great problem in this situation. Today, for example, everyone talks about China. The question is how to turn a great country into a democracy. Some people say: “Oh, we are creating a consumer society, in which everyone is going after the latest model of blender, that is something monstrous!” It is. Except that how are you going to prevent this inside a democracy? People want to consume. I am not saying that people ought to have consumer schools. But can’t we start a more creative process of diversification in education?

What do you call diversification in education?
Here in São Paulo, in the last few years, a good part of the élite has come out of some very particular colleges. Can we not expand the experiences of these colleges to get a good public secondary schooling, with better teachers and better equipment? This is possible, provided that the public school incorporates something that today is being much denigrated, which is the merit system. It has to be remembered that one thing is political democracy, another thing are institutions based on merit, where there is a career, there are selections, etc.

Didn’t the experience of the experimental schools linked to the public universities work out a little like that? Were they not a space for pedagogical experiments that could be passed on to the public network?
Yes, and, today, I am in favor of recreating and multiplying these university colleges to carry out policies of affirmative action with regard to Negroes and to the poor, creating conditions for them to compete in this world.

In the second article in Mais, the feeling that remains is that you have at last resolved, inyour criticism of Marxism, to deals with the folks from the Frankfurt School.
Who are not Marxists… Well, in first place, what was the movement of the Frankfurtians? To say that the moment for the revolution has passed and that capitalism now has nothing more to do with the economic laws, that the economic laws have been so subverted that you can’t take out of them a criticism of economic relations in capitalism. But when I say that the question today is the monopoly of technology, I am introducing an economic notion, which is the notion of the monopoly. The difference, then, is crucial. In second place, the Frankfurtians said: “Fine, if it’s not through a criticism of economics, we are going to do a criticism of culture, OK”? And they did.
And this criticism of culture was done on the basis of a theory of concept, in the case of Adorno and Horkheimer, or of a theory of linguistic systems, in the case of Habermas. Except that Adorno’s theory of concept, in my view, is very weak! For example: the notion of clarification, which is the translation for Erklärung, I understand it when one refers to the illuminist movement, because there it is descriptive. But when you say that Erklärung is illumination and illustration, unalienated reason, I think that this is no more than to redefine in an arbitrary way reason in its dynamic aspect. And afterwards, you just have to get examples to say “That is a movement of reason” or “this isn’t a movement of reason”, “this one here is creating a dialectic of anti-reason”. Very convenient, isn’t it?

In the article, you also touched on the question of the separation between objective reason and subjective reason.
Because in the criticism of all these folks it becomes fundamental to separate a technical reason from another one, a substantive reason. I’m sorry, I’ve never seen a technical reason! I even know about technical reason at work, on the basis of, well, I have this objective, and then I do a rational analysis of the means. But have you ever seen some social process in which you have the ends predetermined and the means you analyze rationally? I can?t see it. Do you see in some scientific work this process, in which you have a hypothesis and afterwards go on to rationalize the means? I’ve never seen one, because this is pure make-believe. And it really is a very serious problem, because these folks always think of the concept as if it didn’t need an opaque otherness to be able to work – a set of objects and practices implied in the technique for applying the concept.

You raise one more problem when you say that one has to recognize that there is a crisis, the roots of which are to be found that contemporary sciences are produced, coupled with the new forms of capitalist sociability.
I am even going back to a more Marxist position, saying: look, the question is not one of duality of reason, the question is the way by which capitalism is appropriating this absolutely extraordinary complex, created by capitalism itself, of science and technology. The problem then is how are we going to make this complex democratic. How to make science go back to being done to the benefit of humanity, which is not happening today. Suffice it, for example, to remember that research into tropical diseases is much less developed than research into diseases that affect the rich countries.

And is there anything to be done in the ambit of the researchers themselves, of the agencies, of this whole system for producing science and technology?
I think that it is obvious there is. Look, when we have centralization and sclerosis, there is only one remedy, which is the liberal one: multiplying the points of power. Universities today are more and more monolithic, so that we have to do away with their stony nature. Universities today are very funny, they want to form an autonomous system, when the foundations have made holes in them on all sides. And, on the other hand, we also have the development agencies, which are today not only places for financing research, but for inducing research. After all, the Genome Program was no joke. Not only was research induced, but a network of laboratories was created, a new rhythm for producing science and technology in Brazil was created. This can be done.

Still insisting on democratization…
I am going to give an example of what democratization means: today, it is the central banks that establish the policies for foreign exchange and take care of the currency and are increasingly trying to be autonomous. Autonomous in relation to what? If it is dependent on the political system like this one is, then it is better for it to be autonomous, because otherwise we wouldn’t have any currency. But it would be very good if we had a democratic control over the Central Bank, in which there were a way of obliging it to render accounts to a series of institutions. Well, just look at how contemporary political ideological works: either you gather everything together in the State, and it becomes entirely a controller, or you simply want a sort of liberalism that isolates the institutions without their being irrigated by other system. I am entirely in favor of a controlled autonomy of the Central Bank.

Translating this into science, what ought we to have?
We ought to have a system in which the universities have an outside control. A control by society, represented by trade unions, trade associations, students… I don’t see any problem there at all. Furthermore, a system in which the university foundations are transparent.

To judge from your recent articles, you have been poring over questions of knowledge, technoscience and art. How are all these parts brought together?
At bottom, all these themes I am working with are aspects of the same problem, which is rationality. I am thinking how it is that you judge things. What is esthetic, moral or scientific judgment. And I am much more interested in dealing with the question of the crisis of reason, which is showing how, despite reason working, it has a need for gray areas, of indefinition. This, by the way, is the advantage of scientific knowledge, or of the arts, or morals, and not the contrary. Morals that are absolutely determinant are not taking into account contemporary moral experience, in which one lives with different moral systems, with people who believe in and follow different standards. And when it was decided that we have an eternal conflict, that isn’t true, because in the case of medical ethics, for example, things are resolved in a very interesting manner: people with different ethics and without establishing a defined consensus, they give way here and there, and the thing is resolved. That is, the moment you institutionalize difference, you can carry on having rationalizing institutions, without it being necessary to appeal to a monolithic reason, and illuminist reason. I am wanting to show that it is possible for reason to live in peace with its shadow. Moreover, I am wanting to show that reason needs these shadows to be able to develop.