Reading: The Just by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) must be anthologized or else… I have mixed feelings about the co-founder of postmodernist literature, who was praised, canonized and catapulted into the realm of immortality. I find his aleph a funny story and his experimental prose (eg ‘Borges and I’) were innovative at the time, but there is not much of the Borges playing with the presuppositions of textuality (authorship) that I feel really attracted to. I thought of reading a very Borgesean poem, ‘To the One Who is Reading me‘ in which the reader is ‘already dead’ but decided not to. I like this poem from 1981 better, in a translation by the amazing A.S. Kline, and I like a Borges confined to symbolic innocence:

The Just
man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done [to] him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

About this poem, Los Justos, I found an essay online (Spanish) that I admit I didn’t read entirely. The reference to Candide is obvious, we remember how ‘cultiver son jardin’ was the concluding imperative of the brilliant satire mocking Leibniz/Pangloss. But Borges is going to determine the Just more precisely. Next he brings in our relation to music, not whether we like it, but whether we are grateful for it. Might rule out some assholes.
Follows the trait of discovering an etymology with pleasure, feeling connected with the historicity and materiality of the words you use. He adds a dreamy image of a couple playing chess that I just like – without explanation.

Referring to the typographer who set this is a very Borgesean move, I smile about him not being pleased. The just are reading the last triplets of a ‘certain canto’ (which one I don’t know), they are stroking a sleeping creature which I like to be a cat.

So far we got rid of the villains. Now Borges rules out the mediocre minds by describing how the just seek to justify wrongs done onto them (El que justifica o quiere justificar un mal que le han hecho). Not just understanding, justifying. This could be read as a controversial statement, vis-à-vis the horrors of the twentieth century. But we understand him: It’s about the will to justify, not a requirement at the cost of obscene imaginations.

The imaginary, then, comes in with Stevenson. Borges once said the most important thing in his life was his father’s library in which he, the meek kid, spent hours reading, among others, Stevenson.

Preferring the others to be right doesn’t mean an unhealthy desire to be wrong yourself. It means a sense of selfless desire for the truth being in effect, ‘waltend in der Welt’ to use the Heideggerian term, rather than in my private possession. This sounds like a wonderful attitude to me. Perhaps most important of all, the just aren’t aware that they are saving the world, they are not proselytizing their postmodern mores. They are just living their lives.


Reading: The Just by Jorge Luis Borges was originally published on Meandering home


The contiguous society

Image Wikipedia

The exponential growth of computing power has created unprecedented possibilities for the democratic organization of a people. Looking at the current voting system of democracies around the world however, very little of these digital innovations to improve the finding and execution of the ‘will of the people’ have been realized. It is largely unchartered territory, in which smaller nations with little bureaucratic inertia will forge ahead by experimenting. Think of a country like Estonia, that became the first nation to hold national elections using Internet voting in 2005.

Using the Internet for casting ballots is merely an improvement in efficiency (if we can be sure that the systems are safe). It doesn’t affect the nature of democracy. Voting is still an event that happens once every four years or so, and democratic societies oscillate between rallies for the party and complaints about the disconnect of their elected representatives. Politics proper, the art of transferring power from the people to a select group of law-making and executive personnel, is a seasonal thing.

Does not our fast world require fast politics? Does not our contiguous society require contiguous politics? What I mean is this. In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream. Everything is in flow; you never browse the same time line twice. Receiving a letter, for example, used to be an event. It was separated from other events by time. It was assumed that the recipient didn’t reply immediately, people didn’t experience a stream of communication, but a series of events. The fact that Facebook allows us to share “life events” shows how the stream is usurping the event. We graduate, fall in love, marry, give birth and die, somewhere on the way scrolling down.

The notion of an event has in fact become almost synonymous with destruction. We think of a terrorist attack (or a government trying to prevent one) that can disrupt our Internet. It seems to be archaic that we still stick with elections as events.

Given the rapid increase in technological power, we have the means to change this. What lacks is the desire to do so: in the offline world we are still very much (or even more) fond of our habits. We celebrate elections and cherish the illusion that every citizen makes a ‘decision’ by casting their vote. But societal processes are essentially continuously run algorithms and that means they can be optimized like algorithms. A true democracy would be a continuous polling machine that is never switched off. The electorate can vote anywhere, anytime, resulting in a real-time representation of the ‘will of the people’. This doesn’t mean that the government will change every week, because there will be constitutional thresholds for the amount of disagreement with the current government that is expressed in the continuous poll to have political consequences. Constitutional? The most effective threshold will be calculated by another algorithm. The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

Apart from voting, we can deploy an algorithm to calculate individual tax rates (positive and negative tax, or “basic income”) optimizing the amount of distributive justice in society according to the same continuous democratic preferences. Receiving wellfare or “paying your taxes” ceases to be an event. In the contiguous society, it is part of the stream.

The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical implications that are beyond the scope of this note. If our social actions are no longer events, they also lose the “narrative arc”, the anticipation or regret that is perhaps our main supplier of meaning. Thus, human interaction and language will be different. One could also say that the Event is always – and never – happening.

The contiguous society was originally published on Meandering home