Jay Parker discusses the latest by Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat, discussing the subversive connections between politics, love and technology.
Reading Subversion!, a series of three interviews by Alfie Bown with philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat, I kept thinking of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Singer’s movie was all about the power of a voice and a story. Like Singer’s Verbal Kint, Horvat is a master storyteller, spinning together anecdotes, analysis, and pop culture references to create a compelling introduction to his ideas.
In the big reveal at the end of Singer’s movie, we realize that Kint’s whole tale is constructed from words written on objects in the police office. Horvat also understands that a good story, one that moves people, or more importantly moves people to action, has to use established language. But this is also, to a degree, the language of the establishment.
Horvat’s point is that we need power to challenge entrenched power. Because capitalism is globalized, that power can only come from within, and so revolution or any meaningful change must begin with subversion.
Throughout, Horvat comes across as easy to like, brimming with enthusiasm and erudition, and motivated by a passionate desire to inspire the politics of the left. The interviews touch on a dizzying array of contemporary contexts, including more predictable political preoccupations – such as Occupy, Trump, and Wikileaks – but reveling also in tracing connections to Tindr, Tamagotchi, or Katy Perry. It should come as no surprise that Horvat has written a book with Slavoj Žižek.
The first interview, ‘Politics’, starts from the continuing crisis of capitalism, but its central concern is how to mobilise a new left internationalism. The discussion revolves firstly around reflection on how to balance the need for grassroots empowerment with the need to focus and direct action. Secondly, it introduces the idea of subversion as a key strategy for progressive politics.
The middle interview, ‘Love’, is, for this reviewer, the most interesting. Horvat works his way towards a ‘radical love’, which does not attempt to ‘transform the other into ourselves or into something which is known,’ but rather ‘keeps the other as something unknown’ and loves the other because it is defined by this quality. This is a political love that stands against the hateful and narcissistic politics of nationalism and isolationism.
The final section, on ‘Technology’ focuses on its double-edged nature, settling on Plato’s notion of the pharmacon to capture this radical ambivalence: ‘Where the danger lies, there also grows that which saves us’, says Horvat, quoting Hölderlin. For Horvat this makes Google ‘the most revolutionary company in history’, because on the one hand it is complicit in the US ‘deep state’ yet on the other it is contributing to the ‘evolution of the human mind’.
Rather than standing alone these three interviews are all about intersections of various kinds of politics, love, and technology. As Bown, in his helpful reflections observes, they are ‘more useful as one continuous discussion’, which ‘points out that the illusion of separation between categories … can be a dangerous ideological tactic which prevents us from understanding our historical moment and doing anything about it’.
Much in these interviews relates to Horvat’s recent book, The Radicality of Love, which fleshes out issues and arguments touched upon here. This earlier book also enacts a delightful subversion of its own, by examining ‘the seemingly conservative notion of love’ and showing its radical potential. Yet love is a concept with the broadest appeal precisely because we imagine it transcends politics. Horvat takes this most personal and intimate of emotions and makes it do political work.
The treatment of love in Subversion! enacts an opposing movement: rather than using an idea of love to subvert an ideology, it starts by examining how capitalism is subverting love. The interview begins with an analysis of Grindr and Tindr, which Horvat defines as the ‘outsourcing’ of dating. Horvat’s explicit focus is capitalism’s power to monetize the intimate sphere and turn love of another into narcissism.
This is so interesting because the whole book is also about the subversion of politics, love, and technology by capital as arch-subversive – a devil or a mythic demiurge, whose power depends upon its ability to mold human material. Perhaps the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he really did exist.
Jay Parker is Assistant Professor of English at HSMC in Hong Kong. He has written articles on Joseph Conrad and Richard Rorty, and is working on a book, Conrad’s Liberalism: Violence and the Political Novel.