Sam Mickey reviews a book that interrogates freedom in the age of alternative facts.
Santiago Zabala, Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020), 200pp.
A philosopher and cultural critic, Santiago Zabala is well known for articulating the ongoing relevance of a strand of philosophy oriented around interpretation: philosophical hermeneutics. In his latest book, he brings his hermeneutic perspective to an interrogation of the mounting challenges posed by the conditions of today’s intellectual and political landscape. As the subtitle indicates, this book addresses the misinformation and misunderstandings that are so prevalent today. Alternative facts, fake news and post-truth are all symptoms of a lack of any mutual understanding about what is real. Similarly, the return of realism has become a trend in the intellectual world, reflected in the realist rationality proffered by a psychologist like Jordan Peterson or by the philosophical movement of speculative realism. Questions about what is real have never been so pressing on a global scale. Indeed, responses to those questions have impacts not only on humanity but on the diversity of species on Earth, which are currently threatened with a mass extinction event.
For Zabala, responding to what is transpiring in an age of alternative facts calls for an understanding of being, interpretation and emergency – three themes that are for the author “near synonyms” and are also necessary for facilitating freedom today (vii). Following a brief preface and an introduction, the book is divided into three parts, which are named after those three themes, respectively. Each part is divided into three sections. Being is discussed in relationship to metaphysics, conversation and truth. The history of metaphysics involves determinations of Being that attempt to foreclose the meaning of Being and shut down interpretive conversations and debates. Following the deconstruction of metaphysics, articulated by philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, the meaning of Being can now be reopened to interpretation. What remains of Being after the deconstruction of metaphysics is thus freed from its enclosures, and accordingly Zabala says that these “remains of Being” are “always at large” (33). “Being is at large, that is, freed from those frames that limit its possibilities” (20).
Freed from limiting frames, Being appears as an open-ended process of interpretation. In the second part of the book, Zabala elaborates on the political implications of interpretation, particularly in relationship to resistance, transgression and alteration. Philosophical hermeneutics is often conceived as apolitical or conservative, and not particularly amenable to social transformation; Heidegger’s complicity in Nazism and Gadamer’s relative complacency about politics are typical examples. However, Zabala shows that that is not a completely accurate representation. He shows how hermeneutics can be deployed for emancipatory political struggles, as exemplified in its use by philosophers like Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo. By holding open the freedom of Being at large, hermeneutics resists any imposition of truth through power or external force, whether that is a political power or the external force of a theoretician attempting to define Being once and for all. In this sense, there is an anarchic vein running through hermeneutics, freeing the remains of Being from any imposed order. Zabala gives a thorough account of prominent figures in the development of hermeneutics, including its development in Biblical contexts, such as the works of St. Augustine and Martin Luther.
Zabala’s ontology of remnants (Being) and his elucidation of the anarchic dimension of hermeneutics (Interpretation) come together in the third part of the book, which focuses on emergency, divided into three sections: populism, biodiversity and revelations. The rise of right-wing populism in recent years is exemplified in the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States, whose administration denies the existence of emergencies like climate change, poverty and racism. That denial demonstrates a core point of Zabala’s book: the greatest emergency today is the “absence of emergency” (5). This is related to Heidegger’s insight that the greatest “emergency” today is Notlosigkeit, which can be translated as “an absence of emergency,” “lack of a sense of plight” or “lack of distress” (115). The rise of right-wing populism is an emergency not simply because of the violence it enacts but because it uses the spectacle of violence to prevent a sense of emergency from emerging.
Biodiversity loss is an emergency that poses an existential threat to humankind and to the majority of life on Earth. Representations of biodiversity in environmental activism and political discourse often render absent the emergency of mass extinction. Representational thinking assimilates the emergency into the acceptable frames of the global order, including statistics, security concerns, spectacular images, nongovernmental organizations, and conferences (146). Zabala’s hermeneutics aims to free the interpretation of biodiversity from its confines with the current global order. In that sense, hermeneutic philosophers can function as something like whistleblowers who publicly disclose matters that are hidden from the global order. Following the sections on populism and biodiversity, the final section of the chapter on emergency focuses on “revelations of whistleblowers” like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, all of whom showed “how challenging and dangerous it is to disclose revelations – to attempt to thrust us into emergency – within our global framed order” (150).
A brief afterword provides some remarks that conclude the book without offering any simple solutions. Rather, Zabala offers an invitation “to understand the current form of our world and to take an existential stand” (155). More specifically, this is an invitation to take an existential stand for freedom. “The promotion and exposure of absent emergencies has become an existential affair that we must all endorse if we care about our freedom” (159). One could criticize Zabala for a lack of specific injunctions or practices for facilitating the promotion and exposure of absent emergencies. However, those injunctions and practices cannot be imposed from without. Criteria for decision-making are immanent to the hermeneutic context in which those decisions take place. Zabala cannot tell anyone what to do, but he can invite participation in the interpretive openness of Being at large, and from that freedom one can take an existential stand.
Sam Mickey teaches in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the University of San Francisco, and is a research associate for the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. He is the author of several books, including Coexistentialism and the Unbearable Intimacy of Ecological Emergency (Lexington).