Critical Passion
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

Biding our time means being able to extract from ourselves and the world the ideas, words and images that fix time in its defiant immutability and prolong its insolent mobility. This is why Parmenides, the master of being, and Heraclitus, the philosopher of the future, kept up a dialogue and a debate that Electra has been listening to attentively.


António Sena, Untitled, 1980 
© Photo: João Neves

Electra – five years, 20 issues. On writing this summary, we are talking about many pages, with many words and many images. We are talking not only about what we have said and shown, but also what we have not said or shown. And we are talking about things that we started so that we could carry on with them later. We are talking about before and after. We are talking about everything left behind from everything that happens.

In the many pages of these 20 issues, we have sought to give life to our editorial plan. In the first number of the magazine, as was only right and fitting, we looked at time and the world that we call our own, both up close and from a distance.

Up close because it was an attentive, observant scrutiny of things that happen and appear (and sometimes even things that disappear).

From a distance, because by looking from afar we can distinguish the whole from the part, the hidden from the visible, the crooked from the straight, the underground from the surface, the closed from the open, the becoming from the being, the retreat from the advance, the substance from the random and the past and future from the present.

With this scrutiny, we are trying to grasp ideas, trends, sensitivities, wisdoms, utopias, mythologies, illusions and disappointments that encourage or discourage our times. We are also trying to critically name, reveal and clarify commonplaces, prejudices, errors, mistakes, idolatries, ghosts, fakes, blindness and hiding places.

In an interview by António Guerreiro for this issue, the Italian essayist and literary critic Alfonso Berardinelli reminded us of something that should never have been forgotten:

Satire, a sense of humour, these are pretty detoxifying, they have a purifying role, they disseminate a sense of ridicule… And today culture needs this, since it suffers from an intoxicating superproduction. The problem with today’s culture is that it doesn’t tolerate the existence of criticism. Political satire is extensively disseminated whereas cultural satire doesn’t exist.

The person giving this interview is the author of a vast, extremely interesting body of work of cultural critique and detective essays. We have described these essays as ‘detective’ because, just like murder mysteries and spy thrillers, they uncover hidden facts, pursue information, unveil secrets, stress dangers, interpret clues and identify leaks and changes. He has a powerful intelligence network at his service and so he can solve riddles and unravel enigmas, even though he then creates others that are just as opaque and intriguing. One of his latest books addresses the highly pertinent (and also highly impertinent) issue of cultural journalism and what been happening in recent decades.

In this interview with Electra, his ideas follow on from one another as he proposes hypotheses of understanding, ways of questioning and forms of (satirical and self-mocking) cross-examination. This is what we refer to as ‘critical thinking’, calling upon centuries and centuries of sedimentation of what we call culture for the act in which this thinking can be put to the test.

A close friend of Hans Magnus Enzensberger – the great German writer who died recently and about whom he wrote for Electra 18 – Berardinelli is more than a master of reading, as George Steiner liked to say of himself; he is rather, as Fernando Pessoa would say, ‘a disruptor of souls’.

If in this Editorial we are quoting from an interview that you can read further on, it is because it both affirms and confirms a great critical gap in the times in which we live and makes sense of the need to mitigate it, something that our editorial programme identifies with and raises awareness of.

In all the issues of Electra and in line with each subject matter, we have sought to open the way for a critical spirit to be applied and developed through a constant, deliberate openness to the verbal and visual forms in which this indefatigable spirit can dig deep.

To be genuine, profound and meaningful, criticism of politics, culture and society requires courageous lucidity and transgression; it requires risk and intellectual daring that hardly anyone seems interested in or capable of showing. It requires new, different, imaginative, unorthodox ways of thinking.

With well-aimed perversity, the power system in our times has managed to strip the authority away from all forms that threaten or detract from it or that create real, trustworthy, productive and therefore menacing alternatives to its rule. It has absorbed them, accommodated them, tamed them, falsified them, appropriated them, commoditised them and made them tools that prolong and corroborate the power that they seem to dispute.

With few exceptions, political criticism (so-called ‘commentary’ or ‘opinion’) has become a futile media spectacle; literary and artistic criticism (with inevitable star ratings) is editorial marketing and career-hungry mediocrity; social criticism (with its arrogant, two-faced academisation) stimulates inequality and conformism; economic criticism (with its compromising dependence) fosters continued single thought; and sports criticism (with its fraudulent montage) puts on an endless football reality show that sponsors unconfessed interests and unacceptable conveniences. Indeed, in all the circumstances in which we have just used the word ‘criticism’, we could and should prefix it with ‘pseudo’.

It is as if the current ‘order of things’, with its controlling device and the asphyxiating, totalitarian ideology emanating from it, had no exterior or, in the name of an artificial, bogus or imposed realism, did not accept the existence of any alternatives threatening its ‘eternity’.

Wanting to have genuine critical thinking in a world-setting like ours is almost like trying to make yourself heard in the midst of a raucous, massifying uproar that has no truck with any dissonance or disagreement. It is like wanting to wear something different when everyone else is dressed in the same uniform. But it is this ethical and cultural purpose that must be kept up.

In the awareness of this purpose, it is to original, unique voices of authors that Electra endeavours to listen, attract, capture, record and broadcast. These are the voices that can convey the sounds and signs of a thinking that refuses to be shouted down, tamed or besieged.

As they are the voices (or images) of critical thinking, the first requirement that they have to impose upon themselves is that of looking at the unstable, restless physiognomy of the world in which we live, with its radical changes, metamorphoses, transformations, ruptures and drifts. It is keeping up to date with the new forms of invention, creation, reproducibility and proliferation. It is not ignoring seduction, enticement, fraud, sham or manipulation methods. It is not underrating means of control, homogenisation, surveillance, blocking, harassment, confrontation and usurpation. This is also what Alfonso Berardinelli says in this interview. He is both detached and vigilant, personal and impersonal, local and universal, melancholic and combative.

Octavio Paz, whom Berardinelli also mentions, once warned:

A critical spirit is the great achievement of the modern age. Our civilisation was founded on the idea of criticism: nothing is sacred or untouchable, except the freedom to think. Thinking that rejects criticism, especially self-criticism, is not thinking. Without criticism, that is without rigour or experimentation, there is no science; without it there is no art or literature. I would even say that without it there is no healthy society. Today, creation and criticism are one and the same thing. The history of modern literature, from Cervantes to Joyce, is the history of criticism converted into creation. Criticism of society and of language, criticism of values and of gods, criticism of power and of ideas. A writer is not the servant of the church, the state, the party, the homeland, the people or social morality, as he or she is a servant of language. But writers only really serve it when they raise suspicions about it: modern literature is above all criticism of language. […] This is the apparent paradox of contemporary art, as it is communication and criticism of communication. It reflects society and, by reflecting it, denies it. It destroys language to create another language. […] Criticism of language and criticism of reality are part of the same search.

(Admission speech at Colegio Nacional, 1 August 1967)

In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon, the great British historian and author of the monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (it is always a good idea to never lose sight of the wisest specialists in falls, declines and ends), said, albeit with hyperbolic excess:

All that men have been, all that genius has created, all that reason has weighed, all that labour has gathered up – all this is the business of criticism.


Marlene Dumas, Genetiese Heimwee, 1984 
© Photo: Peter Cox / Courtesy Marlene Dumas Studio

The ‘critical passion’ that Gibbon, Paz and Berardinelli address does not need to don the mask of warring violence, savage aggression, vulgar insolence and even fierce intolerance that other times advised, claimed and even demanded. Doing so now would be exchanging foundation for form and contributing to the society of the spectacle with its narcissistic exhibitionism, clownish ostentation and frivolous fatuity that moves the huge, unstoppable global machine. With its grasping tentacles, this machine embraces and hoards, monopolises and dominates, swallows and totalises in dogmatic, colossal, relentless, spiritual, symbolic, intellectual, moral and physical consumerism. And it is also political, economic, social, cultural, artistic and environmental.

A true mise en abyme, each of the fragments bears the representation of its whole and its omnipresence. Each syllogism is dominated by the false logic of all sophisms and fallacies. In his films and writing, Pier Paolo Pasolini – to whom Electra devoted a Register of many different voices and points of view – prophesied this radical and even anthropological cultural change. Pasolini’s hard, radiant face was always marked by signs of this ‘critical passion’, this creative heresy and this accusatory eroticism with which he made his sacrilegious oeuvre the most lasting and prophetic.

We can conclude from what we have been saying that the real critical passion, which we acknowledge as valid and necessary, useful and urgent, is the only free, liberating, independent attitude, the one which Octavio Paz says is inseparable from creative passion.

Electra has made these two passions, for criticism and creativity, the centre of its programme and its raison d’être. It is a programme that rules out other loyalties and temptations. We are not apostles of any religion, servants of any orthodoxy, officiants of any idolatry or even disciples of any doctrine, because we are free, pluralistic analysts of them all. Firm in this direction and aware of its cultural and ethical value, far be it from us to revere aseptic neutrality, confused eclecticism, ambiguous condescension or sterile, timid abstention.

By combining philosophical reflection, artistic creation and a vocation for criticism, Electra, in its awareness of the signs and symptoms that either come from or are reflected in the world, seeks to sketch the face of our times, while pointing out everything that is precarious and provisional, unstable and unsatisfactory.

By raising awareness, since the very first issue, of its active disinterest in that diffuse, nebulous pollutant which – with nervous, toxic insistence – is called ‘opinion’, Electra asserts its unfailing interest in knowledge, whether it be know‑ how or perhaps even wisdom. This knowledge is created in a laboratory that uses the tools of intellectual courage, cultural non-conformism, cognitive progress and poetic adventure as its most valuable, productive and consequential allies. This is the knowledge that often advances boldly against the doxa and common sense, overcoming epistemological obstacles that are put in its way, as defended by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard.

It is from this knowledge-knowhow-wisdom, which sees and foresees the evolution of technology but is not exhausted, confined or besieged by it, that our ‘great times’, as Karl Kraus, the Austrian writer and journalist called them with bitter sarcasm, need to face up to the impasses, challenges and perils that have built up with their automaton Prometheus triumphalism.

Thinking about the present today is thinking about the present differently and in a new way. But it is also being the successor of all those who, in the past, thought of their present with an insight that is still useful and serves as an example to us today. They are the classics because, as the Italian writer Italo Calvino said, ‘A classic is a book that has never stopped saying what it has to say’. And the author of Invisible Cities, whose 100th birth date we are celebrating this year, said, ‘The classics are those books that bring with them the marks of the readings made before us and, through them, the traces they have left in the culture or cultures that they have traversed (or just in their language or customs)’.

The word ‘book’ used by Calvino can be understood in both a physical sense and a figurative, symbolic sense. There are forms of wisdom that have never taken on the physical shape of a book, but that constitute immaterial books that we continue to read and reread.

As has already been said, tongue in cheek, the present is foreseeing the past and writing the history of the future. With an intransigent, poetic lucidity that, when applied to politics for example, caused much misunderstanding and incomprehension, Octavio Paz also warned:

Men in general cannot see into the future. This is perhaps why our favourite occupation is predicting it. In order to exact revenge for our historical blindness, we make plans. These plans turn into building work, which in turn is transformed into ruins. […] History […] is the cemetery of plans. But without these plans peoples are not peoples and history is not history.

(In ‘Pasión crítica’, Suma y sigue)


Gerhard Richter, 17.4.08, 2008 
© Gerhard Richter 2019 (0289)

Let it not be said, however, that the intellectual rigour and vigour that our editorial programme requires prevent Electra from being a magazine in which this rigour and vigour are inseparable and allied with that pleasure and happiness that arise from the satisfaction in producing the work and for the work that is being and has been done. It was Albert Camus who spoke of a happy Sisyphus.

This happy, restless pleasure has a movement which is passed on to our readers, in a dialogue like Sisyphus’s exhausting climb, made of fresh starts and reiteration. Looking back on five years and 20 issues, our assessment of Electra’s editorial life is, as an informed, fruitful evaluation of all human undertakings should be, made up of pleasures and dissatisfactions. It is a record of triumphs and shortcomings. It is an assessment in which the joy at what has been done meets the responsibility for so much more than can and should be added in the future.

We have won our own place in the vast national and global universe of magazines. Among so many other places in the world where our magazine is available, you can find Electra on sale at Edinburgh airport, on a news stand in São Paulo, at a railway station in Berlin, from a kiosk in Rome or at a bookshop in New York.

A magazine is a constant exercise of replenishment and renewal. In each issue we replenish our readers’ trust in us, giving them good reason to do so and answer the question they ask of us, ‘Who are you?’ with another, symmetrical question, ‘Who do you want us to be?’

In each issue, we renew what we have to offer to our readers, with new ideas, new subjects, new authors, new points of view, new works. In each issue, we renew the continuity that gives us an identity and renew the surprise that is also part of this identity, that serves as our introduction and confirmation.

This issue marks the fifth birthday of Electra and is an example of this replenishment and renewal. In the dossier devoted to Taste, we ask how taste has changed in our days, aware that, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing’.

Hermann Broch says that Kitsch, that stunning form of bad taste, ‘is the evil of the art value system’, thereby giving it an ethical assessment.

In our times, the massification of communication and the commoditisation of culture have created a new, contagious type of Kitsch, which takes the form of endless aesthetic cannibalism representing the evil that is reflected and that is a reflection of the code of ethics that governs us. In this dossier, the questions and answers on taste and distaste, the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the vulgar, fashion and out-of-fashion sketch fundamental lines in which our times are presented and represented.

In addition to this dossier on Taste, this Electra 20 covers a variety of issues and a number of authors that we hope will match what we deliver to our readers with what our readers expect from us.

It is in the permanent renewal of this expectation and repeated confirmation of its fulfilment that the thread that binds the magazine to its readers lies. What we were yesterday has its continuation and will be added to what we will be tomorrow.

Being aware of this is the best way we have to celebrate the fifth anniversary and 20 issues of Electra with the renewed joy of meeting and the certainty of its confirmation.