A journey
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

Giving time a number that we use to count and commemorate it, is seeking a continuity that connects the future to the past in this strange, usual place that we call the present. It also means approaching what anthropologists call a symbolic domain or perhaps even a magical order. As we draw closer, we touch that distance in which surrealists saw life and freedom coincide in the myth that eternalises the moment.


Josef Koudelka
Location shooting of the film Ulysses’ Gaze, directed by Theo Angelopoulos.
The Danube delta region, Romania, 1994


As it publishes its 16th edition, Electra is celebrating its fourth anniversary. During this time, we and our readers have been on a journey where arrivals are always new departures. It was not by chance that we chose the word ‘journey’ to describe what Electra has become. We think that journey is better than other words to describe the identity of our magazine. Its main purpose has been to take a close look at what we call contemporary and it does so at the mobile intersection of many chronologies, many geographies and even some geologies, probing into the subsoil of what happens and does not happen, what stays and what goes.

In these years since 2018, changes and accelerations have continued to play together in an unpredictable and unstoppable game. But suddenly the Covid-19 pandemic inserted its name in ever-growing capital letters in the writing on the screens where our time is both shown and spoken of.

Suddenly, everything was being done differently, with the exception of the things that remained the same, in obedience to the powers and the sciences that determine the trends, movements, systems, devices, perceptions and practices that make the world what it is.

Among these powers and sciences, it was technology that continued to expand its rule over land, sea and sky and establish its sovereignty over bodies, minds and souls (to use a trilogy that Fernando Pessoa loved so much). Today there is no objective world or subjective self that has not made technology the new nature. Technology has undergone an ontological globalisation. We cannot do anything without it and everything that we do with it transforms everything and everything is transformed into it.

Some people feel that this endless, overwhelming advance has endowed humanity with magnificent, promising pathways, never before imagined or foreseen, and have opened up unprecedented possibilities in life. They feel as if the world has started again from scratch and we have returned to a paradise where the tree of life in the garden is that of numerical and digital knowledge. Instead of being a tempter, the serpent is itself tempted by what it is holding out as a temptation.

In this technological cosmos, nothing is the same any more and, with all the automation and artificial intelligence, we have no idea what is coming next. The world has become a material and immaterial place of a change that changes everything, constantly changing itself in a permanent, vertiginous acceleration. We only have a place in this world if we are able to get the heart of the present to beat in unison with the pulse of the future. This is why the most valued, repeated, indispensable words are: innovate, predict, anticipate, transform, reinvent, recreate, restructure, remake, rethink, refound, restart, reset.

Others, however, believe that in this not very ‘brave new world’, the old, fascinating telepathy techniques have slowly become unnecessary, outdated and replaceable with standardising technologies that generate mechanised and digitalised automation making the commonplace the password of our time. We do not need to try and read someone else’s thoughts because they are the same as ours. And we do not need to create or know our own thoughts because they are the same as everyone else’s.

Although many efforts are made to find, praise and evoke what is ‘different’, unanimism, standardisation and massification are now psychological compulsions, social duties, moral obligations, existential priorities and requirements for success. According to critics, the 19th century prophesies of collectivisation of the means of production have only partially come true. But in the 21st century, we have the collectivisation of means of creation, which have been transformed into means of recreation, re-creation, reproduction, repetition and entertainment.

In contrast with the optimistic apostles of the ‘tomorrows that sing’ of the digital technological revolution, those nostalgic for the ‘yesterdays that sang’ of analogical stability are the pessimistic prophets of the irreversible decline and decadent dehumanisation that they see, from politics to society, from the economy to culture, from education to science. Everything is being attacked and invaded by something they do not even call unique thought, as what that is and represents they cannot and do not want to call thought.

With these apostles and prophets on the banks, Heraclitus’ river is flowing faster and faster. More than at any other time, this is when we must not stop thinking. We need to think without making this desire and the will to fulfil it an aristocratic prevalence, spiritual privilege or intellectual arrogance. But neither must we confuse thought with simplistic, childish and grossly utilitarian and commercial shams that falsify and only serve to mask its absence.

Looking at time from a distance which allows us to really see it, has always been the purpose and editorial plan of Electra. The words and images that make up its content bring us the ideas and ideologies, trends and temptations, sensitivities and visions that shape our world and the time in which it is made and unmade every day.

To think critically, creating hypotheses and arguments, is to try and build, with what we think, intelligible thought that is inseparable from sensitive thought. Thinking with those who think is to go down a path without ever knowing where it leads. As we recalled in our first edition, quoting Michel Foucault, ‘There are moments in life where the question of knowing whether one might think otherwise than one thinks and perceive otherwise than one sees is indispensable if one is to continue to observe or reflect’.

For four years now, Electra has been on a journey that, just like the Odyssey, has expanded knowledge of the world and experience of the crossing with each edition. Our map is drawn by this journey taken with our readers, looking out at horizons where we see signs of the future and the past, of discovery and reconnaissance. It is in these signs that we seek sense, even if this sense does not appear – and the absence of this sense also makes sense and has a meaning.

Analyse, envisage, relate, investigate, interpret, decipher, assess, scrutinise, create – these are all verbs that conjugate ways of active, critical, creative and contemplative thinking. In each issue of the magazine, we address subjects that are so present in our lives that they often become invisible or ‘natural’. In some cases, they do not raise questions. If we are to think about these matters and attempt to identify and question their past and consequences, we often have to change scale and the way we see them. This is why we frequently go from a part to the whole, from near to far, from inside to outside, from the singular to the plural, from the rule to the exception, from the territory to the frontier, from the identical to the different.

Anthropologists keep giving us information to help us understand where we come from, and what happens to us and what we cause to happen. With his knack for synthesising ideas, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, ‘Humanity is forever involved in two conflicting currents, the one tending towards unification, and the other towards the maintenance or restoration of diversity’ (Race and History).

The anthropologist Françoise Héritier was the successor of Claude Lévi- Strauss at the Collège de France and Social Anthropology Laboratory. She thought of the identical and the different based on highly revealing and original research and fieldwork.

She said in her book entitled L’identique et le différent:

The opposition between the identical and different soon seemed to me to be an absolutely greater conceptual opposition […]. It is the basis of mental categories that oppose values in the form of binomials in all human societies. […] I was going to give these examples [hot / cold, high / low], but there are many others: pure / impure, secret / overt, healthy / unhealthy, empty / full, dry / wet, single /multiple, concrete / abstract etc. As far as I know, there is no society in which thought and language dispense with dualistic categories. Some people may use them in a more complicated way. But even in this case, as in China, yin and yang oppose and mix the identical and the different. Thus, in my eyes, the identical and the different are the original categories behind these mental categories that we use to think. And why are they behind them? Because they are based on something unwavering, which is the universal functioning of the mind. Let us imagine a human being, a child, faced with something completely unknown; the only way to overcome this unknown is to try to relate the details of its shape, colour and process to something they are already familiar with. It is a rational way of doing things that is innate to all humanity.

Human beings live between the search for their Self and their Other. Attracted by what gives them identity, they are fascinated by what makes them different. Reassured by the proximity that welcomes and recognises them, they want the distance that challenges, fascinates and surprises them. They have an image of what they think they are like and run towards the mirror that shows them the image they want or dream of, without ever really knowing what they are.

As has been said in classical poetry, those who call themselves human need roots and wings: roots to hold them fast and wings to move and carry them. Under the menacing, irresistible sun, we hear Daedalus warning us not to fly too high, but we still soar in Icarus’s rapturous, reckless flight. We live between the permanence of Parmenides and the future of Heraclitus. Diseases of excessive identity and diseases of a lack thereof share the same pitfalls and consequences.

One symbol of our identity issues is the Ship of Theseus and, continuing the Greek philosophical debates, what Hobbes, Locke e Leibniz said about it, which established a law for identity that is made of change.

From Descartes to Nietzsche, from the single founding subject to the broken- down and multiplied subject, identity was constructed and deconstructed in all its light and shadow. Foucault upheld that identities could be counterfeit forms of fixation and reification. As in subjectification processes, if and when there are identity processes, identities are merely fleeting stabilities, as they are never revelations of something that already exists, but rather renewed creations of what we want to exist.

In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, the issue of identity gave birth to the modern novel and was constantly being taken up again. Full of doubles, mirrors, disguises, masks, simulations, simulacra, ghosts, coincidences, conflicts, literature and art, in all their disciplines, they can be regarded as high tension (not only in the psychological and sociological sense but also in an electrical sense) between creations, assertions, questions, denials, escapes, reversals and perversions of identity.

In the early 20th century ‘crisis’ became a buzzword: identity crisis, crisis of the subject, of truth, of language, art and bourgeoisie crises (Thomas Mann and, before him, the inevitable disaster of Marx and Flaubert’s hate of the bourgeoisie) and crisis of the mind (Paul Valéry). And coming from the 19th century (‘Je est un autre’, Rimbaud), the dawn of the century that witnessed the two world wars made the individual or collective identity crisis a driver of its hectic progress.

Fernando Pessoa gave a more real, multiple, restless body to this phantom: ‘How should I know what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am? / Be what I think? But I think of being so many things! /And there are so many who think of being the same thing that we can’t all be it!’ (The Tobacco Shop); ‘Oh to be you, when I’m me!’ (Ela canta, pobre ceifeira).

T. S. Eliot felt that the identity crisis was the crisis of modern man (The Hollow Men). Pirandello and Proust, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and James Joyce, Gabriel de Tarde and Spengler, Freud and Max Weber were its wise observers and discovered some of the invisible ink with which the text of this crisis was written.

The identity crisis wound through the labyrinth of the entire 20th century until it reached post-modernity, which drew its moving or even absent face on the white sheet of time. Of so many works about this crisis, those of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges and Milan Kundera (Identity) are examples.

In a provocative book entitled The Defeat of the Mind, published in 1987, Alain Finkielkraut set out two views of a nation that clashed throughout the 19th century: the elective and the ethnic idea. The former regards the nation as a voluntary association of free individuals and its origin is in the Enlightenment that inspired the French Revolution. The latter, which springs from the German romantics and can also be seen in Edmund Burke and the French counter-revolutionaries, invokes Volksgeist, the people’s spirit, of which individuals are emanations. The writer of this manifesto-book upheld that whenever the ethnic and identity pulse took precedence over the elective and contractual theory, nationalisms won and Europe collapsed in agony. He then performed a highly critical review of contemporary culture and condemned its hedonistic, consumerist, ethnicist, relativist and anti-universalist tribalism.

Issue 16 of Electra addresses these and other matters in its dossier on Identity(ies). It contains many like-minded and complementary, as well as divergent and differing, points of view on these issues that drive our time, giving it fierce militancy, indignant exclamations, chances to fight, opportunities for assertion, impulses of exclusion and impetus for annulment.

Ranging from gender to ethnic, and from national to cultural identities, here we find the questions that we ask every day with joy and concern. These are more than just questions: they are challenges and forms of action.

A history of History could be a history of identities and otherness that are recognised, denied, suspected, allied, fought and killed in a variable geometry of routes in a changeable constellation of destinations.

History is made up of unexpected paradoxes and tragic ironies. In our time of instant proximity, global communication, unstable balance and unimaginable wars, the tension has reappeared between the identical and the different, between us and them and between universalism and individualism, often finding its point of reference and expansion in the past.

Everywhere, counter to the ideal of l’uomo universale in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, there are threatening, belligerent symbols of individual identities based on hostility, hate and non-recognition of differences, which are unilaterally and aggressively considered without reciprocity. Each identity group (ethnicity, class, gender, religion, nation, region, party, club, corporation) wants to force the world to submit to its codes and interests, if not its dogmas, mythologies and ghosts. In the name of a freedom that is claimed and defended, we want the freedom of others to bow down to ours in a kind of ethical protectorate or hierarchical feudalism of values.

As the second millennium drew to a close, Eduardo Lourenço, who conducted so much psychoanalysis of identities and their myths, wrote:

Our world, at the dawn of a new millennium, feels like one of those large airports where people ignore each other as they walk by. This image, which symbolises the famous globalisation, also suggests the dissolution in a huge maelstrom as colourful as a carnival of the historical and cultural identities that have characterised peoples and nations for centuries. But this first look at proximity and quasi-fusion in an identity bath, united by background music like karaoke and flashes in English, is dominated by an equally strong feeling that this feast of planetary unanimity is also an exhilarating or melancholic exhibition of relentless identities. The prospect of being dissolved in a universal magma of images and voices, where our own familiar one is already submersed or inaudible, brings us back to the kind of solitude that we all feel in the midst of a crowd.

As, according to Pascal, there is a good way to make the most of illness, for this one too, which could be called cultural solitude in times of cosmopolitan plenitude, there should be a way of taking a positive stance against 14 15 editorial the challenge that it poses, with what we are or imagine ourselves to be as different from others, if not unique. And on the condition of not making ‘identity’ a paranoid, autistic idea, a source of the worst aberrations that the 20th century is not yet done throwing at us. The only identity that is not aberrant is our common humanity. And this does not split us; it unites us. What causes a split is the confiscation that is common to us in the name of religious, ideological, cultural or civilisational individualisms that have been instituted by historical contingencies as a paradigm of humanity. (‘Tempo Português’ in Janus, 1997)

Since then, in these first two decades of the 21st century, identities have continued to mobilise (also in the war-related sense of the word) and assert their rights and others’ obligations to them. For many of them, their own rights are always absolute and those of others are always relative or void.

In a controversial book entitled In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, based on his experience as a man living between the West and the Middle East, between two countries and several languages, the Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, asked why, in human history, self-assertion is so often achieved at the expense of denial of the other. Contemplating the ruins and piles of bodies, the author of The Crusades through Arab Eyes was indignant at the madness of deaf fanaticism and blind fatalism that led to these tragedies.

Recognition and assertion of identities that have long been persecuted, silenced, despised, humiliated, subordinated or repressed, and the claims to their rights that have been denied or put off, is obviously a noble, worthy fight and a just, pressing cause. But fighting this fight in the name of a violent, absolute truth, of a tyrannical power or counter-power, using totalitarian methods, turns right into wrong and the victim into a persecutor.

By devoting this edition’s dossier to Identity(ies), we are aware that it is an essential issue if we are to understand our age. We know that this subject sparks enthusiasm, followers and passions, but also arouses irrationality, censure and vigilantism. We are doing what we have always done. We have brought on board writers who have devoted their thoughts and scrutiny to the issue of identities with precision and originality. They have different opinions and perspectives, depending on their fields of thought and philosophical positions. Their participation in this dossier has made a vital contribution to a debate that has become the centre of attention today.

There are no human issues that do not deserve a search for solutions. As Claude Lévi-Straus used to say in his melancholic, ironic way, ‘There is one of two options… And normally that is the third’. It is because we think in this way that Electra is a kind of Scheherazade that (just as the one in The One Thousand and One Nights) is forever telling stories that give it life, consistency, longevity and scope.

For four years now, our readers have joined us on this journey that is, by nature, valid and justified. As Konstantinus Kavafis said in his wise and beautiful poem Ithaka:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.1

This is the best safe-conduct for us to reach the time that comes from the future, bringing to the present the issues that help Electra be what it wants to be.

1. C. P. Cavafy, ‘The City’ from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.


Ulysses and the Arms of Achilles, Greek kylix, c. 480 BC