Marina Garcés. The city has always been a refuge

“Cities have never just existed for their own sake: they are places of arrival, dynamic centres that are created with people who come from the countryside and from other countries. If we deny this place of arrival to refugees, we are banishing them from the world”. These are the words of the philosopher Marina Garcés (Barcelona, 1973), for whom life is a shared web of commitments.

© Pere Virgili

From the perspective of commitment, with Garcés we discuss the Europe of cities, border Europe, Syrian refugees and the relationship between the world and the interdependent subject. And about Filosofía inacabada [Unfinished Philosophy], her latest essay, which offers us tools to reflect on the common ground of human experience from

an environmentalist perspective on thinking.

Europe as a union of nations was a failure from the outset. With the economic crisis, the Europe of nation states has also collapsed. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, recently talked of a network of cities: do you think this could be a good model for European relations? 

In principle, yes. It is very important that municipal politics take an approach that goes beyond simply managing the local area and that cities act as a platform for politics on a range of scales. But while I believe that it is vital that they act as a network, it’s not just to come up with a solution to Europe’s problems. In fact, we need to go beyond the Europe that we have built. The main problem with the European project is that it has solely and exclusively been designed from within. It’s pointless to replicate a Europe of cities with the same faults as today’s Europe of nation states: bordered, unified and closed in on itself. Let’s think about ourselves in Southern Europe. Why do we think that Tangiers or Tunisia are politically more distant than Oslo or Vienna? And let’s also think about ourselves transatlantically: the cities of Latin America are closely linked to each other, historically and through networks such as the Latin American Centre for Strategic Urban Development (CIDEU) based in Barcelona. Cities are free to build relations in a way that neither states nor nations are. The downside is that they are very restricted legally. An important battle that must be fought is the fight to conquer new legislative ground for cities.

The idea of city networks brings to mind the idea of collaboration, but in reality it appears that cities compete against each other. 

Municipalism carries a certain ambivalence that needs to be uncovered. City networks have been built on the basis of two opposing rationales: cooperation and competition. Barcelona has a dual nature: it is a leader in the cooperative municipalist tradition but also, in my view, an awful example of a branded city competing in the global marketplace of brands, with price rises and a model based on extractive tourism. Furthermore, brands don’t only compete: they are bought and sold. And Barcelona has lived very well from selling its model around the world.

Let’s move on to the reception of refugees. We’re talking about international problems being solved on the municipal level. Isn’t this an issue that is too big for cities to deal with? 

They are very restricted on a legislative level. But in their capacity to respond and in their conviction, they have been much faster and more effective than states, which are blocked by their own bureaucratic structure and their own vested interests. I’m not in the least bit surprised: where coexistence is more patent and more direct, the response to life-and-death emergencies is more effective.

I like to define cities as places of arrival. They’ve never existed for their own sake: they are dynamic centres that are created with people who come from the countryside and from other countries. City-dwellers are arrivers. If cities deny places of arrival to refugees, we are banishing them from the world.

There is talk of Barcelona taking in 1,200 refugees. Not a lot, when you compare it to the numbers taken in by smaller German cities. 

The Barcelona City Council is rolling out this scheme in opposition to, or regardless of, the Spanish government, while in Germany Chancellor Merkel is heading up the operation and has made it a national policy, serving whichever interests they may be. Then there’s the fact that Barcelona is in a state of social and economic crisis with job insecurity and a housing problem like few other cities in Europe. And we still need to bear in mind the fragility of the Barcelona en Comú government in the city council.

What challenges do the Syrian refugees pose?

They bring the European Union and its member states face to face with their own contradictions. And in Spain, they are opening up an even bigger minefield. We are a border country with a continuous stream of economic migrants. Why should we take in the Syrians and not any of the others? What difference is there between a military war (in the strictest sense of the word) and an economic war, a fight for resources, which makes thousands of people leave their homes in search of more security and better chances of survival? I also wish Barcelona would declare itself a city of refuge given the closure of Ceuta and Melilla. If it did, the idea of a city of refuge would take on a more radical and  more honest political sense that would open up a much more serious debate on what “we” means, on the life spaces we share in an ever more uninhabitable world, on this global war waged by capitalism against humanity. We’ll never solve Barcelona’s problems if we don’t put it into a shared world. 

Europe has been put to shame. 

Totally. It’s not just Fortress Europe that has been put to shame. A complete lack of engagement in a war that is our war has also been revealed. Now is the time for moral scandal, for big gestures and for urgency. But for how long has this war been going on? Which countries are involved in it? Which alliances? Whose weaponry? The war in Syria is our war because it is a World War in miniature. 

The humanitarian commitment to the refugees is a way of covering up the commitments that were not made before. And this reinforces the idea that we had nothing to do with the problem beforehand. We say that the refugees are arriving. But we should switch our perspective and ask ourselves where this situation began and what our relationship is to it. We were already involved in this war when no decision had yet been made on taking in refugees. The Paris attacks were a terrible reminder. We didn’t want to be there and now we are in it up to our necks, by force, by armed force. 

You always speak of commitment as the stage on which we move, and not as a purely voluntary mindset. 

For me, commitment is our essence, our way of being alive. We are also committed in shared situations at every level: biological, social, political… Ontologically speaking, we are committed beings. The thing is that we sidestep this through the different fictional realities that set us apart: the individual, the nation, the state… we create islands, bubbles of non-involvement in our true commitments that undo and neutralize our basic ties to others and to the world.

What are our true commitments?

The ones that link us to others and to the world we share. I stand for the idea that life is not just yours or mine: it is a shared problem. It takes different forms but they come back to a single web of commitments. Disconnecting ourselves, breaking the links to the shared condition of life as a problem, is an act of violence. Being committed is being aware, yes. But this isn’t a mental position, it’s a position one takes with one’s body, one’s life, one’s feelings.

The Thinking I, the World and God: these are the three elements that philosophical tradition has given us in the modern age. How do you explain your ‘we’ in this shared world? 

Taking a stance in a shared world forces us to move, to look all around us and to discover that we are involved. The tradition of Christian Enlightenment saw the world as our stage: God, from the exterior, puts man in the world. When God disappears, the relationship of exteriority between man and the world remains and the world becomes an object of consumption and exploitation. I argue that the world is the set of relationships of which it is made, and this set of relationships makes us what we are. Political thinking involves taking into account this set of relationships that we can think up and build together. They are relationships, so they are by nature dynamic. In other words, we can transform them together. They don’t define us.

What type of subject does this world of interdependency require? 

Not the modern subject, obviously. The whole of 20thcentury philosophy has already made a profound criticism of the subject based on the idea of unity, sovereignty and identity, a subject basically made up of conscience and will. The modern subject is an individual that has been freed from his determinants and his subjection to the world. The 20th century, with its terrible experience of destruction, deepens the subject’s crisis and reads out his death sentence. We now need to get through this crisis, this death, and find out what lies beyond: for example, autonomy, which is not an individual, but a collective attribute. Autonomy is the chance we give ourselves to transform the relationships of which we are made. 

The death of the subject as an opportunity. It seems contradictory, if we remember that the concept of the individual came about precisely as a form of emancipation… 

The category of individual arose in the 16th to 18th centuries as a movement of emancipation in the face of the unquestionable determinants of community of origin, religion or social class. The individual breaks these ties and we get the movement of subtraction that is needed to put values such as equality or freedom into practice. Our challenge is to re-forge the link with others and with institutions without losing the desire for emancipation so characteristic of that early radical modernity. 

Why emancipation? What subjugates us in a modern democracy?

We have discovered other forms of servitude and domination. The individual emancipates himself from the determinants of his background, but is condemned to make himself into a project and an enterprise in order to sell himself in a society that has been turned into a vast market. We find individuals who are just like businesses, in unbridled competition with each other. Heidegger put it like this: the conqueror has been conquered by his conquest. 

In the mid-20th century we could clearly see the drama of the modern subject unfold, this force of power that emancipates himself and then realises he is the destroyer of the world: we had enlightened ourselves, we had freed ourselves, we had killed off God… and we carried on killing each other. Today, we’re not so much killing each other as killing ourselves together. That’s what I explain in Filosofía inacabada.

In the first part of Filosofía inacabada you review the big questions that contemporary philosophy has left open. How do you approach them?

The book was born of the need to go beyond the oft-foretold death of philosophy. I decided to study philosophy in the early nineties, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the end of history went hand-in-hand with the aesthetic and philosophical debate on modernity and post-modernity. We were educated with the experience of an end that involved a two-fold depletion: the end of history and its promise of progress, and the end of systematic models of thinking. The book takes us on a journey around the landscape of thinking. The intention is not to stretch out a story that has been over-told, but to open it up to another experience of the relationship between thinking and the world. It’s not about dragging out the past of a dying philosophy but about opening ourselves up to the present of an unfinished philosophy. 

You define unfinished philosophy as a radical philosophy. How can a provisional philosophy be radical? 

“Radical” describes the willingness to question the paradigms and prejudices that govern us. So radicalness necessarily opens up and unfinishes the realities we think we know and recognise. It gives us other perspectives and exposes us to consequences that may even be unforeseen. Radicalness can never be sure of reality: it opens up provisional worlds. 

What do you mean when you say that for philosophy, the body has always been a corpse? What relationship with the body do you vindicate?

In the West, we have been dominated by a certain duality that puts the mind, the soul or the conscience at the centre of our understanding of reality, of knowledge and of our experience of truth. The body has been relegated to a supporting role, a machine or, as Plato said in one of his Dialogues, a tomb from which we ought to escape. This doesn’t mean that all philosophy has been dualistic and anticorporal, especially in recent decades. At least since Nietzsche there is a demand for incorporating the body into our thinking, for listening to its reasons and understanding ourselves as thinking bodies. I hope that this turnaround in our thinking doesn’t just amount to words and more writing about the body, but that it involves thinking from the body.

From Nietzsche to Jean Luc Nancy, the second part of the essay is a dialogue with twenty-six 20th-century thinkers, but they are all European or American. How should we read this, from the decentralised perspective of the West that you propose?

The 20th century, up to the point I track it, represents the culmination of Eurocentrism (even of North American culture) and of the colonial perspective on the building of a global world. Up to the late 20th century, we were not aware of the loss of centrality of western culture. From then on, the world started to reconfigure itself into a multipolar structure, although this wasn’t necessarily more just or more egalitarian. Europe has become provincial. What I am looking for in the major thinking of the 20th century is the self-criticism of the Western tradition. If we are reading it right, 20th-century philosophy is both a cry of pain about its own heritage and a very rich tool box for seeking out new alliances with other sources and paradigms of thinking. 

To create new concepts and ontologies from the shared world perspective, you say we need to change the national/cultural map, which closes identities and their ideas of the world into units under Western domination. How can we do this?

I propose an environmentalist notion of thinking that replaces the historicist and culturalist notions. The former tells us that there is only one history of philosophy with a single meaning and a single horizon. The latter tells us that each ethnic or national culture has its own philosophy. I believe that thinking depends on contexts that either foster or hinder the possibilities of a radical and creative experience of the truth. On the Iberian Peninsula we have grown up in an environment that, historically, has been averse to philosophy. How can we foster contexts that encourage thinking? What conditions are required? Today, from the point of view of ecosystemic wealth (which doesn’t see philosophy as history but as inconstant diversity) is it possible to think of the shared pool of human experience? The premise of Filosofía inacabada is “yes”. It is not just possible, but necessary. 

Anna Punsoda


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *