“The pandemic has shown us that we humans share air and saliva, that we are all connected”

Daniel Gamper

Retrat de Daniel Gamper. © Clara Soler Chopo

Daniel Gamper was all set to be a scientist, but reading Jean Jacques Rousseau made him pick philosophy. He had always lived in Sant Cugat until ten years ago when he decided to move to Barcelona with his family. At home there was much talk about his great-grandfather, Joan Gamper, who they knew as “l'avi” (grandad), and Barça permeated every corner of the house. More than a philosopher, he likes to define himself as a professor of philosophy, and he lectures, now online on account of the pandemic, at the UAB. His speciality, political philosophy, has led him to reflect on concepts such as democracy and religion. He has also translated works by Nietzsche, Scheler and Habermas. His book Las mejores palabras. De la libre expresión [The Best Words. On Free Speech] earned him the Anagrama Essay Prize 2019.

Daniel Gamper (Barcelona, 1969) is a professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and contributes regularly to media outlets that include the newspaper ARA and La Vanguardia. His research has focused on the fields of democracy, politics and religion. He has published numerous academic articles on the role of religions in democratic societies. Some of these reflections are featured in the book Laicidad europea: apuntes de una filosofía política postsecular [European Secularism: Notes on a Post-Secular Political Philosophy] (Bellaterra, 2016). He has also reflected on concepts such as tolerance and the limits of liberalism and has translated leading authors such as Nietzsche, Scheler and Habermas. In conjunction with the CCCB, he has interviewed thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman, John Gray and Michael Walzer for the Dixit Collection (Katz and CCCB publishing houses). His latest piece of work, Las mejores palabras. De la libre expresión, was awarded the Anagrama Essay Prize 2019.

Do you recall the moment you decided to dedicate yourself to the world of ideas and become a philosopher? It’s not the usual path a young fellow wants to pursue...

Everything is very random when you’re sixteen years old. In my case, I was doing pure science and in third year of BUP [former secondary-school certificate and course for 14-17 age group] when we read Rousseau’s book Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men and I realised that, in philosophy, problems didn’t just have one right answer. This intrigued me. And with a certain unconsciousness I stopped wanting to study chemistry and wanted to go down the philosophy path, even though I had no idea what philosophy was. Well, even now it’s not that clear to me... (laughs)

In any case, once you made the decision you didn’t go back on it.

No, I had a brilliant time the first year and studied with tremendous enthusiasm. But right now I don’t consider myself a philosopher either, I’m a teacher of philosophy. Philosopher is a very big word.

How did they take it at home?

Well. Too well. They respected my decision because they thought I was so sure about things, but, in actual fact, I didn’t have a clue... (laughs)

Could the family environment you grew up in be considered intellectual or conducive to being cultured? What books were in the family library?

There were books at home. My mother and father were always reading. My father was fond of war novels and essays on World War II. I suppose it was a generational thing, since during the Spanish Civil War, when he was a child, he was in Germany. My mother read everything: bestsellers, romantic novels as well as noir fiction. And from them I inherited the custom of grabbing a book when you have spare time. But it was not a particularly intellectual environment. My father keeps telling me, “Your writing must be brilliant, but I don’t understand a thing!”

Do you remember any books that made an impression on you, especially as a child?

I read The Famous Five, The Adventures of Tintin comic series and The Happy Hollisters. At school they made us read a great deal, and they made us read the newspaper, which taught me a lot. Every day one of us had to read the news in the press, and it was a very interesting exercise.

What school did you attend?

The Tagore school in Sant Cugat, a Catalanist school that later ceased to exist. And at the beginning of secondary school, one day a teacher read a story by Cortázar in class, La señorita Cora [Nurse Cora]. And it was magnificent, wonderful. Then I started reading South American authors, Cortázar, Borges, because I had an Argentine friend who acted as my reading guide, followed by European authors. It wasn’t until much later that I started reading Catalan literature in Catalan. And when I read Sagarra’s Memòries [Memoirs] at the age of 35 I thought: being able to understand it perfectly is marvellous! All the references, the language... Because otherwise you are always bridging cultural and linguistic distances...

Speaking of cultural distances. What influence has your surname borne on your life? Being a great-grandson of the founder of Barça must somehow leave its mark...

Yes, there are loads of people I ultimately only talk about football with. I talk about football a lot more than I would like. I see football as a very tribal thing: I like talking about it with people who support Barça and who think exactly as I do. (laughs)

Ha, ha. Don’t you like the contrast of ideas in football?

No, there isn’t any contrast of ideas, there’s an orthodoxy, some of us are familiar with it, and I talk to them. But hey, it’s a surname that gives you an inlet into lots of places, because Barça has a huge influence.

When did you realise that you are the great-grandson of the founder of Barça?

There was a lot of talk about it at home. We called him “l'avi” (grandad) because he was my father’s grandfather. My father didn’t know him because he died young in 1929. My father is now 86 years old. He was born in 1933. He didn’t go to the stadium much, he stopped going after Kubala because the football he liked was the one of that era, when it was played with five forwards. But we did go to the Gamper Trophy and some matches, where I had some sort of epiphany.

And how was football experienced at home?

What I remember is that when there was a penalty against Barça, my father would go into the bedroom and wouldn’t re-emerge. (laughs) Because the true Barça supporter never watches Barça; he talks about them though, and criticises them a lot. But he doesn’t watch them.

Daniel Gamper i David Miró durant l'entrevista.© Clara Soler Chopo Daniel Gamper and David Miró during the interview. © Clara Soler Chopo

What’s your take on everything surrounding Maradona’s death?

I learned about football with Maradona. I started with Schuster at the stadium, and when Maradona came along I watched every match. I was there the day that Goikoetxea injured him, at the Bernabéu final when they beat Atlético de Bilbao, at the final in Zaragoza when they beat Madrid with that goal from Marcos at the end of the match... That for me was the ultimate game when I understood that football was really ‘cool’... But the reaction to Maradona... I realise that he’s ‘God’ in football, but I think we make fools of ourselves when we take sport out of the tribal realm and start lending it more meaning than it has.

You wrote an article about Naples and Maradona in Panenka magazine.

Yes, they were both predestined to meet. Naples and Maradona are alike, and that combination created a stratospheric phenomenon that could not have occurred here on any account. My wife is from Naples and I was able to do a story on all the chapels and places of worship to Maradona in Naples. A stone’s throw from my wife’s house, for example, is a bar where they say they have one of Maradona’s hairs and people flock to see it. And the Maradona icon is fantastic because he was very photogenic, that’s what image experts say. Maradona is much more photogenic than Messi.

Do these people express themselves better through football than through words?

I don’t think they’re expressing themselves when they play, it’s something else. They don’t even control it. The footballer doesn’t know what he’s doing nor how he’s doing it, it just comes to them. It’s like an event, and they’re like an instrument through which it takes place. That’s what happens with Messi, of whom I am a devout follower.

Have you ever met?

I once handed him the Gamper trophy. I guess he’s used to being looked at in a certain way, and so he stares you in the eye, so you feel respected by him, as if there’s a connection. And I said thank you to him, that’s all you can say to him.

You are currently a Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the UAB. How do you give your lectures? Virtually?

Yes, but neither the students nor I are comfortable with that. It isn’t a gratifying teaching experience. You don’t know if they’re listening to you or not because you can’t see them, they have the camera off. In class you can see who is being attentive and who isn’t, if they are following the train of thought, and you can shout or scold them, but not now. I complain to them too.

What was your experience of the toughest months of the lockdown, March and April?

Closely confined at home with my family. We coped very well because we prepared ourselves and followed a routine, exercising, and so on. I was the only one of us to lose my temper and good humour from time to time. They’d have surely got on better without me. (laughs)

The pandemic has led democratic institutions to impose tight restrictions on rights, arguing that it is the only way to curb the virus. How do you perceive this clash between individual freedom and collective security?

Shortly after the lockdown began, I stopped reading the news. The first ten days I read everything, a friend even shared foreign newspapers with me, but I suddenly stopped and read Tolstoy. I protected myself somewhat from all the information and decided not to think about it too much. If you read Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, there’s not much difference with what happened. The dream of the authoritarian utopia fulfilled: the empty streets, everyone at home. It can be interpreted like so, but also through this sort of paradoxical solidarity, the let’s-take-care-of-ourselves but with no public space, because showing solidarity was not getting close to one’s neighbour. I don’t think it’s particularly exceptional, because there have been other pandemics. I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but I stopped because I didn’t want to get obsessed.

For the first time we have seen the authorities overwhelmed, unable to respond to the crisis. Do you think this will bear a long-term impact?

On the one hand, there has been a very clear conformity. If exercising power means getting people to do something they would rather not do, it has been done very well. Then making mistakes is inevitable, and a lot of them, in this situation. There isn’t anybody who hasn’t made mistakes. This is proven by the fact that it is not a situation that can be resolved in a way that you say: this government has handled it so well. The only ones who handled it well were the Chinese, at least they can sell it that way, although, as they are hazy, no one knows exactly. But it is clear that the more authoritarian you are and the less individual liberties you recognise, the easier it is to manage a crisis like this one.

That’s another paradox, isn’t it? That the best way to deal with the pandemic is through an authoritarian system...

The thing is, the best way to order a society is through repression, weapons and authoritarian power. Democracy is disorder, it is conflict, it is divergence. And we have decided to live in it because we value individual liberties, but not because we value order.

There has been a certain discourse that the crisis was supposed to be led by scientists, but they can’t decide everything, right? There are also decisions that are political. For example, the degree of mortality we are willing to accept so as not to destroy the economy.

Obviously, politicians cannot offload the decision on scientists. This is settled better in a technocracy, because technocratic governments can make decisions that others cannot. When [Mario] Monti decides to increase the retirement age in Italy, he can do so because no one has chosen him nor did he contemplate running in the elections, although he did run in the end. In a democracy, technicians, scientists must be advisers, but they cannot be the ones making the decisions. And the skill of politicians lies in knowing how to select advisers. In this situation, politicians have to choose how they want to make mistakes. And the person who causes less damage will make fewer mistakes, and we’ll only see the damage many years from now. Because, for instance, we will not see whether mortality has risen on account of poverty until many years from now.

Won’t it be possible to take stock of the management being undertaken now until five or ten years from now?

Yes, maybe ten or fifteen years from now we’ll have reliable statistics on everything that’s happened. In the meantime there will be elections and governments that will fall. But we have to keep in mind that people vote out of emotions and feelings, and not so much to have a clear idea about what has happened.

Donald Trump was on the verge of winning the election with highly questionable management of the pandemic in the United States.

Daniel Gamper amb mascareta. © Clara Soler Chopo Daniel Gamper wearing a mask. © Clara Soler Chopo

Whether the management is questionable or successful will also depend on how people are informed, on the capacity of the  media to convey true information. Keep in mind that Trump, rather than broadcasting fake news, reported that what the media was saying was fake news, thereby discrediting the journalistic guild and arousing the suspicion that any news could be fake or true. Therefore, even if you have statistics that show that the management has been disastrous, they will claim that they are “alternative facts”.

In your book Las mejores palabras. De la libre expresión (Anagrama Essay Prize 2019) you write: “A new freedom has been consolidated, that of affirming and denying the same thing simultaneously, of contradicting oneself and saying just anything.” Can we no longer be too sure even of words? Is there no way to discern between what is true and what isn’t?

Well, what Plato said about the sophists was already that: you teach people to talk about anything, regardless of whether it is true or false, because it is a question of persuasion. That’s part of politics, as Hannah Arendt also claims. Truth and politics are two different fields of knowledge, two different epistemes. The first one says whether it rains or not, they are ascertainable facts, whereas politics moves in the realm of persuasion, rhetoric, sophistry... a little bit of everything goes.

But shouldn’t citizens have a minimum of shared truth in order to make good political decisions?

Social media is likely to have exacerbated the creation of bubbles in which everyone listens to what they reaffirm in their own ideas. This is very well explained by Habermas in History and Criticism of Public Opinion. National issues are starting to be discussed in cafés and then the newspapers create a conversation, but the conversation presupposes the existence of something in common, even if it is only the will to understand one another, but also the existence of a shared space, common problems. Today there is no conversation, there is a raucous gathering, there are monologues, screams, pictures, emoticons, exclamation marks that suggest a great deal but just don’t say much. And we have seen this during the procès [drive for Catalan independence] in Catalonia: the power of images to tilt public opinion towards one side or the other.

In this case the same picture was decoded differently by various parties. Images of the police charges on 1-O [the Catalan independence referendum of 2017, also known as 1-O (for “1 October”)], for example.

Yes, you were told: look at this photo. Looking at the photo isn’t enough; I want you to interpret it for me. That a picture is worth a thousand words isn’t true.

Where some saw repression, others saw a riotous uprising.

Yes, but one should consider what happened the day before. And the year before? That picture without an interpretation is nothing. It’s a stimulus that, as you’re reading the Twitter timeline, has you overwhelmed by very powerful emotions: you’re outraged, you’re saddened, you’re gladdened. You see it on the train, how people are smiling, and their face changes. And in the end you’re fuming. What happened to me in those 20 minutes? Well, everything did. I’ve been saddened and outraged, and I’ve also contributed to the downheartedness and outrage of other people because I’ve retweeted and liked it. Ugh! I want a normal life!

Do you have social media?

I have Twitter, but I only use it a bit when I want to circulate something I’ve done. And I don’t have it on my phone. I just look at it on my computer for an hour each day. I think it’s best not to have it, but I also like to see that someone is listening to me.

That happens to everyone, right? There is a certain exhibitionism and also the need to feel recognised by others.

Yes, indeed, the thing is that I go about it very carefully. The other day I was with my son and I said, “hey, I want to tweet what I published in ARA, but with a caption”. And he replied: “Ow, let’s see how long that takes you”. It can take me 45 minutes to decide on that caption, because I don’t know how to write a tweet, I’m incapable. I want to take so many factors into account, how this or that will be interpreted, I think about it so much that in the end I almost never write.

How have you experienced a city with no tourists, a city where, for the first time, you could hear church bells ringing, birdsong or even silence?

Well, I’m from Sant Cugat and I’ve lived in Barcelona for ten years. I’ve always come to the city for an amble, and I like to stroll around Barcelona. It’s a city that I don’t look at like someone from here, but rather I look at it with a certain astonishment and as if I’m visiting. But it’s worrying, because a very strong commitment to tourism has been made. I don’t know what has made the city so dependent on this revenue; I don’t know whether it has been a conscious decision or whether it has just happened. I don’t want to make the sentimental statement that asserts “the city for the people of Barcelona”. Obviously, I like walking down the Ramblas more than I did before. Actually, I didn’t venture there before, and now it turns out it’s pretty and you didn’t remember it being so. It’s not that it’s striking either, it’s fine, but behind all the closed premises, the closed shutters, there is poverty, social unrest... If you play everything on a card like tourism, then the fragility of the model is revealed, because disaster can happen at a moment’s notice.

Is this the major lesson of the pandemic for you? The fragility of human existence?

The idea is interdependence. What have we realised? Well, that we share saliva, and you don’t have to snog someone to share it. We share the air and we share saliva, we are all connected, we need each other, we are not alone. Hobbes’ idea is false. This was explained very well by Judith Butler at the CCCB: how did it occur to someone to explain that the world is a place where there are people who hate one another and who all compete for the same thing. These people, when they were children, had someone to look after them. This is the main relationship. “Every man for himself” or a “free-for-all” is a misleading description. It’s not that it’s ethically undesirable. The fact is that isn’t true. And the pandemic proves that we share the same fate, just as we share saliva or these aerosol droplets. Turns out you go to the supermarket and, when you leave, you carry a microscopic particle of the lady who was in the other aisle. We are connected. And that will mean that, when this is over, lots of people will still be wearing masks because they’ll say they don’t want to share their saliva with other people.

Will you take the mask off?

The day we’re told we can, I’ll take it off, needless to say! The thing is that it’s very uncomfortable and unpleasant. I don’t know what your face looks like. We met like this, and so did she [Clara Soler, the photographer] and I. We’ll say goodbye to one another like this and I have no idea what her face looks like. And lately I’ve been making friends who I wouldn’t recognise without a mask.

  • Las mejores palabras. De la libre expresiónAnagrama, 2019
  • Laicidad europea. Apuntes de filosofía política postsecularEdicions Bellaterra, 2016

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