In the movie "The Square – the art of discord” (Ruben Östlund, 2017) we follow the director of a Swedish museum (Claes Bang) trying to reconcile his good intentions with the unexpected consequences of his actions. For example, he tries to break up a couple's fight on the street, only to discover that it was a scam, and that in the end they took his wallet, cell phone and cufflinks that had belonged to his grandfather. It is possible that if there hadn't been this touch of personhood involving the family legacy and his good intentions, that is, if he had been and anonymously pilfered on the street, perhaps he would have accepted the fact. But involvement is always expensive. That is why he decides to welcome the “brilliant” idea of a subordinate writing a letter of denunciation, placed in the mailbox of all the residents of the building where it was possible to see that the cell phone had been stolen, but without knowing its exact location. The plan seemed perfect: the criminal, intimidated by being recognized, without knowing that everyone had received such correspondence, would return the product of the theft, thus avoiding the extensive and complex participation of the police. However, at the time of execution, everything starts to go wrong, starting with the inconsistency of the author of the brilliant idea, who refuses to enter the building as he had promised. From then on, a tragic repetition of this same mistake and its devastating consequences begins.
The Square it is an updated irony of our cubicle morality, based on the non-dialectical opposition between two contradictory principles of our narcissistic experience:
- Maintain an attitude of benevolent indifference toward others. As the funk says: to each his own and everyone in good. Do not leave your square, be it the cell phone screen, the computer screen, the movie screen, Robert Rauschenberg's white screen or Ives Klein's blue cube. Your space is yours, whether defined by the boundaries of your body or the use of your image. Never let anyone take what is yours and keep the walls of your intimacy as your most important asset. Above all, get used to it and force yourself to be happy in this square. Don't let anyone know that you care, need, or depend on recognition from others outside of it.
- When someone enters your square or when you deliberately leave it, every reason will be granted to you immediately. In the name of justice or revenge, based on piety or freedom of expression, you will always have at least some reason to do what you do. The consequences of a nonspecific action on an undetermined target should be thought of as a generalized bombing of an enemy city. Collateral damage, victims of friendly fire, everyone should understand that, deep down, they shouldn't have placed their square in that place.
The disproportionate response slowly takes its toll. This is also the feeling we have every day when it seems to us that people have lost the exact size of themselves and the world. Everything seems out of volume. Either we are overly reactive, sensitive, and offended, or we reverse the signal and become overly apathetic, inconsequential, or selfish. In short, when we feel that we have been hit in a particular way, as a result of our specific contingencies and our unique weaknesses, we tend to react driven by necessity, attacking in a non-specific way in order to show off our power of intimidation. This is also how a generally good action can have terrible consequences in specific terms. What we forget here is that our actions are mediated by mistakes and misunderstandings. Typical forgetfulness of those who live and converse only within their square.
"Menon” is a dialogue by Plato in which a slave, without previous education, is proposed to draw a square with twice the area of an original square. Initially, the slave boldly advances, proposing the duplication of each side of the square, which Socrates shows to be an error, since this results in a square with four times the original area and not two, as he had been asked. Thus, the slave passes from total and mistaken certainty to equally generic helplessness in which he declares himself incapable of facing the problem. The philosopher's shrewdness lies in showing that he was on the right path, but he concluded in a hasty way. It would suffice to note that the square he drew was twice the size of the requested square, so it would be enough to divide this square in half to get the correct answer.
There is a classic lesson here about the importance of reminiscence in the realization of knowledge. Deep down the slave knew the answer, but he didn't know that he knew. Showing first that he is possessed by a false certainty (irony) and then that he could think of the correct solution for himself (maieutic) Plato makes his point.
However, the example remains current if we take it to face our own cubical morality. The immediate response when it comes to getting out of your square is based on a certain excess. This moral excess stems from two overlapping things: I am angry because I have been thwarted: stole my wallet, took advantage of my good faith. But my anger quadruples because I hear a punishing voice in the background saying, “See what happens when you worry about others? Go back to your square and learn to stay there!”. So far we are like Meno's slave. Helpless and restless because our good motives only bring us undesirable consequences, giving rise to lawsuits that turn against us. Fate is unfair and the Other is malevolent, accept it, the lazy will say.
But here comes a detail that interests psychoanalysts. Duplication is bearable if we rely on division. Duplication is the principle of what Lacan calls the imaginary. Thinking that the other is you, acts like you and that they are all the same, like the residents of the same building at which you can be barking and threatening because someone moved your cheese, or rather, your square. Division is a symbolic correlate of our experience of the other. It is not just a matter of division as the sharing and circulation of reason and power, but the division of the subject itself. As Hanna Arendt would say: promising and forgiving go together, for the other and for ourselves. Going back and forth, going beyond limits and setting limits on outdated borders. All these practices are scarce in our times of narcissistic turmoil. What made the protagonist's anger inflate disproportionately, a theme that will reappear in several other moments of the film, is the fact that he doesn't forgive himself. He does not admit the division and inconsistency of his own “good feelings”.
Here comes the third suggestive point in the relationship between the Greek square and the contemporary square. Note that the mathematical solution passes through the use of the diagonal of the square. First you quadruple and then you divide. To divide we have to rely on the diagonal of the square, which for the Greeks was a problem, as this referred to an irrational number. A number that we can operate with, but not calculate integrally, like the square root of two. A number that can later be integrated into the real number line. Now, we come to the third ingredient of the moral equation of our time: it is not enough to deflate the imaginary and then symbolically divide its effects, it is necessary to operate with the Real. The real is the impossible that makes our squares immeasurable, regardless of good or bad faith. We don't need to imagine a city of perfect squares, with everything and everyone in their place, in fact it is possible that this imagination is doing us harm. Each of us, and worse, each of the others, has its own diagonal, with its disproportionate side to everyone else and to itself.
It's good to find out soon what your diagonal is made of, otherwise it will get you.