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Demand Everything! An Interview With Philosopher Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley is chair of the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His recent books include "The Book of Dead Philosophers" (Vintage

Simon Critchley is chair of the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His recent books include “The Book of Dead Philosophers” (Vintage, 2009), “On Heidegger’s Being and Time” (Routledge, 2008) and “Infinitely Demanding” (Verso, 2007). His next book, “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying: Conversations With SC” (Polity) will be published in October. In the following interview with Anders Gullestad, Critchley explores a broad span of topics, from political disappointment to the use of fictions in the political realm.

Please join Truthout in Chicago for a conversation with philosopher Simon Critchley on May 28th.


Anders Gullestad: Throughout your career, you’ve written about a wide range of topics: about philosophers living and dead – especially dead ones, deconstruction, Continental philosophy, humor, Samuel Beckett, Terence Malick, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, political philosophy, ethics, neo-anarchism, religion – in fact you are here in Bergen to talk about Saint Paul – and countless others. Would you say there is a red thread connecting these and, if so, what is it?

Simon Critchley: The best way of answering that is by thinking about the question of disappointment. I have argued that philosophy doesn’t begin in wonder or in the fact that things are, it begins in a realization that things are not what they might be. It begins with a sense of a lack, of something missing, and that provokes a series of questions. The two main axes that have organized my work, for the most part, are the themes of political and religious disappointment. The latter is the realization of the death of God, that there is no guarantee of transcendence. That opens up the problem of nihilism, namely that the highest values that drove classical metaphysics – God, freedom, immortality – had devalued themselves, as Nietzsche puts it. This is something that drives a big part of my work and then the question of what form revaluation might take.

Over the years, I’ve then looked – for example in “Very Little … Almost Nothing” – at aesthetic and literary ways of recreating meaning, the project of romanticism. That has led me into discussions of authors like Beckett. The funny thing is that the very first time I talked about him, it was here in Bergen – in January 1995. I was writing what was then just a disconnected series of reflections. I stumbled into Beckett as my father was dying, reading “Malone Dies” and the other parts of his trilogy, then wrote something in a real sort of frenzy, which I presented here. It was a very important moment for me and I always connect this place with that experience.

The other side of my work is political disappointment – the realization that we are living in an unjust world. “Blood is being spilled in the merriest way, as if it was champagne,” Dostoevsky says. That raises the problem of justice, what it might mean in an unjust world and whether there can be an ethics and a political practice that would be able to face and face down the injustice of the present. How might we begin to think about that? “Infinitely Demanding” is a short book, but very important for me, because I try to lay it out in one continuous argument my response to that question.

So the unity of my work is around the question of disappointment and different forms thereof. But there is nothing disappointing about it. It is what motivates you into action, as a condition for engagement with the world. So it does not mean resignation, which some people seem to think. On the contrary, if you begin from an idea of wonder or enchantment, then you’re really going to be disappointed. [Laughter.]

AG: So, if we were to rephrase the Bible, we could say that for you, “In the beginning was disappointment”?

SC: The Bible of modernity, as it were.

AG: As you say, disappointment and having a bleak outlook on life aren’t necessarily connected. You, in fact, come across as somewhat of an optimist in your work.

SC: Yeah. It depends what day of the week it is, but basically, yes. I’m convinced that the conditions which we find ourselves in give us modest grounds for belief in emancipation and hope. One of the figures I continually come back to, is the figure of passive nihilism and I think we live in a time of pervasive passive nihilism. In the face of a chaotic and bloody world, one withdraws into oneself to cultivate practices of self-perfection. This can be linked to all sorts of new age beliefs, as well as to those that cultivate a sort of literary or aesthetic pleasure. I don’t share this feeling. I feel that human beings, in concert, in the right conditions, are capable of extraordinary outcomes.

AG: Now that you’re nearing 50, would you say that there’s been one continual evolution to your thought, or have there been any major paradigm shifts, philosophically speaking?

SC: Many and there continue to be so. It feels like I’m just at the beginning, really. I think things are shifting all the time. There was a real shift towards political philosophy in the early 1990s. I worked closely together with Ernesto Laclau at Essex. I was a young faculty member at the time and I really soaked up his work, read a lot of Gramsci, a lot of democratic theory. Even though I had political sympathies, I wasn’t really a political thinker, so I taught myself a lot more about that in the real hothouse environment at Essex.

Then in the mid-1990s, psychoanalysis became hugely important for me. I was teaching a lot of Freud, became interested in Lacan and that was a shift: realizing the depth in the psychoanalytic view of human beings. A series of other shifts would be connected with different authors, figures like Blanchot and then there were also further political ones, particularly in connection with the anti-globalization movement. It’s a misnomer, but anyway, the sort of shift in the politics of resistance that happened after November 1999. That was something that became more and more important to me through the impact of Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” – although I disagree with that book profoundly – and then a turn back to Marx. A lot of that was reflected in “Infinitely Demanding,” where you can also see a shift towards a more anarchist position from 2005 and onwards. The influence of being in New York, made me realize a lot of the ethical and political ideas I want to push or promote are best articulated within an anarchist program.

AG: So, these connections to the so-called anti-globalization movement and then, later, to these neo-anarchist practices, are they both on a theoretical and practical level or do you stick mainly to the former?

SC: Initially, it was theoretical, but it has become increasingly practical, in the sense that being in New York, I was introduced to a whole activist scene. To give one practical example, there’s been a struggle at the New School, concerned with the governance of the University. We have a president who is not capable of the job and there’s been a movement amongst faculty and students to get rid of him. So there’s a very practical, local issue of how we can reclaim the autonomy of an institution, but which at the same time has been a very theoretical enterprise, in that a lot of the students involved I’d taught in reading groups, there were activists that I knew. David Graeber, for example, who is an anarchist thinker and practitioner, was very important in the early years in New York. Through actions like that, I read things like “The Invisible Committee,” the Tiqqun group in France.

So yeah, it’s theoretical – I teach philosophy and I write. I can’t claim to be at the barricades throwing Molotov cocktails at the police all the time, but I still have a connection to practical politics. In fact it’s gone in a strange way, as, during the 1980s in England, I was someone who came from the extreme left, but joined the Labour Party in 1984. A lot of people like me decided that it was the only vehicle that could remove Thatcher, so we infiltrated it and I worked in the Labour Party for eight years. Now, I feel completely ashamed and appalled as to what has happened. I still consider it to be my party, but I left in 1992. Since then, I’ve become more and more distrustful of the politics of the state and the traditional mechanisms of representation within democracy. I guess what happens to a lot of people as they get older is that they get more conservative, but with me, the opposite is the case.

AG: In “Infinitely Demanding,” you state what we could call your own ethico-political project in a very clear and succinct manner and you advocate what you term a form of neo-anarchism. Could you describe the current political malaise this project arose out of, what you label the “motivational deficit” of liberal democracy?

SC: I begin from the idea that the institutions, practices and habits of liberal democracy simply do not motivate citizens. Did they ever? I think for periods, yes, especially after periods of crisis and war. In Western Europe there is a situation of slackening and drift, which for me is also linked to the problematic shift from the nation state to the EU, where most people’s bonds of attachment and identification are politically still at the level of the nation state. One thinks of oneself as a Swede or as a Dane and then maybe in some ways as a European, but those European bonds are terribly weak. So people’s identification is still with the nation state, but this has taken a negative form now, so that people are identifying with it in some sort of nostalgic way, usually around issues of “us” and “them” and issues of immigration.

AG: I know you don’t always agree with Chantal Mouffe, but would you concur with her assessment that this motivational deficit has helped cause the current rise of the populist neo-right?

SC: Yes, it has. I mean, I agree with Chantal in many ways in terms of political diagnosis and I agree with her critique of liberalism. I disagree about her political agenda, in particular the way she wants to deprive it of any ethical motivation. For me, there has to be an ethico-political core to any notion of political practice. What’s wrong with someone like Chantal is a hypnotized fascination with figures like Carl Schmitt, who seems to be doing real politics. For me, there are problems with that, but the diagnosis I agree with. The populist right is growing all around in Europe. I have a part time job at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands and I have been experiencing that close up. This is particularly frightening, because you have a demotivation on the political level which is producing a populist reaction centered around immigration and the meaning of “Dutchness.”

So, that’s the diagnosis and then I’m continually suspicious of the “gifts” of liberal democracy, freedom and voting, which people seem to identify with democracy, which has never been particularly plausible to me. And, you know, talk of a liberal cosmopolitan order sort of makes me want to vomit. I’m also very suspicious of Obama and I’ve been critical of him since before he was elected and during the campaign, because he’s not what he appears to be to some people on the left.

AG: If you were an American citizen, would you have voted for him?

SC: It depends where I lived. That’s a local question.

AG: In New York?

SC: In New York? It’s also a question that largely doesn’t matter, because if the Democrats put up a goat as presidential candidate, it would probably get elected in New York State. [Laughter.] I think the US is the most unrepresentative representative democracy, because in a country of 300 million and perhaps 30 million illegal immigrants, there are 435 members of Congress and 100 senators. It’s pathetic. In Britain, which is hardly a beacon of democracy, there are nearly 700 members of parliament and about the same number of members of the House of Lords. The constitution of the American democracy was designed to prevent the people actually having power. That’s the way Madison crafted them, with great genius, at the end of the 18th century. So they were designed to prevent change, which Obama is discovering to his cost. China, as an authoritarian capitalist state, is much easier to change.

AG: That’s a very interesting point, but to return to the motivational deficit: you think what is needed to counter it is a new conception of ethics. Could you elaborate on that?

SC: If we’re living in a situation of general demotivation in the West, the question then becomes how we can provide motivation. The question of ethics can not be reduced to the manipulation of different theories – utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc. – or to issues of policy or voter intentions. They have to be linked back to something deeper, at the level of the ethical subject. “Infinitely Demanding” makes two claims. It claims that, at the core of any conception of morality, is an experience of a demand, which we approve, which ties us and which makes us ethical subjects of a certain kind.

The second claim is more normative. I propose a certain picture of the ethical subject, based on an infinite ethical demand. It is that which makes me the ethical subject that I am, but not in a way that is reducible to autonomy. It is something which continually exceeds my capacity to approve of it. So I’ve got this basic idea, which comes from Levinas initially, that morality has to be referred back to an idea of an ethical relation, a relationship between myself and another, a relationship of asymmetry, of inequality. It is that basic situation that I want to put at the core of this neo-anarchism.

AG: While you have high hopes for humor, you are much more skeptical when it comes to irony, especially of the cynical kind.

SC: I hate that – I hate cynical irony, the form of knowing irony that’s just a form of protection from any sort of engagement with the world.

AG: This would be the main weapon of the passive nihilist, wouldn’t it?

SC: Yes.

AG: In “Infinitely Demanding,” you make one brief, quite disparaging reference to Diogenes – “We approach ethical issues in a spirit of Diogenean cynicism rather than free commitment, a spirit in which, as Yeats writes, the best lack all conviction, whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity” (page 39) – but then I read something else you wrote, last year I guess, where you say we need exactly the sort of cynical approach of Diogenes …

SC: My views change, as you’ve discovered. [Laughter.] I wrote something last year for the New York Times, called “Cynicism You Can Believe In.” What happened was that after “Infinitely Demanding,” I wrote this thing called “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” which was a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. One of the things I did, was to really engage with ancient philosophy, in a way which I hadn’t done for a long time and cynicism in particular. Properly understood, cynicism isn’t cynical – it’s opposed to moral hypocrisy, pride, pretension, luxury and people who think that they know what they’re talking about. To that extent, I’m amenable to certain forms of cynicism.

AG: Let’s move on: instead of tragedy, we have humor and that might help enable political action.

SC: Yes, the link I try to make is humor as a way of sublimating the ethical demand and then I make a leap from there and into forms of political resistance, where humor was being used as a practice – a new language of civil disobedience: “Billionaires for Bush,” people dressing up as ballerinas and attacking the police with their wands. I think we’re now into a different period, but there was a moment between 1999 and up to a certain point a few years ago, when forms of comic subversion were used to advance a non-violent political resistance. That interested me, because it was very skilful, it was very intelligent. The point of politics at that moment was about the rendering visible of an opposition, an alliance, in the most colorful way and humor was a way of doing that.

AG: As you’ve previously mentioned, you’re inspired by Ernesto Laclau and one of his main points is that, as long as it’s no longer possible to believe in a proletariat that’s ontologically destined to become the leaders of the revolution, you in fact have to create that actor through a “chaining together of equivalences.” Do you think humor can play a part in creating such a collective out of previously separated individuals and groups?

SC: That’s precisely the issue. It’s about how a political subject is formed and there’s always been a sort of comic deficit on the left, which has a tendency of taking itself far too seriously, particularly forms of leftist avant-gardism. You know: dressing in black and wearing ski-masks, attacking the police. These are forms of political heroism which I’m suspicious of. On the other hand, the performance of powerlessness in these comic forms of subversion I thought was really compelling, because what are you going to do? Are you going to shoot these people wearing ballerina outfits? Are you going to mow down naked bicycle protestors with machine guns?

AG: But couldn’t you say that these forms of carnivalesque, nonviolent protests work way better in Western societies of today, where one suffers under the oak of “repressive tolerance,” as Herbert Marcuse would put it, than in societies where you have good, old, direct repression?

SC: Sure. It’s a point Slavoj Žižek’s made against me, that nothing changes with such strategies, but I disagree with that. Change is a difficult thing to measure. The effects of the anti-war protests of 2003 are still unfolding, people haven’t forgotten, they’re still angry. Maybe they will have their day. Resistance isn’t one thing. There are different contexts for resistance and there are places like the US where civil disobedience – going back to Thoreau, to the opposition to Britain, the revolution and the founding of the Republic – is enshrined as a practice. It’s not the case in China. There’s not a one size fits all approach to resistance. It seems to me that the people with the guns and the sticks are usually going to win. So do you take up your own guns and sticks against them, or do you try to outwit them in some other way? I’m reluctant to heroize revolutionary violence.

AG: I thought we could talk a little bit about the place of aesthetic works in political projects. You have a very interesting footnote in “Infinitely Demanding”: “Although this is work that I hope to pursue separately, it is here that politics and poetry begins to collide in a potentially fructive way” (page 159). I was wondering if you could give us a little teaser …

SC: Sometimes you write footnotes because you haven’t got a clue how to solve a problem and there are examples of that in “Infinitely Demanding.” I won’t say what they are, because that would be too embarrassing. But I have tried to pursue that one. The next book – “The Faith of the Faithless” – is in part a response to that question, where I try to look at whether the category of fiction can be mobilized politically. I make this argument that politics is about fiction, so politics is aesthetic in that sense, it is about the construction of fictions. So the opinions which govern political space are fictions. Might there then be what Wallace Stevens calls a “supreme fiction” and might that be conceivable in relation to politics? I try and raise this question as part of a really long enquiry into the relationship between politics and religion in Rousseau’s work. That’s the first 100 pages of the book that I’m writing at present. So yes, I’m trying to think about the connections between politics and poetry. There’s an awful lot you could say here. Also, it’s a really complicated issue because to the work of people like Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, showing the connections between certain ideas of the poetic, myth and national socialism. It’s not that poetry is automatically a good thing, right? Poetics is a form of poesis, a form of production-construction, but there might be ways of conceiving of that in a much more interesting manner. That’s what I’m thinking about at the moment.

AG: Perhaps you could say something about the notion of a distance to the state, which is important to you. Why is such a distance necessary – why not just take power, for example?

SC: Let me start with this thought: there is no distance from the state. The state is far from having withered away, as Marx hoped for or as certain libertarians imagine. If we could do away with the state in the manner of classical anarchism, maybe that would be great and maybe that is conceivable in certain contexts, but I would argue that the time is not necessarily ripe for that now. On the contrary, the state has become much more pervasive, in terms of its political and bio-political regulation of human life. This is a fact. The linking of that to corporate capitalism is a fact. In a sense, there is no distance – every space is visible and controlled. Therefore, distance is not something you can take or take up, it has to be created. So the idea I have here, is that in a state form that is oppressive, political creation or imagination should be mobilized in a way that allows some new space to become visible. In “Infinitely Demanding,” I talk about the politics of the sans-papiers in France, as well as Mexican indigenous people, because there you have groups which comes into visibility through a certain act of political articulation. They come into visibility as something that is at a distance to the state, actually has rights enshrined by a labor convention, but those rights are not recognized and then a political struggle begins. I think politics is at its most noble about the articulation of this interstitial distance. The civil rights movement in the US was another example of that, where something obscene or invisible enters into visibility in a new way that exerts a pressure on the state, which forces recognition. That’s the business of politics, as I see it.

Also, rights are not things that are given in the heavens. Rather, they are levers for political articulations, which enables what was previously invisible to become visible. You know, things are invisible, even though we aren’t aware of the fact. All we can do is point to history. For example, I had a friend who grew up in apartheid South Africa and she was visited by a friend from England. This was, say, 40 years ago. They were walking down a city street and it was full of people, mainly black, but also some white people. The friend from England said “Oh, what a lot of people!,” to which my friend replied: “A lot of people? What do you mean? I don’t see that many.” Because the people, they weren’t really people. They were black, so they weren’t visible as people. Political subjects emerge into visibility in this way and this would be a constant activity of struggle around general claims of equality.

Please join Truthout in Chicago for a conversation with philosopher Simon Critchley.

Friday May 28 at 7:00 p.m.
Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood, Chicago

Danny Postel (contributing editor of Logos, editorial board member of The Common Review and soon-to-be blogger for Truthout) will interview Critchley, with a particular focus on religion, “post-secularism,” the age of Obama, the Tea Party movement and the future of progressive politics.

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