EssaysEventsFeatureSymposium on Love

A Night of Philosophy

Reintroducing the flute player

25 centuries after Plato’s Symposium…

1. “All you need is love”? “Make love not war”? These slogans were made famous by the radical counter-culture movement in the US in the early 1960’s and were to go viral in the year 1968 when the intellectual, social and political contestation spread to the whole world. Love was put in the forefront of the claims to change life. At the time, the people felt the extreme political and subjective importance of Love, making clear that the things of Love were being repressed, under moral and social pressure. To claim freedom in the things of Love was a radical political gesture and would bring, fundamental change, on a massive scale, to the way individuals would live their lives in the future, questioning the traditional model of family life and the purpose of living in a society of men turned towards worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth, that only a few can pursue. Inevitably, the claims and the actions were spectacularly about erotic love. In Paris, during the May 1968 protests, the walls proclaimed “Jouissez sans entraves” (Enjoy without shackles).

2. Way before that, at the dawn of western civilization, over 25 centuries ago, Love appeared as a brand-new subject, closely linked to the emergence of philosophy in Ancient Greece. Plato’s Symposium gives testimony of this. In order to convince the other banqueters to choose “Love” as the main topic for their conversation, Eryximachus insists on the fact that “no one ever down to the present day has ventured worthily to hymn Eros”, and that it was about time to “adorn the God.” [1]

3. Today, 25 centuries after and fifty years after the year 1968, and despite the fantastic literature on the subject of Love, we might have reasons to think, as Eryximachus, that Love is still neglected and ill-known. Today Love seems everywhere and nowhere — and therefore perhaps even more difficult to talk about now that love seems such a banal subject. It seems indeed more difficult to philosophize about Love today than in Plato’s time when it was obvious that Love was a God, that his name was Eros. Have we been celebrating Love all too much and for too long?

Paying attention to these three points, as a stage director and also as a philosopher, I imagined a reenactment of Plato’s Symposium today, asking to join and contribute contemporary philosophers who will embrace the problems and perhaps confess that not only do we not know better than our predecessors how to define Love, but on top of this epistemological failure or weakness, we nurture an arrogant, complacent semantic habit to use “Love” as a catch-all word. I then invited at the Brooklyn Public Library the following philosophers: Chiara Bottici, Skye Cleary, Simon Critchley, Samantha Hill, Massimo Pigliucci, Rossen Ventzislavov, to sit around a table, in the middle of the public space, among the audience, to give, one after the other, a speech on the topic love. A musician, a traditional musician, an oud player facing them [2].

there are many philosophers

In the 4th century BC, Philosophy was the new discipline on the block. Socrates and Plato dedicated all their efforts to ensure the perpetuation of this new and bizarre occupation, bizarre in the sense that it was not easily defined and justified in terms of social and economic benefits. The difficulty of Socrates’ endeavor can be perceived through a detail in the narrative and a structural pattern of the Symposium. Plato’s text does not start with a direct dialogue. Plato uses no less than three prologues before the main dialogue starts. And one of these prologues describes how Socrates, in his way to Agathon’s house, where the symposium was to take place, stopped and lost himself in his thoughts for a very long time. Enough time in fact to miss the dinner at Agathon’s house. This little circumstance gives to the gathering “described” by Plato all its singularity, creating a new form distinct from the traditional Greek symposium only dedicated to the amusement of the guests with drinks, music and idle talk. The fact that Socrates is described as having stopped before reaching the house implies at least two things: first, it means that he arrives late and that everybody is waiting for him, creating a special expectation, an unusual temporality in such social festivities. It implicitly points to the very special status and role Socrates plays in this assembly – linked to what we call his atopy symbolizing for the times to come the typical atopy of the philosopher. The philosopher belongs and doesn’t belongs to society, he is in and out. In Classical Greece, between the 5th and 4th century BC, it was extremely unusual to be a philosopher, and certainly obscure and dangerous to many. Hence, second of all, the fact Socrates needed to stop means that he really needed to concentrate because the task would not be easy to be the only one of his kind among rhetoricians, poets, playwrights, city officials, musicians…

I understood only recently why the Symposium needed several prologues, or “entry zones” indicating different thresholds. There is one thing very clear now that we see it with a distance: Socrates prevailed. When he arrives at Agathon’s, everyone decides not to drink much and most importantly to dismiss the flute player. The words would reign alone, unchallenged by music. Now I could see the difference of the times, between our time and Plato’s time: there are now so many philosophers. In consequence, it was about time to reintroduce the flute player.

Hence, I imagined a contemporary reenactment of Plato’s Symposium with a prologue personified by an artist playing the interface between the general audience and the philosophers and the strong, powerful interventions of live music proposed as real alternatives to the philosophers’ words. Who would prevail? While the musician, Mavrothi Kontanis, was to be an oud player, a painter, Gabrielle Meyerowitz, with a very special and existential relationship with Plato’s Symposium, was then to play the role of the prologue when we created the Love Symposion in Brooklyn on January 28, at… 5am. It lasted until 7am.

Philosophers in the night

As a philosopher and a stage director, here is the situation I have been finding myself for a few years now: I invite academic philosophers to perform out of the box, face to face, or side by side with art performers at nightLove Symposions, of variable lengths, are the contrapositions and the logical consequence of the events A Night of Philosophy I have been producing and staging since 2010. While Love Symposions gather philosophers and artists in a same space, Nights of philosophy offer a “big bang” version. The strong common element is the nocturnal element. However while the Symposion version may not last all night, A Night of Philosophy usually lasts 12 hours, starting at 7pm and finishing at 7am, offering a unique mix of academic philosophy lectures and artistic interventions, ranging from theatre and opera to visual contemporary art, from pop songs and live music to DJ sets and dance, depending on the venues, since the event is site-specific. It brings together numerous philosophers and artists from different horizons, exposing a large audience to an exceptional diversity of practices and concerns. It is based on two main principles: profusion and simultaneity. Through an abundance of academic speakers related to the place where the event takes place invited to give a 20-minute lectures on the topic of their choice, it produces a wide-ranging panorama of the state of current philosophical research, at the place and the moment it happens. It brings philosophy, academic philosophy, in Cultural, Art or Popular venues during one whole night, presenting Philosophy as Art.

A Night of Philosophy , entirely free and open to the general public, offers an outside perspective on the academic discipline, inviting philosophers to confront and experience another temporality and another kind of performance. I wanted to question the connection between philosophy and art from the perspective of performance, to make people experience that philosophy is performance. I took my inspiration from John Cage and his piece Theater Piece No. 1,and more generally from the Action and Happening scene in the 1960’s. I remembered how Merce Cunningham simultaneously occupied multiple stages, organizing a perceptual overflow, the impossibility of seeing everything, while the audience experienced the feeling of being in the center of overabundant activity. There is also no doubt an inspiration taken from Andy Warhol and his way of transforming quantity in a profusion of formal propositions. A year before creating the hybrid format of A Night of Philosophy I published a biography of Andy Warhol, in 2009. Hence the strong influence on my work of this historic turn in Art.

The motivation behind the event is to shift boundaries and question divisions, by way of inviting every one to think actively and freely within today’s world. It is to place the public at the core of the event, in a face-to-face with philosophical thinking. Night-time provides a rare quality of presence and creates the condition of experimenting: a pure present, a parenthesis, suspending our usual perception of time and the way we experience and benefit from it. This event offers a moment of suspended time, pushing the limits of usual conventions and discipline divisions, confronting and hybridizing artistic visions, and philosophical interrogation on pursuit of knowledge and joy. It is a proposition to inverse the claim the American Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s made almost fifty years ago in his seminal essay Art after Philosophy, affirming then that Art had to take over Philosophy because it became too abstruse for the general public. The series of events A Night of Philosophy experiments and explores a new possible paradigm for our times: Philosophy after Art.

Philosophy after Art

Encounters with philosophy can be very fruitful for peoplePhilosophers can give a whole different perspective on things that you may never have experienced or envisioned before. It can be many things: a new thought, a change of perspective, an encounter, the experience of being suspended in time, a pure quality of time where thinking and existence meet. Even if it lasts just a moment. And these events are precisely about that: what can happen in a moment.

Art is a way to touch philosophical concepts — or to confront them. Art can be an ally or an adversary of philosophy. As philosophy might now be turning away from its pure linguistic analytical hard core [3], it appeared timely to imagine a protocol to create a confrontation or a face-à-face with Art. The vivacity of the philosophical scene, worldwide, is extraordinary. So, thought I, let us see how art and philosophy can create a championship for the meaning of things.

Those events are actions whose meaning is to question institutions or process of institutionalization, both in the philosophy field and in the art world. When you do philosophy events outside the academic box, with academics, you displace the philosophy world. You take philosophy beyond academia and you take back the perspectives of the origins of philosophy, or what has never ceased to be at stake for philosophers all along western history: freedom and efficacy or real impact of thinking. We need to question what is important, and that is philosophy’s concern.

***

Vladimir Jankélévitch used to say that philosophy is almost nothing and still possibly everything, and everything is in this “almost”. Philosophy can either be everything or really nothing, empty ideas, only flatus vocis. Philosophy can be very near non-importance with all the sophistication and sophistry that can characterize it when it looses tracks of its original motivation. Philosophers sense that. They know. You know when you read things that are pertinent and when you read things that are not. We need to expose philosophy to that real and legitimate question: what is important when you do philosophy? Why originally have you started to work on this or this topic, this and this author? Then all the panorama of very pertinent and very varied technical and precise researches in philosophy can appear. If you find what is important and think about your relation to it, then you can do anything. You can write limitless difficult papers because you know why you are doing it and you think it is important. If you lose that thread, then philosophy is nothing compared to literature, music, and art. The event of A Night of Philosophy help people, including philosophers themselves! to discover what matters… and what does not.

Mériam Korichi studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, the Sorbonne and Harvard. She is a philosopher and a stage director who has worked at la Comédie française, les Bouffes du Nord in Paris, Kiasma Contemporary Museum of Art in Helsinki, the Frick Collection in New York. She has published several books including a biography of Andy Warhol and a Treatise of Good Sentiments. She is the creator of the event A Night of Philosophy which was first held in Paris in 2010, which she has staged since in London, Berlin, New York, Helsinki, UNESCO headquarters.

 


[1] The SymposiumThe Dialogues of Plato, volume 2, trans. R. E. Allen, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 117.

[2] The performance at the BPL was the second edition of this hybrid format created in Mykonos, on September 5, 2017, with Paul Boghossian, Kakia Goudeli, Michalis Paroussis, Ioannis Prelorentzos, Barry Smith, Spiros Tegos, Maria Venieri, Stelios Virvidakis, with Robert Hatisi, artist, and live and traditional musicians from the island.

[3] See the recent book by Peter Unger: Empty Ideas, Oxford University Press, 2014.

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Mériam Korichi

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