Below is an interview of Simon Critchley by founder and editor of the UK-based quarterly print magazine STIR, Jonny Gordon-Farleigh. It appears in the Autumn issue of STIR under the title “An Interview with Philosopher Simon Critchley.”
The most challenging task of recent times has been to find a common name — a new political identity — much like Proletariat was for the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. In response, Simon Critchley’s work has explored political names such as the ‘indigenous’, and more recently ‘Anonymous’ — the name of those with no name — and Occupy’s slogan ‘We are the 99%’. In this interview Critchley argues that we need to create a new hegemony — the shaping of an alliance or common front — and also start a serious investigation into the history of political forms in general. With the remergence of general assemblies, affinity groups and spokecouncils, Critchley claims we should not be scared of the need to produce a formal political theory of these practices.
Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Antonio Gramsci said, “the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned”. In other parts of his writing he separates the intellect and the will — pessimism in the former and optimism in the latter. Is this the only way to get through the impasse of working for new alternatives within our political reality?
SC: Funnily enough, I sent that quotation, those very words to Thomas Hirschhorn, an artist who has been running a Gramsci monument in the Bronx under the auspices of the DIA Art Foundation. He’s built a fantastic, precarious, transient monument with a library and media centre with all sort of Gramsci-related activity. I sent him that quotation and it was put on the wall. The quotation is interesting because the point is not to become disillusioned while living without illusions. Maybe we could add another twist to that line of thought by saying the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned but to accept that politics is the creation of an illusion that we know is an illusion. I think that illusion has a positive function and that it’s not all bad. It is not that we move from illusion to reality, necessarily. Politics is often about the creation of forms of positive illusion, which can stitch together a political movement and political front around a slogan or image. I don’t think we can just disregard illusions but we have to inhabit illusions while knowing they are illusions.
You may not be aware that the beaver, this unlucky, little, cute rodent, has suffered a long history of oppression and exploitation. On the American continent, the beaver, a traditional source of clothing and food for native people, became soon after the arrival of the European colonizers a main object of trade in the increasingly flourishing fur trade industry. Beaver pelt even led the English and the French to a brutal commercial war that ended up with the depletion, over-exploitation and over-starvation of beavers. Nonetheless, beaver hats remained quite a fashionable piece of clothing from 1550 to 1850.
As usual, colonization and exploitation were accompanied by a symbolic misrecognition that has lasted up to the present day. You may remember, for example, Jodie Foster’s 2011 movie, The Beaver, where a hand puppet named… The Beaver (I know, sorry!) turns from a cute, friendly fetish helping the main character, Walter, to recover from his severe depression, into a sort of manipulating and cruel incubus taking over his entire life. But there have been many precedents of this cultural devaluation of beavers.
The US has run a massive trade deficit for over 30 years. In recent times, there has been a growing chorus of commentators who seek to place the blame on our trading partners, most notably China, just as in an earlier time others had targeted Japan and Germany. It is said that the problem stems not from our reduced international competitiveness, but rather from the manipulation of exchange rates by our more successful trading partners.
This claim is not based on any direct evidence, but rather on an inference derived from standard international trade theory, which predicts that free trade will automatically lead to balanced trade. From this particular theoretical perspective, our large and persistent large trade deficit must be rooted in some obstacles to free trade. The large surpluses of our trading partners such as China then make them natural candidates for our opprobrium. Of course, if the standard theory is incorrect, this line of inference collapses. I wish to argue that the standard theory is wrong, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, and that free trade does not automatically eliminate trade imbalances. On the contrary, free trade reflects international competitiveness, and persistent trade deficits are symptoms of persistent competitive weakness.
When Huizi the rationalist visited Zhuangzi to express his condolences for the recent passing of Zhuangzi’s wife, he was shocked to find the great Daoist sage sprawled on the ground happily beating out a rhythm on a tub and singing with gusto. Stop this scandal! Huizi demanded, outraged at his friend’s disregard of decorum.
Zhuangzi was unmoved. “You’re wrong,” he retorted. “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else?”
“But,” he continued, “I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead.”
I am teaching a course called “Feminism and Literature” at the New School that explores how literature can articulate feminist claims in the public sphere. One of the problems we discussed is whether the language we are currently using, as well as the imaginary that sustains it, are actually adapted to this task. In order to debate the issue, one of the classical texts that I assigned to my students was Freud’s essay on “femininity.” I chose this text because I wanted my students to be aware of the risks we take when we look at femininity (and female sexuality) from the point of view of masculinity (and male sexuality); Freud’s idea that women have to go through a phallic phase in order to become truly feminine – and that, as a consequence, they have to abandon their childish clitoral pleasure in favor of a more mature vaginal one – seemed to me rather questionable. Is it true that the clitoris is an “atrophied penis” and that it is only by abandoning “wholly” or “in part” the pleasure that comes from it that a “normal femininity” can be developed? Are not the clitoris and the vagina just two names that we assign and use to separate what is actually part of the same unitary body? These are the sorts of questions that I was hoping the text would raise (and indeed it did), and that would lead us to quickly dismantle Freud in favor of a more complex view of female sexuality. In particular, I was hoping to get rid of what seemed to me the most untenable of his positions: the idea that the small size of their so-called atrophied penis (the clitoris) is at the basis of a fundamental and inevitable penis envy in women.
I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?
Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.
A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.
The recent death of Shulamith Firestone marks a milestone in the history of second wave feminism, and encourages an historical perspective. Firestone was one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of the modern feminist movement. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism that had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.
In a recent New Yorker (April 15, 2013) Susan Faludi provided a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath.Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex.
For Edward J. Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley): Heroes of transnational publicity — in gratitude and with admiration.
One strategy for reimagining public sphere theory in the current conjuncture is neo-anarchism. Distrustful of global governance institutions, and of the expert networks entangled with them, this approach looks to anti-systemic movements as agents of transformation. Valorizing the independent militancy of Occupy, WikiLeaks, and the World Social Forum, it affirms efforts to build counterhegemonic centers of opinion and will formation, far removed from circuits of institutionalized power. Aiming to counter the hierarchical logic of administrative rule, it seeks to reconstruct public sphere theory in a way that gives pride of place to autonomous direct action by subaltern counterpublics and “strong” (decision-making) publics in civil society. Where else, after all, are we likely to find democratizing forces that can advance the theory’s ideals under current conditions?
1. This, the current Constitution of the Republic of Turkey is no longer the same constitution, the Constitution of 1982. Yes, even partial, but sequential or re-iterated rounds of amendment can produce a new constitutional regime or material constitution. This is what happened in Turkey through amendment rounds in 1987, 1995, 2001, and 2004. It was under European pressure in the first decade of the 21st century that the demand for formal constitutional replacement was adopted by Turkish political actors, supposedly in the place of the method of sequential amendments. Was the idea of an entirely new, civilian constitution wrong? No, for two reasons. The first is the problem of legitimacy, caused by tainted origins. This problem undermines the necessarily preservationist review function of the Constitutional Court. The second is the problem of freezing. Some features of constitutions, though formally changeable, are never sufficiently altered in reform, because incumbents significantly benefit from them.