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.
This week The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) hosted three New School economists to discuss the economic and political fallout of the government shut down and the possibility of a default. Professors Teresa Ghilarducci, Rick McGahey and Christian Proaño discussed possible scenarios in case the United States would default on its debt, and the political economy of both the shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis. …
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.