Sunshine Recorder

Link: ‘A Racism without Races’: An interview with Étienne Balibar

Professor emeritus at the Université Paris X, the philosopher Étienne Balibar has made the question of racism and its new forms of expression an important theme of his political philosophy, notably in his critique of capitalism and of liberal society. He is the author, among others, ofCitoyen Sujet et autres essais d’anthropologie philosophique (2010) andLa proposition de l’égaliberté (2011), published by Presses Universitaires de France. Passing through Montreal last November, he was keen to answer our questions.

Relations: Given the predominance of the question of human rights in our societies, as well as the official condemnation of racism, one might think that racism is a relic of ages past. Yet this is not the case. To what extent is it still a central – indeed, structural – phenomenon, particularly in the era of capitalist globalisation? In other words, what does it say about our societies?

Étienne Balibar: certainly, it tells us that our society is ill – but what society isn’t? I believe that it is important to begin by freeing ourselves of any idealist images, by understanding that it is utopian to imagine a society without any pathologies. But utopias do have a role: they allow us to imagine alternatives and ways of cracking down on unbearable forms of exploitation, domination or hatred.

But let us get back to the problem of racism, because that is what we are here concerned with analysing and neutralising as completely as is possible. What you call the ‘predominance of human rights’ is an ideological phenomenon that certainly is of symptomatic value, but is not enough to change social structures. There are even ways of using it that hide the varieties of racism that are now developing, paradoxically by way of a ‘humanitarian’ or ‘philanthropic’ discourse that serves to keep populations or categories of individuals in the condition of recipients of help rather than as bearers of equal rights. Differences or incapacities are presented as essential properties, though they are in fact the result of historical conditions and of relations of domination.

The official condemnation of racism is a very important historical phenomenon. It coincided – at the end of the Second World War – with the dawn of Black Americans’ great Civil Rights campaigns and the development of more and more irresistible anti-colonial liberation movements, with the awareness that there was an ‘ideological form’ common to all the persecution and discrimination founded on ‘origins’ or ‘heredity’. There was at that time a tendency to consider this ideological form as related to pseudo-scientific myths (see the founding documents of UNESCO and the 1950-51 Declarations on Race). Such a representation of racism was evidently strengthened by Nazism’s use of biological racial doctrines, eugenics and the social Darwinism that was, moreover, also present in the discourse of other institutional racisms. But today we can see that this explanation was too intellectual. That is why even if the UNESCO doctrine and the human rights philosophy that inspired it were right to insist on the important role of education in the struggle against racism, they were too quick to assume that knowledge, or even the capacity for knowledge, would alone provide the key to solving this problem. They were also too linked to a given historical conjuncture and a certain spirit of civilisation. But, alas, no civilisation has a monopoly on racism. And, besides, as the history of the uses of the word ‘race’ and related words like caste or lineage in fact demonstrates, racism both preceded biological ideologies and has survived them. The anthropological red thread of which I am making use consists of studying the discriminatory uses and the metamorphoses of the ‘genealogical schema’, that is, the idea that generation after generation children inherit the ‘qualities’ – or, conversely, collective ‘defects’ – of their parents, be they physical, moral or intellectual… Naturally different societies give such an idea different content, and not all make use of it in an equally violent fashion. A current example of great significance would be the way in which our liberal societies, which preach individualism and equal opportunities, trap the descendants of immigrants within a ‘foreign identity’ for two or three generations, even when they are societies formed by the mixing of populations and the contributions of immigrants, as is the case in North America and in certain European countries such as France.

Does capitalist globalisation, structurally speaking, tend to reinforce discriminatory uses of the genealogical schema and the reappearance of racism in new forms? Yes, of course, above all in the neoliberal form which is today dominant across the world. After all, this does not only entail, as Immanuel Wallerstein in particular has emphasised, a global hierarchisation of the workforce for the sake of its exploitation, meaning that it is differentiated and divided or even that some groups of workers are set against others: men and women, people from the North or the South, workers from different cultures and nationalities… Rather, it also entails a systematic ‘disaffiliation’ of individuals (an expression that I in this case owe to Robert Castel) detaching them from their traditional solidarities, or those that had been reconstructed by way of social struggles, and can even lead to deracination and nomadism, pauperisation, the loss of social rights and, more profoundly still, the loss of the social recognition attached to one’s work. These phenomena, which are today being exacerbated, are justified by a whole individualist and utilitarian discourse that can very well present itself as humanist: as a reaction they engender a powerful need for community, which can easily become exclusivist and spontaneously linked to the idea of genealogy, whereby individuals seek a guarantee against total abandonment.

Is there a continuity or rupture between the racism of times past, and that which has banned the word ‘race’?

There are, necessarily, essential continuities, first of all because ways of thinking and of representation that are rooted in feeling of belonging and the image of community only evolve very slowly; but above all, because – contrary to what my previous remarks might lead you to think – racism is not simply a psychological phenomenon: it always has an institutional racism. It has even occurred to me to say that every racism is a ‘state racism’: but perhaps that is bending the stick too far in the other direction. When I thought that I was considering the development in France of the ideology of ‘national preference’ using which the far right have adjusted part of their discourse and their voter base; but all the same I think that every racism is inscribed in institutions and in ‘pathological effects’, of greater or lesser intensity, connected to their functioning.

Historically, racism has had three great institutional anchors, though they are clearly not completely independent of one another – and when the state takes charge of ‘totalising’ them and making them ‘official’, it can lead to terrifying results. The first is what Michel Foucault called the ‘biopolitics’ of industrial societies, which treats ‘human material’ as an exploitable resource, which implies selecting, evaluating and eventually eliminating it  (what Bertrand Ogilvie called the ‘production of the disposable man’). The second is xenophobia, or what I called – in the book I wrote together with WallersteinRace, nation, class. Ambiguous Identities – the ‘interior supplement’ of nationalism. It is a question of representing a certain ‘identity’ or a certain biological, cultural or religious ‘purity’, as a necessary cement for the preservation of national unity and its protection against internal or external enemies (above all, perhaps, the internal ones…). Finally, the third form is the representation of the variety of groups of humans on the Earth’s surface in terms of a competition between masters and slaves, or simply between ‘incompatible’ civilisations. This representation, which was considerably developed by colonialism, has also been reproduced in the post-colonial period, in the world of the new global relations of force. We could call it a sort of ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, in opposition to the cosmopolitanism that emerged from the tradition of the Enlightenment. Since what flows from it is no longer mutual recognition and the consciousness that we belong to one same humanity, but, instead, an intensification of intolerance and falling back on identities.

So I think that none of these great institutional anchoring points of racism has disappeared in today’s world, but also that it is very important to analyse how they vary. Capitalism’s biopolitics changes, just as do inequalities, population flows, the ruling powers at the global scale and even the functions and tendencies of nationalism, which is itself dependent on national situations. This is why the idea of ‘race’ can be recomposed, and even become invisible: for example in what has been called ‘differentialist’ or ‘culturalist’ racism, and what I myself some years ago called a ‘racism without races’.

How can we collectively oppose racism and xenophobia? What forms of anti-racist struggle ought to be given priority?

There is no simple recipe for answering this question. I am tempted to say three things. Firstly, in order to reinforce the idea that this question is of fundamental importance for all our societies, I would say that the development of racism in its various forms is inversely proportional to the vitality of democratic citizenship. That is why I insist so much on the institutional dimension. Citizenship is not automatically democratic, egalitarian or the synonym of equal freedom, even if the Western tradition (and no doubt also others) does draw a symbolic link between the idea of the common good and that of the participation of ‘anyone and everyone’ in public affairs, as Jacques Rancière has put it. There is a constant oscillation in the rise and fall of discrimination: one should neither believe in guaranteed progress nor become fatalist about it. Next, the anti-racist struggle necessarily has an ethical as much as a political dimension: it is not very useful to repeat commonplaces like ‘all of us are racists’ but it is important to emphasise that if the struggle is a collective one then it also progresses by way of a transformation of our own selves, and thus also through an effort to imagine other social relations, other figures of the Other, and building a new identity for ourselves. The ‘genealogical question’ is a very complicated one, but it is crucial, here: what does it mean to belong to a tradition, a culture or a group in a way that is not exclusive, and thus does not exclude others? What does it mean to be oneself?

To finish, I would say that the anti-racist struggle cannot progress simply by way of humanist preaching, whether that be secular or religious: we need a political struggle to transform the structures that produce the conditions for racism and ‘make use of them’ for their own reproduction – meaning capitalism, nationalism, imperialism and their latest avatars. In this sense, the anti-racist struggle does not necessarily mean constantly having the word ‘racism’ on our lips; it is a struggle for social welfare, equal rights, education, and moral and religious tolerance.

However, these direct and indirect efforts must be inscribed within a horizon that allows us to explain their meaning. There is just one word for this: I for my part very much cling onto the idea of ‘cosmopolitanism’, because racism in the era of globalisation could be described as an ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, to reuse the expression I have just mentioned. We must try to reverse this reversal, not only by administrative measures or state cultural policies, but from below, through practices of resistance and solidarity, which are also local practices, because ‘the whole world’ is today present in every neighbourhood and, in a certain sense comes to seek us out in our own homes. We can then speak of a practical cosmopolitanism, a cosmopolitanism from below in our neighbourhoods and daily lives, which can become the substance of a rebuilt citizenship.

Link: Technology and Consumership

Today’s media, combined with the latest portable devices, have pushed serious public discourse into the background and hauled triviality to the fore, according to media theorist Arthur W Hunt. And the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship has given way to modern consumership.

Almantas Samalavicius: In your recently published book Surviving Technopolis, you discuss a number of important and overlapping issues that threaten the future of societies. One of the central themes you explore is the rise, dominance and consequences of visual imagery in public discourse, which you say undermines a more literate culture of the past. This tendency has been outlined and questioned by a large and growing number of social thinkers (Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman and others). What do you see as most culturally threatening in this shift to visual imagery?

Arthur W. Hunt III: The shift is technological and moral. The two are related, as Ellul has pointed out. Computer-based digital images stem from an evolution of other technologies beginning with telegraphy and photography, both appearing in the middle of the nineteenth century. Telegraphy trivialized information by allowing it to come to us from anywhere and in greater volumes. Photography de-contextualized information by giving us an abundance of pictures disassociated from the objects from which they came. Cinema magnified Aristotle’s notion of spectacle, which he claimed to be the least artistic element in Poetics. Spectacle in modern film tends to diminish all other elements of drama (plot, character, dialogue and so on) in favour of the exploding Capitol building. Radio put the voice of both the President and the Lone Ranger into our living rooms. Television was the natural and powerful usurper of radio and quickly became the nucleus of the home, a station occupied by the hearth for thousands of years. Then the television split in two, three or four ways so that every house member had a set in his or her bedroom. What followed was the personal computer at both home and at work. Today we have portable computers in which we watch shows, play games, email each other and gaze at ourselves like we used to look at Hollywood stars. To a large extent, these technologies are simply extensions of our technological society. They act as Sirens of distraction. They push serious public discourse into the background and pull triviality to the foreground. They move us away from the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship, replacing it with modern capitalism’s ethic of materialistic desire or “consumership”. The great danger of all this, of course, is that we neglect the polis and, instead, waste our time with bread and circuses. Accompanying this neglect is the creation of people who spend years in school yet remain illiterate, at least by the standards we used to hold out for a literate person. The trivialization spreads out into other institutions, as Postman has argued, to schools, churches and politics. This may be an American phenomenon, but many countries look to America’s institutions for guidance.

AS: Philosopher and historian Ivan Illich – one of the most radical critics of modernity and its mythology – has emphasized the conceptual difference between tools, on one hand, and technology on the other, implying that the dominance and overuse of technology is socially and culturally debilitating. Economist E.F. Schumacher urged us to rediscover the beauty of smallness and the use of more humane, “intermediate technologies”. However, a chorus of voices seems to sink in the ocean of popular technological optimism and a stubborn self-generating belief in the power of progress. Your critique contains no call to go back to the Middle Ages. Nor do you suggest that we give anything away to technological advances. Rather, you offer a sound and balanced argument about the misuses of technology and the mindscape that sacrifices tradition and human relationships on the altar of progress. Do you see any possibility of developing a more balanced approach to the role of technology in our culture? Obviously, many are aware, even if cynically, that technological progress has its downsides, but what of its upsides?

AWH: Short of a nuclear holocaust, we will not be going back to the Middle Ages any time soon. Electricity and automobiles are here to stay. The idea is not to be anti-technology. Neil Postman once said to be anti-technology is like being anti-food. Technologies are extensions of our bodies, and therefore scale, ecological impact and human flourishing becomes the yardstick for technological wisdom. The conventional wisdom of modern progress favours bigger, faster, newer and more. Large corporations see their purpose on earth to maximize profits. Their goal is to get us addicted to their addictions. We can no longer afford this kind of wisdom, which is not wisdom at all, but foolishness. We need to bolster a conversation about the human benefits of smaller, slower, older and less. Europeans often understand this better than Americans, that is, they are more conscious of preserving living spaces that are functional, aesthetically pleasing and that foster human interaction. E.F. Schumacher gave us some useful phraseology to promote an economy of human scale: “small is beautiful,” “technologies with a human face” and “homecomers.” He pointed out that “labour-saving machinery” is a paradoxical term, not only because it makes us unemployed, but also because it diminishes the value of work. Our goal should be to move toward a “third-way” economic model, one of self-sufficient regions, local economies of scale, thriving community life, cooperatives, family owned farms and shops, economic integration between the countryside and the nearby city, and a general revival of craftsmanship. Green technologies – solar and wind power for example – actually can help us achieve this third way, which is actually a kind of micro-capitalism.

AS: Technologies developed by humans (e.g. television) continue to shape and sustain a culture of consumerism, which has now become a global phenomenon. As you insightfully observe in one of your essays, McLuhan, who was often misinterpreted and misunderstood as a social theorist hailed by the television media he explored in a great depth, was fully aware of its ill effects on the human personality and he therefore limited his children’s TV viewing. Jerry Mander has argued for the elimination of television altogether, nevertheless, this medium is alive and kicking and continues to promote an ideology of consumption and, what is perhaps most alarming, successfully conditioning children to become voracious consumers in a society where the roles of parents become more and more institutionally limited. Do you have any hopes for this situation? Can one expect that people will develop a more critical attitude toward these instruments, which shape them as consumers? Does social criticism of these trends play any role in an environment where the media and the virtual worlds of the entertainment industry have become so powerful?

AWH: Modern habits of consumption have created what Benjamin Barber calls an “ethos of infantilization”, where children are psychologically manipulated into early adulthood and adults are conditioned to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence. Postman suggested essentially the same thing when he wroteThe Disappearance of Childhood. There have been many books written that address the problems of electronic media in stunting a child’s mental, physical and spiritual development. One of the better recent ones is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. Another one is Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. We have plenty of books, but we don’t have enough people reading them or putting them into practice. Raising a child today is a daunting business, and maybe this is why more people are refusing to do it. No wonder John Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a New York Times op-ed complaining, “There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.” The other day I was listening to the American television program 60 Minutes. The reporter was interviewing the Australian actress Cate Blanchett. I almost fell out of my chair when she starkly told the reporter, “We don’t outsource our children.” What she meant was, she does not let someone else raise her children. I think she was on to something. In most families today, both parents work outside the home. This is a fairly recent development if you consider the entire span of human history. Industrialism brought an end to the family as an economic unit. First, the father went off to work in the factory. Then, the mother entered the workforce during the last century. Well, the children could not stay home alone, so they were outsourced to various surrogate institutions. What was once provided by the home economy (oikos) – education, heath care, child rearing and care of the elderly – came to be provided by the state. The rest of our needs – food, clothing, shelter and entertainment – came to be provided by the corporations. A third-way economic ordering would seek to revive the old notion of oikos so that the home can once again be a legitimate economic, educational and care-providing unit – not just a place to watch TV and sleep. In other words, the home would once again become a centre for production, not just consumption. If this every happened, one or both parents would be at home and little Johnny and sister Jane would work and play alongside their parents.

AS: I was intrigued by your insight into forms of totalitarianism depicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Though most authors who discussed totalitarianism during the last half of the century were overtaken by the Orwellian vision and praised this as most enlightening, the alternative Huxleyan vision of a self-inflicted, joyful and entertaining totalitarian society was far less scrutinized. Do you think we are entering into a culture where “totalitarianism with a happy face” as you call it prevails? If so, what consequences you foresee?

AWH: It is interesting to note that Orwell thought Huxley’s Brave New Worldwas implausible because he maintained that hedonistic societies do not last long, and that they are too boring. However, both authors were addressing what many other intellectuals were debating during the 1930s: what would be the social implications of Darwin and Freud? What ideology would eclipse Christianity? Would the new social sciences be embraced with as much exuberance as the hard sciences? What would happen if managerial science were infused into all aspects of life? What should we make of wartime propaganda? What would be the long-term effects of modern advertising? What would happen to the traditional family? How could class divisions be resolved? How would new technologies shape the future?

I happen to believe there are actually more similarities between the Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World than there are differences. Both novels have as their backstory the dilemma of living with weapons of mass destruction. The novel 1984 imagines what would happen if Hitler succeeded. In Brave New World, the world is at a crossroads. What is it to be, the annihilation of the human race or world peace through sociological control? In the end, the world chooses a highly efficient authoritarian state, which keeps the masses pacified by maintaining a culture of consumption and pleasure. In both novels, the past is wiped away from public memory. In Orwell’s novel, whoever “controls the past controls the future.” In Huxley’s novel, the past has been declared barbaric. All books published before A.F. 150 (that is, 150 years after 1908 CE, the year the first Model T rolled off the assembly line) are suppressed. Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller in Brave New World, declares the wisdom of Ford: “History is bunk.” In both novels, the traditional family has been radically altered. Orwell draws from Hitler Youth and the Soviets Young Pioneers to give us a society where the child’s loyalty to the state far outweighs any loyalty to parents. Huxley gives us a novel where the biological family does not even exist. Any familial affection is looked down upon. Everybody belongs to everybody, sexually and otherwise. Both novels give us worlds where rational thought is suppressed so that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength” (1984). InBrave New World, when Lenina is challenged by Marx to think for herself, all she can say is “I don’t understand.” The heroes in both novels are malcontents who want to escape this irrationality but end up excluded from society as misfits. Both novels perceive humans as religious beings where the state recognizes this truth but channels these inclinations toward patriotic devotion. In1984, Big Brother is worshipped. In Brave New World, the Christian cross has been cut off at the top to form the letter “T” for Technology. When engaged in the Orgy-Porgy, everyone in the room chants, “Ford, Ford, Ford.” In both novels an elite ruling class controls the populace by means of sophisticated technologies. Both novels show us surveillance states where the people are constantly monitored. Sound familiar? Certainly, as Postman tells us in his foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Huxley’s vision eerily captures our culture of consumption. But how long would it take for a society to move from a happy faced totalitarianism to one that has a mask of tragedy?

AS: Your comments on the necessity of the third way in our societies subjected to and affected by economic globalization seem to resonate with the ideas of many social thinkers I interviewed for this series. Many outstanding social critics and thinkers seem to agree that the notions of communism and capitalism have become stale and meaningless; further development of these paradigms lead us nowhere. One of your essays focuses on the old concept of “shire” and household economics. Do you believe in what Mumford called “the useful past”? And do you expect the growing movement that might be referred to as “new economics” to enter the mainstream of our economic thinking, eventually leading to changes in our social habits?

AWH: If the third way economic model ever took hold, I suppose it could happen in several ways. We will start with the most desirable way, and then move to less desirable. The most peaceful way for this to happen is for people to come to some kind of realization that the global economy is not benefiting them and start desiring something else. People will see that their personal wages have been stagnant for too long, that they are working too hard with nothing to show for it, that something has to be done about the black hole of debt, and that they feel like pawns in an incomprehensible game of chess. Politicians will hear their cries and institute policies that would allow for local economies, communities and families to flourish. This scenario is less likely to happen, because the multinationals that help fund the campaigns of politicians will not allow it. I am primarily thinking of the American reality in my claim here. Unless corporations have a change of mind, something akin to a religious conversion, we will not see them open their hearts and give away their power.

A more likely scenario is that a grassroots movement led by creative innovators begins to experiment with new forms of community that serve to repair the moral and aesthetic imagination distorted by modern society. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls this the “Benedict Option” in his book After Virtue. Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture essentially calls for the same solution. Inspired by the monasteries that preserved western culture in Europe during the Dark Ages, these communities would serve as models for others who are dissatisfied with the broken dreams associated with modern life. These would not be utopian communities, but humble efforts of trial and error, and hopefully diverse according to the outlook of those who live in them. The last scenario would be to have some great crisis occur – political, economic, or natural in origin – that would thrust upon us the necessity reordering our institutions. My father, who is in his nineties, often reminisces to me about the Great Depression. Although it was a miserable time, he speaks of it as the happiest time in his life. His best stories are about neighbours who loved and cared for each other, garden plots and favourite fishing holes. For any third way to work, a memory of the past will become very useful even if it sounds like literature. From a practical point of view, however, the kinds of knowledge that we will have to remember will include how to build a solid house, how to plant a vegetable garden, how to butcher a hog and how to craft a piece of furniture. In rural Tennessee where I live, there are people still around who know how to do these things, but they are a dying breed.

AS: The long (almost half-century) period of the Cold War has resulted in many social effects. The horrors of Communist regimes and the futility of state-planned economics, as well as the treason of western intellectuals who remained blind to the practice of Communist powers and eschewed ideas of idealized Communism, have aided the ideology of capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism came to be associated with ideas of freedom, free enterprise, freedom to choose and so on. How is this legacy burdening us in the current climate of economic globalization? Do you think recent crises and new social movements have the potential to shape a more critical view (and revision) of capitalism and especially its most ugly neo-liberal shape?

AWH: Here in America liberals want to hold on to their utopian visions of progress amidst the growing evidence that global capitalism is not delivering on its promises. Conservatives are very reluctant to criticize the downsides of capitalism, yet they are not really that different in their own visions of progress in comparison to liberals. It was amusing to hear the American politician Sarah Palin describe Pope Francis’ recent declarations against the “globalization of indifference” as being “a little liberal.” The Pope is liberal? While Democrats look to big government to save them, Republicans look to big business. Don’t they realize that with modern capitalism, big government and big business are joined at the hip? The British historian Hilarie Belloc recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote about the “servile state,” a condition where an unfree majority of non-owners work for the pleasure of a free minority of owners. But getting to your question, I do think more people are beginning to wake up to the problems associated with modern consumerist capitalism. A good example of this is a recent critique of capitalism written by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. entitled The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. Here is a religious conservative who is saying the great tempter of our age is none other than Walmart. The absurdist philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus once said the real passion of the twentieth century was not freedom, but servitude. Jacques Ellul, Camus’s contemporary, would have agreed with that assessment. Both believed that the United States and the Soviet Union, despite their Cold War differences, had one thing in common – the two powers had surrendered to the sovereignty of technology. Camus’ absurdism took a hard turn toward nihilism, while Ellul turned out to be a kind of cultural Jeremiah. It is interesting to me that when I talk to some people about third way ideas, which actually is an old way of thinking about economy, they tell me it can’t be done, that we are now beyond all that, and that the our economic trajectory is unstoppable or inevitable. This retort, I think, reveals how little freedom our system possesses. So, I can’t have a family farm? My small business can’t compete with the big guys? My wife has to work outside the home and I have to outsource the raising of my children? Who would have thought capitalism would lack this much freedom?

AS: And finally are you an optimist? Jacques Ellul seems to have been very pessimistic about us escaping from the iron cage of technological society. Do you think we can still break free?

AWH: I am both optimistic and pessimistic. In America, our rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. I see this as an opportunity for resettling the land – those large swaths of fields and forests that encompass about three quarters of our landmass. That is a very nice drawing board if we can figure out how to get back to it. I am also optimistic about the fact that more people are waking up to our troubling times. Other American writers that I would classify as third way proponents include Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rod Dreher, Mark T. Mitchell, Bill Kauffman, Joseph Pearce and Allan Carlson. There is also a current within the American and British literary tradition, which has served as a critique of modernity. G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Day and Allen Tate represent this sensibility, which is really a Catholic sensibility, although one does not have to be Catholic to have it. I am amazed at the popularity of novels about Amish people among American evangelical women. Even my wife reads them, and we are Presbyterians! In this country, the local food movement, the homeschool movement and the simplicity movement all seem to be pointing toward a kind of breaking away. You do not have to be Amish to break away from the cage of technological society; you only have to be deliberate and courageous. If we ever break out of the cage in the West, there will be two types of people who will lead such a movement. The first are religious people, both Catholic and Protestant, who will want to create a counter-environment for themselves and their children. The second are the old-school humanists, people who have a sense of history, an appreciation of the cultural achievements of the past, and the ability to see what is coming down the road. If Christians and humanists do nothing, and let modernity roll over them, I am afraid we face what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man”. Lewis believed our greatest danger was to have a technological elite – what he called The Conditioners – exert power over the vast majority so that our humanity is squeezed out of us. Of course all of this would be done in the name of progress, and most of us would willingly comply. The Conditioners are not acting on behalf of the public good or any other such ideal, rather what they want are guns, gold, and girls – power, profits and pleasure. The tragedy of all this, as Lewis pointed out, is that if they destroy us, they will destroy themselves, and in the end Nature will have the last laugh.

Link: Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35

Simone de Beauvoir had introduced me to Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had interviewed. But she hesitated about being interviewed herself: “Why should we talk about me? Don’t you think I’ve done enough in my three books of memoirs?” It took several letters and conversations to convince her otherwise, and then only on the condition “that it wouldn’t be too long.”

The interview took place in Miss de Beauvoir’s studio on the rue Schoëlcher in Montparnasse, a five-minute walk from Sartre’s apartment. We worked in a large, sunny room which serves as her study and sitting room. Shelves are crammed with surprisingly uninteresting books. “The best ones,” she told me, “are in the hands of my friends and never come back.” The tables are covered with colorful objects brought back from her travels, but the only valuable work in the room is a lamp made for her by Giacometti. Scattered throughout the room are dozens of phonograph records, one of the few luxuries that Miss de Beauvoir permits herself.

Apart from her classically featured face, what strikes one about Simone de Beauvoir is her fresh, rosy complexion and her clear blue eyes, extremely young and lively. One gets the impression that she knows and sees everything; this inspires a certain timidity. Her speech is rapid, her manner direct without being brusque, and she is rather smiling and friendly.

Madeleine Gobeil: For the last seven years you’ve been writing your memoirs, in which you frequently wonder about your vocation and your profession. I have the impression that it was the loss of religious faith that turned you toward writing.

Simone De Beauvoir: It’s very hard to review one’s past without cheating a little. My desire to write goes far back. I wrote stories at the age of eight, but lots of children do the same. That doesn’t really mean they have a vocation for writing. It may be that in my case the vocation was accentuated because I had lost religious faith; it’s also true that when I read books that moved me deeply, such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I wanted terribly much to be, like her, someone whose books would be read, whose books would move readers.

Have you been influenced by English literature?

The study of English has been one of my passions ever since childhood. There’s a body of children’s literature in English far more charming than what exists in French. I loved to read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, George Eliot, and even Rosamond Lehmann.

Dusty Answer?

I had a real passion for that book. And yet it was rather mediocre. The girls of my generation adored it. The author was very young, and every girl recognized herself in Judy. The book was rather clever, even rather subtle. As for me, I envied English university life. I lived at home. I didn’t have a room of my own. In fact, I had nothing at all. And though that life wasn’t free, it did allow for privacy and seemed to me magnificent. The author had known all the myths of adolescent girls—handsome boys with an air of mystery about them and so on. Later, of course, I read the Brontës and the books of Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t care much for The Waves, but I’m very, very fond of her book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

What about her journal?

It interests me less. It’s too literary. It’s fascinating, but it’s foreign to me. She’s too concerned with whether she’ll be published, with what people will say about her. I liked very much “A Room of One’s Own” in which she talks about the situation of women. It’s a short essay, but it hits the nail on the head. She explains very well why women can’t write. Virginia Woolf is one of the women writers who have interested me most. Have you seen any photos of her? An extraordinarily lonely face … In a way, she interests me more than Colette. Colette is, after all, very involved in her little love affairs, in household matters, laundry, pets. Virginia Woolf is much broader.

Did you read her books in translation?

No, in English. I read English better than I speak it.

What do you think about college and university education for a writer? You yourself were a brilliant student at the Sorbonne and people expected you to have a brilliant career as a teacher.

My studies gave me only a very superficial knowledge of philosophy but sharpened my interest in it. I benefited greatly from being a teacher—that is, from being able to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and educating myself. In those days, teachers didn’t have a very heavy program. My studies gave me a solid foundation because in order to pass the state exams you have to explore areas that you wouldn’t bother about if you were concerned only with general culture. They provided me with a certain academic method that was useful when I wrote The Second Sex and that has been useful, in general, for all my studies. I mean a way of going through books very quickly, of seeing which works are important, of classifying them, of being able to reject those which are unimportant, of being able to summarize, to browse.

Were you a good teacher?

I don’t think so, because I was interested only in the bright students and not at all in the others, whereas a good teacher should be interested in everyone. But if you teach philosophy you can’t help it. There were always four or five students who did all the talking, and the others didn’t care to do anything. I didn’t bother about them very much.

You had been writing for ten years before you were published, at the age of thirty-five. Weren’t you discouraged?

No, because in my time it was unusual to be published when you were very young. Of course, there were one or two examples, such as Radiguet, who was a prodigy. Sartre himself wasn’t published until he was about thirty-five, when Nausea and The Wall were brought out. When my first more or less publishable book was rejected, I was a bit discouraged. And when the first version of She Came to Stay was rejected, it was very unpleasant. Then I thought that I ought to take my time. I knew many examples of writers who were slow in getting started. And people always spoke of the case of Stendhal, who didn’t begin to write until he was forty.

In The Blood of Others and All Men Are Mortal you deal with the problem of time. Were you influenced, in this respect, by Joyce or Faulkner?

No, it was a personal preoccupation. I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings. I mean the fact that I have so many years behind me, so many ahead of me. I count them.

In the second part of your memoirs, you draw a portrait of Sartre at the time he was writing Nausea. You picture him as being obsessed by what he calls his “crabs,” by anguish. You seem to have been, at the time, the joyous member of the couple. Yet, in your novels you reveal a preoccupation with death that we never find in Sartre.

But remember what he says in The Words. That he never felt the imminence of death, whereas his fellow students—for example, Nizan, the author of Aden, Arabie—were fascinated by it. In a way, Sartre felt he was immortal. He had staked everything on his literary work and on the hope that his work would survive, whereas for me, owing to the fact that my personal life will disappear, I’m not the least bit concerned about whether my work is likely to last. I’ve always been deeply aware that the ordinary things of life disappear, one’s day-to-day activities, one’s impressions, one’s past experiences. Sartre thought that life could be caught in a trap of words, and I’ve always felt that words weren’t life itself but a reproduction of life, of something dead, so to speak.

That’s precisely the point. Some people claim that you haven’t the power to transpose life in your novels. They insinuate that your characters are copied from the people around you.

I don’t know. What is the imagination? In the long run, it’s a matter of attaining a certain degree of generality, of truth about what is, about what one actually lives. Works which aren’t based on reality don’t interest me unless they’re out-and-out extravagant, for example the novels of Alexandre Dumas or of Victor Hugo, which are epics of a kind. But I don’t call “made-up” stories works of the imagination but rather works of artifice. If I wanted to defend myself, I could refer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all the characters of which were taken from real life.

In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.

Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.

None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.

Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.

In your novels, it seems to be the women—I’m thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.

The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don’t have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they’re also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it’s also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.

You’ve never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?

I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.

After your long novel, The Mandarins, you stopped writing fiction and began to work on your memoirs. Which of these two literary forms do you prefer?

I like both of them. They offer different kinds of satisfaction and disappointment. In writing my memoirs, it’s very agreeable to be backed up by reality. On the other hand, when one follows reality from day to day, as I have, there are certain depths, certain kinds of myth and meaning that one disregards. In the novel, however, one can express these horizons, these overtones of daily life, but there’s an element of fabrication that is nevertheless disturbing. One should aim at inventing without fabricating. I had been wanting to talk about my childhood and youth for a long time. I had maintained very deep relationships with them, but there was no sign of them in any of my books. Even before writing my first novel, I had a desire to have, as it were, a heart-to-heart talk. It was a very emotional, a very personal need. After Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I was unsatisfied, and then I thought of doing something else. But I was unable to. I said to myself, “I’ve fought to be free. What have I done with my freedom, what’s become of it?” I wrote the sequel that carried me from the age of twenty-one to the present time, from The Prime of Life to Force of Circumstance

At the meeting of writers in Formentor a few years ago, Carlo Levi described The Prime of Life as “the great love story of the century.” Sartre appeared for the first time as a human being. You revealed a Sartre who had not been rightly understood, a man very different from the legendary Sartre.

I did it intentionally. He didn’t want me to write about him. Finally, when he saw that I spoke about him the way I did, he gave me a free hand.

In your opinion, why is it that, despite the reputation he’s had for twenty years, Sartre the writer remains misunderstood and is still violently attacked by critics?

For political reasons. Sartre is a man who has violently opposed the class into which he was born and which therefore regards him as a traitor. But that’s the class which has money, which buys books. Sartre’s situation is paradoxical. He’s an antibourgeois writer who is read by the bourgeoisie and admired by it as one of its products. The bourgeoisie has a monopoly on culture and thinks that it gave birth to Sartre. At the same time, it hates him because he attacks it.

In an interview with Hemingway in The Paris Review, he said, “All you can be sure about, in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.” Of course, you don’t agree. Do you still believe in “commitment”?

Hemingway was precisely the type of writer who never wanted to commit himself. I know that he was involved in the Spanish civil war, but as a journalist. Hemingway was never deeply committed, so he thinks that what is eternal in literature is what isn’t dated, isn’t committed. I don’t agree. In the case of many writers, it’s also their political stand which makes me like or dislike them. There aren’t many writers of former times whose work was really committed. And although one reads Rousseau’s Social Contract as eagerly as one reads his Confessions, one no longer reads The New Héloïse.

The heyday of existentialism seems to have been the period from the end of the war to 1952. At the present time, the “new novel” is in fashion; and such writers as Drieu La Rochelle and Roger Nimier.

There’s certainly a return to the right in France. The new novel itself isn’t reactionary, nor are its authors. A sympathizer can say that they want to do away with certain bourgeois conventions. These writers aren’t disturbing. In the long run, Gaullism brings us back to Pétainism, and it’s only to be expected that a collaborator like La Rochelle and an extreme reactionary like Nimier be held in high esteem again. The bourgeoisie is showing itself again in its true colors—that is, as a reactionary class. Look at the success of Sartre’s The Words. There are several things to note. It’s perhaps—I won’t say his best book, but one of his best. At any rate, it’s an excellent book, an exciting display of virtuosity, an amazingly written work. At the same time, the reason it has had such success is that it’s a book that is not “committed.” When the critics say that it’s his best book, along with Nausea, one should bear in mind that Nausea is an early work, a work that is not committed, and that it is more readily accepted by the left and right alike than are his plays. The same thing happened to me with The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Bourgeois women were delighted to recognize their own youth in it. The protests began with The Prime of Life and continued with Force of Circumstance. The break is very clear, very sharp.

The last part of Force of Circumstance is devoted to the Algerian war, to which you seem to have reacted in a very personal way.

I felt and thought about things in a political way, but I never engaged in political action. The entire last part of Force of Circumstance deals with the war. And it seems anachronistic in a France that is no longer concerned with that war.

Didn’t you realize that people were bound to forget about it?

I deleted lots of pages from that section. I therefore realized that it would be anachronistic. On the other hand, I absolutely wanted to talk about it, and I’m amazed that people have forgotten it to such a degree. Have you seen the film La Belle Vie, by the young director Robert Enrico? People are stupefied because the film shows the Algerian war. Claude Mauriac wrote in Le Figaro Litteraire: “Why is it that we’re shown parachute troopers on public squares? It’s not true to life.” But it is true to life. I used to see them every day from Sartre’s window at Saint Germain des Prés. People have forgotten. They wanted to forget. They wanted to forget their memories. That’s the reason why, contrary to what I expected, I wasn’t attacked for what I said about the Algerian war but for what I said about old age and death. As regards the Algerian war, all Frenchmen are now convinced that it never took place, that nobody was tortured, that insofar as there was torture they were always against torture.

At the end of Force of Circumstance you say: “As I look back with incredulity at that credulous adolescent, I am astounded to see how I was swindled.” This remark seems to have given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

People—particularly enemies—have tried to interpret it to mean that my life has been a failure, either because I recognize the fact that I was mistaken on a political level or because I recognize that after all a woman should have had children, etc. Anyone who reads my book carefully can see that I say the very opposite, that I don’t envy anyone, that I’m perfectly satisfied with what my life has been, that I’ve kept all my promises and that consequently if I had my life to live over again I wouldn’t live it any differently. I’ve never regretted not having children insofar as what I wanted to do was to write.

Then why “swindled”? When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.

So one might say, as Alain did, and I’m very fond of that remark, “Nothing is promised us.” In one sense, it’s true. In another, it’s not. Because a bourgeois boy or girl who is given a certain culture is actually promised things. I think that anyone who had a hard life when he was young won’t say in later years that he’s been “swindled.” But when I say that I’ve been swindled I’m referring to the seventeen-year-old girl who daydreamed in the country near the hazel bush about what she was going to do later on. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, writing books, learning about things, but I’ve been swindled all the same because it’s never anything more. There are also Mallarmé’s lines about “the perfume of sadness that remains in the heart,” I forget exactly how they go. I’ve had what I wanted, and, when all is said and done, what one wanted was always something else. A woman psychoanalyst wrote me a very intelligent letter in which she said that “in the last analysis, desires always go far beyond the object of desire.” The fact is that I’ve had everything I desired, but the “far beyond” which is included in the desire itself is not attained when the desire has been fulfilled. When I was young, I had hopes and a view of life which all cultured people and bourgeois optimists encourage one to have and which my readers accuse me of not encouraging in them. That’s what I meant, and I wasn’t regretting anything I’ve done or thought.

Some people think that a longing for God underlies your works.

No. Sartre and I have always said that it’s not because there’s a desire to be that this desire corresponds to any reality. It’s exactly what Kant said on the intellectual level. The fact that one believes in causalities is no reason to believe that there is a supreme cause. The fact that man has a desire to be does not mean that he can ever attain being or even that being is a possible notion, at any rate the being that is a reflection and at the same time an existence. There is a synthesis of existence and being that is impossible. Sartre and I have always rejected it, and this rejection underlies our thinking. There is an emptiness in man, and even his achievements have this emptiness. That’s all. I don’t mean that I haven’t achieved what I wanted to achieve but rather that the achievement is never what people think it is. Furthermore, there is a naïve or snobbish aspect, because people imagine that if you have succeeded on a social level you must be perfectly satisfied with the human condition in general. But that’s not the case.

“I’m swindled” also implies something else—namely, that life has made me discover the world as it is, that is, a world of suffering and oppression, of undernourishment for the majority of people, things that I didn’t know when I was young and when I imagined that to discover the world was to discover something beautiful. In that respect, too, I was swindled by bourgeois culture, and that’s why I don’t want to contribute to the swindling of others and why I say that I was swindled, in short, so that others aren’t swindled. It’s really also a problem of a social kind. In short, I discovered the unhappiness of the world little by little, then more and more, and finally, above all, I felt it in connection with the Algerian war and when I traveled.

Some critics and readers have felt that you spoke about old age in an unpleasant way.

A lot of people didn’t like what I said because they want to believe that all periods of life are delightful, that children are innocent, that all newlyweds are happy, that all old people are serene. I’ve rebelled against such notions all my life, and there’s no doubt about the fact that the moment, which for me is not old age but the beginning of old age, represents—even if one has all the resources one wants, affection, work to be done—represents a change in one’s existence, a change that is manifested by the loss of a great number of things. If one isn’t sorry to lose them it’s because one didn’t love them. I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life. Of course, in present-day France you have to say that everything’s fine, that everything’s lovely, including death.

Beckett has keenly felt the swindle of the human condition. Does he interest you more than the other “new novelists”?

Certainly. All the playing around with time that one finds in the “new novel” can be found in Faulkner. It was he who taught them how to do it, and in my opinion he’s the one who does it best. As for Beckett, his way of emphasizing the dark side of life is very beautiful. However, he’s convinced that life is dark and only that. I too am convinced that life is dark, and at the same time I love life. But that conviction seems to have spoiled everything for him. When that’s all you can say, there aren’t fifty ways of saying it, and I’ve found that many of his works are merely repetitions of what he said earlier. Endgame repeats Waiting for Godot, but in a weaker way.

Are there many contemporary French writers who interest you?

Not many. I receive lots of manuscripts, and the annoying thing is that they’re almost always bad. At the present time, I’m very excited about Violette Leduc. She was first published in 1946 in Collection Espoir, which was edited by Camus. The critics praised her to the skies. Sartre, Genet, and Jouhandeau liked her very much. She never sold. She recently published a great autobiography called The Bastard, the beginning of which was published in Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre is editor-in-chief. I wrote a preface to the book because I thought that she was one of the unappreciated postwar French writers. She’s having great success in France at the present time.

And how do you rank yourself among contemporary writers?

I don’t know. What is it that one evaluates? The noise, the silence, posterity, the number of readers, the absence of readers, the importance at a given time? I think that people will read me for some time. At least, that’s what my readers tell me. I’ve contributed something to the discussion of women’s problems. I know I have from the letters I receive. As for the literary quality of my work, in the strict sense of the word, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Link: Hell on Earth

At the University of Oxford, a team of scholars led by the philosopher Rebecca Roache has begun thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. In January, I spoke with Roache and her colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen about emotional enhancement, ‘supercrimes’, and the ethics of eternal damnation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Suppose we develop the ability to radically expand the human lifespan, so that people are regularly living for more than 500 years. Would that allow judges to fit punishments to crimes more precisely?

Roache: When I began researching this topic, I was thinking a lot about Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old boy who was starved and beaten to death [in 2012] by his mother and stepfather here in the UK. I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice in cases like that was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

But I soon realised it’s not that simple. In the US, for instance, the vast majority of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic, but if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before. If you look at the enormous prison population in the US, you find an astronomical number of elderly prisoners, including quite a few with pacemakers. When I went digging around in medical journals, I found all these interesting papers about the treatment of pacemaker patients in prison.

Suppose prisons become more humane in the future, so that they resemble Norwegian prisons instead of those you see in America or North Korea. Is it possible that correctional facilities could become truly correctional in the age of long lifespans, by taking a more sustained approach to rehabilitation?

Roache: If people could live for centuries or millennia, you would obviously have more time to reform them, but you would also run into a tricky philosophical issue having to do with personal identity. A lot of philosophers who have written about personal identity wonder whether identity can be sustained over an extremely long lifespan. Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person. And so, if you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else. Most of us would think that unjust.

Let’s say that life expansion therapies become a normal part of the human condition, so that it’s not just elites who have access to them, it’s everyone. At what point would it become unethical to withhold these therapies from prisoners?

Roache: In that situation it would probably be inappropriate to view them as an enhancement, or something extra. If these therapies were truly universal, it’s more likely that people would come to think of them as life-saving technologies. And if you withheld them from prisoners in that scenario, you would effectively be denying them medical treatment, and today we consider that inhumane. My personal suspicion is that once life extension becomes more or less universal, people will begin to see it as a positive right, like health care in most industrialised nations today. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that in the US, prisoners sometimes receive better health care than uninsured people. You have to wonder about the incentives a system like that creates.

Where is that threshold of universality, where access to something becomes a positive right? Do we have an empirical example of it?

Roache: One interesting case might be internet access. In Finland, for instance, access to communication technology is considered a human right and handwritten letters are not sufficient to satisfy it. Finnish prisons are required to give inmates access to computers, although their internet activity is closely monitored. This is an interesting development because, for years, limiting access to computers was a common condition of probation in hacking cases – and that meant all kinds of computers, including ATMs [cash points]. In the 1980s, that lifestyle might have been possible, and you could also see pulling it off in the ’90s, though it would have been very difficult. But today computers are ubiquitous, and a normal life seems impossible without them; you can’t even access the subway without interacting with a computer of some sort.

In the late 1990s, an American hacker named Kevin Mitnick was denied all access to communication technology after law enforcement officials [in California] claimed he could ‘start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone’. But in the end, he got the ruling overturned by arguing that it prevented him from living a normal life.

What about life expansion that meddles with a person’s perception of time? Take someone convicted of a heinous crime, like the torture and murder of a child. Would it be unethical to tinker with the brain so that this person experiences a 1,000-year jail sentence in his or her mind?

Roache: There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence. Of course, there is a widely held view that any amount of tinkering with a person’s brain is unacceptably invasive. But you might not need to interfere with the brain directly. There is a long history of using the prison environment itself to affect prisoners’ subjective experience. During the Spanish Civil War [in the 1930s] there was actually a prison where modern art was used to make the environment aesthetically unpleasant. Also, prison cells themselves have been designed to make them more claustrophobic, and some prison beds are specifically made to be uncomfortable.

I haven’t found any specific cases of time dilation being used in prisons, but time distortion is a technique that is sometimes used in interrogation, where people are exposed to constant light, or unusual light fluctuations, so that they can’t tell what time of day it is. But in that case it’s not being used as a punishment, per se, it’s being used to break people’s sense of reality so that they become more dependent on the interrogator, and more pliable as a result. In that sense, a time-slowing pill would be a pretty radical innovation in the history of penal technology.

I want to ask you a question that has some crossover with theological debates about hell. Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

In your forthcoming paper on this subject, you mention the possibility that convicts with a neurologically stunted capacity for empathy might one day be ‘emotionally enhanced’, and that the remorse felt by these newly empathetic criminals could be the toughest form of punishment around. Do you think a full moral reckoning with an awful crime the most potent form of suffering an individual can endure?

Roache: I’m not sure. Obviously, it’s an empirical question as to which feels worse, genuine remorse or time in prison. There is certainly reason to take the claim seriously. For instance, in literature and folk wisdom, you often hear people saying things like, ‘The worst thing is I’ll have to live with myself.’ My own intuition is that for very serious crimes, genuine remorse could be subjectively worse than a prison sentence. But I doubt that’s the case for less serious crimes, where remorse isn’t even necessarily appropriate – like if you are wailing and beating yourself up for stealing a candy bar or something like that.

I remember watching a movie in school, about a teen that killed another teen in a drunk-driving accident. As one of the conditions of his probation, the judge in the case required him to mail a daily cheque for 25 cents to the parents of the teen he’d killed for a period of 10 years. Two years in, the teen was begging the judge to throw him in jail, just to avoid the daily reminder.

Roache: That’s an interesting case where prison is actually an escape from remorse, which is strange because one of the justifications for prison is that it’s supposed to focus your mind on what you have done wrong. Presumably, every day you wake up in prison, you ask yourself why you are there, right?

What if these emotional enhancements proved too effective? Suppose they are so powerful, they turn psychopaths into Zen masters who live in a constant state of deep, reflective contentment. Should that trouble us? Is mental suffering a necessary component of imprisonment?

Roache: There is a long-standing philosophical question as to how bad the prison experience should be. Retributivists, those who think the point of prisons is to punish, tend to think that it should be quite unpleasant, whereas consequentialists tend to be more concerned with a prison’s reformative effects, and its larger social costs. There are a number of prisons that offer prisoners constructive activities to participate in, including sports leagues, art classes, and even yoga. That practice seems to reflect the view that confinement, or the deprivation of liberty, is itself enough of a punishment. Of course, even for consequentialists, there has to be some level of suffering involved in punishment, because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.

I wanted to close by moving beyond imprisonment, to ask you about the future of punishment more broadly. Are there any alternative punishments that technology might enable, and that you can see on the horizon now? What surprising things might we see down the line?

Roache: We have been thinking a lot about surveillance and punishment lately. Already, we see governments using ankle bracelets to track people in various ways, and many of them are fairly elaborate. For instance, some of these devices allow you to commute to work, but they also give you a curfew and keep a close eye on your location. You can imagine this being refined further, so that your ankle bracelet bans you from entering establishments that sell alcohol. This could be used to punish people who happen to like going to pubs, or it could be used to reform severe alcoholics. Either way, technologies of this sort seem to be edging up to a level of behaviour control that makes some people uneasy, due to questions about personal autonomy.

It’s one thing to lose your personal liberty as a result of being confined in a prison, but you are still allowed to believe whatever you want while you are in there. In the UK, for instance, you cannot withhold religious manuscripts from a prisoner unless you have a very good reason. These concerns about autonomy become particularly potent when you start talking about brain implants that could potentially control behaviour directly. The classic example is Robert G Heath [a psychiatrist at Tulane University in New Orleans], who did this famously creepy experiment [in the 1950s] using electrodes in the brain in an attempt to modify behaviour in people who were prone to violent psychosis. The electrodes were ostensibly being used to treat the patients, but he was also, rather gleefully, trying to move them in a socially approved direction. You can really see that in his infamous [1972] paper on ‘curing’ homosexuals. I think most Western societies would say ‘no thanks’ to that kind of punishment.

To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us. And more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether punishments like imprisonment are only considered humane because they are familiar, because we’ve all grown up in a world where imprisonment is what happens to people who commit crimes. Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free? When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.

Link: "God didn't die, he was transformed into money" — An interview with Giorgio Agamben

A 2012 interview with the Italian philosopher, who expresses his views on the economic crisis, capitalism as a religion (Walter Benjamin), the role of history in European cultural identity, “bio-politics”, the “state of exception”, and the fate of contemporary art (“trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification”).

Peppe Savà: The Monti government is invoking the crisis and the emergency situation and it seems to be the only solution for both the financial catastrophe as well as the indecent forms assumed by power in Italy: is Monti’s perspective the only solution or could it to the contrary become a pretext to impose serious limitations on democratic liberties?

Giorgio Agamben: These days, the words “crisis” and “economy” are not used as concepts but rather as words of command that facilitate the imposition and acceptance of measures and restrictions that the people would not otherwise accept. Today, “crisis” means, “you must obey!” I think it is very obvious to everyone that the so-called “crisis” has been going on for decades and that it is actually nothing but the normal functioning of capitalism in our time. And there is nothing rational about the way capitalism is now functioning.

In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. Furthermore, the claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.

The economic crisis that is now threatening many European countries: can it be generally conceived as a crisis of modernity as a whole?

The crisis that is now affecting Europe is not so much an economic problem, as we are being told, but above all a crisis of our relation to the past. Knowledge of the past is the only way to have access to the present. It is through their quest to understand the present that men—or at least the Europeans—felt compelled to interrogate the past. I have specified that this involved “we Europeans” because it seems to me, granting that the word Europe has any meaning, it now seems obvious that this meaning cannot be political, or religious, or much less economic, but consists in the fact that the European man—unlike, for example, the Asians and the Americans, for whom history and the past have a totally different meaning—can approach his truth only by way of a confrontation with the past, only by settling accounts with his history. The past is not just a patrimony of objects and traditions, of memories and knowledge, but above all an essential anthropological component of European man, who can access the present only by looking at what happened in the past. The special relation that the European countries (Italy and of course Sicily are exemplary from this point of view) have with their cities, with their works of art, and with their landscapes, is not a matter of preserving more or less valuable, but external and accessible, things: it is a question of the true European reality, its indisputable survival. This is why, by destroying the Italian countryside with the concrete of highways and high-speed trains, the speculators, while refusing to deprive themselves of their profits, are destroying our very identity. The very expression, “cultural goods” is deceptive, because it suggests that the term embraces certain goods and excludes others, goods that can be economically exploited and even sold, as if one could liquidate and offer one’s own identity for sale.

Many years ago, a philosopher who was also a high official of the nascent Europe, Alexandre Kojeve, maintained that homo sapiens had reached the end of his history and that he had only two choices: access to a post-historical animality (as exemplified by the American Way of Life) or snobbery (as exemplified by the Japanese) that continues to celebrate its tea ceremony, empty and devoid of any historical meaning. Between an integrally re-animalized United States and a Japan that remains human only by renouncing all historical content, Europe can offer the alternative of a culture that remains human and vital even after the end of history, because it is capable of confronting its own history in its totality in order to proceed from there to attain a new life.

Your most famous book, Homo Sacer, is a study of the relation between political power and naked life and reveals the difficulties that both terms entail. What is the point of possible intermediation between these two poles?

What my research has shown me is that sovereign power has been based since its origins on the separation between naked life (the biological life that in Greece took place in the home) and life as politically defined (which takes place in the city). Naked life was excluded from politics and was at the same time included and captured by its own exclusion: in this sense, naked life is the negative basis of power. This separation attains its most extreme form in modern bio-politics. What happened in the totalitarian states of the 20th century is that power (perhaps by way of science) decided just what, in the final reckoning, is a human life and what is not a human life. In opposition to this view, what we have to do is to conceive of a politics of vital forms, that is, a life that cannot be separated from its form, one that will never be naked again.

The boredom, to employ a euphemism, with which the ordinary person confronts politics: is this connected with the specific conditions of Italy or is it somehow inevitable?

I think that today we are facing a new phenomenon that goes beyond disenchantment and the mutual suspicion between citizens and power, a phenomenon that affects the whole planet. What is taking place is a radical transformation of the categories with which we have habitually thought about politics. The new order of world power is based on a model of governance that defines itself as democratic, but which has nothing in common with what this term meant in Athens. The fact that this model is, from the viewpoint of power, more economical and efficient, is proven by the fact that it was adopted even by the regimes that up until quite recently were dictatorships. It is much easier to manipulate people’s opinions by means of the media and television than to have to permanently impose every decision by means of violence. The political forms that we once knew—the nation-state, sovereignty, democratic participation, political parties, international law—have come to the end of their history. They remain part of our lives as empty forms, but contemporary politics assumes the form of an “economy”, that is, a government of things and of men. So that our only recourse is to think integrally, based on the principle that we previously defined with the expression, which is otherwise so obscure, of “political life”.

The state of exception that you have linked with the concept of sovereignty today seems to take on the character of a normal situation, but the citizens are still at a loss when faced with the uncertainty of their everyday lives: is it possible to attenuate this feeling?

We have been living for decades in a state of exception, which has become the rule; as in the case of the economy, crisis is the normal condition. The state of exception that was supposed to be limited in time is instead the normal model of governance today and this is true of the very same states that call themselves democratic. Few people are aware of the fact that the security regulations introduced after September 11 (they had been established in Italy since the Years of Lead) are worse than the ones that were on the books under fascism. And the crimes against humanity committed under Nazism were made possible by the fact that Hitler had taken power and proclaimed a state of exception that was never repealed. Hitler, however, did not have the same possibilities of control (biometric data, surveillance cameras, cell phones, credit cards) that are at the disposal of our contemporary states. One could very well say that today the state considers every citizen to be a virtual terrorist. This can have no other consequence than to diminish and render impossible the participation in politics that is supposed to define democracy. A city whose squares and streets are controlled by way of surveillance cameras cannot be a public place: it is a prison.

The great authority that so many people attribute to scholars who, like you, research the nature of political power: is it possible that these scholars can awaken in us the hope that, to use a cliché, the future will be better than the present?

Optimism and pessimism are not useful categories for thinking. As Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge: “it is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope”.

May we ask you a question about the speech you gave in Sicily? Some people have concluded that it was an homage to Piero Guccioni, to an old friend, while others have seen it as a suggestion concerning how we might escape from the checkmate in which contemporary art finds itself trapped.

It is true that my speech was an homage to Piero Guccioni and to Scicli, a small city where some of the most important painters of our time are living. There the situation of art is vividly felt and it might be the best place to understand the crisis of the relation with the past that we just talked about. The only place where one can live in the past is the present and if the present ceases to feel the life of its own past, then the museum and art, which are the most well known images of that past, become problematic places. In a society that no longer wants to have anything to do with its past, art finds itself trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification. And since our museums of contemporary art are so often temples of the absurd, both of these things go hand in hand. Duchamp was probably the first person to become aware of the dead end in which art had become interred. Just what did Duchamp invent with his “ready-made”? He took some ordinary object, a urinal, for example, and by introducing it into a museum he compelled the museum to show it as a work of art. Naturally—after a brief period of surprise and shock—nothing can be attributed to its presence there: not the work because it is an ordinary object, just any industrially-produced object, and not the artistic work because it involved absolutely no “poiesis”, no production—and much less the artist, except as a philosopher or a critic or as Duchamp liked to say, as “one who breathes”, a mere living being. In any case it is certainly true that he did not claim to have produced a work of art, but to have cleared the way for art, which was stuck between the museum and commodification. As you know, what happened instead is that a class, one that is still active, of clever speculators transformed “ready-made” into a work of art. And so-called contemporary art does nothing but repeat Duchamp’s gesture by filling the museums, which are nothing but organs of the market devoted to accelerating the circulation of merchandise which, like money, have attained a state of liquidity and which they want to continue to value as if they were works of art, with non-works and non-performances. This is the contradiction of contemporary art: it abolishes the work of art and then puts a price tag on the result.

Link: An interview with Adam Curtis, producer of the BBC documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self

Adam Curtis remains at the forefront of documentary filmmaking. He began in the early 80s, but his first major breakthrough came in 1992 withPandora’s Box, a film which warned of the dangers technocratic politics and saw him pick up his first of six career BAFTAs.

Holed up in a BBC basement, Curtis brings together disparate subjects and uses archival footage to chart political history. His love of music is playfully interwoven into the narrative, whilst his unique, deadpan voice discusses the failures of political systems and ideologies.

In his 2004 film, Power of Nightmares, his most remarkable piece of work to date, Curtis debunked the myth that al-Qaeda was an organised global network posing an apocalyptic threat to the West, which, In a post-911 context that saw governments and mass media exaggerating al-Qaeda’s size and influence, was a bold message. Time, of course, has been incredibly kind to his analysis.

After a six month chase attempting to secure an interview, I finally came into contact with him at the Latitude Festival where he was discussing static culture, his latest area of fascination. After forcing a written invitation into his hand, not long later I met him at the British Library in central London. He turned out to be engaging and personable, veering frantically one from one topic to another, remaining insightful and charming throughout.

What follows is an extract from a long conversation regarding his work, politics, journalism and our willing acceptance of the computer systems that guide our choices.

[…] So this idea that computer systems are dictating too much to us, which is reducing our imagination to see a future … how are we going to break that?

I have a theory that people might get fed up with computers, quite simply. I think the interesting thing about the Edward Snowden case is it makes you realise how much the cloud thing on the Internet is a surveillance system. I don’t mean it is a conspiracy. It’s sort of like you are part of something you might not necessarily want to be part of. And I just wonder whether, in fact – the Internet won’t go away – but its magic will disappear. Our delight in screens that we can go like that with [AC scrolls with fingers] will disappear. It will become a functional local library, coupled with sort of weird people chatting online, and the stuff that you don’t know is true or not, and another culture will arise separately from it, which might go back a bit to books and newspapers. I still think newspapers might come back if they could do some good journalism. I mean the reason we don’t read newspapers these days is because the journalism is so boring.

I’ve heard you lament the fact that the financial crash hasn’t presented to us in understandable terms by the media …

I think this is a really interesting thing. So much of the way the present world is managed is through – not even systems – its organizations, which are boring. They don’t have any stories to tell. Economics, for example, which is central to our life at the moment … I just drift off when people talk about collateralised debt obligations, and I am not alone. It’s impossible to illustrate on television, it’s impossible to tell a story about it, because basically it’s just someone doing keystrokes somewhere in Canary Wharf in relation to a server in … I dunno … Denver, and something happens, and that’s it. I use the phrase, ‘They are unstoryfiable’. Journalism cannot really describe it any longer, so it falls back onto its old myths of dark enemies out there. Whether those dark enemies are Al-Qaeda, Soviets, or criminal masterminds who are grooming children for white slavery. All of which may or may not be true, but it’s what they fall back on and don’t report. I mean, the Guardian made a noble attempt to describe that company, Serco, which no-one has ever heard of, but which is an incredibly powerful outsourcer of government things, and it’s been doing some not very good things recently, but it’s incredibly boring and that’s the problem. Journalism is a trick to find a way of making the boring interesting, and as yet it hasn’t found a way of doing it.

Journalism isn’t describing to us the world as it is, which we know is there, but we want someone to make sense of it for us. We want someone to explain to us about what’s going on with the banks, but in ways we can get emotionally. We want someone to describe to us who these strange people are like G4S, who constantly turn up doing odd things like at the Olympics and then disappear again. We want people to notice that.  Just like we want music that will actually take us out of ourselves and make us feel not alone and emotionally part of something. Both music and journalism are totally failing to do that at the moment. And it’s a moment in history when they haven’t caught up, maybe something else will catch up and describe it to us.

Will journalism catch up?

Yeah, of course it will, what else is there? I mean I don’t buy this internet … the internet is just a new system of delivery, it’s not a new content thing. Of course journalism will catch up, it’s just no one has found it yet. It’s a way of connecting with you and me emotionally.

So, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for a particular journalist with an idea?

Yeah. Or a group of journalists who will find a way of connecting with us. It happened back in the 60s with what was called “New Journalism” because they had the funny idea that you spend time with someone and you write about what was in that person’s head, and then you described it like a novelist. And that connected with the new sensibility. 

Well, the new sensibility at the moment is a sense of isolation and a sense of, “What the hell is this all for?” and a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. That’s what is around at the moment. No one has captured that yet in a way that makes you feel connected to what they’re saying. Instead what we have are these people who play on the anxiety which is not right, you know: “All the world’s going to die … Al-Qaeda is going to kill you with an atomic weapon coming up the Thames on a boat.” They are taking serious issues but amplifying them to try and scare you to get your attention, but in fact, what they should be doing is trying to connect with you emotionally and actually describe the world and help you understand it more. Then it excites you andfrightens you; I’m not pleading for a boring journalism, I’m pleading for a better journalism. And I think the same is true of music, which takes you out of yourself. 

What about The Power of Nightmares? The central theme of that is that Al-Qaeda and terrorism isn’t as apocalyptic as some suggested. I think time has been kind to that message. At first people were probably thinking you were …

Exaggerating?

Yes, but I think that film stands up.

I would argue that what I said back then absolutely stands up, despite all the horrors that have happened. What I was saying has absolutely been proved by the facts. There is no organised network; there is a serious, dangerous and very nasty threat from small groups of disaffected Islamists who have no real form of connection with each other and are inspired by a corroded and corrupted idea, and they are actually on the decline. That doesn’t mean it’s not a serious threat.

Also, a lot of my colleagues – on the basis of absolutely no evidence – created a complete fiction of this apocalyptic, organized network and they should be ashamed of doing it.

What do you think about the rise of – it’s not really a rise – the presence of the EDL and this anti-Muslim narrative that stemmed from a lot of what you were trying to push back against?

It’s not that strong. It’s stronger in France than it is here, and also again, so much of that is disaffection with unemployment and uncertainty. I mean the real problem of our time is the uncertainty that people feel, and no politicians are really dealing with it, so of course they take it out on easy targets like that. UKIP, I don’t think is a significant force, I really don’t. The really interesting thing of our time is not what we had back with Al-Qaeda, which is journalists trying to tell us all these fears. It’s just the general sort of emptiness and unknowingness, politicians not having the faintest clue what’s going on. It’s a sense of drift that no one has really got hold of now.

Going back to music and journalism, we don’t have the sense that anyone is reporting to us, or communicating to us, what is really going on in the world at the moment. We have got this idea that we have screens around us all the time and we see everything and we somehow know everything that is happening in the world because it is reported to us 24 hours a day but actually we also have a sense that we haven’t got the faintest idea of what’s going on. Things just come and go like that, and no journalism is making sense of it. It reports it to us, but it doesn’t make sense of it. Music and culture is absolutely failing to create a framework of sensibility for us to understand it. It’s just rehashing stuff from … I don’t know … Marcel Duchamp in 1919. 

Again it’s in a static way, because no one knows what’s going on. The fears have diminished because that was a reaction. Now we’re in this “I don’t know what’s going on” so let’s just go listen to Coldplay… [laughs] Not that there is anything wrong with Coldplay.

So, when the financial crash happened, I expected more socialist ideas to start penetrating the narrative, and I don’t really think that that has happened. Why do you think that is?

That’s one of the great shocking things of the last decade … I mean, it’s astonishing. The failure of the left to engage with what happened after 2008 is just mind-boggling. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. It’s amazing, they just go around mouthing stuff with absolutely no way of explaining what’s going on in a way that doesn’t sound again a bit like Savages. They are mouthing the sort of stuff that was said in the 1980s about Margaret Thatcher. 

We are in a genuinely new world at the moment and no one knows its dimensions and they have to come up with something. The Occupy movement absolutely astonished me. They had a brilliant slogan the 99 and 1 per cent – that was the first time I thought someone’s got it, but then they completely blew it. I went to their meetings and they have been completely captivated by this pseudo-managerial theory of a new kind of democracy where there are no leaders and everyone sits around gesticulating if they disagree. It was one of the most absurd ideas in modern politics. 

If you are dealing with questions of power you have to understand power, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either on your side or their side. The point about managerialism is it pretends power doesn’t exist; it’s a way of keeping you in your place. For them to buy into that was the most cosmically stupid ideas I have ever heard in my life. If you want to change the world you have to deal with questions of power: the power of the ones who don’t want you to change it, and the power of those assembled on your side who do want to change it. Humans are humans, and power is a really complicated thing and you can’t ignore it and by ignoring it they let everything go, so now there is a vacuum, an absolute vacuum. We have alternative comedians telling us everything is shit … well that’s nothing! I know that.

In The Century of Self you discuss this idea that politicians interview the public through focus groups and then use the results to dictate policy. That seems the wrong way round to me.

If you like this, then you’ll like that. It’s the same thing. It’s what’s called a market idea of democracy, and the Market Idea of democracy says that real democracy is not about taking people somewhere else: it’s about finding out what they want and giving it to them. But in market terms, that’s absolutely right. I don’t have any problems with the free market, its fine, that’s what it does. It’s extremely appropriate in finding out what goods you want and giving it to you and also knowing what you might like and giving it to you. When it is then transferred into politics, that’s when the problem happens. When it is then transferred into culture and journalism, everything just becomes reinforcing. It becomes like a feedback loop. So in the BBC we do this, we know what journalism works for people and we give more of that and it becomes … it creates that very static world but that’s not necessarily the fault of the system.

There are other ways of journalism, it’s just that journalists don’t know how to do it any longer because they haven’t really got the new apparatus to understand and describe the world to us. So they rely on just going to ask you. I know this myself; a lot of journalists I know in television and in print go on about, “Oh if only we didn’t have this terrible system where we are forced to do these focus groups and stuff we could do much better journalism” then you say to them, “Well, what sort of journalism would you do?” And they come out with the same old stuff: that bankers are bad, spies are terrible, and you think actually maybe this is all a bit of a smokescreen to disguise the fact that you sort of run out of puff yourself and everyone is waiting. I have this terrible feeling that we are all waiting for something new, some new view of the world to come along and that maybe we are sort of at the end of our own cold war at the moment.

All the institutions are declining. Universities are declining, spies are completely useless, and banks were our last shot at giving us cheap money and keep things going when industry collapsed. Its all a little bit like these giant institutions are all declining, a bit like the eighties and we are waiting for something new to come along and culture is letting us down. I mean everyone is obsessed by culture at the moment and it’s supposed to be radical. I moved into this world a bit with the Massive Attack thing and they all think they are so radical. They are not radical at all; they play back to us old ideas all the time. I mean all the so-called radical art that was around in the last two Manchester festivals I’ve been at could have been done in 1919 by Marcel Duchamp. That’s not to say it’s bad, but to pretend that it is somehow a new radical vision of the world is wrong and it’s reinforcing what’s been around since the early days of modernism. Some of it is very good – Savages are very good – but it’s been around. It’s enjoyable and it’s fun, but this idea that somehow art can point the way to the future is not what seems to be happening to me at the moment. Art is stuck in the past, just like music is stuck in the past, and journalism is stuck in the past. Something will happen; it’s quite an exciting idea, really.

One doesn’t know what it would be, and it may be right at the margins, it may have nothing to do with journalism. I’m making this up because my dates are so bad, but If you were around in the 1860’s and you have these people wandering around going, “We have this idea of history, that it is like a science, and that you can analyze it and logically that means that the class structure will happen like this and we will have Marxists …” You’d think they were nutty, that they were geeks. They were probably the geeks of their time, they were right at the fringe. I think maybe we are far too much of the establishment. All these radicals – including myself – we think we are somewhere radical but actually we are deeply, deeply, deeply conservative at the moment. And what has a veneer of radicalism is actually possibly the most conservative force at the moment. By that I mean radical culture, art, music and a lot of radical journalism and radical politics – whilst none of it is bad – its mechanisms, and ways of seeing the world are borrowed from the past and its stuck in the past. It’s stuck with a nostalgia for a radicalism of the past and that’s not the radicalism that’s necessary.

Yes there is a lot of poverty around, yes there is a lot of people being thrown out of work – I know all that – but the really big thing that is in the back of most people’s minds at the moment is a sense of total uncertainty, loneliness, isolation and not knowing where they’re going for what they’re doing. A sense of unconnectedness. And if you really want to change the world and make it better for those who are out of work and who are poor you have got to get the bigger group on your side and the way you get that bigger group on your side is by connecting with those uncertainties in the back of their minds, the loneliness the uncertainty and sense of isolation that is really big at the moment. And no one is doing that, no one has got a music, no one has got a journalism, a politics, a culture that heartfully connects with it. People are yearning for it; I know it I feel it. I like the culture, I like reading some good journalism, I like going to see bands but none of it goes, “Yes, that’s it that gets me.” That’s what I think, and we are just waiting for it. It’s quite exciting because you know it can’t go on like this. Something is going to come along.

I found it really interesting in The Century of Self, this idea that New Labour were seen as visionary, but they were just charlatans in a way weren’t they? They stole a lot of ideas from the Democrats in America. Peter Mandelson, for example …

I wouldn’t say they were charlatans, I would say they were opportunists. They were technocrats. Basically they were technocrats who stole an ideological cloak of Labour, and draped over what was really … They are managerial technocrats, because that’s really all focus groups are. It’s a managerial idea. It’s going, well listen we’ll just ask them what they want and give it to them and that will make them happy and the key thing is to go and identify the swing voter, that’s the key technocrat thing. They went and identified who were the swing voters; they’re the ones who never make up their minds. Ask them what they want, give it to them, and bingo – you’ll get the swing voters on your side. Which means that a great deal of your future is decided by indecisive people in Uttoxeter.

Philip Gould: do you think he was the thinking behind the New Labour movement?

Yeah, he was clever; he was the technocrat. Because Gould spotted early on the whole idea of focus groups, and how you could extend them. What went wrong with New Labour, which I think is quite interesting, is that Blair got fed up with focus groups and started to do something off his own back, which was Iraq. It was almost like he got fed up and felt imprisoned by them. No one has ever explained to me why Blair went to war in Iraq. My own personal theory is that he got so fed up with having to focus group everything that he just thought, “Oh sod it, I’m going to do something off my own back” and then he discovered he could. Because the really interesting thing about that time – it’s really odd – you have this obsession with focus group politics, which is that you have to ask people what they want otherwise they will turn against you and you will lose power. Yet at the same time, you can decide to invade Iraq, two million people can come out onto the streets of London, you go, “Fuck off!” and they go “Alright” and you go home. I mean where is the power in society?

It’s the same with the economic thing, isn’t it? We are told this is what’s happened so we have to accept X, Y, Z cuts in this area.

But that’s because the left hasn’t come up with an alternative theory. In a way you can’t really blame people for going, “Ok” because the job of the so-called left is to come up with an explanation that makes me think “Oh yeah, I get it and that’s wrong. I must do something about it. I get it, they have simplified it down to me, and I get it”. But if you start talking to me about austerity versus collateralised debt obligations and was the austerity to do with the banks being bailed out or because Gordon Brown spent too much money on hospitals? I just drift away. I go and watch The Departed on Channel Four and think about zombies.

Why do you think people at ground level seem to have more anger and ire towards what they perceive as feckless welfare claimants at the bottom, than they do where the real problem exists, at the top? Why do you think there is such a disconnect?

Because it’s a very easy thing to do and it’s a traditional thing on the right to do, to blame others for stealing from you. All the left has got to do is find an equally simple way of explaining what is going on at the top and re-divert your attention and anger to that, but they are not doing it. I have no idea why they’re not doing it. I’m not a politician; I’m a journalist. It’s not my job to do it and especially with the BBC it’s not my job to do it, but I am absolutely astonished that they’re not doing it. They really should hang their heads in shame, because it means they are not up to their jobs. If the right can do the divide and rule thing which you have just described of getting lower middle class people to get pissed off with the working class claimants, I’m afraid the left’s job is to take that anger and uncertainty which the right are accessing and redirect it to better and more purposeful -from their point of view – targets. And they are not doing it, they are just not.

The right seem to set the terms of the debate and the left operate within it, don’t they?

Yes, you have to set your own terms and that’s all it is.

What’s next for you, then?

I think I’m going to do a history of entertainment, and the relationship between entertainment and power. I am subtitling the rise of the media industrial complex, from gangsters and Jimmy Savile in Leeds in the 1950s, to YouTube and Google in the present day, via Rupert Murdoch. Entertainment and Power: The Rise of the Media Industrial Complex.

There you go.

Link: Interview with John Gray

"The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere."

In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history.

Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.

I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature. Our conversation covered a wide number of key thinkers, from both the ancient and modern world. He began by talking about one of his literary heroes, the late J.G. Ballard.

Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?

Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animals definitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.

In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.

What is your own relationship with religion?

I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.

You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

Would you call yourself an existentialist? 

No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with.  Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.

In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?

Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.

You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?

What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.

Link: Learn to Live without Masters, an interview with Slavoj Žižek

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera: You seem to entail that even in democracy we keep looking for new masters, new guidance and new recipes, when in fact we should strive to get rid of them all. To be consistent with that perspective one must then question also the position of the engaged intellectual, such as yourself, which more often than not appears as the ‘advanced’ conscience of society, the one proposing new forms of social and political experimentation and innovation. You have been approvingly portrayed several times as such, as an experimental performer or an innovative thinker, for instance by the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, after the screening of the film ‘Zizek!’. However, if you reject this role for the intellectual as a convincing form of political action in the present situation, then what is/should be the proper role of the public or politically engaged intellectual? Have intellectuals done anything of any relevance whatsoever, as a British journalist put it after the death of Jacques Derrida? Or is it their destiny to fail (politically) even when they succeed?

Slavoj Zizek: What can a philosopher do today, what can he or she tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? The task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.

A fake sense of urgency pervades the Left-liberal humanitarian discourse: “A woman is raped every six seconds in this country,” “In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, ten children will die of hunger”… Underlying all this is a hypocritical sentiment of moral outrage. This kind of pseudo-urgency was exploited by Starbucks coffee stores a couple of years ago: at the store’s entrance, posters greeting customers pointed out that almost half of the chain’s profits went into health-care for the children of Guatemala, the source of their coffee, the inference being that with every cup you drink, you save a child’s life. 

There is a fundamental anti-theoretical edge to these urgent injunctions. There is no time to reflect: we have to act now. Through this fake sense of urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside their area – they actively refer to it all times. As Bill Gates recently put it: “What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentery?”

Against this fake urgency, we might want to place Marx’s wonderful letter to Engels of 1870, when, for a brief moment it seemed that a European revolution was again at the gates. Marx’s letter conveys his sheer panic: can’t the revolutionaries wait for a couple of years? He hasn’t yet finished his Capital. A critical analysis of the present global constellation - one which offers no clear solution, no “practical” advice on what to do, and provides no light at the end of the tunnel, since one is well aware that this light might belong to a train crashing towards us - usually meets with reproach: ‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: “YES, precisely that!” There are situations when the only truly “practical” thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to “wait and see” by means of a patient, critical analysis.

There is a well-known Soviet joke about Lenin. Under Socialism, Lenin’s advice to young people, his answer to what they should do, was ‘Learn, learn, and learn’. This was evoked at all times and displayed on all school walls. The joke goes: Marx, Engels and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have, a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers ‘A wife!’, while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says: ‘I’d like to have both!’ Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No – he explains: ‘so that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife…’ ‘And then, what do you do?’ ‘I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!’

Is this not exactly what Lenin did after the catastrophe of 1914? He withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland, where he ‘learned, learned, and learned,’ reading Hegel’s logic. And this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded by mediatic images of violence. We need to ‘learn, learn, and learn’ what causes this violence.

This, of course, in no way means that one should agree with the liberal common wisdom according to which philosophers in politics stand for a catastrophic misfortune: starting with Plato, they either miserably fail or succeed… in supporting tyrants. The reason, so the story goes on, is that philosophers try to impose their Notion on reality, violating it - no wonder that, from Plato to Heidegger, they are resolutely anti-democratic (with the exception of some empiricist and pragmatists), dismissing the crowd of “people” as the victim of sophists, at the mercy of contingent plurality… So when the common wisdom hears of Marxists who defend Marx, claiming that his ideas were not faithfully realized in Stalinism, the reply: thanks God! It would have been even worse to fully realize them! Heidegger at least was willing to draw consequences of his catastrophic experience and conceded that those who think ontologically have to err ontically, that the gap is irreducible, that there is no “philosophical politics” proper. It thus seems that G.K.Chesterton was fully justified in his ironic proposal to install a “special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers”:

“It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense. /…/ The work of the philosophical policeman /…/ is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.”

Would not thinkers as different as Popper, Adorno and Levinas, also subscribe to a slightly changed version of this idea, where actual political crime is called “totalitarianism” and the philosophical crime is condensed in the notion of “totality”? A straight road leads from the philosophical notion of totality to political totalitarianism, and the task of “philosophical police” is to discover from a book of Plato’s dialogues or a treatise on social contract by Rousseau that a political crime will be committed. The ordinary political policeman goes to secret organizations to arrest revolutionaries; the philosophical policeman goes to philosophical symposia to detect proponents of totality. The ordinary anti-terrorist policeman tries to detect those preparing to blow up buildings and bridges; the philosophical policeman tries to detect those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundation of our societies…

One should thoroughly reject not only this criminalization of intellectuals, but, even more, the defensive domestication of radical intellectuals who, so the story goes, offer a provocative correction to democracy which, through his exaggeration, renders visible the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the democratic project. The idea is that radical theories are provocations which are not really “meant seriously,” but aim, through their “provocative” character, to awaken us from the democratic-dogmatic slumber and thus contribute to the revitalization of democracy itself… This is how the establishment likes “subversive” theorists to be: turned into harmless gadflies who bite us and thus awaken us to inconsistencies and imperfection of our democratic enterprise – God forbid to take their project seriously and try to live them…

Link: Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath

In 2005, James Fallon’s life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer’s and using his healthy family members’ brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers’ scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.

The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.

After discovering that he had the brain of a psychopath, Fallon delved into his family tree and spoke with experts, colleagues, relatives, and friends to see if his behavior matched up with the imaging in front of him. He not only learned that few people were surprised at the outcome, but that the boundary separating him from dangerous criminals was less determinate than he presumed. Fallon wrote about his research and findings in the book The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain, and we spoke about the idea of nature versus nurture, and what—if anything—can be done for people whose biology might betray their behavior.


One of the first things you talk about in your book is the often unrealistic or ridiculous ways that psychopaths are portrayed in film and television. Why did you decide to share your story and risk being lumped in with all of that?

I’m a basic neuroscientist—stem cells, growth factors, imaging genetics—that sort of thing. When I found out about my scan, I kind of let it go after I saw that the rest of my family’s were quite normal. I was worried about Alzheimer’s, especially along my wife’s side, and we were concerned about our kids and grandkids. Then my lab was busy doing gene discovery for schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and launching a biotech start-up from our research on adult stem cells. We won an award and I was so involved with other things that I didn’t actually look at my results for a couple of years.

This personal experience really had me look into a field that I was only tangentially related to, and burnished into my mind the importance of genes and the environment on a molecular level. For specific genes, those interactions can really explain behavior. And what is hidden under my personal story is a discussion about the effect of bullying, abuse, and street violence on kids.

You used to believe that people were roughly 80 percent the result of genetics, and 20 percent the result of their environment. How did this discovery cause a shift in your thinking?

I went into this with the bias of a scientist who believed, for many years, that genetics were very, very dominant in who people are—that your genes would tell you who you were going to be. It’s not that I no longer think that biology, which includes genetics, is a major determinant; I just never knew how profoundly an early environment could affect somebody.

While I was writing this book, my mother started to tell me more things about myself. She said she had never told me or my father how weird I was at certain points in my youth, even though I was a happy-go-lucky kind of kid. And as I was growing up, people all throughout my life said I could be some kind of gang leader or Mafioso don because of certain behavior. Some parents forbade their children from hanging out with me. They’d wonder how I turned out so well—a family guy, successful, professional, never been to jail and all that.

I asked everybody that I knew, including psychiatrists and geneticists that have known me for a long time, and knew my bad behavior, what they thought. They went through very specific things that I had done over the years and said, “That’s psychopathic.” I asked them why they didn’t tell me and they said, “We did tell you. We’ve all been telling you.” I argued that they had called me “crazy,” and they all said, “No. We said you’re psychopathic.”

I found out that I happened to have a series of genetic alleles, “warrior genes,” that had to do with serotonin and were thought to be at risk for aggression, violence, and low emotional and interpersonal empathy—if you’re raised in an abusive environment. But if you’re raised in a very positive environment, that can have the effect of offsetting the negative effects of some of the other genes.

I had some geneticists and psychiatrists who didn’t know me examine me independently, and look at the whole series of disorders I’ve had throughout my life. None of them have been severe; I’ve had the mild form of things like anxiety disorder and OCD, but it lined up with my genetics.

The scientists said, “For one, you might never have been born.” My mother had miscarried several times and there probably were some genetic errors. They also said that if I hadn’t been treated so well, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of being a teenager. I would have committed suicide or have gotten killed, because I would have been a violent guy.

How did you react to hearing all of this?

I said, “Well, I don’t care.” And they said, “That proves that you have a fair dose of psychopathy.” Scientists don’t like to be wrong, and I’m narcissistic so I hate to be wrong, but when the answer is there before you, you have to suck it up, admit it, and move on. I couldn’t.

I started reacting with narcissism, saying, “Okay, I bet I can beat this. Watch me and I’ll be better.” Then I realized my own narcissism was driving that response. If you knew me, you’d probably say, “Oh, he’s a fun guy”–or maybe, “He’s a big-mouth and a blowhard narcissist”—but I also think you’d say, “All in all, he’s interesting, and smart, and okay.” But here’s the thing—the closer to me you are, the worse it gets. Even though I have a number of very good friends, they have all ultimately told me over the past two years when I asked them—and they were consistent even though they hadn’t talked to each other—that I do things that are quite irresponsible. It’s not like I say, Go get into trouble. I say, Jump in the water with me.

What’s an example of that, and how do you come back from hurting someone in that way?

For me, because I need these buzzes, I get into dangerous situations. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Nairobi Hospital, a few doctors had told me about AIDS in the region as well as the Marburg virus. They said a guy had come in who was bleeding out of his nose and ears, and that he had been up in the Elgon, in the Kitum Caves. I thought, “Oh, that’s where the elephants go,” and I knew I had to visit. I would have gone alone, but my brother was there. I told him it was an epic trek to where the old matriarch elephants went to retrieve minerals in the caves, but I didn’t mention anything else.

When we got there, there was a lot of rebel activity on the mountain, so there was nobody in the park except for one guard. So we just went in. There were all these rare animals and it was tremendous, but also, this guy had died from Marburg after being here, and nobody knew exactly how he’d gotten it. I knew his path and followed it to see where he camped.

That night, we wrapped ourselves around a fire because there were lions and all these other animals. We were jumping around and waving sticks on fire at the animals in the absolute dark. My brother was going crazy and I joked, “I have to put my head inside of yours because I have a family and you don’t, so if a lion comes and bites one of our necks, it’s gotta be you.”

Again, I was joking around, but it was a real danger. The next day, we walked into the Kitum Caves and you could see where rocks had been knocked over by the elephants.  There was also the smell of all of this animal dung—and that’s where the guy got the Marburg; scientists didn’t know whether it was the dung or the bats.

A bit later, my brother read an article in The New Yorker about Marburg, which inspired the movieOutbreak. He asked me if I knew about it. I said, “Yeah. Wasn’t it exciting? Nobody gets to do this trip.” And he called me names and said, “Not exciting enough. We could’ve gotten Marburg; we could have gotten killed every two seconds.” All of my brothers have a lot of machismo and brio; you’ve got to be a tough guy in our family. But deep inside, I don’t think that my brother fundamentally trusts me after that. And why should he, right? To me, it was nothing.

After all of this research, I started to think of this experience as an opportunity to do something good out of being kind of a jerk my entire life. Instead of trying to fundamentally change—because it’s very difficult to change anything—I wanted to use what could be considered faults, like narcissism, to an advantage; to do something good.

What has that involved?

I started with simple things of how I interact with my wife, my sister, and my mother. Even though they’ve always been close to me, I don’t treat them all that well. I treat strangers pretty well—really well, and people tend to like me when they meet me—but I treat my family the same way, like they’re just somebody at a bar. I treat them well, but I don’t treat them in a special way. That’s the big problem.

I asked them this—it’s not something a person will tell you spontaneously—but they said, ”I give you everything. I give you all this love and you really don’t give it back.” They all said it, and that sure bothered me. So I wanted to see if I could change. I don’t believe it, but I’m going to try.

In order to do that, every time I started to do something, I had to think about it, look at it, and go: No. Don’t do the selfish thing or the self-serving thing. Step-by-step, that’s what I’ve been doing for about a year and a half and they all like it. Their basic response is: We know you don’t really mean it, but we still like it.

I told them, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You accept this? It’s phony!” And they said, “No, it’s okay. If you treat people better it means you care enough to try.” It blew me away then and still blows me away now. 

But treating everyone the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? Is it just that the people close to you want more from you?

Yes. They absolutely expect and demand more. It’s a kind of cruelty, a kind of abuse, because you’re not giving them that love. My wife to this day says it’s hard to be with me at parties because I’ve got all these people around me, and I’ll leave her or other people in the cold. She is not a selfish person, but I can see how it can really work on somebody.

Related 

I gave a talk two years ago in India at the Mumbai LitFest on personality disorders and psychopathy, and we also had a historian from Oxford talk about violence against women in terms of the brain and social development. After it was over, a woman came up to me and asked if we could talk. She was a psychiatrist but also a science writer and said, “You said that you live in a flat emotional world—that is, that you treat everybody the same. That’s Buddhist.” I don’t know anything about Buddhism but she continued on and said, “It’s too bad that the people close to you are so disappointed in being close to you. Any learned Buddhist would think this was great.” I don’t know what to do with that.

Sometimes the truth is not just that it hurts, but that it’s just so disappointing. You want to believe in romance and have romance in your life—even the most hardcore, cold intellectual wants the romantic notion. It kind of makes life worth living. But with these kinds of things, you really start thinking about what a machine it means we are—what it means that some of us don’t need those feelings, while some of us need them so much. It destroys the romantic fabric of society in a way.

So what I do, in this situation, is think: How do I treat the people in my life as if I’m their son, or their brother, or their husband? It’s about going the extra mile for them so that they know I know this is the right thing to do. I know when the situation comes up, but my gut instinct is to do something selfish. Instead, I slow down and try to think about it. It’s like dumb behavioral modification; there’s no finesse to this, but I said, well, why does there have to be finesse? I’m trying to treat it as a straightaway thing, when the situation comes up, to realize there’s a chance that I might be wrong, or reacting in a poor way, or without any sort of love—like a human.

A few years ago there was an article in The New York Times called, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" The subject was a boy named Michael whose family was concerned about him—he’d been diagnosed with several disorders and eventually deemed a possible psychopath by Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University who studies "callous unemotional children." Dr. Waschbusch examines these children in hopes of finding possible treatment or rehabilitation. You mentioned earlier that you don’t believe people can fundamentally change; what is your take on this research?

In the 70’s, when I was still a post-doc student and a young professor, I started working with some psychiatrists and neurologists who would tell me that they could identify a probable psychopath when he or she was only 2 or 3 years old. I asked them why they didn’t tell the parents and they said, “There’s no way I’m going to tell anybody. First of all, you can’t be sure; second of all, it could destroy the kid’s life; and third of all, the media and the whole family will be at your door with sticks and knives.” So, when Dr. Waschbusch came out two years ago, it was like, “My god. He actually said it.” This was something that all psychiatrists and neurologists in the field knew—especially if they were pediatric psychologists and had the full trajectory of a kid’s life. It can be recognized very, very early—certainly before 9-years-old—but by that time the question of how to un-ring the bell is a tough one.

My bias is that even though I work in growth factors, plasticity, memory, and learning, I think the whole idea of plasticity in adults—or really after puberty—is so overblown. No one knows if the changes that have been shown are permanent and it doesn’t count if it’s only temporary. It’s like the Mozart Effect—sure, there are studies saying there is plasticity in the brain using a sound stimulation or electrical stimulation, but talk to this person in a year or two. Has anything really changed? An entire cottage industry was made from playing Mozart to pregnant women’s abdomens. That’s how the idea of plasticity gets out of hand. I think people can change if they devote their whole life to the one thing and stop all the other parts of their life, but that’s what people can’t do. You can have behavioral plasticity and maybe change behavior with parallel brain circuitry, but the number of times this happens is really rare.

So I really still doubt plasticity. I’m trying to do it by devoting myself to this one thing—to being a nice guy to the people that are close to me—but it’s a sort of game that I’m playing with myself because I don’t really believe it can be done, and it’s a challenge.

In some ways, though, the stakes are different for you because you’re not violent—and isn’t that the concern? Relative to your own life, your attempts to change may positively impact your relationships with your friends, family, and colleagues. But in the case of possibly violent people, they may harm others.

The jump from being a “prosocial” psychopath or somebody on the edge who doesn’t act out violently, to someone who really is a real, criminal predator is not clear. For me, I think I was protected because I was brought up in an upper-middle-class, educated environment with very supportive men and women in my family. So there may be a mass convergence of genetics and environment over a long period of time. But what would happen if I lost my family or lost my job; what would I then become? That’s the test.

For people who have the fundamental biology—the genetics, the brain patterns, and that early existence of trauma—first of all, if they’re abused they’re going to be pissed off and have a sense of revenge: I don’t care what happens to the world because I’m getting even. But a real, primary psychopath doesn’t need that. They’re just predators who don’t need to be angry at all; they do these things because of some fundamental lack of connection with the human race, and with individuals, and so on.

Someone who has money, and sex, and rock and roll, and everything they want may still be psychopathic—but they may just manipulate people, or use people, and not kill them. They may hurt others, but not in a violent way. Most people care about violence—that’s the thing. People may say, “Oh, this very bad investment counselor was a psychopath”—but the essential difference in criminality between that and murder is something we all hate and we all fear. It just isn’t known if there is some ultimate trigger. 

Link: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

Along with Guy Debord, the voice of Raoul Vaneigem was one of the strongest of the Situationists. Counterpoised to Debord’s political and polemic style, Vaneigem offered a more poetic and spirited prose. The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations), published in the same year as The Society of the Spectacle, helped broaden and balance the presentation of the SI’s theories and practices. One of the longest SI members, and frequent editor of the journal Internationale Situationniste, Vaneigem finally left the SI in November of 1970, citing their failures as well as his own in his letter of resignation. Soon after, Debord issued a typically scathing response denouncing both Vaneigem and his critique of the Situationist International.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I just visited Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, who have written an appeal to Barack Obama. What would your appeal and/or advice be to Obama?

Raoul Vaneigem: I refuse to cultivate any relationship whatsoever with people of power. I agree with the Zapatistas from Chiapas who want nothing to do with either the state or its masters, the multinational mafias. I call for civil disobedience so that local communities can form, coordinate, and begin self-producing natural power, a more natural form of farming, and public services that are finally liberated from the scams of government by the Left or the Right. On the other hand, I welcome the appeal by Chamoiseau, Glissant, and their friends for the creation of an existence in which the poetry of a life rediscovered will put an end to the deadly stranglehold of the commodity.

HUO: Could we talk about your beginnings? How did your participation in situationism begin, and what was your fundamental contribution? At the outset of your relationship with the SI, there was the figure of Henri Lefebvre. What did he mean to you at the time? Why did you decide to send him poetic essays?

RV: I would first like to clarify that situationism is an ideology that the situationists were unanimous in rejecting. The term “situationist” was ever only a token of identification. Its particularity kept us from being mistaken for the throngs of ideologues. I have nothing in common with the spectacular recuperation of a project that, in my case, has remained revolutionary throughout. My participation in a group that has now disappeared was an important moment in my personal evolution, an evolution I have personally pressed on with in the spirit of the situationist project at its most revolutionary. My own radicality absolves me from any label. I grew up in an environment in which our fighting spirit was fueled by working class consciousness and a rather festive conception of existence. I found Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life captivating. When La Somme et le reste [The Sum and the Remainder] was published, I sent him an essay of sorts on “poetry and revolution” that was an attempt to unify radical concepts, Lettrist language, music, and film imagery by crediting them all with the common virtue of making the people’s blood boil. Lefebvre kindly responded by putting me in touch with Guy Debord who immediately invited me to Paris. The two of us had very different temperaments, but we would agree over a period of nearly ten years on the need to bring consumer society to an end and to found a new society on the principle of self-management, where life supersedes survival and the existential angst that it generates.

HUO: Which situationist projects remain unrealized?

RV: Psychogeography, the construction of situations, the superseding of predatory behavior. The radicality, which, notwithstanding some lapses, never ceased to motivate us, remains a source of inspiration to this day. Its effects are just beginning to manifest themselves in the autonomous groups that are now coming to grips with the collapse of financial capitalism.

HUO: The Situationist International defined the situationist as someone who commits her- or himself to the construction of situations. What were those situations for you, concretely? How would you define the situationist project in 2009?

RV: By its very style of living and thinking, our group was already sketching out a situation, like a beachhead active within enemy territory. The military metaphor is questionable, but it does convey our will to liberate daily life from the control and stranglehold of an economy based on the profitable exploitation of man. We formed a “group-at-risk” that was conscious of the hostility of the dominant world, of the need for radical rupture, and of the danger of giving in to the paranoia typical of minds under siege. By showing its limits and its weaknesses, the situationist experience can also be seen as a critical meditation on the new type of society sketched out by the Paris Commune, by the Makhnovist movement and the Republic of Councils wiped out by Lenin and Trotsky, by the libertarian communities in Spain later smashed by the Communist Party. The situationist project is not about what happens once consumer society is rejected and a genuinely human society has emerged. Rather, it illuminates now how lifestyle can supersede survival, predatory behavior, power, trade and the death-reflex.

HUO: You and Guy Debord are the main protagonists of the situationist movement. How do you see Debord’s role and your role?

RV: Not as roles. That is precisely what situationism in its most ridiculous version aims at: reducing us to cardboard cut-outs that it can then set up against one another according to the spectacle’s standard operating procedure. I am simply the spokesman, among others, of a radical consciousness. I just do what I can to see that resistance to market exploitation is transformed into an offensive of life, and that an art of living sweeps away the ruins of oppression.

HUO: What were your reasons for resigning from the group?

RV: Following the occupation movements of May 1968, we knew that some recuperation was afoot. We were familiar with the mechanisms of alienation that would falsify our ideas and fit them neatly into the cultural puzzle. It became clear to us, during the last conference in Venice, that we had failed to shatter those mechanisms, that in fact they were shattering us from the inside. The group was crumbling, the Venice conference was demonstrating its increasing uselessness, and the only answers put forward were commensurate with the self-parody we had fallen into. Dissension intensified to the point of paranoid denunciation: of betrayals of radicality, of breaches of revolutionary spirit, of dereliction of conscience. Those times of catharsis and anathema are now long past, and it might be useful to examine how it is that we sowed the seeds of failure for which the group ended up paying such a heavy price. The shipwreck, however, did not indiscriminately sweep away to the shores of oblivion all of us who participated in the adventure. The group vanished in such a way as to allow the individuals to either consolidate their radicality, disown it, or lapse into the imposture of radicalism. I have attempted to analyze our experimental adventure in Entre le deuil du monde et la joie de vivre [Between Mourning the World and Exuberant Life].

HUO: You have written a lot on life, not survival. What is the difference?

RV: Survival is budgeted life. The system of exploitation of nature and man, starting in the Middle Neolithic with intensive farming, caused an involution in which creativity—a quality specific to humans—was supplanted by work, by the production of a covetous power. Creative life, as had begun to unfold during the Paleolithic, declined and gave way to a brutish struggle for subsistence. From then on, predation, which defines animal behavior, became the generator of all economic mechanisms.

HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?

RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

HUO: Your new book takes us on a trip “between mourning the world and exuberant life.” You revisit May ‘68. What is left of May ‘68? Has it all been appropriated?

RV: Even if we are today seeing recycled ideologies and old religious infirmities being patched up in a hurry and tossed out to feed a general despair, which our ruling wheelers and dealers cash in on, they cannot conceal for long the shift in civilization revealed by May 1968. The break with patriarchal values is final. We are moving toward the end of the exploitation of nature, of work, of trade, of predation, of separation from the self, of sacrifice, of guilt, of the forsaking of happiness, of the fetishizing of money, of power, of hierarchy, of contempt for and fear of women, of the misleading of children, of intellectual dominion, of military and police despotism, of religions, of ideologies, of repression and the deadly resolutions of psychic tensions. This is not a fact I am describing, but an ongoing process that simply requires from us increased vigilance, awareness, and solidarity with life. We have to reground ourselves in order to rebuild—on human foundations—a world that has been ruined by the inhumanity of the cult of the commodity.

HUO: What do you think of the current moment, in 2009? Jean-Pierre Page has just published Penser l’après crise [Thinking the After-Crisis]. For him, everything must be reinvented. He says that a new world is emerging now in which the attempt to establish a US-led globalization has been aborted.

RV: The agrarian economy of the Ancien Régime was a fossilized form that was shattered by the emerging free-trade economy, from the 1789 revolution on. Similarly, the stock-dabbling speculative capitalism whose debacle we now witness is about to give way to a capitalism reenergized by the production of non-polluting natural power, the return to use value, organic farming, a hastily patched-up public sector, and a hypocritical moralization of trade. The future belongs to self-managed communities that produce indispensable goods and services for all (natural power, biodiversity, education, health centers, transport, metal and textile production …). The idea is to produce for us, for our own use—that is to say, no longer in order to sell them—goods that we are currently forced to buy at market prices even though they were conceived and manufactured by workers. It is time to break with the laws of a political racketeering that is designing, together with its own bankruptcy, that of our existence.

HUO: Is this a war of a new kind, as Page claims? An economic Third World War?

RV: We are at war, yes, but this is not an economic war. It is a world war against the economy. Against the economy that for thousands of years has been based on the exploitation of nature and man. And against a patched-up capitalism that will try to save its skin by investing in natural power and making us pay the high price for that which—once the new means of production are created—will be free as the wind, the sun, and the energy of plants and soil. If we do not exit economic reality and create a human reality in its place, we will once again allow market barbarism to live on.

HUO: In his book Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz argues for a reorganization of globalization along the lines of greater justice, in order to shrink global imbalances. What do you think of globalization? How does one get rid of profit as motive and pursue well-being instead? How does one escape from the growth imperative?

RV: The moralization of profit is an illusion and a fraud. There must be a decisive break with an economic system that has consistently spread ruin and destruction while pretending, amidst constant destitution, to deliver a most hypothetical well-being. Human relations must supersede and cancel out commercial relations. Civil disobedience means disregarding the decisions of a government that embezzles from its citizens to support the embezzlements of financial capitalism. Why pay taxes to the bankster-state, taxes vainly used to try to plug the sinkhole of corruption, when we could allocate them instead to the self-management of free power networks in every local community? The direct democracy of self-managed councils has every right to ignore the decrees of corrupt parliamentary democracy. Civil disobedience towards a state that is plundering us is a right. It is up to us to capitalize on this epochal shift to create communities where desire for life overwhelms the tyranny of money and power. We need concern ourselves neither with government debt, which covers up a massive defrauding of the public interest, nor with that contrivance of profit they call “growth.” From now on, the aim of local communities should be to produce for themselves and by themselves all goods of social value, meeting the needs of all—authentic needs, that is, not needs prefabricated by consumerist propaganda.

HUO: Edouard Glissant distinguishes between globality and globalization. Globalization eradicates differences and homogenizes, while globality is a global dialogue that produces differences. What do you think of his notion of globality?

RV: For me, it should mean acting locally and globally through a federation of communities in which our pork-barreling, corrupt parliamentary democracy is made obsolete by direct democracy. Local councils will be set up to take measures in favor of the environment and the daily lives of everyone. The situationists have called this “creating situations that rule out any backtracking.”

HUO: Might the current miscarriages of globalization have the same dangerous effects as the miscarriages of the previous globalization from the ‘30s? You have written that what was already intolerable in ‘68 when the economy was booming is even more intolerable today. Do you think the current economic despair might push the new generations to rebel?

RV: The crisis of the ‘30s was an economic crisis. What we are facing today is an implosion of the economy as a management system. It is the collapse of market civilization and the emergence of human civilization. The current turmoil signals a deep shift: the reference points of the old patriarchal world are vanishing. Percolating instead, still just barely and confusedly, are the early markers of a lifestyle that is genuinely human, an alliance with nature that puts an end to its exploitation, rape, and plundering. The worst would be the unawareness of life, the absence of sentient intelligence, violence without conscience. Nothing is more profitable to the racketeering mafias than chaos, despair, suicidal rebellion, and the nihilism that is spread by mercenary greed, in which money, even devalued in a panic, remains the only value.

HUO: In his book Utopistics, Immanuel Wallerstein claims that our world system is undergoing a structural crisis. He predicts it will take another twenty to fifty years for a more democratic and egalitarian system to replace it. He believes that the future belongs to “demarketized,” free-of-charge institutions (on the model, say, of public libraries). So we must oppose the marketization of water and air.1 What is your view?

RV: I do not know how long the current transformation will take (hopefully not too long, as I would like to witness it). But I have no doubt that this new alliance with the forces of life and nature will disseminate equality and freeness. We must go beyond our natural indignation at profit’s appropriation of our water, air, soil, environment, plants, animals. We must establish collectives that are capable of managing natural resources for the benefit of human interests, not market interests. This process of reappropriation that I foresee has a name: self-management, an experience attempted many times in hostile historical contexts. At this point, given the implosion of consumer society, it appears to be the only solution from both an individual and social point of view.

HUO: In your writing you have described the work imperative as an inhuman, almost animal condition. Do you consider market society to be a regression?

RV: As I mentioned above, evolution in the Paleolithic age meant the development of creativity—the distinctive trait of the human species as it breaks free from its original animality. But during the Neolithic, the osmotic relationship to nature loosened progressively, as intensive agriculture became based on looting and the exploitation of natural resources. It was also then that religion surfaced as an institution, society stratified, the reign of patriarchy began, of contempt for women, and of priests and kings with their stream of wars, destitution, and violence. Creation gave way to work, life to survival, jouissance to the animal predation that the appropriation economy confiscates, transcends, and spiritualizes. In this sense market civilization is indeed a regression in which technical progress supersedes human progress.

HUO: For you, what is a life in progress?

RV: Advancing from survival, the struggle for subsistence and predation to a new art of living, by recreating the world for the benefit of all.

Link: Friendship as a Way of Life, an Interview with Michel Foucault

R. de Ceccaty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux conducted this interview with Foucault for the French magazine Gai Pied. It appeared in April 1981. The text that appears here, translated by John Johnston, has been amended.

You’re in your fifties. You’re a reader of Le Gai Pied, which has been in existence now for two years. Is the kind of discourse you find there something positive for you?

Michel Foucault: That the magazine exists is the positive and important thing.
In answer” to your question, I could say that I don’t have to read it to voice the question of my age. What I could ask of your magazine is that I do not, in reading it, have to pose the question of my age. Now, reading it…

Perhaps the problem is the age group of those who contribute to it and read it; the majority are between twenty-five and thirty-five.

Of course. The more it is written by young people the more it concerns young people. But the problem is not to make room for one age group alongside another but to find out what can be done in relation to the quasi identification between homosexuality and the love among young people. Another thing to distrust is the tendency to relate the question of homosexuality to the problem of “Who am I?” and “What is the secret of my desire?” Perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “‘What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. And, no doubt, that’s the real reason why homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. Therefore, we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are. The development toward which the problem of homosexuality tends is the one of friendship.

Did you think so at twenty, or have you discovered it over the years?

As far back as I remember, to want guys [garcons] was to want relations with guys. That has always been important for me, not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge. their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie? It’s a desire, an uneasiness, a desire-in-uneasiness that exists among a lot of people.

Can you say that desire and pleasure, and the relationships one can have, are dependent on one’s age?

Yes, very profoundly. Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages-what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.

One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease, and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force. I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another-there’s the problem. The institution is caught in a contradiction; affective intensities traverse it which at one and the same time keep it going and shake it up. Look at the army, where love between men is ceaselessly provoked [appele] and shamed. Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relations sbort-circuit it and introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.

You were saying a little while ago: “Rather than crying about faded pleasures, I’m interested in what we ourselves can do.” Could you explain that more precisely?

Asceticism as the renunciation of pleasure has bad connotations. But ascesis is something else: it’s the work that one performs on oneself in order to transform oneself or make the self appear which, happily, one never attains. Can that be our problem today? We’ve rid ourselves of asceticism. Yet it’s up to us to advance into a homosexual ascesis that would make us work on ourselves and invent-I do not say discover-a manner of being that is still improbable.

That means that a young homosexual must be very cautious in regard to homosexual imagery; he must work at something else?

What we must work on, it seems to me, is not so much to liberate our desires but to make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasure [plaisirs]. We must escape and help others to escape the two
readymade formulas of the pure sexual encounter and the lovers’ fusion of identities.

Can one see the first fruits of strong constructive’relationships in the United States, in any case in the cities where the problem of sexual misery seems under control?

To me, it appears certain that in the United States, even if the basis of sexual misery still exists, the interest in friendship has become very important; one doesn’t enter a relationship simply in order to be able to consummate it sexually, which happens very easily. But toward friendship, people are very polarized. How can a relational system be reached through sexual practices? Is it possible to create a homosexual mode of life? This notion of mode of life seems important to me. Will it require the introduction of a diversification different from the ones due to social class, differences in profession and culture, a diversification that would also be a form of relationship and would be a “way of life”? A way of life can be shared among individuals of different age, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be “gay,” I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life.

Isn’t it a myth to say: Here we are enjoying the first fruits of a socialization between different classes, ages, and countries?

Yes, like the great myth of saying: There will no longer be any difference between homo- and heterosexuality. Moreover, I think that it’s one of the reasons that homosexuality presents a problem today.
Many sexual liberation movements project this idea of “liberating yourself from the hideous constraints that weigh upon you.” Yet the affirmation that to be a homosexual is for a man to love another man-this search for a way of life runs counter to the ideology of the sexual liberation movements of the sixties. It’s in this sense that the mustached “clones” are significant. It’s a way of responding: “Have nothing to fear; the more one is liberated, the less one will love women, the less one will founder in this polysexuality where there are no longer any differences between the two.” It’s not at all the idea of a great community fusion. Homosexuality is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities:, not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the “slantwise” position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light.

Women might object: What do men together have to win compared to the relations between a man and a woman or between two women?

There is a book that just appeared in the U.S. on the friendships between women. (1) The affection and passion between women is well documented. In the preface, the author states that she began with the idea of unearthing homosexual relationships-but perceived that not only were these relationships not always present but that it was uninteresting whether relationships could be called “homosexual” or not. And by letting the relationship manifest itself as it appeared in words and gestures, other very essential things also appeared: dense, bright, marvelous loves and affections or very dark and sad loves. The book shows the extent to which woman’s body has played a great role, and the importance of physical contact between women: women do each other’s hair, help each other with make up, dress each other. Women have had access to the bodies of other women: they put their arms around each other, kiss each other. Man’s body has been forbidden to other men in a much more drastic way. If it’s true that life between women was tolerated, it’s only in certain periods and since the nineteenth century that life between men not only was tolerated but rigorously necessary: very simply, during war, and equally in prison camps, you had soldiers and young officers who spent months and even years together. During World War I, men lived together completely, one on top of another, and for them it was nothing at all, insofar as death was present and finally the devotion to one another and the services rendered were sanctioned by the play of life and death. And apart from several remarks on camaraderie, the brotherhood of spirit, and some very partial observations, what do we know about these emotional uproars and storms of feeling that look place in those times? One can wonder how, in these absurd and grotesque wars and infernal massacres, the men managed to hold on in spite of everything. Through some emotional fabric, no doubt. I don’t mean that it was because they were each other’s lovers that they continued to fight; but honor, courage, not losing face, sacrifice, leaving the trench with the captain-all that implied a very intense emotional tie. It’s not to say: “Ah, there you have homosexuality!” I detest that kind of reasoning. But no doubt you have there one of the conditions, not the only one, that has permitted this infernal life where for weeks guys floundered in the mud and shit, among corpses, starving for food, and were drunk the morning of the assault.

I would like to say, finally, that something well considered and voluntary like a magazine ought to make possible a homosexual culture, that is to say, the instruments for polymorphic, varied, and individually modulated relationships. But the idea of a program of proposals is dangerous. As soon as a program is presented, it becomes a law, and there’s a prohibition against inventing. There ought to be an inventiveness special to situation like ours and to these feelings, this need that Americans call “coming out,” that is, showing oneself. The program must be wide open. We have to dig deeply to show how things have been historically contingent, for such and such reason intelligible but not necessary. We must make the intelligible appear against a background of emptiness and deny its necessity. We must think that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces. To make a truly unavoidable challenge of the question: What can be played?

Link: Neil Postman on Cyberspace (1995)

Author and media scholar Neil Postman, head of the Culture and Communications at New York University, encourages caution when entering cyberspace. His book, Technopoly, the Surrender of Culture to Technology, puts the computer in historical perspective.

Neil Postman, thank you for joining us. How do you define cyberspace?

Cyberspace is a metaphorical idea which is supposed to be the space where your consciousness is located when you’re using computer technology on the Internet, for example, and I’m not entirely sure it’s such a useful term, but I think that’s what most people mean by it.

How does that strike you, I mean, that your consciousness is located somewhere other than in your body?

Well, the most interesting thing about the term for me is that it made me begin to think about where one’s consciousness is when interacting with other kinds of media, for example, even when you’re reading, where, where are you, what is the space in which your consciousness is located, and when you’re watching television, where, where are you, who are you, because people say with the Internet, for example, it’s a little different in that you’re always interacting or most of the time with another person. And when you’re in cyberspace, I suppose you can be anyone you want, and I think as this program indicates, it’s worth, it’s worth talking about because this is a new idea and something very different from face-to-face co-presence with another human being.

Do you think this is a good thing, or a bad thing, or you haven’t decided?

Well, no, I’ve mostly—(laughing)—I’ve mostly decided that new technology of this kind or any other kind is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something important but it also takes away something that’s important. That’s been true of the alphabet and the printing press and telegraphy right up through the computer. For instance, when I hear people talk about the information superhighway, it will become possible to shop at home and bank at home and get your texts at home and get entertainment at home and so on, I often wonder if this doesn’t signify the end of any meaningful community life. I mean, when two human beings get together, they’re co-present, there is built into it a certain responsibility we have for each other, and when people are co-present in family relationships and other relationships, that responsibility is there. You can’t just turn off a person. On the Internet, you can. And I wonder if this doesn’t diminish that built-in, human sense of responsibility we have for each other. Then also one wonders about social skills; that after all, talking to someone on the Internet is a different proposition from being in the same room with someone—not in terms of responsibility but just in terms of revealing who you are and discovering who the other person is. As a matter of fact, I’m one of the few people not only that you’re likely to interview but maybe ever meet who is opposed to the use of personal computers in school because school, it seems to me, has always largely been about how to learn as part of a group. School has never really been about individualized learning but about how to be socialized as a citizen and as a human being, so that we, we have important rules in school, always emphasizing the fact that one is part of a group. And I worry about the personal computer because it seems, once again to emphasize individualized learning, individualized activity.

What images come to your mind when you, when you think about what our lives will be like in cyberspace?

Well, the, the worst images are of people who are overloaded with information which they don’t know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant, people who become information junkies.

What do you mean? How do you mean that?

Well, the problem in the 19th century with information was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity and so humanity addressed that problem beginning with photography and telegraphy and the–in the 1840s. We tried to solve the problem of overcoming the limitations of space, time, and form. And for about a hundred years, we worked on this problem, and we solved it in a spectacular way. And now, by solving that problem, we created a new problem, that people have never experienced before, information glut, information meaninglessness, information incoherence. I mean, if there are children starving in Somalia or any other place, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if crime is rampant in the streets in New York and Detroit and Chicago or wherever, it’s not because of insufficient information. And if people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and their sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information. Now, along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that, ah, here we can do it; if only we can have more access to more information faster and in more diverse forms at long last, we’ll be able to solve these problems. And I don’t think it has anything to do with it.

Do you believe that this–that the fact that people are more connected globally will lead to a greater degree of homogenization of the global society?

Here’s the puzzle about that, Charlayne. When everyone was–when McLuhan talked about the world becoming a global village and, and when people ask, as you did, about how connections can be made, everyone seemed to think that the world would become in, in some good sense more homogenous. But we seem to be experiencing the opposite. I mean, all over the world, we see a kind of reversion to tribalism. People are going back to their tribal roots in order to find a sense of identity. I mean, we see it in Russia, in Yugoslavia, in Canada, in the United States, I mean, in our own country. Why is that every group now not only is more aware of its own grievances but seems to want its own education? You know, we want an Afro-centric curriculum and a Korean-centric curriculum, and a Greek-centered curriculum. What is it about all this globalization of communication that is making people return to more–to smaller units of identity? It’s a puzzlement.

Well, what do you think the people, society should be doing to try and anticipate these negatives and be able to do something about them?

I think they should–everyone should be sensitive to certain questions. For example, when a new–confronted with a new technology, whether it’s a cellular phone or high definition television or cyberspace or Internet, the question–one question should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? And the second question would be: Whose problem is it actually? And the third question would be: If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology? About six months ago, I bought a new Honda Accord, and the salesman told me that it had cruise control. And I asked him, “What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?” By the way, there’s an extra charge for cruise control. And he said no one had ever asked him that before but then he said, “Well, it’s the problem of keeping your foot on the gas.” And I said, “Well, I’ve been driving for 35 years. I’ve never found that to be a problem.” I mean, am I using this technology, or is it using me, because in a technological culture, it is very easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm for technology, and of course, all the technophiles around, all the people who adore technology and are promoting it everywhere you turn.

Well, Neil Postman, thank you for all of your cautions.

Link: John Sellars on Stoicism

Do you see any evidence that Stoicism may have some ties to Buddhism, either in its original creation or similarities? Can Stoicism be considered a “Western” version of “Eastern” philosophy?

I’m not aware of any evidence for a direct influence from the East on Stoicism, although there is evidence for Eastern influences on other ancient Greek schools (Pyrrhonism, Neoplatonism). There are certainly similarities between aspects of Stoicism and Buddhism, but I’m wary of trying to see Stoicism as simply a Western version of Buddhism because there are significant differences also. While there may be parallels on the ethical or practical side, they are built upon very different physics and metaphysics, and in both cases I think it’s important to ground the ethics in the metaphysics. I’m a bit wary of thinking in terms of ‘Western Philosophy’ versus ‘Eastern Philosophy’ but I think it’s safe to say that ancient Greek philosophy has more in common with Eastern philosophical traditions than modern academic philosophy does. So this is not restricted to Stoicism. Thomas McEvilley has tried to map out some of these connections in his book The Shape of Ancient Thought.

What was the role of Heraclitus in Stoic philosophy? Do you find AA Long’s description of Stoic modifications to Heraclitus’ concepts persuasive?

It seems that Heraclitus was an influence on Stoic physics, and we have evidence that the Stoic Cleanthes wrote a commentary on Heraclitus. A. A. Long maps out the issue very well. The big problem of course is that our evidence for Heraclitus is so fragmentary and its interpretation so contested that saying that the Stoics were definitely influenced by him doesn’t give us very much to help us in trying to understand Stoic physics any better. Perhaps ironically, the Heraclitean flavour of Stoicism comes out most clearly at the other end of the history of ancient Stoicism, in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Is there any evidence (or any reason at all) to believe there has been a “Stoic Sage” or “fully Stoic” person? Is it believable that someone has been Stoic (limiting attention to what is in one’s control, seeing oneself as given a certain fate) to the point of overcoming nearly all of life’s suffering? It seems that Epictetus, for instance, often used Zeno and Socrates as exemplars, would they have been considered sages by the later Stoics?

If you take seriously all of the attributes listed for the sage then it seems that no one could ever live up to the ideal. Perfect rationality is quite a challenge! Having said that (and going back to the Buddhist parallel), there are people in the Buddhist tradition such as monks who do seem to embody their tradition’s ideal, but it is notable that in order to make such progress they have has to isolate themselves from daily life. There may well be similar examples in the Christian monastic tradition too. With those parallels in mind perhaps it would be possible to attain something close to the ideal that the Stoics propose. The fact that referring to concrete examples seems to help also helps to explain why someone like Epictetus continually points to examples like Socrates and Diogenes. It also helps explain the value placed on role models in ancient philosophy. I think Epictetus’ response to the question would be something like “It doesn’t matter if a perfect sage ever existed, but Diogenes was certainly closer to the ideal than you are, and if he could get that far then so can you”.

Do you think Aristotelian ethics are (at least partially) compatible with Stoicism?

Insofar as Stoicism and Aristotelianism both offer a eudaimonistic ethics there is certain amount of shared ground. But when one gets into the details there are a number of important points of difference, regarding weakness of will, the emotions, and the role of externals. Reading the Nicomachean Ethics, it is really the last of these that stands out for me as something distinctly un-Stoic and quite at odds with, say, what we find in Epictetus. But having said that, there is always something new to learn from Aristotle’s ethics and would never be without a copy close to hand. In antiquity the relationship between the two positions was a preoccupation of Antiochus and is discussed at length in Books 4 and 5 of Cicero’s On Ends.

What is a good explanation of the motto “follow nature”?

This is a very complex question but as a beginning I would say that it is worth remembering the earlier Sophists who contrasted things ‘according to nature’ with things ‘according to convention’. The same distinction was taken over by the Cynics who of course were an important influence on the early development of Stoicism. So I would say begin by thinking about what the alternative would be, namely following the customs and conventions and values of society. I think that’s a better way into the issue than trying to begin by grasping an abstract conception of nature and wondering what the ethical implications might be. To return to Epictetus and role models, I guess he would point to Diogenes the Cynic and say “that’s what living according to nature looks like”.

If someone was interested in studying the Stoics for the first time, would you point them to an Academic work first, such as your book, Stoicism (Ancient Philosophies) or something by a modern practitioner like William Irvine or Keith Seddon?

Neither; I’d point them to Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca! Something like Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life would be a fine place to start. The opening chapter of Epictetus’ Discourses is also nice. I like Marcus’ Meditations, although I know it is not to everyone’s taste and some people find it melancholic. My book is aimed at people already quite interested who want to know the details and I wouldn’t claim it to be inspirational, but hopefully informative! I think Irvine does a fine job in bringing Stoic ethics to a popular audience.

Do you see any paradoxes or contradictions for the modern practice of Stoicism? How can they be reconciled? Is there a difference between modern rationality and Stoic rationality? Is there any value in studying Stoic cosmology and physics today?

Let me take these three questions together. I see no great paradox in the modern practice of Stoicism; on the contrary I think it has a lot to offer. There is a sense in which in the ancient world the philosophical schools offered a sort of moral and practical guidance for life that later became a task taken over by Christianity. The decline in religious belief in (parts of) the West has left some people feeling that something important has been lost along the way. While some people have turned to Eastern traditions, others have found the cultural distance a hurdle. So in an increasingly secular society Stoicism (and there is no reason why this couldn’t apply to, say, Epicureanism too) offers something potentially attractive. The big question is whether trying to draw on Stoic moral and practical guidance involves a commitment to certain aspects of their physics that are patently false. And that is in fact a current scholarly issue of debate, involving Julia Annas and others: just how much does Stoic ethics depend upon Stoic physics? My own view is that it probably depends on the physics quite a lot, but not in a way that makes it untenable today. I needn’t believe in the periodic conflagration of the world in order to benefit from Stoic thinking about the emotions, for instance.

I feel that constantly rephrasing Stoic precepts is an important practice. If not, words and precepts start to sound idiotic and meaningless. What’s your opinion on it? Do you agree with Hadot that the Meditations can be best understood as the result of this practice for Marcus Aurelius?

Yes I do think that the repetition of key ideas is a vital part of digesting these sorts of philosophical ideas, as it is with learning or mastering anything new. Seneca and Marcus are quite explicit about this and I wrote about it a bit in my book The Art of Living. Continually rephrasing is probably very helpful too, as it stops the process becoming a mindless repetition of doctrine. Sometimes rephrasing can bring an idea into focus and massively increase its impact too. I’m sure this is what Marcus was doing in the Meditations.

You characterize Stoicism as a continuation of Socratic program of exploring the nature of virtue. But Socrates, as seen through the works of Plato at least, seems to be using the topic of virtue to make a broader epistemological point about the difference between knowledge and belief. Is it a valid criticism of the Stoics to suggest that they are not really interested in or concerned with the epistemic problems addressed the platonic Socrates?

For us Plato’s Socrates dominates our thinking about the historical Socrates, even though we do have access to other portraits, especially Xenophon. But the early Stoics would have had access to a wide range of Socratic dialogues written by a number of authors, not least Antisthenes, who is often cited as a proto-Cynic. In short they would have had a much richer portrait of the historical Socrates than we do. I think the concern with knowledge and belief is a characteristically Platonic concern, which is not to say that the historical Socrates had no concern at all with knowledge (although how could we know?). But it is also worth bearing in mind that on a number of fronts the Stoics are quite anti-Platonic, in their metaphysics and psychology, for instance. Although this is a scholarly minefield, in part for the reasons about sources I just mentioned, I would be tempted to say that the Stoics want to see themselves as the true heirs to Socrates, against Plato. But for us, untangling Plato and Socrates is almost impossible.

Do you think Christianity and Stoicism influenced each other, or was the relationship more one-sided with Stoic ideas only acceptable if they were not in opposition to Christian doctrine of the time?

I’m not aware of a Christian influence on later Stoicism but there is a scholarly literature on the influence of Stoicism on the development of Christianity. However this tended not to be a question of accepting one doctrine or rejecting another but rather one of more complex influences with subtle changes along the way. Richard Sorabji has done a fine job showing the way in which Stoic attention to one’s judgements helped to shape early Christian thinking about the seven deadly sins (in his Emotion and Peace of Mind). And the Christian idea of a Holy Ghost/Spirit/Breath may have been influenced by Stoicism. I haven’t looked into this much but John 4:24 says “God is pneuma”, which is striking from a Stoic perspective to say the least. From what I know (which isn’t much), Christian doctrine seemed to be pretty fluid in this period and hotly contested, so there wasn’t a single definitive orthodoxy against which other ideas could be judged as right or wrong. That came later!

Have you had access to unpublished Stoic texts? Perhaps there are some lurking in your large personal library?

All the books in my library are the regular published type I’m afraid, but if you want to find brand new Stoic texts the place to look is the as yet unrolled carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum, currently awaiting decipherment in Naples. Over the last century or so these have given us a number of new texts by Chrysippus, and there may well be more there waiting to be rediscovered. Marcello Gigante, who worked on the Herculaneum papyri for many years, thought it highly likely that more Stoic texts would be found, so watch this space!

Gadajace Glowy (Talking Heads) by Krzysztof Kieslowski

It is 1979. Krzysztof Kieslowski runs a sort of sociological poll. Seventy-nine Poles, aged seven to 100, answer three questions: When were you born? What are you? What would you like most? They want similar values: freedom, justice, democracy. We watch people thinking honestly, “latching on to something Good”, as one of the persons in the film says. From those registered on tape, Kieslowski chooses 44 people and puts them in chronological order: from a one-year-old who can’t speak yet, to a 100-year-old woman who can’t hear the question, but repeats several times that she’d like to live longer. He shows a whole gallery of talking heads – kids, pupils from primary and secondary schools, students, a full-time activist with a youth organization, an engineer on the threshold of his professional career, an electrician, a nurse, a priest, a history teacher, a mother of two, a writer, a sociologist, a sculptor, a taxi driver, retired people, a woman who thinks that above all she is Catholic, and a chemical engineer who acknowledges questions with: “these days I drink, everything’s fine.” On the level of image nothing in particular is happening. Simple heads come one after another, under which there is information about the date of birth. Yet this gallery fascinates, for two reasons: the viewer observes how people’s dreams change with age. At the beginning a funny two-year-old boy wants to be car – a Syrenka, and at the end, an almost one-hundred-year-old woman, having recently lost her husband, doesn’t want anything more. But this is only seemingly a mere enumeration of personal wishes. People’s dreams compose an image of their reality, as they indirectly speak of what it lacks, of what irritates them, of what they don’t agree with. They say: I would like the lack of respect to disappear; I’d like people to do something for others, not just for themselves; I wish for a freedom that doesn’t favor the strongest; I wish that we could live courageously; that all good people would latch onto the Good; that people would not fear others; that everyone could freely decide upon his fate; that there were less elbows and backs, and more heart and mind; I want a real and not just a verbal introduction of two notions: democracy and tolerance; better justice; I want to live under conditions of democracy and with a feeling of safety; to live in a real world that isn’t all fiction and pretense… Krzysztof Kieslowski, with extremely modest filmic means, has created a sort of collective portrait of the Pole – conscious of his identity and the place he lives in, careful observer of a reality that is hard to accept, ardently yearning for change, and ripe for revolt. The director finished his film in 1979 but the chance to reach an audience only came with the events of August 1980. For this documentary he was awarded an Honorable Mention at the International Film Festival in Oberhausen in 1981.

(Source: theunderestimator, via nothing-but-asphalt-and-dirt)

Link: Buddhist Howls: Interview with Jay L. Garfield

Jay L. Garfield is a game-changing philosopher of Buddhism, niftily jive-talking between traditional western and Buddhist traditions because he knows that parochialism is neither chillin’ nor lovin’ but is rooted in colonial and racist attitudes that bring everyone down. He thinks there’s been progress but there’s still a long way to go so we all need to howl and take a stand. All of which makes him a killer cross-cultural king.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Jay L. Garfield: Well, the answer to this is rather roundabout, and reflects more my own indecision and the randomness of life than anything else. And it is a bit embarrassing. When I went to college I knew what I wanted to study, and what career I wanted to pursue. I wanted to study psychology in order to become a clinical psychologist. So, preparing for my first semester at Oberlin, I chose a bunch of psychology classes, but I had to choose one class outside of psychology. Looking through the catalogue, nothing else interested me. I was young and stupid. So, I did what so many other undergraduates do: I closed my eyes, opened the catalogue, and promised myself to take the first class my finger fell on that fit my schedule. It was a philosophy class. I groaned, but I told myself that I could always drop it after a few classes if it was as boring as it promised to be. Of course, it was a superb class, taught by the late Norman Care. And by the time we opened Hume’sTreatise I was hooked. The attack on the self, on a real causal relation, on universals, and the defense of custom as a foundation not only of social organisation but of ontology and meaning stunned me. So, I decided to double major – philosophy and psychology, but promised myself that I would do honors and graduate work in psychology. The time came for choosing an honors thesis. I was having too much fun in both disciplines, so I decided to write two honors theses, but to go to graduate school in psychology. So I wrote a thesis on the mysticism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, a text I saw as taking Humean insights one step deeper, as well as a thesis in psychology on attention and behaviour modification. And I provided myself an important safety net. I realised that it was hard to get into graduate school in psychology, and so I applied to graduate school in philosophy as a backup. So then, a terrible thing happened. I was accepted both into graduate school in psychology and into graduate school in philosophy. The philosophy letter, however, arrived with an ominous warning from the APA advising any prospective graduate student in philosophy not to attend, as there were no jobs to be had on graduation. That letter decided things for me. After all, if I were to go to graduate school in psychology, I would immediately have a job, and would never study philosophy again; but I were to go to graduate school in philosophy, I would not get a job, and could then do a second PhD in psychology and settle down to a happy life, having studied both of the subjects I loved. So I went to graduate school in philosophy so as not to get a job. But I failed. I did secure a position teaching philosophy – happily, in a cognitive science program – have loved every minute of it, and never looked back.

3:AM: Although you’re best known for your work in non-western philosophy, you began looking at belief in psychology, Meaning and Truth in modern semantics, theFoundations of Cognitive Science and the morality of abortion. So was it through your investigations in these domains that led you to seek philosophical paradigms outside of the mainstream western tradition, or were you already working some of the non-western material into those initial investigations?

JLG: No. I attended a very “straight” philosophy program (the University of Pittsburgh) and studied logic (mostly relevant logic) and philosophy of mind – under the tutelage of Wilfrid Sellars and Annette Baier – completing my PhD with no awareness that there was any non-Western philosophy, and then accepted a position in which I was expected to teach some applied and theoretical ethics. Hence the interest in the abortion controversy, that grew out of some teaching that I was doing and the tentth anniversary of Roe v Wade. I was introduced to non-Western philosophy by the first student who walked into my office on my first day of work at Hampshire College, where I taught for about 15 years. He wanted me to chair his senior thesis on ‘Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka and the Social Contract Tradition.’ I thought he was joking. But of course he wasn’t. Bob Thurman was then teaching up the road at Amherst College, part of the same Five College consortium, and was supervising the Tibetan end of the thesis. So I signed on, and had to read some Tibetan philosophy. It was pretty compelling, but not anything I could spend time on at that stage of my career. Only about seven years later, when Hampshire introduced a strong multi-cultural requirement that demanded that we each teach some non-Western approach to our discipline did I start studying Buddhist philosophy, and then only to incorporate a little bit in an epistemology class to satisfy that requirement. But once I started, I got drawn deeper and deeper into the field, and it quickly became an important research area for me. An NEH Summer Institute on Nāgārjuna at the University of Hawai’i sealed my interest, and then a year on an Indo-American fellowship with my family at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in India where I studied Madhyamaka under the ven Prof Geshe Yeshe Thabkhas provided the foundation for my subsequent work in Buddhist philosophy.

3:AM: What attracted you to Madhyamika philosophy in the first place and what are the distinctive positions of this philosophy?

JLG: Well, just as I fell in love with Hume and Wittgenstein as an undergraduate, I fell in love with Nāgārjuna when I encountered his work. The clarity of philosophical vision, the rigour of analysis and the profound exploration of the most fundamental questions of metaphysics impressed me enormously. The radical attack on essence and on foundations resonated with ideas from Hume, Wittgenstein and Sellars, and the rich commentarial tradition provided a hermeneutical device for explicating those ideas. I also, I must say, found my new Tibetan colleagues to be such wonderful teachers and collaborators that the sheer joy of working in that milieu was attractive.

3:AM: You say that at the time of moving to Buddhist philosophy many of the philosophers and cognitive scientists working in philosophy of mind and so forth were dubious about the merits of your doing this. Has this attitude changed over the years so that it is no longer seen as an aberration, or is it still a problem?

JLG: It has. I have been gratified to see how many Western philosophers now at least take non-Western philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, seriously. An increasing number are reading and discussing non-Western philosophy; the APA now often includes a few panels on non-Western philosophy – again, including Buddhist philosophy – on its program; an increasing number of departments seek philosophers who can teach non-Western philosophy in their departments, or cross-list courses in Religion departments on Buddhist or other non-Western philosophical traditions. Just a few months ago. Christian CoseruEvan Thompson and I directed an NEH summer institute on ‘Consciousness in a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ in which we integrated Buddhist and Western perspectives. That institute attracted as participants and as faculty a number of philosophers whose work is almost entirely in the Western tradition who were happy to take seriously Buddhist material.

So there has been a lot of progress. But there is also a long way to go. People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the “core” of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled “Ancient Philosophy,” not “Ancient Western Philosophy,” and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics. A course in Indian philosophy is not another course in the history of PHILOSOPHY, but is part of the non-Western curriculum. And many of the major journals in our field will not even seriously consider submissions that address non-Western literature. Until the literature, curriculum, professional meetings and mode of engagement with the literature is as diverse as the world of philosophy itself, there is a lot of work to do. And that work is a matter of both intellectual and moral imperative. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read.

3:AM: In 1994 you translated the Tibetan text of Mulamadhyamakakarika which was already a translation of a Sanskrit text and which had already been translated into English four times. You wanted to bring new insights to your translation from those of Streng, Inada, Sprung and Kalupahana reflecting an Indo-Tibetan Prasangika-Midhyamika spin, which is the way it’s read in Japan and China. So what is distinctive about this way of understanding the text?

JLG: When working on Mūlamadhyamakakārikā I was impressed by the commentaries of the Indian philosopher Candrakīrti and the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa. Their clear analytical understanding of the text, and their attention to the consistency of Nāgārjuna’s analysis of all phenomena as empty of intrinsic nature with a robust realism about the conventional world show how the text can contribute to a deeper understanding of reality.

3:AM: You said when you did your translation that there needed to be a commentary, but that was someone else’s task. Tsong khapa in the early fifteenth century wrote one –Ocean of Reasoning. Tsong khapa seems to embody many virtues of Western philosophy – ‘a powerful grasp of subtle detail, and the ability to see how small details matter in philosophical exposition’ is how you put it. He is important for fusing two strands of Buddhist thought isn’t he – the epistemology and logic of Dharmakirti with the metaphysics of Nagarjuna? Can you say something about these two strands and how he proposed fusing them?

JLG: Well, now of course we have translated Ocean of Reasoning, so it is available to Western readers. But when I first translated Mūlamadhyamakakārikā it was not. Tsongkhapa is trying to accomplish a complex – probably impossible – philosophical reconciliation. Nāgārjuna, of course, is a Mādhyamika, according to which nothing has any intrinsic nature, but also according to which conventional truth, or conventional reality, is as real as anything gets, and provide a standard of truth and reality and a robust sense of the reality of the external world. He also develops a coherentist theory of knowledge according to which epistemic instruments and epistemic objects are mutually justificatory, rejecting any kind of foundationalism. Dharmakirti, on the other hand, is a Yogācārin, arguing that the external world is entirely non-existent, a mere hallucination, while the mind is ultimately real, and a foundationalist epistemology in which ultimately real momentary particulars are known by veridical perceptual processes Tsongkhapa is impressed with Nāgārjuna’s metaphysics, but also with Dharmakīrti’s epistemology, and tries to reconcile them. He argues that while all phenomena are indeed empty of intrinsic nature as Nāgārjuna wants to argue, that Dharmakīrti is right to argue that perception is the foundation of knowledge and that inference can be understood in terms of the relation between nominally real but ultimately unreal universals. I am dubious of the possibility of this synthesis, but Tsongkhapa’s efforts are heroic.

3:AM: How important is his commentary for the future development and reception of Madhyamaka philosophy? Does he succeed in his synthesis?

JLG: Tsongkhapa indeed defines the reception of Madhyamaka by the dGe lugs pa order of Tibetan Buddhism, a very important and influential order indeed. But there are many other voices in Tibetan philosophy deriving from the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyimgma traditions, and many of Tsongkhapa’s interlocutors criticise his views trenchantly. So, we can say that he succeeds in setting a philosophical agenda for Tibetan Madhyamaka, and that he is an important voice, but not that his view is accepted universally or uncritically.

3:AM: You’re interested, among other things, in the way Buddhism connects metaphysics to ethics. This is a big issue – its dominated aspects of post-Enlightenment Western philosophy too where it’s been hard to find a link between what there is and what ought to be done, as Hume might have put it. But you like to read Buddhism from a skeptical perspective – so it talks to Sextus and Hume and the idea that there is no reason to ever accept an argument because reason undermines itself. So is the Buddhist approach really close to skepticism and doing a Nietzschean thing of saying reason is useful but not ultimate – in fact it’s self defeating?

JLG: Self-undermining, maybe, but I don’t think self-defeating. Buddhist epistemologists do argue that rational analysis leads to the conclusion that rational analysis cannot give us infallible access to truth, including that one. That’s not self-defeating, though; it only induces an important kind of epistemic humility and a clearer view of what we do when we reason. We engage in one more fallible human activity among many.

3:AM: You make a distinction between ‘cross-cultural philosophy’ and ‘comparative philosophy’. You want a cross cultural approach so we can do philosophy with a broader set of texts, rather than just find comparisons and notice differences. Is that right? So does this mean that when you look at, say, Cittamatra and say its an idealist position in the same area as Berkeley, Kant and Schopenhauer what you want us to be doing is seeing where the best arguments and reasons are for that position, whereby maybe we find an answer to a problem of Kant in Cittamatra that we’d miss without exposure to the texts (and vice versa)? Are the issues of inexpressibility and haeccity in analytic philosophy examples of how a cross cultural approach extends understanding through understanding Buddhist philosophy? Can you say something about this?

JLG: Sure. I think that comparative philosophy was a very important enterprise. The philosopher who coined that phrase in 1899 was Bajendranath Seal of Calcutta University, who argued that to compare two philosophical systems was to “treat them as of coordinate rank.” That was a major step, inviting Western philosophers to take Indian and other non-Western traditions seriously as philosophy, as opposed to “native religious traditions.” Western philosophers gained access to Asian and African traditions initially by noting similarities and differences. But that, as A.C. Mukerji, of Allahabad, was to note in 1932, is not to do philosophy, but is at best a preparation. To take philosophy seriously is to engage with it philosophically. We take Aristotle seriously not when we write about his ideas, but when we take his ideas as part of our discussions. Similarly, we take Nāgārjuna seriously not when we talk about how similar his ideas are to Hume’s, but when we take him as an interlocutor.

So, to take one of the examples you suggest, Buddhist philosophers in both the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra traditions argue that the nature of reality is in the end inexpressible. The question of whether or not the nature of reality is ineffible is, of course, a matter of debate in Western philosophy. But some of the arguments offered in the Buddhist world are different from those offered in the West, for instance those that rely on the engagement of language and thought with universals, which in turn, are argued to be unreal and deceptive.

3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?

JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down.