Interview with Spinoza Chair 2019 holder Catherine Malabou
It was a stormy day. It also was one of the last days Catherine Malabou spent in Amsterdam as holder of the Spinoza Chair 2019. Malabou, who is affiliated to Kingston University (London) and University of California, Irvine is well-known for her work on a variety of topics; her dissertation was on Hegel and plasticity - a concept which shelters both the ability to give as well as to receive form. Later, in philosophically assessing the brain, she analysed plasticity in relation to neurobiological findings. The night before we met, Malabou had given her second and final Spinoza lecture. Her theme: anarchism. ‘It obsesses me, I think of it all the time, I google it all the time.’ On this day in March, as the cafe becomes crowded with vrijmibo guests, we discuss the problem of power, the fears of 20th century continental philosophers and the urgency to defend philosophy.
Can you tell me how you became interested in anarchism?
I would say that there are two reasons that are quite different and maybe even contradictory. The first is continuity with my previous work, because anarchism can be seen as a plastic mode of political activity to the extent that, as it is deprived of a principle, it creates itself in the making.
The second reason would be that it has its own singularity; it is detached from the rest of my work. In a certain sense it is like a fragment and I cannot really explain why all of a sudden I felt a strong need to define myself also as a philosopher in relation to anarchism. So on the one hand I can explain, I see a link, and on the other it is quite independent.
It is something on its own.
It is like an event.
In your first lecture you mentioned ‘two recent massive phenomena of domination: extreme forms of political domination - for instance the different far right governments in Europe, the rise of white supremacism in de US, Charlottesville - and forms of individual domination, addressed by movements such as MeToo’. Does it bear more relevance today to dig in the subject of anarchism?
Yes, for at least two reasons. First, the collapse of Marxism. It was an approach to power based on the analysis of economic domination, but without considering domination as the problem of power. Marxism was always related to economy. Now that we are liberated from that, we can consider the problem of domination as a philosophical problem on its own, which is not necessarily linked with economy. And second, we have more and more examples of domination that are quite independent from the financial and economic domain, for example in feminism.
There’s something that I did not dare to say and maybe I won’t dare to write, that is that the philosophers that I admire, like Derrida, were dominators, womanizers, etcetera. So I think that philosophy has to find a way to address this question beyond the old questions of the proletariat and to find new ways of dealing with it. There, of course, feminism is essential.
In your first lecture your aim was to confront philosophy and anarchism on the point of impossibility. You stated that continental philosophers in the 20th century have almost unanimously condemned (political) anarchism for being naive. At the same time - when you look at the deconstructive gestures of those philosophers, they seem to be fascinated by anarchism.
The philosophers I have been analysing in my first talk - Foucault, Levinas, Derrida, Shermann, Rancière, Heidegger - identify the problem of metaphysics with archism, with the discourse of the arkhe, of the principles. So deconstruction of metaphysics was very easily comparable with a form of conceptual an-archism. But for the 20th century continental philosophers, it was not a matter of saying ‘we are anarchists’. They saw their own work as a kind of anarchistic gesture, but at the same time they wanted this gesture to be understood etymologically (an-archic), without any link to political anarchism. This is extremely strange when you realise that these people have been working on disavowal, language, and perfectly know that you cannot say ‘I’m using a word but not in the usual sense’. So there’s a kind of naivité here, that we can invert against them.
...like a boomerang.
Exactly. So here is a weakness I really want to explore in my project. 20th century continental philosophers have written such things about language that it is not possible that they can maintain such a behavior. What do they refuse in political anarchism? I think they were afraid. They did not want to jump into radicality. It is about anxiety, about the unknown. Marxism is much more comforting: there is more literature, it is more structured. Anarchism – this is my problem at the moment – proliferates: you notice it when you google it. They feared to be associated with chaos, with radicality, with revolution, with terrorism as well, with violence, with a kind of absolute disobedience.
Which is interesting when you look at how those philosophers have pointed out the blind spots of others...
Exactly. Their job was to point out the blindnesses of others - they didn’t point out this one.
But now you do it!
Yes, but at the moment I really don’t know where I’m going. I don’t see exactly what I will do with this blind spot.
Do you think you will find new answers?
I don’t think I will find answers. What I will find, I hope, is the capacity to interpret this blindness. What I hope is to be strong enough to propose a reading of this blindness; that is why I have to continue exploring what exactly they are resisting.
It obsesses me, I think of it all the time, I google it all the time. I have a feeling that what I have presented in these two lectures was interesting, but it was just the beginning, just the first entrance into the topic.
You ended both talks with a plea to be constructive. You expressed the hope that a more fruitful dialogue between anarchism and philosophy will be established. The title of your lecture, ‘From dilemma towards alternative’, resonates this constructive dimension. In your second talk you ended with a call to ‘reconstruct a new utopia’ and to create new concepts.
It was a defense of philosophy, this is something that is important to me. Philosophy is often under attack, like why not call it critical theory? Why not call it cultural analysis or things like that? I really defend a concept of philosophy – it has to be protected. It has to be affirmed. Be aware of all the critiques that can be addressed against philosophy – like for example all the blind spots, because it is true that they exist, but address them from within philosophy.
I teach in the US where philosophy only means analytical philosophy and is more and more restricted. For example, I teach in a comparative literature department, so philosophy does not have a place of its own. Americans characterise what I am doing as critical theory. I don’t mind that, but it is not exactly what I am doing.
There is a tendency to fragment. Fragmentation is certainly a good thing because I believe there is no such thing as a universal, but that is not a reason to stop building philosophy as a common ground. Not universal but common – I believe in this difference. In the US you have spheres: Indian studies, African studies – it is terrible.
And those spheres don’t communicate.
Sometimes it’s terrible.
I read in an interview that early in your studies you experienced academic philosophy as an ‘intellectual prison house’. When the dean of the faculty introduced your first lecture, he said about anarchism: ‘a topic well-chosen in the context of the University of Amsterdam’. What has been your experience of the academic culture here at the UvA?
To tell you the truth, when I had to give a topic for the Spinoza chair, I of course had a look at the previous ones and they were all very serious. I remember writing ‘Dear professor Früchtl, do you think I can propose philosophy and anarchy?’ He said yes! But I was not sure of how it would be received. I was very generously welcomed here, it was great. I think it was a place of freedom here, it did not give me the impression that I have in the UK for example. In the UK it is a prison.
In the UK, first of all everyone is fascinated by Cambridge and Oxford – the high, the divine. So you have to conform to their rules, you have to try to imitate them, there’s no freedom. Continental philosophy does not particularly exist. My department [Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, red.] was the only one in the UK, and it is very small. Bureaucracy, administration: everything is about control and normativity. We are evaluated all the time, we have to account for what we do. It’s terrible. I didn’t have that feeling here.
The students here, in my class, it seemed to me, were talking freely. Although I was just here for two months, it made me think of Descartes and Spinoza. At least Descartes in the beginning, finding Holland as the place of freedom. But I don’t know whether I am right?
I know there are problems and I heard this story about occupations, but to me it seems that - given the global context - Amsterdam at least, because I don’t know other universities in Holland, seems closer to the past, to what the university used to be, than to what it is becoming in for example the UK.
And what about Amsterdam in general?
I was dazzled, it was great, very easygoing, not too big. I can tell you just clichés. It will be strange to leave. I just went back to Paris once as I did not want to go back every weekend and lose my concentration. The great thing of the University of Amsterdam is that they have the Spinoza chair. For me it was an opportunity to concentrate.
My last question is about your further projects, but I get the sense that you are not done with anarchism yet?
No, it’s just a beginning, that will hopefully result in a book.