Pursuing Impossible Objects: An Interview with Simon Critchley

You’ve written about Beckett, Stevens, Blanchot, and others.  Literature seems a fundamental concern.  Indeed, your own prose is somewhat more literary than other contemporary philosophers’.  What is the significance of literature for you?

Well, it’s very important.  When I stopped playing in punk bands when I was about 19 or 20, I decided I was going to become a poet and did that seriously and stupidly for about five years, and then ended up going back to university to do literature.  I ended up stumbling into philosophy because the teachers were better, but literature was always my passion.  It was what philosophy was meant to serve in a sense.  Whatever experience was going on with literature was served by philosophy rather than the other way around.  I’ve got a canon of favorite authors that I guess are not that exceptional in many ways.

The discipline of the sentence is very important to me.  It’s important to write well, and the way you learn to write well is by studying the English language and other languages too.  I’m working on a book at the moment on Hamlet, and what fascinates me about Hamlet is the use of language and oxymoronic construction, antithetical construction.  So, yes, sentence structure is very important to me.  Literature is what it’s all about.  It’s symptomatic of a number of things.  I’m not really in literature and never really have been.  To me the study of literature isn’t really interested in literature; it’s a loathing of it in many ways, either through some sort of boyish Marxism or historicism or formalism or whatever.  So I guess the reason people like me and Tom McCarthy stumbled into having more to do with the art world was because we found there was an audience there for what we were interested in, which just wasn’t there in people that were allegedly interested in literature who wanted middlebrow fiction or professionalized scholarly activity.  So, literature for me, it’s what everything comes back to, it’s essential.

Beckett and Stevens seem particularly significant to you.

Beckett holds a particular significance for all sorts of reasons.  The first being that he — better than anybody else — understood the pitfalls of philosophizing about literature, he had an acute philosophical awareness.  He’s enormously difficult to write about.  You can reduce him to a series of platitudes about the theatre of the absurd, or meaninglessness, or whatever it might be, but to actually engage with what the language is doing, and how it’s doing it, is really hard.  So for me Beckett became a kind of test case.  Also, he’s a writer I love to read, he’s funny and also incredibly nostalgic in a way.  I was doing something before Christmas on Krapp’s Last Tape and I hadn’t read it for ages and what struck me again was the nostalgia of that piece.

So there’s an existential, experiential side to Beckett that’s irreducible, but it’s also important in thinking about something like art and something like theory.  Beckett understood how he would be misunderstood theoretically.  Stevens is the same, he had an acute awareness of — and passionate interest in — all sorts of philosophical issues but was also sure that the way those interests had to be pursued was in poetry and that once they were translated out of poetry into philosophy the whole thing was lost.

I guess what fascinates me about both of those figures is that they believe poetry or drama is a vehicle for bearing thought, but that that thought is specific to its medium.  One has to be incredibly careful and scrupulous in interpreting that work.  This is linked to an obsession I’ve had for years: impossible objects.  I’m interested in objects that in a sense don’t require philosophical elucidation or interpretation.  There’s a top-down model of philosophy where philosophy gives us a grid that we can lay over the world in order to understand it, and I just don’t want to subscribe to that.

That reminds me of a comment you made about the ‘terroristic grasp of theory’ in relation to contemporary art.

That came up in this talk at the Frieze Art Fair.  It was a strange moment.  I was thinking specifically of this series of experiences I’d had at Goldsmiths College in the early 90s.  Theory at Goldsmiths then was being used in a terroristic or even theological way.  Here’s a bunch of concepts and you go out and make your art in relation to them.  It seems, though, that that top-down structure between theory and art has just given way.  It’s given way, on one level, to a sort of anti-intellectualism, the YBAs for example.  In a more interesting way it’s given way to something where artists and people like me (whatever I am, I’m not really sure what to call myself) are interested in the same kinds of things, we just approach it in different ways.  So I think now you have a situation where rather than a relationship of either art or theory, this sort of dualism, I think it’s much more that the artists and philosophers and whatever are getting together around third terms.  One of those third terms that I was interested in a couple of years ago was the concept of work itself, looking at the way in which artists approach work, the history of work, practices related to it, and then how we think about that philosophically.  I guess the artists I’m interested in are the ones I tend to work with; we just have similar sorts of interests.  So it’s not that art has become anti-theoretical, it’s just that some other relation is required.

So I guess we’re talking about art as a unique form of knowledge production.

Yes, it’s a unique form of knowledge production and it has become a culturally central form of knowledge production.  For good and ill, particularly what has happened in Britain in an extreme way — and to a lesser degree elsewhere — where contemporary art has become the central thing that people talk about culturally.  I mean maybe when the Booker prize is being handed out they are concerned about what six works of fiction they’re not going to read over the next year, but the novel just is not the bearer of cultural meaning in the way in which it was a generation ago.  Fiction has become memoir, it’s become sentimental, it’s become very Radio 4, and you know, that’s all right, but the mantle of cultural significance has passed to contemporary art.

Also, what’s significant is the contradictions involved in art production are so extreme in relation to commodification and, I think, contemporary art has become the place where all of those contradictions are explored in a way that people are interested in, shocked by, suspicious of, appalled by.  People think that Damien Hirst is a money-grabbing charlatan, and that’s fine, at least it’s on the radar on some level.

It’s naked.

Yes, and I think people feel contemporary art is available to them.  An event that was significant in that regard was the opening of Tate Modern in 2001, where you had lines around the block going to see Louise Bourgeois’s huge black spider and you think, well this is interesting, people are going to see a heavyweight, female surrealist artist and this is something they want to talk about.  So I think we can see, for good or ill, something had shifted in the culture and contemporary art was the place where that shift was being tracked and at the very least that needs to be thought about seriously.

So what do you think of Tate Modern as this apparent symbol of the democratization of art?

Well, there’s all sorts of stuff hiding in there, there’s institutionalization, there’s nationalism, there’s the tourist trade.  I mean it seems that what it means to be a city now is to have a biannual and a contemporary art museum and that’s just business.

Yes, maybe we could talk about the biannualization of the world?

It’s a banalization.  It’s the stamp a city needs to feel it has cultural relevance in the world.  How does one make oneself an international tourist destination?  Well you have a biannual.  So to that extent the whole thing is ideological and corrupt, and yet there are good biannuals and bad biannuals, I’m not against them per se, but there is a sense in which it says a lot about how significant contemporary art has become.  I mean nobody gave a damn a generation ago, it was a bunch of old blokes doing abstract paintings.  I guess they were respected in some way, but it didn’t matter.  Now it matters intensely to service industries and the structure of the city and reinvigoration of derelict downtown areas.

Yes, I mean, this is where regeneration comes in, doesn’t it?  The idea of these totemic art pieces that are going to lift a neighborhood up by its boot heels when in reality the local population are just getting pushed out.  I guess the biannualization issue goes hand in hand with that globally?

Yes, it’s almost Roman in the sense of the building of trophies.  You know wherever they went they would win a battle and build a huge trophy, a triumphal arch.  This is a bit like that.  You build your trophy and you displace the local population.  It’s linked to this idea of metropolitanization and the fact that people want to be in funky artistic neighborhoods in formerly degenerate downtowns.  A couple of phenomena which give the lie to that: I remember being in Dublin a couple of years ago and the bursting of the bubble of the construction boom had led to a sudden explosion of spaces available to artists, which was interesting because the space wasn’t worth anything.  So in a sense the opposite had happened and artists could go in there and do what they liked.  The other thing would be the way in which, despite the construction of totemic, trophy-like art, there’s something in the porosity between art and politics.  I mean, whatever we make of what we call Occupy and the different spaces it inhabited, it’s a kind of art project in a way.  There’s been a longstanding interest in art breaking out of the institution — well, here we are.

Yes, I wonder if we could talk about localism with regard to art and with regard to Bourriaud’s notion of the altermodern.  To me, what I find him describing with altermodernism is a model of the global elite.  Artists and curators whizzing around the world with no regard for borders in the same way the super-rich do — whilst for the majority of people borders are becoming ever more restrictive — and making an art that is recognizable in Delhi, London, Beijing, New York, whatever.  So I wonder, is localism an option or a cop-out?

Well that’s tricky.  There is and there always has been a mirroring of art and capital, from the Sumerians, through the ancient Greeks, through the various empires, from the Quattrocento in Italy to now.  If you want to read the structure of power relations you look at the pure surplus value of art production and that remains true.  There’s a sense in which with the internationalization of things and with the disintegration of local cultures, local literary cultures, art is fine.  I mean people don’t read the same novels, or don’t read novels, or don’t read poetry, but they know who a handful of contemporary artists are and maybe a handful of contemporary theorists because that is internationalizable, it’s moveable, and that is just a mirror of ideology for me.  The opposite is interesting.  Could you say more about that?

I guess what I’m getting at is something you talk about in The Faith of the Faithless and that is the Invisible Committee and their attempt to move out to the countryside and set up a commune and their skepticism towards the urban environment.  I think in the book you come to the conclusion that it’s not really a solution.

Well we had three of the members of the Invisible Committee at a conference we organized in New York in May called “The Anarchist Hypothesis” and their loathing for the city was evident.  They were really sticking it to the imagined New York hipster connected New School students.

There’s a dormant Romanticism in that attitude, isn’t there?

Well, what I try to do in The Faith of the Faithless, what I try and show, is the way in which the logic of contemporary insurrectionism feeds off deeper traditions of heresy, deeper traditions of secession.  It seems to me that the Invisible Committee have a completely Catharistic idea of the world or a gnostical idea of the world: the world is a wicked, corrupt, poisoned place.  And while they’re not planning to go off in a spaceship and make a new civilization, there’s a side to it that is like that; there’s the twin prongs of sabotage and secession.  We need to withdraw from a civilization that’s falling off a cliff, that is no longer credible, and then sabotage it.  So what you have with them is a deeply aestheticized critique of society that isn’t really even Marxist in the way in which the Situationists were.  It’s more the idea that the world is a concentration camp, the world is a dark place, and we need to get off.  It’s a powerful temptation because it makes intuitive sense.  I’ve just written a piece on Philip K. Dick’s new book, Exegesis, which is his magnum opus, eight thousand pages of scribblings, the ravings of a mad man, a work of genius for some, it’s viewed in different ways, but the core vision is a gnostical one.  The world is a dark place, it’s a place of illusion run by corporations and secretive powers, and we need to break through that matrix and see it for what it is, take the red pill as it were, and then the scales will fall from our eyes and we’ll begin to be able to resist it.  There is some of that fantasy at work in the work of some of the contemporary insurrectionist groups, and I understand it and I applaud it up to a point, but I guess I’ve always been keener on less dramatic, local, more modest forms of political engagement.  I like the anarchist tradition because it’s about urban gardens, and allotments, and free schools, and little local medical clinics.  Whereas the ski-masked, black-clad insurrectionist I think is a boring figure of a virile politics that we need to leave behind.  I think that was one of the things that was playing out in the Occupy movement, a tension between those different aspects.  So for me it’s the slightly crap, low-level, sentimental aspects of the anarchist tradition that I think is really interesting, whereas there’s a heroic, virile Marxism for sure, and a heroic virile insurrectionism, and you know, it just doesn’t appeal.

It’s something I find interesting in the book, Marx‘s almost complete absence.  Can we take from that that you’re skeptical of economic determinism?

Yes, I mean ‘it’s the economy stupid’ of course, of course it is.  But — and this is partly intellectual conviction, part history — a figure that was very important to me in my early years was Laclau and his Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which was an attempt to wean Marxism away from its addiction to forms of reductionist, economistic class analysis and to try and retrieve a political dimension to Marxism.  Politics is not the super-structural effect of economic contradictions, it’s much more complicated than that.  Marx is hugely important and there is a political Marx there in the early work of 1843, 1844 that I find really interesting, but the promised volume of Kapital that would have dealt with the State was never produced and then Marxism took the course that it did in the Second International and that leads to a view of politics as secondary.  For me the economic and the social are politically articulated.  There’s a whole reading of Marx in Infinitely Demanding, in the final part, that came out of some seminars I was doing on Marx about seven or eight years ago, but I get frustrated with academic Marxism, that boyish reductionist Marxism that thinks it has the answers.  I’ve been there and seen that before and it doesn’t.  It’s not that Marx is unimportant, he is a presence in what I do but it comes through certain other sources, certain other avenues.  Gramsci, for example, is hugely important for me, the way in which debates after Lenin were transformed by Gramsci.  He places such an emphasis on politics, ideology, and what he called a historical bloc; given that the revolution is not going to happen through the contradictions of capitalism, we need therefore to form a front, form a collective will, what he called the activity of hegemony.  It seems to me that that is a much more realistic understanding of politics than many others on the Left where there is either this ridiculous, quasi-religious eschatology that ends in revolution or in the utter resignation that you find in the Frankfurt School of Adorno and Horkheimer.

Which brings us to Zizek?

Well Zizek speaks out both sides of his mouth and it’s often difficult to work out.  He celebrates the cul-de-sac.  Every new phenomenon is going to be dialectically inverted into its opposite.  What he does so brilliantly is show those things happen through the prism of popular culture, movies, or whatever and it’s exhilarating, but it can lead you into a kind of impasse and then you end up with a rhetoric of violence, and the absolute gesture, and the step outside attitude, and so on and so forth, and that leaves me cold, always has done.

It’s very macho, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s macho in the sense that it’s the inability to actually do something.  The figure of politics becomes Melville’s Bartleby who would prefer not to, the passive inert being, and then it’s coupled with the fantasy of a redemptive, cataclysmic violence that will transform everything, divine violence.  I’ve always seen politics as a more small-scale and incremental process, it’s something that largely goes unobserved, it’s not the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, it’s somebody digging their own vegetables, it’s as simple as that, and I think the anarchist tradition is more amenable to that.  The thing is, people don’t know the anarchist tradition, they haven’t read Bakunin, they haven’t read Kropotkin .

Yes, I think the way the term is used in the popular media is quite distorting too.  I think as you point out in The Faith of the Faithless, where you’re talking about John Gray and the naturalization of original sin and the notion that political ideas are always anthropological: you either believe humans are essentially bad as John Gray does, we’re all violent apes burdened with metaphysical longing, or you’re more glass half full about it as the anarchist tradition is, people are essentially good and can cooperate.

Yes, anarchism makes a glass half full kind of argument.  It’s a question of snatching small victories from a greater defeat; I guess it’s always been like that.  These battles are conducted in obscure ways and in local places.  So I think the dream of a grand politics is something we need to question ourselves about.

With regards to The Faith of the Faithless, there was an author, I felt, whose name hung over the whole thing but is never mentioned and that is Dostoyevsky, especially his line “faith is not born of the miracle, but the miracle of faith.”  Is that totally off the mark?

No it’s not.  Dostoyevsky was very important for me, especially Notes from Underground, which I used to read and re-read, which I used to teach.  It’s a text that I guess has seeped into the ground soil of what I do.  In Dostoyevsky you find that weird mix of a modernization, an understanding of modernity, and a longing for some experience of faith, a longing for some religiosity, which led, in his case, to some really reactionary forms of belief, but he wrote great books so we’ll forgive him.

Ok, so let’s move back to art and on to Bourriaud and relational aesthetics.  It’s something you’ve talked about quite a lot.  You seem to be engaged with it, but you’ve also outlined its limits pretty directly.

Yes, institutional, caught in its own process of commodification.

Is there something salvageable in it?

I think relational aesthetics is an unfortunate brand, but to name a phenomenon is a difficult thing to do and an interesting thing to do, so there it is, and I guess it names the work of that group of artists.  There are many, many ways of criticizing it.  One of the things I like about it, though, that speaks to me, is the idea of collaboration, the attempt to get away from forms of individual authorial production towards forms of collaborative production, and Philippe Parreno, in particular, has been someone who has done that scrupulously well over the years.  I mean it comes down to a personal preference in a way, I like Phillipe, we share a love of football, so I guess that’s really what we talk about a lot of the time.  The only show I’ve curated was on the World Cup, a space to watch World Cup games, in New York, and I guess that had elements of that idea of collaboration and participation in it.  I can see why that can be criticized, it misses out on all sorts of phenomena.

So, I find the idea of collaboration interesting.  Also, people like Philippe are looking at similar things to me and have similar sets of associations but work in a different medium and that fascinates me.  I’m not really in the art word so I don’t really understand the stakes.  We just had this event at the end of the Maurizio Cattelan exhibition in New York and someone pointed out to me that this notion of retirement is really flawed because it’s premised on the notion of the institution, the idea that you can retire from an institution, that the art world is something and you can move outside of, and I think that’s right.  Cattelan, and maybe Tino Sehgal, their work is really a belief in the art world, a belief in the institution, and I don’t really go with that.

The other thing I want to mention is this re-enactment idea.  I read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in 2001, before it found a publisher — you know this story of how it found a small publisher in Paris after being turned down by everyone and then it became a hit.  In many ways that book is an allegory of the art world.  It’s an allegory of what art has become.  The protagonist in Remainder is this obsessional guy who re-enacts his entire previous existence.  There’s a cold, mannerist obsessionality at the heart of that.  It’s not that re-enactment is unimportant, art has always been about re-enactment, re-occupying the past, but I find it all a little bit exhausting at times, and question-begging.  You know, you go to art school and you learn which piece you’re going to re-enact and sell.  As I say in the book, you don’t engage in a bank heist, you re-enact Patty Heart’s actions with the Symbionese Army in a warehouse in Brooklyn.  I understand why it happens, but there’s a sort of fantasy of control that worries me, that these weren’t re-enactments for certain people.  What I mean is there was an extremity in the avant-garde, the Viennese Actionists‘ or whatever, a sort of physical extremity, which is an extremity of affect which risks being lost in this obsession with re-enactment.  It worries me a bit.

Would you be willing to speculate on what an alternative to that might be?

One thing might be to ask what art should or might be up to at this point?  I’ve been very interested in the last year or so in the phenomenon of disgust as an aesthetic concept.  It’s interesting that the concepts of disgust and monstrosity have a strange role in a text like Aristotle’s Poetics and in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  There is a line drawn between the sublime, which is almost too much, and the monstrous which is absolutely too much, and we have to protect ourselves against the absolutely too much because if that intervenes in the aesthetic arena it will lead to disgust.  And I guess at this point, the beginning of February 2012, I’m very interested in reclaiming or rethinking that extremity of affect, of disgust, in relation to monstrosity, which, of course, is a way of thinking about the entire history of the avant-garde over the last 100 years.  There’s a quotation from Bacon where he’s asked about the violence of what he does and he says well I don’t think it is violent, or if it is violent it’s about thinking through a greater violence which is the violence of the screens in which we find ourselves surrounded, and it seems to me we find ourselves screened and secluded in informational cells and part of the function of art is to try and break through that.  I mean Nauman says a work of art is like a blow to the back of the neck, I’d like to see a bit more of that.  What that might mean?  I’m not sure, but to go back to some of that physical and intellectual extremity which seems to have been lost.

I guess Santiago Sierra and Renzo Martens come to mind.  For example with Marten’s Episode III I came to the conclusion that it’s ethical but not moral.

Yes, I mean it just seems that an element of risk and extremity and something which cuts to the heart of the self is what’s required.  There’s a sense in which so much of what’s produced in the art world is contained and obsessionally ordered and polite, nothing is on the line, it’s comfortable.  I guess, yes, I’d like to argue for an ethics of discomfort that would be immoral in terms of socially established ethics but deeply ethical in another way.

Is Romanticism any kind of solution?

I guess the romantic view that art was the secular scripture and a means for the redemption of the world, it’s the failure of that which has to be kept in mind when thinking through the issues of art practice right up to the present, to that extent the romantics, particularly the romantic poets, remain hugely important I think.

Yes, along that line, Tom McCarthy has said that ‘any serious literature has to navigate the wreckage of Modernism.’  Is that something you subscribe to?

Absolutely.  Modernism is the wreckage of Romanticism.  Modernism is, for me, a name for what that romantic credo became in the hands of someone like Eliot.  I agree completely with Tom about that, I mean Modernism has been where this stuff is negotiated, certainly literary Modernism.

Gabriel Josipovici’s book is dealing with a lot of this.  He talks at length about Wordsworth.

Yes I mean, Snowdon and a transfiguration of reality becomes Eliot’s unreal city and ‘on Margate Sands I can connect nothing with nothing’, they’re in a relationship with each other.  Josipovici’s work was very important for people like me; I was taught by a student of Josipovici’s, and I read him with interest way back, so I was delighted to see his Modernism book.  I guess the authors that Tom and I are obsessed with, people like Blanchot and Bataille, are the people who have been trying to negotiate precisely those questions, and to go back to your first question, no one in literature really cares about that anymore because it can’t become part of a research assessment exercise or something, so the art world has become a place where that stuff is thought through.

I think you’re right that contemporary art engages with these issues more, but equally I think it’s odd that it can become bastardized into this art writing phenomena.

Yes, there’s an MA at Goldsmiths now in Art Writing, isn’t there?

Yes.  Perhaps I am saying literature is too important to be left entirely to art?

Yes, absolutely I’m suspicious of the academicizing tendency.

Art has that great thing which is both its strength and at times its Achilles heel, which is the magpie quality.

I agree that it misses out in terms of scholarship and competence, the magpie thing I’m not too bothered about though, you know, I’ll take what I can get.  The question of the academic institutionalization of contemporary art might be something to talk about on another occasion, but I do have deep suspicions about it going back to when the PhD in Fine Art was instituted, I don’t see why that’s happened other than as a money maker or as feeding people into art schools, I don’t really see what it’s about.  I mean my day job is teaching philosophy graduate students who are doing MA’s and PhD’s and we demand that they go through all sorts of extremely conservative rituals, language learning, close reading of texts, numerous courses, and so and so forth, so, if you’re going to do it, do it properly, do it seriously; but it’s not the be-all and end-all of life, there are other ways of doing things.

Simon Critchley is a philosopher, currently teaching at The New School.  John Douglas Millar is a researcher, critic, curator and writer living in London.

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