The following interviews are from How to Stop Living and Start Worrying: Conversations with Carl Cederström
CARL CEDERSTRÖM: This interview will focus on your life and how you got into philosophy. But before that I would like to ask a more general question about the relation between philosophy and biography. What can you say about this connection?
SIMON CRITCHLEY: I think that there’s an essential connection between biography and philosophy. The standard version of the history of philosophy begins with Socrates, with a life and a death. It begins with four dialogues by Plato (Apology, Euthyphro, Crito and Phaedo), on the trial and execution of Socrates. These dialogues give us a picture of Socrates’ life, his teachings and, significantly, the manner of his death at the hands of the Athenian authorities. Philosophy begins with an act of political assassination. We shouldn’t forget that. As is clear from a later text like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, in the ancient world philosophy had an intimate connection with biography. The biography was a kind of propaedeutic to philosophy. If philosophy was a way of life, then the lives of the philosophers were essential objects of study. You can point to other examples of the way in which biography persists in relation to philosophy all the way up to Spinoza, where, on the one hand, we don’t know much about Spinoza’s life, but then, in the years after his death, three biographies appeared. He became a sort of atheist saint. And then, with someone like Nietzsche, where the life and the work get confused, where in a sense the life is the work and the work is the life.
CC: The idea that philosophy cannot be separated from one’s life. Is that an idea that would apply also to you, that your life and work have become inseparable?
SC: Hoist with my own petard, I suppose. The twentieth-century attitude, particularly in the Anglo-American world – but not just in the Anglo-American world – is that philosophy has no relationship to biography. The idea is that philosophical arguments are true by virtue of their form, or by virtue of their proof, or by their ability to be verified, while the facts about the person who wrote those things are of no importance. That’s true in Analytic philosophy, but also in Continental philosophy. Heidegger says in a lecture course about Aristotle from the 1920s that he was born, he worked and he died – and that’s all we need to know. So there’s a real hostility to biography in twentieth-century philosophy, which goes together with a sort of modernist aesthetic, an austerity that tries to separate the truth of the work from one’s life. For my part, I think biography is important as a path into philosophy, and also a sort of test of philosophy; and to whether life and work can be integrated. In my case, life and work are completely confused.
CC: Philosophizing one’s life can be done in a variety of ways, of course. On the one hand, it could be a way to protect oneself. It offers a language, and a rather seductive language at that, through which you might externalize yourself, or become detached and distanced. But, on the other hand, it could also be the case that philosophy might be extremely painful, taking you in undesired and embarrassing directions.
SC: Yeah, the idea is whether philosophy is protection and detachment, or exposure and risk. I think it’s both, although it’s probably more protective. You see, this is what a lot of philosophy teachers do. They will construct a persona, which seems to be a biographical persona – it seems to be someone they actually are – but really it’s just a protective structure. The person they are in public has no relation to who they are. So there’s a fake protection of giving oneself a public persona, which has no relation to oneself. But philosophy, or to philosophize, can also be about exposure and risk; and it should be. This exposure can happen in different ways, of course, not least through psychoanalysis.
CC: At the same time there’s this fear to be spoken of, which is perhaps why psychoanalysts like Lacan and Freud burnt manuscripts on a couple of occasions – for fear of what future biographers would do with them. This would be the flip side of psychoanalysis, and maybe also philosophy: the hesitation to symbolize or write oneself. Can you feel this fear of being written?
SC: What happens, ineluctably and regrettably, is that one becomes a brand: a persona about which various stories, anecdotes and gossip can be circulated. That can ring incredibly hollow and creates I feel, at times, a feeling of utter self-revulsion. Look, I try to be truthful. But I also don’t believe we have any privileged intuition into who we are. I don’t think introspection produces such great wonders. I think consciousness is a kind of méconnaisance, a misrecognition, as Lacan says. What I’ve learnt from psychoanalysis is that whatever insight I might have into myself is something I normally get from another person; usually and hopefully a person I love. The person you love can tell you something about yourself, from which you can then learn who you are.
CC: You have jokingly said that you’re a critical, secular, well dressed post-Kantian – would that be your brand?
SC: No. That was said as a rhetorical ploy in a sort of critical, secular, liberal, post-Kantian context – you know, some of those gorgeous, super-clever, holier-than-thou people you find in New York. I don’t think I’m any of those. I’m not particularly critical or even particularly good at criticism. I’m not secular, that’s for sure. I have a much more tortured relationship to religion and issues of faith. Maybe I’m post-Kantian, but in a pretty strange way. And I’m not liberal, in any way at all.
CC: OK. With this in mind, could we perhaps go back in time to speak about you?
SC: If you insist. I’d rather talk about you.
CC: But that’s not going to happen. We’re going to speak about you. Now, I don’t know much about your childhood. The only thing that you’ve mentioned is that you were in a school with 11-year-old boys with beards and that you, in order to escape all the violence, had to perform exceptionally well so that you could get into another school. And this was in Liverpool?
SC: No, my family is from Liverpool, but I grew up in Letchworth Garden City, 30 miles north of London, in Hertfordshire, affectionately known as the wasteland.
CC: What kind of place was that?
SC: A wasteland, like I said. It was built as a Quaker socialist utopia in 1900. It was a project called Garden Cities – really interesting idea – with a tree outside every house, social housing and all the rest. My dad, Bill Critchley, left Liverpool in the ’50s because there was no work. He came south, and then the family came after him – basically, economic migration, the usual story. My dad was a sheet-metal worker, and my mother, Sheila, who had worked as a hairdresser in Liverpool, was home looking after my sister, who is six years older than me. As a sheet-metal worker, a rented house came with the job. He worked very hard and he did well and he was promoted. And when I was 8 years old we bought a house – which was a big deal – and we moved to the other side of town. So we moved from what was a very working-class area to a more middle-class area. And I changed schools. I went to the local school around the corner and then the local public primary school, as they’re called in England.
CC: So how did you experience school? Were you considered a good student?
SC: Yes. I did really well in school at that point. At the age of 5, 6, 7 I was really good – top of the class. But then we moved and I started a new school where I got bullied, for maybe two years. It was horrible. I was around 9, 10 at the time – it was an awful period – and I remember that I refused to go to school because I was so terrified of being beaten up. But what saved me was football. I could play football and it is still maybe the governing passion of my life. My only religious commitment is to Liverpool Football Club. My dad had been trained at the Liverpool ground and he had taught me. He stopped playing because of an ankle injury. I was pretty good for a kid from Letchworth. I was fast and I was big. And I got onto the school team and the county team.
Only two kids from my school got onto the county team – this was a big deal. So suddenly, at 10 years old, I had a lot of respect. So football saved my life. I still got beaten up, and I got beaten up for the way I spoke. So I changed the way I spoke overnight and lost my Liverpool accent for this entirely bland way I speak now. I don’t know how much violence there is now, with kids.
CC: Quite a lot I imagine, especially here in London.
SC: I remember an awful lot of violence and I got beaten up regularly. But basically, to go back to your question, it was the fear of physical violence that focused my mind on school. This is true – you’d think I was making this shit up – but it’s actually true: my teacher in school, in the final year of primary school, found me and two other boys, jumping on desks and making noise – we were 10 years old. And this man, a grown-up man in his thirties, dragged us out of the classroom and hit all of us until we fell over. Seriously, he beat us to the ground. And we just took it. Eventually, weeks later, we complained to our parents, who then complained to the school, and he was dismissed the following year. I saw him driving a cab some years later.
CC: So you were working hard to escape the violence, both from teachers and violent 10-year-olds with beards?
SC: Yes. And in those days it was a very simple system. You knew exactly where you were in the hierarchy. The top ten students from the primary school got into the grammar school, and the grammar school was an academic school, which meant that there were no big men with beards and your face wasn’t pushed down the toilet everyday (who knows, psychoanalytically understood, maybe this was what I secretly desired). So through this fear of going to what was then called the secondary modern school, where 90 per cent of the population went, I realized I had to work. So I worked my way up to the first table and passed the entrance exam, what was called at the time the ‘11 plus’.
CC: So you made it. How was grammar school?
SC: We were taught by these very old men who wore gowns, and they were very ferocious. We did Latin, ancient history, sciences, languages (French and Russian) and English literature. There was an ancient history teacher who had a huge impact on me. We just did ancient history for two years and I became obsessed with it. Still am. I still have a book from those days, because I stole it from the library. It’s called Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria. A real page-turner. I read this when I was 11 years old. It was wonderful. I read about the ancient world, Mesopotamian culture, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and then the Greeks. I was reading books – very simple ones like Kitto’s book The Greeks – on ancient history and that captivated me. When I did philosophy 11 years later I already had an attraction to Greek philosophy for that reason. What interested me about ancient history was the fact that it bore no relation to reality.
It seemed to be a complete fantasy world. When history became real, I remember when we got to medieval history and then early modern history I entirely lost interest.
CC: How about your parents, were they supportive in your ambitions?
SC: My parents were great, but they had no particular interest in my education. They were encouraging at certain moments, but for the most part they were neutral. I was at a grammar school, and I think they were pleased, but I certainly wasn’t pushed. And then when I went to university, when I was 22, in October 1982, I was actually discouraged very strongly by my parents; they thought it was a completely ludicrous idea. Ours was not an educated family and I was the first one that went beyond 16. My father and mother left school when they were 14.
CC: So it was not your parents who pushed you in the direction of becoming a philosopher?
SC: Oh no. My father would have been delighted if I’d worked in a factory, and my mother would’ve been ecstatic if I’d worked in a bank, because that’s a good job – what could be better than that? The other important thing about these years was that my mother and father split up. I was 14 at the time, although it had been in the air for at least the three previous years. My father had a succession of affairs and then ended up leaving my mother for his secretary – a depressingly predictable scenario. My sister got married when I was 14, and that turned out to be the last time I saw my whole extended Liverpool family together for many years – which was a pity because we’d been really close.
CC: And how did you react to the divorce?
SC: Badly. After the divorce, I did catastrophically at school. I went from being a pretty good student to failing all my O-levels at 16, which is this qualification that you needed to get in order to go on to A-levels and then university. I failed them in a spirit of willful self-destruction. I left formal education at the age of 16 with one ‘C’ grade in geography. I’ve always loved maps. I remember that I went to the pub after everybody else got their results. Everybody had done a lot better than me. And it then hit me that maybe I had made a huge mistake, because I deliberately failed them. I thought education was ridiculous. At that point I was into progressive German music like Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream (the first band I saw live when I was 14) – these were the only things that were really important to me. To get some money to survive over the summer, my best friend Russell and I signed on the dole. It felt great. I then went to a catering technical college, which was a further education college for people learning to become welders and hairdressers or whatever. It wasn’t exactly a great place, but it was next to the school. In fact, my old school was closed and turned into an unemployment benefit office and the catering technical college was demolished and replaced by a supermarket – that’s progress! So I was at catering technical college for two years, which was an absolute disaster. I had no interest in it at all. I was playing in all these bands, and then punk happened, in winter 1976. Year zero!
CC: Punk has obviously had a huge impact on your life – and you often return to the theme in your work. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, for example, you describe punk as ‘acting like an oxygen tank for those being suffocated for what passes for life in English suburbia’. Can you describe that moment when punk happened?
SC: Punk happened really fast. It was a transcendent moment. I remember hearing the first Ramones album, at a friend’s house very late at night and ‘drunk’, as it were. Suddenly it was as if every record I had heard – and all that mattered to me, as a kid, was listening to music and buying albums – had been erased. And then all these bands entered the scene, like, The Damned, The Buzzcocks and, obviously, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. But I also loved lesser-known bands like The Vibrators, The Only Ones and The Radiators from Outer Space. And also Wire. I still love Wire, especially ‘Outdoor Miner’. It was that feeling of being part of something magical: that London was the centre of the world. Crucially, a lot of punk was not by Londoners: it was by kids out in the suburbs, in the wasteland, places like Bromley, who identified with London as a magical place. This is 1976–7, and I was a bigtime punk, with bondage trousers, ten-hole Dr Martens boots and a Lewis leather jacket.
CC: But we both know that you didn’t become a rock star, but a philosopher. So what happened?
SC: What happened was that I had an industrial accident – and this is really important. It was in September 1978, and I was working in a pharmaceutical factory in Hitchin, where my mum and I moved early in 1978, because we had to sell the house. I was taking out powder from a machine, in which you had metal paddles, about an inch thick, mixing the drugs. And in order to get all the powder out you had to reach into the machine with your hand and push it all down into the hole, at which point some fucking idiot turned on the machine and my hand was trapped inside it. I remember that Jilted John’s first single was on the radio. I literally had to bend the paddles to pull my hand out of the machine. All the bones were smashed and the tendons severed. I was in hospital for two weeks and then had to go through three operations – skin grafts, reconstructive surgery, the whole banana. After two weeks, I was told by the doctor that I could keep my hand. Until that time I had no idea that I could have lost it. But the hand was so badly damaged they were expecting it to rot. Funnily enough, I’m registered disabled because of the hand. I have a 15 per cent impairment. I can’t make a fist, for example, sort of symbolic. So, I’m 18 years old and the only things I enjoy are playing guitar and writing songs. And my left hand is my guitar hand, so I thought I could never play guitar again. I went into a massive depression, the whole of that winter, for six, seven months. And to overcome the depression I did an awful lot of drugs. But then, of course, you get even more depressed. I was going to London a lot at this time, hanging out with the wrong people, drug-dealers and the like. I still had this ambition of playing in bands, switched over to keyboards and then discovered I could still play guitar, but in a different way, I had to relearn the whole thing and then carried on with a failed musical career.
CC: This was a life-changing event?
SC: Yes, and I think it could be helpful to intellectualize this a little. Sartre has this idea of a radical project. It’s part of his critique of Freudian psychoanalysis, where everything is meant to happen in the infantile stage. Sartre’s idea is that there can be a fundamental project, or a radical project, where one makes a choice at a certain age. He’s thinking of Jean Genet who makes the choice of being a thief, at the age of 14, when he is discovered stealing and someone calls him a thief and he accepts it, saying ‘OK, I’m a thief’. So for me, there was punk first and then this industrial injury, which was a sort of break in my existence. Oh, I also had another industrial injury where I lost part of my finger when I was 14. I learned that I should stay away from factories. The trauma also had the effect of erasing big chunks of memory – I was wiped clean. As a result, I have very poor memory of my childhood. So, there I was, at the age of 18, with no memory and no real basis to life, still living in the wasteland.
CC: So what did you do?
SC: I started working as a lifeguard, for about 16 months. I’m not joking. I was a good swimmer. Now, the only thing you’re not allowed to do when you’re at a swimming pool was to read. So, I started to read. Thousands of children drowned as a result.
CC: What were you reading?
SC: I read Aldous Huxley, George Orwell – all of it – and then I migrated into Penguin Modern Classics: Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre. Then I discovered Burroughs, Bataille, things like that.
CC: And you had not been reading a lot until this point?
SC: No, at least not in a serious way. So, I was about 20 and decided to go to a further education college in Stevenage, which was not a great place. But I could do it and claim unemployment benefit, so it was cool. I stayed there for two years, between 20 and 22. I initially did O-levels, which means I did what you usually do when you are 16 when I was 20 or 21, sort of humiliating. The problem was that I couldn’t physically write because of my injury (I’m left-handed). So I had to relearn how to write, which I still have difficulties with. It involves a great deal of pain. Maybe that’s important. Anyhow, I did two A-levels in the second year. I did English literature and some nonsense called ‘Communication Studies’. I discovered T. S. Eliot, and a lot of other poets as well, people like Donne and Marvell. I taught myself Middle English; learnt to read Chaucer and Piers Plowman in Middle English. I still love Middle English – it comes in very useful in New York. Coming from the wasteland, I became obsessed by Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’; read Joyce’s Ulysses; read Kafka, Camus, Beckett. I was reading the standard European avant-garde modernist canon.
In the second year at the further education college I had no money – I was doing all sorts of jobs on the side to support myself – and in the library one day someone said I should apply to university. It had never crossed my mind before. I was 21 years old. It took a long time to do anything with that thought. But I eventually applied to the University of Essex where I was admitted to do philosophy and literature. But when I got there I immediately changed to do English and European literature and they didn’t mind me doing that. This was 1982. I was 22 years old, all of a sudden at university. I had received a grant because my mother had no money and I could even claim travel expenses. Heaven.
CC: Essex was a really radical and interesting campus at that time.
SC: Yes, it had been through this extraordinary period of the 1970s and I was arriving at the fag end of that whole thing. But it was still a very interesting place to be. All the students were 18 or 19. So I was three years older than the students, which was cool, because I had done all the stuff that they were trying to do – and I could still be cool, because I looked cool, with stupid dyed blonde hair and dressed in whatever I was able to find.
CC: How much did you know about Essex before you arrived?
SC: Absolutely nothing. I didn’t know where it was – I didn’t even know what a university was.
CC: So it was just pure luck?
SC: Pure luck. I travelled to three universities, and to my surprise I got into them all: Essex, Sussex and Warwick. I chose Essex because I could do straight literature, but also because I wanted to go to a left-wing university. My politics throughout this period was very left wing. Most of my friends were extremely racist, and reactionary to say the least. But I never was. My dad used to call himself a communist when I was 12, 13, 14. I was very impressed by the Soviet Union at that time. He ended up voting for Thatcher in 1983 and we fought like cats and dogs about the miners’ strike in 1984–5.
CC: And how did you fit in with the rest of the students?
SC: I was hugely intimidated, because these were the kind of middle-class kids I had never really met before. I was repulsed by most of them. I thought they were pathetic. Posers. The highest form of abuse for a punk is to be a poser, rather than being a real punk. And I thought they were posers. Nobody from my circle in bands or whatever – nobody went to university – so I had the feeling of being in the wrong place. I even had a breakdown in my first year of university, because I thought, ‘this is beyond me’. I had the feeling of being a fraud and that someone would find that out. I really pushed myself to get through the first year. Then at the end of my first year, I came in second out of 300 students, in my exams. I had gone back to Hitchin after the exams so it was not until I got back to campus that I found out. People came up and congratulated me and I got this award or whatever. I was astonished. Once that happened I was identified as a bright student and really encouraged by some brilliant teachers like Jay Bernstein, Robert Bernasconi, Ludmilla Jordanova, Onora O’Neill, Frank Cioffi , Mike Weston, Roger Moss and Gabriel Pearson. I then switched to philosophy because the philosophy teachers were just much better. I ended up getting a first class degree, which was what you needed to get the money to do graduate work.
CC: Could you say something about the climate at Essex at that time?
SC: It was amazing. I joined the Communist Students’ Society, and this is where I first read Althusser, Foucault, Derrida. And the Communist Students’ Society was closely linked to the Black Students’ Alliance. Imagine these seminar rooms at Essex, out in the fields, filled with Marxists from Nigeria and from central Africa, discussing the nature of ideology and class struggle. For me it was hypnotizing. I was also involved in the Poetry Society there, although I realized that I wasn’t a very good poet. I stopped writing poetry when I was 25, after reading W. H. Auden. But I left Essex when I was 25 and I was with a woman named Anthea – we were together for many years – and we moved to France. The idea was to take the money from my first class degree, move to France, and never come back. We had this romantic idea of living in the south of France. But it was a complicated hell. Anthea couldn’t get a job. We had very little money. It was really tough. And I hated Nice.
CC: But it was in Nice that you met Dominique Janicaud?
SC: That’s right. He was my teacher and for no reason at all he was very kind to me. He taught me how to do research. I learnt how to use a library and how to really write. I had been a good student and done well. But it was in France where it really got serious. I realized that there were things I wanted to say. And I learnt French properly. I wrote a thesis in French, on Heidegger and Carnap, on the question of the overcoming of metaphysics. I had wonderful teachers, like Janicaud, Clement Rosset and André Tosel.
CC: And you returned to Essex to finish your PhD thesis?
SC: Yes. I stayed in France for a year and a half. So when I got back to Essex there were only 16 months left, and I had no PhD topic. Absolutely none. But I realized I had grown up a lot in France. I seemed to be moving at a different pace from many of the other graduate students (there were only about 10 graduate students in philosophy at Essex at the time). I ended up doing a PhD in less than a year on Derrida and Levinas; that was the basis for my first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction.
CC: Were you aiming for an academic position already then?
SC: No, not at all. There were no jobs in academia, so it wasn’t even an ambition. People forget this, but between 1977 and 1988, first under Labour and then under Thatcher and the Tories, there were no academic jobs, especially in the Humanities. This is why there’s a missing generation in the UK. None of the graduate students at Essex expected to get jobs. In my third and final year as a PhD student, Christopher Norris came to Essex and mentioned that I should come along to Cardiff. I gave my first paper in February 1988 and I was terrified. Amazingly, Cardiff offered me a decently paid postdoctoral fellowship the next month, and the talk I gave was published, my first real publication. Thinking back it’s really strange: I was 22 years old, did my BA, Master’s and PhD in six years and then had a paid job at 28. At the same time my PhD supervisor, Robert Bernasconi, was leaving Essex. There’s a long story attached to this, which I have never really got to the bottom of. But they wanted me to apply for this job and they offered it to me. They appointed Peter Dews and myself to the Essex department on the same day. And it was absolutely astonishing. I went to Cardiff for a rain-soaked, beer-and-meat-pie-sodden year where I learnt a lot. Taught a course on philosophical aesthetics and read a lot of Kant, Benjamin, Lacan and Paul de Man.
CC: That’s a lot of things happening within the course of only six or seven years. So this was the ‘radical project’ that followed from the industrial injury?
SC: Yes. The injury recalibrated my entire organism. I became a different person; some people say that I changed dramatically. Obviously, I can’t judge. Another important thing was that I had problems with my ears; everyone in my family has had problems with their ears. When I was 25 I went to get my ears syringed in Nice, and they fucked it up in some way and I got tinnitus: constant ringing in the ears, which I still have, 25 years later. It’s unbearable at times. The first couple of years I felt suicidal. What I decided – in my perversity – when I was about 26, was that I was never going to be happy because of this ringing in my ears. There’s nothing worse. It’s as if someone is inside your head. I also had terrible insomnia for a long period of time. It was this sense of being alone at night with this noise that you can’t switch off. Absolutely unbearable. The only thing I could really do was to work and study, to read and write. Particularly write. Writing seemed to make the pain go away, it made the noise go away. Given that I’m not going to be happy or contented, or to lead a nice life – this is how naive I was – I said to myself that I will try and study philosophy in a way that would help people who were in the same situation as I was when I first started studying. I was reading Heidegger’s description of anxiety when I was about 23, where anxiety reveals the nothing: that rare mood where everything retreats to inexistence and insignificance. The world is just a chaos of meaninglessness, and the self precipitates at this nothingness which faces this world. So that feeling of a classical existential mood, made absolute sense to me.
CC: So you’re now 29 years old and have a job in the philosophy department at Essex. And then your book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, came out, which became a great success. Could you say something about that?
SC: The Ethics of Deconstruction was finished in September 1991, and published the following May. And then the Derrida scandal broke. Derrida was initially denied an honorary doctorate at Cambridge. He was suddenly front-page news and the status of this weird thing called ‘deconstruction’ was a topic of public debate. I remember a headline from May 1992 – from the Independent newspaper I think – which read: ‘Value-Free Nihilism Hits English City’. That was the day after it was finally decided to offer Derrida the doctorate, following opposition from most members of the philosophy department at Cambridge. The issue was whether deconstruction was nihilism, you know, undermining all that is important in Western civilization [yawn]. It just so happened that I had written a book arguing that deconstruction had to be understood as an ethical project in Levinas’s sense and that it had significant political consequences. So it sold a lot and the book was everywhere. Sheer good luck. It couldn’t have been planned.
CC: One could almost suspect you for being the mastermind behind the Cambridge scandal.
SC: I wish I had been. So, suddenly I had a successful book and I was projected into a different sort of world. I started to travel around to give talks. Going to the United States a lot and to Paris, all over. It felt very glamorous, wonderful and, of course, filled me with self-doubt and disgust. What I became convinced of was the idea that I had to do something that was not the same book. Writing a first book is hard enough. And getting the fucking thing read is enormously difficult. But if you’re lucky enough to get to that stage, then what do you do? Do you just repeat the thing? You just write The Ethics of Deconstruction 2.0? I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to do something absolutely different. I began thinking of going down a different path – this was in 1993. I had been drawn to the work of Maurice Blanchot for many years. The first book I read, cover to cover, in French, was his L’Espace littéraire [The Space of Literature]. His French was utterly limpid. At the same time I was greatly influenced by Jay Bernstein at this point. He was in the office next door to me, and the best philosophical interlocutor. He still is. Jay’s work is very much animated by the question of nihilism, and I really took on this question in a different way from him. And I then began writing the book Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was finished four years later. I remember, at the time, people thinking I was crazy, publishing a book like this, at this time, with such a silly title. I remember someone telling me: ‘This is a suicide note.’
CC: But in a way you had already done it. The thesis you wrote in Nice, on Heidegger and Carnap, was very different from your PhD.
SC: You just have to keep moving. It is a question of maintaining a curiosity and a hunger and also an absolute self-doubt about what you’re up to. T. S. Eliot has this line where he says that writing is about mastering tools, which, once mastered, are useless. Once you have learnt to write something, you can no longer redo it. You have to learn a new skill every time. And every book I’ve done is an attempt to master something, that when mastered becomes irrelevant.
CC: To go back to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, how would you describe that book?
SC: It is more of a cult book, sort of a second album. It comes out of a very obvious and profound experience, which is that of my father’s death – my dad died of lung cancer between Christmas and New Year, in 1994. I split up from my long-time partner, Anthea, around the same time. When I found out my father was terminally ill, my life seemed to turn upside down. I remember sitting downstairs at my dad’s house, taking a break from helping to nurse him with my mother and sister, and reading Beckett’s Malone Dies. It didn’t make obvious sense at the time. Around this time there were other tracks I was following. I began to formulate this idea of philosophy beginning in disappointment, the two main forms of disappointment being political and religious. And these two axes became a good way to describe around what my work was circulating during the 1990s. So the book came out when I was living in Frankfurt and again nothing really happened, no reviews appeared. It felt like a mistake. It was a book that has had a much more interesting and lively afterlife than immediate effect. There are people out there that still see me as the author of Ethics of Deconstruction and there are those who see me as the author of Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. I think I prefer the latter bunch.
CC: But your next book, Ethics–Politics–Subjectivity, which came out in 1999, was not entirely different from what you had been doing. Could you say something about that book?
SC: I was working a lot with Ernesto Laclau at that time, and he picked up the arguments of The Ethics of Deconstruction. And I began to refine and develop the arguments about ethics and politics that I initially developed in The Ethics of Deconstruction. I disagreed with myself in certain fundamental regards. I was trying to develop a much more coherent political position. And then I was suddenly in these debates with Ernesto Laclau, Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time and it doesn’t make any sense now. Ethics–Politics–Subjectivity is my German book, written in libraries in Frankfurt for the most part. It also shows the extent of my engagement with psychoanalysis, which was something I had learnt from my partner at the time, Cecilia Sjöholm. Next, I began to write Continental Philosophy, which Oxford University Press asked me to write. They wanted me to write an introductory book. It was not so much an introductory book. It was, rather, my metaphilosophical account of how I see the discipline of philosophy and its cultural function. I finished the Continental Philosophy book in Sydney and then, around the same time, I was writing a book called On Humour for Tony Bruce at Routledge, who’s been a good friend over the years. The idea was to write a 30,000-word intervention book, the sort of thing that everyone is doing now, but they were not that common at the time. Sometimes, I think that On Humour is my best book; sometimes, I don’t know.
CC: It is also a book that marks a great shift in tone. You’re writing much more accessibly.
SC: Yes, I begin to develop a different sensibility. Writing the introductory book meant I had to communicate in a different way. And I quite liked it. I found that I was able to pitch things in a different way, for a bigger audience. The humour book I particularly liked because even if you know relatively little about philosophy, you can pick that book up and make sense of it. If you know a lot you can detect all sorts of background landscapes and figures moving behind the curtains, and I rather like that.
CC: And then there’s your short book on poetry.
SC: Yes, on Wallace Stevens, an obsession of mine. I wanted to write a small book on why I thought that reading poetry mattered philosophically – very simple idea. It has ideas in it that I still use and the last, long chapter on Stevens’s late poetry is important to me. I’ve tried to continue in this vein in some unpublished work on Ponge and Pessoa. Although this hasn’t really been picked up on, Things Merely Are is the closest I get to dealing with epistemological issues and disappointment with regard to knowledge – what I call ‘dejected transcendental idealism’.
CC: Your next book, Infinitely Demanding, returns to some of your early thoughts on ethics, but you approach the subject very differently.
SC: I was at a conference in about 2000 and I had to present the argument of Ethics–Politics–Subjectivity and realized that I didn’t really know what the argument was. I couldn’t really articulate it, so I began to step back and really think about meta-ethics, what are the sources and nature of normativity. And I began to develop an idea of a grammar of practical reason, based on a theory of approval and demand, which is taken from an essay by a German philosopher called Dieter Henrich, whom I had been reading in those years. Then I gave a course on the concept of commitment in about 2001, at Essex. And at the same point, Seattle had happened: the anti-globalization movement had begun to take shape. Students were becoming radicalized in a different way. In Essex, the way it happened was that a lot of students around Ernesto Laclau were dissatisfied with the discourse theory framework, disco-Marxism as it were, and they wanted to go back to Marx and engage with the critique of political economy, questions of class and revolutionary change. We had a reading group at Essex – I think it was called a radical politics reading group – and I was reading Marx with PhD students, and began thinking about politics in different ways. And I was trying to make sense of what was happening with the radical politics in those years. Books like Empire [Negri and Hardt] were being published, and there seemed to be a different mood in the air. Also, I’d been reading Alain Badiou’s work from about 1994–5, and then developed a friendship with Badiou in the late ’90s; he had an influence over the way in which I think and write. I decided to write in a much more systematic and concise conceptual way, and not to do so much commentary and exegesis – all of those elements came together in what became Infinitely Demanding. Prima facie, it’s a very short book. It’s only about 150 pages. But there are an awful lot of arguments in it, and it took a lot of time to formulate, particularly the chapter on politics, which goes from Marx all the way through the anarchist position that I’ve been trying to defend in recent years.
CC: And it was around this time that you left Essex and moved to
New York. What motivated that move?
SC: What was happening in these years was an increasing dissatisfaction with Britain. In the early 1990s there was a really interesting intellectual context. There were people like Gillian Rose, David Wood, Jay Bernstein and Geoff Bennington – there was a very high level of intellectual activity. And really good younger people like Howard Caygill, Peter Osborne, Keith Ansell Pearson, Nick Land and many others. People were really pushing the envelope, thinking hard about deep issues and the standard was extremely high. The graduate students at Essex in those years were very good. They all had second languages and worked like dogs. But then it began to fall apart under the middle management takeover of British academia that has happened over the past 15 years or so. To be honest, I was only staying in Essex to spend more time with my son, Edward, and I realized that it was no longer the place it used to be. People either retired, died, left for the US or stopped doing interesting work. Somehow, I had become ‘Mr. Continental Philosophy’ in the UK and I hated it because it was stupid. I was getting a lot of gigs with the BBC and writing quasi-journalistic pieces, but it was all pretty anodyne and low level. I didn’t feel there was anything demanding, as it were. And the graduate students were an awful lot worse than they used to be. So I went to New York in 2004, which was a fantastic opportunity. I knew about the myth of the New School and had read Arendt, Jonas and Schürmann. The fact is that when I got there in 2004 it was a real jolt, because I had to perform on a much higher level than I did at Essex. I had to improve my teaching significantly, change gear and generally push much harder. I had become lazy in my last years in Britain.
CC: You then went to Los Angeles for a year, as a scholar at the Getty Research Institute.
SC: Don’t remind me! I got a Getty Trust fellowship to work on a project in relation to religion. I had been teaching a course on Rousseau for a couple of years at the New School and wrote this long essay called Catechism of the Citizen on the relation between politics and religion in Rousseau. It came out as a little book in German and will form part of my next book, called The Faith of the Faithless, which is about political theology. I was then talking to George Miller, who was an editor at Granta with whom I had been working for some. We had a drunken lunch in London where we came up with the idea to write a book on how philosophers die. I had time on my hands, in Los Angeles, the city of death, the city of angels. I began to investigate the topic, using the amazing library resources at the Getty and UCLA and discovered this wealth of material. After getting the format and framework of the book clear as The Book of Dead Philosophers, it more or less wrote itself. But it was tough, as I was trying to cover the entire history of philosophy, philosopher by philosopher.
CC: A lot of work?
SC: Huge amount of work. Writing books is a mug’s game. Publishers don’t understand – because they don’t write books; editors don’t understand: they think books grow on trees or something. It’s fucking hard work writing books. It demands every fibre of your commitment and being. It’s painful. That said, The Book of Dead Philosophers was about as much fun as I am ever going to have writing a book. It’s a strange book, which is essentially an attempt to reconceive the way we approach the history of philosophy and the activity of philosophy itself. Around the same time, I started putting together this book on Heidegger.
CC: Which again is a great contrast to the former book. Your most detailed academic engagement since Very Little . . . Almost Nothing.
SC: Maybe. It is, for the most part, a painstaking scholarly work on Heidegger, which I think is a little constipated as I was taught by Heideggerians and have super-ego problems with the diminutive Schwarzwald Nazi.
CC: Clearly, you have explored a wide array of topics. So from where do these ideas usually derive?
SC: It is usually someone else’s idea. I think every book has been someone else’s idea. Seriously. I don’t trust myself, but I am perfectly happy to steal ideas from others.
CC: Do you find it pleasurable to write?
SC: Depends. It’s generally painful. Sometimes it can be lighter. Sometimes it can even be a delight. When I was writing Very Little . . . Almost Nothing I remember talking to people about an almost mystical sense of writing, where the text is writing itself, and you have to attend to it. I still believe that in a way. All you have to do is to sit in front of your computer long enough and the thing will be finished. But, as Pascal said, it is very difficult to remain sitting in a room, reading and writing.
CC: You have received some criticism over the years. Is this something that affects you?
SC: Let me go back to an early question about whether philosophy is protection or exposure. I try and expose myself in writing. At times, it doesn’t add up. I know there are contradictions in some of the things I’ve said. I’m very well aware of that. I sometimes follow a line simply because it interests me. Thank God I still have this extraordinary curiosity about things. And I can still be completely blown away by reading a book, listening to a talk or something that a student says. There’s no, as it were, morality in writing. There’s an exposure and a logic that draws you on. One hopes that it all adds up. Looking back at what I’ve written over the past 20 years, it is difficult not to feel alienation and nausea. Writing is exposure and readers can be merciless. Criticisms do sting, and what people have said about me over the years – positive and negative – has had an effect. Sure. You can’t isolate yourself from that, but nor can you refuse to expose yourself. I’ve done some pretty stupid things over the years in the name of whatever – vanity and curiosity – but there we are. You throw a lot of shit on the wall and some of it sticks. My worry about philosophers is that they are constipated and that they refuse to take a dump.
CC: Finally, and this is related to your work at a more general level, I see two movements in your work: one towards youth, where philosophy is the experience of a youthful exhilaration; and one where philosophy is, in Stanley Cavell’s words, education for grown-ups.
SC: It’s both things, a permanent strange adolescence or ‘adultescence’. I’m still doing the same thing I was doing in my mid-twenties. I’m writing stuff down. I have a better computer now, but essentially it’s the same thing. On one level, my life is an infinitely extended childhood, writing philosophy, and I’m surrounded on a daily basis at work by those who are younger than me – like yourself, Carl. I have an implicit trust in what students are reading and what they’re interested in. If my anarchist students in New York are taking up Marcuse, I instantly begin to think that maybe I should read Marcuse again. I’m constantly listening to what they’re reading. And I try and read with them. If they give me texts, I read them, so there’s this vampire side to me where I’m trying to draw the blood out of them. This is of course only one side, about philosophy, a ridiculously extended adolescence. And then you have the other side: philosophy as being preoccupied with death, dying and all the rest. I guess we’ll come to that later.
CARL CEDERSTRÖM: I would like to start this chapter with the most obvious question, which is the question that philosophy has asked itself from the beginning – namely, ‘What is philosophy?’
SIMON CRITCHLEY: The first thing to say is that philosophy is not a solely professional or academic activity for me. Philosophy is not a thing, it’s not an entity; it’s an activity. To put it tautologically: philosophy is the activity of philosophizing, an activity which is conducted by finite, thinking creatures like us. Now, my general view of philosophy is that this activity must form part of the life of a culture. Philosophy is the living activity of critical reflection in a specific context; it always has a radically local character. The way in which philosophy will take place depends on where the questions are asked. So the activity of philosophy is critical reflection in a specific context where human beings are asked to raise questions of a general form, or a universal form. For example, the questions we find Socrates asking in the Platonic dialogues: what is knowledge? what is justice? what is love? and the rest. Philosophy begins with the person of Socrates, but it is already happening amongst the pre-Socratics – in Heraclitus – when common sense or what the Greeks called doxa – what passes for common knowledge in a specific place – when doxa is pressed and assessed by raising questions of a universal form: what is x? To go back to Heraclitus. Heraclitus insisted that the people of Ephesus – where he lived – should follow the logos (you can translate it as ratio or reason, but it could also mean Being, in a much broader sense). They should follow the logos, the universal principle, and not be distracted by particular things. And he became so depressed with the citizens of Ephesus that he left and wandered in the countryside and eventually met an unsavoury end, suffocating in cow dung. But the hope that drives the activity of philosophy is that, by raising universal questions, philosophy can challenge what passes for doxa in a specific context, and through the activity of argument the pursuit of these questions can have an educative, emancipatory effect. To summarize: philosophy is this activity of critical reflection in a specific context, which has an emancipatory effect. Or the way in which Cavell puts it: philosophy is the education of grown-ups. Philosophy is what adults need in order to become educated.
CC: To pick up on the question of emancipation, which you claim to be one of the three themes that characterize what we broadly call ‘Continental philosophy’ (the other two being critique and praxis), could you perhaps say something about this particular approach to philosophy and why it is so important to you?
SC: Well, I want to get to the question of finitude by looking at what is specific to the Continental approach to philosophy. And I want to do that by addressing a theme, which we can call the theme of history or historicity. Now, unlike much of the Analytic tradition in philosophy, in figures like the early Wittgenstein, where philosophy is expressed in a sort of austere, anti-historical modernism; or indeed, in a philosopher like Quine, where that austerity becomes a form of naturalism; I take it that the Continental tradition in philosophy would refuse the validity of the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy. We simply cannot make that distinction. This is why the focus on philosophy in and after Kant is so important, and so important to what people like me try to do; it’s after Kant that the question of historicity really becomes central. We find this in the work of thinkers like Hamann, Herder and, most obviously, Hegel. But to go back to your question: what is specific and powerful about the Continental tradition in philosophy is the focus on the essentially historical nature of philosophy, and the essentially historical nature of the philosopher who engages in this practice. And that’s the insight into what is normally called historicity. So philosophy is an activity of raising questions of a universal form in a specific context; it’s an activity defined by historicity. Now, this insight into historicity has the consequence that deep metaphysical questions, about the meaning and value of human life, can no longer simply be referred to the traditional topics of speculative metaphysics – the topics of God, freedom, immortality, the nature of things-in-themselves. These are topics about which Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, says are cognitively meaningless, although – and this is the argument developed in the second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason – they are morally defensible.
CC: Kant is obviously very central to your work. In Infinitely Demanding, for example, you suggest that if you were to give a date and time to your orientation to philosophy – what you call a modern conception of philosophy, beginning in disappointment instead of wonder – then it would be the conception of philosophy that follows from Kant’s Copernican revolution. Could you say something more about Kant’s importance?
SC: It’s twofold for me. Post-Kantian philosophy introduces two vital themes: finitude and contingency. Let me begin with finitude – and this will be the link into the question of death. The post-Kantian tradition begins from the acceptance of the radical fi nitude of the human subject, self or person – namely, that there is no God-like standpoint or point of reference outside human experience, from which human experience might be characterized or judged. We cannot take a God’s eye view on the nature of reality. Kant leaves open the possibility that there might be such a reality, but we can know nothing about it. So the first point is the radical finitude of the human subject. The second essential gain produced by this critical recognition of historicity is contingency. That’s to say: human experience is constitutively contingent, or created. Human experience is all-too-human. It’s made and remade by us. And the circumstances of the fabrication of human experience are, by definition, contingent, even if – and this is arguably always the case – that contingency feels necessary. The world that we inhabit at any particular point feels like a necessary world: it is structured and ordered in a way that we find compelling. This is the way the world is. But the gain of what happens to philosophy after Kant is the recognition that the world and human experience are contingently articulated. When those two moves have been made – once the human being has been located as a finite subject, embedded in a contingent network of history, culture and society – then one can begin to understand the feature that is common to many philosophers in the Continental tradition, namely the demand that things might be otherwise. If human experience is a contingent creation of finite subjects, then that human experience can be recreated in other ways. What happens after Kant is that, in different forms, we see the articulation of a demand for a transformative practice of philosophy – a practice of philosophy that would be capable of addressing, criticizing and ultimately transforming the present – transforming the world in which we live. The demand that runs through much continental thought is that human beings emancipate themselves from their current conditions, which are conditions not amenable to freedom.
CC: And this is what you find in someone like Rousseau – another philosopher of major importance for your work – that what defines society is social injustice and inequality.
SC: Yes, this is the Rousseauesque insight that we find at the beginning of the Social Contract, where Rousseau says: ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’ So the awareness of our contingency is the awareness of the historical formation of a world, a world that enchains us; in Rousseau’s words, a world defined by inequality – and this is also why Rousseau is so important to me and to the way I approach philosophy. What Rousseau gives us, in the Second Discourse, the Discourse on Inequality, is a genealogy of inequality, describing the way in which human beings have created a world that culminates in a state of war. The insight into finitude and contingency that is released by the question of historicity leads to the insight that the world that we inhabit is a world of unfreedom. But it also leads to the insight – and this is the paradox – that the world of unfreedom could become something else: it could become a world where freedom would be realized; and that is the great romantic dream of the young English and German philosophers and poets of the end of the eighteenth century, beginning of the nineteenth century, associated with Romanticism. The activity of critique defined by this insight into historicity is linked to the question of human emancipation. Critique and emancipation are two ends of the same piece of string, and the ever-flexible twine of that string, that is capable of producing new forms of oppression; as Hegel realized more powerfully than anybody else, the twine of that string is human freedom. So, philosophy in the Continental tradition is inseparable from the relation to its tradition, its insight into history and historicity. But this isn’t a conservative idea of tradition; it is what I would call a radical experience of tradition. Philosophy as I understand it is this activity that is defined through and through by the experience of historicity. But this isn’t a conservative understanding of history, such as we would find in the classical political conservatism of Edmund Burke. Rather, it’s an appeal to tradition, which is not at all traditional. What this radical idea of tradition is trying to recover is something missing, forgotten or repressed in contemporary life. What I want to show is the link between historicity, tradition and the possibility of transformation. So to summarize: tradition can be said to have two senses. We can talk about a tradition as something inherited or handed down without questioning or critical interrogation – this is a conservative idea of tradition – an acceptance of doxa, of common sense. Common sense as a guide in political and social life, what people like John Gray sometimes call political realism. And secondly, tradition can be something made or produced through a critical or deconstructive engagement with that first sense of tradition, an appeal to tradition that is in no way traditional, which is a phrase that Derrida uses in 'Violence and Metaphysics'.
CC: So it is this second sense of tradition that you want to defend, a tradition that does not attempt to forget and conceal its contingent origins?
SC: Yes. For the later Husserl of the Crisis of the European Sciences, these two senses of tradition correspond to the distinction between a sedimented and a reactivated experience of tradition. And it helps to think of sedimentation in geological terms, as a process of settling or consolidation. For Husserl, sedimentation consists in the forgetfulness of the origin of a state of affairs, and the famous example here is the example of geometry, which appears in a text from 1936, called the Origin of Geometry – which was the subject of Derrida’s first book – a translation of that text and then a long commentary on it. So I have also got Derrida in mind here – very much so. Husserl’s central argument, very simply stated, is that if one forgets the origin of geometry then one forgets the historical nature of disciplines like geometry. But why is this important? It’s important because geometry expresses in its most pure form what Husserl calls the theoretical attitude, and the theoretical attitude is the stance that natural sciences take toward their objects. Husserl’s point is that to reactivate the origin of geometry is to recall the way in which the theoretical attitude of the sciences belongs to a specific social and historical context, what Husserl famously calls the lifeworld, the Lebenswelt. Husserl’s critical and polemical point – which is very important to me, and I tried to develop this in a critique of scientism in some work that I’ve done – is that the activity of science has, since Galileo, resulted in what he calls a mathematization of nature – a mathematization that overlooks the necessary dependence of science upon the practices of the lifeworld. And this is the situation that Husserl calls crisis.
CC: So crisis here is when scientific knowledge, or scientism, becomes sedimented and ultimately covers over the contingency of science.
SC: Yes, you can say that crisis occurs when the theoretical attitude of the sciences come to define the way in which all entities are viewed. This is the naturalistic worldview that is endemic to much professional philosophy, and is maybe the most widely shared doxa in Western culture; namely, that all entities should be explained by natural science or by natural scientific method, whether that is Darwinian, neuroscientific or whatever. The point of talking about Husserl here is that what we see in Husserl is the way in which an insight into historicity opens the space for a radical experience of tradition, and a critique of society as a society in crisis, which encloses an ethical demand that things should be otherwise organized. What you see in Husserl is the link between historicity, a radical experience of tradition and the idea that the society could be otherwise organized. And the condition of possibility for that is the generation of crisis.
CC: And the philosopher’s task is to generate a moment of crisis?
SC: You could say that the responsibility of the philosopher is the production of genealogies which produce crisis. The worst situation for the philosopher is a situation where crisis is not recognized, where people would say ‘crisis, what crisis?’. In a world where crisis is not recognized, I would argue, human beings sink to the level of happy cattle, a sort of bovine contentment that is systematically confused with happiness (but maybe that’s a little mean to cows). The responsibility of the philosopher is the production of crisis.
CC: And this is also the concern for Heidegger, that we have fallen into forgetfulness of Being.
SC: Yes, things are not so different with the early Heidegger. For me, the question of finitude arose in relation to Heidegger’s work, and the question of death. Heidegger’s key concept here is the concept of what he calls destruction (Destruktion) or what he calls in his later work Abbau, dismantling or, literally, unbuilding. Destruction is the destruction of the history of ontology, Heidegger says. The history of ontology is not a way of destroying the past but of seeking the positive tendencies of that tradition, of working against what Heidegger labels in a nice phrase its ‘baleful prejudices’. So we get destruction – and it is this word that Derrida translates as deconstruction in the mid-1960s; he was trying to find a French equivalent, which means that deconstruction is a genealogical operation – and this is a key insight. Destruction is the production of a tradition, a radical tradition, as something made and fashioned through a process of what Heidegger calls repetition or retrieval, Wiederholung. The thought here is that a genuine relation to tradition is achieved through an act of creative repetition, where I bring back – like with the example of Husserl – the original meaning of a state of affairs through an act of critical, historical, genealogical reflection. Now, Heidegger’s central example – which is the one thought that stretches throughout his work – is the way in which the meaning of Being has been covered over in the tradition of Western metaphysics, since the time of the ancient Greeks, specifically since Aristotle’s Metaphysics. So, we see the way in which the Husserlian insight into the origin of geometry takes on a different form in Heidegger. What Heidegger is trying to retrieve is an experience of Being, of that which is, which has been covered over. And that covering over for Heidegger is the experience of the West. It is what he calls, in a late text, the abandonment of Being.The point here is that one has to destroy the received and banal sense of the past in order to experience the hidden and surprising power of history. And the power of history for Heidegger is the power of what he calls ‘beginning’. Heidegger’s thought is an attempt to think this idea of beginning; again, it’s a controversial concept. In the period of Being and Time, in the late 1920s, Heidegger articulates the difference between a sedimented and a reactivated tradition – or a received and destroyed tradition – in terms of the distinction between what he calls tradition (Tradition) and heritage (Überlieferung). The idea of Überlieferung is very interesting. He’s playing on the idea of überliefern, which means that something is disclosed and handed over to us. What Heidegger is trying to unleash through his meditation is the hidden potential of history. It’s important to emphasize here that the target of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s reflections on tradition is not the past. They are not engaged in some antiquarian project, or some philological project. Their enquiry into tradition is aimed at the present, and this is also true of, say, Hegel’s reflection on Spirit, which for him is motivated by the question of freedom; or Nietzsche’s genealogy of nihilism, which for him is motivated by the question of life, the affirmation of life. The insight into historicity in the Continental tradition is not about getting the past right; it’s a critique of the present, and the production of crisis in relation to the present.