© Simon Critchley and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Critchley was interviewed by Andrew Hines on July 29th, 2012
Simon Critchley is Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The New School. Simon Critchley was born on February 27, 1960 in Hertfordshire, England. He received his B.A. from the University of Essex in 1985, his Masters in Philosophy from the University of Nice in 1987, and his Ph.D from the University of Essex in 1988. Simon Critchley then went on to direct his alma mater’s Centre for Theoretical Studies. In addition Critchley has been the programme director for Paris’ Collège International de Philosophie, president of the British Society for Phenomenology and was chosen as a scholar by the prestigious Getty Research Institute. Critchley has also participated as a visiting professor in schools such as the University of Oslo, Cardozo Law School, and the University of Notre Dame and Sydney. He is a world renowned scholar of Continental Philosophy and phenomenology. Much of his work examines the crucial relationship between the ethical and political within philosophy.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
“No” is the short answer. I went to university late. When I became a graduate student in 1985, there had been no jobs in England from 1977, and that began to stop in 1988; so from the late 70s until 1988, there were no jobs in the humanities, and certainly not in philosophy. Philosophy departments were being closed down. So, there was a little group of graduate students at the University of Essex and we all knew that there was no reason to do a Ph.D. because it would lead to nothing. We did it for that reason, just out of a sort of spite, I suppose. We would have quite liked to end up as lecturers, but you couldn’t have the ambition because there was nothing to have the ambition for. We all knew that doing a Ph.D. was a stupid idea because it would just make us less employable when we eventually did go and get proper jobs. So, I would say it was not an ambition of mine.
In your experience, has the role of a university professor changed since you were a student?
I guess; when I was a student, it looked like a lot of fun. It looked like you didn’t have to work very hard and you’d get to do what you liked, and then you got to hang around in the bars. When I finally got a job in 1989, it wasn’t much fun then or for many years after that. So, I guess that’s changed.
The big thing that’s changed has been the external environment of what it means to teach in university. Universities used to be communities; they used to be places where intellectual life really happened. They were also places where avant-garde stuff was happening. And that’s – in England anyway – completely ground to a halt. Universities are largely sold as factories for production of increasingly uninteresting, depressed people wandering around complaining. There’s been a middle-management take-over of our education, and it’s depressing. So universities, like the university I was at – Essex, which was a radical, experimental, small university, but had a bad reputation but did some great stuff – have become a kind of pedestrian, provincial university run by bureaucrats. That was one of the reasons why I got out when I got out in 2004.
So, I think what’s happened to British higher education is really terribly depressing. A lot of it was self-willed as well; you can blame a succession of governments. It began after the Labor government in the late 70s accelerated by Thatcher and then Major. We went from a model of there being a coherence, a union structure in higher education, to one where – with the disillusion of the gap between universities and polytechnics in 1992 – universities were increasingly treated like sort of small-scale corporations, yet with none of the inventiveness and freedom of small-scale corporations because they were still dependant upon the block grant subsidies from the government. So it’s a bewildering set of stupid policy adjustments over the last 20-30 years, which has meant that education is harder and harder to get, and teaching is of no importance. All that matters is research and such things. I’ve got a fairly bleak view of education, and certainly in the U.K.
Is there a difference in your opinion between the situation in the U.K. and the U.S.?
You can’t generalize; there is no American higher education system. There are a number of different possibilities – there are community colleges which are doing hugely important work, and the state system, which is large state universities and their are satellite sub-state systems. Then you’ve got the private sector. So, I can’t generalize. And in a sense, I don’t get around that much.
The New School is unique and its history is one where it was founded in a spirit of resistance to the loyalty oath that was being forced on members of Columbia University through the First World War; and then also as a place where exiled scholars could work. And that’s what’s set up the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research in 1933, which is largely composed of German-Jewish scholars who were no longer able to hold their professorships in Germany after the rise of National Socialism. So, the New School is a unique sort of leftist Germanic implant into New York, so you can’t generalize from what goes on at New School.
But one thing I would say, and I think I could say this about a number of other places that I’ve visited, is the importance placed on teaching. In Britain, teaching has become loser behavior; teaching is what you do if you don’t do research. In my last years at Essex I ended up as a kind of middle manager, head of department, supervising Ph.D. students, and teaching was something that you tried to avoid at all costs. But at New School teaching is the essential thing. It’s assumed that you do research, but no one’s really ever asked me about my research in the eight or nine years I’ve been here. They’re curious about it, but there are no forms you have to fill out, no laying out and measuring it, and what really matters is whether your teaching is good or not. And whether your teaching is good or not is really dependent on how it’s seen by the students. So it’s a very different ethos. And I much prefer that, I must say. So, we all teach the same amount; there are some very good teachers in my department. And the students are better educated. There was a time, a very long time ago, when you could do a Ph.D. arguably in a place like Britain in three years, but that’s long past.
The best system is based upon knowing things at every stage and going off the next stage. There was a time – maybe until 30 years – when that was true. People did know things and they went onto the next stage. What’s nice about the American system is that it’s assumed at every moment that you know nothing, and that you need to learn it all over again. So, graduate school tends to be an awful lot of coursework, an awful lot of learning the history and different problems that make up a discipline. And I prefer that. It means when you get to do original research, you know a lot more. One-year M.A.s – which is what the case was in Britain – and one year means really 20 weeks of courses, nothing less than that. You can’t do a big book in that time.
I think the model I experience at New School is much harder work; it’s much tougher to teach here. And the students work harder. There’s a verb in American English, “to study”; students study, and I like that, whereas our students in England would not work as hard.
How do you manage to teach in an “age of interruption” characterized by a world in which attention is fractured by media and information overload?
You command attention; you just have to command attention. I don’t personally experience a problem with that. It’s surprising how in a place like New York, where there are many distractions in the classroom – you’re not allowed to use your devices. Seminars are quite small and students couldn’t sit there texting or Facebooking – that would be a faux pas. In large lecture groups, I guess some people are surfing the Internet as you’re speaking, but I don’t see that as a major problem so far. But sure, in the age of interruption I think what you have to do is to teach in a way that allows for some experience of concentration. I think what a lot of people are looking for is something that lifts them out of that constant interruption. A two-hour class on something interesting can be part of that. But personally I don’t experience a big problem with students being interrupted in class. For the most part, they want to work.
We’ve been speaking about issues involving the university environment. Moving on to a quote by Marshall McLuhan, he declared in 1964 that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis?
The university as it exists is a kind of husk of some kind of early 19th-century organization of knowledge, which I suppose goes back to the Humboldtian idea of the German university division into faculties and chairs and a kind of hierarchical or pyramidical structure. It seems to me entirely pointless, and I don’t see why we should retain it. I see absolutely no reason for departments of anything, really, and certainly not departments of philosophy. The sad thing about saying that is that that can sounds quite new and radical, but actually it’s rather old and tedious. There was a hugely important lecture by C.P. Snow in 1959 called “The Two Cultures” on the culture of science and the culture of literature. And Snow’s diagnosis was that what was wrong in English society was that the cultures of science and literature had become divorced. There was mutual suspicion and ignorance between the two parties. He suggested that there needed to be an integrated approach to education. That led, by circuitous routes, to the formation of what were called in the early 60s the “new universities” – like Essex, Sussex, Warrick, York, and Kent – which tried to experiment with departmental structures. So for example, Sussex, until maybe 10-15 years ago, didn’t have departments; it just had schools. And those schools had autonomy over their programs of education, and within those schools there were people who did various things. Now, I think that’s a much better way of organizing things in departments. But because of the bureaucratization of higher education, those school structures fell away, departments became stronger, and disciplines have become stronger. So I think there’s been a sort of paradoxical dialectic that’s been going on over the past 20 years. Actual interdisciplinary work, which existed in all sorts of contexts, has diminished and is under threat, but it doesn’t correspond to what would become recognized canons of knowledge. Departments have become stronger because the select assessment methods/exercises are usually based upon disciplines, and disciplines are departmentally defined. At the same time it’s become this rhetoric of interdisciplinary, which is largely just that – a rhetoric. If you work in a university and try and do interdisciplinary work, you’re treated with hostility and suspicion by people who run departments.
For example, in 1990 at the University of Essex, we set up something called the Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The first director was Ernesto Laclau, and I was deputy director. And I became director and ran that until 2003. It was an interdisciplinary research centre that was meant to be a place where graduate students, in a number of different disciplines, and faculty could discuss their work. It was like pulling teeth year after year to get departments involved with this. We got a small budget from the university, and two years after I left it was integrated into a department, the Department of Government. It still exists, but it’s not what it was. So, there’s a kind of rhetoric of interdisciplinarity and no real will to actually implement it. Even some of the New School – the New School of Social Research is basically a bunch of social science departments with philosophy because it’s Germanic and Germans like philosophy, and we still cling to our departmental identities.
I wouldn’t say the university is in crisis; it’s largely a question of “what are universities for?” No one’s really asking that question. So I think that what’s been interesting in the last five years has been programs of occupation at universities, and the whole Occupy thing began as occupations at universities – New School is among them – and at least the occupations raised the questions of “what is a university? What is it for? And also how much does it cost, and how much should it cost?” There’s also the question of free universities that have emerged in the Occupy Movement. So that question at least has been raised, but it’s not being raised by the bureaucracies that actually control universities.
You used the word dialectic. Are forces from outside the university changing the environment inside?
The effect in Britain of the research assessment exercise, first introduced in 1985, has become the be-all-and-end-all of academic existence. It’s been replaced by the R.E.F. or something equally ludicrous now. The effect of that has been to drive departments into ever-more conservative disciplinary identities, because their funding from the government is dependent on how high their research ratings are. And that research rating isn’t based on anything interdisciplinary. It’s based on how you are seen in the discipline. So that has to be changed, just gotten rid of – it’s just ludicrous. What needs to be done would be to just dissolve departments and try and find different units or networks within which work can take place. The implications of that are really quite radical, and no one’s really doing it. So there’s an awful lot of work ahead. I see everything in the European context as everything going in the opposite direction, so I’m not really very hopeful. The model for education would be something like a small college with a kind of broad, liberal arts education which would include natural science and all the rest, where students would not be identified into the disciplines, and nor would faculty members, and where you get something like an education from interesting teachers and in relatively small class sizes. It’s not difficult to work out the model. The problem in the U.S. is that that model is going to cost you $40,000 a year.
Your various writings have oscillated between commenting on contemporary issues and writing for the public (non academic) sphere. You moderate an opinion page in the New York Times and have written accessible works like The Book of Dead Philosophers. You have also written more traditional scholarly works such as The Ethics of Deconstruction and your more recent commentary on Heidegger andBeing and Time. What is the relationship between the university and non-university world today, specifically in the realm of ideas?
I’ve always had this fantasy of the “common reader,” where “common” does not have such a pejorative tone. There’s a book I was reading recently published a number of years ago by Jonathan Rose, called the Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. And it’s a huge scholarly work but at its heart, it looks at the question of what were the patterns of literacy in working class British culture, really from the mid-19th century onwards. And it’s fascinating because you’d expect that people would be reading Marx or something, but actually people are reading Dickens, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, always that book. And there were traditions of self-education in working class culture which were really strong, and which in many ways didn’t survive the advent of television. It’s a long story. Not that television can completely de-educate, but it doesn’t waive education. I’ve got this fantasy of the self-educated reader, the autodidact out there, the weirdo who is trying to make sense of the world – and I’d like to be able to reach them.
For example, this thing I do with the New York Times, The Stone, is really interesting because we’ve got a platform of the New York Times, which is theestablishment, the news outlet. And we’re using that to disseminate little pieces of philosophy. The audience is very interesting – we get huge numbers of responses that are usually never academics. Academics read it, but they don’t comment because they’re academics and they’re too full of other things, let’s say. But the people who do read it and comment on it are Joe from Florida, and Jane from Georgia, and that’s great because it’s not just the fantasy of the “common reader,” as It were. You see those people out there week after week picking things up, making sense of them, getting it wrong, saying crazy things, but at least something’s happening. So, one of the things that technology has done is that we’re able to use a platform like the New York Times as a way of getting access to a really big audience. It’d be nice if we could make money off of it as well, but we can’t! We pay a pittance to the authors, so we’re basically doing this out of love.
Another interesting thing about the U.S. as opposed to the U.K., the standard, the comment is really much more interesting and much higher on the Times than it is somewhere like the Guardian. In the Guardian it’s three pages, but usually it’s just full of abuse of one kind or another, which is a bit depressing. I still believe in the book, I always write books and some of those books will be pointed more towards, I guess, scholarly things and some are pointed out towards a larger audience. That’s still the way I work, but the rapidity and size of audiences, and the relationship you can have with your audience over something like a blog, is really interesting.
In Infinitely Demanding and your most recent work Faith of the Faithless, you have used the phrase “anarchism of responsibility.” Shortly after the Second World War Simone de Beauvoir wrote a work entitled The Ethics of Ambiguity which was firmly fixed in the existential movement of the time. One of the watchwords of that movement was responsibility. The world has undergone some major changes since her time and yet we are still talking about ethics and responsibility. What is the difference between responsibility now and then?
As I recall, I talk about the possibility of describing a shift within anarchism – a tendency, a habit of mind, a recurring possibility – but certainly if you looked at ‘60s texts, they were linked to what was happening then, and they were described as “anarchic.” There was a strong libertarian emphasis, and the goal of liberty was autonomy, and liberty was often linked to sexual liberation, and so on and so forth. So, nothing wrong with all of that, but for me there’s always the question about the way in which sexual liberation has undergone some dialectic whereby I think sexuality has become for us a new form of imprisonment and an enigma, but that’d be a separate topic. So it’s an idea about what’s at the core of movements of resistance; it isn’t just a kind of libertarian agenda. It’s the identification of a wrong, a grievance, an injustice, which incites in the self, in the subject, a responsibility. I was thinking about this in relationship to the so-called “anti-globalization movement,” which came into media visibility with the Seattle protests in November 1999, and thinking about, in particular, of what was it that united those movements. And it wasn’t a common ideological agenda, at least people weren’t all Marxists or Liberals or black bloc anarchists or whatever; they were just very a much more looser, a much more minimal sense, of an ethical response to a wrong – “what’s wrong is what’s wrong with a global government, governments” and all the rest. So, that’s what I mean by an anarchism of responsibility rather than the kind of libertarian anarchism. The two things are not completely mutually exclusive, but they’re just different sorts of tones.
I think when you think about the Occupy Movement – and we’ll see what happens to that since it’s a big question mark at the moment – there, there’s a clear sense of there being a wrong, and the wrong was the nature – in the U.S. case – of the response to the 2008 economic crisis and the bank bailouts and all the rest, and a political response to that. But the response to that was an ethical one. So I’ve put emphasis on – and this connects up different aspects of my work from the start – the interconnection between ethics and politics. Which I think sounds anodyne until you were in the context of 1980s Marxists, for whom ethics was a kind of form of bourgeois deviation they could ridicule. So the idea that political actions, political tactics, come out of and require something deeper at the level of one’s ethical responsiveness. I think the struggles we’ve gone through in the last 10-15 years are ones that are ethico-politico, in that sense. And so that raises the question of the nature of the subjectivity that feels responsible, how that responsibility can take effect. For me, the big problem in politics has always been the problem of motivation – how can you motivate a self to act on some conception of what it believes to be good. We live in a context of overwhelming, de-motivated cynicism, let’s say, which we could talk about separately. But what’s been amazing over the last year is watching how a certain movement caught fire, which to me is a kind of ethico-politico response to a wrong. To put it in a slogan: ‘60s struggles were about a kind of self-liberation, whereas more recent struggles have been about liberation of the Other, or issues of equality or fairness that might not be ones that I directly experience because I live in a state of relative privilege, but ones that I’m prepared to engage with because I think there’s a wrong here which needs to be addressed.
One of the common criticisms about ethics and politics is the difficulty of agreeing upon what is ethical. How do we agree upon what is ethical?
Well, we don’t. It’s an unanswerable question. It’s the classic philosophical thought experiment, which would now be the phenomenon of “slacktivism”: The guy on the couch who watches a newscast about a devastating famine in East Africa – awful, moving pictures from the newscast – and then after the newscast’s finished, someone knocks on the door asking for money for famine relief, and the guy doesn’t get off the couch. There’s nothing you can do to get that person off the couch, other than external, physical force. There are people who are just not going to be moved by things, although people can think, “Well, that’s right, but so what? I’m too busy.” And we can multiply those examples. So, we don’t all agree.
But, I would say, that there are certain phenomena at certain periods of time where a political movement will gather force, which will bring people into a transient, relative consensus. So, the genius of the Occupy Movement was to create a series of slogans such as “We are the 99%” and the rest which people – with very different ideas of the good – they could have been secular Liberals, or Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims – felt they could associate themselves with. And that’s the genius of politics; the genius of politics is finding that in relationship to which a coalition can be formed. So people will have different relations to what they think of as “right” and “wrong,” the “good.” Political skill can harmonize those things into a common force. That’s one answer.
Another answer would be to say that I think that – or I hope that – the basic structure of ethical subjectivity still shows all sorts of commonalities. I think that if human beings are presented with something unfair or wrong, for the most part they will respond; they’ll respond well: They’ll think that someone’s dignity has been undermined or this is a grave offense. And that’s obviously going to be complex and partial. But I’m enough of an optimist about human potential to believe that if you address an ethical issue in a right and powerful way, you can draw people into a coalition. For example, the Treyvon Martin case here in the U.S. Another black kid is killed in the street, and since the first response, this invites a sort of cynicism – “Well, you know, it’s America. It’s all about killing black people.” And then on the part of a lot of African-American activists, initially there was a sense of fatigue – “I bet nothing’s going to happen with that.” And then, a movement gathered force, and then amazing things were happening – demonstrations all across the U.S. and elsewhere. Here you have a specific ethical grievance that “this is unjust,” and it’s one that’s able to draw in different people. So it’s able to draw in whites, Hispanics, so on and so forth. Political movements, for me, have to have a common ethical focus, which has to have a specific location and context, but one that is capable of forming a coalition, capable of forming a collection of forces. Once you’ve got that on your hands, then it’s potentially explosive.
Two big questions about what’s happened over the last year: First, addressing what’s happened with the Arab Spring. Again, I’d have to look at that context by context – what’s happening in Egypt is very disturbing, what’s happening in Syria is more disturbing, what’s happening in Tunisia is more heartening. The “Arab Spring” was a kind of media moniker anyway for a number of different and complex contexts. But for me what happened under the name the “Arab Spring” was really the beginning of something, and what disappoints me is the way in which that has exhausted itself in relationship to something like the states and election procedures and all the rest. I think what was unleashed was more radical than that, something that would lead us to maybe question those state structures, which were only set in place by British and French imperialists anyway.
The other big question is what the relationship is between say the Occupy Movement and what the Occupy Movement means more generally, and then let’s say forms of normal politics. And there are people who would want to say that there’s a radical separation between what Occupy is and the operations of representative democracy. There are people like me who would say that Occupy is fantastic but in order for that to become the basis for a genuine mass movement, there has to be some sort of transition or movement between that and representative politics. And that isn’t just a betrayal that it’s going to lead to certain forms of maybe compromise, but it’s going to include more people and be more powerful for that reason. So, there’s a risk at the moment of Occupy fading out because of its failure to reform a mass movement – in particular, coalitions with organized labor, the unions, and the rest. I mean, that’s very important.
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