© Richard Kearney and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Kearney was interviewed by Andrew Hines on July1st, 2012
Richard Kearney holds the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College and serves as a Visiting Professor at University College Dublin, the University of Paris (Sorbonne) and the University of Nice. He is the author of over 20 books on European philosophy and literature (including two novels and a volume of poetry) and has edited or co-edited 14 more. He was formerly a member of the Arts Council of Ireland, the Higher Education Authority of Ireland and chairman of the Irish School of Film at University College Dublin. As a public intellectual in Ireland, he was involved in drafting a number of proposals for a Northern Irish peace agreement (1983, 1993, 1995). He has presented five series on culture and philosophy for Irish and/or British television and broadcast extensively on the European media. Recent publications include a trilogy entitled ‘Philosophy at the Limit’. The three volumes are On Stories (Routledge, 2002), The God Who May Be (Indiana UP, 2001) and Strangers, Gods, and Monsters (Routledge, 2003). Since then, Richard Kearney has published Debates in Continental Philosophy (Fordham, 2004), The Owl of Minerva (Ashgate, 2005), Navigations (Syracuse University Press, 2007) and Anatheism (Columbia, 2009). Richard Kearney is international director of the Guestbook Project-Hosting the Stranger: Between Hostility and Hospitality.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Well, I never really thought of it. I just did philosophy and then was fortunate enoughto get a job in philosophy in Ireland. If you got a Ph.D. in philosophy in those days that’s what you normally did. There were other alternatives I suppose, especially in Ireland. Some people went into the the media, journalism, publishing, the arts, government. But for the most part if in the sixties and seventies you went on to graduate studies in Ireland, you were usually either going to become a priest with some kind of philosophical theology, or you were going to hopefully become an academic professor.
In my own case, while I did my BA in University College Dublin with pioneering teachers like Patrick Masterson, Denys Turner and Dennis Donogue, I went on to do my M.A. with Charles Taylor in McGill University and then my Ph.D. with Paul Ricoeur in Paris. And as soon as I decided to do graduate work, a professional academic career became my desired path: B.A. leading to M.A. leading to PhD. But I never consciously thought when I first started my university studies, “I am going to become a professor of philosophy.”
When you were in graduate school, who were some of your mentors and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
Well, Charles Taylor was very important for me doing my Master’s in McGill in 1976-77. In fact, I was due to do my Ph.D. with him, but I was working on the phenomenology of imagination and he said to me, “Look, you’re doing this thesis and some of your major figures – Ricoeur, Levinas and Derrida – are alive and well and kicking in Paris. So why don’t you go and do your Ph.D. with them?” So, I finished my Master’s with Taylor, and then went to work with Ricoeur, Levinas and Derrida in Paris in the late 1970s. I was very interested in Husserl and Heidegger too at the time, and Germany and France were kind of the place where most of that was going on.
Taylor was a tremendous mentor too in that he was trained both by Merleau-Ponty in Paris, and Montefiore in Oxford. So he was able to negotiate between the two traditions and was a very important figure in North America in introducing continental philosophy to analytic thinking, and vice versa. I mean his big book was on Hegel, and he has always been, in my view, a Hegelian from beginning to end. He has a capacious mind with many mansions, and there is room for many philosophers in those mansions. So I’d say I learned a certain philosophical pluralism from him, along with a deep commitment to ethical and political questions. He was one of the founders of the socialist National Democratic Party in Canada. He ran against Trudeau for the presidency, didn’t win, but maybe that was philosophy’s gain. So, he was a very inspiring figure.
Then at Ph.D. level in Paris: obviously Ricoeur was a deep influence, and he too pursued a philosophical pluralism. In fact, Ricoeur is in many respects the continent’s answer to Taylor, and vice versa. They always felt very close to each other intellectually. And again, in Ricoeur, one finds a very strong political and social commitment, and an ability to negotiate between different traditions and discourses – in his case, psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and, obviously, hermeneutics and phenomenology which were his own particular areas. Working with Ricoeur was like being part of an intriguing on-going conversation of ideas.
Then Levinas was an equally influential voice in terms of commitment to ethics and some of my early work – Poétique du possible (1984) in particular – was in significant part an attempt to negotiate between a Levinasian ethics and a Heideggerian ontology, the question of the good and the question of Being. Ricoeur was a crucial mediating figure between these two poles, right up to Study 10 of Oneself as Another.
And then, Derrida was just a brilliant reader of texts. So generously accessible and a real searcher – the endlessly questing Jew in the desert as he once put it. I was always closer to hermeneutics than to deconstruction but Derrida taught me a lot and it was a very robust dialogue throughout the years. We did four published dialogues together on this question of hermeneutics and deconstruction – from the Villanova conferences on Postmodernism and Religion, right down to a dialogue in New York City just weeks after 9/11. It was called ‘Terror, Religion and the New Politics’ and was subsequently published with the other three exchanges in my Debates with Continental Thinkers. So these philosophers would be the most direct ‘mentorly’ influences on my own first faltering attempts to think.
Have you seen the role of a university professor change since you were a student?
Well, I would say that when I was a student in the 1970s I thought that to be an academic, a professor of philosophy, was often to be a public intellectual. Taylor obviously was a prominently public intellectual, at first in his native Canada and then later internationally. While a graduate student with Taylor in Montreal in 1976 I traveled down to San Diego to speak with Herbert Marcuse and then Boston to work with Noam Chomsky – two of my intellectual heroes of the time (Chomsky and his wife, Carol, were later to become most gracious hosts to me and my family when we moved to Boston in the late 1990s). These were major public intellectuals. And when I arrived to study in France in 1977 you only had to open Le Monde and one day it would be Ricoeur, the next Foucault, then Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, Barthes, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lacan, Kristeva, Althusser, Derrida. Practically every major philosopher in France at that time was contributing to the discourse of public reason. And in Germany, people like Habermas, Honneth and the whole critical theory school were doing something similar.
I would say that since then – continental europe in the 70s and 80s – there has sadly been a marked decline in the role of the philosopher as a committed, engaged intellectual. There’s been more of an emphasis on specialisation, particularly in North America where philosophy has increasingly become a technical exercise. There are, however, still some courageous public intellectuals out there, even though Edward Said and Tony Judt have recently passed away and Chomsky is ageing if unbowed. There are new figures emerging, it is true, such as Slavoj Zizek and Anthony Appiah and most recently, Simon Critchley with his “Opinionater” column in The New York Times. And one can still find terrific philosphical arguments in the columns of the New York Review of Books. That’s all commendable. But, it’s hard to know if these are residual energies or emergent ones? Maybe a new generation of public intellectuals is emerging? Though the current academic situation in North America does not seem to me to be conducive to such a philosophical revival in public reasoning.
For example, in terms of performance – units and so on – everything has to be peer reviewed. So if you write in newspapers and more popular, accessible journals, that wouldn’t be considered a publication for your promotion, for your tenure. It might even be a little bit discouraged as somehow pandering to the media, being superficial and so on. Now still in countries like Italy you got Umberto Eco and also Habermas is still writing a lot. I think it’s more alive in the continent. But I would say in the Anglo-American world, it is on the decrease and specialised philosophy is on the increase.
Some of the things you were just talking about have to do with the university environment today. Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan said 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. or at least under threat, in this age of information and digital interactive media?
No, I don’t. I think it’s very important to be able to combine the advanced forms of technological communication with academic depth and rigor. I have endeavored to explore such a mix in my own courses and conferences in the “The Guestbook Project,” an international, intervarsity experiment bringing together students in divided communities in various parts of the world – Jerusalem, Mitrovica, Derry and so on. We use audio visual modes of communication, interactive websites, video conferences; but at the same time, we use chalk and talk and texts and live seminars. I think it is important to have both. If everything goes long distance, televisual in the literal sense of tele, ‘from a distance’ – then you lose something very important, what Merleau-Ponty calls the experience of the lived body. I don’t think education can occur without that. So I don’t think we should ignore the ways in which long distance education and internet interaction can go hand in glove with serious academic work. Niether should displace the other. It is a question of innovative balance.
I’m also very much for interdisciplinarity – creative interanimation between different arts and sciences, while respecting the unique singularity of reach discipline. Given the specialization of certain academic departments in North American universities, I think interdisciplinarity is a very good thing. Though the other extreme of anything-goes cultural studies eclecticism has its own dangers. Here again it is a question of getting the right balance, avoiding binary splits. The opening up of traditional specialisms to dialogue with other disciplinaries in a robust intertexual way can also open borders between the strictly academic and extra-academic world. The trick is to avoid both academic ghettoization and a levelling consumerism of ideas.
It’s a bit like Facebook. On the one hand, it leads to an incredible internationalising of experience: a quasi universalism of open access and communication. But on the other, it can lead to a frightening isolation because everything is done before your own private screen and you don’t need to go out and live or travel or interact in corporeal form. It’s all going on virtually for you. The real and the imaginary fuse. Simulated experience – from a distance, mediated, through self-constructed images and narratives – can lead to a certain voyeurism and vicariousness. New ways of ‘preparing a face to meet the faces that we meet’, as Eliot’s Prufrock put it. So I think it’s a similar kind of paradox. That increased interconnection can actually be contemporaneous with increased atomization. Universalism of spectacle with an individualism of self. We imagine we are interconnected with dozens of ‘friends’ out there but are actually, in some cases, more and more immunised in our own digital bubbles.
If I can put it this way, in the background of what you’re discussing is the distinction between academia and society. You mentioned “The Guestbook Project” earlier. The homepage of “The Guestbook Project” describes itself as an academic, artistic multimedia experiment in hospitality. This project is sponsored by Boston College and you yourself, an academic, are the director. Much of its work has revolved around violence and reconciliation. Could you talk a bit about the project and also about the relationship between academia, theory and the practical situations that confront us in society?
You were talking about the role of the public intellectual and bringing academic discourses to society. That is what “Guestbook” is trying to do in a seminal way. As an academic in Ireland I was happy to be involved in public life. I was a professor of philosophy at University College Dublin who also had a book program on TV. I worked for RTE, BBC, and French radio and televison on cultural, philosophical, literary subjects. I believed in Sartre’s idea of the ‘penseur engagé’. And then I was involved in the Higher Education Authority in Ireland, the Arts Council, the Irish Film School and a number of journals and publications exploring new models for a post-nationalist solution to the sovereignty crisis in Ireland and Britain, but also in the wider international context of the European community. These models included ideas for a new transnational ‘Council of the Isles’ and a variety of joint-sovereignty or post-sovereignty arragnements. Most of this work was republished in my book of political philosophy, Postnationalist Ireland.
Then when I went to the States to teach in 2000 I ceased to be so politically and publically involved. At one level, it was nice to get back to ‘pure academic philosophy’ again and that’s when I found the time and space to publish my trilogy, Philosophy at the Limit. But after a while, I began to miss participating in a more public discourse. So I think that was one of the reasons I set up “Guestbook” idea of radical ethical hospitality, the notion of ‘hosting the stranger’. The whole project is probably marked in a deep way by the Irish, Northern Irish experience: I grew up in a country where people were killing each other for reasons of religion, class, culture and ethnicity. I think one carries this with one.
I was also working a lot on imagination, and you can’t talk about a philosophy of imagination without talking about the state of the image today. When Plato talked about it, he wrote about the cave and reflections – phantasmata, eikona, phantasias - projected by a fire, going back to ancient modes of imaging and sophistry. But today, we live in a digital age where the whole social technology of simulation and simulacra is pervasive. As Benjamin put it already in the late 1930s, “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” - the age of the televisual, the electronic, the virtual image, the digital image.
So it seemed to me, that if one was to talk about an ethics of hospitality, it was very important to also engage in digital and multi-media modes of communication. And I found that students responded very well to that. In Boston College in Fall 2012, we had an interdisciplinary seminar called “exchanging narratives.” It was between the Arts department, the Film department, the History department and the Philosophy department. Like “Guestbook” in general, it was interdisciplinary. In our class we had a Muslim student from Egypt and a Jewish student from Israel, and they engaged in an exchange of narratives. They did so both in words and images: through video recording. We then made that into a particular interaction – verbal and audio-visual - which is transmissable to students in other universities in other parts of the world.
The ways of imagining the stranger today – as enemy or friend, in antipathy or empathy, in hostility or hospitality (they come from the same root, hospes) - are acts of imagination. You can’t just do that in privacy. Well you can, in the privacy of your subjective, isolated imagination. But if you really want to practice hospitality you need to engage in some mode of interactive, intersubjective communication. And today, we have new capacities to imagine together – which traditionally philosophers from Plato to Kant didn’t know about– thanks to multimedia digital telecommunications.
Living in an age of digital imagination is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. It can be abused and become a superficial, vicarious, voyeuristic sort of existence where nobody lives in reality and everybody lives in a labyrnith of imagos and simulations. And that is a great danger of what Roland Barthes called the ‘Civilization of the Image’. But it can also be harnessed into a certain practice of ethical and empatetical imagination. I work through narrative imagination in that regard. That has been the main purpose of my work from The Wake of Imagination and Poetics of Imagining right up to the current Guestbook Project.
Let’s shift to the topic of storytelling. In your book On Stories, you write, “the art of storytelling is what gives us a shareable world.” Traditionally, storytelling has been done orally and through printed text. How does multimedia change storytelling? Is story fundamentally changed by the mode of communication?
There is a certain change, clearly. For example, what Walter Benjamin in his famous essay “The Storyteller” called the loss of “aura” – which is kind of a depth experience, a continuous experience through tradition – that’s passed on from one generation to another, from one storyteller to another. That kind of continuum of memory – sustained by narrative retelling and repetition in a perduring living community- is certainly challenged by the culture of mass media communication.
So that aura of the story, be it oral or written, is something that is challenged and maybe even transformed. Because of course in an oral tradition, it was one person in the presence of other persons that transmitted the story. There had to be the proximity of one human being to another for memory to be sustained. The same applies to the old ars memoriae and even the print media. McLuhan has talked about all that. Obviously memory didn’t have to be a one to one of proximate communication. It could be by proxy through the printed word. And then of course with the digital image as we know, and the electronic image, and mass-produced image and word, we are talking about a de-territorializing of language, a de-subjectivising, even at times a depersonalising. The Death of the author. The play of signifiers. Mimesis without end. An instantaneous universe where I am everyone and everyone else is me. All that. We could get into deconstruction and postmodernism here….but time is short.
Benjamin sensed that the old culture of aura was being replaced by a new one of data. Sheer instantaneous, contemporaneous information with no sense of memory, of anticipation, of deep history. And Fred Jameson pursues this thesis in his critique of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism – a depthless, timeless present of what he calls ‘sublime irreference’ where everything becomes immediatedly accessible and consumable. You can be in another part of the world through Facebook, email, twitter or other forms of social media. You can traverse distance and time in order to achieve this instantaneous communication.
So that would in some respects be a threat to what Benjamin called the “depth experience” of history, or what Marcuse and the critical theorists called “anticipatory memory” – the ability to transcend the moment in which you are caught and say “this is not good enough, there must be better.” How do we know there can be something better? Because we remember past revolutions, ruptures and re-beginnings, where an old form of injustice led to a more just society. So we could go back to Socrates, we could go back to the Buddha, we could go back to the Exodus, we could go back to the founding of Christianity, we could go back to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the American and French Revolutions and remember those stories where again and again, there was a new beginning. That requires memory. To have a new beginning, to open onto a future, you’ve got to be able to remember that there were new beginnings in the past. You don’t invent liberty now. New liberty comes from different re-interpretations of old liberty. In other words, a danger with our postmodern digital imaginary is that we might lose this indispensable sense of narrative memory and narrative utopia. And this sense has radical poetical and ethical implications.
But in spite of such ‘prophecies of extremity’ there are upsides too. We need to look at the positives and negatives. The most obvious positive, in my view, relates to new technological potentials for interpersonal empathy and communication. You get the word out, as in the Arab Spring or Tiananmen Square. These images got out, precisely because of the electronic mass media. So on a political level, there is a sense in which mass media communications can solicit an international sense of outrage and justice, mobilise desire for real change and rebellion. In that sense it can be a very effective mode of spreading and raising and revolutionising consciousness. And conscience. And of course there is the democratization of knwoledge. Today we can all become the authors of our own lives in a way that were before unthinkable. Traditionally, there were the Great Authors and Artists and they were part of an exclusive elite - either through patronage, privilege or some putative romantic notion of “genius”. The romantic artist was essentially an isolated, exceptional, autonomous, sovereign, sometimes quasi-divine, individual visionary that authored his or her life. Whereas today anybody can be famous for fifteen minutes, in Warhol’s words, and sometimes people can author their own story and communicate it to others in a way that provides an access – a democratic access – to everybody.
Even in the poorest parts of the world, mobile phones are available. And who would come along and say, “No, we’ll take away mobile phones so that we can have a genuine experience of one elder telling his tribespeople what to do, transmitting the wisdom of tradition in a single line of ancestral authority’. That kind of Luddite nostalgia won’t wash. So I think we need a mix of both: a move toward greater access, greater democratizing and deterritorializing of knowledge beyond tribal or national boundaries toward a more open sphere of communication and conversation – without succombing to the reign of a depthless, superficial present without reference to reality, history or justice.
Is it possible that media can inflate an event in the public mind (making it seem bigger or more significant than it is)? Can this cause an event to lose the traction it needs to actually be transformative or revolutionary?
This is yet another of the paradoxes. That precisely in order to transmit the meaning of something in a deterritorialized way, we lose the particular singularity of the event which has a power which is carnally irreducible and inexhaustible. There is something lost in translation without a doubt. And again, I think we’ve got to sustain the dialectic between the specifically situated event itself and the inflation and mythologization of the event, as it is picked up in the media and transmitted globally or maybe eventually galactically – who knows? One has to keep coming back to what Gerald Manley Hopkins called the “thisness” of things, “little dappled things”, even in our digital age of hyper-simulation.
So in any case, whether it’s the student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square, the naked vietnamese girls covered in napalm, the tortured Syrian adolescent or whatever, it’s important that the particular person be honoured through the mediatized persona whose image is transmitted throughout the globe. The danger is that these unique individuals are reduced to simulated icons at the expense of the lived concrete world. Again, it is very important, as phenomenology puts it, to ‘return to the things themselves, to that world of lived pre-reflective experience which Husserl called the Lebenswelt, and Sartre called le vecu. If you lose that, something crucial gets lost in translation and you’ve just got copies without originals. And that can be a danger with certain versions of post-modernism.
In the end of The Wake of the Imagination I make a distinction between good and bad postmodernism. It is a rather simplistic distinction but I rather like its simplicity in the face of certain prophets of doom announcing postmodernism as the end of civilization, the end of culture, the end of being human. There is a whole group of pseudo-apocalyptic thinkers who have said as much. It becomes a sort of intellectual paranoia bordering on what Fred Jameson cleverly calls the cult of the ‘hysterical sublime’. So I think it’s important to distinguish between the uses and abuses of postmodernism, the advantages and the disadvantages, the good and the bad. It is a key challenge for contemporary philosophy.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m working on a conversation around the “God after God.” Where is religion in our postmodern world? What does the God question mean in a world of mass communication combined with a certain return to originary violence? There is also a ‘return of the religious’, I think, in a good way – the renewed sense that there must be something ‘more’ than just a superficial culture of consumerism and simulation. It’s a very complex question. Philosophically speaking, it’s the God after metaphysics. What kind of God is that? Transcendent or immanent? Merleau-Ponty says immanent, Jean Luc Marion and others say transcendent. So there’s a lot going on there.
And indeed at this particular moment I am part of a conversation about the relationship between the sacred and the secular, a series of dialogues between me and a number of other contemporary thinkers asking similar questions: Charles Taylor, Jack Caputo, Julia Kristeva and Gianni Vattimo. And I have just completed a number of interviews on the anatheist debate for the CBC (Canadian Public Broadcasting) series called Ideas and a similar series for ABC. The debate is becoming quite lively. And then there is the ongoing Guestbook project of ‘exchanging narratives in divided communities’, further attempts to explore and implement my work on narrative imagination and linguistic hospitality. So I am pursuing a dual track philosophy of imagination and religion.
Then thirdly, I’m returning to some experimentation – I wouldn’t put it more than that at the moment – in fiction, which is sort of getting back to imagination in practice. I did two novels in the 1990s, so I’m coming back to the third in the trilogy and hoping to finish that up. I’ve taken a sabbatical from Boston College and am working in West Cork. Putting the imagination back into action, so to speak. We’ll see what happens.
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