Julia Kristeva: "Thinking about liberty in dark times"
This Lecture was presented by the 2004 Holberg Laureate, Julia Kristeva, at the Holberg Symposium, 2 December 2004.
First of all I would like to thank the Holberg Prize Jury for having been so generous as to award me this first Holberg prize for research in the domain of the human and social sciences, law and theology. I would also like to thank you for your presence at this conference, for the interest you have shown in my work, and for your participation in the detailed and friendly discussions of my ideas, which is at once an honour and highly stimulating. Finally, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about the intellectual quest which has brought me here today, and how I relate it to the present moment in history.
You have in front of you today a European citizen, of Bulgarian origin,and French nationality, who considers herself a cosmopolitan intellectual : this last quality alone would have been enough to merit persecution in the Bulgaria of my childhood. Much has changed since then, and although my country of origin still struggles with various economic and political problems, the way is now open, not only for Bulgaria to become a member of NATO, but also for her to join the European Union as a full member. All of this would have been impossible to imagine thirty-nine years ago, in 1965, when I left Bulgaria to continue my studies in Paris, thanks to a grant accorded under the policy of that visionary leader, Charles de Gaulle, who had already foreseen a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Now, in 2004, I still think of that time, in the not-so-distant past, and of all the efforts, sometimes discreet, but sometimes quite risky, made by many intellectuals and others during the communist era. Thanks to such courageous individuals, Bulgaria is today a member of the society of democratic countries. This fact has the appearance of a miracle, until one remembers the suffering, the never-failing hopes and the constant underground work of so many members of the thinking professions, which slowly ate away at the foundations of totalitarianism.
It is customary on occasions such as this to evoke the memory of one’s parents, and indeed I think of my father, Stoyan Kristev. This educated member of the Orthodox church wanted me to learn French from an early age, and duly registered me at the primary school run by French nuns, in order that I should absorb some of the critical spirit and taste for freedom for which France is rightly famous. I also think of my mother, Christine Kristeva, who combined a sharp scientific mind and a strong sense of duty with a gentle nature, and passed on to me that kind of rigour which is such a necessary part of one’s development, especially for a woman, and even more so for a woman in exile. This is my family background, which was reinforced by the respect for culture and education which have developed in Bulgaria throughout its turbulent history : it is the foundation on which I subsequently received what French civilization had to offer me. I have a strong sense of the debt I owe to France, and feel proud, in the globalized world in which we live today, to bear the colours of the French Republic in the various countries and continents which I have occasion to visit.
There is a line from my book “Strangers to Ourselves” that I hope you won’t mind me taking the liberty to repeat here : I wrote that “One may feel more of a foreigner in France than in any other country, but at the same time one is better as a foreigner in France than in any other country.” The reason is that, although its universalism may be ambiguous, the French tradition of critical questioning, the importance attached to political debate, and the role of intellectuals – exemplified by the Enlightenment philosophers who are so emblematic of French culture – are factors which continually revivify public debate, and maintain it at a very high level. This is a real antidote to national depression, and to its manic manifestation in nationalism. I would therefore like to pay tribute to my adoptive culture, which is never more French than when it is involved in self-criticism. To the degree that it is able to laugh about itself – and what vitality there is in this laughter! – it is able to forge links with other cultures. I have absorbed this French language and this French culture so thoroughly that I am almost taken in by those Americans who welcome me as a French writer and intellectual.
The Holberg Prize rewards my work, which it calls “innovative, and devoted to exploring themes at the frontiers of language, culture and literature” and which you consider to be “of capital importance” in the “numerous disciplines of the human and social sciences”, as well as in “feminist theory”. Indeed, since I first arrived in France, at Christmas 1965, just when the feminist movement was gaining a new momentum, I have never stopped thinking about the contribution that women have made to contemporary thought, and this work has crystallized in my recent trilogy on Feminine Genius : Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette. You might wonder what the connection is between this trilogy and my origins.
Well, I could speak to you at length about the intelligence and the endurance of the women of my country of origin, many of whom have distinguished themselves in literature, and many others in various struggles for liberation. Nevertheless, I did not devote my work on female genius to them, because I wanted to use examples that were known and accepted everywhere. My aim was to address the following question : “Is there a specifically feminine form of genius?” This question is not a new one, but it still retains much of its mystery. I will return to Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette. But first I would like to reveal to you something that is not these books.
My research on this topic led me to the discovery that the first female intellectual – and as such, necessarily a European – was neither a saint like Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) or Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), nor even a writer (the writers came later) such as Mme de Sévigné (1626-1696) or Mme de Staël (1766-1817) who, as a theoretician, writer and political thinker, has always been considered the first female intellectual in the strict sense of the word. I discovered that the first female intellectual was in fact a Byzantine, a woman from my native region. Her name was Anne Comnena, and she was the author of a superb history of the crusades and of the reign of her father, the Emperor Alexis I. This was the monumental Alexiade, in fifteen volumes. Born in 1083, Anne Comnena began writing this work in 1138 at the age of 55, and completed it ten years later : as the first female historian, she offers us an interpretation of this period which is very different from those of the western chroniclers such as William of Tyre or Foucher de Chartres. This devotee of what would later be called orthodox Christianity, was nevertheless raised on the Greek classics and was a fervent reader of Homer and Plato. She was sensitive, melancholy, and indeed romantic; a girl who was proud of her father; she was a philosopher and a politician, and her writing shows an awareness of the need for European unity, which was such an important issue at that time.
Since I am convinced that a wider Europe will only really come into being if there is a genuine dialogue between the eastern and western churches, and if a bridge can be built across the abyss which still, unfortunately, separates the Orthodox and Catholic churches in particular, I strongly believe that the exceptional work of Anne Comnena, among others, will be essential for thinking about our future Europe. That is why I made her one of the main characters in the novel that I have just published in France! I didn’t do this in a chauvinistic frame of mind, since Anne Comnena wasn’t Bulgarian, but a Byzantine princess, although her grandmother was a member of the Bulgarian nobility, and there were many marriages between Bulgarian sovereigns and the royal families of the new states which were constantly testing the borders of the Empire. In this region wars and peace agreements followed each other in rapid succession, making this part of the world famous for its conflicts, but also for the ability of its inhabitants to find ways of coexisting. All of this was present, and prescient, in the work of Anne Comnena, a female genius whom the future Europe would do well to rediscover. I am pleased, coming as I do from the Balkans, to have contributed to this rediscovery. I would like then to invite you to read, along with Arendt, Klein and Colette… Anne Comnena. Europe still has many surprises in store for us.
Nevertheless, without isolating women’s experience as a separate “object” of study, I would like to locate this experience in the context of the various political, philosophical and literary debates which have nourished women’s – and men’s – liberation in recent times. In other words I only accept the "feminist" label on the condition my that my thought on the themes of writing, and of feminine sexuality, is situated within the general framework indicated by the title of my presentation to day : “Thinking about liberty in dark times”. With hindsight, I think that this title could apply more generally to what, outside France, is often referred to as “French Theory”. This expression was coined in American universities, and my name is often associated with it. If I emphasize this American reception of my work today, here in Norway, this is because I believe that without the English translations of my books, and without the recognition that I have received in the United States, my work could not have been accessible to readers in your country and all over the world, and it is in this context that my work has been recognized and honoured by the Holberg Prize. I hope, in what follows, to be able to situate my own work within this “French Theory” movement, and beyond this, to shed light on the difficult, and sometimes conflictual, dialogue between two different conceptions of liberty at work today.
When I arrived in Paris, the war in Vietnam was at its climax and we often protested against the American bombing. It was then that René Girard, having attended one of my first presentations of Bakhtine in Roland Barthes’ seminar, invited me to teach at the University of Baltimore. I could not see myself collaborating with the “world policemen”, as we used to say at that time and, in spite of the dialectical advice that I got from my Professor, Lucien Goldmann, who used to say. "My dear, American imperialism has to be conquered from the inside", I honestly did not feel that I had the strength for such a challenge. So, I remained in France. It was 1966. Several years later, in 1972, I met Professor Leon Roudiez from the University of Columbia, at the Cérisy conference on Artaud and Bataille. That is how I made my first trip to New York in 1973, and ever since I have been a Visiting Professor in the Department of French at Columbia, which, without improving the quality of my English, has at least helped me make many friends and accomplices in the very unique context of American Academia. At the present time, I have the honor of teaching in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research - the university which welcomed Levi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson and Hannah Arendt during and after the Second World War.
Of all these experiences, which I cannot summarise here tonight, and about which I wrote in my first book, Les Samourais ( Fayard, 1990 ), I would simply like to bring to you two symbolic images that have become inseparable from my psyche and which, I hope, will perhaps give you a sense of what my attachment to the United States means.
The first one is a tiny amateur photograph, in black and white, that Leon Roudiez took of me, and which shows me with my long student hair, on the ferry that took me to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Since I do not have a picture of my arrival in Paris, this one is for me the only and the best proof of my re‑naissance in the “free world”. You can see this picture in Kristeva Interviews, a book which is published by Columbia University Press. I would like, once again, to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my collaborators at Columbia University Press for their loyalty and friendship. It is thanks to their efforts that my work has become accessible to the English‑speaking public all over the world, as I have already said.
The second image that I have in mind is that of my apartment on Morningside Drive, which overlooks Harlem Park, close to Edward Said’s apartment and to the flat where Arendt used to live. This is where I usually stay when I teach at Columbia, a place flooded with that unusual American light, dazzling and inviting at the same time. Here I wrote pages that are dear to me from Histoires d'amour/Tales of Love (1983 ) and Soleil Noir/Black Sun (1987) or Female Genius, a place which remains, in my personal mythology, a space of happy solitude.
When Philippe Sollers and I decided to devote a whole issue of Tel Quel ( 71/73, Fall, 1977 ) to New York, many people were surprised. What came across in that issue was a praise of American democracy, as opposed to French centralization, which appears so hierarchical and jacobine by contrast. It was actually an acknowledgment of what seems to me to be the most important quality of American civilization, and which also explains my attachment to American academia, that is, its hospitality. I should include in the designation "American", their neighbours to the North, Canada and the Canadian universities to be exact.
By hospitality I mean the ability that some have to offer a home to those who do not have one, or lack one temporarily. Fleeing communism to go to France, I did not encounter that kind of hospitality, although France has given me my French nationality for which I will always be grateful. My adoptive country is grounded in its administrative and cultural history, although it is also famous for the radically innovative spirit of many of its citizens, such as the artistic, philosophical and theoretical avant-gardes that have seduced me, and have ensured its glory abroad. Such innovations often engender a violent rejection, if not an active hatred. America, on the other hand, seems to me to be a country that welcomes grafts and even encourages them.
This is, however, a profoundly French woman that you are welcoming today, whether you consider me as a Gallicised European, or as the very "essence" of what francité/Frenchness means. This often comes as a surprise to the French themselves who, obviously, do not see me as one of them. Sometimes, after returning from New York, while passionately discussing my work as part of "French theory", I am even tempted to take myself for a French intellectual. At other times I actively consider settling abroad for good, all the more so when I feel hurt by the xenophobia of that old country which is France.
In this modern world of ours, in this "New World Order", we seem to lack a positive definition of humanity (not in the sense of the “human species”, but rather in that of the quality of being human). We sometimes have to ask ourselves what "humanity", or "humanism" is all about when we have to confront "crimes against humanity". My own experience though makes me think that the minimal definition of humanity, the zero degree of humanity, to borrow an expression from Barthes, is precisely hospitality. The Greeks were right when they chose the word “ethos” to designate the most radically human capacity, which from then on is referred to as the ethical capacity and which consists in the ability to make choices, the choice between good and evil ‑ and all the other possible “choices”. It's interesting to note that the word “ethos” originally meant a “regular sleeping place or animal shelter". By derivation it came to mean “habit" and “character" as what is characteristic of an individual and of a social group.
I found this sense of hospitality in the United States, which still represents for many, and despite the numerous faults of the "American way of life", a future in which we will live in a globalized society of foreigners sharing their lives with other foreigners.
This hospitality, which I am so happy to experience again today, here in Norway, was first and foremost hospitality towards my ideas and my work. When I travel I take with me a French and European cultural heritage, in which there is a mixture of German, Russian and French traditions: Hegel and Freud, Russian formalism, French structuralism, the avant‑gardes of the "nouveau roman ", and Tel Quel. I hope that Americans, and now you here in Bergen, will feel that my "migrant personality" is less "French" in the sense of being somewhat arrogant and haughty. As a foreigner, I have managed to appropriate this culture and I hope that the elements of this French and “old” European culture, often so inaccessible and jealous of its own purity, which I will present to you today will be accessible to you as English-speaking foreigners. Certainly part of my work has resonated in a special way in American universities and has further developed in a direction that I am most pleased with, and which encouraged me to go on. Sometimes, however, the images that are reflected back to me, of myself and my work, surprise me, and I have difficulty recognizing myself. I have never had, and will never acquire, a taste for polemics, partly because I am convinced of at least one thing: either these interpretations go against me in a useless way, and will consequently exhaust themselves in the process (for example some militant, and "politically correct" comments), or they are part of a more personal quest of American men and women, original and innovative, who assimilate my work into theirs at their own risk, which may well be, after all, just a wonderful way of practicing this hospitality that I have been talking about. Isn’t the whole idea of “transplant" or "graft", meant to generate unexpected consequences, the very opposite of cloning? However, as concerns the politically correct interpretations, I have never had the impression that they were widespread in the European universities, whether of Latin, Germanic, English or Scandinavian language, no doubt because these institutions are more attuned to the European sensibility which underlies my work, and to which I will return to in a moment.
Some themes of our interface
I will now revisit to some of the main themes of my work which have given rise to much discussion. They are : intertextuality, the distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic, the concepts of the abject and abjection, and my emphasis on the themes of the foreigner and foreignness.
1. The concept of Intertextuality has enjoyed a certain degree of success internationally. This idea, which I developed starting from Bakhtine, invites the reader to interpret a text as a crossing of texts. Very often, in formalist or structuralist approaches this has been perceived as a return to “quotations” or to "sources". For me it is principally a way of introducing history into structuralism: the texts that Mallarmé and Proust read, and which nourish the Coup de Dés and A la Recherche du temps perdu allow us to introduce history into the laboratory of writing. Mallarmé's interest in anarchism, for example, and Proust's interest for Zohar's Jewish mysticism and the Affaire Dreyfus are useful material in this kind of approach. Also, by showing to what extent the internal dimension of the text is connected to the external context, such interpretations can reveal the inauthenticity of the writing subject. The writer becomes “le sujet en procès”: this French expression means both a "subject in process" and a "subject on trial". As such the speaking subject is a carnival, a polyphony, forever contradictory and rebellious. The post-structuralist theme of intertextuality also gave birth to an idea that I have been trying to work on ever since, especially in my books from 1996 and 1997, namely that of the connection between "culture" and "revolt".
2. The distinction that I have established between the semiotic and the symbolic has no political or feminist connotation. It is simply an attempt to think of “meaning”, not only as “structure", but also as "process" or "trial" in the sense I have already mentioned, by looking at the same time at syntax, logic, and what transgresses them, or the trans‑verbal. I refer to this other side of “meaning” as trans-verbal because calling it pre-verbal could give rise to certain difficulties. The semiotic is not independent of language, but underpins language, and under the control of language, it articulates other aspects of "meaning" which are more than mere "significations", such as rhythmical and melodic inflections. Under the influence of Freudian distinctions between the representations of things and the representations of words, I try to take into consideration this dual nature of the human mind, and especially the constraints of biology and of instinctual drives that sustain and influence meaning and signification. This is because we may indeed affirm that in the beginning was the word, but before the beginning there was the unconscious with its repressed content.
I am personally convinced that the future of psychoanalysis lies in this direction, that is between the translinguistic logic of the unconscious, and biological and neurobiological constraints. At the Institute for Contemporary Thought, at the University of Paris 7, we try to bring biologists and psychoanalysts together in their work. Our basic preoccupation is the opening up of psychoanalysis to biology as well as to a more active involvement in social politics. In this connection I fully support and indeed am actively involved in President Chirac’s campaign for the integration of handicapped citizens in French society. We hope that this approach, along with a close rereading of Freud’s texts, will revitalize contemporary psychoanalysis in the long run.
This “semiotic” trans‑verbal side of our research is connected to the archaic relation between the mother and the child and allows me to investigate certain aspects of the feminine and the maternal in language, of what Freud used to call "the black continent" or Minoan-Mycenaean (after the name of the Greek civilization that preceded the civilization of classical Greece.) This "other logic" of the feminine and the maternal which works against normative representation and opposes phallic representation, both masculine and feminine, is perhaps my own contribution to the effort of understanding the feminine as connected to the political via the sacred.
I am convinced that this new 21st century which seems to be in such need of religion is actually in need of the sacred. I understand the sacred as the desire of human beings to think, not in the sense of calculation, but rather in the sense of a need for fundamental questioning, which distinguishes us from other species and, a contrario, brings us closer to them. As a writer, psychoanalyst and semiotician I believe that the human characteristic that we call the sense of the divine and of the sacred arises at the very point of emergence of language. "The semiotic" with its maternal ties seems to be the farthest point we can reach when we try to imagine and understand the frontiers between nature, or "phusis", and meaning. By understanding the “semiotic” as “emergence of meaning” we can overcome the dichotomies of metaphysics (soul/body, physical/psychical). My preoccupation with the sacred is, in fact, anti-metaphysical, and only feminist in a derivative sense. If I am indeed passionately attached to the recognition of women in social, intellectual, and political life, this is only to the extent that women can bring a different attitude to the ideas of "power" and "meaning". This would be an attitude that takes into consideration the need for the survival of our species, and our need for the sacred. Women are positioned at the crossroads of these two demands.
3. The abject and abjection are concepts that I developed starting from my clinical experience when facing the symptoms which I also call New Maladies of the Soul (Columbia University Press) in which the distinction between "subject" and "object" is not clear, and in which these two pseudo‑entities exhaust themselves in a dialectic of attraction and repulsion. Borderline personalities, as well as some depressive personalities, can be described starting from this psychical basis which is also reminiscent of an archaic state, of the communion which exists in the act of maternal holding. The mother object is the first result of the process of expulsion of what is disagreeable in this archaic state. In this process, which I have called abjection, the mother becomes the first “abject” rather than object. Artists such as Picasso and de Kooning clearly understood something of this process...
Using the concepts of “abject” and “abjection”, I first tried to understand the complex universe of the French writer Céline, master of popular fiction, and of Parisian slang, the argot, a carrier of exceptional emotion. Instead of taking the cathartic road of abjection as religions do (and I believe any religion is in fact a way of purifying the abject), Céline insists on following imaginary abjections which he then transfers to political realities. His anti-semitism and his despicable compromises with Nazi ideology are expressed in his pamphlets, which I attempted to read objectively, as an analyst, without giving in to the feelings that they inevitably arouse.
My adventures in the very dangerous territory of abjection have nevertheless brought me many alliances. Many artists from all over the world have recognized themselves in the experience of the abject, which is close to the psychotic states that they encounter in the process of artistic creation. But my research has also given rise to the sharp reaction in some academic circles and certain journals which affirmed that if I chose to analyze Céline, it was only to excuse him, as if trying to understand means necessarily trying to forgive. That was one of the most radical rejections of my work, due to a misreading. I personally perceived it as a form of partisan excommunication that amounted to an attack on thinking itself.
That “excommunication” now seems to me to be the tragic precursor of a more recent event, more comic than tragic in which two ambitious academics set out to unmask French “impostors”, (this was the name they gave to French Theorists), by rejecting our “pseudo-scientific models”, when in fact, we never tried to create scientific models, only metaphorical transfers.
4. The concept of Strangeness or foreignness, is also, as you may know, something close to my heart. Writing my book Strangers to Ourselves, for which I received the Hertz prize from the Academy of Paris, gave me the opportunity to outline a history of foreigners, their actual destiny, and the way in which they are perceived in the West, and also to state my own position in this debate, a position which again seems to be accepted with some difficulty. First of all, I believe that in order to fight the state of national depression that we are experiencing in France (but not only in France), as a result of globalization and of the influx of immigrants, and also in order to oppose maniacal reactions to this depression (such as that of the Front National), it is important to restore national confidence. This has to be done in the same way in which we sometimes have to restore the narcissism or the ideal "ego" in a depressed patient, before proceeding to the actual "analysis", i.e. to the dissolution of his system of defense and resistance.
I am convinced that, in the next century, the cosmopolitan society that we have been dreaming of ever since the Stoics and throughout the Enlightenment, will not be possible in the utopian shape of the "melting pot", universalized and standardized by the market, the media and the internet. At most, this will lead to a more or less conflictual cohabitation of nations and of various "social groups" which will live with and against each other. Combining a certain amount of respect for "national identity” and support for the idea of the "common good" (l’intérêt général as Montesquieu called it), this approach will have to replace the excesses of contemporary globalization.
Two types of civilization
You will no doubt have situated, as I have outlined these four themes – and I could have chosen others – areas of agreement and disagreement between us. Without going deeper into this research, I would like to take the opportunity that you have granted me to distance myself from this personal research in order to consider the wider cultural and political context in which we work, and in which this collective research has been elaborated.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought to light the difference between two types of culture, a European culture and a North American culture. I want to make it clear from the start, and in order to avoid any misunderstanding, that I am referring to two visions of freedom or liberty, that all democratic societies without exception have elaborated and of which, unfortunately, we are not sufficiently proud. I am speaking of two visions of freedom, which both rely on the Greek, Jewish and Christian traditions, and which, in spite of episodes of shame as well as of glory, remain our most important achievement. These two visions of freedom are both, nevertheless, essential. They are sometimes, as is now the case, opposed. Fundamentally, however, these two versions of freedom are complementary, and indeed I believe that they are both present in each of us, whichever side of the Atlantic we find ourselves on. If I continue to oppose them in what follows, this is only for sake of the clarity of my exposition
Emmanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and his Critique of Practical Reason (1789) defined for the first time something that other people must also have experienced, but were unable to articulate, namely the fact that freedom is not, negatively speaking, an “absence of constraint", but positively speaking, the possibility of “self-beginning”, Selbstanfang. Thus, by identifying "freedom" with the ability of spontaneously beginning, Kant opens the way to the praise of the enterprising individual, to the initiative of the “self”, if I may transfer his cosmological considerations to a more personal level. At the same time, he subordinates the freedom of Reason, be it pure or practical, to a cause, divine or moral.
I will extrapolate by saying that, in a world more and more dominated by technology, freedom becomes the capacity to adapt to a "cause" always outside the "self", and which is less and less a moral cause, and more and more an economic one. In an ideal situation the two operate at the same time. In this line of thought, which is favoured by Protestantism (I’m referring here to Max Weber's work on the connection between capitalism and Protestantism), freedom becomes the freedom to adapt to the logic of cause and effect, Hannah Arendt would say "to the calculus of consequences”, that is, the logic of production, of science, and of the economy. To be free in this sense would be to profit from adaptations to this logic of causes and effects, and to the economic market.
This kind of freedom culminates in the logic of globalization and of the unrestrained free-market. The Supreme Cause (God) and the Technical Cause (the Dollar) are its two co‑existing variants which guarantee the functioning of our freedom within this logic of "instrumentalisation". I am not denying here the benefits of this kind of freedom. It has the advantage of being able to adapt to the logic of "causes and effects" that culminates in a specific way of thinking, which is "thinking-as-calculus", and scientific thinking. I believe this vision to be crucial for our access to technology and automation. The American society seems to be better adapted to this kind of freedom. I am merely saying that this is not the only kind of freedom.
There is also another vision of freedom which emerges in the Greek world, at the very heart of its philosophy, with the pre‑Socratics, and which develops in the Socratic dialogue. This fundamental variety of freedom is not subordinate to a cause, which means that it is prior to the concatenation of Aristotelian "categories" that are already a premise for scientific and technical thinking. This fundamental variety of freedom is in Being and moreover, in the Being of Language Which is Being Delivered/ l/'Etre de la Parole Qui se Livre, a Being which delivers, gives, or presents itself to itself and to the other, and liberates itself in the process. This liberation of the Language-Being that occurs in the encounter between the Self and the Other, was emphasized in Heidegger's discussion of Kant (in a 1930 seminar "The Essence of Human Freedom", published in 1982). This approach inscribes freedom into the very essence of philosophy, as eternal questioning, before allowing it to become fixed - only subsequently to this original freedom - in the succession of causes and effects and the ability to master them.
Don't worry, I would like to assure you that I will not go any further in this debate, that I have already over-simplified the two conceptions of freedom in Kant and Heidegger. What I am interested in is discussing, in the context of the modern world, this second conception of freedom. This second kind of freedom is very different from the kind of calculating logic that leads to unbridled consumerism; it is a conception that is evident in the Speech-Being, in the Presencing of the Self to the Other.
I hope you understand that the psychological and social connotations of this kind of freedom that constitute the essential themes of French Theory. The poet is its main custodian, together with the libertine who defies the conventions of social causes and effects in order to bring out and formulate a desire for dissidence. Not to mention the analyst in the experience of transference and counter‑transference. But we mustn't forget the revolutionary who inscribed the privileges of the individual above all other conventions: this is the foundation of Human Rights, and the slogan of the French Revolution, Liberty‑Equality‑Fraternity which at the time reinforced the ideas of English Habeas Corpus. If we are able to hear and to interpret these various figures, we will be better equipped to liberate ourselves from a certain vision of the 18th century which has become dominant, which mistakenly takes the legacy of the Enlightenment to be a kind of abstract universalism.
But I would like to return to our present reality. We are on our way towards building a European Community in spite of all the difficulties that cannot be ignored. In this often chaotic European assembly, the voice of France, which sometimes has difficulty making itself heard when it calls for the construction of a “social Europe”, still finds allies in other governments and in the public opinion of various countries. Whilst all of them are deeply attached to their particular cultural traditions, they all implicitly or explicitly share our notion of freedom. We are trying to promote a "social model" which is not exclusively that of laissez-faire capitalism, often identified as "the American model". Our emphasis on this cultural difference is not only due to the fact that we belong to a tradition and possess a memory which may be older, “more refined" and "more sophisticated", and so on, because it originates in "The Old World". It is due rather to the fact that we have a different vision of freedom, namely one which privileges the uniqueness of the individual over economic and scientific factors. When the French government, whether it be of the left, or of the Gaullist right, insists on our "solidarity" in opposition to “liberalism” in the classic sense of unregulated economic and social competition, this should be understood as being nothing other than a defence of this conception of freedom.
We are fully aware, of course, of the risks that may come with such an attitude: those of ignoring of the contemporary economic reality, submitting to excessive corporatist demands, an inability to take part in international competition, idleness, backwardness. This is why we need to be alert and always remember the new constraints of our technological world, of the domain of “causes and effects”. At the same time, however, it is not difficult to see the advantages of this other type of freedom, which is supported in many European countries. This is an aspiration rather than a fixed project, driven by a real concern for the uniqueness and fragility of each and every human life, including those of the poor, the disabled, the retired, and those who rely on social benefits. It also requires special attention to sexual and ethnic differences, to men and women considered in their unique intimacy rather than as simple groups of consumers.
The basis for this convergence at the European level is then that there is another kind of freedom which needs to be defended. That, in the post-modern era, it is not the best economic and technical performance which is most important from the point of view of human liberation – although this was indeed the case in the previous period of capitalism. From this perspective what matters is the particular, the art of living, taste, leisure, the so-called “idle” pleasures, grace, pure chance, playfulness, wastefulness, our "darker side" even, or, to put things in a nutshell, freedom as the essence of "Being-in-the-World" prior to any "Cause". These are the elements which characterize European culture, and, one may hope, offer an alternative for the globalized world in which we live.
I recently tried to describe this aspect of human uniqueness when I discussed “Feminine Genius” in a trilogy on the life and work of Arendt, Klein and Colette. The notion of individual feminine genius can take us beyond mass feminism, in which the uniqueness of each woman risks being submerged, although clearly this notion of genius can be extended to both sexes.
Can we preserve this understanding of freedom as a general human value? This is by no means certain, since all the indications are that we are being carried away by the maelstrom of our calculus thinking and by our consumerism. The only counterpoint to this seems to be the rebirth of religious sects for which the sacred is no longer "a permanent questioning”, as the very concept of human dignity would require, but a subordination to exactly the same logic of causes and effects, only taken to extremes: in this case under the authority of sects and fundamentalist groups. This means that today’s religious alternative, to the extent that it degenerates into a clash between fundamentalisms, is not only an unreliable counterpoint to technological mastery, but actually mirrors its logic of competition and conflict, which it only serves to reinforce.
We cannot, of course, be sure that this alternative vision of freedom that I am trying to rehabilitate today can become more than an aspiration, but the future remains open.
Of course, Europe is far from being homogeneous and united. In the context of the crisis in Iraq and faced with the terrorist threat, some have claimed that a rift has opened up between the countries of (to use their terminology) the "Old Europe" and those of the "New Europe". Without going too deeply into this complex set of problems, I would like to express two, highly personal, opinions on this issue. First, I believe that it is important that the "Old Europe", and France in particular, take very seriously the economic difficulties encountered by the "New Europe" which have the consequence of making these countries depend to a large degree on the United States. But we must also recognize the cultural, and in particular, religious differences which separate us from these countries, and we must respect these differences. Our famous "French arrogance" does not equip us very well for this task, and the Orthodox Christian countries in particular feel somewhat bitter about this. My second point is this: the knowledge that we in Europe have of the Arab world, after so many years of colonialism, has made us very sensitive to Islamic culture and able to soften, if not to entirely avoid, the "clash of civilizations" to which I have referred. In this situation, what is at stake is our ability to offer our active support to those in the Muslim world who are now seeking to modernize Islam. At the same time, however, the insidious anti-semitism of our countries should make us vigilant faced with the rise of new forms of anti-semitism today.
Let me return now to academic life, and in particular to the question of French Theory with which my work is often associated. I have been speaking at length, although too briefly for such important questions, about the political implications of this European vision of freedom. This vision is deeply ingrained in our social experience as well as in our way of thinking. This might explain the enthusiastic welcome that my work has received in some American universities, here in Norway, and elsewhere in the world. You will have observed that this “French” research, in confronting the American economic, political and academic establishment, in its demand for liberty, often takes the form of political contestation. Nevertheless it is fundamentally concerned with a way of being, which reveals itself in the act of re-volt, in other words in turning back on itself, in accomplishing its anamnesis, in renewing itself continually through a process of self-questioning. Those who forget this mode of thinking and being limit themselves to the activity of politics in the strict sense of the word, which then becomes a betrayal of the freedom of thought. This is why, in my last two books on the culture of revolt (Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt and Intimate Revolt), I discuss the idea that “political revolution” (the French Terror of 1793 and the Russian Revolution of 1917) can be seen as the stifling of re-volt in the sense of free questioning and permanent restlessness. Totalitarianism, in all its horror, appropriated the idea of revolt only to transform it into a deadly dogma. Nevertheless the attitude of vigilance which we now possess in the face of various nihilistic political demands, which are marginalized by the society of the spectacle, does not rule out forever the possibility of the kind of liberty of revolt of which I have been speaking from establishing itself in the political domain, on the condition that it first of all develops in the domain of thought. This, at least, is the hypothesis which I would like to submit to you today.
As a way of protesting against the limitations of consumerism and positivist reasoning, many of you have based your reflection on our research, and have paid attention to the ethical, as well as the theoretical dimension : “French Theory” and “continental philosophy” have become forms of protest in many countries all around the world. However, some interpretations of our thought, influenced by the ideology of political correctness, have radicalized its political implications. This is not to say that our research does not have a political content, because of course it does; but this political position is implicit: it underlies and informs a particular way of thinking. In the final analysis, a fundamental characteristic of our approach has been forgotten. This is that, as I see it from my own experience, our research cannot be reduced to the production of “theory”; it is more than this, and it is something else besides. I would say that it is a process of “thinking through” or “working through” in the sense that Freud used to speak of the dreamwork. It is thinking as “disclosure”, in a way which Heidegger, and in another way, Arendt, expressed it, opposing it to thought-as-calculation. It involves a replenishing of thought in fiction, and for this reason in the sensitive body : which evokes Spinoza’s “third kind of knowledge”, but also the sort of rationality which belongs to “free association” and “transference”, as they are manifested in the psychoanalytic experience.
I may observe that this thought, this liberty continue to develop in France, that there is neither decline nor stagnation of intellectual life in that country, as is sometimes claimed. The proof can be seen if we look at some recent trends, which I will now outline briefly.
First of all, the insistence on the speaking subject in research in human sciences – history, anthropology, sociology and so on – is becoming more and more pronounced: this does not mean that objective facts are underestimated or ignored, but that, by taking them into consideration, the researcher is much more subjectively involved in their interpretation. In France, we will soon initiate a national debate on the role of human sciences organized around this general theme of "fact and interpretation". It goes without saying that the part played by psychoanalysis in this is crucial.
Also, and this is undoubtedly the result of the psychoanalytical perspective on human beings, the imaginary is more and more perceived as an essential component of our psyche, but also and primarily as the space of the kind of freedom which I am defending here today. We are alive precisely because we have a psychic life. This is the intimate dimension of our existence (what we call in French our for intérieur) which allows us to shelter ourselves from internal and external attacks on our being, i.e. psychological and biological traumas, as well as social and political external aggression. The imaginary metabolizes them, transforms them, sublimates them, works-through them and in this way keeps us alive. What am I referring to when I speak of the imaginary? Well, for example, the fantasies that psychoanalysis works with. Literature, for its part, offers a refuge for our loves and insomnia, our states of grace and crises. Religion opposes laisser-aller capitalism and its logic of causes and effects by bringing something more to the "human soul". Human sciences, human thought are now ready for a fruitful and critical encounter with this religious imaginary, an encounter which neither condemns nor ignores it. The religious experience also becomes analyzable under this approach: it is possible to unveil its logic, and its benefits as well as its failings. Here, too, I believe, French Theory can make an important contribution. I recently created, along with colleagues in Paris, the Institute for Contemporary Thought, the core of which is the Roland Barthes Interdisciplinary Centre, which deals with themes situated at the interface between literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, ethics, and religion. We are trying to develop the exercise of liberty-as-thinking on a larger scale, and with the aim of re-thinking the traditional boundaries between disciplines, and this in spite of the differences between the different researchers who are involved in this project.
I would like to conclude these thoughts, which, given the gratitude which I feel on this occasion, have perhaps been a little too centred on myself and my own research, with some wider considerations.
I have deliberately emphasized the European origin of this type of freedom which, in my opinion, underpins what has been called "French Theory". I must emphasize that nobody has the monopoly of this conception, and that the Catholic and Protestant worlds are rich with the potential of this variety of liberty. Of course, the idea of "being chosen" in Judaism, although different from the idea of freedom that I have tried to outline here, makes a person coming from this tradition particularly capable of restoring what we lack so much, i.e. an interaction of these two versions of freedom: economic neo-liberalism and fraternal and poetic freedom, causal and “disclosing” versions of freedom.
Earlier, when criticizing the resurgence of French nationalism, I pointed out the fact that this intimate and fraternal type of freedom is indeed a difficult, and perhaps an impossible choice. Still, this is the challenge that France is ready to face, and, in the long run, the challenge that Europe as a whole must be willing to take. Personally, I am strongly committed to this vision, and I am doing what I can to contribute to its realization.
In this context, America, the America that I love, an America which no longer has any enemies and which would like to silence its opponents, risks becoming a fourth Rome, after Byzantium and Moscow. In this “New World Order”, America has imposed a financial, economic and cultural oligarchy which is liberal in its inspiration but which risks excluding an important dimension of human liberty. Other civilizations have other visions of human freedom. They also need to be heard in this globalized world and to be allowed to bring their own correction, through diversity, to this new global vision of human destiny. The diversity of cultural models is the only guarantee for the respect of the “humanity” that I referred to earlier in my lecture, a humanity that we described in terms of "hospitality” for lack of a better definition. At present, instead of this liberty, humanity is betraying itself in a process of increasing technical and robotic uniformization. Hospitality is not only the simple juxtaposition of differences with one model dominating all the others, and feigning respect for others whilst really being indifferent towards them. On the contrary, hospitality is a real attempt to understand other kinds of freedom in order to make every “way of being" more multiple, more complex. The definition of humanity that I was looking for is perhaps just this process of complexification.
In this sense, understanding (or lack of understanding) on the part of the Americans for a European alternative could turn out to be a decisive step. The old saying of the French moralists is well‑known: if God did not exist, we would have to invent Him. I would paraphrase this by saying: if Europe did not exist, the world would have to invent her. This is in the interest of our plural world, and also in America’s interest. Whatever the economic and diplomatic competition between the Old and the New parts of Europe, our “old” Europe needs to make her voice heard in the “new” countries. European intellectuals have a particular responsibility here.
At the end of the day my own intellectual journey could have no higher ambition than to draw attention to the diversity of the human experience of freedom. I dare say that this vocation is not so far from that of Ludvig Holberg, in whose name we are gathered here today. At the frontiers of “old” Europe and the new world, Norway has the political and cultural advantage of being in a position to work for the extension of these various freedoms in these dark times. Far from being a foregone conclusion, this project is an ongoing struggle.
I would naturally be pleased if our work together, and in particular the exchanges which will result from this conference, organized on the occasion of the award of the Holberg Prize, were to lead to a better balance between these two kinds of freedom. I believe that Ludvig Holberg's work was not so far removed from such considerations. At least, I would like, to conclude, to try to persuade you that this is indeed the case.
As an author of comedies, a historian, a novelist, Ludvig Holberg was an incisive writer whose humour did not spare his own person : "…when my illness attains the region of the heart, he writes in his Second Autobiographical Letter, I am usually gripped by an irrational desire to start reforming, and I begin launching vehement attacks on depraved humanity. But the pain only needs to move to a different part of the body, and at once there is nobody more indulgent than I for human weaknesses. That is why, as soon as I feel the desire to reform, experience has shown me that, rather than launching attacks upon humanity, I would do better to launch an offensive upon my intestines, as I generally find that my enthusiasm subsides after taking a few laxative pills : as soon as they have taken their effect, the world seems perfectly bearable /…/ Often I have found myself obliged to leave my companions in disgust and to seek remedy in solitude. I admire nothing more than brevity, as a result of which I despise above all else these incorrigible poseurs who assassinate their victims with interminable story-telling."
In order to avoid assassinating you with my interminable story-telling, I would only like to remind you that this "Nordic Molière", who was a reader of Voltaire and of Montesquieu, was a moderate man, but was radical in his way, was scathing about all kinds of excessive enthusiasm, and preferred laughter to religious fanaticism, writing several comedies, as well as a History of the Kingdom of Denmark and of Norway, a History of Religion, a History of the Jews, a History of Women (indeed, he is considered as "the first Scandinavian feminist"). This constant movement between genres and between disciplines nevertheless attained its polyphonic, intertextual unity, the kind of unity which is brought about by the Diderot’s “homme orchestre”, only in his works of fiction. How could I fail to identify with such a figure! Holberg’s philosophical novel, The journey of Niels Klims to the centre of the earth, mixes political satire and utopia, in such a way that the satire dissolves into the fantasy, and the facetious remarks triumph over the moral message, with the result that today, we read this novel as a defence of the pure imaginary.
Although Baron Holberg described himself as an ascetic, and something of a hypochondriac, whilst managing to remain a comical figure, the first to acknowledge his importance after his death was none other than the libertine philosopher Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, in the Preface to his own subterranean utopia, The Icosameron of 1788. He writes: "Plato, Erasmus, the Chancellor Bacon, Thomas More, Campanella and Niels Klim are those who have given me the desire to write this story, or this novel".
More than two centuries later, I would like to thank Ludvig Holberg for having given the Jury which takes his name the desire to bring us together this evening. Thank you for your patience and for your friendship.