interview by DONATIEN GRAU
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
artworks by THOMAS HIRSCHHORN
At 35, Tristan Garcia is one of the most brilliant, prolific, and original of the new generation of French philosophers. Equally acclaimed as a fiction writer, with novels translated into many languages, and a metaphysical philosopher — his Form and Object has entered the canon, as has his concept of “flat ontology” — he is also a subtle observer of the contemporary world. With his new book, Nous (We, Grasset, 2016), he investigates the field of politics, questioning the global fragmentation into multiple antagonistic identities, replacing Hobbes’ famous “war of all against all” with what he calls “the war of us against us.”
DONATIEN GRAU — The first sentence in your book Nous is: “Let us acknowledge that the subject of politics is we.” Is this a way to channel all sense of a universal project, idea, or program into politics, so as to focus on an immanence: the immanence of managing individual and collective interests? If so, does it not amount to a kind of renunciation?
TRISTAN GARCIA — It has always seemed to me that there are three kinds of politics. First, there’s the kind that looks to me to be moral and consists of choosing sides. Whom are you with? Whom are you against? Who are the villains, and who the victims? What is the common good? Why? Then there’s a second kind, strategic in essence, which consists, as Lenin would have said, of determining “our means in view of imposing our interests on the enemy.” Finally, there’s a third kind of politics that, I think, is common to all camps, and that is neither moral nor strategic: it’s a politics that consists of divvying up one’s camp or divvying up one’s subject. This is the politics that interests me, and it’s the one that I know how to conduct.
DONATIEN GRAU — Do you know what political camp you belong to?
TRISTAN GARCIA — Yes. I have a moral politics. I know what camp I belong to, even if I have no great knack for strategy. But I’m not one of those people who have a talent for universalizing their camp or their particularities. I find myself living in a historical moment when my belonging to revolutionary or emancipatory or progressive movements is in partial conflict with my received identity: I’m middle class, white, male, and French. It’s not very interesting for someone like me to try to universalize the categories he belongs to. I’d rather listen to others, like immigrant women, members of sexual minorities, people of other social classes. I’d rather lend an ear to their morality and remain attentive to what is openly radical in politics. This serves as my compass, gives me my bearings. It’s minorities and the exploited who point the way. It’s not intellectuals like me, with our median positions in society. Only afterward does the question of strategy arise.
DONATIEN GRAU — Why do you keep out of strategy in politics?
TRISTAN GARCIA — It’s a matter of talent. There are good strategists out there. The people on the Invisible Committee [an anonymous collective in France who published The Coming Insurrection], for instance, are excellent strategists. So are reactionary thinkers. They have impressed their categories of discourse on the West. That’s a real accomplishment these days! Loosely speaking, I’d say that over the past 15 years, four groups have put forward good strategies: the autonomists, whose influence we see in new varieties of collective living, in occupation movements, and in the objectives of mass demonstrations; the reactionaries; the animalrights activists; and the many activists of postcolonial or de colonial politics. Social democrats and classical liberals, on the other hand, have lately been terrible strategists. No one wants any part of them anymore. Their ideals seem soft and tired.
DONATIEN GRAU — Could you tell us more about the third kind of politics, the one that seems to interest you the most?
TRISTAN GARCIA — The third kind of politics consists of determining as clearly as possible the subject of the politics one is trying to conduct and mapping out the battlefield in general. This, at any rate, is what I’ve experimented with in my book. And it’s in this sense that you should understand the opening sentence, which remains hypothetical. I say, “Let us acknowledge that the subject of politics is we.” I think we’ve reached a point in time where politics as strategy and politics as morality have been disturbed by a sense that the limits of our field of “we” have become clearer. We know what we believe in, but we’re no longer so sure what we mean when we say “we.” For example, those in the Marxist tradition used to say “we” to mean “the proletariat,” and today they’re not quite sure what term to use, even if their convictions haven’t changed. “We the workers” has omitted the unemployed since the massive unemployment crisis that began in the 1970s. So what should they say? “We the dominated”? “We the exploited”? “We the subordinates”? Those are hesitant terms.
DONATIEN GRAU — Where does the idea of the “we” come from?
TRISTAN GARCIA — The very title of my book comes from an adolescent state of wonder I felt on reading Plotinus. There’s a line in the Enneads where Plotinus says: “But we ourselves, what are We?” It’s a line that has long haunted me. How to work out a philosophy that might allow us to determine whom we mean by “we” whenever we speak? The second state of wonder behind my book and its first sentence is a line that I quote, in a footnote, from the linguist Émile Benveniste. Benveniste had a flash of insight as he was thinking through the idea of the grammatical person. He explains that the first-person plural is never generated by quantification; it’s never generated by the multiplication or addition of a first-person singular. It’s not a multiple of “I.” It’s something else: an “I” that expands and retracts. It’s an “I” of vague, blurry shape, beyond the individual, beyond the very notion of individuation. There is in language a person that can stretch, that can retract — how far, I don’t know. A person we call “we.” And it’s this person, at times expanded, at times retracted beyond the individual, who is the subject of the politics that interests me. This is not all politics, but it’s the politics in which I can take part: a politics that’s neither moral nor strategic, but analytic, and that proceeds by division.
DONATIEN GRAU — Your words carry weight because you’re a renowned intellectual. Yet you don’t seem to be using your name to serve a politics of emancipation, a politics of the left, like Jean-Paul Sartre formerly and Alain Badiou today. Doesn’t it sadden you not to put your work’s reputation to use, not to put your work in service of the emancipatory project you believe in?
TRISTAN GARCIA — No, because I hold to an ethic that I can express as follows. My basic problem is that the only world I know is the “I” world. I know nothing of the “we” world, the world divvied up into “we.” This “I” world could be the literary world, the world I as a novelist belong to. In this “I” world, there are others but no enemies. I was taught, I educated myself intellectually, in such a way that my relation to alterity is at bottom an empathetic relation. I know nothing of the “enemy” category. But I know that if I sought to understand politics, I’d have to divvy up the world another way. I’d have to leave behind the “I” world and enter the “we” world. In the “we” world, the other is not an other that I might desire, or like. The other in the “we” world is “them”: it’s the adversary or the enemy. If I speak as myself, I know nothing of the “enemy” category. In politics, though, I don’t think one can do without that category.
DONATIEN GRAU — But what is your political stance, then? The “I”, the individual subject, is not politics.
TRISTAN GARCIA — If indeed I tried to universalize my position, the position that I am, and always sought to produce an open, progressive, emancipatory, universalist politics, I would be doomed to produce a naive politics, just like most of our present-day progressives and universalists. In other words, I’d be seeking to build my politics on a deep foundation of attempted reconciliation. It’s my foundational innocence: I’m always looking for a possible reconciliation beyond class struggle, beyond the domination of other species, beyond the exploitation of nonhuman species. I believe in a horizon that is not religious, but that was probably inherited from Marxism’s secularization of something religious, a horizon of reconciliation for us all. And yet you’re right. In a world of conflict and domination, an innocence like mine, the innocence of the “beautiful soul,” is guilty. So, if I continue to partake in politics while conflating what I am, what I believe, with “we,” then my effect will be both naive and guilty — and, moreover, not very original. Many have done it and continue to do it. I should therefore make the effort to leave behind the “I” world to enter the “we” world, and borrow the political categories that our general hostility has forged. And to do that, I must make a choice… I must force myself to give up wanting to universalize my moral stance. I must stop dreaming of what I believe in: reconciliation.
DONATIEN GRAU — What alternative is there to the dream of reconciliation?
TRISTAN GARCIA — I have a notion of politics that seems to me nobler, a notion that I derive from my own character: that is, from the empathy that defines me as a subject. Empathy should allow me to understand the enemy politically: that is, to acknowledge first that there are enemies, and then that these enemies are also a “we,” and that nothing that refers to itself as “we” is altogether foreign to me. Through this politics of empathy, I try to understand that the enemy — in Carl Schmitt’s sense: that is, he who wants me destroyed, who wants me dead, whose self-definition depends on his desire to annihilate me — is also a “we.” And insofar as he has a “we,” the enemy bends to a logic that I should be able to understand. This idea seems to me to satisfy a sort of noble ethic of thought. I’ve always considered that the purpose of thought — and especially of philosophy — was not to defend the life one leads. In thinking, in doing philosophy, I’ve tried not to defend the “I” world that I am, but to foil that world.
DONATIEN GRAU — The only way, then, is political empathy?
TRISTAN GARCIA — I see no other way for thought to have something in common with the person who wants to destroy me, with my absolute enemy. So if I’m an intellectual, if I engage in thought, it’s not to force my world, my categories, my way of life on the other, on the other “we,” but to find something within myself to share with him, to share with the “we” with whom I share no interests, no beliefs, no objectives, no convictions. Nobility of thought consists of finding in oneself common ground with the person with whom one has nothing in common.
DONATIEN GRAU — What are the consequences of that political stance?
TRISTAN GARCIA — The price to pay for a stance like this is, of course, declining to force our values on the other. We engage in thought simply to reassure ourselves that there’s a minimum of community with the absolute other. For me, this noble ethic of thought goes hand in hand with a second chimera, which I’ll now summarize, paraphrasing an idea of Nietzsche’s. I deeply despise agonistic philosophies that seek to be little the enemy so as to vanquish him. My Nietzschean conception of thought consists, on the contrary, of considering that I can and ought to augment the enemy’s strength. I ought to think what he thinks even better than he does himself. This demands empathy. It entails borrowing the enemy’s categories of thought and formulating what he thinks better than he himself formulates it. If I can show my enemy that I think what he thinks better than he does, I have vanquished him a first time. I then fight him a second time, by fighting myself, by fighting within myself my reformulation of his thought. This kind of procedure demands that we develop a noble, almost chivalric idea of thought. I engage in thought not to impose at any cost my way of life, my convictions, or my values. I engage in thought in hopes of finding something to hold in common with the person who stands opposed to what I think, of finding something in him that I might think even better than he can, before I show him to be wrong.
DONATIEN GRAU — There’s something in the moment where you situate yourself that has to do with the absence of certainties — or, at any rate, with the coexistence of multiple certainties — because of which the great universal political tale does not exist, or no longer exists. How does your book call into question the possibility of a contemporary politics?
TRISTAN GARCIA — Why is the material in Nous contemporary? Not all of my books about thought tie in with the contemporary, but Nous belongs to a category of essays that I write to bring out old truths within extremely contemporary material. The first observation is that we haven’t always considered the subject of politics to be “we.” If you read [Jean] Bodin or Machiavelli, the subject of politics and of the great political treatises has not always been “we.” When you look at the precepts of the legalistic philosophers of the 17th century or the great Indian treatises on political science, like the Arthashastra, the subject is not “we.” The subject is stated in the third-person singular: it’s the sovereign, the republic, the prince, the state. Politics has long been stated in the third-person singular. The fact that the subject of politics is “we” circumscribes a form of modern politics that emerged more or less in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment. Materially, it’s linked to the advent of the new modes of political expression known as pamphlets, and newspapers. And it’s also linked to new modes of politicization: the cafés and the clubs. The “we” that interests me arose out of those media and those practices, at the turn of the 19th century.
DONATIEN GRAU — All right, but how has this “we” changed since the end of the 20th century?
TRISTAN GARCIA — It’s a “we” that’s no longer the “we” that flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries: the “we” of humanity, nations, social classes, which was an organic and unified “we.” It was a “we” through which all the categories of divisions between us — the categories of gender, of species, of class — were arranged in a hierarchy. Everything held together nicely at the time. There was an organic “we,” held together by the great human “we.” My book, then, no longer deals with the modern subject of politics, but with its contemporary subject: a “we” that has ceased to be unified and organic. A multiple “we,” with a disorderly division of subjective levels, and no hierarchy.
DONATIEN GRAU — And, in fact, the lack of a hierarchy for the “we,” the lack of a well-kept order or classification in the “we,” begins in the “I,” in the individual subject.
TRISTAN GARCIA — As long as we think of “we” in simplistic images — that is, as a collection or set of individuals — we condemn ourselves to producing a collective subjectivity that resembles a bad Leviathan: in other words, a sort of metaphor of a body of all bodies, a mega- and meta-body politic, a thousand little bodies making up a big one. I think, however, that we can’t understand what politics is until we understand that the “we” doesn’t start with two or three “I”s that get together to form a plural “I.” “We” begins when an individual says “I” and thereby understands that what he summons with this “I” — his subjectivity — goes beyond, or even falls short of, himself. For I am myself a small assembly, a cacophony of different personalities. The great modern intuition of the “schiz” or dissolution or fragmentation of the “I” lies in this microscopic or micro-logical analysis: I approach the “I” and realize that it is flaking away. As [Henri] Michaux, [Sigmund] Freud, and Freudian topography have repeatedly said, there are several “I”s in me. But the “we” and politics come into play as soon as I understand that “I” is not a fixed form, that it is not limited by individuation. It’s an errant form that can descend below the individual, below the individual body, and can especially extend beyond it. Politics rests on subjectivity’s inadequation with itself: one is always more or less than oneself. So we fight to extend our “we,” or to retract it.
DONATIEN GRAU — But what are we to make of the current narcissistic obsession with the selfie?
TRISTAN GARCIA — With the selfie obsession, for example, the injunction to “be yourself,” to be, as a political subject, only one’s own object, is a truly meager politics. It’s an injunction that says: “You, look at yourself. Get hold of yourself. Fill yourself with your desire to fill yourself.” And, indeed, why not? There’s nothing wrong with that desire morally. But politically it’s counterproductive. The more one takes oneself as an object, the less of an object there is to take. I’ve long held the position that the self-to-self relation is impossible. There starts to be something there only once the thing is outside the self. In my book Form and Object, I characterized the self-to-self relation as “compact.” For me, a self that returns to itself and limits itself to itself produces compactness. And compactness is the desire to fill oneself with oneself, which is nothing but a desire that loses content as it comes to contain nothing but itself. In the end, “self ” is neither full nor empty, neither all nor nothing. What it is, is merely not much. It’s meager. For me, the effect of the self-to-self relation is always to impoverish.
DONATIEN GRAU — What politics would suit you, then? In a word, what is your political stance, if indeed you have one?
TRISTAN GARCIA — You know it already. Politics is, in general, not suited to me. Politics does me violence. I’m of a conciliatory temperament, and, as I’ve told you, I don’t fully grasp the notion of the enemy. If I listened to no one but myself, I’d seek to understand everyone, to find the reasons behind the saint and the villain, equitably. It’s tragic, sometimes. I manage to understand someone who opposes me, an adversary, better than my own position. I suffer from a kind of hypertrophy of intellectual empathy.
DONATIEN GRAU — This is something you’re aware of and fight within yourself?
TRISTAN GARCIA — I’ve long known that giving free rein to this impulse not only is suicidal, but also impedes my understanding of the world, or at least the part of the world that involves contests of strength, confrontations, and irreconcilable conflicts. So, I do myself violence. And this book, published with your help, stems from precisely that discomfiture. I try to oppose my world, the “we” I belong to. There’s a line from Kafka that I liked as an adolescent: “In the struggle between yourself and the world, second the world.” For me, politics consists of that gesture of annoyance. I try to make it as honestly as possible, without dodging, but it still goes against the grain for me.
DONATIEN GRAU — What, then, are your political methods?
TRISTAN GARCIA — To reply to your question, my method is simply to arrange political matters, which are profoundly alien to me, in such a way as to make them appear bearable to the kind of being that dislikes conflict, that dislikes war. I choose the point of view of someone empathetic to all who say, “We,” to friend and foe alike, to all others, all groups… For a biased man, on the contrary, there are intolerable and inaudible “we”s. When his absolute enemy speaks, he refuses to hear him say, “We.” He refuses to admit that “they,” the enemies, are in a certain sense like “us.” It is this certain sense that interests me and that I’d like to make interesting. It’s this certain sense, the universal point of view, that has little attraction these days. Our era doesn’t believe in it. It ridicules that point of view as too naive, as unengaged. My approach consists, for the most part, of observing the current situation from the point of view of what has today been made uninteresting or impossible: the point of view of all of us.
DONATIEN GRAU — Are the notions of right and left still valid for you?
TRISTAN GARCIA — I most assuredly prefer the term “emancipatory politics” to “the left,” for instance. I’ve never believed in what we might call a “transcendental left” — a set of values and notions floating above all eras, all nations, all cultures. There is only an “empirical left” and an “empirical right” — in other words, men and women who at such-and-such a time, in such-and-such a situation, in response to such-and-such a problem, declare themselves to be of the left or of the right. And the meaning of their engagement varies, fluctuates, over time. For example, as soon as the issue of animals arises — the protection of species and of animal rights — we know what’s coming. Being on the left or the right is meaningless. Leftist humanists can ridicule animal rights, and far-right extremists can be open to it, just as people on the far left can connect the struggle for the recognition of the rights of nonhuman subjects to other struggles for the rights of subordinates in society. There’s no necessary connection. I’ve never believed in pretty but vague definitions, like the one [Gilles] Deleuze advances when he considers that to be of the right is to prefer one’s family to one’s neighbor, one’s neighbor to a stranger, and so on from near to far, whereas to be of the left is the opposite. It’s a tempting line, but it’s not always true. A right-wing free-enterpriser can prefer the workers of a distant country to those of his own because labor is cheaper over there. That doesn’t make him a left-wing free-enterpriser. We can define the left and the right only empirically.
DONATIEN GRAU — Why do you prefer the term “emancipatory politics”?
TRISTAN GARCIA — Because there’s a transcendental value in the idea of emancipation, just as there is in the idea of progress. And there’s a transcendental value in conservatism, or establishmentarianism, and in the idea of defending order and authority. Through eras and cultures, those values cross the border between the left and the right — or, to be more exact, the empirical left and right are constantly crossing the border between these opposed ideas. From the viewpoint of what seems to me a political morality, I have sided with those who cling always and everywhere to emancipation. I’m convinced, however, that there is no universal emancipation and never will be. There is emancipation only of a group or of a category of subjects. Emancipation is always relative. There’s been feminine emancipation, just as, over the course of worker struggles, there’s been an emancipation of proletarianized workers, or an emancipation of American blacks. This last is not yet complete, but it has had effects. But what interests me in the book is to think through the logic of an emancipation and of its effects: how and why one emancipation can come into conflict with another. One can emancipate oneself as a woman and yet not as a homosexual. One can emancipate oneself as a woman and yet not as a Muslim, or a Jew, and so on.
DONATIEN GRAU — Do you analyze in the book the limits or paradoxes of all emancipatory politics?
TRISTAN GARCIA — That, for me, is the core of the book — its most difficult, most delicate moment. It consists of giving that political truth a shape, without making it tragic. That shape is the following: all emancipation produces effects of domination — and we must nevertheless not stop wanting emancipation. I’m well aware that an emancipatory politics must impose its diagnosis on domination through an effect of domination. To emancipate the sons and daughters of postcolonial immigrants in France, we must first impose a diagnosis and hammer home the idea that there is a racism of the state, a structural discrimination. And in doing so, we cannot help but foster elsewhere a sense that we are imposing a symbolic domination, such that whites, for example, will feel entitled to take up the same arms and use the same strategy to respond and defend their interests. Hence the rise of the theme of the Grand Remplacement [Great Replacement] — that is, colonization by the formerly colonized. Hence, white-supremacist lobbying, as if to echo the struggles for the rights of ethnic minorities since the 1950s. Hence, elsewhere, in reaction to and by inversion of feminism, the rise of “masculism.” The dominators end up behaving like the dominated. They have assimilated the techniques and strategies of the exploited, of the subordinate. Incidentally, this points to a certain success in the 20th century’s struggles for emancipation.
DONATIEN GRAU — Is it a problem for the future, in the fight for emancipation?
TRISTAN GARCIA — The majority ends up behaving like a minority. This is, of course, one of the many explanations for the election of Donald Trump in the United States. It’s this paradoxical logic that interests me because to me it seems fundamental to our situation — a situation that did not exist in the 20th century and that defines our current political condition. Without making a moral judgment — of the kind where you’d say, “The bastards! They’ve no right to use the strategy of the dominated to favor the dominant,” as if it were necessary to moralize a matter of strategy — I propose that we evaluate the situation that has resulted from this moment, that we take under equal and distinct advisement what happens in every camp, that we redraw the map of our camps, and, finally, that all of us who still cling to the idea of emancipation not adopt the wrong strategy in the coming years, knowing that emancipation cannot, and should not, be absolute.
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