The department is thrilled to count Catherine Malabou among its visiting professors this fall. In anticipation of her much-awaited seminar: Aporias of Identity: A reading of Paul Ricœur’s oneself as another (7 weeks Sep 12-Oct 26), Pierre Schwarzer had the pleasure of talking to Catherine about theories of identity, philosophical phantasms and the importance of narratives.
Pierre Schwarzer: This semester, you're teaching a graduate seminar called Aporias of Identity at NYU’s French Department. Through a reading of Ricœur, you will focus on the unresolvable questions of identity. Could you share a few that you find crucial, and why Ricœur is a central figure for this class?
Catherine Malabou: The book we’re going to read in the seminar is “Oneself as Another”. In my eyes, it is Ricœur’s most interesting book, developing an inquiry into theories of identity through the entire history of philosophy.
Ricœur sharply distinguishes between identity understood as sameness and identity understood as selfhood. Sameness implies that the “I” would remain the same throughout one’s life. This is the most common definition of identity we find in the history of philosophy. Selfhood, on the other hand is neither substantial, nor essential, it is changing and moving. This plastic quality of identity, not as something assimilable with something identical to itself, but on the contrary, something transformable, was particularly appealing to me for this class.
Then, the second reason is the general context of this class, namely, the current debates around identity politics. I am interested in confronting this discourse with a somewhat classical approach to identity like that of Ricœur, to probe the extent to which identity politics as a strategy relies on selfhood or sameness.
The last reason, then, is perhaps Ricœur’s frequent reliance on Greek tragedy to construct his notion of selfhood, and I would like to ask whether philosophy needs the help of literature, and tragedy in particular, to assess this question.
PS: In the history of European philosophy, there are these two tendencies that Ricœur also reckons with: one that thinks identity as unchanging essence, as in the logical relation “a=a”, and one in which identity is a dynamic node in a set of relations. To which extent would you say this logical equation is the phantasm of philosophy?
CM: It is one of philosophy’s most total phantasms, not only for continental, but also for analytic philosophy. What is so striking about Ricœur’s book is how he traces the phantasm through the two traditions. The book is a constant dialogue between Descartes on the one hand, with the entire continental tradition, and then, on the other hand, figures like Strawson, Davidson, Wittgenstein, Parfit and others. Be they continental or analytic, all of them rely on this idea of an unchangeable identity. Analytic philosophers in fact acknowledge that sameness is a fantasy, all the while insisting on it as indispensable. It is thus remarkable to see Ricœur develop a priorly unseen concept of identity in any tradition, through literature and tragedy.
PS: Would you say this is due to a refusal of philosophy to acknowledge philosophy’s own rhetorical or literary dimension?
CM: It is indeed the consequence of a kind of censorship about the origins of philosophy. A censorship that begins with Plato, as Ricœur says. Even if the conclusion of “Oneself as Another” shows that without the narrative of Socrates, or the story of Socrates’s identity, Plato would have been unable to construct the other definition of identity. We could call it a repression of what Ricœur calls “narrativity”, vital for understanding identity.
PS: To which extent would you say these myths are still alive today, functioning as a kind of primary literature or vessels for philosophy?
CM: For Ricœur, myths and tragedies are ways to confer a degree of necessity to what is contingent. The problem of identity is that it is transformable and changing throughout, which means that it is contingent. I never know what will happen to me tomorrow. I never know whether this identity I currently carry won’t be altered by an accident. Narrativity then, always comes into play to structure the possibility of the accident. This is what myth is about, while tragedy gives us insight into the structure of different possible trajectories.
It seems to me that today, elaborations of identity through accidents are still remarkably meaningful – be they about the construction of an ancestral city, where we come from, or traumas. We are beginning to acknowledge the role of traumas and catastrophes in the construction of our selves, be they accidents of the past, ways in which we inherit a series of traumas, or even the accidents to come, in the future.
PS: At the same time, the larger collective narratives for making sense of the past (and in turn the present) are more and more lost in terms of socialization and cultural symbolization. There seems to be a crisis of narrativization playing out at once: while temporality is caught in the disjunction between what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the planetary and a return of the historical against an experientially unmooring presentism (sketched by Francois Hartog), characteristic of postmodernism.
CM: Yes – for Chakrabarty it is very clear that a consciousness going hand in hand with history is not the actor of narrativity today. We must understand it as non-conscious or subconscious – but Chakrabarty does not necessarily think of it in psychoanalytic terms. It is these non-conscious forces that determine the course of our lives, but also the life of the planet. The narrative actors are not the ones we were used to.
PS: How would you relate this then, to psychoanalysis, given its importance in your work?
CM: We need to understand that we, as humans, act as a geological force, which is an utter challenge for consciousness. How can we be conscious of being non-conscious? The unconscious cannot give me any access to my natural being as a geological force, so we must have a different kind of non-consciousness as that of what psychoanalysis calls repression.
PS: Would you say that your work on neuroscience opens up in this direction or that the medical or biological language constitutes a hindrance to thinking through this non-consciousness?
CM: It is too bad that the fascinating discoveries of neuroscience are often cloaked in a reductive vocabulary. What neuroscience at its best discovers is that the brain is full of energies that have not been entirely discovered or exploited by traditional psychology or psychoanalysis. While it most often gets translated into a positivist discourse, I insist another reading of that is possible, one that reveals these insights as advancing a novel understanding of identity.
PS: Would you say this understanding of identity is prosthetic, that is, that it functions as a phantasm we cling to in spite or in midst of our own plasticity? At the same time, we could say the brain as a figure in contemporary discourse also functions as prosthesis, yet one that is overdetermined by a biologism we might attribute to the path-dependency of its medical episteme.
CM: The brain and identity are prostheses, but only if we admit that there is no original, that a prosthesis doesn’t come to replace any kind of primary identity, but that it is rather the primary form in which it appears to us. Identity, as a construction, is necessarily prosthetic: to exist, I must constantly produce myself as a kind of artefact, in the absence of substance, in the absence of essence. I must constantly build this image of myself as a prosthesis, while there is no original.
PS: Would you say there is a remainder of the Christian idea of the soul lurking in Ricœur’s theorization?
CM: We know that Ricœur was also religious, but in my reading, there is no paradise. Identity, as a device, is limited in time and space. If we admit that, then we can give it whichever name we want. I’m not necessarily shocked by this idea of the soul, but with no survival.
PS: Would this “soul” then be individual or collective?
CM: There cannot be any identity without a commonality that has to be shared by others, and this is the sense of politics, which necessitates sharing something like our soul, if we wanted to call it that way. But we would then need to be weary of understanding this common identity as fusional. Rather, we need to consider it constructed, judged, and rationally determined. Democracy could be another name for this common identity in Ricœur.
PS: And yet, one of your last books was on the topic of anarchism. It is peculiar that you move into an interrogation of identity – what would an anarchic conception of it look like?
CM: If I decided to work on anarchism and anarchy, it was because it appeared to me that anarchism was perhaps the only plastic form of politics to the extent that it doesn’t rely on norms or pre-established principles. Instead, it must invent itself constantly. In that sense, identity is always anarchic – yet it comes to forget that. An anarchist identity would be one that only obeys to itself, rejecting all forms of governance coming from above – but we will go into this more in the seminar (laughs).
PS: To which extent would this anarchic identity retain a dimension of alterity? I’m thinking of Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay about his heart transplant, The Intruder, in which the intruder designates the movement of proximity and distance at the edge of the self, the body, and the other. Something peculiar about this text is the way in which it moves between the utter personal experience of the author (subjected to a heart transplant, but also and prior to that, a failing heart), and a kind of cosmology. Which is to say, we have both an extremely situated, historic specificity, and a timelessness, which may very well be the cunning of philosophy. Nancy stresses the necessity of intrusion, a need for the other to trespass, as an ethical principle at the heart of one’s intimacy.
CM: We are indeed talking about ethics, but about an ethics without norms. Nancy’s experience is for me a direct echo to Ricœur, even if he was not aware of it. The self is another. It is always an intruder to the extent that I never know who I am once and for all, because who I am always comes for another. Like Nancy’s heart, identity is always implanted in me, coming from without, always haunting me.
Interview with Valerie Deorio: Catherine Malabou on the enduring role of the French public intellectual.
Pierre Schwarzer is writing his thesis at the Department of French Literature, Thought, and Culture. His research deals with technical determinism, artificial intelligence and a “French theory” of the digital through a reading of Bernard Stiegler. Pierre trained in philosophy in Germany and New York and has taught at NYU, Parsons School of Design and the Berlin University of Arts. His recent writing was published in Texte zur Kunst and Jacobin among others.
Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher. She is a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS and professor of modern European philosophy at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at Kingston University, London. She is known for her work on plasticity, a concept she culled from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which has proven fertile within contemporary economic, political, and social discourses.