The first of two interviews with the legendary Alan Saunders in his radio show The Philosopher's Zone, which I did live in ABC studios in Sydney. Sadly Saunders died shortly thereafter. This pair of interviews were the last to be broadcast. Transcript below. For audio follow the link.
Alan Saunders: Hello, and this is Alan Saunders inviting you to think out loud on The Philosopher’s Zone. ‘Thinking out loud’ is a series of three lectures on philosophy and society presented by the University of Western Sydney in collaboration with the State Library of New South Wales, Fordham University Press in the States and ABC RN. This will be an annual event, and this year the theme was secular criticism, a term that indicates the desire of modern thought to wrest a space that is separate from religion. How is it possible to reconceptualise a space against religious tendencies of all sorts that is, at the same time, radically democratic and suitable for the modern version of what the ancient Greeks called the polis, the democratic state?
The speaker is Stathis Gourgouris, professor of classics, English and comparative literature and director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University in New York, and this week after a chat with him we’ll hear an edited version of his first lecture. You can hear the whole of the second lecture on Big Ideas at 8 pm on Thursday, and we’ll be playing some of the third on our show next week. But now let’s meet the lecturer, and when I spoke to Stathis Gourgouris, the first thing I wanted to know is why is a professor of classics, English and comparative literature talking philosophy?
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, what a great question. I guess it’s the mark of the academic system in the Anglophone world, where philosophy departments have been taken over by what is called analytic philosophy, and people who think in so-called continental philosophy terms -- all of these in any other world outside the Anglophone world would not actually mean much -- oftentimes appear in other departments the most common of which would be comparative literature. That’s the kind of institutional explanation, but I think that for me personally, comparative literature, the way I was trained at least, which is a kind of American discipline really, is a space where one would tend to combine various interests that have to do with culture and society, and then of course clearly philosophy would have to be a very important part.
Alan Saunders: Now, just a recap on your first lecture. What is secular criticism and what makes it secular?
Stathis Gourgouris: The term belongs to Edward Said, the very well-known Palestinian-American thinker and activist, professor of English and comparative literature, of course, at Columbia it turns out, who never quite defined the term, so we can’t say that it has some kind of framework from which one can then follow or apply concepts. I’m going a step further to argue that secular criticism cannot be defined as a philosophical system or a conceptual system or even a theoretical system; that it involves a kind of practice, a certain attitude towards thinking, but also acting in the world politically. We have to be true to the two words that are part of this term, both the fact that the term is critical, that it has to be interrogative and places things in doubt, that it’s in some way skeptical about things given. At the same time, secular in the sense that it belongs to the world, and it’s worldly, it’s not given over to transcendental speculation or given over to faith-based understanding; that it is in that sense profoundly historical, one might say.
Alan Saunders: And you find, don’t you, a rapidly increasing number of academics in American universities who become animated with antipathy over whatever is signified by the secular, and you find this surprising because many of these academics are also considered radically anti-colonial and anti-imperialist thinkers?
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, I think that we can now safely speak of a phenomenon; I don’t think that we would’ve said this ten years ago... It turns out that many of these thinkers -- not all, but many -- are non-western thinkers in that kind of very general sense of what that means, but most of them are professors in western universities, primarily, in fact, in our American universities... There is a certain conflation, which I think is very problematic, between, on the one hand, a certain kind of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics, which I very much applaud, and at the same time, a certain tendency to applaud ways of thinking that are religious without necessarily these thinkers being themselves devout in any particular faith.
Alan Saunders: When you say ways of thinking that are religious, do you mean that in a very literal term? I mean, do they see, for example, the point of Islamicism?
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, quite so. I think there are two very important thinkers in this group, let’s say -- if it’s to be called a group, it’s a tendency, really... One would be Talal Asad, who is a very important professor of anthropology, and Saba Mahmood, who is a younger professor at Berkeley, also of anthropology. It’s not the question of subscribing to dogma, it’s not a question of applauding religious practices, because I don’t think that we can be against religious practices in a serious way; there is, yes, a certain kind of rather laissez faire attitude toward Islamic positions, but not only that, that’s one of the components which in my mind -- and I’m not of course an expert in Islam by any means -- are unfair to the complexity of Islam, to begin with. And also I think these positions are politically self-serving, not so much for their own purposes, but in the sense that, given obviously the fact that Islam has become a kind of enemy of the West in the general sense, that this particular condition, which I am very much against, of course, becomes a way of evaluating Islamic thinking that I think betrays the complexity of its legacy. By the way, let me just add that there are many thinkers, non-western thinkers, who would of course point this out, it’s not just who is doing that, I just want to make that clear.
Alan Saunders: In order to appreciate how things stand now, you use a classical Greek term poiein.
Stathis Gourgouris: Correct, yes.
Alan Saunders: What does this mean and what’s its significance here?
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, I’m using what is an infinitive, the infinitive form of the verb behind the word poiesis which is the one that we know well, which gives us both poetics and poetry, and I’m interested in underlining the verb, that’s a strategy on my part, because I wanted to emphasise the action, which is a kind of continuous action, rather than the substantive, which may tend to be thought of as something that’s circumscribed. But poiein in the ancient vocabulary means to create, and to form and to shape, so it goes much beyond the act of making verses, the act of being a poet in the sense of literature. And so, it becomes a useful idea or a useful notion, both because, on the one hand, it is based on a certain kind of poetic, let’s say, literary practice, which I care a lot about, but also because it goes beyond it and it can address broader issues. For example, how do societies imagine themselves and how they imagine their adversaries? How is it that they shape their present time, their world, how is it that they may in fact shape their future? That is a certain propensity in societies and communities, communal imagination, that we can call poetic without, though, restricting it to the aesthetic.
Alan Saunders: Now, you think that the really troublesome term here is critique. Why is that and where does it emerge in the discussion?
Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, in this particular lecture I’ve pointed to that because of a very interesting debate that was conducted in Berkeley, I can’t remember now, maybe three or four years ago, under the title ‘Is Critique Secular?’ where some of the people I mentioned before but also others, Judith Butler being the most famous of all, were engaged with this question. And what emerges from the conversation, though the position’s by no means—I’m not, by any means concurring in their views—that, you know, the critical apparatus is perhaps too restricted by a certain western framework, essentially a kind of Enlightenment legacy of thinking. Therefore it is circumscribed by that, and that we need to think beyond that particular lineage. And I think that’s actually good, I agree with that problematic, and so my attempt is to think beyond this particular lineage by of course going back to partly a certain kind of literal investigation of the notion, the Greek word krisis which is where we also get the word crisis, which is very popular these days as a term, and to push in that direction as well. So that’s why I say that this is a troubled domain, because it is right now a kind of point of contention. Recently, though, I was looking back at one of the very important lectures that Michel Foucault gave late in his life, it’s called ‘What is Critique?’ where he takes on Kant’s famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’; it’s obvious that the title is meant to resonate Kant's, and there too -- this is now already I guess in 1970, late 1970s, ’78 or something like that -- the situation is in some ways similar, meaning that the term itself is in crisis. So I would like to argue that critique, if we’re going to really care about what it might mean as a practice, critical practice, must go into crisis periodically, must go into a discussion, an interrogation about what it means.
Alan Saunders: So it’s like capitalism, is it? It limps from crisis to crisis?
Stathis Gourgouris: Hopefully not, because capitalism has managed to always reconstitute itself stronger as a result.
Alan Saunders: But is critique then, as an act, is it an essentially political act?
Stathis Gourgouris: My argument is yes, and I say that’s the case even originally, because the term krisis was used very much in a kind of a, what we would say today, a legal framework; it always pertained to judgment, and no judgment can be neutral, meaning it is always making a decision in a field of contention, and therefore that is an essentially political act.
Alan Saunders: On The Philosopher’s Zone you’re listening to Professor Stathis Gourgouris, who last month gave the first of three lectures in the inaugural ‘Thinking Out Loud’ series at the State Library of New South Wales. The first lecture was called ‘Secular criticism as poetics and politics’, and here’s an edited version of it.
Stathis Gourgouris: As some of you may know, the term secular criticism is certainly not mine, it belongs to the great Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said, who was one of my chief intellectual mentors, and to whose memory in fact I would like to dedicate this lecture, but I am extending this term further to the domain of the poetic and the political. So this evening’s lecture: secular criticism as poetics and politics.
The anti-theoretical strain that has come into full force in the last decade permeates all disciplines, especially historical and political studies, but it registered with particular vehemence in literary studies itself, no doubt because of the well-honed perception that theory was dangerous to literature, and that as a result literary studies have been suffering for some time, from incapacity to remain relevant to the contemporary conditions of knowledge production. A succinct exposition of this perspective can be found in Marjorie Perloff’s Modern Language Association presidential address a few years ago, 2006.
From a certain standpoint, Perloff’s lament, the literary study has been relegated to a secondary position in the research framework of our profession, does indeed have merit. The standpoint, however, rests on a kind of retrospective, so as not to say nostalgic, comparison of today’s institutional parameters with an era in which literary study enjoyed an enviable autonomy. Perloff’s argument rests on a reconfiguration of something archaic. I quote: ‘Whatever the inter (interdisciplinary), there is one discipline that is conspicuously absent, and that discipline is what the Greeks call poietikai, the discipline of poetics.’ But this... That’s the quotation. But this reconfiguration remains archaic for two reasons: first, she does not enquire if poetics might be conducted nowadays in an entirely different language, which at first glance may seem to have nothing to do with poetry as such. This itself could be, or become, the work of literary theory or even poetic thinking. Second, and I think this is symptomatic of the first, Perloff’s view of poietikai might be in fact narrowly conceived, even within the terms of its ancient usage, to refer substantively to a skill, like rhetoric, let’s say. I prefer instead to counteract the substantive name of a skill, poietikai, with the infinitive verb of a practice, poiein, whose precise skills are voluminous and indefinite, never exhausted by the skill of crafting verses, and indeed never immune to the transformational process of the practice. This practice of course is an art, but an art that exceeds arts poetica conventionally understood.
To make a plain point: by the gesture of poiein, I mean, not merely the art of making but the art of forming, thereby within the domain of history transforming, the most ancient notion of poiein, which is present in Homer pertains primarily to working on matter, shape or form and only secondarily to abstraction. It is especially interesting to consider that the root reference to the word 'creativity', in Greek demiourgia, is actually instrumentalist, as opposed to a poiitis, a poet, a demiourgos, a creator, is one whose work derives its primary meaning from the public sphere; the word itself provides the evidence, demos plus ergon. This ergon covers quite a range of action: a demiourgos, a creator, can be a seer just as much as he can be a doctor. The notion is reversed in the modern world, arguably because of the Christian investment in the notion of creation out of the absolute. In Plato, one might say that demiourgos, creator, is in fact a worker, one who commits an ergon, while the poet is a shaper, the one who shapes forms. For Plato, of course, shaping forms is always in the last instance misshaping, deforming. Hence his alarm for the poet as a shaper who forms and transforms morals; an entirely political, I would argue, not ethical, decision which leaves no other place for the poet but exile from the city. The transformative power of poiein, first of all as a social imaginary but also as artistic, let us say poetic, in a simple sense force, is consistently underplayed in favour of a certain analytic relation to knowledge, a philosophical mode of knowledge which has formed the backbone of the pseudo-rationality that animates the instrumental logic of what we can call now capitalist globalisation. I say this because poetry continues to remain intransigent, and socially significant, in largely pre-capitalist modes of life, even while capitalist logic is raging everywhere infrastructurally, economically, technologically, culturally and even politically, at an extraordinary speed and scale.
Let me now turn to the notion whose particular poiein I’m especially keen on examining. Secular criticism did emerge from the core of those polemics over theory that I described. The name belongs, as is well known, to Edward Said, and though it appears early on in the essay that introduces his book The world, the text and the critic, all the way back in 1983, it can never be said to have had the benefit of unequivocal definition. Instead of definition of a concept, Said provides multifarious descriptions of a task which may include conceptual attitudes, without however finding safeguards in the concepts, but mostly pertain to certain practices of thinking and of writing.
There can never be a theory of secular criticism, which isn’t to say that secular criticism does not engage in theoretical problems or indeed produce theories. To provide a definition of framework of secular criticism as theory would mean to set external and a priori rules for what would be secular and what would be critical about it, and this would defeat the intelligence of the practice on both grounds. I confess that I’m still astonished by the extraordinary identification between, on the one hand, exceedingly and dangerously reactionary Christian anti-secular attitudes on a mass scale in American society in particular (you may be familiar with those I’d expect) and on the other hand a rapidly increasing number of academics in American universities who become rather indiscriminately animated with antipathy over whatever is signified by whatever means as secular. And many of these academics are also considered radical anti-colonial and anti-imperialist thinkers, makes this convergence exceedingly puzzling and indeed worrisome to me.
My own sense is that the tremendous hegemony of identity politics as it developed out of the mid-1980s, still operates as a giant magnet of both ideological certainty and an interrogated affect over the modes of thinking in these circles. Against this newly achieved comfort, I have proposed that one of the key tropes of secular criticism is to de-transcendentalise the secular, precisely so as not to get bogged down with such simple equations between the secular and the theological. Indeed, the only possible equation that can be conceived to exist between secularism and religion, which are the corresponding major axes of the secular and the theological, is for both to be equally and simultaneously subjected to relentless dismantling. That’s why it is an error to ignore the difference between secularism and secular criticism, because secularism is one of the objects taken to task by secular criticism, and it’s the really troublesome term here in this equation, is the critique part, criticism part.
The root term of critique, the Greek krisis, carries a rather instructive multivalence. At a primary level of meaning, it pertains to the practice of distinction and the choice involved; in other words, the decision to pronounce difference or even the decision to differ, to dispute. In this basic sense, krisis is always a political act. In legal or philosophical usage, it is thus linked to judgment, and indeed to the fact that judgment cannot be neutral. In this way krisis as judgment distinguishes and exposes an injustice. As extension of this meaning, we also find in the ancient usage the notion of outcome and of finality, again in the sense of the finality of decision: when one criticises, one produces a finality, one produces an outcome, a judgment. Whatever might be the modern weight of ethical language on the meaning of critique, its groundwork remains political. Decisions have to be made, and to make them is to be accountable for them, to be judged on their basis. This inevitably happens, and I would argue it also creates, a field of contention; the act of differing, even if addressed to an array of neutral objects, can never be disengaged from the subject position. The one who differentiates is also the one who differs.
Considering that no subject position in the ancient Greek world was conceivable outside the polis, the work of the discerning mind, the mind that makes and acts on a decision, would have to be engaged in political matters. Indeed, this might be a way to elucidate the rather conventional notion that, especially in the democratic polis in Athens, reflexivity and interrogations directed towards all established truths was in fact an expected political duty for everyone. Because the one who differentiates is also the one who differs, this interrogation cannot be limited to the objective realm alone; it is at once also a self-interrogation, which is why critique falters if it’s not simultaneously self-critique. For a critic who understands full well that critical work is never neutral and always takes place in a field of contention, this may often be a polemical task. It is always a political task.
Secular criticism is a practice that defies mastery; secular criticism is indeed sceptical to the core, which would hardly be seen as a form of secular heroism, but does in fact carry certain tragic characteristics. In a quantitative universe adulterated by Christian and Christianised ethics, the tragic is at best incomprehensible and at worst abhorrent. Less maligned but equally misunderstand is the sceptical, which is either turned easily into the cynical or neutralised by association with some sort of Cartesian faculty. But my sense of the critical and the secular demands that we exceed both the imperious court of reason and the humble comfort of piety. The critical and the secular have more to do with the sceptical and the tragic; their terrain, as I said earlier, is crossed simultaneously by both interrogation and imagination. So poetic thinking does not seek to absolve the world of its uncertainty, does not seek the incontestable but submits its knowledge to the precariousness of living beings making history. Verifiability in poetic thinking cannot be an outside process, authorised by some other modality or standard; the process of establishing truth is the very process of making truth, a process that is tantamount to the making and of course always unmaking of history. To submit truth to history is another way of saying to submit truth to critique, as I’ve indicated above, and the sceptical element of critique, so long as it does not undo itself by serving as an alibi for imposing certainty, is indeed an essential element of poetic transforming. Thank you.
Alan Saunders: Stathis Gourgouris, with the first of the ‘Thinking out loud’ series of lectures on philosophy and society presented by the University of Western Sydney in collaboration with the State Library of New South Wales, Fordham University Press and ABC RN.
You can hear the whole of the second lecture on Big Ideas at 8 pm on Thursday and we’ll be playing some of the third on our next show. The sound engineer this week was Paul Gough, I’m Alan Saunders and I’ll be back next week with more of Stathis Gourgouris thinking out loud.