Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?
I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.
For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work. (more…)
Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?
The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?
That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)
Alice Kaplan shares how Albert Camus wrote one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels
What inspired you to write Looking for The Stranger?
The Stranger is the first novel I ever read in French, and the first novel I ever taught. I’ve always been struck by the fact that during all the years I spent studying it, word by word and scene by scene, I learned almost nothing at all about its Algerian setting. My trips to Algeria, my visits to the places Camus lived when he worked on the book were deeply inspiring. Twenty years ago, there was no way to travel to Algeria and I feel very lucky to have been able to explore Camus’s life there.
Your titledraws attention to the elusiveness of Camus’ novel. What kinds of challenges did you face during your research?
That’s a question every researcher loves to answer! Whatever papers Camus used to write the novel are lost. One theory has it that he left all his stuff in the Madison Hotel on the Boulevard Saint Germain when he evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand during the German invasion. The Germans eventually requisitioned the hotel, and by the time he went to collect his belongings there was nothing left. So I had to imagine what inspired him, through hints in his letters, his diaries, and in the novel itself: James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; the Fernandel comedy, Le Schpountz; trials he covered for the newspaper Alger-Républicain. Then there are the manuscripts. If you set out to write the life story of a novel, the various manuscript versions are bound to tell a compelling story about how the writing evolved. In the case of The Stranger, there is only one available manuscript, which seems to be cobbled together from several versions. Part of it is hand written and part typed. The most interesting thing about that manuscript is that “Meursault” is spelled without an e, “Mersault.” When did he add that “u”, which put death (meur) right in his narrator’s name? (more…)
Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel?
Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity. Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers. But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.
Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason. This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda. Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression. (more…)
Does Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories speak to our troubled economic era?
In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’
First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist’s chief motivations, and one of his signature themes. (more…)