Occasioned by the publication of a French edition of Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Jean-Philippe Cazier's interview with Judith Butler first appeared in Diacritik.
Judith Butler, November 2015. via Vimeo.
Your book explicitly draws on texts by numerous philosophers, notably Levinas and in particular Hannah Arendt. But it also seems to have a strong attachment to Spinoza’s work. We can establish numerous specific links between this book and Spinoza’s philosophy, for example its core interest in the notion of relations, its reflection on the "power" of the "mass," the question of the body and what a body can be, the problem — one that runs through several of your books — of the unliveable lives produced by a violent régime, etc. In general terms, what does your philosophical work owe to Spinoza’s writings? And more precisely: why do you think it is interesting to use Spinoza today in order to think through the political and ethical problems you pose in your book?
It is true that Spinoza remains in the background of my thinking. Perhaps you have detected that his thought is surfacing more explicitly in my own. I am aware, for instance, that his notion of persistence, and his philosophy of life are quite important for my understanding of the political realm. I also consider myself to be close to Etienne Balibar’s early work on Spinoza and politics. It might be important to consider some paths from Spinoza to contemporary politics that does not necessarily move through Deleuze, even though Deleuze brings out a very important dimension of bodily action as rooted in the capacity to be affected. The point is not only that the conatus, that desire to persist in one’s own being, is enhanced or diminished depending on the dynamic interactions with other living beings, but that a desire to live together, a pulsation that belongs to co-habitation, emerges that forms the basis of consensus, and that this political principle and practice follows from the very exercise or actualization of the desire to persist in one’s own being. One desires to persist in one’s own being, but that can only happen if one is affected by the other, and so without that fundamental susceptibility there can be no persistence.
Jean Birnbaum's interview with Étienne Balibar about his new book Des Universals was first published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.
You recently published a book on the question of the universal (Des Universals, Paris: Galilée, 2016). This notion, which seems so familiar, however often remains rather unclear. If you had to give a definition to a class of 17 year olds, what would you say?
I would say that it is a value that designates the possibility of being equal without necessarily being the same, and thus of being citizens without having to be culturally identical.
Indeed, in our era universalism is often associated with consensus, and first of all with a bien pensant Left, presumed to be weak and naïve… Yet in your view universalism is anything but an idealism.
First of all, my objective is not to uphold a "left-wing position," but to debate universalism as a philosophical question. Of course, I am on the Left, but the Left itself is is traversed by all the conflicts inherent to the question of the universal. The universal does not bring people together, it divides them. Violence is a constant possibility. But I first of all seek to describe internal conflicts.