Canon speaks with Dr. Simon Critchley
Critchley is the “chief philosopher” in a semi-fictitious avant-garde society, where he collaborates with other thinkers and produces “denunciations” and live, theatrical events. He most recently co-taught a course called “Thinking the Present,” ran a program for interdisciplinary studies, and published works such as On Heidegger’s Being and Time (2008), and The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008). He also teaches philosophy and liberal arts at the European Graduate School in Switzerland in summer. He currently serves as the Chair of the Philosophy Department of NSSR.
When you hear the word “collaboration,” what comes to mind?
The word can have different connotations. If you say collaboration to me, the first thing that comes to mind is the collaboration with the government of occupied France during the Nazi regime “The Collaboration” – but that isn’t what you mean.
At what points have you worked collaboratively?
It’s not academic, but there’s something called the International Necronautical Society (CK). I’m the head philosopher and we’ve been going for about ten years. We are a semi-fictitious avant-garde group based on the model of the European avant-gardes. We work collaboratively, on various projects, texts, pranks, activities. What interests me about collaboration is working in a less inhibited way. It just gives a different meaning to authorship. You know, academia is, for the most part, radically individualistic.
What are the main issues surrounding collaboration in academia?
Academia is sort of a lost cause, but they could definitely benefit from more collaboration. Even when you work collectively in academia, you’re always working as an individual with other named individuals; in subdivisions like psychology, philosophy, etc. What about working some other way? What about working anonymously, or collectively? It’s to breathe a bit of creative life into people.
This [International Necronautical] society and other things I’ve done have really fed off collaborative processes in the art world. There’s been a generation of artists—some of whom I like, some of whom I know—who work collectively. For them it’s about the idea of the group—how can we construct something like a collective intelligence? It’s a way of expanding the idea of authorship or breaking down the idea of authorship, which academia is all about. Experimenting with forms of groups and collectives—that’s what interests me.
I’ve always thought of collaboration as something that creates a spark. There’s sort of a myth surrounding the idea of a lone genius that comes up with things in a room by himself.
Yes, it can be that. Most of the collaborations I’ve done I’ve probably been in a room writing on my own, but writing in the persona of the group or the collective. We will shuttle back and forth texts, to the point where we start to write the way the other would, imagine what they would say or you take on some other voice.
[To produce individual works]-that’s what you’re meant to do to become an academic. If you get someone who is trying to think in a through line of argument and then you get someone else who’s going: maybe it’s like this, or maybe like this. ‘This passage in Nabokov, which is like this moment in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which reminds me of what this guy said…’ and you just begin to think in a different way.
So I find it enormously—liberating. And I would urge people to do a lot more of it, knowing full well they probably won’t—at least not professionally. Because it’s not in your self-interest to do it, but maybe you should work against your self-interest.
You can, as Foucault said: “develop your legitimate strangeness.” Collaboration can help with that.
How is the New School a unique academic environment?
All the New School has got going for it is its “legitimate strangeness;” Is its weirdness, because it’s not got money, and the way that most institutions of higher education are measured in this country is through money. We haven’t got any of that. Or a library. So what do we have? We have a group of people, and there’s an esprit de corps here, which is strong; and a tradition that is unique in the history of education in the US.
I take very seriously the idea that were doing something unique, that people will come off the street and hear lectures here. We’re not catering to anything. We’re not just a factory that’s producing students or graduate students or PhDs for an education system.
You seem to be a proponent of interdisciplinary studies…
Interdisciplinary is … it’s a phrase that I hate! I think that, if interdisciplinarity becomes a policy or a principle it’s lost, it’s meaningless. Interdisciplinarity tends to be a word that people use but don’t understand. Here there are collaborations between people which are quite specific, and which are grown out of the traditions of this place and friendships and the particular mixture of departments that we have at the School for Social Research. Say between, I don’t know, philosophy and politics: There are nodes, because we’re reading the same things, we are interested in the same ideas, so we talk to people and they’re smart, and you are interested in them.
If it becomes interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity’s sake, then it’s lost. It has to be something that emerges organically, out of the ground of the institution. I ran in England an interdisciplinary center, I ran it for the last eight years I was there, and that only worked because there were probably four or five individuals that liked each other and worked with each other. There was philosophy, politics, sociology, literature and art history—and we all sort of did what we liked.
I see no reason why discipline should be named and divided the way they are—it makes no sense to me at all. Philosophy is the worst example of that, because I mean, what is philosophy? Professional philosophy is simply the activity that a certain number of professional philosophers decide is philosophy. Like gods saying, ‘this is philosophy, but that isn’t. Oh, that’s sociology or anthropology.’ Or, ‘this is meaningful and this is nonsense.’
And that nauseates me. If education comes to that, then we might as well just do something else.
So you aren’t really into the labels, then?
I’d be in favor of not even thinking in terms of individual disciplines. There are pools of interesting things right? And it’s interesting to swim in those pools. And you might find other fish, other species. You can talk to them. Talk, whatever fish do. The sort of philosophy that interests me is read by people in all sorts of disciplines.
The mistake that students make is that they want to decide which box they’re in and where the limits of those boxes are, and how that box leads on to the next box and their career or whatever. Innovation has always come through forms of intellectual promiscuity. You learn things in the oddest ways, from people that you just didn’t expect to. It means having your ears open, and not being judgmental of it.
It’s a hard thing to do, because it means breaking a lot habits that people learn in education here. Graduate students at least.
There are wonderful examples of liberal arts educations in the US that are incredibly promiscuous like that; people are in all sorts of interesting areas. But then, as you go on, you have to specialize more and more. And there can be something very deadening about that at the same time, maybe you are learning about the pinnacle of a discipline. What about It that makes what you do unintelligible to everybody else, do you see the virtue in that?
What is the value of music in your academic, “interdisciplinary” career?
When I was young and doing music, that was collaboration. I used to play in bands a lot and it was an extraordinary moment in the late 70s in England.
When culture is interesting it moves incredibly fast and you’ve got to have your ears open and just be curious. The punk scene was just that—for people like me and a whole generation like me, it just made a whole number of things possible. It wasn’t just about being spat at in dark club. It was about, listening to reggae for the first time and ending up in a room full of black people for the first time. And then, having the first thoughts about questions of racism for the first time. It was about reading William Burroughs for the first time; or experimenting with all sorts of different forms of intoxication for the first time. It was about different forms of curiosity. You know, I think interesting cultural moments are like that—collaborations of a kind.
Music was—it can be an amazing example of collaboration because, collaboration should flow like music. It should be intuitive, like being in a band, where you know what the other person’s thinking, or you can put yourself in that position and imagine what they’d say.
Basically, I think, collaboration is about getting outside of this head, this cranium, and all that stuff that’s in there. And hear the possibility of becoming something larger than that, a group, maybe if only for a moment.