Resisting the meaningless

For an anarchist, Simon Critchley has a beautiful house. As professor of Philosophy at the New School (which he has called ‘a decidedly abnormal university’), he’s been in New York for eight years, but his English accent still seems out of place here in the middle of Brooklyn. Before this, he was at Essex. ‘It was a great place, but it was taken over by bureaucrats,’ and he reckons the rest of British academia is in the grip of the same vice. ‘There’s a vague sense of resentment about philosophy,’ he says. ‘They basically hate what we do.’

But Critchley hasn’t lost his connection to the UK. If he wasn’t here talking to me, he’d be round the corner at the local Liverpool FC bar. And, he says, if he’d been in London back in August, he would have been out on the streets rioting too (he’s been involved in the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in New York). From his perch across the Atlantic, Critchley sees events this year in Europe and North Africa as part of the same broader movement. The Arab Spring has been ‘a wonderful confirmation of the way power can shift.’ It is, he believes, ‘an eruption of anarchist sensibility,’ which means people ‘trying to do things in common, non-violently, trying to get autonomy over the means of production.’ The consequences are ‘potentially really radical.’

‘What the riots [in August] revealed is that exactly the same situation could arise in somewhere like England.’ The broader issue, Critchley contends, following Zygmunt Bauman, is a ‘set of increasing disjunctions’ between politics and power. ‘We still act as though [party] politics can transform conditions, but we also realise that power has shifted.’ On the one hand that means that power has shifted to corporations, individuals, and organisations with international reach and limited accountability. On the other, it’s on the streets, in demonstrations, riots, and revolutions like those of Tunisia and Egypt. 

‘Things aren’t going to get better,’ says Critchley. ‘Politicians are right to be afraid of the people they’re supposed to be ruling.’ When the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement erupted soon after I left New York, his remark started to seem all the more prescient.

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It’s Critchley’s ‘endless optimism about human nature’ that allows him to offer such a sanguine assessment of this situation. The more the current system breaks down, the more opportunity there is for people and communities to make something better. In Infinitely Demanding (2007), Critchley argued for an anarchist ‘politics of resistance’ that emerges from an ethical perspective, something he called ‘the exhorbitant demand of infinite responsibility’ – a demand that we make of ourselves, and with which we cope through art’s power of catharsis and sublimation. 

So politics, ethics, and aesthetics are inseparable in Critchley’s philosophical work. But that’s a position he’s had to defend against prevailing academic practice, where walls of separation often seem to divide subfields and traditions. ‘Heidegger said that philosophy is the police force at the procession of the sciences, but today philosophy is its own police force,’ Critchley tells me. ‘We need more philosophical omnivores.’

Although he thinks there’s more room for the kind of work he wants to do in the US academic system than there is in the UK, still Critchley fears that ‘universities have become factories for producing degrees in business studies.’ One way of resisting that, for him, has been to move some of his activities into the art world. To his eye, art has a lot in common with philosophy; it deals with the same kinds of questions and problems, and comes out of the same feelings and desires. 

Montaigne wrote that ‘to philosophise is to learn how to die,’ an idea that Critchley explored in a 1997 book, Very Little… Almost Nothing. Two years later, he and the novelist Tom McCarthy launched a strange, semi-parodic organisation, the International Necronautical Society, declaring that ‘death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.’ There’s a provocativeness, not to mention a divisiveness, in Critchley’s writing that shares something with contemporary art. 

He tells me a story about a philosopher who was offered a prestigious post at Sydney. As soon as he was appointed, he withdrew most of his articles from publication; asked why, he said, ‘You have to make yourself as small a target as possible.’ That’s one way of being a philosopher. But Critchley self-deprecatingly prefers an alternate approach: ‘You throw as much shit at the wall as possible and watch it run down, and other people pick it up and play with it.’

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All Souls philosopher Derek Parfit, choosing his path back in the 1970s, reckoned that Analytic philosophers wrote lucidly on very narrow, boring topics, and Continental philosophers wrote bewilderingly on what really mattered. Was it more likely that Analytics would become more relevant, or Continentals would become clearer? Parfit went for the former. To Critchley, the distinction between the two schools is a ‘profoundly uninteresting question.’ But in a way it has been central to his career. 

He wrote the Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy in 2001, and has acted as a kind of standard-bearer for English-speaking Continentalists. What’s more, his writing is actually readable. He’s even a little worried by it. ‘My writing has been most often described as “clear.” That’s fine, but I’d like it to also be deep!’ What Critchley really seems to be aiming for is a perfect philosophy, not just deep, or broad, or clear, but all three.

But where Analytic philosophers have a habit of thinking they can actually solve a problem, Critchley has always picked on the insoluble. ‘I’ve always been attracted to difficulty, just for the sake of it really.’ What animates his work is a continual pushing back against meaninglessness: what he calls the ‘problem of nihilism.’ 

Yet he’s hesitant to locate meaning in the political struggle he’s passionate and optimistic about. If anything, the most powerful theme in his work is death, disappointment, ‘almost nothing.’ Was he ever a nihilist? ‘Oh, all the time,’ he says. ‘That juvenile angst of living in an empty meaningless universe – it still gets me.’

 

Simon Critchley’s next book, Faith of the Faithless, will be published next year.