Shadow World




President George W. Bush and Saudi King Abdullah Kissing, Shadow World. Mandel Ngan, Getty

All is fair in love and war.
Simon Critchley in dialogue with Johan Grimonprez
May 1, 2012

Simon Critchley: So, what are we going to talk about?

Johan Grimonprez: I’ve collected some thoughts about the new film we’re working on, exploring the global arms trade. You touched upon a set of similar ideas in Nonviolent Violence, the final chapter of your recent book, so, maybe we can take it from there? One thing I came upon lately is the killer ape versus the hippie chimp debate. Playwright Robert Ardrey argued back in the 60s that it is our innate propensity to kill what separated us from apes. It is war “that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.” Primatologist Richard Wrangham picks up on this in Demonic Males (1996). To him it is not our difference from, but rather our similarity to chimpanzees that makes men incline toward war. Chimp violence, he claims, “paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” Basically, biological determinism tends to condemn human nature to a state of perpetual war. It discards such notions as empathy and cooperation, while downplaying our capabilities for inventing peace. Yet, Demonic Males is a reference point for political figures defining US foreign policy. Francis Fukuyama, who served in the State Department under Bush Jr., mentions it as a favorite book of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He labeled Saddam Hussein as a typical ‘demonic male’.

SC: Well, the history of politics really turns on different conceptions of human nature, and whether human beings are essentially good or essentially wicked, and whether we are killer apes or hippy chimps, is a debate which goes back to antiquity. But the modern reference point, as it was picked up between Thomas Hobbes and J-J. Rousseau, is the idea that in Hobbes the natural condition of human beings is a state of war, therefore the state is required to prevent that natural state of war. Whereas Rousseau believes that human beings were naturally good, and wickedness was a social outcome of the state, but if we can throw off the shackles of the state, a more cooperative or anarchist tradition will prevail.

JG: And there is the third position, as Marquis de Sade says, ‘we are wicked, so let us be wicked’.

SC: Yeah, celebrate our wickedness, ha!

JG: Steven Pinker’s exhaustive study The Better Angels of our Nature shows there’s actually a decline of violence in human history, and that we tend to evolve towards ‘the better angels of our nature.’ He contributes that partially to Hobbes’ Leviathan, where human societies were able to evolve towards larger, more inclusive polities, within which peace is more frequently the rule. Rousseau saw the state as a cause of bloodshed, but Hobbes saw it as its cure.

SC: The Leviathan was written by Hobbes in exile in Paris during the English civil war. Given that a society like England dissolved into revolutionary conflict, then that’s the idea: the state of nature is a state of war. So, how does one resolve a state of civil war? Well, through the imposition of authority in the form of a state. Citizens in Hobbes have the chance to get rid of the monarch, the mortal god, the Leviathan. But apart from that, they have to submit to authority. So you could say it is an authoritarian argument for the elimination of violence. But the wider claim that history exhibits a diminution of violence I find that bewildering. If you read someone like Nietzsche, his argument is that physical harm is one thing, but we Christian Europeans have learnt to sublimate physical violence into psychological violence, and that is what we call morality! (laughter) So, in a sense the state functions through sublime violence, which we don’t necessarily feel as violence. It means obedience, accepting the norms that govern a society. So yes, I don’t really understand the claim that history exhibits a diminution of violence.

JG: So, concerning the question of the state, you’d position yourself with Rousseau?

SC: I’m with Rousseau. All the evidence contradicts this, but that is what it means to hold a view. I believe that the state is a limitation on human existence. The state requires a permanent condition of war. Or at least the threat of war. I am talking about the ideological projection of the other, the idea that there is a clash of civilizations. The truth is of course much nastier, if you look at the writings of Osama Bin Laden, what’s fascinating is that for him Al-Qaeda is a response to the American invasion of the Arab lands, in particular the use of Saudi Arabia as a base in the first Gulf War, and further back the continual involvement of Western powers in the Arab world.

JG: Initially, the Al-Qaeda was a roller deck at the FBI, who coined the name for a databank containing all the guys they sponsored to fight with Osama against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

SC: So the enemy — we are not disagreeing — is a total fantasy, right? But the discourse of the state requires the ideological existence of an enemy in order to push against it, while in fact the reality is more complicated, as it is evident by the armaments trade and the defense business of this shadow world.

JG: John Perkins calls it the ‘corporatocracy’. In Confessions of an Economic Hitman, he reveals how a revolving door exists between the multinational corporations, the banks, the government, as well as the media, whereby laws & policy are essentially forged by this corporatocracy, mostly ruled by self-interest and greed. Andrew Feinstein explores this from the point of view of the arms trade in The Shadow World, the book that is the basis for the new film. In a sense, Social Darwinism has celebrated this idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ (a term coined by Herbert Spencer, but wrongly attributed to Darwin), as a way to justify an economic ideology of unbridled competition and greed, often leading to arms races. Yet, the predicament of our present financial crisis shows something is really out of kilter. What if this notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ could be cast in a different light? Frans de Waal’s research into bonobos, the so-called hippie-chimp, tells us a very different story. Genetically as close to man as the chimp, the bonobo is equally as relevant to the discussion about the origins of warfare. Especially de Waal’s explorations into ‘empathy’ and his focus on notions of ‘cooperation’ and ‘conflict-resolution’ offer a counterpart to this celebrated paradigm of greed. Moreover, the fittest often turns out to be indeed the one who is able to cooperate. One aspect of human behavior chimps cannot illuminate is something we do even more than waging war, it’s maintaining peace, writes De Waal in Our Inner Ape (2005).

Russian-German Fraternization, Shadow World, Johan Grimonprez, 2016, Courtesy Bundesarchive

SC: Human beings are distorted by the different social regimes they find themselves in, which turns them against each other, and through individualism, to use that word, everything that the apparatus of ideology, and in particular the media, are trying to foster, is a spirit of false confrontation. When human beings believe that they can act together in concert and cooperate, as it appears at the interstices of history, no greater power on earth than that! Occupy was about the fact that human beings could assemble and show each other respect and engage in discussion collectively without structures of authority. The amazing thing about Zuccotti Park, when I was down there, was this feeling of, you know, compassion, it was a different way of relating to people.

JG: The echo of Occupy mainstream was small in comparison to how big it really was.

SC: The broadcast media in this country are irredeemable. It is a convenient display of polarities of opinion, whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, it is the same oligarchic structure they supported. But the two interesting things about Occupy were the demand made by these very media: “Who are your leaders, and what do you want?” —and the refusal of Occupy to articulate these specific demands and the refusal to have leaders, who would be denounced by the same media. Obviously what was mobilized and has been over the last 10-15 years, with punctuation points in Seattle, is the rise of social media, which can allow for other things. So the question of access is split between the ideological projections of broadcast media, and this new universe of social media.

JG: Reinventing that space of what is defined as a social contract?

SC: Well, it can be in a situation where the mainstream media, say in Egypt or Tunisia, exists in order to maintain the government’s message, then the social media take on this emancipatory potential. In situations where more liberal conditions pertain, then the consequences are obviously more ambiguous. The 2008 Obama campaign was notable for its sophisticated use of virtual media, the first campaign run on those lines. But similarly, the Tea Party and right-wing extremism are as adept at using social media.

JG: Chris Hedges, NYT journalist, called Obama a Calvin Klein President, masterfully advertising his campaign, but a huge disappointment afterwards.

SC: Sure. That was bound to happen. But if grass-roots radicalism had been maintained, then there would be no need for Occupy, right? But yes, there has been three years of drift and disappointment.

JC: Nine days after Obama decided to send 30.000 more troops to Afghanistan, during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Price, he declared: “War in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” It implies that war is inherently part of human nature and that it has always been with us. However, historical evidence has proven these assumptions wrong. Archeologist Brian Ferguson claims war to be a relatively late human invention. Moreover, the human record shows long periods of absence of wars in certain areas. Also anthropologist Douglas Fry shows that war is absolutely not that universal. But the fact that war has always been with us, that it was there with the first man, is actually a myth. Some findings show different things.

SC: What do you think the findings show, in your view?

JC: Well, for example, the killer ape thesis goes back to archeologist Raymond Dart’s findings of the Australopithecus, a human predecessor located in Africa. The specimen consistently showed a fossil skull fractured with a particular pair of holes. Dart interpreted this as indisputable evidence that human’s earliest ancestors were murderers. They used animal leg bones as weapons, he argued, as they cause paired fractures on the skull. Now this is precisely what is portrayed in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film popularizing Robert Ardrey’s killer ape theories that inspired Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick to depict an animal-bone-turned-weapon giving birth to civilization. But lately a different picture about the australopithecines came to light. When anthropologist C.K.Brain examined the same collection of skulls, he arrived at a more plausible story;—an extinct leopard, found at the same geological layers, had two canine teeth corresponding exactly with the paired holes on the skulls. So, the murderous killer apes, so colorfully described by Dart and Ardrey, turned out to be merely lunch for leopards. So, it seems the popular depiction of our human ancestors in 2001: A Space Odyssey is completely off the chart.

SC: Politics has always used conceptions of nature in order to justify different regimes of power. We appeal to nature in order to justify what is a contingent cultural fact. So, I don’t think the question is ever going to be resolved one way or another: are we killer apes or are we hippy chimps? Do we want to kill each other or do we want to get along?

JG: Frans de Waal calls us a bipolar ape. We swing between Hobbes and Rousseau. We’re a living oxymoron. “But the fact that war belongs to the past,” to quote Howard Zinn, “does not mean it has to be part of the future.”

SC: I agree that war is not a natural condition of human beings, nor is it an inevitable condition of human social life. I don’t believe that for a second. In favorable conditions human beings can get along, they can even get along without the apparatus of law, bureaucracy, the state and the police. That would be my version of anarchism, which is not about disorder, but about another conception of order that would be self-determining, based on love and respect, more or less. And then somebody is going to say, “Well, if that’s true, how do you explain the wars that have punctuated history?”

JG: War is a historical phenomenon, but it’s not because it is prevalent today that it cannot be abolished. At one point slavery was naturalized as it had alleged genetic underpinnings, or rape for that matter, was justified by the fact that it was innate, but that does not mean it could not be eliminated.

SC: Violence is a phenomenon with a history, right? To disavow that history in the name of a principled idea of non-violence is to risk amnesia, so the first thing is to understand the history of violence from which we spring. Violence is never one thing: it is usually a response to a perceived, previous violence. And the classical example would be Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the context of the Trojan War, where the violence that led to war, leads to different cycles of murder, where Agamemnon is murdered, then Clytemnestra is murdered, and we finally end up in court where the question really is whether that cycle of violence can be suspended. And arguably, the Greeks understanding of their institutions and law and theatre, was that they were capable of suspending violence whilst still understanding the violence from which we come. The problem with most modern states like the US or Britain, or Belgium, is we disavow the history of violence out of which those states were constituted. Even when that history is a glorious history, or a revolutionary history, as for the most part people that we would identify as oppressed, this would mean a memory of violence.

JG: “Historical amnesia is the luxury of the oppressor,” as you cite Fanon.

SC: The history of violence amongst the average English person in 2012 with regard to Ireland is less than minimal, whereas the average Irish person from the Republic – and indeed from the North, to this day can recount a history of violence. But then, does that mean to accept that violence is a phenomenon of history? Or if history is a history of violence and counter-violence is that to conclude that violence is inevitable? I think it is to conclude that violence can be suspended in optimal circumstances.

JG: Violence longs to breed. War is contagious. But ultimately can one wage war on war? Your reading of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence takes on the crucial question: can a struggle against violence avoid becoming itself a violent struggle? To Benjamin the law itself has a violent origin, it is enforced by violence. So given this contradiction, to what extent can a non-violent resolution of conflict be possible?

SC: To Benjamin, law is the mechanism by which the violence of the state is continued, so the idea of a resolution of violence through law for him is off the table. It’s a truism of European life from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, that law, and international law in particular, is a way of suspending violence. That is the official view. But beneath it there’s another argument that international law is simply the masquerade for Western imperial power. The rise of international law is also the rise of colonialism, which is the most violent set of procedures for expropriating people, usually non-Western people. So, someone like Benjamin would urge for something more extreme, say revolutionary activity, as a way of suspending the violence of law. In many ways it is the line between a reformist or a revolutionary idea of politics. But you can criticize both. The revolutionary idea is as flawed as the reformist. To suspend law, to conceive a society without law, which is what the young Marx did, you legitimize the most grotesque forms of violence.

JG: So, does the commitment to non-violence might require the use of violence? Benjamin mentions that ‘divine violence’ may manifest itself in what he called a ‘true war.’ But isn’t ‘just war’ something of an abused oxymoron?

SC: We have to go case by case, so the idea of a global philosophical answer to this question is always going to miss the point. So, it is an ongoing dialogue. For example Mahatma Ghandi prosecuted a successful non-violence resistance to British imperial rule in India by mobilizing the new and the old, by mobilizing techniques that he had learned in reading people like Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, and articulating elements of Hindu traditions, what he called Shatyagraha. It’s political genius to combine the old and the new, and that worked until the civil war and the partition of India and Pakistan. But would that have worked in the French colonial regime of Algeria? No.

JG: Gene Sharp’s nonviolent action versus Arundhati Roy’s particular take on the Tamil as part of the situation in India. Or the Zappatistas in the mid-nineties in Chiapas?

SC: You go context by context. I am against a principal, global idea of non-violence, which would mean that all acts of violence have to be rejected. That is simply a disavowal of history. Say, the resistance to French colonial rule in Algeria was wrong because it was violent, you miss something important about what was happening there. But are we therefore condemned to an unending cycle of violence? No, violence can be transformed. One example I know a little is the Irish case. People who 20 years ago were killing each other, the loyalist paramilitaries in the North of Ireland, and Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army, are now negotiating in the Northern Irish Parliament. Is it perfect? No, it is not perfect. But they are not killing each other. So how did that happen? It happened through a series of compromises, an exhaustion with violence, and the former colonial power, Britain, taking responsibility for its history to some extent.

JG: In 2004 George W. Bush declared: “The reason why I’m so strong on democracy is democracies don’t go to war with each other. And that’s why I’m such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy.” War in name of democracy. You called anarchism direct democracy?

SC: The history of anarchism doesn’t fit in with the major arc of history. Marxism works much better in terms of a historical narrative: we can assess its merits or demerits dispassionately as intellectuals. Anarchism has a much messier history. Most of what’s successful in anarchism has largely been invisible, things like the free school movement, setting up a doctor’s surgery in a local community, or something like the allotment movement in England, where people just plant vegetables. Urban farming.

JG: ‘Grow your own carrots’ is an absolute political antidote to corporations like Monsanto, whose aim is to expropriate seed cultures worldwide, basically by corporate patenting the very building blocks of life.

SC: You know, modern anarchism really begins with the diggers in the 1640s, people from the London area, who go out to the country and start to dig, and reclaim the common. So, farming would be an example of where this is happening now.

JG: Like the Transition Town movement, with their variation of a local barter economy, such as time-banking, etc.

SC: I am very sympathetic towards that. In cities like Cleveland and Detroit, disused urban blocks are being turned into farms. I call that anarchism, an effort to determine your existence, the desire for autonomy over the resources at your disposal.

JG: But then how do you protect that autonomous zone, right?

SC: What usually happens is that human beings find themselves with a set of institutions that alienate them from what they understand as their desires. Political disappointment is a motivating force in ethical and philosophical thinking, as David Byrne said, ‘This is not my beautiful car, this is not my beautiful house and you ask yourself, how did I get here?’ So, when this becomes intolerable, as with Occupy, people will be emboldened to do something about it, what Judith Butler calls the ‘carefully crafted fuck-you’. Now, the history of resistance is overwhelmingly a history of non-violent resistance, but as it builds confidence, it confronts institutions, in particular the police and the law. It’s usually at this point where that non-violent movement becomes a victim of violence, often in confrontation with the police, where it has then to negotiate a situation of violence: do you react, or do you don’t react?

JG: And the belief in non-violence is transgressed to protect that non-violent space?

SC: In my view, violence is sometimes necessary, but never justifiable. Let’s take the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian pastor who was killed shortly before the end of WW II. He was committed to pacifism, but then he got involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler and was executed. In the unpublished writings from during his captivity, he calls die Bereitschaft zur Schuldübernahme, the preparedness to take guilt on to oneself. Someone committed to non-violence, might find the preparedness to take on a situation of guilt, in that case to try and kill Hitler.

JG: Maybe it’s crucial to make a distinction between violence and war, whereas the latter is an elevated form of aggression on the organizational level of society where hierarchical structures, leaders, coercion and the corporatocracy take part in. Killing someone because he steals your wife, is of a different order then when it is elevated into something like the Trojan wars, where a part of society is being coerced into committing war, because particular leaders benefit from it. And because it is part of an institution as a cultural contagion, we might possibly invent ways to abolish it.

SC: But the Trojan war was fought over the abduction of a woman, of Helen, and probably that was an excuse for the imperial expansion of the Mycenaean Greeks in that period into the rich areas of Troy and the Hittite Empire. And then the war ended eleven years later! However, war today has become legally almost non-existent. Or technical wars at one level, and if you like at the rhetorical level, war has become generalized. We are constantly at war. Like war on drugs, war on terror, and so on.

JG: Exactly, Hardt and Negri point out that today’s imperial peace obscures a state of constant war. This perpetual war pervades all aspects of life: what we eat, what we consume, what we talk about. We have become avid consumers of fear, and legally, we are now all terrorists until proven innocent. It’s the domestication of fear by a corporatocracy serving its economic greeds in the interest of a global war industry.

SC: Heidegger remarks during the Second World War, or immediately afterwards, that we are going to live in societies where the line between peace and war will become increasingly difficult to draw. Peace is war, and war is peace.

JG: Reminiscent of Richard Holbrooke’s dictum: ‘bombing for peace,…’ But can peace not be looked at on its own terms? Peace is often defined as absence of war, but peace might be something else all together. Factors leading to peaceful conflict resolution are not the same as those that lead to war. It’s quite different to suggest the installment of a peace room (as proposed by futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard) in favor of a war room, the latter assuming that war will always be with us.

SC: This takes us back to Hobbes’ critique of democracy, where everything can mean anything, and truth is lies, war is peace, black is white, day is night and so forth. It’s like the media space we live in today: opinions seem constantly re-described. And for Hobbes that’s why you need the Leviathan. You need the state, the king, to say this is what it means, and if you don’t agree with that, we kill you (laughter).

JG: Ingrained in its particular history, could the Leviathan not be redefined today?

SC: Well, this would be the fantasy of the United Nations, the fantasy of a world state or some kind of Leviathan as a way to resolve conflicts. That could easily come about, but it is against the interests of the hegemonic states.

JG: It’s a joke now, but does that mean it has to be a joke forever?

SC: The awful truth is that the League of Nations, between 1919 and 1930 was a more radical body than the United Nations today, based upon the presupposition of state sovereignty, meaning that there can be no intervention into states that are sovereign. Obviously the major hegemonic states like the Soviet Union in particular would not have agreed to it otherwise. Now could there be a modern Leviathan? You would need to remove the interests of the hegemonic states. And this comes back to the film: how the hegemonic state functions through the shadow world of the arms trade. If you could abolish the arms trade, then a new Leviathan might be possible.

JG: Even if you would abolish the arms trade this Leviathan might fail? Maybe the arms trade is merely a symptom of something much deeper.

SC: What do you think it is a symptom of?

JG: Well, why don’t we explore the politics of love, it might be linked to this? You emphasize in your new book that ‘How to love?’ becomes the crucial question, that it is stronger than death? But in an interview with Tom McCarthy you referred once to “language as an act of murder.” Now, Alberto Manguel claims exactly the opposite in City of Words, as he paraphrases novelist Alfred Döblin: “language is a form of loving others, language lets us know why we are together.” He elaborates on ‘us’ as storytellers, meaning stories shape why we are together as a ‘we?’ Anyway, we talked earlier how language can just do the opposite: concoct stories to justify war, to masquerade war as a peace process.

SC: Yes, “language as an act of murder,” is the Maurice Blanchot thing. If I say ‘iPhone’, or hold my ‘iPhone’, is a different thing. In placing the object under a concept I kill it, I subsume it. He contrasts that with a more poetic idea of language, by letting things be the things that they are, by not placing an object under a concept, but using concepts to brush against objects and let them be the objects that they are.

JG: But then you have to believe that objects are objects. That things are things.

SC: Language is that dimension that can let matter, matter. It is a question of letting material things be the things they are and not to try to subsume.

JG: Still, matter remains that undefined a priori, just as cognitive scientists assume our mind and brain emerge from matter, but fail to define what matter really is, whereas quantum physicists have come to question matter altogether.

SC: Matter is what is in the back garden.

JG: But a Kogi shaman, for example, would surely say: “okay, but that garden is part of me, I’m not separated from that garden…”

SC: Okay, the universe is alive in some sense.

JG: In the sense of a participatory universe. We’re all entangled in one way or another, it’s a notion of inter-subjectivity, an understanding of sharing, you share a reality. And realities may be co-constructed. Matter included. Like sharing a garden…

SC: Philosophically, it’s like different forms of idealism: it is the entirety of that which is in a sense connected to me, subsumable within me. Could matter be part of that? One philosophical view which unites both is Spinoza, who has a completely material idea of the universe, but he calls that God.

JG: And he includes himself, and also everyone else, as part of that idea.

SC: Yes, through the intellect I can participate in that. I would love to believe that.

JG: Physicist John Wheeler would argue for a holographic universe, where the thing and myself are entangled. The observer is entangled with the observed. There’s not a me subsuming an object, nor an ‘us’ versus ‘them’, but an ever changing ‘we’. One holographic part reflects another, and you are actually a little holographic part reflecting the rest of it all. A very different idea of how to think about matter. Maybe this “reality” gap has something to do with love, with entanglement as it were? But let’s go back to the politics of love. So, everything is fair in love and war? I’m joking!

SC: Of course it’s a joke. All love is war, not war is love.

JG: In your book you cite Levinas: “The face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace.”

SC: Philosophy is fundamentally bound up with the acceptance of our mortality. The task of philosophy is learning how to die, and the philosopher’s question is the question of how to live, and the answer to that question is by learning how to die. This is Socrates’ answer in The Phaedo, and is repeated by Cicero, Montaigne and all those other people. But how does love fit into this? I have become increasingly skeptical of that identification of philosophy with mortality. Love, it seems, pushes in a different direction. I have been drawn incredibly strongly to medieval female mystics, Marguerite Porette is one. And for her, the idea of love is an act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being. So, love is that.

JG: Okay, but how does this tie back in to the idea of a society, the bigger self, as it were, because this is still a one-on-one relationship with the Divine?

SC: Well, at its most extreme, once I annihilate myself and the space where my soul becomes the space of the Divine, at that point I unite with others. There is no difference between myself and others.

JG: In a Spinoza sense?

SC: It’s close to that. It’s also why this was heresy in the Middle Ages, because they took onto themselves the authority to deal with God.

JG: Like the Cathars said: “I’m part of God. Why do I need these bunch of institutions?”

SC: And therefore the Catholic Church and the state as the agent of the church is unnecessary. And why it had to be suppressed. So for me there is a direct link between the individual and the collective aspects of love.

JG: The Cathars conceived a particular way of living together, of what community stood for as a reflection of these very same ideas. Also the beguinage, the medieval female mystics, were actually called the first feminists. As you said: God is the first anarchist.

SC: Well, God is the first anarchist in the sense that Christianity has in its foundational text a radical discourse addressed to the poor and the dispossessed, against the imperial power of Rome and against the religious political power of Judaism. But yes, God is the first anarchist (laughter). Meister Eckhart said “I pray to God to rid me of God.” Or: “What I am asking you to think about is a place where the soul is no longer the soul.” Of course, he was also condemned as a heretic. Through spiritual daring and risk, one enters into a form of collective practice that rejects authoritarian structures, and thereby one becomes free. That’s why the Situationists in the 60s and 70s, people like Van Eigen in particular, were looking back at Eckhart’s Heresy of the Free Spirit.

JG: We live in a society deprived of something essential, not even aware of what we actually miss, since we lack the stories and concepts. Not dissimilar to the final scene of Godard’s film Alphaville, depicting a society where every word relating to the idea of love is banned. And this woman, in love with the protagonist, is searching to express her feelings, but she doesn’t find the words, as the concept of love is foreign to her.

SC: Absolutely. Our situation is the opposite. We have the word but don’t have the emotion. We understand love as a contract between two pre-existing individuals, but for the mystics love has much higher stakes, as it is a work of evisceration and radical questioning which opens another dimension of experiences. Throughout his career Lacan was thinking whether one can love and desire in the same place. Love has become this nice thing that you feel, whatever, for your pet dog, your boyfriend or girlfriend. Desire is this other experience divorced from that, through internet porn or whatever. Somehow we live in a radical separation of love and desire. Desire is becoming instrumentalized and love has become sentimentalized. Now these female mystics were trying to love and desire in the same place, and that’s the real issue.

JG: The togetherness with yourself, as well as with the other, mirrors how we deal with politics and basically how we can live together as a society on a whole.

SC: My residual Freudianism would be that we are creatures of libidinous desire. It’s sort of a mess, but the question is how that confines our personal and collective articulation in relationship to something like love. For me that would be the kind of ambition, which is also a political ambition. This was what people like R.D.Laing and Kuwasari, were thinking about sensibly. We seem to be a long way from that.


La Voce delle Imagini / Paroles des Images / Voices of Images;
Palazzo Grassi, Venice (Milan: Electa 2012)