March 2, 2011

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Julia Kristeva is one of the few contemporary intellectuals one can't mention without a bit of humble respect or downright awe.

Analyst, essayist, novelist, honorary degrees from eight universities including Harvard, a lecturer at New York's Columbia and New School, her life’s work straddles many disciplines and has inspired academics and feminists on both sides of the pond through a sharp, original philosophical and psychoanalytical approach, the density of which might deter some but to many hungry intellects is cause to rejoice.

Kristeva will be in Berlin to discuss "The Need to Believe" (Tue, Mar 8 @ HKW) and "European culture" (Sun, Mar 6 @ Renaissance Theater), a topic she knows first-hand from her childhood in communist Bulgaria to her intellectual blossoming among the post-structuralist Paris intelligentsia.

You say that we’re not proud enough as Europeans. Your Berlin lecture with the Berliner Festspiele will specifically tackle the issue of European culture. Are you worried? Do you believe that European identity is undergoing a crisis?

Identity is always in crisis, and that’s a distinctive characteristic of European thought: to say that identity is not a cult but a permanent questioning. So if it’s in crisis it’s all for the better; it is an open idea – it can evolve, it can be creative, that’s the good side of our conception of identity – which was transmitted to us by the Greek philosophy of dialogue, by biblical thought, Christian mysticism and philosophy, all those issues tackled by the Enlightenment: freedom, women’s freedom, sexual freedom, slaves’ freedom, that notion of the liberation of singularities which we see now exploding in Arab societies. All that is very positive. This crisis is very productive, as permanent crisis, as eternal renewal.

Sounds really difficult to sustain.

Of course, one can also see how this situation can weaken Europe’s ability to react fast. Getting swamped in endless debates, losing its efficiency – that’s the kind of trouble Europe goes though if it doesn’t have the enthusiasm to carry its tradition proudly and to get involved in current conflicts while being proud of that idea – identity as free questioning.

What are the dangers of not being proud enough? Can nations, like human beings, experience existential crisis and sink into depression? How relevant is psychoanalysis to helping nations in crisis?

I do believe that analysis can be exported from the individual to larger groups like nations. What does it mean? The depressed individual is someone who has lost his or her self-confidence. He or she can start asking him or herself about her shortcomings, limits, problems, see trauma and find new creativities only if she find in herself some confidence, and the analyst’s primary job is to help restore that confidence.

Right now many European societies are in the midst of economic crisis: unemployment is soaring while banks keep raking in the profits; in the meantime traditional cultures have been challenged by the arrival of waves of foreigners from other cultures and continents and with other traditions. Not to mention the changing contours of the family, the new social, sexual and behavioural norms, the ecological crisis, etc. So of course we try to understand all that in order to face up to problems. But we have trouble coming to terms with the national identity problem of European nations and of Europe at large, mainly because we still experience guilt from past errors and failures.

Such as?

Colonialism, the Inquisition, the European man’s machismo, the Shoah, many well-known phenomena. Particularly the Left, which I belong to, has been made extremely uncomfortable by such historical weight and have failed to see the progress and achievements of European culture, which could help us think and overcome these errors and these horrors and also to invent new relations.

How do you reconcile European universalism and its particular traditions and cultures, spreading the idea of freedom without imposing it upon people?

We’re not only spreading universalism to those in other countries and other continents who recognize themselves in that the aspiration to liberty, for example, but we have also arrived at the point where we don’t speak of a universe, but of a multiverse, just as what we have in cosmogonies and what’s going on in the sky, to integrate other worlds into our idea of universalism and to respect those different worlds but without forgetting there are general rules which were conceived by the European tradition in particular, in a more firm way than in other traditions. More firm, more clear but which are sharable, shared by others. We took the idea of freedom. We know how risky this term is because that term can expose us to a lot of crimes and excesses in its name. But it’s also in the name of that freedom that the things that happened recently in the Arab world have happened, the toppling of those dictatorial regimes.

No one seemed to think that the Arabic world was capable of freedom…

Yes, European governments were backing those regimes because they thought they couldn’t do otherwise, but that was the Europe of the status quo and bureaucracy. And now they are rebelling against that Europe and their dictators. The youth and the other revolutionaries claim our values for themselves. So see how diverse and multi-layered European culture and how our calling is to continue what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of tradition”, to go further in the realization of that spirit.

So, the Arab crowds give us forgetful Europeans a wakeup call. They recognise themselves in this European idea we tend to forget about…

Yes, the idea of human rights. It’s a great encouragement for that self-searching humanism as an endless construction site.

So, for you, is there is only one Europe, one European identity?

What I’m trying to say is that Europe is diverse. It has multiple identities. It’s a question-mark identity because its very identity is already made of many different nations. The European is a kaleidoscopic individual who at the very best speaks 25 languages, maybe not so many, but any student nowadays speaks 3 or 4 languages and to speak those different languages is already a way to belong to different modes of thought. This Europe is united in its very aspiration to diversity, but it’s not uniform.

Right now you’re working on a conference organised by the Vatican, a meeting between philosophers and believers. How important is Christian heritage in the definition of humanism?

The conference is an initiative of the Vatican, a meeting between believers and humanists, which will be called The Court of the Gentiles (Parvis des Gentils). I am thinking about a way to present that humanism borne out of Christianity, which broke away from Christianity, which kept quite a few Christian values, but which totally changed them, deepened them, while totally rejecting some of them. The names of Erasmus, Diderot, Marquis de Sade in his radicality, but especially Freud help us to rethink other notions of humanity which are plural, complex and which include not just men, but women, youth, the teenager, the child, old people, the handicapped, etc. All that plurality is already in our conception, which is permanently being rebuilt again and again.

There is no such thing as stagnant humanism. That’s what I hear in those calls from the other side of the Mediterranean. I see all those people dying under Kaddafi’s bullets, all those people who aren’t bearded fundamentalists. Of course the main problem now, which is far from being resolved, is to find the structures that can replace those old corrupt regimes. Perhaps organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and other para-Islamist organizations could take over. But one should nonetheless trust this spirit of freedom so that it doesn’t sink into Islamism and find new forms, new expressions.

What is the place of religion in this quest for freedom and how can our modern, ‘disenchanted’ (in the words of Weber) societies reconcile themselves with people’s need to believe?

I don’t believe religion can be called enchantment. That’s a vision that calls religion the “opium of the people”. Enchanted is what? To give false illusions, to stir up enthusiasms, to give solace or to push to exterminate people who don’t think like you. No, enchantment is not the nerve of religion. Religion is the receptacle of some truths of human experience. Looking at the Jewish and Christian religions, which I know better, their experience of emotions, of passions, which builds itself an inner space: who am I, what is the meaning of life, what is the relationship between life and death?

My emotions, my desires, my sensation, my languages, my interpretations, all this inner life, here is that wealth that religions have transmitted to us and that social sciences are trying to understand better today, whether in anthropology, art history, religious history, psychology, inner life which is linked to that of the other and which makes society. Without that inner life, society would only be banks or the internet, not made out of individuals, but dots or points that would communicate through Facebook and that wouldn’t be very interesting and that could actually sink into chaos. The counterpoint to hyper-communication, to the excess of new technologies can only be that inner life as enlightened by today’s sciences and by tradition as well.


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