A Conversation with Angus Nivison

© Dale Amir and Figure/Ground
    Angus Nivison was interviewed by Dale Amir November 4th, 2006 and revisited in January 2016

FG-AN-HS-1-90x90Angus Nivison left teaching early on in his life to pursue his art. He is inspired by the natural surroundings of his property in the northern tablelands of NSW. Through his paintings he explores landscape, memory and the human condition: http://angusnivison.com/biography/index.html. His work is now sold exclusively through Utopia Art Sydney at http://utopiaartsydney.com.au/

What first inspired you?

The short version of what inspired me was that as a young lad at school I was a typical eight year-old boy, not paying much attention and not excelling at academic studies when someone praised my painting, which I’ve been doing ever since. Painting was something I was good at and it felt right even from a young age. I didn’t have a concept of what art was. There was not a lot of art in our house, but I just knew painting was what I wanted to do. Now my parents’ house is chock-a-block with art, but it wasn’t back then.

I was at boarding school. Coming from country in those days, you had to go outside your local area to do the Higher School Certificate. When I came home on holidays I would be doing art. Painting was always an absorbing pastime.

When did you decide to become an artist?

It became apparent to me, and to my peer group, that I had some talent. I keep saying that talent doesn’t have a lot to do with it, that succeeding as an artist is mainly perseverance, but talent helps in the beginning because it is what sets you apart from all the rest. I found the facility to draw easier than some of my peers. I won an art prize at about age ten for my picture of a bright red plane: The Rural Bank Art Prize for young artists. I received five pounds in a bank account in my own name and thought, ‘this is easy. I’ll be an artist.’ You think everything is easy when you are little. I never had any doubt that I would be an artist. I would play motorbike hero or artist and model with my sister.

How do you approach painting? What’s the process?

© Angus Nivison, "Uncertain Light", 2006, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 200 x 540 cm, Collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales from 2007

© Angus Nivison, “Uncertain Light”, 2006, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 200 x 540 cm, Collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales from 2007

In Uncertain Light, there are many different perspectives and in my work generally. There are many different landscapes in Uncertain Light; there is no one perspective. I see something and think I could use that. I learnt it from Fairweather and also Matisse. You can see in some books on Matisse, from time sequence photos, how much a painting can change throughout its creation. With Uncertain Light, I painted layer upon layer until it all sort of worked. My work is not representational. I’m never satisfied. I don’t know when to stop and sometimes I misjudge it. The first thing to do is to ‘stuff it’ and then set about salvaging it from your disaster. It’s best to get the mistake over and done with, quick smart. It takes away the fear of flying because I tend to paint in layers. I can always go over and let bits peep through. I learnt the technique of doing layer upon layer until it all sort of worked. That is also why my work is not that representational – I love the accidental as well. You start off going somewhere and you end up somewhere completely different, but I’m never entirely satisfied, which is why I keep doing another painting. Uncertain Light, the name itself, is about where we are now. We are in uncertain times, which is both beautiful and scary in that painting. It is a very contradictory thing. You can read a lot into it. I think that our times are very scary and very beautiful. Every now and again you hear a good story that lifts you and you think, ‘Oh, God there is hope for us yet’, and then it gets back to children overboard and all that stuff and you think, ‘Oh will we never learn?’ I guess I paint about the hope and despair of humanity. Some days I think we are going to make it and some days, I think that we will never learn.

The role of art is to contradict the twenty-second grab. I hate art that gives me everything at once. I like art to catch my attention, sit me down, and demand that I spend time with it. If looking at art we reflect on humanity, and ourselves, and if I can paint a painting that helps you and I do that, then I feel successful. I want people to stop and look and think about the bigger picture. Where do we want to be and all that stuff? But it is not preachy painting. It is a very meditative approach to painting.

Uncertain light was one of those wonderful paintings that took me by the hand and took me somewhere completely unexpected. It was for me a very risky painting. Originally it was meant to be a big beautiful thing in memory of my wife’s father who had recently died. I was thinking about him and it was meant to be a painting called Listen, about listening to the murmurs that are coming into our consciousness and, in the end, a little about global warming. However, it became something else altogether and I just went with it; fortunately I had the   sense to go with it. Again, it was a huge salvage mission – that painting. It was a painting that went somewhere that it shouldn’t have gone, and it was very uncertain. When I was painting it, I was feeling uncertain, not sure that it was going to the right place. When I stood back and looked at it, it took my breath away. It wasn’t where I wanted to go. That was part of the name. It was a very beautiful, fierce, threatening landscape with little glimmers of hope or terror. It was hard to tell which was which and hence, the title. At about that time all those terrible things were happening in Iraq and it wasn’t specifically about that, but it was a mix of cultures, a mix of stuff. Uncertain light is very much just a reflection about where we are.

© Angus Nivison, "One Degree", 2006, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 200 x 180cm, Collection of Utopia Art Sydney

© Angus Nivison, “One Degree”, 2006, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 200 x 180cm, Collection of Utopia Art Sydney

Children see bushfires in Uncertain Light; it could also be of war and another place.  In the middle is that blue sort of darkness or shaft of light. Lightness and dark are very similar really. It could have been called strange weather. But it all goes back to where we are and the bush fires certainly. The other painting that was beside it for a while, One Degree, was very much about one degree of global warming. This is what is going to happen, we are all going to burn. But it isn’t all nasty – I find beauty in it too. When I look at a snake I know it is both poisonous and beautiful and it could kill me. I find fear and beauty very close. Uncertain Light is quite a beautiful painting but it also has that edgy terror, that scary stuff there.

When I think of how I approach the process of creation, utter chaos springs to mind. I usually start with a ground, so I put a really solid Jesso undercoat and then I stain it, an ochre-orange-red colour. But each of those panels wasn’t just a wash. Straight away I’m working, I’m putting shapes in there as I put the stain on. Then I start drawing onto the surface with charcoal, and then it is a mess and then l start taking it out. Then the paint and the charcoal start to combine and there is probably about 15 separate layers on a painting. Then little bits peep through and sometimes the really good bits have to go. Sometimes a good bit can show up the rest and make it look ‘daggy’ because you have a good bit and you tend to paint around it, so sometimes the good bit has got to go.

Orange is the original colour in Uncertain Light. The three panels that make up this painting weren’t painted together; they were painted separately. I learnt that from Fairweather. When you have a close look they don’t quite align. You can never join perfectly, so why bother? The middle and right side were reversed at the end. That’s why has that incredible dynamic. That is why it is slightly jarring. In fact, it is incredibly difficult to tell where the joins are. Since I’m not particularly representational I can have that luxury.

Also, that is why I use acrylic. There are absolutely no rules with acrylic. You just do what you want, whereas with oil paint you can’t apply the paint thick and then thin. I sometimes use a roller but with Uncertain Light I think I just used big brushes, gorgeous ones about 12 inches wide.

My work is big and slightly difficult.

There are a couple of my paintings that I wouldn’t sell. There was one called Late Burn Ascending, which was painted just after C. Coventry died. It was completed as I heard the news, so this painting has a special place in my heart as does the odd portrait, some of which I would never sell; one, for example, is of the kids and Caroline. They are really works just for me.

What were the main influences on you?

I started at the local school Walcha Central and then, at the end of Year Six, I went away to Shore. I had a fantastic teacher who nurtured quite a few artists – Tim Storrier, Tom Carment, Ross Laurie, Steve King and me. There were quite a few of us and some even better known artists. I’m not sure whether that particular man taught them, but they did come from that school. The school was into sport and stuff, but there was this little enclave, which was the art room. Ross Doig, the teacher, was a fabulous man. He gave you the ability to trust yourself and he took you seriously. He was tolerant and interested and I think that was his secret. He helped us to take ourselves seriously. He didn’t dominate anybody. Nobody came out painting like him or like anyone else. Everyone painted in his own way.

I come from a rural family and my parents were very tolerant of my bent towards art. I pretended I would go into advertising because there is money in advertising and I enrolled in graphic design and then changed over to painting. Mum and Dad were fine with that. My parents were behind me 100%. They had a concept of nurturing and looking after you until you found your feet.

I tacked a Diploma of Education on at the end of my degree because I knew I wouldn’t make any money painting and then I went teaching for a while. I won the Sydney Morning Herald Travelling Scholarship the same year that Kevin Connor won the Open Section. Then it dawned on me that I had to take this art a bit more seriously and so I retired from teaching at a very young age. My family found a way to support me, building a studio   and a house on the property for me, and then I worked part-time for my brother while painting part-time. The family farm is passing to my brother to keep it intact and I’m selling my small ‘holding’ to him. I will own a house and keep a small acreage around it and then I’ll lease my land back to my brother.

The influence of art school was also very great. My main teacher towards the end was Sid Ball. Art school gave me a belief in myself, a confidence, which is so important to one’s ‘stick-ability’. Being an artist is such a long haul. Art stars are a tiny minority. The rest of us do it by hard work, hanging in and slogging away. I had to leave Australasia for the travelling scholarship. It was quite a lot of money. I bought a mini van and travelled around Europe. I stayed in accommodation provided at an art Foundation in the south of France and I saw the Giocometti sculptures at that time.

More recent influences include Ann Thompson, who was probably my mentor. She was showing at Gallery A the first gallery I began showing at, the gallery run by Annie Lewis. Ann Thompson was one of her top painters when I first began showing. We became friends. I have always admired her work and she’s a wise person.

I adored Ian Fairweather from school age and I loved Godfrey Miller. His drawings are exquisite. He’s one of the best draughtsmen around. I’ve also been influenced by Asian art, Chinese, and to a lesser extent Japanese art. But I think that everything influences me. Just living shapes my work.

What about Aboriginal Art?

There could not be some influence! Our indigenous art is some of the most exciting painting in the world. That is not to say it is all good art. Rover Thomas I adore. However, I’m not sure whether Aboriginal Art or love of the land came first. I’ve grown up on the land and I have that sense of place as well as the seasons – I was the son of a rural family and until recently I’ve worked on the land. It is probably a combination of both influences.

Still, Aboriginal art certainly gives you a sense of place and a bigger vision. I find that a   lot of Aboriginal art is not solely about the landscape but it’s also about the mythology, whereas when I paint it is landscape based and it is very much about the things that happen, about my mythology and our mythology.

© Angus Nivison, “Remembering Rain”, 2002, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 640cm, Collection of Simon and Julie Ford

For instance, my painting, Remembering Rain, is all about the land getting drier and drier and it is all about that longing for rain, and the memory of when it was wet. You can almost hear the land sigh when it rains after a long period of dry.

We very much paint about similar things. We just have slightly different mythologies. I guess my myths and religion are more about the human spirit. I’ve been painting about global warming for years without ever putting a finger on it. I’ve always been concerned that we were using too much and always concerned about where we are going as a nation and a race.

However, perhaps unlike many Aboriginal artists, I would be happy anywhere – I guess the bush is just where I am. I ended up on the land because it was a way for me to paint. I didn’t have to buy the land. My family allowed me to build a house and a studio and made it all possible. I was always painting about the land so it made sense to be in it. I would be quite comfortable painting about the city, because I believe art is really about the human condition.

How do you see yourself in the art community?

I don’t know how other artists view me. I have always considered myself as contemporary. I like video art if it is good. Ricky Swallow I find engaging, and Richard Serra, the guy who does the big steel curves. I like to see something that intrigues me.

I have friends whom I went through art school with and who are still practising. In the earlier days when I was going through art school I think that there was more dialogue between artists. When I started out painting there were only about ten commercial galleries in Sydney, and about 30 or 40 well-known artists. Now there are millions of galleries and artists and everybody is very competitive so people tend not to be as generous with their time or themselves. Ann Thompson is a very generous person and we have many conversations about art and other things. I love dialogue with artists but it doesn’t happen enough and that is partly because I live in isolation even though where I live there are quite a few artists.  Anyway, James Rogers, who won the 2006 Sculpture by the Sea competition has a house here, as do Ross Laurie, Steven King and Julia Griffin.

Artists whom I would like to get to know better are Kevin Connor and Brian Blanch flower because I like their work immensely. I met Robert Klippel years ago and he was very generous with his time. I come to galleries whenever I’m down in Sydney. I can tolerate someone disliking my work, as long as they aren’t indifferent.

Where do you see yourself going with your work?

 I just hope it gets better. It is very flattering when someone either buys some of your work or actually looks at it and writes and tells you. If I can paint works that matter, I feel that is development. God knows where I’m going. I don’t have an earth-shattering vision. I just want to paint about stuff that pops up. I’m stumbling through life and really what I’m painting is memories, things that stick, memories of people.

Wherever I go I try to make it stick in my mind. Ian Fairweather did that. He wasn’t in China when he did his works on China. Matisse’s Memories of Oceania was more powerful because, in a way, the memory is not complete and the longing is strong. So, when I look at a landscape, whatever doesn’t count, doesn’t stick. What eventually remains are the bones; it’s the essence that makes a place.

© Angus Nivison, "All the Places I’ve Never Been", 2003, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 184 x 210cm, Collection of Utopia Art Sydney

© Angus Nivison, “All the Places I’ve Never Been”, 2003, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 184 x 210cm, Collection of Utopia Art Sydney

Can you describe a typical day for you as a painter?

I only get out of bed for the cup of tea. Mostly I go into the studio each day from nine to five. I used to paint a lot at night when I was working full time, but now I don’t paint at night at all because my eyes just aren’t good enough any more.

Still, I do continue to paint under studio lights. I also have a lot of natural light in my studio and halogen lights as well.  I like a lot of light – it keeps me warm. I’m one of those painters who have to start a painting and finish it. I just have that one idea. I’m not like an oil painter with a few on the go and I don’t do series. Mum will come over sometimes and say, ‘What have you been doing?’ And what I have been doing might have been just thinking, planning the next move. I spend a lot of time just thinking and looking. Looking is so important. When I was doing Art on the Rocks, I had to work in front of people and I had wonderfully patient people who would sit there for half an hour in the freezing cold. But I ended up just doing a mark to please them and I’d think, ‘Damn I didn’t want to do that”. I’m a very slow worker, sitting in front of the work and considering my options. I will often look at other people’s art when I am working. I will have lots of books around me. If you look at something for too long you can’t see it. So I will look away and then I’ll look back and sometimes I’ll see what needs to change. It is a journey.

I’m completely random. One of the last big paintings that I have done is called All Souls. It is a sadly, beautiful seascape and there was no plan behind it. I went down to the coast and sat one evening looking at the sea. I thought of past friends, people who were no longer with me, people who had died, and it was a sadly beautiful, self-indulgent time so that is the painting that came out of it. You look at the sea and think of all the people who don’t make it, who drowned. Hence, all this other stuff came out. It wasn’t planned.

© Angus Nivison, “All Souls”, 2009, acrylic, gesso, pigments and charcoal on polyester/ cotton. 200 x 542cm

© Angus Nivison, “All Souls”, 2009, acrylic, gesso, pigments and charcoal on polyester/ cotton. 200 x 542cm

It doesn’t matter, whether people are aware of the inspiration for a work. The title is always the key. Having people really look is what makes me exhibit. I have this feeling that if no one looks at a picture, then it is not a work of art. It is only truly complete when someone goes and looks at a painting and has a dialogue with the work. The individual has to put his or her own story to it. They have to give it twenty minutes. That is so nice. The idea of meditation is half the story. The viewer is half of the work of art.

I’m an instinctive artist. I hope that if I stick at it I can get something moving, something profound. Having Uncertain Light bought by the NSW Art Gallery was not something I coveted. It isn’t why I paint. Painting keeps me on an even keel. One of the reasons I’m painting is because of the person who bought the first painting. Someone had unbelievable faith in me. They gave up their hard earned cash to buy my thoughts and impressions. Now I’m condemned for life.

Painting is hard work. What I get pleasure out of is if people write me letters or ring me up. When I won the Wynne I received lovely letters. When you touch that emotional chord it is immensely fulfilling. I think that if you paint from the heart it will affect the heart. I try to keep my work honest, from me. When it doesn’t work or I get trounced it is very hard. One critic referred to Angus Nivisson’s sickly sweet paintings. That was when I was using pink a great deal. I paint about what matters to me and about what should matter to most of us. I assume that people are intelligent. I would love them to work it out for themselves, to weave their stories and take ownership of them. I would like the viewer to pause from the hustle and bustle of life, stop and ponder something of great beauty and see the ramifications, the bigger picture. There are lots of echoes. I love beauty, but I’m a very glum man.

I try to make my work beautiful, but I love black. My work just gets blacker and blacker. I use big buckets of stuff. Often what I start with is just what I had mixed up from the last painting. There’s a bit of Scottishness in me because I never throw anything away. But slowly all the colours change because you run out of one colour and mix up another. I’m fairly random. My mother would come into the studio when nothing had happened for two months and say, ‘You know Angus, if you were any lazier you would suffocate’. But art is long-term; it’s a hard slog. It’s lonely; you are there in a studio by yourself. I think that’s why many of the incredibly talented people I went through art school with are now doing something else and leading another type of life. It’s not the most fulfilling thing being a painter. You don’t make any money. It’s a long, long haul and you get a few knock backs. If your aim is to make money, it is better to become a plumber.

I buy younger artists, whom I can afford, and I’m sometimes given art, or we exchange works: Ewan and Ann Thomson and I have each other’s works. I adore other people’s work. If I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t mind a Matisse or a Giocometti portrait, or a Kiefer. In Australia I would probably buy a lot of young people’s art. It keeps you painting when somebody buys your work. A collector can save artists every day.

© Angus Nivison, “Late Burn Ascending”, 1999, acrylic and charcoal on cotton, 200 x 320 cm. Private Collection, A and C Nivison, not for sale

© Angus Nivison, “Late Burn Ascending”, 1999, acrylic and charcoal on cotton, 200 x 320 cm. Private Collection, A and C Nivison

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Angus Nivison, Dale Amir and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Amir, D. (2016). “Conversation with Angus Nivison,” Figure/Ground. March 19th.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-angus-nivison/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




Interview with Miguel de Beistegui

© Miguel de Beistegui and Figure/Ground
Dr. de Beistegui was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 14th, 2016.

Miguel de Beistegui was educated in France (BA, MA in Philosophy at the Sorbonne), the US (Ph.D., Loyola University of Chicago), and Germany (Postdoc, Hegel-Archiv, Bochum). He specialises in 20th century German and French philosophy, and has published books and articles in the following areas: ontology, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics and politics. Initially specialising in the thought of Martin Heidegger, and in phenomenology in general,  he later turned to the works of Gilles Deleuze, and more recently, Michel Foucault. He is a lecturer in Philosophy at Warwick University and the author of Heidegger and the Political (1998), Thinking with Heidegger (2003), Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology (2004), Immanence and Philosophy: Deleuze (2010), Proust as Philosopher: the Art of Metaphor, 2012, and Aesthetics After Metaphysics: From Mimesis to Metaphor (2012).

What attracted you to Philosophy and how did it shape your view of the world?

I have to be honest. What attracted me to philosophy in the very beginning was the possibility of making sense of everything: I was utterly bewitched by the power of concepts, which, I thought, was limitless.  I was fascinated by those entirely abstract creatures, which were nonetheless able to throw light on, and bring meaning to, concrete situations that had hitherto seemed opaque, impenetrable, confused.  I saw them – and still see them – as a kind of Swiss army knife that could perform a variety of theoretical functions, as tools with which to navigate the world, and conquer (in principle at least) other discourses. Later on, I came to see concepts as more unstable and fragile entities, which constantly need to be altered, repaired, revised, and even thrown away, so as to make room for new ones.

You were educated in France and the United States. Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and, more generally, how did the two education systems –with their differences and similarities– complement each other in your case?

I had a very classical training in France, at the Lycée Henri-IV (khâgne) and then at the Sorbonne, an institution I found dusty and somewhat stifling.  That training gave me a solid background in the history of philosophy, as well as important methodological tools. In the final year of my BA, I felt the urge to leave and liked the idea of going to the US.  I had heard of the great Continental Program at Loyola University of Chicago, and was fortunate to be taught there by John Sallis, Thomas Sheehan, and Robert Bernasconi, who introduced me to the complexities of phenomenology, and to Heidegger’s thought in particular.

You are a scholar of Heidegger, Deleuze and Foucault – three names which tend to be grouped, rather uncritically, under the general heading of “postmodernism”. What is, in your view, the single thread –if any–connecting all three thinkers? In what respects are they irreconcilable from each other?

My answer is going to be very personal, and will have nothing to do with knowing whether, or the extent to which, those thinkers are “postmodern.”  My initial philosophical interest was in the area of political philosophy and Hegel’s speculative dialectic.  When I arrived in Chicago, I was fortunate to be taught by first class Heidegger scholars.  I began reading as much Heidegger as I could.  Then, in my second year as a Ph.D. student, Victor Farias published his book, Heidegger and Nazism (1987).  That is when I became interested in Heidegger’s politics, but also and above all in the place of politics in his work.  My doctoral thesis, which eventually became my first book (Heidegger and the Political, 1998), was a response to Farias’ one-sided and in many ways flawed book, and an attempt to ask whether the absence of anything like a political philosophy in Heidegger could account for his Nazism.  Whilst the book was mostly exegetical, it was also critical, especially regarding Heidegger’s stubborn silence in response to the Holocaust (at the time, we didn’t know that the silence in question was also, if not primarily, attributable to his specific strand of anti-Semitism).  Needless to say, Heidegger’s Nazism and, more significantly still, his analyses of the social and political situation in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, were already for me a fissure in the edifice, and the indication of a fundamental problem that I attributed not to a moral or character flaw, but with the idea of the historicity of being (Seinsgechichte). I tried to develop further the nature of this problem in two chapters of Thinking with Heidegger (2003).

But it’s really the question of science, and by that I mean the way Heidegger sees the emergence and development of modern and contemporary science in the western world, from Galileo and Newton onward, which convinced me of the need to take the question of ontology, and of the ontological difference, in a different direction. His well-known assessment regarding science as the culmination of metaphysics and a by-product of technology doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  In fact, as I tried to show in a book called Truth and Genesis (2004), which I see as my first attempt at moving beyond the framework of Heidegger’s thought, a number of developments in the natural sciences, from thermodynamic to quantum physics and non-linear dynamics, challenge some of the most basic assumptions and concepts of classical metaphysics, and are best accounted for in the very differential ontology that Heidegger’s thought makes possible. It’s in that context that I found Deleuze’s work, and Difference and Repetition especially, extremely helpful, and revolutionary.  For I read that text as a rewriting of Being and Time, and thus as a new way of deploying the ontological difference, yet in a way that, first of all, doesn’t see the sciences (or at least some of them) as merely regional, or even less so metaphysical, but as able to integrate that dimension, and, second of all, no longer requires an existential analytic (or the history of being) to account for a concept of being as difference.

As for my (more recent) turn to Foucault, I’d say that it stems from the need, already mentioned, to think history (and our own present) philosophically, but without falling into the trap that most philosophers seem to fall into when they turn to history, and that is to see it as a unified phenomenon driven by a fundamental principle, idea, or mechanism, such as freedom, spirit, class struggles, or, in the case of Heidegger, the forgetting of being.  Because they are so general, those basic concepts account for everything, and thus nothing: there’s very little, if anything, that can’t be explained through class struggle, or through the forgetting of being. The reason why I am drawn to Foucault is because his thought is at once more modest and more precise, more helpful.  The concepts he develops are more fine-tuned.

Not long after his discovery of anti-Semitic passages in Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks,” Professor Günter Figal stated, in his interview with Figure/Ground, that, “it has become completely impossible to be a ‘heideggerian’, i.e. to affirm Heidegger’s thinking on the whole and to accept his work as such as philosophical truth”. He added: “I regard this end of heideggerianism as a step back to philosophical normality”. You mentioned off the record that you were no longer working on Heidegger. Was your decision taken primarily on ethical and moral grounds, as in the case of Figal, or is there something immanent to Heidegger’s philosophy that you no longer interesting/valuable?

I can only answer this question by referring you to what I said in response to your previous question.  Of course, I find Heidegger’s (or anyone’s) anti-Semitism abhorrent.  I had already commented on it in 2010 in a review of a lecture course from 1933-34 (Being and Truth) and in 2013 in a review of a manuscript from 1941-42 (The Event), published in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  In that context, the pages from the Black Notebooks didn’t come entirely as a surprise.  But my move away from Heidegger is more related to the two questions of science and history I was mentioning in response to your previous question.  It’s more internal, or immanent – and, as such, more profound. The question of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is, in my view, directly related to his conception of history.  Far from calling Heidegger’s anti-Semitism in question, it confirmed it, onto-historically so to speak.

Among the strands of post-heideggerian thinking that came about with the turn of the century is a renewed “post-humanism” that encompasses movements such as speculative realism, object-oriented ontology and process philosophies that emerged as a rediscovery of Whitehead, Deleuze and Latour. What is your appreciation on these movements? Is the human/non-human divide conducive to philosophical progress, in your view?

There seems to be a historical contradiction here: on the one hand, ever since Nietzsche – and, more recently, Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, Foucault’s Order of Things, and Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” – much of philosophy has developed as a systematic critique of humanism.  What it denounces, I think, is the general and often empty nature of the term, and the manner in which it is put to use. On the other hand, we live in the epoch of human rights and human dignity, and our ethics and politics seem to be driven by those values (which they nonetheless violate repeatedly).  Does this mean we should give up on ethics altogether?  The challenge, for me, is to arrive at the possibility of an ethics that does not rely on the value of the human, and not even on the politics of rights, dignity, and esteem.  All the thinkers I just mentioned – and I would include Deleuze – try to do that.  All of this to say that I think we can think and live outside the human/non-human divide.

Now the various “strands” you mention, at least speculative realism and OOO, seem to want to establish a strong opposition between an idealist ontology, of which Heidegger would be the most recent and in many ways forceful representative, and a realist one, based in science. There are several problems with this view. First of all, it could be argued (I have tried to do so in Truth and Genesis) that Heidegger’s later thought is precisely an attempt to move away from his early, residual subjectivism, which was itself already an attempt to think beyond the epistemological dualism of idealism and realism, subject and object.  The very possibility of ontology, for him, depended on our ability to overcome that Cartesian legacy. Secondly, it could be argued that Bergson’s conception of matter and memory, or Merleau-Ponty’s conception of perception, especially in his late work, were themselves attempts to move beyond what Merleau-Ponty calls object ontology, but which he doesn’t want to replace with a subject, human-centred ontology. Finally, there is the (very complex) question of the role and place of science in ontology. I don’t think it’s a question I can discuss adequately here. But I would say that we need to distinguish not only between types of sciences, and especially between the natural sciences and the social or human sciences, but between different ways of thinking about and practicing science. Regarding the former: the claims and positions of speculative realism can seem to make sense when we talk about natural objects that are very distant from our own reality, such as black holes or supernovae. But things get much more complicated when we start dealing with discourses such as medicine, psychiatry, economics, or criminology, which deal with who we are. Regarding the latter: ultimately, the key question, for me, is not one of knowing which line divides science from philosophy, or one science from another; rather, I think that there are lines of thought that cut across several domains, for example biology and literature, and splits each domain open, revealing deep connections behind superficial differences, and vice versa. This is a lesson that we learn from Deleuze, whose differential ontology has precisely the effect of shifting the fault lines or seams between domains and disciplines.

So, once again, and to finish, there are certain concepts which, I feel, aren’t useful, because they are too general, too programmatic, and give the illusion of thought. Humanism is one of them. But so is anti- or post-humanism.

In your book, Immanence – Deleuze and Philosophy, you characterize Proust and Signs as a Neo-platonist book. Would you elaborate on this characterization a little further?

What you have in mind, I think, is the Neoplatonist background to Deleuze’s discussion of Proust in Chapters 5 and 9 especially of Proust and Signs.  In those chapters, Deleuze tries to explain the manner in which the characters, places or names of the novel evolve, and especially reveal something like a hidden truth.  Charlus, Albertine, Combray are, he says, borrowing the technical term from Neoplatonism, “complicated.”  Of course, they are complex in the sense that we normally use.  But they are also complicated in a more specific manner: on the one hand, under certain circumstances, which are entirely contingent, but act as a revealing agent, they reveal something latent, hidden, about themselves. They unfold, open up; they are “explicated.”  But, and often at the same time, they also coil up, envelop, “implicate” other realities. They are not fixed, but constantly evolving identities. They are multiplicities.

In my own book on Proust (Proust as Philosopher), however, I’ve tried to show that the literary or artistic manifestation of the differential ontology underlying Proust’s Recherche is not so much emanative as metaphorical (and thus creative) – despite, I should add, Deleuze’s opposition to that term.  I see a strong link between the ontological concept of difference (dia-pherein), which I analysed in depth in Truth and Genesis, and the aesthetic practice of metaphor (meta-pherein), which produces images that bypass any imitative-Platonic or even emanative-neo-Platonic model. If anything, the term that I associate with it is that of expression (a key term for Deleuze, of course, especially in his reading of Spinoza).  There is a truth of expressionism, which requires the moment of artistic creation, and which is in stark contrast with the lie or at least the trivial truth of realism.  We need to distinguish between a superior form of realism, which can be accessed through artistic, and specifically metaphorical means, and arrives at the unlived in the lived, or the unseen in the seen, and a vulgar form of realism, à la Zola or Sainte-Beuve, which simply records the real in its linear chronology and ordinary spatial distributions.

Do you think philosophy can contribute to the resolution of concrete problems – social, environmental, etc. – in our complex geo-political world?

I feel quite strongly about this. The singularity and task of philosophy is not, as Popper famously said, to solve problems, whether of an epistemological or social nature. It is to construct problems.  As Deleuze says: we always get the answers and solutions we deserve on the basis of the problems we construct. The politics of philosophy consist first and foremost, and initially, in not allowing power – political, scientific, mediatic, etc. – to impose problems on us.  We need to ask: in whose interest is it to formulate the problem in that way, to emphasise this or that problem, and to then demand that we think of a solution. So, yes, absolutely, philosophy has a role to play in solving “concrete problems.”  It never had any role outside the construction of concrete problems.  Of course, it can also construct false or bad problems.  The role of critique is to bring our attention to badly formulated problems.  The current discussion in Europe around immigration, refugees, and borders is a good example. There is a power struggle over who gets to name the problem: is it a problem of immigration, or is it a refugee crisis?  Is it a European problem or a Greek problem?  Is it a “humanitarian” crisis (again, that empty word), or is it a political problem?  Right now, the problem is posed (and “solved,” if the deal with Turkey goes ahead) in a way that makes one ashamed of being European. Not, of course, as some argue, because it would allow Turkey to re-open the question of its accession to the EU, but precisely because it contradicts the very principles on which the EU is built, and brings back (or to the surface) the religious, cultural and racial prejudices of European nations.

In his recent interview with Figure/Ground, Professor Jon Roffe stated that “Foucault’s broader project has been swallowed up by the maelstrom that the publication of the biopolitics lectures has convoked”. Do you agree with his assertion?

What is Foucault’s “broader project”?  Those lectures are a key moment in the elaboration of what Foucault calls governmentality, and in the description of the construction of a particular kind of subjectivity, which privileges efficiency, productivity, and human capital, and governs itself through an economic normative framework. In my view, it’s a total nonsense to understand those lectures as indicative of neoliberal sympathies on Foucault’s part. The work that he develops immediately after The Birth of Biopolitics is precisely an attempt to think a self that is neither the product of the entrepreneurial technology of neoliberalism nor the love of self inherited from Augustine.  It the self that is constructed through an altogether different technology, that of the care of the self, and in relation to a concept of truth that is no longer scientific, but ethical.  This takes us back to my earlier point about the need for an ethics that bypasses the human/non-human divide.  But it’s one that, I think, Foucault never completed, and perhaps never had the intention of completing.

Actually, you are currently working on book project called “The Government of Desire: Foucault and the Trials of Liberalism”. Would you give us a sneak-peak into your work?

With pleasure. In that book, I argue two things.  First of all, that, contrary to what some, and Foucault himself, may have said, the problem of desire plays a key role in his work of the mid to late 1970s.  In fact, I want to argue that it organizes much, if not his entire thought in that period, and thus constitutes something like the unthought or the blind spot from which his thought unfolds.

My second point is that, in our time, desire is best thought of as an assemblage of knowledge and power, which produces a certain kind of subject. The contemporary subject of desire, I argue, is the result of at least three rationalities and dispositifs of power, which all amount to a naturalization and normalization of desire.

First of all, and beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, desire is organized around a family of concepts, such as interest and utility, generated by the then nascent discourse of political economy. Up until then, desire was understood primarily as concupiscence, and as related to the Christian problematic of the flesh.  The only real and legitimate desire, to use the Augustinian expression, was the desire for God.  But with the birth of political economy and the transformation of the role and status of the market, from a juridical space to an epistemic one, desire is rehabilitated and encouraged. It is seen as a force that governs us naturally and inevitably, and thus, progressively, as a mechanism of government itself.  Liberal governmentality is rooted in the recognition and use of desire as an inevitable instrument of government: to govern well is to govern not against, but with one’s desires.

The second, more obvious rationality of desire, is that of what Foucault calls the analytic of sexuality, which emerges in the 1840s.  That rationality inscribes desire within a different, but related conceptuality: the rationality of the natural sexual instinct, or drive.  The sexualisation of desire in the nineteenth century was so successful that we continue to identify and recognize ourselves as sexual subjects.  Psychopathology and the scientia sexualis, Foucault remarks, were so successful that they managed to make sexuality itself desirable.  This is an odd phenomenon, as most of the concepts of the analytic of sexuality, with which we continue to define ourselves, were originally developed as pathological categories, and almost always as a result of famous court cases, which the liberal, bourgeois penology of interest and motive couldn’t account for.  That sexualisation of the subject of desire couldn’t have happened without the active participation not only of the courts, but also mental institutions, schools, and families.

The third and final regime of desire I want to analyse is one that’s also born in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It is the – this time philosophical, and then legal – discourse of recognition, self-love, self-esteem and self-confidence, which you begin to find in Rousseau and Hegel, and which is extended in Honneth and Taylor, to name only those two.  It seems to me that we live in the age of recognition, which is presented as the most fundamental, vital human desire, without which a just and good society can’t see the day of light.

I think that those regimes or configurations of desire overlap in different ways, according to the place and time.  But I do think that they are at work, and constitutive of who we are today.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Miguel de Beistegui
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2016). “Interview with Miguel de Beistegui,” Figure/Ground. March 14th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-miguel-de-beistegui/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com