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.
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