Interview with Tristan Garcia

© Liam Jones and Figure/Ground
Tristan Garcia was interviewed by Liam Jones. September 28th, 2014
Translated by Andrew Iliadis

Tristan Garcia is a French writer and philosopher. His novels include La Meilleure Part des hommes (2008), Mémoires de la jungle (2010), En l’absence de classement final (2012), Les Cordelettes de Browser (2012), and Faber. Le Destructeur (2013). La Meilleure Part des hommes won France’s Prix de Flore and has been translated into English under the title Hate: A Romance (2010). Garcia’s philosophical works include L’Image (2007), Nous, Animaux et Humains. Actualité de Jeremy Bentham (2011), Forme et objet. Un Traité des choses (2011), and Six Feet Under. Nos vies sans destin (2012). Forme et objet was translated into English by  Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm under the title Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014) and is available from Edinburgh University Press.

How did you decide philosophy was something you wanted to pursue?

I was like this child described by Baudelaire: “The universe is equal to his vast appetite.” I wanted to know everything. I decided to do philosophy out of pure curiosity, to avoid specializing in one or the other disciplines of knowledge.

Unable to choose, I always considered philosophy as a science, not all sciences, but between all the sciences. It allows thought to practice an extreme degree of abstraction, and to look at what has no interest, then to challenge all interesting knowledge and their primitive concepts, hold accountable the cosmologist on their concept of universe, the historian on their concept of causality, the mathematician on their concept of element, the sociologist on their concept of individual, the biologist on the concept of life.

Very marked by Hegel and Marxism in my education, I kept a taste for all encyclopedic knowledge; but I have never been attracted by the promise of the Platonic philosopher-king or the Hegelian promise of absolute knowledge: the paternalistic authority given to the philosopher always makes me suspicious. I am therefore of a philosophy that thinks about everything, but everything that will not provide my thoughts a position of authority; I want a totalizing and non-hegemonic philosophy.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what are some of the most important lessons learned from them?

The teacher who made ​​me believe again in philosophy, who has taught me more than the history of philosophy at university, is Quentin Meillassoux. His lectures, which were beautiful, I have not only retained the content, but also a rhetorical lesson. Against “reactive critique,” he has always practiced an “active critique,” which is to grow the opponent, rather than humiliate, and build by thinking a stronger opponent than they actually are. Waiving any irony and derision, Quentin Meillassoux defended a noble, ethical form of philosophical battles: invent enemies more powerful, by reinforcing rather than weakening them.

At the time, I saw this as an aristocratic sublimation of dialectics, since these people, whom Roger Callois discusses, give new weapons to the enemy even before the battle. Thinking is enlarged by enlarging what is opposed to it, the better to triumph in the end. I was also influenced by the work and by the courses of Alain Badiou and Francis Wolff, who have ceased to embody in the theater of my mind a Platonic and Aristotelian character.

Finally, Sandra Laugier, who worked on Quine and Cavell, allowed me to feed my defiance in the idea of ​​a too authoritarian philosophy and be attentive to the subordinate, minor and non-heroic in thought; I discovered thanks to her pragmatism, the ethics of care, animal ethics or the realism of the ordinary.

As soon as I think, the inner voices of these teachers, and others, are between in a certain way in discussion with mine.

What advice would you give to students and aspiring academics and what are some texts do you feel young scholars should be reading today?

With the chance for us to be out of the twentieth century stands, I think, the possibility to read texts freely now opposing philosophical traditions, without being eclectic or relativistic. Today a student should read with interest the analytical metaphysics of Kripke, Lewis, Armstrong, of continental critical thinking, Badiou, Rancière, Agamben; it may be of interest to both phenomenology and analytic philosophy, because they know their common roots in the Austrian philosophy of the nineteenth century.

Above all, it must exclude nothing: cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, comparative anthropology (Ingold, Descola and Viveiros de Castro), poststructural human sciences, global history, postcolonial studies, gender studies…

From the moment one has built a perspective that assures them that their mind will resist any annexation by a single discipline, it can go anywhere thinking: nothing that can be thought should be foreign to them.

You have written both novels and philosophical works. I am wondering whether you see a relationship between the two? Are they complimentary or something you like to keep separate?

I’m trying to be two at once: sometimes, the one who writes fiction is in dialogue in myself with that that writes theory; they compete for my mind, and each envelope the other, but none has prevailed at the moment.

I’m not theoretical fiction, or fictional theory: I never liked the merger, I think we are doomed to lose on all fronts. I am attached to the distinction of speech; and in this I am not post-modern, but classic.

Already in the Anglophone world, even before the English language publication of Form and Object, your work is garnering a lot of attention from the likes of Steven Shaviro and Graham Harman. How do you feel about this? Also, do you feel your work is similar to Harman’s and/or Shaviro’s?

Before finishing the writing of Form and Object, I didn’t know the work or Graham Harman or Steven Shaviro.

By a strange coincidence, which sometimes is in the spirit of the times, my research and that of Graham Harman intersect: they have different origins and are pursuing distinct goals, but they are found on both topics (objects) and theses (irreducibility).

For this reason, I feel a close theoretical companionship with Graham Harman, which now requires me, in reading him, to look for the things I don’t agree with.

Thanks to him, I also realized that I was not alone: my book was written in absolute unconsciousness of the existence of a public interested in radical metaphysical objects. I was very surprised to discover that there were blogs, magazines around these issues.

Of course, intellectual history wants that the horizon of philosophical expectations change: twenty years ago, continental metaphysics was talking about its own death, and my book as well as those of Graham Harman would have probably encountered no echo. They would have been marginal, forgotten, collecting dust on the shelves of some libraries.

It is very difficult for a work to be faced with indifference; but thought must also fear the possibility of being fashionable. Success is as destructive to thought as oblivion, because it uses the idea, destroyed, empty of meaning. If speculative realism, object-oriented ontologies, the new continental metaphysics today arouses considerable attention, for good and bad reasons, it is an opportunity for those like me who belong to this field. But it was not always so, and it will not always be so.

We must take advantage of the current audience for our themes and our theses. But they must not think they are better, more real, more interesting, because fashion is on their side; they must be able to be as real and interesting on the day they no longer excite the same passion.

To think equally means that one manages to assess the truth and interest of certain ideas, whether or not they are majoritarian or minoritarian. It means that one confronts their failure or success with the same proportion of distrust or confidence.

To answer the other part of your question, I discovered more recently the work of Steven Shaviro: I feel I have a lot of aesthetic affinities with him (his taste for indie bands like Yo La Tengo, for the speculative fiction of Samuel Delany and J.G. Ballard, the psychedelic comics of Jim Wooding, for example). Theoretically, I’m sure we will not agree, because he is attached to connection, networking, and some Deleuzian concepts that I dispute. But it is with the people whom we share tastes and not ideas that there are the best discussions, in general, because we agree on what we like and we argue about what we think.

Your work proposes a flat ontology, taken from Manuel de Landa. This proposes that all thing are things equally. Can you elaborate what this equality would mean for an ontology of objects? Do you feel this is easily translated into a political ontology?

It turns out that I also did not know the work of Manuel DeLanda before finishing Form and Object! Discovering he spoke of “flat ontology” (when I was talking on my part of a “flat world”), I soon procured his work, so I could include it in the introduction.

I realized that the relationship between my use of the term and his was rather weak.

Intellectual space is constantly traversed by those chances of vocabulary. Because the “intensive science” of Manuel DeLanda is actually very far from my project: it reformulates a definition of the virtual in Deleuze. He opposes hierarchical ontologies (by gender, by species, class) with a flat ontology of purely singular entities of interacting parts and emergent wholes. For my part, I see ontology as the de-identification of all entities, resulting in one thing, and equally exclusive: the flat world is inconceivable to me that has one thing at a time. It is not only flat but a poor world. For this reason, Form and Object is divided into two parts: a formal part of ontology, which defines only things in the world, and an objective part of metaphysics, which redefines the determinations, the relationship of objects in the universe and extension intensities.

Only the first part is part of a flat ontology, and it is an ontology without relations and without intensity.

My flat ontology is the perfect non-Deleuzian perspective. In the world, nothing is more or less something, each entity is also to the exclusion of all others. My world does not know or change the connection, since it is the maximum disregard of any determination.

To answer the second part of your question, the articulation of ontology and politics is tricky: I’m wary of the idea that our political beliefs should be somehow confirmed by the same structure of being. If the worldview that I propose has a political significance, it is not as content, but perhaps as a gesture: it indicates that it is possible to find by speculative thought an end to the liberal wave in ontology, the condition in which we live. Emphasizing objectification rather than opposing it, by treating everything as also really something, I think we can think of a platitude, a non-ontological intensity that will serve as a gauge line to reconstruct identities and differences, intensities and ordered objects.

This is the aim of the second part of my book.

What kind of implications do you think a flat ontology has for notions of identity and difference? That is to say, the relations between things?

In my view, the ontology that I submit to the reader allows the design of entities without identity. So I advocate that the world is not made of substances identical to themselves or pure intensive differences, but that it is composed of things. In this case, it is composed of only one thing at a time, a de-determined maximum naked thing, which is the distinction between what is the right thing and what the thing is.

I defend that thing is not in us, and it is not in itself: it is out of itself in the world. And the world is common place things. I seek to reinstate things in the world: it is neither a construct of our cognition or entities based in themselves: they are the minimal components of the world. One thing is the lowest determination of being: it is indifferent to affirmation or negation, as something less, it is something more.

The thing, therefore, is lower, but it is not nothing, so far. And it is so low, that it is unrelated: when there’s one thing, there’s not anything else. Things have therefore no relationship between them – the reason why they have neither identity nor difference.

Why do you feel this ‘return to things’ as it were is so pertinent today?

There is a misunderstanding that persists: for things, many still want to hear the objects of common sense, the spatio-temporal objects opposed to the human subject (or goods). But I’m not interested in these things, more or less, than others. There is a famous collection of poems of Francis Ponge: The Parti Pris des Choses. These “mundane things” referred to by the poet (bread, an orange, a pebble, a candle) are many things, but there are many others that are beyond common sense! What interests me is the commodification of things as epidemic, and the impossibility there for thought to circumscribe what is one thing, and what is not: The human person? An insult? A dead dog? A snark? The color Cadmium yellow? An event like the fall of the Mongol dynasty? The start of an event? Two things at once? The spin of an atom? The person I was yesterday? The whole universe? Dust? Something impossible?

What I am interested in in things is the fact that anything could be. Therefore, I will not return to certain things that would be ordinary things, common things, as if they were a guarantee of authenticity, of virtue, truth.

The return to things is behind us: it was the watchword of Husserl (“Zur Sache selbst!”). What interests me is not to go back to the other things that might have been forgotten, but to see that nothing is immune to the fact of being one thing: me, you, the table, God, the beginning of an idea, whatever. No thing is nothing, no thing is everything: each is something. And it seems that this is the objectification we experience daily in liberal modernity.

What are you working on at the moment?

In no particular order: a history and theory of comics, a text on metaphysical intensity, a collection of fantasy stories, rewriting my thesis on theories of art. There are many things, then, that interest me equally but distinctly, and distinctly but equally…

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

Suggested citation:

Jones, L. (2014). “Interview with Tristan Garcia,” Figure/Ground. September 28th.
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