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Alexander Smulyanskiy (Алескандр Смулянский) is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, and the author of the first Russian-language monograph describing Jacques Lacan’s contribution to the theory and clinic of obsessive neurosis. He conducts the seminar “Lakan-likbez” and has published three books, the most recent[1] of which is “Paternal Metaphor and Desire of the Analyst: Sexuation and Its Transformation in Analysis (Метафора Отца и желание аналитика: Cексуация и ее преобразование в анализе).”


Nastya Kalita (Настя Калита) talked with Smulyanskiy about the era of Modernism and its influence, the ecological catastrophe, and the contemporary intellectual scene, if such a thing exists.


­I want to start with the interview published in the latest issue of the “Art Journal” and your statement, “In the field of discussions about art, we inevitably find ourselves in the realm of problems and concepts formed by the philosophy and publicism of the 19th century.” What about the 20th century? There was Fauvism and many other -isms, Modernism, for example, which provided many languages and methods. Why do you speak only about the 19th century?


The possibility of turning a concept into a current designated by its name was laid in the post-Hegelian epoch, finally forming what Lacan would later call the discourse of science. From this perspective, the popular debate on whether the emergence of scientific discourse should be attributed to its philosophical inclinations or, on the contrary, seen as a fundamentally different type of knowledge, loses its meaning because science is not something that would have had philosophy as its rejected origin or, conversely, something that would have successfully originated elsewhere. It is rather what manifests the situation erected to the subject engaged in the matter of self-consciousness. Here, it is necessary to stress the difference between self-knowledge and self-consciousness because the confusion of these terms is ineradicable. To eliminate it at once, it should be said that no self-knowledge has ever led to the emergence of science. At the same time, self-consciousness, undoubtedly gleaned by Georg Hegel from René Descartes, was substantially modified, giving rise to new types of linguistic relations. If in Descartes, the claim of self-consciousness represents nothing other than a grammatical construction intended to performatively ensure reliability, in the case of Hegel, it directly turns into work with ideology. It is precisely here, in the intertwining with science, that ideology engenders a certain way of engaging with speech.


This engagement is proving so successful as a project that it starts functioning independently as what might be called an aggregate. This is something embedded in all of the subject’s proceedings, and being embedded, creates a situation where no other language is available.

We call this language scientific not in the sense that the subject using it is precise in his expressions or demonstrates heightened awareness. Such precision and awareness are not required of the subject of this language, meaning that he can be as profane as he pleases. Moreover, this is precisely what indicates the success of the embedding, as the subject is not expected to be specially prepared. The requirements imposed on the subject in this regard are minimal because this language turns out to be not limited to science and its disciplines, but is instead of the broadest possible use—that it does not function constantly is another matter.


What kind of language is this?


It is a kind of parasitic analogue of the language that Martin Heidegger talked about, calling for—to the extent possible—a revival of the operations it performs. The intrigue lies in the fact that the language which Heidegger counted on as a means of returning the lost way of thinking about being can easily turn into something monstrous and stubbornly pursuing the subject, and, ironically, this is precisely what is happening. This language is not only already at work, but it also occupies a niche where it turns out to be the only option. At first glance, it is represented by raw but simultaneously schematic relations, in which the statement not only in a certain way requires an object, but also strives for a state in which this language underlies what we today call a phantasm.


What does the phantasm in its part spliced with language look like today? Its overt, extreme manifestations come to the forefront when the subject is, for example, in a state of agitated delirium, in which everything boils down to brief, anxious observations of an invisible plan imperceptible to those around him. In these cases, it can be noticed that the matter is not so much in the traumatic impoverishment of the psyche as in the reduction of speech to certain operations. As a rule, they are concentrated around dynamic terms: thus, the subject feels as though something is pursuing him, or that uninfluenceable collisions between objects are taking place before his eyes. In this state, he may claim he is observing many petty objects in an aggressive relationship either with himself or other objects, which forces him to overcome the conglomerations of obstacles created by them, sort them, or dispose of the most intrusive ones that cling to his body, energetically trying to get rid of them.


One can, as physiologists do, attribute these operations to typical disorders of cerebral activity, thereby considering them to be common to all humans. But psychoanalysis forces us to see them as a consequence of the subject somehow picking up, extracting from the currently available language structure. One can discern the emergence of a judgment corresponding to this structure even in the case of the most developed forms of statements. For instance, it happens when a critic, reasoning about contemporary art or politics, issues a verdict in which things are somehow in the above-described relations: phenomena collide, come into opposition, impend over or besiege a speaker. Art criticism, as a rule, involves the question to what extent a work of art breaches, breaks into reality, expresses the order of things, critically pursues it. Such observations are widespread among art critics. In discussions about politics, even the most elaborate analysis somehow revolves around the judgement related to the extent to which the course of events might change in the near future as a consequence of invading the current state. We are accustomed to attributing such conclusions to highly intellectual activity, but there is undoubtedly something delirious about them. On every such occasion, even if a speaker is deeply cultured and his observations are perfectly successful, simultaneously the most primitive description of what is happening to the imaginary object takes place, and this is essentially what we have gleaned from the language of science. The subject does not analyze the situation—he sees a dream about the adventures of the phantasmatic object.


In this sense, one can speak of Lacanian pessimism, since prior to Lacan, philosophers were convinced that if something opposed modern alienation, inflicted by technology and capitalism, it was precisely phantasm. If we turn to Herbert Marcuse, we can detect this idea in its most uncompromising form: what can save the subject from the alienation that takes increasingly insidious and subtle forms, including its disguising itself as liberation, is the radical element contained in the phantasm, which finds expression, for example, in works of art—this is what Marcuse says. Lacan manages to object to him, pointing out that such a project is pure utopia. If the phantasm of the modernist subject is woven of something, it is woven of the language of science.


Your words reminded me of Slavoj Žižek, who said that Modernism is one of the greatest periods in the history of art and culture. What do you think about this?


Here, it is not so much its greatness that matters, but rather the fact that Modernity is a single period that is talked about exclusively in terms of its boundaries. It causes a collision related to the permutation of premises: for example, a critic may believe that the modernist project requires overcoming precisely because of its insularity, of its being confined to certain boundaries. Quite the contrary—it is precisely the imperative of retroactive overcoming inscribed in Modernity that presupposes the presence of tight and uneasy boundaries of the period, boundaries never talked about in the preceding communities—for example, in the Middle Ages—where, from our contemporary perspective, they were established much more rigidly. In this sense, Modernity is similar to Klein bottle—nothing hinders free movement on its one and only surface, provided the exit is not a priority; but the subject making predictions and expecting an exit turns himself into an insurmountable obstacle that interferes with the movement he seeks.


It also concerns the question of “inventing another language,” whatever is understood by this otherness. The invention of a language, the introduction of novelty, turns out to be something representing a new stage in slipping towards the very same above-discussed regime of the functioning of science. For example, speaking of the contemporary consequences of Deleuzianism, where the claim for a change of foundation is expressed most uncompromisingly, it is primarily noticeable that this philosophical project involves a change of the language regime not beyond, but within the phantasmatic dimension mentioned earlier. The demand to actualize elusive, blurred, and thematicization-evading concepts, on the one hand, requires opposing everything static and hierarchical, which constituted the stylistics of the previous type of thought—the latter could be called the realization of a phantasm built on the desire to capture the object while fearing the consequences of getting close to it. But by declaring opposition to this dimension, we only engage in another hypostasis of the phantasm, the phantasm of the disappearance of the object from sight, the slipping of it through fingers. This is precisely why Jacques Derrida objected to Gilles Deleuze and his projects, specifying that the opposition they introduced was insufficient. If we proclaim a course towards what today’s Deleuzians call “slime,” which is devoid of properties that keep it as a form, then nevertheless, such opposition cannot be a reason or a platform for any large-scale social and linguistic overturn. We remain within the boundaries of the same phantasm, the motor phantasm.


There are currently many events related to certain issues in Ukraine, the most prominent of which are ecology, the Anthropocene, cyberwarfare, and Chernobyl. Why do you think humanity is raising these issues now, in addition to the fact that we are obviously moving towards a catastrophe? What level can hysteria reach in society and what should we expect?


Another regime of the functioning of science, which relates not so much to the language-construct but to what can be called the ethical ambition of science, is at play here. From the moment of its formation, science has laid in the subject the grounds for moderate optimism, provided he is able not to digress from its path. If there was anything in science during the still intact modern era that functioned inexorably, it was what could be called the struggle against subject’s anxiety. Science not only promised significant progress and improvement in the quality of life with the emergence of previously unavailable technologies, but also spread a broader message indicating there was a certain increment in the subject himself that promised to reduce anxiety to its phantom, to zero. Heidegger later called it the “subject+”—this increment may concern both the advantages of the subject and its surrounding infrastructure, as well as what points to the ability in him to influence what is happening— especially, to change the current situation.


Though the successes of science at different times were diverse and not always in line with predictions, it nevertheless constantly asserted that change in the world is available to the subject. It is curious that the philosophy of Modernity only later, in the person of Marx alone and with a number of reservations, managed to join this promise.


After Modernity entered a state of confusion—in fact, long before the talks about the so-called “postmodern” era began—the subject lost the affect that responds to the calls of science. In itself, this did not weaken the pace of scientific achievements at all, which once again proves how little science depends on the arrangement and mood of the society as a whole. Nevertheless, the subject of the immediate present becomes sensitive to entirely different things: he acquires a taste for the rights and freedoms of particular groups, for the careful registration of traces of irreparable harm caused by progress and power. Traces of transcendental damage—what the philosophy of traumatic memory studies today—appear in this subject.


At this moment, something also happens to the message emanating from science: it begins to assert that the subject’s intervention and his achievements in mastering the world not only do not result in increment, but can undermine and weaken it. This is what, for example, the environmental agenda says, literally proclaiming, “the more goods you produce, the worse you feel.”


In this sense, science takes a completely different position. If previously it was customary to associate it with unrestrained progressivism and the linked to it gain in the form of mastering knowledge aimed at changing the environment, then after World War II, it begins to oppose the subject and his gains. The pairing of science and the instance of the Super-ego starts taking place. As is known, the Super-ego relates to the subject extremely strictly, pursuing all his undertakings and attacking his enthusiasm, which is now completely associated with the obtainment of punishable satisfaction, for which one has to pay in one way or another. 


Thus, science sharply questions everything the subject can enjoy with its help. It first became noticeable in the scientific and medical propaganda, which from the late 1950s was stubbornly clung to the conviction that an improved lifestyle aided by scientific achievements—adequate nutrition, the use of transportation infrastructure, and comfortable leisure activities—creates the conditions for the emergence of systemic diseases and premature death. At this stage, one could still rely on the impression that it was a matter of certain non-systemic costs of scientific propaganda, and that the social consequences of scientific knowledge were called into question more by a social critic-humanitarian than science itself. Even today, some still hold this view, believing science requires ethical criticism from the outside, and that it should be carried out by a bearer of, for example, philosophical culture.


In my view, this impression is false, because at a certain point, science is perfectly capable of generating alarmism on its own. Today, in virtually all areas, it tells the subject that every time he enjoys using its achievements, he acts to his own detriment. What can be called the critique of the Anthropocene—a premonition of a catastrophe provoked by consumption policy, an apocalyptic mood associated with climate change, whether we fully trust scientists on this issue or not—indicates that scientific data aims to besiege the subject in expectations already formed in him. However reliable the teaching about climate change and its imminent consequences is, its ethical message is obviously repressive—it suggests that counting on scientific achievements is no longer meaningful: now each subject must pay for the previously obtained comforts by what is called “responsible behavior”: sorting waste, collecting bottle caps, refraining from using certain consumption items, and so on.


Is there a way out of this situation?


As a rule, the subject is restricted in that, partially responding to the changed requirement and having exhausted his objections, he falls into a state of expectation. Defending himself, he generally develops a skeptical attitude, focusing not on general predictions, but on particular mistakes and exaggerations coming to the masses from the scientific ideology. There are quite a few of them: for example, almost the entire history of medical dietetics—I mean not individual paramedical experiments, but large-scale fluctuations of trends regarding “balanced nutrition” that reach the state or even international level—turned into confusion and changed its vector several times. All of this leads to the emergence of an ironic attitude similar to that observed today regarding the climate change issue. But this attitude itself is practically never related to substantive doubts—the masses have no data on these issues, they react solely to what they read as the “new morality” of science, its claims to a position of the Super-ego in regulating consumption and implementing new ascetic forms of it. From this point of view, one can talk about an approaching and already strength-gaining wave of new “scientific Victorianism,” a special rigor in the requirements imposed on the way of life and the use of the environment. Such Victorianism will always have opponents subverting its claims, and their position will grow stronger the more successful this new rigor becomes. Thus, many will be tempted to seek a way out precisely here.


The same processes are already taking place in the area of regulation related to a completely unique consumption, the sexual one, the sphere in which most positions will be vetoed. This regulation may seem far removed from the realm of scientific ideology, but in reality, it is dictated by the same type of intervention.


About those who are already against it: right-wing forces, it seems, are gaining momentum in many European countries, and we also observe this in Ukraine. Why do you think this is happening? Could it be that the left is failing today because of its inefficacy?


Solely to not to get confused about what is right and left and not to enter into a dispute on this matter—which is outdated, while the situational-political definitions of these concepts are even more obsolete—it makes sense to resort to a psychoanalytic distinction that allows for a precise, albeit somewhat alternative way of determining the places occupied on the contemporary scene by the so-called rightists and leftists.


If we continue and develop Lacan’s thinking on this matter, we can define the left as suspecting in the direction of truth, and the right, accordingly, as leaning towards the suspicion in relation to enjoyment. It does not mean at all that the source of the most unbiased knowledge is behind the leftist, who has now curiously merged with the conventional “liberal,” and that the strength of the rightist lies in the impregnability in religious and ethical matters. Rather the opposite: the leftist does not know in the name of whom he questions the truth, while the conventional conservative does not realize which enjoyment exactly he is critically pursuing. Here, it is probably necessary to give a warning so these terms are not taken as something commonly understood: enjoyment does not imply that only pleasures are sought here, just as truth is not about the virtue of a philosophical affinity. 


What the leftist is interested in emanates from his interaction with what Lacan calls the “non-learned”—the left extracts enjoyment precisely from this interaction, that is, from the action of informing the non-learned that he must question what is given to him as truth, that he ought to relearn. Therefore, every time the leftist is suspected of being paid off, this suspicion must be reformulated. On the one hand, it is obvious that in its vulgar form, it has a conspiratorial, even delusional character. At the same time, there is no doubt—and here the rightist critic may be right in his own way—that the left takes something for its enlightenment services, although not goods, but enjoyment, and not its own enjoyment, but that of the subject it is watching over. And it is precisely here that the coalition that brings left-oriented movements into universities arises, since the university is initially aimed at treating the uneducated, the student. But for the leftist, the uneducated appears differently: it is someone in need of enlightenment about his own enjoyment. It can be a subject of a national, sexual, economic, or gender minority, someone with psychological peculiarities or an addict, that is, a subject clearly marked, as it is called in psychoanalysis, by some type of lack. What the leftist does by engaging in his enlightenment work means that the damaged, labelled as belonging to a minority subject is literally taken under his wing along with his deficiency.


Looking at things this way, it is necessary to point out, on the one hand, a certain justification of the conservative’s suspicion regarding the presence of this unsanctioned enjoyment. This, and nothing else, explains the growing popularity of right-wing movements. In this sense, they are no longer strongholds of the old regime, nor guarantors of preserving the previous social state, and the very designation of them as “conservative” loses its meaning. What makes the rightist secretly appealing—even for those who hold moderately progressive views—is his willingness to sensitively detect and pursue the enjoyment produced by the leftist intellectual, activist, or human rights defender up to its very limits.


On the other hand, we must point out a flaw in this position. From the rightist’s perspective, the enjoyment produced by the left completely coincides with that of minorities patronized by it. So, if the leftist is concerned, for example, about the illegitimacy of repression towards “non-traditional” sexual orientation, the rightist critic literally suspects him of being interested in the type of enjoyment that, from a conservative point of view, stems from following this orientation. In this sense, observing how the leftist teaches representatives of minorities to defend their rights, the conservative is outraged, believing the activist is solely interested in spreading the enjoyment produced by the activity of his wards. This is where the characteristic suspicion of the activist’s assistance in some obscene enjoyment arises, suspicion that has gained national scope today and is manifested in political persecutions.


As a matter of fact, while correctly identifying that the leftist is engaged in the production of enjoyment, jouissance, the rightist is mistaken in assuming that this jouissance could coincide with that of those he protects. In fact, what the leftist produces—and this is the unobvious meaning of his activism—is an entirely new form of enjoyment that has never existed on the public stage before. To extract it, he needs to come into contact with a somehow oppressed subject, but the latter’s condemned, repressed enjoyment, which the leftist thus patronizingly legalizes, does not coincide with the enjoyment that the activist himself will extract from this situation and which will ultimately become public property. In other words, to enjoy relations with subjects of one’s own sex and to enjoy the mere existence of subjects whose love practices challenge the traditional combination of sexes are not the same thing. 


It is necessary to keep this discrepancy between the two types of enjoyment in mind—the ability of the masses to extract something from the existence of a homosexual, queer, or, for example, autistic person who has retained creative abilities, entirely depends on the mediation of the left intellectual. In this sense, the left is indeed selfless, but solely due to its monopolizing the right to engage in production in a field that remains unproductive and tautological without it—lacking subjects are unable to produce other enjoyment than that already available to them without the mediation of the leftist. 


In this sense, the insight of what we conventionally call a conservative always extends only up to a certain point: he sees the fact of enjoyment extraction, but cannot distinguish what is historically new in it and what relates to what has already been produced. In this perspective, the right-oriented subject will constantly occupy the position with which many are ready to stand in solidarity, as seen in the recent discussion between Žižek and Jordan Peterson; but at the same time, in a broader perspective, he will be losing because of his incapacity to make this distinction. But the latter is key: if there is any matter today that could serve as a guarantee of what we call reproduction in the broadest sense of the word, including the reproduction of the system as such, it is the matter of enjoyment. Refusal of it in the short term seems impossible. In this sense, the left intellectual and activist will occupy most of the scene in the long term, and their influence will continue to grow. 


What is a possible resolution of this confrontation, or is there none?


The answer is provided by Lacan, who points out that every left movement is very closely, almost intimately linked to the University discourse. By the latter, he means a particular slice of the condition of contemporary society, which he defines referring to consequences that regulate the relations of truth, knowledge, and enjoyment. The perspective is visible up to that indistinguishable limit to which we are capable to see the actions of this discourse. It is not yet possible to imagine a scenario in which right-wing views prevail, at least among intellectuals. But it is possible to imagine how they will take over on a pointwise basis, and the agenda that the left produced in the 2000s—specifically, the gender agenda, because it has since received the greatest emphasis—will face increasingly active criticism, not only from those who view gender conservatively, but also from those who will nourish the doubt about the methodology of defining gender and its freedom.


Likewise, the right will gradually win on the territory of social critical theory, which the left has almost completely let go of. Apparently, we are talking about a fundamental turning point in the situation which has long been defined by two major historical sources—the Frankfurt critical theory and the surge of intellectual activism in the 1960s. The right-wing subject will contribute to critical philosophy, which, based on Marxist sources, has long been questioning the discourse of defending rights—this is also how Derrida acted, for example, in his work “Specters of Marx,” considering it necessary to as soon as possible address the well-founded doubt about what can be called “humanitarian initiatives” that are based not on the analysis of the situation, but the notion of some primordial weakness of individual groups of subjects who need help through propaganda to alter the social attitude towards them. We see that the representation of this weakness is now becoming a regulator of social change—the lacking subject of a pseudo-ontological (primordial and implicit) character becomes the hero of contemporaneity and the main focus of progressivist efforts.


The point is not that the struggle to improve this subject’s situation should be discontinued (for example, by literally terminating human rights and charitable initiatives—this is not what Derrida has in mind, and he is unlikely to be on the side of today’s conservative statehood on this issue), but rather that the language of this initiative and the way it uses it to define the situation directly indicates what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment. The language of today’s adherents of the human rights agenda is problematic. In this sense, the right will be providing a service that many consider invaluable, because today the production of doubt is on their side—contrary to the previous philosophical situation in which critical doubt was produced by the left.


Why did this change occur?


Solely due to the above-mentioned escalation of the production of jouissance, enjoyment, which, as was predicted by Lacan in his latest seminars, has become the main product. As long as the product defining contemporaneity was surplus value, the left occupied key critical philosophical positions that allowed the powerful social-critical direction of philosophy—which began to develop in the era of the Young Hegelians and ended with the followers of the Frankfurt School, the last representative of which is Jürgen Habermas—to remain relevant. Now, the main product being surplus enjoyment, the production of which has been taken up by those who previously represented criticism, positioned (or imagined themselves positioned) outside of commodity production, the torch of criticism has passed to the adherents of the protective agenda who are not involved in the production process.


Do you think philosophy and psychoanalysis are powerful voices in today’s world? How influential are they and how relevant is Lacan for all of us now?


This question is difficult because it can only be asked on the basis of a certain logic of recognition of certain figures. Today, this logic is coming to an end, and if we talk about the scene where the domination of powerful figures of thought would be possible, where their prevalence would not be disputed by anyone, it seems that it no longer exists—in any case, we are using it at the moment of its rapid dismantling. Now, referring to a certain set of names, one has to realize that this list is relevant not to every circle of intellectuals. It is evident that incomplete relevance has existed before, but speaking of, for example, “key” figures of the 20th century, there was indeed something like an intellectual scene then, regarding which every new intellectual inevitably had to orient himself, deciding whether it made sense to belong to it. It could be said that Žižek is the last representative of this intellectual scene. Interestingly, he does not occupy it with the same means as those before him, that is, he does not strive to approach it from the perspective of extensive erudition or a good classical education. Moreover, he teases his audience saying education is of no use to him and that he is undereducated. Anyway, even if we write it off as coquetry, Žižek obviously turns out to be the last of those holding together rapidly spreading edges: he deals with contemporary politics in light of the consequences of the structuralist doctrine, meaning he is the last figure insisting on the existence of a unified field of thought. 


It seems this field no longer exists, just as there is no symbolic capital that could be accumulated with the confidence it will work in the long run. This affects the fate of the doctrines of figures left behind: today, French structuralists are not as influential as before, not because, as happens with successive waves of thinkers, they have lost relevance, but despite the fact their agenda was never fully mastered. A paradoxical situation arises in which what was only envisaged by Derrida continues to demand embodiment in critical thought and has become even more relevant over time in light of his fulfilled predictions. But it seems no one can continue this critique, since Derrida turns out to be something unreadable—not only from the standpoint of statistics of interest in his work, but also from a more fundamental perspective related to the loss of the capacity of prolonged reading. This is especially noticeable far from philosophical metropolises, where waves of interest and exploration depend solely on translational initiatives. For example, in our country [Russia] Derrida’s “Politics of Friendship” has not yet been translated, and no one can explain why this is so.


Is the loss of influence a negative trend or rather meaning it is the way it should be?


There is a reason for this rupture, and it is connected with a series of minor crises undergone by the intellectual field. The fact is that in the 1970s, there was a strong consensus regarding the place of what could be called the philosophical, theoretical contribution and, on the other hand, the contribution of activism, which occupied another social and symbolic field. The ongoing regulation here is illustrated, for example, by the history of feminist authors who attempted to assault Lacanian theory, among whom was Luce Irigaray, dismissed from university due to her sharp critique of psychoanalysis. At that time, a clear signal was given to them that they should not do this because this is not the sphere in which they were truly influential and competent. This protective mechanism worked quite successfully, and to some extent still works today, as evidenced, for example, by the debarment or squeezing out of women thinkers and activists belonging to radical feminism from the academic field, even where the latter is fairly progressive and pro-Western. 


However, this distinction gradually ceased to work, and the feminist agenda, including the part of it associated with the criticism of male domination and violence, in a way became predominant over the critical-philosophical agenda. It does not mean there should be grounds for arrogant “intellectual panic” that requires shielding high theory from “barbaric attacks.” It would be a wrong strategic move leading to further elimination of academic philosophy from the current scene. It suffices to acknowledge the change that has taken place, the change which will undoubtedly determine the further intellectual program, entailing further reshuffling of the agents of this scene. We will have to pay for the opportunity to criticize male power in contemporary society using feminist thought quite subtly, not so much with the possibility of the emergence of new gender and power theories (although with it, too), but with what was previously outlined by thinkers not yet bound by ethical guidelines stemming from activism. There is an indirect but strong connection between the activist—feminist, environmental, or any other—agenda and the fact that the work of structuralist philosophers such as Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Lacan will increasingly disappear from view, despite their not having tainted themselves with any politically incorrect criticism of those same feminist initiatives. 


In short, the immediate and already-occurring consequences of this elimination can be traced in reliance on the tasks for the near future (in relation to the time he wrote it) outlined by Derrida in his “Specters of Marx,” where he points out the need to solve the following issues: the first task is to carry out a critique of progressivism; second, to perform a critical analysis of population care, from the sides of both social state policies and grassroots activist initiatives; and third, to examine the Marxist perspectives, indicating there is something in contemporary Marxism that no longer inherits Marx. These tasks cannot be accomplished yet because we are unable to rest on Derrida’s legacy today: there is no school, disciples, and community that continue raising these questions on a scale sufficient to attract attention.


In which direction, in whose hands can intellectual influence end up if philosophy steps down? Who will be the most influential?


I believe that for some time, perhaps even several decades (which coincides with the conservatization of leading political regimes), the human rights consensus associated with the care for the oppressed will prevail, and its influence will be strengthened from the bottom up. There are many indications that it has potentials not directly related to its practical agenda—for example, in the literary or poetic niche, where new writing and poetry cultures, revolving around the themes of oppression, lack of speech, and unequal access to publicity, are developing. Ten years ago, this niche was insignificant and, precisely because of its engagement, constantly remained in the shadow in terms of competition, for example, for literary, poetic, and artistic awards. While today, works based on an engaged agenda have a greater chance not only of being integrated into competition procedures, but also of receiving full-fledged attention from critics. Probably, very soon this creation will abandon the framework of literariness and contemporary art as not corresponding to its tasks and will propose another type of legitimation, turning into something else, incomprehensible to critics, formed within the framework of pre-activist literature and art. We have already missed the moment to carry this criticism out and are missing it more and more. 


Why are we missing it?


Due to the crisis transformations that have led to neither the voice of philosophy nor critical inquiry prevailing over the voice of the activist, the toolkit for analyzing and criticizing the new agenda is no longer developed. 


Interestingly, there are centaurs here who have already become classics—researchers of the transitional period where activist voices were not yet predominant. To talk, for example, about Judith Butler, who is extremely versed in structuralist philosophy and skillfully uses its toolkit, the goals to which she subordinates it have led to an acceleration of the shift towards activism over philosophical analysis.


Who else would you highlight among women, besides Butler?


On the one hand, there is an impression that Butler’s art has not yet been surpassed. But if we talk about what is happening on the intellectual scene, there is a large number of female authors, including academic ones, and apparently it will grow. 


The important fact is that a certain shading is taking place here: we see that followers of Butler are choosing activism over further theoretical inquiry. Their desire is not to provide an understanding of what is happening, but rather to influence the situation—what they recognize as the injustice related to the current state of things—as quickly as possible. It is precisely female researchers who are most sensitive to this injustice, what structuralism carefully warned us about, demonstrating that in these exceptional conditions, thought will have to make do with much more meager means. This is another significant difference between activist and, for example, classical Marxist thought, in which pointing out injustice, no matter how emergent, did not impede the nascency of a more sophisticated and demanding theory.


Perhaps, this is an unconscious process women rely on?


This is something clearly related to desire, because in psychoanalysis, we do not consider the term “unconscious” an indulgence. Today, the woman with her desire finds herself on the side of activism, and this is indisputable.


Work on the questions was done by David Chichkan (Давид Чічкан), Hanna Tsyba (Ганна Циба), Nastya Kalita, and Volodymyr Vorotnov (Володимир Воротньов).

December 23, 2019


Translated from Russian by Ignas Gutauskas



[1] The latest book by Smulyanskiy is “Vanishing Theory: A Book About the Key Figures of Continental Philosophy. Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Žižek“ (Исчезающая теория. Книга о ключевых фигурах континентальной философии. Фуко, Деррида, Лакан, Жижек) (2021).

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