An Interview With Étienne Balibar

Étienne Balibar is a French philosopher. As a student of Louis Althusser, he coauthored the in
fluential Reading Capital. His extensive writings have analyzed the nation-state, race, citizenship, identity and, most recently, the problem of political violence. Balibar is a visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. The Harvard Advocate’s Art Editor, Brad Bolman, sat down with Balibar on the occasion of his lecture, “Violence, Civility, and Politics Revisited,” at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center on November 5, 2014.

I was wondering if you could speak about your work through the lens of possession. You often write about citizenship, which is a matter of being possessed by a nation or government, but also in terms of possessing rights, country and space.

This year, Verso published Identity and Difference: John Locke and The Invention of Consciousness, a commentary on John Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding. This essay is a classic, an absolutely fundamental reference for discussions about personal identity. I’ve always had, perhaps a very continental idea, that a philosopher’s metaphysics or epistemology and his politics and political philosophy must have very intimate and intrinsic relations. That’s the case for anybody from Plato to Spinoza. I found analogies between [Locke’s] theory of personal identity and his political theory, where individual liberty is famously based on the notion of self-ownership, which he called “propriety in one’s person.” So on one side, he has a basic notion of “possessive individualism.” And on the other side, a theory of autonomy and conscious identity where the only basis for an assignation of identity is the consciousness that an individual has that his thoughts, memories, etc. are really his and not somebody else’s.

For Locke, then, individual identity is fundamentally a matter of asserting one’s control over one’s thoughts. How does he explain this process?

How do I know that I am myself, and not you? That’s because my thoughts are mine and your thoughts are not mine. And I can also be sure that my thoughts are not yours, you are not owning my thoughts—owning is an extremely interesting category. On the other side, you have the idea that one’s individual, social and political autonomy comes from the fact that something is, so to speak, inalienable. So it’s “propriety in one’s person,” which Locke develops by using a formula that was central during the English Revolution, one by which English revolutionaries, including such radicals as the Levelers and so on, would claim they were independent from the state. It’s the formula that “propriety in one’s person” is one’s life, liberty, and estate, a very interesting formula which resonates with habeas corpus and a number of issues.

Because in the latter example, at least, it is a matter of maintaining ownership of one’s own person against a sovereign power.

Yes. And to continue with your theme of Possession, something interferes, so to speak, an extremely long and bizarre part of Locke’s chapter [which] is devoted to counterfactuals—cases in which the criterion that he proposes yields results that are counterintuitive from the point of view of what most people think to be the identity of a person. Cases in which there are multi- ple personalities or split identities, including an extraordinary passage which seems to directly anticipate and foreground [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s famous novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s a question of somebody who does something—he calls the two personalities the Night-Man and the Day-Man, and the Day-Man, not by chance, is an honest man, while the Night-Man is a criminal—and the question is whether the night man, who has absolutely no memory of the crimes that were committed during the night by his alias, should be held responsible for these actions. The logical answer is no.

Because they are different men to some degree. The parallel with Stevenson is fascinating.

Then there are other cases which are more similar to problems of possession, precisely, or invasion, I would say, of one’s identity by somebody else’s thoughts or powers, which are not cases of split identity but cases, so to speak, of fused identities. So Locke invents a mythical example. He says, “What if I could
find among my memories the thoughts of somebody who has lived centuries ago?” or “What if Plato?”—that’s wonderful because it seems to anticipate [Jacques] Derrida—

And particularly his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” perhaps also his use of “specters” and “haunting” to describe the function of speech and memory.

Yes, of course. So he says, “What if Plato did not simply interpret or transmit Socrates’ thoughts, but actually had Socrates’ thoughts in his mind?” I
find this extraordinary because, though I’m not superstitious myself, I think what we learn from psychoanalysis and other deep psychology theories, etc, is the fact that after all it’s not so easy to distinguish sometimes between your own thoughts and others that have been somehow adopted. So it appeared to me that Locke was a key figure to investigate in the classical era, and at a moment when philosophers of his kind are supposed to be pure rationalists, if you like, in fact a whole array of questions involving the two sides of this relationship: membership, on one side, or relationship to others; and possession, or property, or appropriation and belonging on the other side.

Now I’ve also reached the moment when I want to say something about not only individualism, but the construction of the abstract individual who is supposed to be the bearer, one would say, of rights—and that includes rights to possess and to acquire, in Marxist terminology, the bourgeois “Discourse of Modernity.” This combines two sides of the problem: Why is it necessary to be able to possess rights and things, but also knowledge, etc., to become a normal or a full member of the civic community? And how can we understand that the kind of legal and social normalcy or normative framework that was progressively built 
in Europe, and therefore in the world during the classical age, especially in England and France and the United States, has a very strict correlation between membership in a civic community, on the one hand, and being a bearer, being defined, I would say, as a universal person by one’s capacity to possess and acquire, again, not only things, but one’s self, one’s labor force, one’s knowledge?

To be this subject that constantly seeks to possess and master both itself and everything around it.

Of course this is fascinating in many respects:
first, it involves that you accept very strong constraints, I would say, or logical axioms both concerning community and concerning individuality. And then it is also interesting because, as classical theorists knew, there are limits. At some point you reach a limit where it’s no longer reasonable to have this absolute right. Intellectual property is an obvious example. Philosophers like Kant and Fichte wrote seminal essays on how to define intellectual property and secure the rights of one individual over his thoughts, his work. What is it that you exactly own? What is it that ought to be protected? What is it that should not and could not be defined as an object of absolute individual appropriation without catastrophic consequences? Is it your thoughts? Is it your words? Is it your style when you write something? And so on. Where does it cease to be rational?

And of course these things are, today—I’m not an expert on that, but legal theorists and others are permanently concerned with it not only because new technologies profoundly modify the ways in which thoughts are shared but for that reason also invented or appropriated—subjectively, the relationship of individuals to their own ideas is changing rapidly. If you’re on a chat on your computer, there are words and ideas that
flow permanently and circulate among different persons. It’s an incredible acceleration which in earlier times would take much more time and, so to speak, give you the time to identify with your thoughts, etc.

And then there are the pathological limits, I would say. It was of course on purpose that I used the formula that what classical philosophers and, in fact, the law itself characterized as this correlation between possessive individuality and civic membership is a sort of normalized vision or representation of the human. I’m not contesting that we need normalized forms, except they’re not exactly the same in all cultures and that’s an important point. What transgresses the limits of normality is, in some cases, not only as important or interesting as the normal itself, but it is also something where it’s not only a question of rights that individuals have, but it’s also a question of what kinds of constraints and, in some cases, violent constraints they’re subjected to and they can exert on each other.

There was one moment in your lecture yesterday when you spoke about “cruelty” very close to the beginning. You mentioned the way it stretches or challenges the difference between subject and object and the form of “violence” that might exist between those two categories. The two examples that you gave of objects, and violence done to or by objects, were “Art” and the “Museum,” and I thought you were maybe referencing Steven Miller’s War After Death—

It’s a beautiful book. It’s a wonderful book.

I thought of the Buddhas—

—of Bamiyan, yes.

And so I wondered if you could develop this idea further, in terms of how you think about violence and the object in relation to art, and perhaps the museum, in particular, which I thought was an interesting example—

Not only was it quick, but it was provocative and perhaps reached the limits of absurdity because I simpli
fied [Miller’s] presentation enormously. Because his presentation involves some considerations on not only the question of death, but the way in which you apply the adjective “dead,” which could trace back to our previous discussion, and because the criterion of something being living or being dead suddenly plays a role in every discussion of possessing, appropriating, mastering, and so on. But of course “dead” has two different meanings in our languages: either it’s the result of the action of killing, so what is dead is what used to be alive, or dead means it’s not alive because it was never alive. So you say that this table was a dead object which apparently doesn’t mean the same thing as “I’m sorry you asked about my father’s health, but he’s dead.” You know?

Some things are dead because they died, but others are dead because they never lived. Now the interesting thing is that progressively you discover there are all sorts of important objects which are in a dubious or intermediary situation between these two poles. And we are used to saying “This is a metaphoric use of the term.” But
first, again, if you move to another environment, things become rapidly, extremely different. So of course our rational—and I have to say Eurocentric and colonial—way of looking at things easily pushes into superstition, fetishism, etc. every idea that statues or objects are alive or dead. But we have our own fetishism, as Marx perfectly well knew and others explained.

The “queer” agency and life granted to the commodity.

And art
finds itself in a strategic situation also because we think that art, I mean we speak of “live” performances, the fact that painting, writing, taking pictures, etc. are activities which either bring to life or create life, so to speak, or, on the contrary, kill, in a sense, their objects. That’s again metaphoric. In a famous passage the poet Mallarmé explained that the word, in a sense, kills the object. You see anthropologists today who pay great attention and respect to the idea very broadly shared and accepted among Native American Indians, for example, whose religious or cultural objects have been taken in one way or another and transformed into a museum object—that they have been killed. You can extend that and say they are in a cage, or have been killed, or have been held hostage.

And then, if you admit that life has a symbolic dimension and art is an essential discourse or practice to reveal that symbolic dimension, you no longer
find it extraordinary or absurd to extend and take seriously such categories as imprisoning, or enclosing, or killing, etc. to cultural objects. There are moments in which we are all angry and we think that the museum is sordid—while it can be beautiful, it can be extremely refined and scholarly—but some artists would say, “My works were not made to be put in a room, in a museum. They were made to circulate.” Which in fact of course leads to another form of appropriation and possession.