Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2010

Georg Diez, Christopher Roth

English version  from Volume Nine  of the 80*81 Book Collection

Political changes, historical ruptures, and watermarks.

What were you doing in 1968?

I was teaching in a provincial university in the center of France.

You were already part of the elite.

Oh, no, not at all. I participated a lot in an event the meaning of which I only understood later. It took me thirty years. And what happened is much more important than we believe it to be, because it highlighted some major changes in European civilization. In 1900, 70 percent of the populations of Germany and France were farmers. Now that number is about 1.5 percent, with the curve beginning to fall around 1970. Nobody understood that in 1968.

Should 1968 be seen as trigger or as consequence of this fundamental change?

We never understand the relationship between invisible Tectonic plates and the earthquakes we experience. In 1968, there was a change on a human level–a change in bodies, in medicine, in our professional activities. One thing is sure: We are no longer living in the same world. With the progress made in the health sector, for example, everything began to change. Take pain. We experienced a ever-increasing production of analgesic medication until pain, once a necessary, daily experience, began to be transformed. Today we regularly meet people who have never suffered pain.

What are the consequences of a pain-free society?

Every religious, philosophical, or historical moral is founded on the experience of pain. So if pain begins to disappear, on what will we found morality?

The disappearance of pain could explain the disappearance of religion.

The crisis of religion arrived just at that very moment.

After 1968, were there other big changes?

There is the current crisis, and we are not exactly sure how it came about. It has superficial causes–the arrival of new technologies, the imbalance between financial speculation and the actual economy. These causes we know. But there are other causes that are more complex. Between 1970 and today the world underwent an enormous transformation, which can only be compared with the Renaissance, the Platonism of the fifth century BCE, and the Neolithic Age. When did peasantry begin? In the Neolithic Age. So we can now say that in the year 2010 the Neolithic Age is over. But who announced this in the newspapers? We are experiencing an extraordinary human and environmental transformation without really being aware of it.

There are historical cycles.

There is no reversibility. Take the passage from the oral to the written, from the written to the printed, from the printed to the computerized. There are three stages to that: the fifth century BCE, the Renaissance, and, lastly, our contemporary epoch.

We are new men who don’t know that we are new men.

Yes. One of my books is called Hominescence. It has to do with changes in health, and the fact that, for the first time ever, we have the possibility to regulate birth and to regulate the time of our death. Something has changed completely in the physical life. I will give you another example: In 1800, 8 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today between 50 and 70 percent of the world’s population are city dwellers. This is not the same type of humanity. It’s not the same body or space, the same agriculture, the same world.

When did you realize these changes?

I was at the École Normale, and all philosophers–Marxists, right-wing conservatives, and capitalists–were only concerned with the problems of economic production. That was the central theme of philosophy. In 1969 I wrote five books on communication, and all those people said, But he is completely crazy! Well, today’s society is one of communication. I just saw it coming.

Like in your 1980 book The Parasite.

I was just beginning to study the obstacles facing communication. The word ‘parasite’ imposed itself on me. It has a human meaning: I am your parasite if I eat what you offer me to eat. There are many ordinary plants and animals that are parasites. In French the word refers to the noise produced by communication. It was also used in Germany between 1880 and 1900, at the beginning of the problems with electricity. There are also some English texts that spoke about parasites. But the French language was the only one to keep the word.

The word has negative connotations, but in your book it is more ambiguous.

It’s ambiguous because in communication noise is sometimes useful–it can serve to transform a message. This happens in the same manner in biology. A change in the DNA messages via a parasite can result in the development of new species.

The book is also written and presented in a very unusual way. It’s not very systematic, but more literary.

The subject was not traditionally philosophical, so I had to create a new form. This is a book in which I could move freely between the physical sciences, the living sciences, and the human sciences, and in so doing establish a kind of relationship between bodies of knowledge.

The book could be read in very different ways. The message was not immediately clear. You were not really perceived as a political philosopher, as was your friend Michel Foucault.

I am not a philosopher who is politically involved in the sense that Jean-Paul Sartre was. With Foucault it was different. We often had lunch together and we spoke about the book he was in the process of writing, Les mots et les choses. We collaborated a lot, though we had many disagreements. I found that his perspective on the 17th and 18th centuries was a bit cavalier. And he varied a lot from a political point of view. At the beginning he was very left-wing and over time he grew less so, even veering towards the right. At the end of his life he returned to the left again. My perspective on politics is different. Everything that I have told you shows that the world has changed enormously. But our political institutions have not. I see them as dinosaurs. I don’t really want to involve myself with a team of dinosaurs. The real things take place outside of politics today.

In your book La démocratie et la république you write that France is a republic and America is a democracy.

The Republic is governed by Roman law, with some fundamental principles on which we base our political and legal behavior–freedom and human rights, for example. The Anglo-Saxon countries, in contrast, are governed by common law, that is to say by case law–the history of individual cases. As a result their democracy is attentive to all individual cases, which gives American democracy an extremely diversified, mosaic-like profile. They pride themselves in talking about their differences. We, on the other hand, pride ourselves in talking about our equality, meaning that for a black man from Senegal and an immigrant from Morocco there is equality in education and so forth. There is no sense in making a difference between different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The democratic countries are very attentive to the dispersion of cultures, while in France we have the tendency to homogenize cultures.

So a democracy is better suited to today’s problems than a republic like France?

That’s a big question, and the person who manages to answer it will be a great philosopher. Because this is the most important question in the world today. Are you common law or are you Roman law?

You prefer a fragile construction to a solid fragment. This is a fundamental principle of your philosophy.

The models that I employ are generally fluid and rather complex mosaics. I come from a scientific background. In our grandparents’ anatomy manuals from the 1930s, we can find illustrations of the hips, the lungs, and the knees that feature the bones, the joints, and the muscular attachments–they were geometric and descriptive diagrams. Today’s anatomy manuals contain images made by nuclear magnetic resonance of the hips of a 15-year-old girl, the hips of an old man in his eighties, and the hips of a pregnant woman. We can see singularities. Interesting are the specificities of a given age, of a certain woman. Today science represents very precise singularities, it is no longer schematic as it once was. The great geometric designs have completely disappeared from science, even though they governed philosophy from Hegel until Bergson. They had big diagrams about history that now make us laugh. From a cognitive point of view, we are no longer in that mind-set. Today we have chaos theory, which demonstrates how an extremely minuscule event can provoke major consequences. Who would have thought 20 years ago that an extremely small event could set in motion a gigantic cyclone?

Quantum physics.

Today what’s more important than quantum physics are contingency theory and chaos theory. There is a rupture in a cognitive perspective, which in my opinion will have economic and industrial consequences in the future. Ever since the Renaissance, and up until recent times, all the cognitive models were attached to mathematics, to physics, to mechanics, to chemistry–in other words: to the hard sciences. Edmund Husserl said that philosophy must become a science, but for him science was modeled after mathematics and mechanics. Those sciences have come to an end; other sciences are gaining in importance–the life sciences and the earth sciences, geophysics and biochemistry. Tomorrow there will be an industrial revolution in these areas. There will ensue major changes in not only the ‘activity of knowing,’ but also in industry and consequently in politics. You know, we are sitting here in Berlin by the river. When I see this architecture here, I say to myself, Oh, that was the era when we still believed in geometry. Now we believe more in botany. And Berlin is an extraordinary city because it has very advanced buildings, but it is also very green; it has all those lakes, forests, and trees–there is grass everywhere. The first city that juxtaposes the old and the new world. All Berlin architecture from the 1930s clung to geometry, with the cubes and cylinders that are the residue of nineteenth-century geometric thinking. Insofar as it is truly modern, Berlin projects the opposite image. In which European city can one feel calm, can one cycle or walk freely? I would very happily live in Berlin. It is the ideal city, and if I had to provide a photograph of my philosophy I would take an aerial view of Berlin. To respond to your question about philosophy: The solid things are the old buildings. The cylinders, cones, planes–all that is ‘over,’ it is archaic. But the leaves, the trees, the weeping willows, the Spree, the noiseless boats–this is modern. And in being modern, it is also fragile and liquid.

But isn’t Berlin more of a fragmented city than a fluid one?

Both, and that is not contradictory. ‘Mosaic’ comes from the same word as ‘music,’ but with another pronunciation. It has nothing to do with Moses. That is the passage of the mosaic to the fluid–music is fluid but is made, like a mosaic, from pieces. The passage from mosaic to music is a kind of symbol for what I do. The mosaic is stronger because it is made of fragments.

Ecology is an important part of your philosophy.

I do not use the word ecology for a very simple reason. There are two meanings. Ecology was born in 1880, and in fact it was a German who first to used the word. It’s a science that was invented in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Montpellier, France. In Madison they invented limnology, the science of lakes, which considered the lake as a unique entity, and took into account the materials in the lake–water and earth–and the totality of living species in the lake, as well. Simultaneously in Montpellier, they took the Mont Ventoux as an entity, admitting all the characteristics of altitude, the composition of rocks. Since then ecology has become the most difficult of the sciences because it involves mathematics, the Volterra equations, a complete natural history, biochemistry. I don’t know any militant ecologist who knows one thing about actual ecology. I do not use the word because I would have the tendency to use it in the first sense. But in reading my writings I would be classified in the second sense.

Your areas of interest are very close to those of militant ecologists.

No, my aproach is different. Twenty years ago I wrote a book called The Natural Contract. In that book I proposed that the great natural elements be awarded the status of a legal entity. This was more juridical than political or militant. Taking the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an example, if we apply my idea of a natural contract, we would invent an international court in the Hague or Geneva, and in this tribunal the sea would be able to attack British Petroleum for the crimes it suffered. The sea would thus be a legal entity. What inspired my thinking about this was a painting by Goya in the Prado, which shows two men stripped to the waist fighting with bludgeons. Hegel tells the story of the master and the slave, but he does not tell us where it took place. A painter is obliged to tell us where something takes place, and in this case Goya placed the men in shifting sands. So for each blow they give, they sink deeper and deeper. Who will win, the master or the slave? Neither the man on the right nor the man on the left. The shifting sand will always win. Politics and law always involve a game between two players, one man against another, or a group of men against another group of men. But the problem is that it is always a game of three players, and the third entity is the moving sand in the case of Goya, and the Gulf of Mexico in the case of BP. The newspapers always say that BP is in a delicate financial situation, that President Obama will file a lawsuit against them. Politics is always between two players, but today’s problems are between three.

You call this situation a war.

It is a war that, since the beginning, man has waged against the environment. I wrote a book entitled La guerre mondiale, and everybody thought it was about the First World War. But no, it was about the war that men wage against the world. In this case I wrote a book in which I tried to explain what pollution is. Everybody says that we pollute with carbon dioxide. But why do we pollute? It’s very simple, really. A dog that passes by is going to urinate to mark its territory. This is essentially property law. Pollution is not a recent phenomenon; it is inevitable, because we are like animals–we pollute to take possession of something. I would attack BP because they are in the process of taking possession of the Gulf of Mexico.

What could be the solution?

Why are we banning smoking in European cafés? Because when a person smokes he takes possession of the atmosphere around him and he imposes his own pollution on others. When I hear a helicopter passing, it takes possession of the space with noise. So a legal attack is much more potent regarding environmental issues.

Is the climate more favorable for these ideas now than it was 30 years ago?

There is beginning to be an audience for this type of reflection. This audience does not live in the same world that we do, nor do they share the same cultural horizon. In my day, a cultivated man had a cultural horizon of 10,000 years. Today this is not at all the cultural horizon of a 20-year-old. Today it is the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago, the origin of the earth, 4 billion years ago, the origin of life, 3 billion 800 million years ago, the evolution of species, the arrival of man in Africa, the departure of man from Africa–all of that forms a narrative that represents our contemporary culture. But it has nothing to do with previous cultures.

Is this why the young generation has a humbler attitude towards nature?

The new cultural horizon completely changed the vision of the world, of history, and of time. It’s been so profound that we cannot predict the behavior that will result as a consequence. With regard to the philosophical landscape I still see people who are concerned with politics, or who still employ completely outdated scientific models. I am not sure where I stand within this landscape but it seems to me that my concern is the anticipation of the world to come.

At the age of 80 you are more inspirational than ever before. The notion of fluidity seems very contemporary. And the ‘parasite’ brings to mind the wave of vampire films.

The vampire is not exactly a parasite. It could also be considered a predator. A parasite normally eats and lives off of a host organism but the vampire does not. We have billions of monocellular parasites in our bodies.

Does it trouble you that you did not find an attentive enough audience before?

In your question lies the question, How is a philosophy received in a given world? I would have liked for it to be faster, but that is a question of glory, and if you are interested in glory you are not a philosopher. The philosophers who pretended to be contemporary were not contemporary. The question that always preoccupied me was, What is new in the world today? When you become involved in politics, what is ‘new’ is what’s in the morning paper. But the paper transmits news without reporting what is actually new. What was new in the twentieth century was the end of agriculture, and the prolonging of life expectancy. The rest is history, and in the end it was less important.

As a writer with new ideas and new forms you use mythological characters like Hermes or angels.

It’s interesting to try to find new concepts, such as the natural contract or the parasite, but I also try to find new characters.

Like a writer?

Like a philosopher. Hegel found the master and the slave, Nietzsche found Zarathustra–it’s a great philosophical tradition to establish conceptual characters that embody thought. The French tradition is a bit different. Since the 18th century, since Diderot or Voltaire, our thought has always mixed the narrative, the literary, with philosophy, which was not completely specialized. Camus, Sartre, Valéry, and even Bergson were all writers. Hermes was a great character, but he was not a great discovery. The character that all the philosophers were preoccupied with before him was Prometheus, the god of production, of the industrial revolution. And one day I said, No, Prometheus is finished, it is now Hermes who is going to reign. And all the philosophers considered me to be a traitor. I was a traitor to religion, to Prometheus.

Because Prometheus is more solid and Hermes is more fluid?

Prometheus was mostly involved with industry, and Hermes was occupied with sending messages. The difference there is that of the hard and the soft. Our civilization is much more soft than it is hard. Modernity is soft; the message is soft; software is not hard. The modern object is no longer the steam engine; it is the computer, the manipulator of messages. The soft is a good philosophical concept.

Is the parasite a character or a concept?

It is both. It is an operational concept, but it is also a very important character because it can be a human, it can be an animal–it is a character with several bodies.

What is the fascination with angels?

I will tell you a story. I have been living in Silicon Valley for 35 years now, because I teach at Stanford. I have many old students who have ended up working in computer science. One of them took me to visit his factory, where he produced elements that enable us to put computers in relation to one other. He is Jewish, and I said to him, You are making cherubs. Cherub is not a Hebrew noun, it is an Assyro-Babylonian word that designates an animal like the Sphinx, a lion with eagle wings and the head of an old man with a long beard. It’s an animal with three bodies, and it signifies that we are beasts with beastly instincts, but if we had wings we might take flight and climb the steps of the Ziggurat to become wise men. It’s an animal that is double, and it is the messenger. The Hebrew took this animal and made it into an angel that guards the Ark of the Covenant. The angels are thus messengers who, in the Middle Ages, inspired a literature that everybody now mocks, angelology, which treats the relationships between very different worlds. The angels provide openings, carrying God’s message everywhere in the world.

An angel is a concept, not a character.

A concept has several bodies. A parasite can be an angel. In our contemporary world the people who deal with the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ are extremely numerous. The world today is full of angels, and nobody realizes it.

You wrote a book about the Challenger disaster.

I wrote a book on sculpture, but I used sculpture as a pretext to talk about objects. In Carthage, in antiquity, the people regularly brought a giant, bronze god out of the temple and set it on fire until it became red. This was Baal. They put children into the carcass and listened to their screams until they died. It was an unbelievable cruelty. I said to myself that it was bizarre to light a fire under a rocket with people inside, and to kill them with this fire. It has an uncanny resemblance to Baal. Because before this spectacle the Carthaginian people cried out in a hymn, These are not children, they are oxen and cows. We told ourselves that the Challenger disaster was not a human sacrifice, that it was not religious, that it was about progress. It is the same lie in the two messages that interested me. We sacrifice people, but if it is science, it is an accident.

You say that we need new fables, new narratives or stories, but we already have all the fables, all the stories. What we need is a translator.

Often two stories put in relation to one another shed an intelligent light. The statue of Baal beside the Challenger helps to understand a lot. Or take the death of Lady Di: Roman emperors who died accidental deaths were deified. Are we so far away from the Roman Empire? Lady Di made into a goddess, that is like the apotheosis of the roman paganism. In Antiquity they were laughing about the phenomenon of apotheosis, today we cherish it.

Still, you insist on new fables.

Because science is constantly inventing new narratives. The story of the Big Bang. Then the stars that cooled down. Then the arrival of a planet that cooled and gave birth to life. Then the story of an evolution that produced different species. And then the arrival of man, which is an incredible story, but one that has not existed for very long. At the very moment that science recounted the greatest and newest narrative imaginable, our contemporary philosophers have stated that we do not have any great narratives. It is for this reason that I am still attached to the French language’s philosophical tradition that associates the narrative with philosophical meditation, because there are moments of great profundity.

You must like the Internet, as it is fluid and chaotic.

Yes, it is multiple. It is what it is. It is a question that gave rise to Plato’s philosophy. Socrates hated writing and found it less alive than speech, but Plato opted to write. Platonism is the witness to the passage from oral transmission to written transmission, just as Montaigne’s philosophy represents the passage from writing to printing. Today we are witnessing the passage of one way of thinking, the one inspired by books, to another way of thinking, one inspired by Wikipedia and the Internet.

But there no philosopher does that.

I still have the impression that what I did in my life predicted difficulties in communication, the changes in medium, everything related to these new directions.

You say that you don’t like footnotes. But the whole Internet comprises hyperlinks and footnotes.

Quite to the contrary: If I put a footnote in my book, I tell my readers to go and find proof in another book that what I am saying is true. Now it is no longer necessary to do that. It’s enough just to click.

You say that a text without footnotes is more beautiful, that its concept is more fluid. The footnote is more solid.

The footnote is the knight’s armor. If I put one in you know that what I am saying is true because Heidegger already said it.

In a book the footnote can also open a space.

But that opening in space is already there. I don’t need to put it in a book. The moment that I cite something on the Internet, the reader can verify it, whereas in a book I would be obliged to consult another book at the library. I hate endnotes because I am obliged to go to the end of a book in order to check something and then come back and reread.

There is another concept associated with the Internet, the concept of forgetting. We start reading a text and then we navigate away. We open other links until we end up forgetting where we were, and we get lost.

There is a word in English for that, which does not exist either in German or in French, like when you go to a big store and pass from one product to another. How do you say that? I forgot.