James Williams teaches philosophy at the University of Dundee. He has written on French thinker Jean-François Lyotard, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy (Polity), Lyotard and the Political (Routledge) and with Keith Crome The Lyotard Reader and Guide (Edinburgh), on Gilles Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition: a Critical Introduction and Guide (Edinburgh) and The Transversal Thought of Gilles Deleuze (Clinamen) and a new defence of poststructuralism, Understanding Poststructuralism (Acumen).
Mark Thwaite: You have written books on Lyotard, Deleuze and now you add three other poststructuralist thinkers (Derrida, Foucault and Kristeva) to your list - before we get into the detail of your books, what is it that draws you to these thinkers?
James Williams: I was drawn to Lyotard’s ultra-realist political sensitivity, not in the grim conservative sense of realist, but in the sense of refusing any misplaced idealism about structures and systems. I like the way he seeks out gaps in those structures through their dependence on desire. His ability to connect those gaps to notions of justice is important to me. Deleuze is a vital metaphysician; in future years it will be commonplace to utter lines like "Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Deleuze ..." He opens life on to a realm of conditions and potentials that resist modern day naturalism (the reduction of life to the findings of the natural sciences defined in a very limited way) whilst remaining free of dogmatic mysticism. Derrida is a wonderful teacher. He expands our capacity to read between and across lines and texts. I like Kristeva’s combination of literary and psychoanalytical thought. She shows that an engagement with the role of deep processes in the psyche allows us to understand the revolutionary power of literature. As for Foucault, I have a soft spot for the complexity and balance of his style, its measure and cadence; it adds pleasure to the necessity of his understanding of the power of interlaced historical processes in contemporary lives.
MT: Your first book was on Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard strikes me as a thinker often cited as the writer who defined postmodernism (in The Postmodern Condition), but not as a philosopher whose work has had a great impact beyond this. What is is that you see in Lyotard's work that is so important?
JW: Lyotard was one of the best essayists of his time. A modern day Diderot, rather than a pure professional philosopher. So his work on the postmodern must be seen as a brilliant idea among many. It must also be seen in its aesthetic and polemical settings. Lyotard’s works are creative provocations with deep philosophical, political and artistic backgrounds. His work on the postmodern is often misread as a defence of postmodernity (an epoch) when it fact it is a plea for postmodern works that defy epochs by retaining a disruptive extra-historical power. Postmodern works remind us of the limits of the rational or irrational consensus that emerges and defines a slice of history. They are therefore outside such time-slices and have a negative power, ‘here are the limits of reason’, and a positive power, ‘here is an event that we must find new ways of doing justice to’. The notion of impact is a suspicious one in this context and I prefer to think in terms of the untimely: ‘That is to say, for as long as that for which it is time, and which the present time has more need of than ever, continues to count as untimely – I mean: telling the truth’ (Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 55). There are many current works inspired by Lyotard’s truths, for example, Margret Grebowicz's Gender after Lyotard (SUNY, forthcoming), Geoffrey Bennington's Late Lyotard and Simon Malpas's Lyotard (Routledge). Keith Crome and myself have a new critical edition of Lyotard’s works out this month! (The Lyotard Reader and Guide, EUP).
MT: Your Understanding Poststructuralism will, inevitably, be sold as an introductory text to students, but I thought it much better than many introductory texts (important though I think many of these gateway books can be). One of your concerns would seem to be that some analytic/traditional philosophers have not bothered to rise to the challenge of poststructuralist thought, but have condemned it tout court and without care. Why do you think that is?
JW: I like Bourdieu’s sociological methodology for answering this kind of question. For example, in his Homo Academicus, he traces the patterns of training and background for French academics. A similar work could be done for contemporary philosophers (where they trained, with which supervisors, their views of the importance of reason and common sense, whether they view themselves and thrive as specialists or generalists, their attitudes to science, religion and the arts). It would be scurrilous to offer answers independent of such a survey in addition to an extensive study of the statements made on continental philosophers. I am interested in raising critical questions that intersect with analytic ones in order to show that poststructuralist thinkers have some of the most original and powerful, in the sense of liberating, answers to traditional problems. Sometimes, the answer is that the problem is a false one. This can lead to some shock and misunderstanding, often based on the most sketchy reading and perhaps some concealed political and emotional motivations. I’d be happy to have shown that this need not be the case.
MT: What do you make of the ethical/religious turn in thinkers like Derrida? Was it inevitable?
JW: Nothing is inevitable, because even if things are causally determined, the meaning of what occurs exceeds facts or states of affairs. That’s why the same event is very different if we know it is to happen, rather than if it surprises us – hence the rich possibilities in literature for scenes where a death is foreseen (I often return to Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even if it was unsettling to read of its origin in true events in his recent beautiful memoirs Living to tell the tale). When we use the term ‘turn’ in philosophy it imparts meaning and weight to what is turned to, but this is always controversial, none more so than when it imposes linearity on to works with much more complex twists in time. For me, Derrida is primarily a great political interpreter of the philosophical tradition - and he never turned - for others, he is an ethical thinker. It is a mark of his importance that this will remain a rich source of debate.
MT: A number of the big beasts of poststructuralism are dead now. Theory's time has, perhaps, passed. Who in contemporary thought should we be watching out for: Agamben, Badiou, Negri, Virilio, Zizek!?
JW: The philosophy I work on avoids these kind of predictions, except when they are uttered ironically. They encourage a nostalgic view that deflates the present. They also run counter to the view of events as shaped in retrospect and as always retaining an openness to future transformations (theory will return, but not as we know it). They also reflect the consumerist and fashion-led approach that turns us into onlookers rather than makers (see Guy Debord’s not-to-be-missed Comments on the Society of the Spectacle or his original Society of the Spectacle). Don’t look to others: What drives you and disgusts you? Work on them, but without fixing and representing them… Not easy, but definitely good for life.
MT: Lyotard's libidinal economics - like Deleuze & Guattari's politics of desire - seem to me to have dated more heavily than other postmodernisms, perhaps because they seem so tied to the jouissance of '68 ... or am I being unfair?
JW: There is a beautiful treatment of this kind of problem in Charles Péguy’s great book Clio. Péguy describes history as two intersecting cones: as we look into the future the cone widens and there are always more judges and actors, a bigger potential audience, but equally when they look back there are ever more worthy protagonists around us in the past. Our future audience turns out to have a choice among a much greater range of scenarios than we expected. So the interlocking cones of history grow wider backwards and forwards, and both cones expand through time. This leads to a set of interesting paradoxes. We care about future judgements, but we necessarily matter less and less in the future. Yet when we look back at needy actors just like us, we see them amongst many others. We crave significance, but remove it from others to make space for our own, as they do to us. One of the biggest problems is whether this should be cause for melancholy, or for a release from the burdens of destiny (Péguy’s moods alternate between despair and glory). If it is the latter – and, after all, it is up to us - then Lyotard’s desire will keep returning, but never as a dominating legacy.
MT: In the critical responses to your books, have you learned anything that would make you want to reassess or finesse your arguments? Have you been happy with the responses to your work?
JW: Readers’ responses to manuscripts, commissioned by academic presses, are the most important critical response to books and articles received by academics; they are almost never seen by others. A bad response means no publication, no publication can mean no job. Luckily, I have had many helpful responses that have much improved my books. It is luck because readers and reviewers can often be less well-qualified than the original author or have an opposed agenda (‘this book about guinea pigs should have been about elephants’. There is very little kudos in reading and reviewing, so they are done out of duty, enjoyment in judging others, lust for power, or necessity (junior academics find it hard to get early publications and hence often work through reviews; they are also in need of the tiny sums paid for reading: ‘we offer you £50 worth of our books for a 3 page report on this 400 page manuscript’). I like the way some modern reviewers are trying to re-invigorate the form by turning reviews into more creative pieces, where judgement and categorisation play less prominent roles. A good reviewer jumps off from a work, rather than jumps on it (obviously Nietzscheans do not have regrets, but were I to have any, one would be to have flattened rather than lifted works).
MT: You have a new book about Deleuze coming from Clinamen in March (The Transversal Thought of Gilles Deleuze) - can you tell me a little about it? Will this be building on the arguments in your Gilles Deleuze's "Difference and Repetition": A Critical Introduction and Guide?
JW: Clinamen is one of a dwindling number of independent specialist philosophical presses resisting the commercial logic of ‘many introductory primers and few, mainly historical, classics’. Bill Ross, the editor, pays genuine care to his authors and books. My book argues that Deleuze sought to construct a metaphysics, a world-view, with the greatest potential for openness, that is, with the fewest basic exclusions and identifications. A metaphysics that says that humans or nature or God, identified in a certain fixed way, are prior and best is terribly violent and narrow. However, even contemporary forms of empirical scientific naturalism can be narrow, due to the metaphysical presuppositions of their methods: forms of abstraction and generalisation, for instance. My book shows the detail of Deleuze’s arguments in relation to other key thinkers. I trace Deleuze’s work on transcendental conditions in Kant; his ethical thought based around expression, through Levinas; his engagement with science, through Bachelard; his work on reciprocal determination, in Whitehead; his distance from the possible, through Lewis; his radical opposition to the use of common sense, through Harman; and his revolutionary politics, in Negri and Lyotard. The book could have been called Deleuze, Life and Philosophy, but The Transversal Thought of Gilles Deleuze: Encounters and Influences is much less hubristic (the value of a good editor).
MT: What are you working on now?
JW: I’m working on another book-length reading of a work by Deleuze (The Logic of Sense). This book develops his idea of the radical connection of all things and people through the intense sensations that can run through them. He deduces a surface of sense connecting impersonal neutral events to individual singular actual ones, for example, in the way a single battle brings together many different actors, but from myriad perspectives and through multiple emotions and attachments. This notion of the event, as a connecting process prior and constitutive of fleeting identities, has very interesting ramifications for the ways we see life. So I am working on a long-term project of a new philosophy of the event inspired by Deleuze and by Whitehead.
MT: What is the best book you have read recently? Who is your favourite writer/what is your favourite book?
JW: I do not really have favourite writers and books. There are writers that accompany different moods and moments very well (Goytisolo, McEwan, Faulkner, Franquin, Goscinny, Uderzo, Chatwin, Sollers, Barthes, Greene, Borgès, Morris, Nietzsche, Foucault, Golding, Proulx, Waugh, Sempé) but which ones, when and where is unpredictable, sometimes they work, sometimes they do not. When they work they connect a moment to others by making them different; a single fixed and cherished favourite could not really do that – like a jester always telling the same joke to lesser effect. Off with his head.
MT: Has the internet changed the way that you read and write?
JW: I can’t remember a time before the internet. The latest surfing speeds and remote file and email access allow an academic to be almost anywhere in the world and ‘at work’. This ends the old dichotomy of, either, working on a single well-crafted piece next to a hot stove in slippers, or, sitting in a fusty university office teaching and administrating. My only worry with this passing is that it can increase a somewhat typical academic jealousy and paranoia (What are they doing? Why aren’t they reading me? Who is planning my downfall? Do I care?) Less in-the-flesh contact involves a loss of social skills and an increase in lonely self-analysis. It goes without saying that poststructuralists like me never ever suffer from this, and don’t you ever say the contrary, because I will find out.
MT: Anything else you’d like to say?
JW: Thanks for interviewing me. A serendipitous remedy for the above electronic social alienation lies in setting up a network of valued internet sites – something like an archipelago of cultured writing amidst a sea of dross. ReadySteadyBook (and its linked blogs) are pleasant and hospitable islands!
MT: Thanks so much for your time James - all the very best.