Frédéric Neyrat is a French philosopher and former program director at the Collège International de Philosophie. He is currently a visiting professor at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While his work largely remains to be translated into English, his writings—which integrate cultural theory, biopolitics and immune-politics, Marxist political economy, and critiques of liberal eco-politics—offer productive intersections with much of the ongoing work in critical theory and human-environment geography in the Anglo world.

His recent work includes books on Heidegger (L’indemne. Heidegger et la destruction du monde, 2008), eco-politics, immuno-politics and catastrophism (Biopolitique des castastrophes, 2008), Antonin Artaud (Instructions pour une prise d’âmes: Artaud et l’envoûtement occidental, 2009), capitalism and ecopolitics (Clinamen: Flux, absolu et loi spirale, 2011), terrorism (Terrorisme: Un concept piégé, 2011), Jean-Luc Nancy (Le communisme existentiel de Jean-Luc Nancy, 2013), and a manifesto for philosophy (Atopies, forthcoming 2014). He is also the author of several essays on ecopolitics and the Anthropocene and is a member of the editorial board at Multitudes. Neyrat maintains the blog Atopies.

 

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Elizabeth Johnson: Your scholarship integrates cultural theory, biopolitics, Marxist political economy and critiques of liberal eco-politics. A segment of critical human-environment geography has for some time been occupied with this confluence of critical theory and eco-politics, but this is perhaps only recently becoming more mainstream in academic scholarship. Could you tell us a bit about your background coming out of France and your work with Multitudes. What commitments ground the synthetic nature of you work?

Frédéric Neyrat: You’re perfectly right to mention the journal Multitudes, which was in the 2000s a real and powerful intellectual laboratory. During this period, it became crystal clear to me that the study of “cognitive capitalism”, that is to say, of contemporary capitalism based on the production and the exploitation of knowledge, was inseparable from a questioning of environmental disasters and of new biopolitical technologies. My book Biopolitics of Catastrophes was devoted to this triple perspective, simultaneously economic, environmental, and biopolitical. Yet the relation between these three dimensions is anything but obvious: how is it possible to reconcile the idea that contemporary power produces and enhances life, that is to say the biopolitical perspective, with environmental studies showing the degradation of the conditions of life? How can we reconcile the euphoric discourse that analyzes capitalism via the notion of “the immaterial” (knowledge, the powerful cooperative web of brains of the “general intellect”, all the concepts coming from Operaismo and post-Operaismo[1]), with the necessity to materially consider the industry of the immaterial and its material ecological footprint? Do these very material feet and supposedly immaterial brains not belong to the same world? I could only answer these questions by invoking, to use an expression from Freud, the “other scene” of biopolitics, economy, and ecology: something that I call – combining Freud, Derrida, Sloterdijk, and Esposito – an immunological unconscious, or the fantasy of an absolute immunization.

This fantasy makes it possible to explain a number of splits (clivages, Spaltungen), which is to say juxtapositions without relations between two realities: on the one side, the enhancement of life (via medicine, genetics, technological prowess, etc.); on the other side, the damaging of the conditions of life. On the one hand, we know that we are precarious, we know that climate changes can deeply affect our ways of life (Winter 2014 has confirmed this); but on the other hand, we act as if we do not believe in our precariousness, as if we are immortal, non-living beings! Without the hypothesis of an immunological unconscious, we would not be able to understand how we can, simultaneously, destroy the ecosphere and deny this destruction. The encounter between psychoanalytical or para-psychoanalytical concepts (split, fantasy, immunological unconscious, etc.) and the biopolitical and environmental realities of our time is characteristic of my intellectual project: to found an eco-analysis.

EJ: In Biopolitique des Catastrophes and elsewhere, you work to craft a politics without human exceptionalism, drawing you toward a politics of relationality and immanence. But you have been careful to craft relationality and immanence in ways that avoid associating them with any sense of universalism, unity, or totality. Rather than the recognition of endlessly connected entanglements, you’ve suggested that an effective political imaginary requires a proliferation of exit routes through which we might disentangle from, for example, our relationship to capitalism. In that regard, you’ve written, “the biggest mistake is to believe that there is only one kind of immanence”. I wonder if you might expand on the significance of this.

FN: Today, the theoretical field must resist two dangers. The first one is human exceptionalism, that is to say the split between humans inhabiting the fantasy of their absolute immunity and the rest of the world, animals considered as meat for slaughterhouses, as existentially worthless (worthless does not mean, of course, without a price: Nietzsche understood one century ago that to have a price means to be worthless). To be anthropocentric and to constitute the fiction of human exceptionalism first requires the creation of an ontological domain in which humans are withdrawn from the world. A relational thought is necessary to fight this danger. From its beginnings, environmental thought has contested human exceptionalism, this dangerous transcendence that enabled Descartes to argue that we can become “masters and possessors of nature”. And thanks to the concept of immanence – say, from Spinoza to Deleuze – it was possible to contest the fictions of transcendence. Yet it is here that the other danger appears, that of absolute immanence, that of the Spinozist immanence where – as the etymology tells us (im-manere) – everything always stays inside. In other words, the other danger is relational excess, the belief that everything is interconnected, hyper-connected: that’s the symmetrical fantasy of the immune fantasy! In the passage you quote, I wanted to show that immanence is not one, but multiple, in other words, infinitely open, torn apart, crossed by an infinity of outsides. Here is the crucial point, and honestly it took time before I got it: it’s not separation that we must fight, but splits. A split juxtaposes two realities without mediation, whereas a separation is that without which a relation becomes a fusion, and fusion is not a relation, fusion is the suppression of separation in absolute immanence. Environmental thought must stop believing that it must fight separations: splits are its enemy!

EJ: A concept like the “Anthropocene” seems troubling in this regard, as it risks being used to reference an historical period in which there is no outside to human activity, no exit from the now geologic accretion of human history. Yet, you’ve written productively on that concept. How have you found it generative?

FN: The concept of Anthropocene is an “ideological” battleground, an anthropo-scene, as I wrote in an essay in 2010. It’s necessary to intellectually invest this notion to prevent it from becoming the “hegemonic” signifier of a constructivist euphoria. This euphoria is stated this way, you will find the formula almost everywhere on Internet: “Welcome to the Anthropocene”, that is to say: “Welcome to a world of geoengineers who believe that the earth is a hollow box that we can transform at will.” This approach that leads us straight to the worrying project of a chemical shield, which is supposed to protect us from climate change without compelling us to modify our ways of life and our conception of the world (on this topic, I refer to Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters). It reveals that the meaning of the Anthropocene, I mean its dominant signification, is the supreme expression of human exceptionalism. To understand this point, it’s necessary to go a little bit beyond the constructivist theory, including that of Latour: in a way, the idea of a “great divide” is too optimistic! Indeed, the idea of a “great divide” entails two sides; but the deep split on which human exceptionalism is based leads to the following belief: only one side exists. In this ontological situation, the whole of being lies on the human side – in the same way that Luce Irigaray, in the 1970s, argued that phallocentrism recognizes only the male sex, whereas the other one is “this sex which is not one”. Exceptionalism leads to a unilateral world, like a Moebius strip, that topological surface that has only one side. The concept of Anthropocene is the ideological completion of this process that began with capitalism and the Great colonization of non-humans.

Does this mean that “the other side” really does not exist? No! But thanks to the concept of the Anthropocene, contemporary theory should be compelled, first, to recognize the ongoing extent of human colonization and, second, to understand that to contest human exceptionalism does not only mean to criticize anthropocentrism or to propose a flat (plate) ontology where humans and non-humans are put on the same footing. Contrasting to this flatness (platitude), I argue that to contest exceptionalism is to give rise to powerful differences, to generate outsides, and to assign a status of exception to every existential arising. If we want to avoid the idealist position, which merely affirms non-humans’ agency, it’s necessary to consider this agency in a program of political, social, and technological mediations. Because one never immediately passes from an ontological potential to a political transformation, it’s necessary to create mediations. If we want another anthropo-scene, we have to choose between the technologies we want to use and to create and the technologies we don’t want. Only beneficial technological and political mediations can express and guarantee agency.

EJ: In a lecture in June of last year, you spoke on image, imagination, and hallucination as generative sites from which such exit routes and disentanglements might emerge. In this context, you suggested that embracing passivity is necessary for the production of a new political imaginary. This runs contrary to what many of us think about when we consider ‘politics,’ which typically takes shape around action, activity, and strategy. Why this emphasis on imagination and passivity in political thought?

FN: In After the future (2011), theorist and activist Franco Berardi analyses Leninism as the disastrous incapacity to allow a necessary place for passivity.  He also analyses What is to be done? as the therapeutic means used by Lenin to escape his depression – a masculine and potent exit, blind to the moments of truth that a depression reveals. In parallel, numerous radical activists consider that a social “movement” can sometimes be ontologically too homogeneous with the “infinite mobilization” (Sloterdijk) that the project of modernity requires; that’s why these activists prefer the word (and the action of) “blockade”. Thus, to question activism, when activism is a “movementist” drive without a global strategy, seems necessary. But regarding passivity as such, I do not argue that we must set passivity at the core of politics! Quite to the contrary, I suggest that it’s necessary to think a passivity that is really passive, free from the social depreciation that weighs on it. It’s only on the basis of this move that we can then take a second step toward the interesting task of seeing, in a case by case way, what bridges can be built between the experiences of passivity, (to accept to not immediately and in force solve existential problems, to accept limits and the unavoidable human helplessness), and the political domain. Rather than its heart, passivity should be the skin of politics.

Without passivity, without a “negative capability”, to refer to Keats’s notion, there isn’t any creative imagination, this chaotic imagination that generates the promises of new worlds. But how is it possible to liberate this imagination? How is it possible to leave room for passivity in a world of permanent interactivity and interconnection? Like everyone else, I like information and communication technologies. Like everyone else, and as McLuhan had predicted, I forget that these technologies are addictive fluxes through which my body extends and communicates in space. That is why it is now necessary to create what Deleuze called “vacuoles of solitude and silence”, or “vacuoles of non-communication”, that is to say momentary interruptions of communication, acts of separation. Without separation, it is impossible to really experience a relation. I want to make clear that these vacuoles of non-communication must not be impregnable fortresses, but transient experiences whereby it is really possible to be in the world, to feel, and to imagine the world in which we are. In other words, to liberate the imagination does not at all mean to turn every possibility into a reality – that’s the project of modernity, that of Francis Bacon and atmospheric shield manufacturers. No, to liberate the imagination means to create spaces and moments of deactivation during which the imagination can become autonomous. After this deactivation comes the time of the selection amongst possibilities, that is to say also the possibility to not realize possibilities. That is one of the major crimes of our time, the crime of non-realization of a technological possibility…

EJ: In your 2010 paper on Esposito and immuno-politics, you suggest that Esposito encourages a reconceptualization of biopolitics, one that passes “from a politics on life toward a politics of life.” Rather than a blanket political logic grounded on conceptions of rights, you write that a politics of life would do full justice “to the continuous production of difference.” Within the literature on biopolitics, such references to difference often both fail to break out of a narrow concern for human differences (although Cary Wolfe’s most recent book on biopolitics and animal life is a notable exception) and risk sliding into a celebratory vitalism. Early in the piece, however, you suggest that doing justice to this “production of difference” requires taking into consideration “animals, plants, and non-organic materials, even technics itself.” You consider, for example, what “Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, or the deep ecologists have been able to achieve in their different ways by opening up the collective in this way”. I was wondering if you might expand on this relationship between a politics of life and nonhumans/non-living entities in your thinking, particularly in light of some of your other work on eco-politics.

FN: We met this question before and I can rephrase it this way: how to get out of exceptionalism without falling into an ontological undifferentialism? I mean: how to deconstruct the oppositions by splits (nature/culture, humans/non-humans, etc.), without falling into the flat immanence where everything becomes equivalent with everything else? I think it quite possible to rethink the differences between forms of existence without falling into the anthropomorphic hierarchy. I develop this idea in my little book on Jean-Luc Nancy as well as in Atopies. We must think the co-existence of humans, animals, plants and technological individuations. It is in this context that the question of the living and vitalism acquires meaning. I reject biological vitalism (to except the living from the laws of physics) and ontological vitalism (to attribute life or a psyche to every entity of the universe), but I claim an existential vitalism able to take an account of the singularity of the living (le vivant). The living is not excepted from the laws of physics, it dramatizes these laws. At the core of this existential vitalism, I place a principle of non-equivalence that makes it ethically and politically impossible to compare the rescue of dolphins and the repair of electrical devices. In other words, everything is non-equivalent. For an existential vitalism, it is not life as a transcendent principle that we need to defend, or – in a fascist or a para-fascist mode – certain forms of human life against other forms of human life, but the living in its existential precariousness. To pursue this idea, I would have to analyze cases, and politics is always a matter of case.

EJ: In your essay “De la civilisation comme crash test” you have a passage that seems to drive to the heart of these questions of ‘life’ in the context of that earlier paradox you mentioned, of how the recognition of our own precarity could be paired with actions that obviously deny it. The passage in French is:

L’humanité semble se caractériser par la mise en rapport singulière de cette croyance en l’immortalité avec un usage apparemment extravagant des pulsions de mort, qui ne seraient pas tant alliées avec les pulsions de vie qu’avec la possibilité d’une sur-vie, d’une vie hors d’atteinte nous assurant la survie.”

In English it would reads:

“Humanity seems to be characterized by the development of this singular connection between the belief in immorality and the apparent extravagant employment of the death drive. The death drive would be less allied with life drives than with the possibility of sur-vival, an out-of-reach life ensuring a survival.”

What is this notion of “sur-vie”? And how might we reconsider life “out-of-reach”?

FN: The prefix ”sur” — in both the French “sur-vie” and in the English “survival” — involves the idea of after and beyond, but also of intensification. It is also a way to play on words: “sur” in French also means sure, certain and secure. I wanted to highlight the following paradox: How can humanity believe in her survival if she destroys her own planet? Here is the answer: in believing that her life is out of reach, definitively unscathed. Humanity believes in her “sur-vie” (after-life and over-life); thus she can destroy everything… We see how the death drive can be placed at the service of what Derrida called “la pulsion de l’indemne”, the unscathed drive. [2] This concept can enable us to understand the fantasy of a theoretical return to the object (an object without relations, a pure essence, definitively untouchable) as well as, on another level, reactionary political movements currently shaking Europe – a Europe scared by gay marriage, and calling into question the legality of abortion. It is on these issues that Esposito’s philosophy can be very useful for us: if we want to understand why the anti-abortionist discourse, allegedly uttered in the name of life, actually hides a death wish, we need – between life and death – to integrate the dimension of the immune. To exit the immune fantasy of “sur-vie”, of untouchable life, the only solution is to accept the precariousness of existence, to accept – this is a “negative capability” – that human helplessness (détresse, Hilflosigkeit), has no definitive solution. As I said before, it is sometimes a bad idea to find a solution at all costs – for example to seek power over others in order to hide one’s own weakness; or to search for a “sur-vie” to hide one’s mortality. I believe that no radical politics will be possible before having symbolized, metabolized, and mediatized negative capacities in the body of the society.

EJ: As I discussed in a Geocritique blog post on your commentary on the film Gravity, you have a marked interest in the imagery of the world/Earth. Through your analysis of that film, you discussed global imagery in relation to ecopolitics. But you’ve also written on it in relation to geo-politics, securitization and the global war on terror. In your review of Mike Davis’s Buda’s Wagon, you explore how government practices of securitization have reconstituted the world itself as “a dangerous substance.” These eco- and geo- political imaginaries are obviously linked and you’ve explored some of those connections in The Biopolitics of Catastrophe and “De la civilisation comme crash test,” suggesting that a world imagined through a connection between ecological and geopolitical risk produces disastrous results. What do think is at stake in theorizing ecosecurity and geosecurity together?

FN: In my work on terrorism, I showed that geo-security, to use your term, amply borrowed from the vocabulary of ecology to establish a new régime of police: the preventive police, which does not hesitate to legitimize its action, à la Minority Report, in the name of a “precautionary principle”. It is normal that metaphors percolate. But in this case, we must ask this question: why must the police become preventive, that is to say anticipate intentions, while environmental politics are required to act afterwards, at the level of the consequences? Why is the precautionary principle not globally implemented to resist, preventively, climate change? The idea of a climate shield is a perfect illustration of what I am trying to say: in this case, the goal of the technology is to act only after the fact, in order to continue to send CO2 into the atmosphere without fundamentally changing anything in our practices. That’s what I call the firefighter conception of technology… On the theoretical plane, I believe that it is time to show the limits of the constructivist-pragmatist environmental thought that only focuses on the consequences of our actions, without thinking about the causes and the principles. What I am trying to say is that we need less preventive police and more preventive ecology.

EJ: What do we have to look forward to? What are you working on now?

FN: I am working on a book entitled Ecology of Separation. The first part is a step-by-step critique of environmental constructivism, of its denial of separation and of its overestimation of interconnections. The second part revisits theories of ecology (Aldo Leopold, Arthur Tansley, William Cronon, but also Slavoj Žižek, and Mike Davis, whom I recently translated into French), showing that any relation requires a separation. The third concerns the Anthropocene, representations of the Earth, and what I call geo-constructivism, that is to say the encounter between constructivism and geo-engineering. The conclusion will attempt to define what I mean by eco-analysis and the way in which an eco-analysis can enable us to understand the political unconscious of the Anthropocene.

Notes

[1] Operairsmo (workerism) and post-Operaismo reference the intellectual legacy of mid to late twentieth century Italian Marxism, associated most readily with the work of Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, and Franco Berardi. These movements emphasized bottom-up, worker-driven (rather than union-driven) struggle around conditions of labor and the means of production, initially in the context of factories. As the movement developed, the definition and location of ‘work’ shifted as its authors began to place greater emphasis on ‘immaterial labor’–communication, affect, and performance–in capitalist production and as a site of struggle. The theoretical arm of the movement (and Negri’s work in particular) has been criticized for its somewhat ‘euphoric’ tenor, as Neyrat note here, as well as an over emphasis on immaterial labor and an overly optimistic prognoses regarding the threat that immaterial labor might pose to the persistence of capitalism.

[2] Cf. my essay “Intact”, SubStance #126, Vol. 40, no. 3, 2011.

 


Elizabeth R. Johnson is a Research Fellow with the Science, Technology and Culture Research Cluster at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses on human-nonhuman interactions, geographies of nature and technology, and the biosciences. She is presently working on a book on more-than-human labor in the context of biomimetic innovation and is developing new collaborative research on the boundary between life and death in the science of marine invertebrates.

David B. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Northwestern University. He is writing his dissertation on aesthetics and the concept of intensity in the work of Gilles Deleuze.


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