Today’s New APPS interview is with François Raffoul, Professor of Philosophy at Louisiana State University.
Hello François, thanks for doing this interview with us today. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you? Is it solitary or communal practice in your life?
This is a difficult question. Philosophy brings tremendous pleasures, but also anxiety… I might be tempted to say that for me philosophy is a fairly solitary exercise, as if there were a certain isolating quality to philosophical reflection, perhaps even an individuating quality. Yet, I must also admit that the work consists mainly in engaging in a dialogue with texts, authors, thoughts and ideas, a work based on an opening to and listening to what comes to thought, an experience with the question… Nonetheless through this dialogue I still feel that I am discovering and developing a certain singularity, even if what I find is not simply mine. I experience writing as a difficult, intense, personal and even intimate process, a discovery of self where what is most crucial to me is being articulated. This is perhaps why I am not entirely comfortable with the exposure to a public domain, such as conferences (or this interview!).
But we see each other at a few conferences every year.
I do enjoy conferences, precisely for the camaraderie, but engaging philosophical dialogues there is more difficult for me. As Deleuze puts it What is Philosophy? (thanks to Eyal Peretz for this reference), “philosophers have very little time for discussion. Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘let’s discuss this’. Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? … Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous… Philosophy hates discussions” (p.28ff).
Yes, Deleuze rarely went to conferences, though there was the by-now legendary Semiotext(e) event in 1975 in New York with Guattari, Foucault, all sorts of people. I don’t know how much “discussion” went on, but I would have loved to have been there! In any case, what is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
That is true, Deleuze also participated in the famous 1972 Cerisy conference, “Nietzsche aujourd’hui?” with Derrida, Lyotard, Pautrat, Nancy, among others … I actually saw him attending a conference at the Collège International de Philosophie in the eighties, sitting on the floor all the way at the back of the auditorium… In any case, with respect to my philosophical routine, it comes and goes. Some days I am off, some days I am on. During teaching semesters, I find that by necessity I can work only during the week-ends. I need some uninterrupted time of at least 2 days to start getting into the philosophizing, which one does not have during the week with the teaching, the meetings, and interactions with students and colleagues. If I write an article, I immerse myself in that reflection for 2 to 3 months and become almost obsessed with it! I am then quite relieved when I am done…
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born and raised in Paris; my parents came from Egypt. They were Jewish and left Egypt after Nasser took over in the early fifties. I spent all my youth in Paris, first in the suburb of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, for eight years, then in the Latin Quarter, place du Panthéon. I was very bookish indeed, although I loved soccer and played sports my whole youth…now I just watch them on TV! (Except when I hike in Chamonix in the summer where I have a small chalet at the foot of the Mont-Blanc).
What about high school?
I attended Lycée Henry IV, which was located about a hundred yards from our apartment: it was hard to arrive late in class! As is the custom in France, there is one year of philosophy during the last year of high school, when one is about 18 years old. However, I did not attend the Lycée Henry IV that last year but was a “candidat libre” to take the baccalauréat exam, which I passed. I was not yet passionate about philosophy (that came about a year later, during a year spent learning English in the United States), but I did well with the papers and exams, and enjoyed it. I was fairly good at it, at least in the context of that first introduction to philosophy. At that time, I would have been still very interested in studying history, a discipline I particularly relished.
Where did you go to university?
I did my studies in Khâgnes, the Ecole Normale Supérieure of St Cloud, and at the Sorbonne at Paris I. This was a true “parcours du combattant,” with having to take the tremendously difficult concours of the French cursus, such as the concours of entry to the Ecole Normale Supérieure (which I had to take twice before getting in), and the Agrégation (which I also had to take twice before passing). That meant that I took 4 grueling national exams with an acceptance rate of 5% in the span of 6 years! In retrospect, I would say that this was quite traumatic, although passing those concours attenuated the violence of the process. That was in addition to constant exams to get the DEUG, Licence, the Maitrise, the DEA…
Which teachers were important to you?
Two figures were particularly important to me: my professor in Khâgnes, Pierre Jacerme, who was an extraordinary teacher, and Henry Birault at the Sorbonne, who was a brilliant and charismatic professor, very “vieille France”… Both were Heideggerians, I must disclose, the former a student of Jean Beaufret, the second a more independent thinker. I remember a particularly difficult oral exam taken before Sarah Kofman for my licence where she took me to school on how to read Plato’s Theaetetus! I was an avid reader, and read everything I could, including what I did not understand…
What came next?
Around the time of the Agrégation, I contacted Jacques Derrida to undertake a doctorat (on Heidegger) under his supervision. I had been reading him for years, had attended his seminars at the Ecole, and was simply blown away by his incredible intelligence. After having passed the agrégation, and a year teaching in Grenoble, I was hired in the Philosophy department at Stony Brook, and left for the United States (I had spent a year prior to that at Yale university teaching as a lecturer for a year in the French department). I thus wrote my dissertation while teaching at Stony Brook and wrote the whole thing before sending it to Derrida, who approved it for a defense. That defense took 5 hours, with Derrida talking for 2 hours! This was quite an overwhelming experience. I became close to Françoise Dastur, and Jean-Luc Nancy, who were on my doctoral committee.
What was your early professional life like?
My first job was thus at Stony Brook (not counting the stints at Yale and in Grenoble, where I remember going skiing in the afternoons after my morning classes!). This was a time of tremendous intellectual growth. I loved my time there, the students, the lectures, etc. Unfortunately, this was also a time of political infighting in the department, and I was not savvy enough to handle it with enough diplomacy so that I would have been able to stay there. Still, I have great memories and fondness for that experience and that time.
What were your first publications?
Aside for translations, edited books and a few articles, my first real publication was my book (my dissertation), Heidegger and the Subject.
The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict? Are there signs of a rapprochement?
There may be some assumptions in this question that would need some unpacking. What would it mean to “negotiate” here? For what purpose? What “rapprochement” are we speaking about, in what sense and also for what purpose? Let me suggest a minimal and provisional response: as I mentioned, I was trained in France at a time when there was practically no analytic philosophy taught there and therefore also no continental philosophy! It was simply called “philosophy.” Only when I arrived in the US did I find out I had been trained in…continental philosophy! I therefore do not have any training in analytic philosophy, so my response can only be limited. My only exposure to analytic philosophy is through my experience with analytic philosophers in my various academic positions. I can only note the overwhelming dominance and hegemony of analytic philosophy in the United States, and I certainly observed how the analysts tend to treat continental philosophy and philosophers… With respect to “negotiating” the conflict between analytic and continental philosophy, I prefer developing my thinking and my problematics by developing the style of philosophizing that speaks to me most (see above my reference to singularity). I prefer to stay away from the academic power games that perpetuate themselves through these categories. I am weary of the professionalization of philosophy, of what Godard called les professionnels de la profession… I am of course not closed to “rapprochements,” as long as they are genuine intellectual attempts and not veiled attempts at academic positioning.
Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
Of course I am painfully aware of these developments, and see with great alarm increasing number of programs targeted for elimination. At LSU, there is this constant looming threat of “catastrophic” budget cuts and the permanent menace of being targeted. This creates an atmosphere of fear where one is summoned to justify one’s existence every year or twice a year in terms of numbers (credit hours, graduation rates etc). The very existence of the humanities and a certain tradition of the university are under attack… and this has to be fought with the greatest vigor…
Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I am not sure if I have had or developed a “single core idea,” I am not even sure what a core idea would be. I see my work more in terms of a deepening of questions and problems that call me: the question of subjectivity and individuation, ethics and responsibility, and now the place of the event in thought and existence… Nonetheless, in each case these studies were not devoid of some polemical intent: in Heidegger and the Subject, I attempted to refute the view according to which his deconstruction of subjectivity did not provide the ground for a rethinking of selfhood; in my Origins of Responsibility, I also attempted to refute the common doxa according to which post-Nietschean continental philosophies as instances of irresponsibility: I try to show that contemporary continental thoughts may take issue with the philosopheme of accountability, but that they in fact reengage other senses of our being-responsible, away from an ideology of subjectivity, will and power.
What would you say is the most rewarding experience of your professional life?
Doing philosophy, despite everything… and even despite academia!
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I always try to have my research and teaching inform each other… The how remains a mystery to me…
What are you looking forward to doing next?
I have started a long-term project on the question of the event in contemporary thought. This year, I am completing two translation works: Dominique Janicaud’s two volumes Heidegger en France, for Indiana University Press, and a chapter of Jacques Derrida Ulysse Gramophone in a new translation for a volume on Derrida and Joyce. I am also pursuing my responsibilities as co-series editor a book series at SUNY Press on Contemporary French Thought.