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Conflictual Universalism(s) – Part 1 of 3

Katrine Bregengaard in discussion with Etienne Balibar- Part 1 of 3. 

(Illustration of Etienne Balibar by Zahid Mayo)

(This interview is a revised version of a conversation that took place in November 2014 at Professor Balibar’s office at Columbia University’s French Department.)

The question of universalism has haunted philosophy from its very beginnings. What are universal values? Who can claim them? How can we discuss universalism in a time of difference? Aren’t contemporary claims to universality essentially expressions of Western imperialism? And what exactly is universalism today, if not dead and buried with God, King, and Karl Marx?

The question also haunts the French philosopher and professor Etienne Balibar who worries about a book that he has promised his publishers but can’t seem to finish. The topic is too complicated, he says. Yet, Balibar was quick to declare himself a universalist when we met at Columbia University in New York to discuss these issues. Yet, rooted in the speculative thinking that forms part of the French Marxist tradition, Balibar demands that we deconstruct the question of universalism in a way that goes beyond the idea of unity. Instead, he suggests to reformulate the question around the idea of “multiverse” – a term he borrows from the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, and elaborates through Hegel and Judith Butler’s idea of a “Conflictual Universalism”. This idea, enables us to think of universal values resulting from multiple and heterogeneous conditions. And, rather than merely calling for the inclusion of excluded groups into a pre-stabilized community called “humanity,” it opens possibilities of emancipatory politics as a dynamic and indeterminate process always in the making.

Balibar is not only a fascinating philosopher whose thinking unfolds as he speaks, but also a storyteller with hours of anecdotes and tales from a past, which today can seem a world apart. While listening to him speak, it became clear to me that there is an intimate relation between his thinking, his politics and his life, which itself reflects a conflictual relationship with universalism. Spanning over six decades Balibar’s work reflects not merely a history of invigorating ideals worth dying for, but also the untimely death of such ideals. As a prominent student of Louis Althusser in the 1960s, Balibar coauthored the seminal volume Reading Capital. Taking his master’s reading of Marxism to heart, together with many others, Balibar hoped to save the revolution from itself in shadow of Stalin’s calamities. Yet, by the end of the Cold War, the increasing exposure of Soviet totalitarianism led him to critically explore concepts, such as ‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘citizenship’.

Despite the radical left’s allegations of his thought being contaminated with liberal sensibilities, Balibar has put forth a convincing argument to reread (and reclaim) these concepts as inherently politically and historically conditioned — ideas that can offer a critical language for emerging socialist movements. This endorsement continues to set him apart from his contemporary cohort of Marxist thinkers, such as Badiou and Zizek. Ultimately, Balibar’s dialectical thinking urges us to avoid simplifying and condensing important tensions and dilemmas of our time into universal categories of seamless unity. His intervention in the critical thought of our time stands as a constant reminder of the generative qualities of considered conflict, rather than contrived harmony, which keep both philosophy and politics alive.


KATRINE BREGENGAARD: Today, universalism is evoked everywhere
in the form of human rights, democracy, equality, justice and so on. Yet, several philosophers, primarily postmodern, appear to have declared the concept for dead along with other Enlightenment ideals, or at least they have a highly ambivalent relationship to any enunciation of the universal. Is it possible to speak of the universal today? And if so, how do we do it?

ETIENNE BALIBAR: I believe that if we take a contemporary example with contemporary philosophers who are labeled postmodern — right or wrong — their position is seldom a pure and simple rejection of the idea of universalism. Let me put it in Derridean terms, because I’m his student and increasingly so as I feel the increasing necessity to use some of his notions: In this case, I want to introduce the idea that what is important is not to say something simplistic as “I’m for universalism” or “I’m against of universalism”. Rather, it is to deconstruct the idea of universalism, which is a form of internal critique that I believe is indispensable to understand what we mean by it and to change it. The two things are not separable. It is true that I’m not postmodern in the sense of rejecting universalism. I do believe that we need to gain a universalism to come, or a universalism in the making, and I sympathize with a number of formulas that are used by people around us — planetarism instead of cosmopolitanism or new internationalism perhaps. The question of the post-human or post humanism is very difficult one. But above all that, I think that we absolutely need a critical history of the idea of universalism to begin with its name. Of course that is a very complex history that I am not going to tell you now and also I don’t have it. I’m working on a segment of that history, but everything is problematic…. There are very good reasons, as you said earlier, that it begins with the Enlightenment. A certain form of universalism, which I tend to call —in quasi-Marxist terms involving a certain distance from Marxism —, a civic bourgeois universalism. But it is not true that what we call universalism today began with the Enlightenment. I am also an increasing Hegelian. Because Hegel was writing in a moment of intense polemic about precisely the value and content of that civic bourgeois universalism — the universalism of the Enlightenment, he became aware of the fact — to borrow a very useful formula from Butler — that universalism or universalities are conflictual and conflicting. They’re conflictual internally and they are conflicting with other discourses with both things being profoundly linked to one another.

KB: Can you elaborate on how universalism can be conflictual? Does it mean that we simply accept that there are different ways to understand the world — or how exactly do different universalist discourses co-exist?

EB: Well, you might think that the other discourses with which universalistic discourses conflict are non-universalistic. That is what we hear everyday. For example, the universality of human rights, which includes the equality of every human being, conflicts with views which deny that. So they are non-universalistic in both accounts. On the one hand, they deny the equality of all humans and on the other hand they claim to express, not the values that are shared by the human kind as such, but that belong to specific communities, which can be religious, national, or cultural. Take the well-known discourse on Asian values for example. This very morning I was reading up on the blatant and provocative discourse made by the Turkish president Mr. Erdogan who is notorious for speaking against equal rights among men and women. In referring Sharia, he says: ‘how can you believe that men and women are equal? It is clear that women must make children and not do politics and war. And it is clear that they must make children because you just have to look at their body. It is made for that exact purpose. They have breast to feed their children…’ In this case, you have all the ambiguities between equal and similar, which is the common trick in arguing that they are not equal because they are not similar. But returning to my point, which concerns Hegel and Butler and the concept of conflictual universalism. What is most interesting is not only conflict between a universalistic discourse and a nonuniversalistic or particularistic discourse, but a conflict between antithetic universalistic discourses.

The great conflict between antithetic discourses with which the enlightenment was busy was the conflict between Christian faith, or more generally monotheism, on one side and on the other side the construction called the Enlightenment, which essentially combines two ingredients: one being the juridical and moral equality of human beings and the other being the scientific and also juridical rationality that is supposed to express the very constitution of human understanding. When you put the two things together you have what Kant calls the transcendental subject being the one that inhabits the thinking and the moral conscience of every human being and on the other hand it is the construction of human reason. Put the two things together then you have the core and the well-known canon of the Enlightenment discourse. But what Hegel says, in the famous section of the Phenomebetween two discourses that he presents as educational discourses, which have to do with forming and shaping the individual: One, which is based on reason — that is the Enlightenment — and the other, which is based on faith. Hegel is repeating what very interestingly originated long before his time in the Arabic speaking and Islamic world, because the very first great treatise on the antagonism of the idea of the two antithetic modes of truth is written by a great Muslim philosopher in the thirteenth century – namely Averroes, in the treatise Fasl al-Maq?l , also presented as origin of the “averroist” notion of the “double truth”. So, that leads to the idea that the debate on universalism did not begin with the Enlightenment. You have to face the fact that before the universalistic discourse of the Enlightenment there is another universalistic discourse — which is that of what we tautologically today call universal or universalist religions. And that again is a very tricky issue because there are competing versions of monotheism. But they share some ideas about revelation and a number of essential dogmas or creeds concerning the creation of the world.

KB: Isn’t the universalism of the Western Enlightenment just a secularized form of Christianity – replacing God with reason?

EB: That’s the crucial question — and if I ever write the book, which I had announced, but now am completely reorganizing — I have to deal with that which comes from monotheistic idea in secular enlightened universalistic discourses. One possible answer is everything — everything comes from there. As a consequence, the idea of secularism or secularization should be understood as mere transformation. Talal Asad, with whom I have been starting to discuss, maintains that the secular universalism that the West has been imposing, especially on the Islamic world — and by the West he means Europe and North America — is the secularized version of Christianity. So what they call secularism is in fact Christianity.

I would personally argue that he says either too little or too much because that leaves Islam aside. I do believe that Islam and Christianity are just branches of the same monotheistic idea at a certain general level. But then again, you could move ahead in that direction and explain that, yes, I mean, many of the features of Enlightenment universalism and in particular those that appear imperialist (including human rights) and the strong accent, which is put on unity and uniqueness is just one formulation of the faith in the eternal God. So on the one side, it is presented as a consequence of revelation, and on the other as a consequence of the Declarations, which the French and American citizens made when, they became aware of the imperatives of reason. So the monocratic or monarchic element that is inherent in monotheism, is something that you may argue passes from a religious discourse to a secular. This is an important guiding thread on which we need to work — an instrument of deconstruction of the question of universalism — the legacy of monotheism within rationality or the idea of the enlightenment. But it is not as simple as that: On the one hand not every religion is monotheistic, so there is already a danger of somehow using this criterion to endorse the idea, that is not purely colonial as it has roots in monotheistic discourse, that polytheism — other world views — which do not know the revelation is somehow primitive or limited. But it is also the case that there are universalistic religions, which are not monotheistic perhaps not even theistic, such as Buddhism, and that is fascinating because it takes you completely beyond the limits of Europe, and because it dissolves the link between the idea of universalism and the monarchic element in monotheism. The reason why philosophers and theologians in West are fascinated by Buddhism is because they think this is a way to overcome the superstitions that are attached to a certain representation of God as a power.


KB: What about the limits of universalism, and how do you negotiate these in the context of cultural translation and politics of difference?

EB: In my imaginary book, which I had promised to my publisher after two public lectures I gave last January, I stumbled upon so many difficulties that I gave up. It wasn’t possible for me to concentrate and my ideas were not clear enough. So I told them that the book will come, but it will be much longer. It remains one of my intentions to address, in my final chapter, a question that is formulated today in many different ways and toward which many of my colleagues are heading. Bashir Diagne, who is increasingly becoming an advocate and representative of the idea of universality in translation in trying to introduce into the concept of the universal the impossibility for such a discourse to be truly universal if it is expressed in one single language. With language comes values and representation. Bashir goes as far, not only to object to the idea that one should not learn foreign language because only one is needed, but he says: ‘if you want to be universalist or cosmopolitan in practice you need to speak several languages.’ Not only the main languages such as French, Chinese, or English, but the minor languages, such as African languages. It would be good for your understanding of universalism to translate into other lanone language because you’ll find that you cannot, and therefore you have to problematize what seems to be the obvious. Another idea that I like is the idea of my Italian friend Giacomo Marramao, which he elaborates in his book recently translated into English as the Passage West, which is about universality of differences. The difficulty here lies in the “of ” because the monocratic and monotheistic representation, including its rationalist version, understands this as including the particular within the universal or subsuming all the differences under more general categories — be they moral or political or logical — as for example reason and democracy which are supposed to be general enough to contain all the possible variations. But the idea of a universality of differences makes no sense if it remains within this hierarchy. So that’s the problem of this notion. I am trying— and I’m not saying I’ve achieved it — borrowing essentially from a great Marxist, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, the expression: multiverse, which is the idea to break with the imperative not only of unity, but of unicity. That’s very difficult. Leibniz famously wrote that if you compare / synthesize / think together your different elements you are practically introducing an element of unity. The idea is an idea of unity of opposites. A multiverse is a universe that is not unified or that is not reducible to a single law, principle, or totalizing category. Of course, that presents a problem and not a solution. We hear the motto all the time: Let’s be for the many, and not the one. So, if you’re a philosopher you want to think about how to construct the problem of the universal.


This interview is from Naked Punch 17.  To order a print copy of the issue click here.

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