Believing in the Coming World: Between Melancholy and Hope
6 March 2023
Good Companion, Moustapha Daibi Oumarou, 2020; Image credit: Afikaris.com
Recapitulating his writings so far, Camille de Toledo places his reflections in series with others who observe a Europe in search of subtleties in the reading of its history. In this interview with Laurence Joseph for PWD, he examines how the possibility of a "common" can be thought of, towards a world which retains between hope and melancholia.
A philosopher of Hope who thinks the melancholisation of Europe
Laurence Joseph: Your book Le Hêtre et le Bouleau, essai sur la tristesse européenne (The Beech and the Birch Tree, an essay on European sadness) seems to me to be an essential anchor point because it models the stumbling block of our generation born at the time of the second oil shock. Your observation, in my opinion, is that of a melancholisation of Europe, which at the same time proceeds from an important gesture: that of the capacity of philosophy to take feelings seriously, not to make of them a simple "senti-mental" as Lacan bemusedly said. By taking them seriously, that is, by considering the seriousness of the consequences of this melancholy, how can we consider the chances of hope?
Camille de Toledo: You are right, let us follow in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch and his principle of hope. This is indeed what our time, our era, desires from the darkest melancholy. I would like to take the liberty of referring to another of my books, Les potentiels du temps, co-authored with Alyosha Imhoff and Kantuta Quiros, on this thirst for hope in the darkest of our situations. Ernst Bloch worked on his book during years of absolute barbarism when human lives were destroyed like mere commodities in the killing factories of Europe in German hands. So we can already see here that hope – I prefer this word, it is more secular in my eyes, less loaded with messianism, more political too – never saves anything. It simply allows us to lift the monstrous veil of the present a little. It opens up a window on an elsewhere in the future. Another book comes to mind here, by Pierre Bouretz, Les témoins du futur. So that's our situation: there are the darknesses, the obscurities, the frights linked to a given situation, and hope – probably more than revolt – is what breaks time by opening up another hypothesis, a branch of possibilities linked to the tree of the general catastrophe. It is in this sense that it is also, despite everything, what saves. Hope is the oblique view of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, grasped as a force for recovery from ruin. Once again, it is a fable, something that is placed in the future, as if to take support when everything in the present collapses. Messianic expectation is always at its peak, it seems to me, when the present is saturated with apocalyptic fears.
But we are, at the beginning of the 21st century, in a paradoxical situation: for we inherit all the collapses of past dreams, and we are subject to the prediction, on the horizon, of collapses to come; and yet we must turn to this dimension, the one carried by hope. Let us first count the mighty sorrows we are pursuing. In a relatively short period of time, we find on the side of disappointed expectations:
a. the fall of communist hope
b. the fall of decolonial hope, of national emancipation
c. the violent disavowal of progressive and technical hopes with, in a very contemporary way, the extreme reversal of the promises of capitalism.
So we can see that the burden is heavy. When you've been through all this, it can be difficult to believe in the "forces of the spirit" again, can't it? One might be tempted to give up. It so happens that from a more intimate perspective, I live with the threat of a general paralysis of the body. I live with the threat of not walking anymore. And this is a good school for sharpening one's powers of hope. Every day is a fight not to lose the spirit of the fight. I see our contemporary world as a great tapestry that is burning on all sides; and in places, impulses of goodness, individual or collective struggles, seek on the other side, in the name of hope, to put out the fires, to mend the tapestry. But focusing on what saves is already a way of responding to what collectively makes us despair. I would therefore say that melancholy and hope are two sides of a position in the world. On the one hand, it's the tragic, the irreparable, and on the other, it's the vital impulse not to give in to death, to revive life. This is something that I feel very strongly when reading Theseus, his new life, a book of survival that describes this quest for meaning through the traumas of history.
LJ: It is as if you were defining a new clinical form of melancholy here, of the order of a "political melancholy" that might therefore be susceptible to other remedies.
CdT: In The Beech and the Birch, there is indeed this dimension of a "political melancholy". This is in line with the long discussion, since psychoanalysis, to understand how psychological states go beyond the individual, to take a collective turn. Jung, in his own way... but also Moreno – the intuition of group trans-dependencies - or otherwise, Viktor Frankl, have, I think, very rightly observed that, in fact, everything is always larger than the individual. Frankl's link between suicide and the loss of meaning in life points to the horizon of meaning as an overflow: a quest to regain connection, to regain life, out of the pull of death. Hope, of course, is one of the salts of this quest for meaning. However, in L'inquiétude d'être au monde, I wrote that I am wary of discourses of reparation, of the "word that saves", of the theorists of promise: this language that produces its enchantments, its bewitchments. I want to keep my melancholy, it is a guarantee that I won't fall into the arms of enchanters. Because, as we know, this is one of the functions of the word, of the verb: they carry with them a thaumaturgical scope. One has only to look at how, with each election campaign, the cycle repeats itself:
a. promises and jubilation and hopes
b. disenchantment and disillusionment.
Having said that, it seems to me that we have very serious arguments for believing in the world to come. I am not talking here about paradise, that olam haba which is the central point of this support in the future of messianism, but about the future state of this world. Only the probability that this future world will come true is very, very low, so much so that the international legal mesh today has created a monstrous net that threatens earthly life. It is in this sense that, in recent times - notably with the text of a performance, Witnesses of the Future, and a collective work on the rights of nature - my reflection has focused on the law, the capacity or otherwise of our collectives to change the law, to write future laws to change the terms of common habitation.
LJ: This last point is essential, we understand that one of the acute points of the 21st century will be to think about the habitable. As if it were a question of rethinking our daily intimacy since the emergence of disasters, the law must indeed hold us differently in the places we inhabit. As we know, species and places are also called upon to survive. You are one of the writers who, following Ernst Bloch, question hope and utopia. At the same time, you strongly emphasise the extent to which the duty of remembrance sets the emotional order of Europe. What direction could you give to a pedagogy of utopia?
CdT: In Les potentiels du temps, at the end, there is a glossary where I try to redefine the term "utopia". In my opinion, it is a profound reversal. Here it is: political and economic envy, whether it's a Marxist envy or a grand capitalist narrative of prosperity, is always a takeover of a certain script over bare life. In that sense, that's where utopia lies, in the fictions that we write conceptually, politically, to deny life as it is. I say in this sense that today it is liberal capitalism that is the utopia, the u-topos, the "placeless". In the words of Bruno Latour, it is the 'out-of-place' economic system that does not take into account the scarcity of Gaia, the limit of the critical zone. What we have to do, in the wake of certain writings such as those of Édouard Glissant, is the opposite: we have to think of a topical future, based on places, attachments, and links between life forms. This is what is at stake in the terrestrial turn, in the new Naturwissenschaft, which is taking off from the writings of Aldo Leopold to Philippe Descola's new anthropology of nature, to the biosemiotics and mesology of Augustin Berque. In fact, each time, we see the same motif: moving from the 20th century to the 21st century means moving from the utopian as destruction to the topical as a search for less violent forms of habitation. When I wrote the text at the end of The Beech and the Birch on "linguistic utopia or the pedagogy of vertigo", it was precisely in this sense: I was showing the abstraction of Europe, based on the impossible linguistic commonality. Linguistic utopia is the now of this union that cannot be heard, that builds by wanting to ignore the placelessness, the u-topos of languages. For me, it was a question of saying: look, there's an impossibility here, how can we do politics if we don't have a common language? This was my answer to abstract rationalism - without taking into consideration Habermas' sensitive life – to this "rational citizen" who only exists in the lineage of idealism, in this German life that has been so afraid of political emotions since Nazism. However, we have to deal with the topical, with links, affects, sensitive life, attachments. This is the heart of the political question, to manage to connect us affectively to each other, between humans, and between humans and non-humans. And my response, based on this linguistic utopia, instead of being that of a return to the idiom-centric nation was, on the contrary, to say: we have a chance to think of the political common from this linguistic utopia in terms of translation. The great merit of such a challenge is that it is then really possible to think with Dipesh Chakrabarty, within the horizon of a provincialisation of Europe. By putting translation at the heart of the matter, we reopen Europe to all those, since post-colonial lives, who have been called upon, in the long history of traumas, to carry and speak the language of the other.
And it is following this proposal that I have written this forthcoming chronology to adopt translation as a language.
CdT: What this new approach to a translating citizenship offers is a way out of the war of identities and memories based on a general effort to translate. But I insist: this text formulated a topical pedagogy, adapted to the real situation of a community where we no longer agree on the terms of common life.
LJ: Does (h)ontology, as you work on it from Lacan's neologism, seem to you to remain one of the motors of contemporary thought? Do you think that its hypnosis continues in this first quarter of the 21st century? The haunting of minority memories seems to me to follow from your developments, what do you think?
CdT: I started several texts on the war of memories which I never managed to finish. But in fact, this is what I was already struggling with when I wrote The Beech and the Birch. This is what I see as the accelerated history. Until the end of the 1940s, the Jewish condition is a pivotal condition, from Europe, which allows us to think about the terms of a division. I am referring here to the way in which Franz Fanon thinks about negritude, particularly from the point of view of Sartre, and how, later on, Jean Améry, a survivor of the camps, will think about his own condition from the point of view of Fanon. I was talking about this sharing, this interweaving of suffering identities that allowed us to weave a common life. Marxism was one of the coagulants. At that time, identity circulated and was shared around mobilising terms such as "the proletarian" or "the outcast". But the further away we are from the end of the 1940s, the more the conditions of division will shatter. The State of Israel was to change the terms of the Jewish condition, and even more so in the course of the Middle East wars. Thus, the name of the outcast diffracts with the Israeli identity – the jewish pride – and the affirmation of an armed power, in the image of other states, other powers. Here, the lame Jacob, the trembling Jacob, disappears before a more assertive figure.
Moreover, the Marxist base is undermined by various revelations and will gradually die, until the end of the red man; so that the proletarian who was like a focus of transformation, a beacon of the common life to come, fades away.
On the other hand, capitalism is learning to instrumentalise and use identities as clienteles. Through electoral marketing, democrats are beginning to conceive of political struggle in terms of this fragmentation, thinking in terms of "market shares".
Finally, something is hardening around the traumatic memories of the long term with memory competitions of the type: why do they have this and we do not? Why is their suffering recognised and not ours?
As a result of this hyper-fragmentation, you are right, the logics I spoke of in The Beech and the Birch intensify: as the long time of the dead, of suffering, is used in the more general context of this struggle for recognition – necro-ontological-political – we end up with haunted public spaces where everything has a double background: Jewish history, slave history, colonial history, feminist history, all of this collides in a general subjectivist clash. What adds to the melancholy is that every outstretched hand is rejected or turned against or back on itself; we are no longer able to think of the peaceful terms of a just and shareable life.
It is also in this sense that I had worked on the notion of betrayal, to put some play into the unconscious loyalties of suffering and class.
Betraying one's class, one's identity, one's memory, one's own, in order to share again, to dare to live with
CdT: But in the face of this vortex of suffering identities, in this permanent struggle of memories, I come back today, as I said, to the question of the law; to relearn how to write the law is indeed to experience an effort to share the world. For in terms of rights, this is what has happened. The emergence of subaltern subjects since the end of the nineteenth century has taken place with the tool of a certain man: the bourgeois individual endowed with rights, who bears the responsibility for the colonial past. All the struggles for rights have followed, in a way, this model of domination. Only we realise that the earth no longer holds, that resources are running out in such a horizon. The rent of the first subject of rights is maintained, and that of the emerging subjects is disputed. So much so that today we are even thinking about the rights of nature, the rights of ecosystems and environments. But there is not enough 'land' for all these rights, so that beyond the rights, what needs to be rethought are the terms of sharing. And that's where it gets complicated, because no one wants to give up the world.
LJ: Can you develop this formula? Can it be understood as "no one wants to let go of their tongue"? Does it imply a future aporia of the collective? And yet it has become a key word, almost a preamble to any action?
CdT: Let's start again with melancholy, the meaning of which I tried to understand in The Beech and the Birch Tree from the "haunting", the "ghosts of the past". Let us say it simply. We, the inhabitants born at the end of the 20th century, are mourning a common life. We don't know exactly how to name it, but there is a palpable suffering linked to a mourning of the collective. In this sense, some on the right will say that what is missing is "France". They will then repeat this word like a mantra to save us from what they will call "decadence". Others, on the left, will say: what is missing is "the People". And they in turn will summon this great construct as an element of redemption. The progressives - those who say they are neither right nor left - will in turn invoke another missing element. They will speak of "Growth", "Progress", values capable of re-founding, according to them, a desire for the future. And then, in contrast to all these great songs, these word-aggregates, there will also be various voices of criticism from the minorities, who will try to show how these various mobilising narratives bear the mark of violence and domination. They will say, "France is slavery, it is colonialism"; or "your People is the bourgeoisie". They will say, "Progress and growth are a capitalist's dream", or "this history of the past that you are invoking, that of the Revolution, is the time of a patriarchal society"... Criticism of the grand narratives is eminently justified, but in the process, the perspective of common life becomes more distant. And the lack of a common, shareable place becomes so acute that some people come to desire authoritarian solutions. For what is authority if not this illusion - and this vain hope - of defining from above the conditions and terms of the common world? And you are right, in the short term, I see no way out. We will go further in the war of subjectivities, identities and memories of pain. I see even less of a way out as the representation of the public space by the media amplifies conflicts everywhere.
In fact, if we do not have a very serious discipline – a training of the mind – to look elsewhere, towards what works to extinguish the fires, to share beyond the subjects of discord, we are carried away by the war zone that has become our common life. In the present, we can only diagnose and record the various upheavals and failures to rebuild a common home.
As far as I'm concerned – and this is what saves me – I get by by thinking about long time. The long term, the thought of the long term is really what allows me to resist the melancholy of the present. There, we come to ask ourselves questions like: where to go? how to compose the future? And here, I return to my question about the law: what law remains to be written? In this case, I will also start from the oikos, from the Earth. Starting from there, I say to myself that we can indeed rethink the common from the limit. So you see, I tend to get out of melancholy from the very heart of this melancholy: the end of the world, the end of all life. I then think of the rights of nature as a way of recomposing the dwelling, leaving behind the wounded egos of human politics, to open up to the only arrow of long time: the one that obliges us to listen beyond human complaints, beyond human pains. There, it seems to me, is the fragile, trembling, distant call of a common world.