Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2015

Interview with Dr. John Rajchman

Interview Conducted by
Taliesin Thomas, Cohort ’13, IDSVA Newsletter Editor

John Rajchman is an esteemed member of the IDSVA community and a venerable philosopher known for his work on seminal French thinkers. He received his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he has been teaching since 1990, offering courses in Theory and Criticism, 20th-century Art and Philosophy, and Contemporary Chinese Art. For ten years, he was the Director of Modern Art M.A. Programs in the Department of Art History and Archeology at Columbia, and has worked extensively as a curator, writer, theorist, and cultural contributor. Besides his contribution as a long-standing professor at Columbia and his involvement as a visiting scholar at IDSVA, John Rajchman has taught at Princeton University, MIT, Cooper Union and the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. He has published and edited numerous books on philosophy including French Philosophy Since 1945: Problems, Concepts, Inventions (with Etienne Balibar), a work that first-year IDSVA students encounter as part of IDSVA’s ‘History of Philosophy’ coursework. Third-year student Taliesin Thomas (who studied with Professor Rajchman at Columbia University) interviewed him at his home in New York City.

John Rajchman and Giovanna Borradori speaking at the Biennale Sessions, Venice, Spring 2015
John Rajchman and Giovanna Borradori speaking at the Biennale Sessions, Venice, Spring 2015


TT: How did you become involved with IDSVA?

JR: Well, it all started with an encounter with George Smith in New York. There was a symposium at Cooper Union in which I intervened in some form, I can’t recall, and George was in the audience. The theme was research in art – how does research figure in the work of artists? The question was being debated anew within a movement in Europe, which took shape in part against the Bologna Accords, in which art schools began to themselves undertake to teach theory and more generally research in new ways. What kind of programs should one have? There was a kind of meta-debate about that. So George and I, we got along very well, and it seemed like his own institution was already doing what they were talking about in a very interesting way. That was the start, and then by degrees I lectured and participated in various ways and became very friendly with him and got to know [IDSVA] and its evolution. My intervention at Cooper had to do with Aby Warburg’s ‘nameless science,’ topic of an essay by Giorgio Agamben. What is a ‘nameless science’? That seemed an interesting topic for George as well, who was developing his own views with a lot of vision and energy. That’s how I began my relationship with IDSVA. I think it’s a great experiment and I am happy to see how things are evolving and the different forms it is taking.

TT: Yes, it is an experiment, a pioneering program.

JR: It’s very different, I think, and it corresponds to a need. Traditional institutions like Columbia are, for many reasons, unable to adapt to new forces and new kinds of exchanges that are going on the arts today. I am happy to be involved with both [Columbia and IDSVA]. I came into the art history department at Columbia with a background in philosophy and having helped organize an itinerant ten-year global symposium in architecture. So from the start I was involved in art history in a kind of cross-disciplinary mode. I think architecture helped draw me toward the types of discussions that can take place outside of a traditional university setting of which, I think, the university has need and to which it should be linked, so to speak. The ’90s were a big period when a new kind of architecture arose against what was called postmodernism, a whole new generation with people like Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, who have now become quite famous, even what are now called ‘starchitects.’ At the time they didn’t yet have much work, and so were wanting to talk. At Columbia in the Architectural School there was lots of new experimentation, with paperless studios, and on-going discussions with outside people like me; philosophers like Deleuze or earlier Derrida were being read, their ideas recast in architectural terms.

It was a heady time for all that in architecture. It was then in that context that I joined forces with a new project called ANY that organized a global symposium meeting every year in another city throughout the world, with a journal and published proceeds. There was an Asian side – the project was supported in part with Japanese funds in collaboration with Arata Isozaki; one of the early spin-offs in art was an exhibition that travelled throughout Asia called ‘Cities on the Move’; the two curators, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru would go on to play important roles in the emergence of ‘global art’ practices and institutions.  The exchanges with these architects in this ‘globalizing’ context, in short, gave me a better sense of how philosophy might work in a global extra-academic setting – that was something that helped me to appreciate what George was doing in his own way.

TT: When did you first become interested in philosophy? Please describe your scholastic path with philosophy.

JR: I was drawn to philosophy very early on; in part it had to do with my grandfather who had been an international diplomat – he founded Unicef, but for complicated political reasons was obliged after the War to leave the States, returning to a place he had in France, where the family would often go in the summers. It was there, in his library, that I came across two books, which I read with much interest -- The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell and Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. At the time, I was unaware they were in fact on opposite sides of a great post-war divide between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ schools, that I would later have to contend with… I talked about these books with such enthusiasm that my bemused grandparents started to call me le philosophe. When, back in high school in the States, I’d incorporate these philosophical ideas in my papers, my teachers seemed impressed; in my senior year I spent a summer in Paris, where I first saw a curious book called Les mots et les choses by Michel Foucault, which I would only come to understand much later. So that’s how it started. I went to Yale because they had a great program in writing (I thought maybe I might want to become a writer), but when I got there, I fell under the spell of a philosophy course on Ludwig Wittgenstein and shifted interests. Looking back, it seems important that Yale, unlike Harvard or Princeton, where ‘analytic’ philosophy predominated, was open to many ‘Continental’ ideas, as if the division didn’t matter so much. I loved Wittgenstein and even liked learning about Frege and sentential logic, but I was increasingly drawn into the great French styles of thought, which form the topic of the anthology I did later with Etienne Balibar – I still think it remains one of richest, most inventive moments for philosophy today.

I would turn more directly to all that in my graduate studies at Columbia. My Ph.D. advisor was Arthur Danto, who had moved himself from his work within the academy to a series of writings and related journalism in the New York art world; he was thus rather open, and encouraged his students to go in new directions. I was then reading lots of things French, not in the curriculum at that time, and Arthur was supportive – people like Lacan, Foucault, Althusser. At the same time, in the French Department there was a new professor teaching this material named Sylvère Lotringer [who also teaches at IDSVA]. We created together a new journal called Semiotext(e). We hung out a lot. Semiotext(e) went on to become a great publication enterprise, but in those early years it was still more a small academic journal, with conferences – the first issue was mimeographed! Everything changed when we organized a conference in New York called Schizo-Culture, which in a complicated way—and in particular for Sylvère – marked a turn away from simply academic work to a new partially extra-academic role connected to the arts. As a publishing venture - how these handy books look and feel, the way they are intended not just for the library, but just as much for the subway or café – Semiotext(e) was remarkable and it had a great popularizing role in the dissemination of these ideas.

Sylvère has recently gone back to Schizo-Culture, gotten all the documents together, publishing them as a book and showing them at the Whitney Biennial. Looking back now, it was in fact an incredible thing, in particular for what is called ‘French Post-Structuralist’ thought and its relations with arts in the US. Another way these ideas entered into the university had come through literature, through Paul de Man, Yale, ‘deconstruction,’ following a conference in 1968 at John Hopkins, to which Derrida and Lacan had gone. Schizo-Culture was a different kind of thing. It took place in a city with an art-world, at a very strange, creative moment in its history. We invited Cage and Burroughs, people from the downtown art scene came as well as politically-minded intellectuals, colliding together in a slightly explosive manner, with the likes of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, etc... As an academic conference, it was a bit of a mess, but it carried a new kind of energy, a sense of a new kind of thinking. After, Sylvère would move away from the university in many ways, relocating downtown with some of the groups in the art world. He came to think that they were doing in their own way what these French thinkers had been doing in theirs. He was a tenured professor so he could afford to! I was just a grad student then; for my own part, I would later go on to teach at Bennington College.

TT: Who were the most influential figures at the time?

JR: Foucault became a very important figure for me then. He was one of the two main figures I wrote about early on and my first book was about his work. We had a very good contact during the conference. Many of the French speakers were staying at the Chelsea Hotel – if you’ve read Just Kids [by Patti Smith], you find an evocation of what that was like then. The last time I saw Foucault during the conference was there, in the after-party, where everyone was drinking and talking in a sort of collective post-mortem of what had gone on. Foucault said he liked what I had said at the symposium and we kept in contact – I have letters that we exchanged then, and in one he writes “plus rien ne se passe à Paris – nothing is happening in Paris anymore! This was in 1976.

What I didn’t realize is that Foucault himself was under-going a kind of crisis in those years; after that he would publish no more books, except the last ones, brought together hastily as he was dying. In ’76, in La volonté de savoir, he had projected a 7-volume history of sexuality that he never wrote; instead he began a period of travel and experimentation, from which many new ideas would come. Among those travels and related lectures was a trip to Japan in ’78. He had refused to go to China earlier, but his companion, Daniel Defert went, and Daniel and I would talk about all this many years later, after Foucault’s death. This Asian episode in the ‘crisis’ period in Foucault’s own work came to particularly interest me, since with the end of the Cultural Revolution, following the death of Mao in 1976, there would arise a whole new kind of ‘contemporary art’ in China, which came to international (and to my attention) only later. But other figures at the Schizo-Culture Conference were moving in other directions as well.  Looking back, for example, it seems to me the Lyotard was already on a different tack from the others; later Deleuze and Guattari would reject the whole idea of ‘post-modernism’ that Lyotard would help introduce in 1979.

TT: All these major figures in our curriculum, amazing!

JR: Yes, it was a singular moment, in New York as in Paris – the journal October, for example, was also launched in New York in 1976. In Paris, in the 80s, Lyotard curated a show at the Pompidou Center called Les immatériaux, then the largest exhibition in that space. I saw quite a bit of him then and wrote up a review of the show for Art in America. Looking back, that too seems a remarkable invention, a sort of new marriage between philosophy and exhibition culture – the philosopher as curator, addressing the new questions in ‘techno-culture’, initiated by digitalization and computers. At Schizo-Culture, Deleuze had given his first lecture on the Rhizome, later the name of a dot-com based in New York! And when, many years later, Deleuze came himself to write about the new regime of information and the digital, he would adopt the term ‘control’ from William Burroughs, who himself had made a very amusing appearance along those lines at conference. Like all in singular moments, in short, one doesn’t really know what is in fact is going on until much later, when things have gone off in many directions and places, retrospectively changing one’s sense of what was taking place at the time.

TT: That’s a fairly historic moment, isn’t it?

JR: Yes, now we think of all these French thinkers as terribly famous but they were not at all on people’s radar during that period in America. They only became so afterwards, but at different moments, in different ways. Now we see that a whole new side of Foucault, for example, has come from the Courses he gave at the Collège de France, published posthumously, many years after the fact. We now know, for example, that in 1976, back in Paris, Foucault’s lecture was about bio-power and governmentality—themes that would be really developed only recently, by Negri and Agamben for example—the following year he would go on to talk about all this in relation to ‘neo-liberalism’. The Courses are filled with such ideas; and at Columbia this year in the Law School, there is a series of conferences looking back at all 13 lectures, now finally all translated into English, with a remarkable array of scholars – Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, many others – I myself am doing one with Judith Revel in the spring. You can follow the whole thing live-streamed or on a blog ( ).  

In one of the very first lectures, based on notes, Foucault says ‘It’s enough to open your eyes!’ It was time of a crackdown following ’68, you had to go through a police line to hear the lecture. Foucault began to ask what kind of ‘apparatus’ this is, how does it all work, what role does justice, the law, play in it? It was the start of a long investigation, at first in relation to prison revolts of those years, into something still very much with us today.

TT: These ideas about Foucault’s ‘discipline and punish’ and the history of terror.

JR: That’s right, exactly. It all comes from this time, in a certain way, even if with ‘mass incarceration,’ for example, the problems are sill with us. With Daniel Defert, Foucault created a new group, the Group for Information on Prisons, a singular experiment at the time of ‘groups’ and ‘collectives’ that arose in those years – in the arts as well.  Of course we see these sorts of collective forms again today, though in new transnational forms. In this one enquiries were conducted about the prisoner’s own views about what was unacceptable, ‘intolerable’ about the prison; but at the same time, many intellectuals, Deleuze in particular, took part, and many people came for open meetings and discussions, Jean Genêt, for example, or Robert Badinter, who later became Minister of Justice. It is remarkable to look back at all this now, especially for your generation, at a time when it has receded into history, yet when new associations are arising again.

I myself went to Paris a bit later. I got a Fulbright to study with Jacques Lacan—the topic of my thesis at Columbia—meeting with him, going to the Seminar he was giving in the aftermath of ’68 devoted in particular to new questions being posed about ‘the woman’ etc, and going as well to the case-presentations he was doing behind one-way glass walls in the psychiatric hospital, Sainte Anne. At the same time, I was in contact with other groups, other discussions, with Félix Guattari for example, who had broken away from Lacan. The intellectual climate in those years in fact could be rather factionalized: you were either a Derridean or a Lacanian or a ‘Schizo-analyst’ or whatever. Remarkably, everyone was rather open to a young philosophy student from America and there was quite a bit of interest as to what was going on here, in New York, in the new ‘counter-culture’ or art world.

TT: Because you were an American you had entrée into these different groups?

JR: Exactly, I could go everywhere. As a result I tended to look at it all, across all the many differences, as one larger thing, in which philosophy was playing a singular role, unlike anything back home – the privilege of coming to it from outside, I suppose.

TT: But for them it was quite serious, this ‘territorialization’ as it were?

JR: That’s right. There were many competing groups, some like the Lacanian ones, patterned in part on avant-garde art groups, going back to Surrealism and Bataille, with exclusions and manifestoes. Lacan thought of psychoanalysis – as perhaps nowhere else at the time – as something ‘extra-territorial’, outside Knowledge, outside any Master discourse, linked to the strange Teaching he was offering in his Seminar. Taking part in all this helped me with the deliberately ‘un-readable’ style he adopted in his writings, his écrits, but this posed a problem for my thesis, where I had to rely on this strange written material, only some of which had been translated into English. It made for a rather complicated exercise!

Coming back after Paris, I also came to realize that in the philosophy departments in the major universities no one was in fact interested this kind of thinking or even in recognizing it as ‘philosophy’! In many ways that is true even today. Mostly this work matters to people in other areas (notably the arts) where, on the other hand, it has had considerable influence. That is how I would later join forces with the great New York avant-garde group of the journal October and begin to write for art publications and exhibitions.

TT: The psychoanalytic was too daring for them?

JR: All this French stuff was… I remember I had a philosophy professor at Columbia who told me: “How can you be involved in this? This isn’t serious, etc.” At Bennington however, there was an interest, and the first year I was teaching there I met Rosalind Krauss. She had come to take part in a panel on postmodernism with a formalist critic named Sidney Tillman; I was the respondent. At first, I said something like “Professor Krauss is mixed up, what she is saying is not accurate,” but it soon became clear that we were much closer to one another than to Sidney, that she was a really remarkable critic. We rode back to New York together talking more. It was beginning of a great friendship; eventually, I would become a member of the October group for a while. Through her and this phase of the journal, I learned many things, absorbing discussions going on at the time in the art-world, seeing how art criticism might intervene in it. It was inspiring to work as well with Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, each developing new ideas then. In those days the group still functioned in an avant-garde style, a bit on the model of Tel Quel in Paris – the journal that published Derrida, Foucault and many others in the ’60s, itself a group, with a ‘pope’; Vignelli had given it a similar graphic look. At first October had been housed in the Institute for Architecture and Urban Affairs, and in fact, it was through this that I would later come in contact with Peter Eisenman, and work with him in the ANY project in the ’90s.

TT: And architecture being this fundamental metaphor as it concerns philosophy because the philosopher believes in architectural schemas, as it were, it’s a curious parallel.

JR: Yes, there was a lively discussion about that, connected with Derrida and deconstruction and a show at MoMa called ‘Deconstructivist Architecture,’ curated by Phillip Johnson with Mark Wigley, later the Dean of the Columbia Architecture School, which brought together in a new ‘after postmodernism’ spirit many of those architects who, long after ‘Decontructivism,’ would become the global stars.

TT: This is what scared so many people about Derrida, that his system was going to take apart things.

JR: Derrida in fact had a complicated relation to it all – he himself tried to distance himself from Peter Eisenman’s embrace, while Ros Krauss declared that her idea of deconstruction in architecture was not this, but rather Gordon Matta Clark’s ‘an-architectural’ cuts of houses, and many of the so-called Deconstructivist architects weren’t in fact much interested in Derrida. But it was certainly a time of great interest in the whole question of architecture and philosophy, in the very idea of arche in architecture.

In Japan, for example, one was told that there had been something like the unformed space that Derrida found in the Khora in Plato’s Timaeus called Ma, itself deriving from Chinese Taoist and Buddhist sources. For my part, I suggested one take a look at Deleuze in this context. It was the start of a long exchange, sometimes displacing the Derridean one. It was very stimulating, very open, since Deleuze himself had not written much about architecture; when he talked about it in ‘the Fold’ in his book on Leibniz, he was pleasantly surprised by the response of architects, along with surfers and their insertion into the folds of the waves. When I sent him an early essay I wrote about the idea of the fold in a project by Peter Eisenman, he was at once surprised, delighted and a bit puzzled.

Young architects here, like Greg Lynn, began to read and take up his ideas in architecture, finding in them a great resource; I helped get published a thesis of one of Deleuze’s students named Bernard Cache on the topic and only later would it appear in French. I wrote more myself, later bringing it together in a book called Constructions. There was something like a Deleuze moment in architecture then. It was remarkable to see architects trying to actually read and use philosophy, pushing it in unexpected directions.  

TT: So he made a big impact. Considering contemporary philosophers, who are the people who came out of this tradition?

JR: Yes, the ’90s more generally were an important moment for Deleuze internationally. Hans Ulrich Obrist was very active in developing an interest in his work in the arts– notably with what came to be called  ‘relational aesthetics’ – where it took on a life of its own. There is still much interest in Deleuze in philosophy and the arts today, of course, perhaps less in architecture itself, for example in cinema, where Deleuze wrote an influential study. How should we teach moments like this, what new ideas might come from them today? In some ways, it is very strange to talk about and teach things one has lived through, after the fact. I sometimes say to my students at Columbia: for you all this has now fallen back into all-too-familiar discourses, even slogans, from which you need to rescue it. We after all come from different generations, different demographics – we’re the baby-boomers, veterans of ’68, while you’re the millennial’s, you live in a different world, you need to take up all this up in new ways. In any case, I like to find ways to teach and write about philosophy with this in mind. I’ve even come to think that talking a bit about the original context or mise-en scène can play a useful role.

In any case, I think George’s new book addresses this in a certain way—his idea is that philosophy can now have a sort of after-life beyond what Heidegger thought of as its end, a new zone of activity in relation with the arts. In the anthology I did with Etienne Balibar [French Philosophy since 1945] we were also looking back, with this in mind, and of course, Etienne himself has gone on to take this thought into many new areas and current debates. My own sense is that new ideas may come from places that no longer have quite the same relation to Paris, to France, as during this extraordinary period after the War. If you went to Vienna in the time of Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, and so forth, it was an extraordinary thing. But if you go to Vienna now, it’s a little bit less interesting. Will post-war Paris someday seem a bit like that, with new energies coming from elsewhere – maybe from China, for example, where they’re coming to all this at a much different moment and circumstance. Maybe things will now be done through rather different forms than those of the great literary life in post-war Paris, with its cafés, bookstores, universities, and intellectuals. Maybe there will be no one center like post-war Paris, but rather many places, linked together in new ways. The Paris of today is perhaps now part of this larger field.

TT: Yes, the IDSVA rhizomatic Deleuzian construct! The decentered form.  

JR: Yes, the nomadic form. You don’t need to have brick walls anymore to define where you are and what you can do. You can get the texts and discuss things, you can do things at a distance in many different kinds of places.

TT: And the material abides, the conversations abide. Considering your publication French Philosophy Since 1945 and the breakdown of categories in the book, which first-year students read as part of our Continental Glissement course, the most curious part as it relates to where we stand now is the section titled “In Search of A New Critique.” Please talk about this.

JR:  It came out of an attempt to situate the new inventions, the new questions of the post-war era in France. We had wanted to start with Foucault’s attempt to situate French thought within the larger legacy of Kant and the idea of Critique, the different ways it was taken up in Germany, France, and Anglo-Saxon countries. Etienne in particular was interested in how the idea, transformed by Marx, was changed in turn, Marxism being the kind of philosophy that keeps changing in new circumstances in a very singular manner, I think in China today. Currently Etienne has gone on to ask what we would have to add to classical Marxism in order to make a critique of what has come to be called neo-liberalism. What then is the relation of critique to the moment in which it figures? In what ways does it survive such moments, to be taken up and re-cast along new lines?

Perhaps today we need to expand such questions beyond Foucault’s modern European framework, adapting them to the new global times in which we live, no longer centered in quite the same way, as we were saying earlier, rather de-territorialized or de-centered. Perhaps where now matters as well as how and when. Critique in short is something that must constantly be re-invented – that was what we wanted to look at in France after the War: the invention of a new style and idea of critique, no longer based in either God or Man. Perhaps the confused notion that we are today living in a post-critical age can be read in this light – as a symptom of new forces we confront, the climate they’re up against, the new roles and styles we need to invent. I don’t think anyone today, for example, can play the role Clement Greenberg had as a critic in New York, absorbing and transforming the European avant-gardes; we need to rescue the whole question of formalism from his modernist picture and the role of abstraction and of realism in it, placing it within a more complex story, posing its questions in another way.

But I don’t think it’s useful to re-cast this modernist moment in retrospective nostalgia as the glory days of the great critical vocation we’ve now lost; on the contrary, one needs to adapt criticism to the new situation today and the problems we now face. In Artforum, Benjamin Buchloh wrote a quite interesting review of the current Venice Biennale, where I saw you and IDSVA last June. He says we now live at a time where, on the one hand, there’s global art, and on the other, new global conditions in which art is made on an unprecedented scale and geography. Global art is an art very much connected with Capital, with hedge-funds, newly rich collectors, auction houses, art-fairs, celebrity parties, reflective of the larger inequalities in the distribution of wealth; in many ways, the new wealth – often in places outside Europe, as with the Sovereign Wealth in the United Emirates – has taken over the very mantle, the very idea of contemporary art. At the same time, in many places, artists are trying to do rather interesting things outside this larger system, sometimes creating new forms of study, inventing or re-inventing critical discussions on a transnational scale. Benjamin’s idea is that the strength of Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale was that, in at least its selection, it tended to move us from the first to the second, from the Global Art Style to the critical potentials in the new global ways of making art. That’s at least one way of thinking about it.

Taliesin Thomas, John Rajchman and Giovanna Borradori in Venice, Spring 2015
Taliesin Thomas, John Rajchman and Giovanna Borradori in Venice, Spring 2015

TT: That is a positive spin on what was a tough biennale. There was some unfortunate criticism of Okwui’s biennale. Please discuss your presentation of contemporary Chinese art at the Venice Biennale.

JR: A piece by Xu Bing called ‘The Phoenix” was shown at the Biennial – a pair of giant birds made from industrial detritus collected in Beijing and assembled with the help of migrant workers, later shipped and installed in the Arsenale. It in fact is a work with a long fraught exhibition history, going back to Beijing in 2008, where, following the financial crisis, it lost its sponsor. Originally intended as a public piece inside a sleek building in the heart of Beijing, it began a new life as a free-standing piece, shown in art-spaces in different locations in different ways, in the US, starting with a large show at Mass MOCA. In writing for the catalogue of that installation, I became interested in this history – this ‘flight’ of the birds, and what it tells us about global art and Xu Bing’s role and attitude towards it.

When it was first shown outside the Today Museum in Beijing, the film-maker Jia Zhangke, saw in it a striking case of what it means to make ‘contemporary art’ in the conditions of global capitalism, and the ways they are refracted in the massive new urbanization of the sort one sees precisely in Beijing. I thought it might thus offer a great case for the lecture I gave for IDSVA last summer. In some ways it is a strange work in Xu Bing’s overall oeuvre, his first public art piece, suffused with what proved an unacceptable humor. When shown elsewhere, the enormous scale and weight of the piece, originally required by its intended public site, became a problem, at once logistical and financial, and aesthetic. In this respect, it is rather unlike the rest of Xu Bing’s work, often on a smaller scale, with a more direct Chinese engagement with the whole question of writing and thinking in art today. That’s the theme I tried to develop in an essay for a large retrospective of his work at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum last year. I think Xu Bing is one of the great figures of the contemporary art movement in China I was talking about earlier, a kind of new Chinese scholar-thinker for contemporary art today as distinct from the glitzy ‘Global Art’ system.

TT: What would be your advice to students embarking on the dissertation project? If you had to redo your dissertation now what might be one of themes you would consider?

JR: If I had to do my dissertation over? I don’t know. Lacan seems so different to me now than when I wrote my thesis – it might be interesting, for example, to think about it now in the context of the new role that neuroscience and neuroscientists have assumed today, the new questions all this seems to raise; Deleuze already had this idea.

A dissertation is an exercise in writing that you have to go through in order to do a certain kind of scholarship, very annoying because you’re confronted with what has come before, all these super-egos looking over you. It can be a useful path to inventing new things provided you find a way out of that Oedipal game! But a dissertation is at the same time a professional thing, an institutional thing, something that entitles you to go on – in philosophy since Kant that usually meant to teach in the university. We see this for example in the case of Deleuze, his generation of French philosophers. One reason why France had a strong philosophical culture is that –unlike in America for example, philosophy was something taught early on, in high school, an esteemed part of the curriculum, embodied in a certain style of teaching. Before ’68, for example, Deleuze was himself teaching in a Lycée; but when after, he went to Paris to join the new radical department in Vincennes, they said  ‘We don’t want to simply prepare people for teaching in this state institution anymore, we want to open it up. We want them to do other things.’  The doors to Deleuze’s Seminar were suddenly opened up and artists, architects, activists, all sorts of people would come hear him talk about Leibniz or Kant or Spinoza. It was this new condition that drove home to him that there is always a non-philosophical understanding of philosophy in other fields – in particular, the arts – of which philosophy has need and to which it is addressed. The old teaching-style of the Lycée or elite graduate schools was itself thrown open.

In a certain way, Deleuze was already approaching the questions new institutions like IDSVA are taking up today, part of a larger globalization process. The two traditional aspects of the dissertation – finding a new path out of what is already known, already familiar, and obtaining a kind of professional license – are today being themselves opened up, transformed. How to prepare for a profession that doesn’t quite yet exist as such? How to do research for a scholarship now itself in the process of dramatic transformation? How to think now in and with art? It seems to me that these questions are part of the very experiment IDSVA is engaged with and within which you’re writing your dissertations. George has created this new zone, this new kind of intersection of philosophy with other activities, overcoming, supplementing the limitations of more traditional institutions of knowledge or learning. So I’ll be curious to see; it’s up to all of you to also create new forms that will push things in new directions. But, in the meantime, you need to concentrate on your theses themselves!

TT: It will be interesting to see what happens next! Thank you Professor Rajchman.

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