If you enjoyed last week's author interview with J. David Pleins, you'll be pleased to hear that we've got another for you this week (we're spoiling you!).
Tom Eyers, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, is the author of the soon to be published Post-Rationalism: Psychoanalysis, Epistemology, and Marxism in Post-War France. The book is a reconsideration of the intellectual sources that informed the emergence of French structuralism, with a focus on the early work of now major thinkers. It takes the experimental journal of psychoanalysis and philosophy, Cahiers pour l’Analyse, as its main source. Tom spoke to us about this, and about his motivations and research interests, in more detail, so without further ado...
"Post-Rationalism poses as an historical study of a particular moment in French philosophy of the 20th Century, but in fact it aims to widen our understanding of how knowledge, politics and subjectivity interact even today"
What particular areas of philosophy interest you and why?
I’ve been concerned for some years with the ways in which psychoanalytic and philosophical concerns overlap. As well as having significant clinical implications, Freud’s theories of unconscious desire put into question much that had been taken for granted in philosophical discussions of ‘subjectivity’, of the self, and of free will. In mid-20th Century France, philosophy entered a moment of self-critique where Freud’s undermining of many cherished philosophical truths proved exemplary for the wider project of disassembly and reconstruction that philosophy underwent, in the context of significant political and social upheaval. Contrary to popular myth, what emerged (commonly labelled ‘structuralism’ and/or ‘post-structuralism’) was not antithetical to notions of truth and value, but actively sought to reconnect theoretical inquiry in the humanities to problems in the philosophy of science, explored most fully in France at a slightly earlier moment, principally from the 1930s to the 1950s. I’m interested in how that conjunction of an interest in science and in the forceful reconstruction of philosophical possibilities allowed forms of knowledge – psychoanalysis in particular, but also Marxism – to find a grounding and acceptance in a way that is unthinkable in many mainstream philosophical and cultural contexts in the English speaking world today. Radical Marxist politics was crucial to that sense of possibility, but of equal importance was a reinvestment in the promise of literature and art to reorient our sense of what’s imaginable, and I’m currently working on poetry as an especially fruitful area of philosophical insight. What’s crucial is to understand how, in no doubt different times than we’re confronted with today, philosophy, theory and literature opened up possibilities for contestation and change in the face of the overweening force of capitalist power and influence. How might philosophy, art or psychoanalytic theory aid the emergence of such a critical practice in contemporary circumstances, supplementary as it must be to a more fundamental resistance at the level of the economic and the political?
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
Post-Rationalism poses as an historical study of a particular moment in French philosophy of the 20th Century, but in fact it aims to widen our understanding of how knowledge, politics and subjectivity interact even today, in ways that contest the increasingly instrumental and money-driven limits within which which we understand ourselves and our world.
When did you start researching for this book?
The book grew out of doctoral research, conducted at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University in London, that resulted in my first book, Lacan and the Concept of the Real (2012). Most of the research was undertaken in an intense period of reading, archival work and writing from August 2011 to March of 2012 undertaken while I was a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.
What's the meaning behind the title?
‘Post-Rationalism’ as a term intends to correct our general understanding of how ‘structuralism’ emerged as a philosophical force in France. Far from being a mere incorporation of structural linguistics into philosophy or a reaction to the dominance of existentialism and phenomenology in the 1950s academy, structuralism arose as a complex conversation with earlier French philosophy of science, philosophy that understood itself as situated in a rationalist lineage that begins, arguably, with Descartes. More generally, I wanted the title to reflect critically on what I take to be the excessive and constrictive empiricism that dominates thinking about science, knowledge and politics in English speaking countries today. The ‘Post-Rationalism’ that emerged in 1960s France has much to teach us today about the nuances of scientific knowledge, the ineluctability of subjectivity, and the inanity of the fear of theoretical abstraction that reigns supreme in Euro-American late capitalism in the first decades of the 21st Century. We need to transcend the idea that the only alternative to empiricist scientism is relativism or the abandonment of truth. Post-Rationalist French thought provides one alternative to that forced choice.
Which part of writing a book have you enjoyed most?
The true enjoyment, perverse as it no doubt it is, comes in the struggle with the blank page. Writing the first draft of a book should be about putting caution to the wind, and allowing ideas to emerge fitfully and in ugly and dissonant combinations. I tend to think best when I’m writing, so revising the first draft again and again is crucial for me; the hopefully approachable book that results is the product of much painful rearranging and finessing. I find the latter task much more difficult than the initial writing process.
Any tips for people reading the book?I would hope readers of the book are able to access the implicit critique of contemporary ideology that underpinned its writing. Every thinker or piece of philosophical writing addressed in the book was chosen for a reason pertinent to our contemporary malaise, where economic imperatives threaten to undermine the possibility of a truly critical reflection on, and transformation of, the forms of knowledge and practice that determine our sense of ourselves and our world. It may be a failing of the book that this contemporary resonance isn’t more forcefully underlined.
Where will your research go from here?
I’ve recently begun work on a new book project, with the tentative title ‘Speculative Formalism: The Poetics of Form in Literature, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis’. The aim of the book will be to address recent calls for a return to the study of ‘form’ in literary studies in terms of their wider philosophical import. I hope to use the insights gleaned in my first two books into the relationship between cultural and scientific forms or structures to build a post-deconstructive theory of artistic form, one that is able to account for the simultaneous coherency and incoherency that all cultural forms must bear. Poetry will be the privileged medium for thinking these questions, but there’ll also be discussion of Samuel Beckett’s late novels, the films of Eric Rohmer, and the theory of art that underpins Alain Badiou’s recent philosophical writings, as well as reflection on the contemporary conditions of cultural production and reception. In many ways, my research to date, and especially now, is conducted in unapologetic fidelity to the endangered ‘modernist’ worldview in philosophy, art, psychoanalysis and critical thought, where formal experimentation is hitched to a stringent critique of the uncontested and the commonsensical – a critique, in other words, of what Marxists unfashionably continue to label ‘ideology’. (For reasons I can’t address here, I’m therefore highly sceptical of attempts by Bruno Latour among others to deny the legitimacy of the modern and of modernism).
In recent years, Continental philosophy and theory in the humanities has seen a symptomatic fragmentation of ideas and methodologies, with attempts to reclaim ‘realism’ on the one hand (an attempt itself split between a rather macho ascetic scientism for one wing, and a pre-critical sci-fi return to the metaphysics of objects for their opponents) and an almost fetishistic attachment to history and the historical on the other. We need a reinvented modernism (a ‘speculative formalism’, in my terms) that is responsive to the ideological challenge of such approaches, that seeks to understand their contemporary force and the deficiencies of prior critical theories centred on language, while remaining suspicious of their claims to having reinvented the wheel. It’s crucial that the gains made by feminism, critical race theory and queer theory aren’t lost in the rush to immerse ourselves, once again, in the alluring potency of objects and the real, an urge that Marx, in his analysis of commodity fetishism, described with unequalled perspicacity.
Pub date: 9th May 2013 (UK), 4th July 2013 (US)
Price: £65/$120 (hardback)
You can find out more about Tom's book and purchase a copy on the Bloomsbury website.