Groundwork: Catherine, how do you understand the philosophical significance of the name of this blog, ‘Groundwork’?
Catherine Malabou: The first thing I would like to say is that the meaning of this word ‘groundwork’ is to me a pure paradox. On the one hand, ‘ground’ means foundation – well, if I refer to German, ground means foundation, reason and principle. All three terms refer to an origin, a root, a first, primary departure: something like a basis that you can build upon.
If you look at the history of philosophy where, I think it is the only context where the word ‘groundwork’ is used, I don’t think that it has any meaning outside of philosophy, if I’m right? In the history of philosophy you discover that every groundwork – like Kant,Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, the ‘Grundworker deficit’, Marx etc., The Principle of Reason in Heidegger: ‘Grundprinzip’ – is in reality, and this is the first paradox, a re-foundation. So in philosophy a groundwork is never a groundwork, it’s always a re-grounding work.
There can’t be any first groundwork – so this is the first paradox. That in fact, the groundwork is what expresses the need to re-found, that is to reground, and this is the problem of metaphysics in general: because in philosophy groundwork means metaphysics. This metaphysical need for grounding – if you think of what Descartes says about philosophy, remember that he says that philosophy is like a tree where the roots are metaphysics; the roots which represent grounding as such – but the problem is that when Descartes says that it is against Aristotle, against Aristotle’s conception, conception of founding, of groundwork; so every time that someone wants to bring to light the need for groundworking, it is in reality a need for re-grounding.
This is what is interesting in the chapter of Difference and Repetition that we talked about [in class]. Deleuze says in ‘Repetition for Itself’ that the problem of groundwork is that grounding is always a repetition: instead of being a founding, like something for the first time, it is always a repetition. So there can’t be any primary, originary version of any foundation, for any foundation: which of course is a threat to any ground. That’s why I brought the book because Deleuze has that very interesting sentence in page 110 of Difference and Repetition, where he says, ‘the shortcoming of the ground is to remain relative to what it grounds, to borrow the characteristics of what it grounds and to be proved by these’. So what is interesting here is the ‘shortcoming of the ground is to remain relative to what it founds’, means that a ground cannot found itself and that is the essential lack which is inscribed in the ground in general. It is in fact that the groundwork can’t ever be a groundwork, because it is a repetition and because it is relative to what it founds.
That’s why if you read Heidegger’s book The Principle of Reason, which is in German, ‘Grundprinzip’ – because in German if I say ‘to find a reason for something’, reason in that sense, like cause or an explanation, is ‘Grund’ – Heidegger has this very interesting development on ‘groundwork’ which means that the problem with the ground is that it is itself groundless. So he plays with the double meaning of ‘Grund’ and ‘Abgrund’ in German, like ‘ground’ and ‘abyss’, a ground and absence of ground. And this absence of ground comes from the fact that the ground is always a repetition of itself: a duplication, a copy, whatever.
And also you find interesting developments about that in Hegel, in the second volume of the Science of Logic, “Essence”: there are beautiful pages around dialectics, like this contradiction inscribed in grounding.
For you to have chosen this name, ‘groundwork’, means that you are looking not so much for grounding, but rather for a re-founding, a re-grounding. It means that you want to repeat, to reiterate a question. I think if you read Husserl and The Crisis of European Sciences, every time in philosophy we feel the need to re-ground, it is because we have the feeling of a deep crisis. So undoubtedly for you if you want to ground something, it is because you feel the need for re-grounding of something – out of a crisis, out of a lack. Is it a lack of something which needs to be grounded? Or is it a lack inscribed within grounding itself? I don’t know, but you have to interrogate yourself. I am returning the question to you. What is it you want to reground?
To be caught in that paradox, to be trapped in that paradox – grounding and regrounding – is the only way to ground something. So I think you have to analyse first what kind of crisis you feel we are living in, what do you want to ground, and what do you want to repeat? And what is the metaphysical plane which is at the basis of this desire? Because it is not any name. So in my turn I will ask you, are you ready to face all the paradoxes which are involved in this idea of the impossibility to ground? G: What are, if any, the relations between your concept of Plasticity and the philosophical theme of the ground?
CM: Well, the very movement of Plasticity (which is malleability, transformation) was for me the perfect expression of this lack of stability of the ground; of this constant shaping and re-shaping of the basis. A groundwork has to be thought of as something in movement. I think it will be easier if we understand ‘groundwork’ as something in movement rather than something stable or rigid. And so Plasticity designates precisely this movement of self-erasure and self-forming of the ground. In fact, when you want to found something, to ground something, it means that you give form to, and, yes, I think that Plasticity expresses this very movement of giving form to the principle and at the same time to change this form.
G: But there is not a pure groundlessness; there is still a tentative ground, i.e. a sense of rigidity which allows for a resistance to this rigidity?
CM: Yes, there is a rigidity but it is a moving rigidity.
G: Do you consider your early work, including your PhD thesis on Hegel and the supervision that you received for this, as a ground-laying for your subsequent philosophical engagements; and if so, in what way?
CM: I think that in general a PhD is always a ground for everybody, it’s not only me. I remember Derrida saying that when you will have written it, it will be like a stone thrown in the river, and you can walk on that. Undoubtedly he was right. I think that the first book we write, this first dissertation: isn’t that a ground? But at the same time, Derrida published his discourse he had during my defence, and it is called ‘A Time for Farewells’. So he was at the same time perfectly conscious that, as I said, a ground is also an abyss, and at this very moment when I was building this ground, I was also saying farewell to it. So a ground is both the soil and the farewell to any kind of stability. It is in that sense that the PhD was a ground, to the extent that it gave me confidence in the absence of ground, if I may say so. Which is a ground which helped me to bear the absence of ground. A time for farewell.
And also I wanted to say something else. If you read The Principle of Reason – The Principle of Reason by Heidegger is about the meaning of Leibniz’s sentence: ‘nothing is without reason’. And Heidegger says that this principle, incubated for centuries, throughout the history of the West – because it was discovered by Aristotle, then had to wait until Leibniz to be brought to light – but when it was, [Heidegger] said it’s like an egg where something is incubating, and the problem is that when the chick comes out, it is not what was initially expected. So when the meaning of the principle of reason,Grundprinzip, ground principle, came out in the seventeenth century, it had changed totally, it had totally new meaning with Leibniz: meaning not so much everything has a reason, everything has a ground; rather that the ground itself has no ground.
G: Do you want to say anything about the significance of Derrida and in what way your subsequent career has responded to him; how you’ve thought with or against him?
CM: I think we have two different ways, we had two different ways, of facing this absence of ground: ground as absence of ground, and at the same time, feeling the need for a groundworking, a groundwork. He reproached me for still having a metaphysical vision of the absence of ground, which is linked with form, absence of form, that is with something visible or invisible. For him on the contrary, the absence of ground meant a total incapacity of anticipating anything, of even being aware of the absence of ground. This is what he said, that we’re deconstructing the very feeling of consciousness of the absence of ground. We don’t even know, we’re not even aware of the difference between grounding and ungrounding. He said, to me the question of founding, refounding, is like – he had this metaphor of being drawn, you know, not walking with your hands straight but being pulled by the hands, do you see what I mean? or being drawn by the hair.
So he thought that I still had a too ontological vision of the ground, instead of blurred, deconstructive. Being aware of the absence of ground is another kind of ground. This was the meaning of his critique. G: So do you think your philosophy is closer to Heidegger or Derrida?
CM: I would say it is just in between. Yes, right in between.
G: With Heidegger being the rigidity, Derrida the fluidity, in relation to plasticity…
CM: Yes, Heidegger being the one who says come on, there’s a way of facing things without being pulled like that, which is not at the same time necessarily metaphysical, which can be also deconstructive. Sometimes Derrida seemed to me to be caught in a kind of scepticism; and at the same time, Heidegger seems too rigid for me, not deconstructive enough: so I’m just in the middle.
G: And how then does Hegel fit in?
CM: Hegel fits in to the extent that precisely his work is to understand how something can engender its contrary, how ground can give way to unground, and he works in the very logic of that. And according to me, well, he helped me so much in understanding how deconstruction could be logically challenged. It was very clear that if I followed Hegel’s way I would understand what the contradiction in deconstruction was, what kind of contradictions are applying in Heidegger. And I followed this path, and I think that I was right to do so. I think that this was the right thing to do. You know, because undoubtedly, pinpointing a contradiction is the strongest way of arguing in philosophy. There is no other [way]. Deconstruction is weaker I think, deconstructing is weaker. So if you are able to bring to light what is the contradiction in deconstruction…
G: It doesn’t work the other way: finding the deconstruction in contradiction?
CM: Because at the end, Derrida said: I have to admit, in the end, that there is something undeconstructible. And of course undeconstructibility is the very contradiction. So, did you spend forty years of your life deconstructing everything to then say that there is something undeconstructible – which is a ground! So if something is undeconstructible this is the ground [laughs] – work!
Well, if you say that there is something undeconstructible then it is worse than Plato: there’s an ideal, there’s something, you know… So I found this contradiction in Heidegger also. I just stick to that idea, that contradiction must be the best way to move forward.
G: How does Plasticity relate to the current movements in philosophy, including the so-called Speculative Realists?
CM: It does relate to Speculative Realism in many ways. First of all because it is a realism, what I am trying to do is a philosophy which insists on materiality, because in fact what they call a realism is in fact a materialism. So…
G: Graham Harman would disagree with that I think, the reduction of realism to materialism…
CM: No, but generally speaking it is true that there is a return to a kind of objectivity, an objective materialism.
Speculative Realism means that what is challenged is ‘finitude’ and the way in which subject and object relate on the basis of the unknowability of the ‘thing’ per se; and so it is a whole refutation of Kant, and of the limits which he presented as absolutely un-transgressable. In a way Speculative Realism tries to go beyond these limits, but not in the sense of ‘yes metaphysics is possible’, of dogmatism, which can [be] prohibitive. Not in that sense, but on the contrary, trying to find a groundwork like a time when Kant didn’t exist. When nobody existed, which was the fossil, the arche-fossil time: you know Meillassoux, this metaphor, of when nobody was on earth. Can we speak of a reality then? Is it possible to speak of something real without the presence of the human subject. Is it possible to have a speculative approach to the real when no finite being is on earth?
If you read Levi-Strauss, his account of the origin of language, he says that language has to be meaningful, significant all at once. It means that when nobody was there there was no signification, no language, no meaning. It is only with the appearance of man that everything began. What Meillassoux tends to say is that on the contrary, there are already traces, signs of a presence, of a reality without any subject. So can there be a speculative realism, that is, a philosophy that is the meaning of the meaningless before the emergence of humanity? This I find really interesting. The self-arrangement of reality into a meaning, the self-hermeneutical arrangement of the Real, without what Kant calls the Transcendental Subject, the thing per se. And so it is more radical even than what Husserl says, i.e. we have to put the world in parenthesis in order to think of something which could come before experience; because it is without us, it is like the pure origin, the pure arche even before pre-historical times. And so I think this is very interesting as a ground; like the very beginning of everything, without anyone to witness it.
In this sense, what I’m trying to do has some relation to that, to the extent that a radical approach to philosophy has to precisely put everything between parentheses and say, ‘what is an absolute beginning?’ This is Meillassoux’s question. At the same time, I’m not sure that the problem is finitude. I’m not sure that the problem is the emergence of man into that. I’m not certain that Kant’s division between phenomena and things per se – I don’t think finitude is what alters the radicality of the origin. I think that perhaps we need another reading of Kant. So this is what I’m trying to do at the moment. Perhaps, in the way that Kant described finitude, there is a possible opening for the thought of a radical beginning.
G: You have posed plasticity as a resistance to modern capitalism’s reduction of subjects to purely flexible, malleable subjects: can you develop this idea and explain if and how this resistance can be transformed into a collective project and means for political organisation?
CM: My relation to politics is very particular. It is not like trying to extract direct consequences of a concept, which translates this concept into something political. It is, first of all, here again an attempt at re-grounding something, which takes into account the biological being of the subject. For me it’s a political act. Because at the moment nobody ever considers biological life [as] being a political instance.
The first thing I can say about plasticity and politics is about abolishing the frontier between symbolic and biological life. So it will be about a kind of awareness, a biological being. Not bodily beings but biological. Producing the subjectivation of biological life. Which is taking into account, really becoming aware of, the epigenetic fashionability of our brain and of our body. This is beyond what we can be aware of, what we hear, listen to and read. We are imprinted by so many other processes and we are trying to be aware of that and understand what it means. Today the conception of our physical bodily existence as only proceeding from a genetic code is absolutely obsolete. We are made of, by epigenetic factors and this I think is very important for us to be aware of. Because what is a political subject? I think here again I agree with Meillassoux that it can’t be the classical finite subject. In too many contexts the political subject is the Kantian subject, a finite subject that is limited. I have nothing against limits but perhaps limits have to be thought of differently.
Even in Foucault you have this, in states and biopolitics, there is this distinction which remains between the biological life of the subject and the rational life. I don’t think politics can be separated from biological materiality. Which means that the way we want to transform things, to make them change, is also the expression of something, which is not aware. So I’m not saying that we have to rebuild, re-found psychoanalysis but I think we are on the threshold of such a moment, where the forming forces, the revolutionary forces, are not really unconscious but beyond consciousness and, for me, biological. I think we are at a moment as important as the one Freud was writing about. We have to stop thinking that politics is an expression of consciousness: it is something else. I think we are at a similar moment but with new forces, which are, yes, biological. For me, the political gesture is to try to figure out what this new non-awareness is. So political awareness is dependent on a new political unawareness and we have to understand what it is. I would say that for me this is the most important political consequence of this thing.
G: So can you think the collective in that? Can you think the collective outside of consciousness, outside of a collective consciousness; as a plastic collective? CM: There has been the very old quarrel between Freud and Jung. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, A Dangerous Method? Freud saying the unconscious is always individual and Jung that there is a collective unconscious, so there is something which is imprinted in all of us. I have no answer to that. Perhaps it is true that this absence of awareness is a common imprint and perhaps it is not; but I think the paradox is how to create a community out of this absence of awareness. Here we would have to reread Marx when he talks about consciousness. I’m not sure he says that we all have a class-consciousness. I think he is also talking about something which is not so conscious. Can it be collective, or can it become collective? Is it a given or is it something which has to be built? That would be building the awareness of the unconscious in a way, a new unconscious, with all the political implications.