Josefina Ayerza with Richard Rorty - Flash Art
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North Atlantic Thinking

JA: Much of your writings seem to be about reconciling certain differences between European and American thinking.

RR: I think that American and European philosophy, as understood in universities, are far apart, but that's a rather trivial point. It has nothing to do with general currents of thought.

JA: So you wouldn't say American and European thinking are characterized by separate Identities?

RR: I think that by now, the intellectuals on both sides of the ocean speak the same language.

JA: Could we say that this is "global" thinking? It's a word we've been hearing a lot lately.

RR: I would say rather North Atlantic thinking... I mean, Transoceanic: between Europe and North America.

JA: Does this mean that there's not an old world and a new one anymore?

: We read the same books.

: After reading your article "Paroxysm & Politics" I wondered whether you thought Foucault has been a negative influence on American intellectual discourse.

RR: I think that. Like every other impressive intellectual figure, Foucault has had both good and bad effects. I think he's inspired a lot of very creative work, particularly at Berkeley. He's created a whole school there through other historians, through anthropologists; the literary critics are all more or less Foucaultians — that's quite a remarkable intellectual event. On the other hand, I think that there's a lot of trivialized Foucault doing the rounds in American intellectual circles, so that no matter what anybody says, there's always some silly Foucaultian statement that's in vogue: If you don't mention "power," someone says, "Ah, but you've forgotten power," that kind of thing.

JA: In this same article you say that Foucault proposes something more exciting than happiness. Why not presume he's invoking Freud's concept in Beyond the Pleasure Principle? Wouldn't this so-called happiness concern the kind of satisfaction which makes for a bourgeois standard?

RR: I think that he associated being bourgeois with being happy and distrusted. I'm not sure about the relation to Freud's book, because I just don't understand Freud's book. I've never gotten a grip on what Freud had in mind when he talked about the death instinct.

JA: As I was reading this article I had to think of this kind of happiness... as an analyst I sometimes get to hear, "I was a happy person — look what you've done to me now!"

RR: And I suppose you have to reply something like, "You only thought you were happy, yet it was just some kind of temporary neurotic stability in the middle of a crisis."

JA: With Lacan the only given response is silence...

RR: Have to wonder why you Lacanians have to give silence special names, make it an object...

JA: Lacan wants the object outside; and it's not so with Derrida as you point our in "Feminism, Ideology, and Deconstruction." How do you see Derrida's theory as he extends it to the arts? May a pragmatic point of view speculate whether the artist has painted an object in relation to an external one or whether it is an internal object?

RR: It depends entirely on whether the artist wanted to represent something realistically or wanted to represent something recognizably or not — there's no particular reason why he or she should or shouldn't. You know, recognizable representation is just one of the tricks in the artist's portfolio.

JA: How pragmatic is his trick?

RR: Well, from the artist's point of view, it's pragmatic in the sense that it's one more gimmick, one more means of symbol, for some end.

JA: What characterizes the pragmatic in relation to criticism? Is there a pragmatic art criticism?

RR: Pragmatism I think of as a philosophical doctrine that talks about stuff like truth and knowledge and meaning, and it's just not about art. It's a very specifically philosophical sort of thing which doesn't have any particular application in most extra-philosophical areas. So you can be a pragmatist in philosophy and 16 different kinds of art critic.

JA: So that you couldn't take the pragmatic into art criticism at all?

RR: I don't see how.

JA: I could see how truth and meaning may have some resonance in relation to a work of art...

RR: You can make them have resonance, but the kinds of things that the pragmatist tried to do with the notion of truth and knowledge was basically breaking the notion that they were matters of accurate representation and substituting the notion that they were ways of coping with reality and the spirit. I don't think that does much for you when you turn to a particular discipline like art criticism. It doesn't do anything for plumbers; it doesn't do anything for art critics.

JA: You also say that nothing politically useful happens until people begin saying things they never said before, thereby permitting us to visualize new practices as opposed to analyzing old ones. Is contemporary art politically useful?

RR: Not that I can see, but this may be my ignorance. It seems to me that 20th century art has gradually drifted away from what is sometimes called humanism and insofar as it drifts away from humanism, it drifts away from politics. Insofar as art doesn't lend itself to weaving some story about a social future for which people can work I think it drifts away from the political.

JA: Politically useful new things will nevertheless have to be articulated in words said before as much as painting has to express itself in images seen before. If we don't analyze those words and these images, how will these words and images lose their old meaning?

RR: Oh, I think that it's the same process with poetic metaphor as with startling visual images; at first sight they make no sense, but they are somehow strangely attractive, and then gradually they are given a sense by being constantly used over and over again, and placed in more and more contexts until they become sufficiently familiar. Ultimately, it's as if they simply had literal meaning.

JA: So the idea would be to use those words and those images that have heavy meaning and belong to history instead of postponing them? That is use them and use them over and over again in different contexts?

RR: There's an obvious sense in which there is never going to be a new image, never going to be a new word, but the images and the uses of words can be sufficiently different as to make people sit up and take notice, and wonder what's going on and be thrilled. And when that happens there's a possibility for social change.

JA: Are you referring for instance to words like "fascism" and "communism" called upon to ascertain that the Venice Biennale opened with a discourse which is fascist (Jurgens) or that a group of Russians playing at CBGB's in New York sing to metaphysical communism. What are these concepts covering in contemporary contexts?

RR: I think the term has been reduced to meaninglessness, particularly when you put metaphysical in front of it. Metaphysical fascism isn't fascism; metaphysical communism isn't communism. "Metaphysical" can be put in front of any term without the slightest qualm, then the term can mean absolutely anything you want it to.

JA: What about characterizing a kind of discourse in writing. I'm thinking for instance of Heidegger. Is there a fascist kind of writing?

RR: I don't think so. I think it's as silly as saying there's a social democrat or a Christian democrat kind of writing. Look, we have far more precise analytical terms for describing ways of writing than any political vocabulary provides. I don't see why we should try to mix the political and the critical vocabulary. I think it's a way that intellectuals pretend that literary matters are politically relevant when they usually aren't.

JA: In reference to American intellectuals, you say that the only way to issue a brave and basic challenge to a present consensus would be to lay out a new utopia. How would this new utopia concern you personally?

RR: Concern me personally? Oh, well, you know, it's the familiar, banal enlightenment, cosmopolitan egalitarian democratic utopia. Nothing very new about it.

JA: "Nothing very new" seems to go against your idea of utopia. Don't you vehemently reject the process of going over whatever happened — "there isn't too much there, we've already gone through this path." Where is the new utopia?

RR: Well, it seems to me that we haven't had to change our political utopia for a hundred years or so. We have the same political utopia now that we did at the beginning of the 20th century, and politics is not an area in which one has any great need for novelty any more. I think novelty is now in the realm of the artistic as opposed to the political.

JA: You say there are sufficient ways to expose the domestic and existing practice, and in so doing we suggest an alternative practice. Is there any line of conduct, is there a strategy in this alternative practice?

RR: Well, what I was thinking of, was the example of feminism where the feminists said look, you could have a society in which the following things happen: equal pay for equal work, readily available daycare. This is the sort of standard list of things the feminists have been talking about for the past 20 years. But before the feminists began describing this, everybody more or less thought that the present arrangements were inevitable. That's the only sort of thing I had in mind.

JA: You also say something about visualizing a world of equal power between men and women. Now men and women, are different; how can this power be the same?

RR: Men and women are different now, yes. In a feminist utopia there might not be any very interesting difference.

JA: But wouldn't this kind of power have a different quality to it, or is it the same power you're talking about?

RR: I think it' s the same, and Catherine McKinnon says that the reason men are the way they are is because men have more power, and if women had it they would be the same. That seems right to me.

JA: Regarding your article "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," wouldn't orchids and Trotskyists weave together as we consider both their circumstances as being in exile? Doesn't Trotsky's revolutionary intellectual, struggling to survive — in Western countries for instance — become equivalent to displaced orchids, preserved under glass?

RR: I can see what you mean, but that's not the interesting thing about Trotsky because Stalin won, he became a sort of hothouse plant in Western political culture. But that isn't what he wanted to be. What he wanted to be was someone who made things better for people. In Literature and Revolution Trotsky is against art for art's sake and against the aesthetic as the aim of the artist, and I was using wild orchids as an example of something that has no political significance.

JA: Do you look at contemporary art?

RR: Not very much. I find myself sort of walking through the contemporary rooms in order to get back into the 19th century as quickly as possible.

JA: What 19th century images do you look at?

RR: Artists with a sort of immediately recognizable image of what people or nature are like. People like van Gogh and Monet seem to have a certain take on what the world looked like.

JA: So that's what your pragmatist eye can appreciate?

RR: No, I don't think there's anything pragmatist about it. My fellow pragmatist Arthur Danto wrote about this. Philosophically we have much the same views but he can see things in contemporary art that I'm simply blind to. And I think that's just a difference in the eye, it's not a difference in philosophy.

JA: Do you agree with Lacan's theory about the divided gaze?

RR: Merleau-Ponty also talks of this; in the picture, some part of the image takes the eye, and the painting looks back at you. I've never found it a very useful notion; I've never been able to fit it in with anything else.

JA: I see you never talk about Lacan. You never quote him, you never mention him at all.

RR: I keep trying to read him and failing, and reading books about him and not getting the point. The only author on Lacan I've ever read that ever made any sense to me is Zizek. I found The Supreme Object of Ideology very useful in understanding Lacanian jargon, but it didn't particularly inspire me to pick up the jargon and run with it. I find Zizek much easier to read than most people who talk about Lacan. So I was very grateful to get hold of him. I have a lot of Lacanian friends whom I can't understand. I just can't pick up Lacan's terms and use them, either in respect to art or politics. I guess I just distrust sublimity so much that the more they talk about it, the more I run away.

JA: But at least you give it a place. It's not that you say whatever you can't put into words doesn't exist.

RR: I guess I do say that actually. I think that there's a constant temptation to say that there are things that can't be put into words. But, it's not something I want to indulge in. I guess what I distrust about both Foucault and Lacan is this sort of contempt for ordinary human happiness or ordinary human unhappiness — bourgeois happiness/bourgeois unhappiness.

JA: Well, I wanted to know about your heroes. Do you have heroes?

RR: Oh, Nabokov, Harold Bloom, Plato, Proust, Hegel, Bill Clinton, and lots of people.

JA: A good list. How does deconstruction relate to the pragmatic point of view? Derrida doesn't seem to count at all on what would be verifiable.

RR: I think the only common ground between deconstruction and pragmatism is just their common anti-Platonism that binds them together. Or their common anti-representationism. I think of both of them as trying to get away from what Heidegger thought of as metaphysics, the attempt to get in touch with a power larger than oneself.

JA: So you see deconstruction and pragmatism together in that sense, and you see this as an ideal?

RR: I think of them as intellectual movements which share a common worthwhile task.

JA: I like what you say about feminism taking the structure from Marxism. You characterize their quality as reformist instead of revolutionary. Where can feminism go?

RR: There are just dozens of different things that the feminists have suggested, just as the labor unions have suggested dozens of different changes in the relations between employer and employee and the conditions of the workplace, and health insurance. I think it's all done in the petty details.

JA: You talk about making "woman" exist. Are you referring at all to Lacan's concept? You know that with Lacan, woman does not exist.

RR: No. I don't really know what Lacan means by that. All I had in mind was this other thing that E.P.Thompson talks about in his book on the making of the English working class, that in the 18th century there wasn't anything that could be called the working class. In the same sense it seems to me that women have to turn into something, turn themselves into something visible in the same way that the working class made itself into something visible.

JA: Do you want to add something about the art scene?

RR: I have this vague sense that the art world has become so isolated from everything else in the universe that you're either in it or in the rest of the world — nobody has time to be in both.


This article was published in Flash Art Nov/Dec 1993.