Interview with Jean-Michel Rabaté

In November issue of Parrhesia, you can read this (PDF) interview with Jean-Michel Rabaté:

Q Getting acquainted with secondary literature before being able to write something yourself is perhaps an inherent characteristic of the Humanities. Do you regard this as a fruitful academic paradigm? Or can it have a sort of paralyzing effect on scientific thought? 

J-MR I think that it is both simpler and more complicated. It is simpler in the sense that one cannot read everything anyway, so there is always a limitation. I think that writing and reading should overlap in a certain way. This is also why ‘immature’ students can be as good as ‘mature’ students, because they sometimes have better ideas and are at times closer to the real issues that they had detected themselves, precisely because they had not read everything. Good ideas, to my mind, come from a point of ignorance, but, in order to say that you have reached that point of ignorance, you have to know a lot. This is why I tell my students to try to work from something that strikes them as being obscure. Seeing something as obscure is not the same as not seeing something. If you see something as obscure, it means that there is something that ‘worries’ you, something you cannot really conceptualize. This is exactly where a little immaturity is at times an asset, whereas the idea of being totally prepared and then writing is a mistake, because as soon as you start writing – and everybody who writes knows this – you discover new problems that you had not foreseen. And, indeed, once you have started writing, you need to check the bibliography, not before. Working according to this method, you can maintain an active relationship towards your literature and still absorb the secondary material, but in a different, more conscious way. You also will be able to go a lot faster through it, quickly seeing whether something is useful and relevant or not. I still write my books following that methodology, first trying to be astonished by something, and only then reading about it.


J-MR I realize, in fact, that part of my argument is not unlike Peter Sloterdijk’s distinction between classical cynicism and modern cynicism in his Critique of Cynical Reason. As a European, or at least as a Frenchman, I belong to a more cynical culture compared to American culture. For instance, most of the French were totally aghast to see that Clinton’s thing with Monica Lewinsky became a political scandal, because we all assume that men in power will have affairs once in a while, et alors? Of course, we saw it as ridiculous American puritanism, manipulation from the right and so on. However, such an attitude can also degenerate into pure cynicism: “All the politicians are lying all the time anyway, therefore politics is shit, so I do not want to be bothered!” That is negative cynicism. The American people, on the other hand, especially the younger generation, still holds a belief in the trustworthy politician who never lies, which, as we know, cannot exist. Necessarily, they are in the situation of the Romantic idealist, who, sooner or later, will be like the beautiful soul and become disillusioned. 

But there should be a position in between, you see. So, this is the role that ethics plays, I think. For me the solution is just the title, Ethics of the Lie, yet most people are shocked by the oxymoron. It is a realistic oxymoron, though. We have to be aware that we are all liars and lie quite often, for good and bad reasons. That is basically what psychoanalysis teaches us. For example, we lie when we say: “I love your shirt”, or “I love your class.” There is nothing to be ashamed of or to be cynical about, so we simply have to acknowledge it. Another thing that psychoanalysis taught me is that in rehabilitation clinics the first step is usually to bring the patient who drinks to the admission that he or she drinks, because most addicts deny that they have a drinking problem, although it is quite clear to everybody that they do. So, it is the same in politics. 

2 thoughts on “Interview with Jean-Michel Rabaté

  1. Thank you for sharing this! It’s quite interesting, I do like the idea of getting students to identify something obscure and work through it quite a bit. It’s when I encounter something that doesn’t seem obscure I have to worry: what am I taking for granted?

  2. It is interesting to read about the ethics of the lie and the example of President Clinton is interesting but perhaps a little too glib? He was being judged as a straying husband initially and should have admitted his mistakes in that role and defended his role as a politician. I can see that puritans around the world would still have difficulty with that but most would recognise that his role as President was not affected. It was when he lied to his voters when directly challenged that he himself blurred the boundaries of his dual roles. He should have refused to be judged in his role as a husband by anyone but his wife – the person he had agreed to honour. The debate would then have been about personal ethics rather than public morality.

    As an uncynical, non-puritan, middle aged, married woman I expect all of us to be fallible, and it’s only when that fallibility has affected our professional roles that we need to be challenged. I’m still looking for truth, but perhaps not as define it?

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