Last night, Etienne Balibar discussed his new book, Citizen Subject, to a packed room of comparative literature fanatics, political enthusiasts, and avid philosophy students. Bwogger Becky Novak attended the event.
Balibar’s book is considered to be a synthesis of his beliefs surrounding the necessarily antagonistic relationship between citizen and subject, an in analyzing this couplet, he advances towards the heart of the problem of citizenship. The visiting professor of French and Romance Philology, is famous for his Post-Marxist theories on politics. It was an evening of discussion, questioning, and celebration for the publishing of what is considered to be a synthesis of Balibar’s career-long thoughts on modernity in the frame of self-enunciation of the subject, the community as “we,” the cycle of citizen to subject to citizen once again; finally manifesting itself as a unique viewpoint at the center of both philosophical and political anthropology.
The lecture began with a speech by Emily Apter, who wrote the forward to the book. Immediately the room buzzed with layered and interdisciplinary terms, touching upon and in between disciplines of metaphysics, medieval political philology, history, and contemporary politics. Apter continued talking about the tainted definition of the word “citizen,” in the US today, claiming it echoes our patriarchal foundation. The couplet of citizen and subject is a point of mutual heresy, constituting the permanent contradiction Balibar’s book expands upon.
The translator of the book, Steven Miller, gave a speech afterwards about the challenge of translation, specifically in philosophical texts which feature already translated iterations of Ancient Latin and Greek.
Balibar, who spoke at the end of the speech procession, was intermittently making small comments, taking suggestions of French-English translation from the audience, and vigorously taking notes until it was his turn to speak to his work and respond to further inquiries.
Etienne’s method of deconstructing and reconstructing a philosophical and political idea was heavily praised throughout the whole evening, most evident in the speech by Stathis Gourgouris – a comparative literature professor at Columbia – who was explicitly infatuated with the extended temporality of the book, Balibar’s processes of reading and writing, and his heavy draw from history in the text. He hailed the “extended temporality,” of the book, the multiplicity of location, and self-dislocation it created.
When it was Balibar’s turn to speak, the crowd was completely silent, and seemed to have collectively leaned (in) an inch before he spoke. After he thanked all who contributed to the process, he began talking about the limitless nature of philosophy. Quick to mention that one cannot find answers in philosophy when such answers simply rest in other fields like anthropology or political science – but that we shouldn’t underestimate the sphere of influence philosophy has. Seeming to echo a conventionalist approach to the discipline, Balibar mentioned that cannons and and rules are established and crossed – with philosophy often underlying these changes involved.
After a quick, “But I must be boring you with this so I’ll move on now!” Balibar continued.
He went on to explain how he wanted to produce a “formal geometry” with “lines of symmetry” to the very different studies of philosophical and political anthropology. A muffled mention of Trump and the status of the United States was followed by his praise of rigorously studying history, and then, finally, the couplet of the hour: citizen and subject.
Balibar said that the dialectics he constructed were crafted with history, and drew from two meanings of the subject – the first being the medieval political philological definition as being subject to power, and the second in the metaphysical sense, morphing into the anthropological realm. When democratic revolutions took place, the philological subject becomes obsolete; no longer active in contemporary politics, or taking active roles in deliberate discourse amongst other citizens. There are no longer slaves and masters; but equals. The cycle continues when the citizen returns as a white, male, European bourgeois member of society, and thus the subject (this time in the second sense of the word) is created. Does this mean citizenship has no future? Balibar thinks in order to come up with an optimistic answer, one needs to ask the question with no presupposed answer (mimicking his unpacking strategy of analysis once again). Perhaps the need of a citizen can diverge from it’s historical foundation, but I suppose we’ll have to read Citizen Subject to find out.
Balibar via Verso Books