6 questions to… Rodolphe Gasché

On the occasion of this year’s Histories and Theories of Reading, GEMS welcomes six interesting and inspiring academics: we’ll offer them a coffee, have a chat, and ask the same six questions to each of them.
In May, Rodolphe Gasché (State University of New York at Buffalo) visited us. Here is how he answered:

1. What was your dissertation about and who was your supervisor?
I wrote my dissertation on Georges Bataille under the guidance of Jakob Taubes, who, at the time, was the only person in the Department of Philosophy at the Freie Universität at Berlin under whose supervision one could even consider working on an author as eccentric as Bataille. Furthermore, Bataille was not well known at the time. Only a few of his literary writings had been translated into German. The dissertation sought to establish Bataille as a philosophical thinker by situating his work within the fourfold of Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud. In concrete terms, it was planned as an exegesis of the “Dossier de l’Oeil Pinéal,” approximately 35 pages of text, but after I had covered the first three or so pages and already written about 350 pages, I decided that was enough, in spite of the fact that the interpretation of the remaining pages would have been highly gratifying thematically (the pineal eye and its volcanic eruptions, the fecal eye of the sun, the anal forces of the “jésuve,” you name it). Shortly before my defense, Taubes became seriously ill, and Klaus Heinrich generously offered to assume the role of Doktorvater. In the meantime, an English translation of the dissertation has become available under the title Phenomenology and Phantasmatology from Stanford University Press, which I consider the definite version of the dissertation since I have since had the time to correct the many mistakes that crept into it because of the pressure under which I had to publish it in the seventies.

2. Who do you consider as your master?
(Who (dead or living, real or fictional) taught you the most and/or a very important thing? Who has inspired you, and/or is still inspiring you?)
Undoubtedly, I have learned a lot from some of the people with whom I studied in Berlin and Paris. But even though, among the several initiations into philosophical thought I went through, the understanding of philosophy that I obtained by working with Derrida at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, more than forty years ago, shaped my current approach to philosophy, I do not consider Derrida to have been or to be my master. Not simply because I always had an agenda of my own but because, as a thinker, even one who is still learning to think, one does not, for principal reasons, stand in a relation to one’s mentor as a master. A philosopher who seeks mastery over those who study with him (or her) is not a philosopher but, rather, a sage, sheik, or guru, that is, a pre-philosophical figure. By definition, the philosopher does not possess the knowledge the sage or guru claims to possess but, rather, is constantly in search of it. In addition, even though philosophy as a discipline requires the mastery of the field and its technical requirements, philosophy as I understand it, following my studies with Derrida, questions mastery and thinks toward that which escapes it. Thus, to stare wide-eyed in uncritical admiration of one’s teacher as a master goes counter to what philosophy is all about.

3. What’s the relation between history and theory, according to you? Could you imagine writing about theory without writing a history simultaneously?
I have always considered theoretical thought to be of the order of a public intervention in a field, discussion, or debate, that is, also at a specific historical moment. This is true even in the case of seemingly highly abstract or technical issues of philosophy. The stakes of theoretical inquiries are never solely theoretical. In any event, as an intervention, a theoretical reflection also, and at all moments, requires a reflection on the history of the concepts one uses in order for the intervention to take place effectively in the present and to have a bearing on it.

4. Digital library/archive or the real stuff? (or both, of course, but in that case I would like to know your ideas about the interaction between the two)
In spite of the frequently lousy quality of the information it provides, I would no longer want to be without the internet. And yet, I resist publishing in the medium in question, not simply because I definitely like the real stuff, but above all because the medium discourages careful reading, that is, the work and discipline that reading – ‘reading’ in an emphatic sense – demands. As the term ‘browsing’ suggest, the principal relation to what one accesses through the internet is one of looking through it casually, glancing at it randomly, or searching, in the case of texts or documents, with a click for words, themes, or topics that one expects in advance to find in them. Libraries are reduced simply to sources and resources for searches for projects independent of any experience with books that demand to be read for their own merit. I write to be read and not to be browsed in a search for items independent of the context in which they are broached.
I also cannot envision working exclusively with an electronic library. I need books, preferably those of my own library. I also have an obsession with dictionaries. Even though some of them, like the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, are electronically accessible, I still prefer to check the actual volumes.
And, by the way, the virtual space or cloud in which all electronic memory is stored depends on the tremendous energy produced by the underground generators that keep it going. Is the electronic memory thus provided not even more vulnerable to complete erasure than the possibility of the physical destruction of books through fire, flooding, or mudslide?

5. Which novel are you reading right now, or which is the last one that you have read?
As you may know, in order for their stories not to be forgotten once they have passed away, some of the survivors of the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling, have called upon a “denshosha,” that is, a transmitter of their memories once they themselves can no longer pass them on. But of the numerous Holocaust survivors who have withheld their stories or who are unable to tell them, no memory of their experiences will continue to exist after their departure. I am currently reading Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness. The context is a project on whether storytelling can replace the grand narratives, if memory has become irrevocably impaired by what happened in the concentration camps, irrevocably, indeed, if the loss of memory and the ensuing inability of telling stories are attributable not only to factors such as the inability of saying the unsayable, shame, or even trauma (all of which still presuppose a minimal, subsisting identity of the subject) but also to structural or ontological reasons. If, indeed, the systematic dehumanization and depersonalization of Holocaust victims who have remained silent regarding what they underwent have permanently affected their selfhood, which, as has been shown, depends in an essential way on one’s ability to tell one’s story, it follows that the victims’ memorization and storytelling have been destroyed in its very core.

6. What is your unrealized project? (inside or outside academia)
(a project that you would like to realize one day, be it realistic or not).
As I mentioned earlier, I completed my dissertation without developing the part that, because of its content, would have been such fun and would have given me a lot of pleasure. Unlike the part that I wrote, which is academic in that it involves a scholarly and technical discussion of Bataille’s conception of mythological representation, image, and phantasm, the part that I would have devoted to the pineal gland and the themes that Bataille associates with this subject matter, many of which are scatological in nature, would have had all the looks of a delirium tremens.
I should mention at this point the influence that my grandfather, Albert de Roover, had on me as a child, apart from the fact that he introduced me from early on to the pictorial arts. The only time I came to Gent before was on the occasion of an exhibition of Flemish primitive art in the fifties, which he wanted to see and during which visit I accompanied him. For my upbringing, the fact that he grew up in Boom, a city known for its scatological folk culture – this is at least how he depicted the city to me – was crucial for me. Thanks to his stories about various people from Boom, and what a great storyteller he was!, I was brought up with a sense of Rabelaisean humor, according to which any story or allusion to the unspeakable lower body functions triggers roaring laughter. This is the reason why writing on Bataille’s elaboration on the pineal eye would have been so amusing for me. So, I could go back to my dossiers on the subject matter, including one on the image of the mole that Bataille links to the pineal gland, and realize what I abandoned at the time, developing a radically (low) materialist conception of the lived experience of the world. But I do not think that it would be realistic to hope that I could recover the interests and the humor I had before I succumbed to the “déformation professionelle” that I invariably underwent when I became an academic philosopher. A moment ago, I said that all theoretical work is in essence historical in that it bears on the present and on what is to come. I guess I will continue to take up and remain involved in issues that are topical, issues that have a certain urgency even though, at first glance, they may appear to be ‘only’ theoretical.

by Britt Grootes