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“Most readers of philosophy and philosophers themselves, perhaps even myself, are just repeating things and the books actually do not change anything and most of us are simply looking for confirmation of our own status and self-image in our reading. If we are sophisticated, left-wing hipsters, we are reading Žižek, if we are desperate housewives having a hard time doing their job and relationship problems, then we read one of the self-help books,” remarked the author quite casually, even though books mean a lot to him. In addition to his work as a professor and writer, he also runs his own publishing house. Laurent de Sutter is a professor of legal theory at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels and the author of many books in which he analyzes contemporary social and political phenomena with the help of legal philosophy and legal history. We met de Sutter on a rainy afternoon, May 12th, the day after the presentation of the new translation of his book How to Get Rid of Yourself, which was published in the original in 2021 as the first book of the Proposition collection. This booklet, spanning 130 pages, holds 60 chapters, each no more than two or three pages long. He claims that he is not trying to build a differentiated theory, but uses this form as a literary laboratory of new possibilities and ideas. De Sutter makes proposals (as indicated by the title of the collection of books in the original (Pour en finir avec soi-même: Propositions) of a different perception of oneself, one’s abilities and duties, putting philosophical sublimity aside and completely rejecting the concept of the self. The author carefully examines contemporary dominant mindsets and trends and is not afraid to say boldly, yet perfectly calmly, what hinders us in life and what stops us, stifles us, holds us back and prevents us from using our full potential. When he started to speak, our faces quickly eased into smirks, as he has a charismatic sense of humor, a love of philosophy and, to a pleasant surprise, curses without hesitation. Despite the persuasiveness and intellectual vigour within his speaking and writing, he warned us: “I actually write in a quite serious and stiff way and I don’t want to add to this first layer of seriousness the self-delusion that I have told the truth. So these are proposals or propositions that I left in the world.” The literal translation of his book title would be: “Let’s end with ourselves” – the formulas for creating an identity are necessarily connected with power and placing the individual in a place determined for him/her, full of limitations. Members of the Critical Psychology Reading Group interviewed the author.

Laurent de Sutter in Ljubljana, may 2023.

Someone asked how we can tell the difference between self-help books on one hand and things like your book and philosophy, which can also be used as self-help, and you said you didn’t know where the line was and you didn’t want to know. Since you’re criticising self-help books with their imperatives, doesn’t your book fall into the same trap of imperatives when you say we should finish with ourselves? Or is that inevitable?

That’s a good question. Two things. First, I realised this morning that I did not know why I was refraining from giving the full answer to this question, because I had an answer that was perhaps more satisfactory. I think we cannot, in principle, make a difference, I maintain that. The inner quality of the text is of no importance. This is the point where I’m Jamesian, at least in that respect. One book that is very important to me is The Will to Believe, which is a series of lectures that [William] James gave at the end of the 19th century, where he speaks about the question of God, the whole issue of faith and belief as distinct from fact and science. He has a fantastic typical Jamesian pragmatist argument, which says that we are all wrong about this when we speak about the (in)existence of god. Why would we even ask ourselves that question, if it suffices to realise that all gods exist. They exist because of the simple reason that they make people do things. Some gods exist a lot, because they have cathedrals and historical art and piles of corpses that have been killed in their name, all in all the greatness and the monstrosity. Other gods are very small, but all of them exist without a doubt. Because they make people do things.

This is a shift, because usually debates about the existence of god always try to find the logic behind it. But James is a pragmatist, so he looks from the point of view of the consequences and the type of solidity, robustness, articulation that consequences can experience and how do you construct the consequences. For me, this is the same with self-help books and philosophy books. First, it is always the reader’s responsibility, it’s what the reader will get out of it. If it is a narcissistic tool for narcissistic wounds and pain, to go back in life and do things exactly the same way as you did before, then it is obviously shit, but it is the same with philosophy. Most readers of philosophy and philosophers themselves, perhaps even myself, are just repeating things, and the books actually do not change anything and most of us are simply looking for confirmation of our own status and self-image in our reading. If we are sophisticated, left-wing hipsters, we are reading Žižek, if we are desperate housewives having a hard time doing their job and relationship problems, then we read one of the self-help books. But the effect in both of these cases is the same. Therefore it is not so much a question of the class of books, but the type of effect that you are ready to take, construct, elaborate and fabricate from them. That is where I would draw the line; the line is not internal. If the line exists, it is external. It’s not about quality, it’s about continuity, because consequences are always about producing other consequences. It’s not: okay, I have constructed my consequence, is it good or not? No, then you’re just reproducing qualities. Consequence is about which other consequences you can produce after that and so on and so forth. It is an almost Beckettian process of continuation, going on and on. That’s the part I forgot to say yesterday. Perhaps because you spoke about James and I do not want to appear as a Jamesian, because he did a lot of things in all sorts of directions, but in this respect I very much am.

If we are sophisticated, left-wing hipsters, we are reading Žižek, if we are desperate housewives having a hard time doing their job and relationship problems, then we read one of the self-help books. But the effect in both of these cases is the same.

To answer the second half of the question, about the imperatives: yes. In my defence, I do not know about the translation, but normally I never use phrases such as »we must«, »we have to«, »it is necessary«. I can use »necessary« in a logical context, but words that imply deontic operations on people – although sometimes the reflexes are stronger – I normally don’t use. I do not use them, firstly, because I don’t have the right, the title, the legitimacy, or the desire to tell people what to do. That is not my job. People know what they have to do and they have their own lives. And secondly, that is exactly part of the enterprise I am trying to develop: to embrace what I call “the maybe”.

At some point I was fascinated by a mediaeval philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa. And I loved his concept of the possest, which is an attribute that gives the role of the possest to God as a creator. That means, being a creature of the world, he can create everything, and everything can be created under the eye of God, so everything possibly exists as the actualization and realisation of another possibility. I always found that quite… great. This idea of the possest, which translates to “may be”, from Latin. For me, this was a way to escape ontology-deontology. As I said yesterday, as far as I understand it, ontology always implies this deontological move, and choosing this “may be” is also a way to try and implement it in my book and make the book not so much a theory, certainly not a system, but rather a form of proposition, which is at the same time a proposal. In French these two words are one and the same and, I don’t know if this is kept in the translation as the subtitle, but the name of the series of books in French is proposition [in a satisfying French accent].

It isn’t kept in the translation.

Yes, I understand. So these two ideas about the “may be” and the proposal are for me a way to diminish the self-importance of the book. I actually write in quite a serious and stiff manner and I don’t want to add to this first layer of seriousness the self-delusion that I have told the truth. So these are proposals or propositions that I left in the world. For me that takes the form of a sort of “What if …?” scenario. It is a hypothesis: What if the self was just police? What if being no one in particular, being whomever, was a solution for that? People can certainly answer: “No, go back to your sandbox and try again.” and I can say “Okay, sorry, I tried.” On the other hand – because this is a pragmatist idea – since this is a proposition, a proposition can be taken by someone more serious and dedicated than I am and investigated further. The idea is not that I want to create another credo, but that I would like to assist you to provoke the appetite for doing something like that or proposing a different scenario, an alternative hypothesis. Then again, this is just self-justification, because in reality I cannot guarantee that my book is different from self-help books. It is impossible in terms of principle. But I have all these fancy justifications at hand.

In your book, you are tracing the history of the concept of the self, starting from the Ancient Greek praxis of care of oneself, where the self as a concept did not really exist, the Roman invention of persona which is directly related to the maintenance of the patrimony, and finally the Enlightenment period’s juristic discourse and the conception of the self in Locks’ writings. So, why did you choose this juristic discourse as the centrepiece of your work? Why does it provide better insight into the development of the concept than other discourses or other practices?

Actually, it was not a choice at all. It was simply the fact that occurred to me that I had to do something about, that there simply is no alternative. This is the narrative of the self, it emerged in that time period and in that discourse, and according to Locke himself its source is the law. I have to admit that it was a nice fit for me, because a big chunk of my work is trying to investigate the juridical normative dimensions dominating and structuring our language, especially where our language seems to be the most innocuous and the most innocent.

My idea was to make something apparently innocent hugely problematic, to an almost paranoid level. When you use the word “self”, it is a catastrophe that appears in your discourse.

The whole language of the self, as it seems to designate something that is absolutely natural, an individual, trying to figure out how he or she is, what he or she is, what he or she has to do with the fact that he or she is this or that … This naturalness, obviousness, this spontaneous relationship that we have with this concept was everything but spontaneous, but rather the result of a very long construction that is not so much descriptive and not so much about a fact or reality but about the duties, obligations, laws, norms, rules and policing that were involved with it.

My idea was to make something apparently innocent hugely problematic, to an almost paranoid level. When you use the word “self”, it is a catastrophe that appears in your discourse. You have a feeling that what you said was purely banal, but it is a banality of an order that speaks through your mind and your language. That is what I wanted to show. In that respect, Locke’s self-avowed reference to law and forensics – at that time Roman law – was the key that allowed me to open the door to the problem of the self as everything but a simple problem of description. It is, rather, a problem of a specific type of fascism that is involved in the use of such a word.

Now that you mentioned the fascism of language: How, in practical terms, can language help us deconstruct a concept such as the “self”? That’s a claim at the end of your book. How can we actually avoid this performativity of language, which is present now in liberal Western countries? How can this be avoided while language stays so important?

That is a very tough question. The only fully honest answer is, we cannot. Perhaps the deconstruction is also part of the apparatus of the police. Barthes spoke about this very pessimistically, saying that he only saw two examples of means to escape such a prison: what he called the great yes of Nietzsche, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the mystical escape of the great mystics. And then he added: but there is literature. And literature doesn’t really escape from this prison, this cage, but rather cheats with it. This gives a horizon of how to cheat with language and in the case of a book, how to cheat with its form, how to cheat with intellectual habits of intellectuals, philosophers, theoreticians and so on, how to cheat within an industry, for example the book industry that is a capitalist industry, where a publisher that sells terrible self-help shit can also at the same time publish highly sophisticated radical leftist philosophers and has no problem with that because as long as it makes money, they are happy.

Cheating means trying to produce through language a place of indetermination, where the hang of this form of fascism, the hang of history and the legacy that the world has, slips away and becomes unstable. I do not know whether I succeed in doing that, but that is what I try to do in my books. Rather than building up a theory which takes the form of a system that would then encapsulate again some form of truth, it is about some kind of a drift. Without taking your breath, where having the time to catch your breath again. Usually, it drifts from one position to another and then there are moments when there is some kind of an aphorism that floats, that suddenly appears, that you either catch or you don’t. At the end you are left with a book and you say to yourself, whatever. That’s what we call literature, the invention of a practice of language. Or at least a way to be conscious about the act of writing.

This is why it is very complicated while writing according to academic rules, that the event of a form of emancipation from the fascism of language can happen. Even though you are leftist, you read Marx and stuff, but the way you express it is the perfect embodiment of the fact that what is happening is nothing. I am not saying that something happens in my books, since I cannot be the judge of that. At least I try to operationalize things along this line, whether I succeed or not. But it is the most difficult question of all, because if it happens, I am also a part of the production of this authority, the type of police of language itself. Perhaps these police can work well without the “self” and we can imagine a capitalist world without selves or with zombies and ghosts, also doing the same thing. It is possible. It is a part of the risk and danger in thinking and writing. At the moment we do not circulate it intensely, so it is part of the frailty and the absurdity of trying to get rid of all of that.

In relation to this ontology and if-worlds and so on, in the book you talk about how there is no other subject but the subject of power, but on the other hand this subject also tries to radically evade the authorities, which means that the individual is paving the way for his own deconstruction. What the social implications of this; how does this conception of the individual avoid the recurring theme of finding authenticity, since one could also read the book in the sense of: this is another form of authenticity, finding authenticity in a certain situation. How can we solve this problem or avoid this reading?

To answer this question, let’s put it like that: I am not interested in human beings. I am not. They are not interesting. I am not interested in other living beings either, I am not that guy that is really interested in plants or animals or something like that. Perhaps I am anti-anything that exists. I am not interested in human beings per se, and perhaps I am wrong about that, but I am persuaded that if we are anything, it is a series of forces, concatenations, encounters between all sorts of forms of life, of which we are a contingent and self-transforming image at some point. This is why I prefer to speak, research and describe what goes through this image, what helps shape it, like language, for instance, what imposes meaning on it and also what forces this image to go into a certain direction and produce a certain regime of consequences rather than another.

What I would like to try and suggest is that there are more possibilities than the ones that are offered to us. And that these possibilities are indeed at a level of what is deemed impossible.

The structure of possibility and impossibility is what I am obsessed with. There is something eternally present that goes through us, which is, in the end, this regime of possibility and impossibility. What I would like to try and suggest is that there are more possibilities than the ones that are offered to us. And that these possibilities are indeed at a level of what is deemed impossible. I try to formulate a counter-image to the dominant image that precisely goes into the direction of what is impossible. To simply redistribute the map of possibility and to open it to the maximum. That is why I have a problem with the self, because what we can do with the self is very (politically and collectively) limited. We are limited to narcissistic issues, identity issues and so forth, whereas if politics have told us anything, it’s the fact that it is duly impersonal, the collective is impersonal.

Being a militant is becoming impersonal in front of a cause, for instance. Revolutions are individuals disappearing into a historical force, mass, crowd, call it whatever you like. They are turning into something that they are not, into another being. So the instability of what we are is the thing on which I bet in order to help us collectively and also politically embrace possibility in a larger sense. The left is typically melancholic at the moment, being a leftist is being sad, you know along the lines: “Everything is fucked up, everything is shit”. Even though neoliberalism is crumbling underneath its own weight, it seems that what is looming behind neoliberalism is even worse; some sort of an obscure fascist nationalistic regressive mindfuck.

With philosopher Mladen Dolar.

Perhaps I am simply trying to be optimistic. I am trying to use all these seemingly far-fetched overly sophisticated statements to simply say that we have the right to be optimistic as soon as we get rid of some theoretical luggage that is not helping us any longer. All my books are about this, about what Henri Bergson called ‘false problems’, we need to get rid of false problems in order to get more air to breathe, to think in terms of possibilities rather than impossibilities. In the book that I’ve just finished that will be published in French in September, I try to go to the extreme end of that and defend the seemingly absurd claim that everything is possible. Literally everything. In the next second, you may transform into a fridge. It is perfectly possible. It does not mean that it will happen, but it is a possibility, if only because I thought of it as possible. There’s an attempt to counterbalance this with: “no, this will never work, there’s this force that renders things impossible, it’s too complicated, too difficult…” No. Stop.

How can this prevent some permissive desires of people which could be legitimised, even if it was destructive, in the name of a situation, in the name of this contingency? Is there no big Other? Is there no Logos?

You know, I do not have any problem with people doing stupid shit. I am only interested in those trying not to do stupid shit. I think it’s an illusion, a dramatic illusion of thought that makes us lose so much time; to imagine that we can come up with ideas that are irreproachable. Ideas that are always shaky. If you look at the history of philosophy or the history of ideas it’s always about somebody saying: “No, you are wrong,” and somebody saying: “No, I am right,” and they go back and forth like this. And we admire fantastic systems, like Descartes or whomever, as if they were super strong churches, completely tense and closed. There are a lot of people defending them like fortresses. But that is not what they need. What they need is people doing things with them, including with the shakiness of it, because it is not the fact that they are shaky that prevents them from producing effects. The number of things that work half-way and are part of our daily life.

For example, the bus is late, but nevertheless it brings you home. You are angry, you complain, you curse the management that allowed this, you are late and so forth. But in reality, it does not make any substantial difference between a bus on time and a late bus as long as it brings you where you need to be. And it is the same with ideas. I do not mind ideas being imperfect, producing weird or undesirable effects. Simply, keeping this pragmatist approach in mind, it’s about what you are going to do with them. This matters more to me than the dangerous potential effects things could have. Danger is part of the thinking and if you put the danger out, then you are a manager of risk, an insurance salesman, basically. For me this is a difference between theories that are either alive or dead.

Can you give us an example?

There is a philosopher, for whom I have immense respect, called Quentin Meillassoux. In 2004 he wrote a book called After Finitude that started the speculative realism movement. It is a fantastic book. But for him it was just a small snippet that he decided to publish, because he has a system to finish that he started in the 1990s with his thesis. He has a problem, though, because he cannot get his hands on the key that could help him solve the entirety of the universe. When the book was published, it of course came without the final solution, and it will never come with the final solution, because it is like in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – it’s 42. What do we do with 42? That is the solution for every problem in the entire galaxy and beyond. Do we really need 42s? I don’t think we do. What we need are things that can fail, because that’s what tools are for. Things that can fail precisely because their failure can be a chance (and also a danger) for their respective use. And I would always bet – but I’m an optimist – on that, rather than say “oh, Deleuze could be used by capitalists and yuppies, let’s not read Deleuze.” Come on.

It would, in a sense, go against the point of opening all possibilities, to ask “what if there happens to be unlimited hedonism”, because it’s one of the possibilities?

It is a possibility, and if it happens, it happens. And then it will force us to think of a way out of that if we are unsatisfied and if we continue to lose, we continue to lose. And then we’ll have to invent another thing and another and so on and so forth. I fear (perhaps I am wrong) that that is the way it works. For the moment it doesn’t work very well for us, but on the other side it works very well for them. There is a fantastic book by Columbia law professor Katharina Pistor, The code of capital, in which she analyses all the genius legal inventions by big private law firms that have literally changed the legal setting of all international organisations, commercial organisations, without any need to go through parliament, executives, governments and so on. Only by counselling, drafting things, because they are very good at creating new uses for existing tools. It is always strange to say that we should take example from the neoliberals or assholes in law firms, but the fact is that in terms of pragmatism they have something that we do not, perhaps because we are still too moral, too focused on the authenticity of life. The only thing I can answer to all these questions about consistency is that I am not consistent, I am not coherent, I take my bets on hypothetical scenarios. If these scenarios end up serving the wrong guys, I will feel ashamed and embarrassed, of course. But I will not feel responsible.

In the end, we all are queer and if we refuse that, it’s likely that we are even more queer.

That is fair. In relation to these dangerous ideas, at the presentation of the book, you said you didn’t want to explicitly mention identity politics in your critique of identity, because you didn’t want to give ammunition to the conservative right. But then, identity is important for the right too, like racial, national, ethnic identity, in a sense, nationalism and ethnocentrism are identity politics. So wouldn’t that critique of identity disarm them too?

No, because they are not afraid of inconsistency. As long as their agenda can progress, it doesn’t matter. If the right was consistent, coherent, we’d know it, and perhaps we would become… God forbid, you know what I mean. For me it is about the pertinence of the struggle, for example feminism, the struggle against transphobia and so on. These are struggles that are important to me and have been important to me for as long as I can think of. Perhaps it is a question of age, but in the early 2000s, when Judith Butler first appeared in the French translation, the heyday of queer theory, for me it was a logical step. So you had Derrida, deconstruction, you had Lacanian psychoanalysis with the abstraction of the formulas of sexuation, which separates the structural position from the actual life of people, and so on. I thought, okay, now we are getting rid of being and identity and so on. The big lesson of the queer fight in New York in the 1980s that was then theorised by Butler and others in the early 1990s was that we are all queer. All of us. Intersexuals are queer, for Christ’s sake, look at their sex life. In truth the craziest thing that people who are perfectly straight can do in their bed or their dungeon or wherever, it’s queer. In the end, we all are queer and if we refuse that, it’s likely that we are even more queer. The denial of this inherent queerness, psychoanalytically speaking, screams that you are hiding something, either from us or from yourself or both, whatever.

Therefore, when I started to hear statements like: “Me, as a black lesbian bla bla bla…” I was like, come on! The game was already over. It was done. Nobody could come up and say: “I am a proud heterosexual,” without making us laugh. But then it restarted, and suddenly, because this restarted, it started on the other side as well: the masculinist movement, people saying being white is hard. And oh, no, we do not need that. So this is sad for them, for the transgender struggle, the feminist struggle, decolonialism, it’s bad for them, because they will lose at this game, and it is sad for the left in general because it is going in this direction and has forgotten other issues. I know that it has become a classic argument to say, but it is true that the simple class issue has started to be put aside. And these are important issues and struggles and we should fight these struggles, but these tools of political identity are the worst possible to fight them. If I say that, they’ll say: “but Laurent, you don’t understand, it’s strategic, now we have to assert that…”

in a sense that we need to take one step backwards to take two steps forward?

Something like that, yes, and to have this vigorous claim, to show that we exist, and so on. Yes, but the only claim you’re truly making is “recognise us”, so, Mr. policeman, stop giving me your baton and put it somewhere else where I will enjoy it. It’s so sad. But perhaps I don’t understand, you know, when I say that people look at me like: »Huh. Already an old prick.« Perhaps I’m missing a bit. Maybe there’s something I don’t understand, but as far as I know, it has had catastrophic effects in practice. In reality, it has reinforced the differences and it has made life more difficult for those who are concerned with that. I don’t know if there are statistics about whether there is an upsurge in, for instance, violence against sexual minorities, or racist acts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was. And this is the reason why I think this was a mistake; because, historically, as far as I would say, this is regression. It was a case closed in the 1990s. It was done. Why would you need to reopen this? I don’t know.

Connected with the ideas about forced identity: you’ve talked a lot about it, but we would like to ask about the implications of this thesis – okay, let’s stop with the self, we have endless possibilities – but what would this thesis, if psychic reality is fully contingent, mean for philosophy and psychology, for instance?

I don’t know. I think that for philosophy it would imply, I suppose, to recover and push to the maximum the structuralist programme. There has been a misunderstanding about structuralism, I think, based on the idea that structuralism would define a reality that would be fixed and immutable and so on. There are people now that have very persuasive arguments (at least in my eyes), showing that a structure is a system of transformation. Which transforms, first, itself, before transforming your relationship with the it. A structure is not something which is there and you would receive your place and that’s it; but something that, on the contrary, renders possible change. Changes of places and of those within the structure. It’s therefore almost a system of transformation, in a mathematical sense – where an impression falls upon you and something different appears out of it.

From the point of view of philosophy, I would say, the thing in front of us is a totally inhuman system. Not inhuman in a sense of cosmic pessimism – which is very interesting and I like it, you know, Cthulhu in the void with his tentacles and so on; I’m fine with that; let’s talk about tentacles – but inhuman in the sense of, we ourselves are in a flow of operations that are imposed upon us, that we impose upon others, and so on. The structures and the functions now need more work, so all the ethical issues, gone, all phenomenology, gone, the whole discourse about body-mind problem, gone. We don’t need that, I don’t see the use in that. The totality of analytical philosophy, gone. Because I don’t see how they provide us with tools to help us navigate the functions and the structures. Let’s take analytical philosophy as an example, the only thing it produces is “oh, a table is a table.” Okay, thank you very very much. At least now I know what a table is. For instance, if I take the table and put it in your face, is that part of the theory, or does it have nothing to do with it? “Oh, it has nothing to do with that, you are drifting into something that has nothing to do with ontology and metaphysics.” Well, what’s the use of knowing that a table is a table or if I am still myself if I change every organ in my body and so on? Sincerely, I don’t care. The question of what to do with that is important.

As for psychology, I have no answer, because you are the specialists, I don’t know very much about psychology. The only thing that I know is that psychology strictly is a subdiscipline of philosophy. And only in the 19th century did it get scientific and so on. So, if there’s a problem with philosophy, there probably is a problem with psychology as well. Which problems exactly – I think you’re better equipped than I am to point them out. We know, as you have spoken at the presentation yesterday, that psychology, historically, has functioned as a tool of normalisation. We want people to feel better. If they want to feel bad, what about it? Well, perhaps that means they are already feeling better. So why not a psychology on leading people to getting worse? That would be interesting. I don’t have any persuasive arguments here, because I don’t know enough, but my intuition would be that there are chances that there wouldn’t be very much left of Psychology.

Photos: Tine Lisjak.