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Philosophy in a Time of Crisis

Crisis and Critique

Crisis and critique have a common root, and a common fate. “Crisis” designates the moment at which a state or system undergoes a sudden and decisive transformation, which leads to a period of instability, if not turmoil. It thus signals a significant alteration of a state of (perhaps relative) equilibrium, and the emergence of an open, uncertain future, which itself generate unusual levels of risk, tensions, and even conflicts. But the problem is that crises have become ubiquitous, if not ordinary (which is not to say innocuous or painless): our lives are punctuated by crises that are financial (the tech crisis, the subprime crisis, the personal or sovereign debt crisis), environmental, humanitarian (the migration and refugee crisis), or cultural (the crisis of education, the crisis of identity, the crisis of multiculturalism). Our age, it seems, has become one of permanent crisis, and crisis a perennial state of exception, a new abnormal normality, to which, we are told, we should adapt, and try and “manage.” This would be the new face of modern humanity.


Critique, we believe, is the attitude (or ethos) and method that analyses the nature of such transformations, whilst refusing to take them for granted, or indeed see them as inevitable. It does so not through a straightforward commitment to historical causality, but through a systematic effort of problematisation, which seeks to extract the conditions of emergence of such events, and distinguish between well and badly posed problems. We are pressed into action by the suffocating urgency of serious problems, crises, proliferating emergencies. But what if our intellectual paradigm - the very way we formulate and understand these problems as critical - did not prepare the ground to a lasting solution, but were rather the silent mechanism that endlessly reproduces the crisis as permanent crisis? This is also the reason why, beyond its mere diagnostic capability, critique is an ethical and political enterprise: it refuses the status quo and is particularly weary of those who, in times of crisis, speak of ‘breaking points’ and ‘unsustainable levels’ (of immigration, insecurity, debt, etc.) to impose unnecessary and at times dangerous measures (of security, control, austerity, etc.). Instead, it seeks to bring out, and about, political affects of responsibility, solidarity and hospitality, to speak in the name of equality and decency, and against the divisions, inequalities and processes of exclusion generated by the forms of power it engages with.


Thus, we understand critique in the sense that Michel Foucault had in mind when he spoke of the role of philosophy in understanding who we are today, rather than in discovering universal and trans-historical truths. As a diagnosis of our own present, philosophy is concerned to avoid two extremes, and two ways of relating to history: on the one hand, that expressed by Hegel when he said that, like the owl of Minerva, philosophy “spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” that is, when events have already taken place; on the other hand, that of contemporary journalism, which is increasingly forced to follow the instantaneous and immediate temporality of social media, and a reality that is measured in nanoseconds and assessed in 145 characters. Between those two extremes, we believe there is room for a form of philosophical journalism, or a way of reconciling the critical and clinical potential of philosophy with the events and forces that shape our own present. In that respect, our project follows the spirit of which Paul Valéry spoke when, in his “Notes on the Greatness and Decadence of Europe,” he wrote: “Well then! What are you going to do TODAY?”

Europe in Crisis

Our critical and clinical gaze initially turns to Europe as a space of and in crisis, whilst recognising that many of the challenges Europe faces today are crisscrossed by other geographies, and are in fact global. Why Europe? On a simple level, because it is the geography and history in which the philosophy that is in question here grew, and this sense of crisis is being felt most acutely. On a more significant level, because Europe was and is, in many ways, the source of those crises, and the “world” itself has become more European – that is, technological and capitalist. Finally, because Europe has been, and in many ways continues to be, a power that generates its own processes of exclusion and subjugation, which need to be subjected to rigorous critique, and, at the same time, the spiritual space in which a certain sense of responsibility continues to unfold.


Faced with an increasing number of terrorist attacks, unprecedented waves of immigrants and refugees in search of a better life, and the most severe economic crisis since 1929, Europe, which had done much to bring about peace and prosperity, build bridges between nations and cultures in the last fifty years, has reverted to putting up fences and walls, to introducing or reinforcing mechanisms of social and economic exclusion. It is increasingly confronted with social tensions and political divisions that are a matter of deep concern. National-populisms are on the rise. On 24 June 2016, and after a debate that focused almost exclusively on immigration, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, sending shock waves throughout the continent, and across the world. Is this the beginning of the end of Europe? Is it a test of its resilience? Or is it an opportunity to rethink its raison d’être, its identity, and its future?


Rather than approach Europe as an Idea and in general terms, our aim is to try and think through some of the key problems and challenges it faces – challenges and problems that, all too often, are used as evidence of its failure, and reasons to reject the very idea of a European project and responsibility. We want to approach those challenges, and the question of responsibility, by focusing on what happens at the margins of Europe, that is, in this space that is neither inside nor outside, or both inside and outside.


To begin with, we understand margins in a spatial, geographical sense, as indicating the borders and limits of Europe, as delimiting its territory and defining its sovereignty, as demarcating the national from the foreign, the “we” from the “them,” in an effort to understand what, today, is meant by security and territorial integrity, but also war, terror, and terrorism. Do borders today simply demarcate territories, or modulate degrees of territoriality? Are they simply geographical, or geo-political? And, are they simply controlled and policed as fixed geographical entities? Or are they borders-on-the move: cutting across nation-states, appearing in the most unexpected corners of our urban lives, constantly shifting according to a new logic of ubiquity. Imposing a securitizing logic, which in turn transform our sense and experience of territory, sovereignty, and citizenship?


But we also understand margins in a socio-political and economic sense: we want to ask about those who, within Europe, are systematically marginalised, dispossessed and excluded, and feel denigrated – those who live at the limit of the economic, imaginary and symbolic mechanisms of integration of the nation, at the limit of life itself. We plan to focus not on the citizen, but on the foreigner and the migrant; not on the national assembly, but on the refugee camp; not on the worker, but on the unemployed, the poor, and the homeless; not on the agora, but on the street. In short, we plan to ask who we are, and what we could be, by examining those forms of social and political life that are damaged, those spectral forms of life that occupy a precarious position between life and (social as well as physical) death. Whilst included in the mechanism of power, they are excluded from the socio-symbolic formation of subjectivity; and in an age of security, their life is radically insecure. At once included and excluded, intolerable and ubiquitous, they haunt Europe and question its very existence.

Conference 1: Thinking borders Today/Penser les frontières aujourd’hui

Our first conference will take place in Paris on 14-15 June 2018 at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the école normale supérieure. The event will feature systematic reflections by scholars on the topic of borders, margins, limits and/or closely related issues. In addition, special round tables will engage philosophers in discussion with artists, writers and filmmakers. French and English will be the two official languages.