Interview with Susan Ruddick
April 1, 2011 9 Comments
Susan Ruddick teaches in the Geography department at the University of Toronto, and has recently completed a translation of Pierre Macherey’s book Hegel ou Spinoza, forthcoming as Hegel or Spinoza with University of Minnesota Press later this year. We were pleased to be able to include an excerpt from the book and a version of Sue’s introduction in the new issue of Society and Space.
Stuart Elden: Thanks for talking to us Sue. Could you say a little about Pierre Macherey?
Susan Ruddick: Pierre Macherey is best known to an Anglo audience for A Theory of Literary Production, but he is a leading authority on Spinoza and his 5-volume corpus on Spinoza’s Ethics is an amazing guide to a very difficult text. He was part of Althusser’s Cercle d’Ulm in the 1960s, and one of the French contributors to the book Lire le capital, which was translated as Reading Capital, but unfortunately without Macherey’s part. He was also a member and vocal critic of the French Communist Party—in particular its humanism and its support of Stalin. Curiously there are key points of agreement between Macherey and E.P. Thompson (especially the critique of the dialectic) but instead of turning to humanism as Thompson did, Macherey used Spinoza to think past the Hegelian moment in Marx. Macherey is a brilliant thinker and there is something old-school about his approach, which I really value: in Hegel or Spinoza for example he inhabits Hegel’s position in order to uncover its weaknesses, its contradictions. He doesn’t engage in theatrics or simplistic castigation of his opponents.
SE: Why did you choose to translate this particular book of his?
SR: Macherey’s book is an amazing guide to some very difficult aspects of Spinoza’s thinking. This includes the relation between substance, modes, attributes; Spinoza’s geometric method of exposition which would seem very awkward to the uninitiated, and the role of the negative and the positive in essence and existence.
But more than that, Hegel or Spinoza helped me locate and name my lingering anxieties about Marx (and Descartes and Kant for that matter). It is a diagnostic: without directly engaging Marx it goes right to the heart of the misstep in his thinking, by addressing what he inherited from and struggled against in Hegel. I think ultimately it allows us to think beyond Marx without abandoning what was so important in Marx’s work.
I actually began the translation for my own edification, it was easier to recall and digest the text in English. The entire process took about 4 years and lived through 3 hard drives (not for the faint of heart!), but I realized fairly early on it would be of interest to an English audience, and I should thank Warren Montag and Ted Stolze for their encouragement—both fierce thinkers who have been noteworthy for bringing Macherey’s work to an English audience (In a Materialist Way) and their own engagements with Spinoza (Montag’s Bodies Masses Power).
SE: What do you think the book contributes?
SR: The book exposes a set of original conflicts that subtend more familiar contested terrain: the limits of the dialectic and the role of negation, the problematic split between idealism and materialism/realism; different ways of thinking about totality: Macherey locates our inheritance of these issues in Hegel’s misreading of Spinoza. But Hegel or Spinoza speaks to our present as well, it is not just an historiography or a “reading” (which would be enough in itself, since Macherey brilliantly excises Hegel’s misreading of Spinoza): we continue to inhabit those original fault lines and suffer their aftershocks—so now, Hegel’s misreading of Spinoza’s relation between substance, attributes and modes, returns in Badiou’s violent misreading of Deleuze’s idea of totality; the division between idealism and realism returns in debates around representation and expression; adherence to the dialectic returns in debates around a choice between axiomatics or immanence; Hegel’s misreading of conatus and his castigation of Spinoza’s substance as inert a kind of self-satisfied immovable One-All, returns in debates around potentia and alternatives to conceiving the negative as the principle or even only force in struggle.
So the book brings Spinoza into our present in a very productive way — for me it helps keep open and lively new ways of thinking (and constituting) the political and political subjects and subjectivities, ways of thinking that I fear are elsewhere being closed down in appeals to a return to orthodoxy.
Hegel or Spinoza helps us understand some of the key conceptual tools that enable us to think with Spinoza, to get beyond this trap of having to chose “which” oppressive structure to mobilize against; it provides the metaphysical grounds from which we can begin to address larger political questions — for instance how we can forge (in the materiality of our present, in an immanent and open politics) a new political subject, from multiple sites of oppression, we might say a class for itself — beyond appeals to a kind of loose inclusive humanism or uneasy opportunistic alliances. It provides a rigorous metaphysical complement to what many of us involved in social struggles could only grasp intuitively. So for instance for those of us who want to build on struggles in a way that embraces and amplifies the capacity to act instead of storying every momentary gain as “cooptation,” —no wonder there is still a lingering melancholia of the left in some corners!—or those who want to think beyond the narrow categorizations of gender race and class (and ableism, ageism, et cetera) to new configurations and alliances I think Hegel or Spinoza provides a kind of metaphysics that helps us move beyond current blockages in thought.
SE: You’ve worked on quite a range of things in the past. What’s next in your own work?
SR: I’m laughing at this characterization because I think it’s understandably hard to “place” my work, if you try to uncover a consistent object of study (the city, nature, migration etc.). My work is driven an abiding question, a fascination around the refiguring of subject-hood as a kind of asubjective becoming, in a kind of ‘territorialization’ through which we produce new subjectivities, or recognize the connections that subtend and supersede our narrow understanding of “the Subject” and a question about just how far we can push this conceptualization. So in my earliest work on street kids – I was inspired by their refusal of an imposed identity and efforts to reconstitute a different kind of identity (re-territorialize) and the difficulty they posed to conventional theoretical frameworks (someone once called ‘the child’ an aporia to theory). In more recent work I have pushed this question in thinking about the role affect plays in our efforts to move past alterity and past thinking categorically about political subjectivities (Spinoza has figured centrally in all of this). Going forward I am focusing on what it means to understand ourselves as more-than-human: who are our allies, how are ‘we’ constituted? Conceptually the project is a post-Deleuzian, post-Marxist project (without abandoning either) that has me reading bio and geo-semiosis (Sebeok, Kull), American pragmaticists (Peirce for example) and earlier scholars of the sign (Poinsot), but a reading torqued heavily through my take on Spinoza. This most recent work is motivated by a recognition of the way our concepts of animality have been used to sustain many oppressive divides (within and beyond our species), a generalized anxiety about planetary destruction and a sense that we need tools to think of ways to bind together twin projects of social and environmental justice. It tries to respond to the challenge posed by Deleuze and Guattari “how do we think a new people and a new earth”? I think this question will occupy me for the next decade.
SE: Good luck with that work Sue. We will look forward to reading the results!