Interview with Peter Gratton

Peter Gratton has recently taken up a post in the Department of Philosophy at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, having previously taught at the University of San Diego. He runs a blog called Philosophy in a Time of Error. He became a co-editor of Society and Space earlier this year, along with Maia Green and Jane M. Jacobs. Interviews with Maia and Jane were previously published on this blog.

Stuart Elden: Thanks for talking to me Peter. Could you say something about your background and training?

Peter Gratton: Sure. I grew up in New York under less than ideal circumstances—parents on public aid, etc. After finding it impossible to continue at an expensive Boston school, I eventually attended SUNY, Stony Brook, which not only has one of the best Continental philosophy programs (I continue to be in touch with many of the faculty there), but also, as a research one institution, offered great courses in the sciences. A double major in political science and philosophy, I did work towards a master’s in public policy before heading off to DePaul University in Chicago, which was going through a transition of sorts when I arrived. In the 90s, most students were focusing on Heidegger. When I arrived in 2000, Emmanuel Eze, the late Africana philosopher, had just come in as well, along with Tina Chanter, whose courses in feminism would deeply influence me. Given my interests, I fit directly into the transition, becoming Eze’s assistant editor for Philosophia Africana, while also taking courses in the history of philosophy and contemporary Continental theory. I would point to Michael Naas as an indelible influence: an extraordinary teacher, he was also a model for close readings of classical texts (his focus being Plato) with another eye toward such figures as Derrida and Foucault. It’s not an experience I would trade: I had remarkable freedom with my own research projects (I was probably on the conference circuit as much then as now) and I have none of the hang-ups a lot of people derive from their graduate student days.

In my State of Sovereignty, you’ll notice I purposely work citations in from those who influenced me most there, including Michael Naas, Bill Martin, and Peg Birmingham, not least because of the support they gave me for my projects. It’s no accident, I think, that while well known in their areas of study for their published work, they are each great pedagogues, with differing styles and ways of engaging the tradition. And my coming work on the relationship between time and politics can be traced to discussions with Emmanuel Eze about colonialist conceptions of “timeless” Africans, as well as my engagements with Heidegger, Derrida, and Levinas, while working with numerous others in the department.

SE: Why were you interested in becoming a co-editor of this journal? What do you think you bring to the editorial team?

PG: It’s clear that Society and Space has become the place for a certain kind of conversation rare in academia. “Interdisciplinary” usually means “I happen to work on the same exact authors and sources as someone in a different department,” but reading Society and Space ’s best pieces, you get some of the best theoretical reflections as they arise ground-up, so to speak, from a given host of empirical circumstances. I wanted to join that conversation, after having served as assistant editor for Philosophia Africana and managing editor and books reviews editor for Radical Philosophy Review. In terms of the editorial team, I am the philosopher in the room—at least explicitly in terms of my disciplinary home—and thus I take my task to be less about worrying whether or not a certain piece would be a better fit for an urban studies journal, etc., than about making sure theoretical and philosophical claims are well argued. Submissions to Society and Space , though, are quite theoretically vigorous—often dauntingly so—and go well beyond what one sees too often elsewhere: taking X theorist and clumsily laying a theoretical frame over particular political orderings of space. In fact, I would suggest that if you wish to see some of the best philosophical work being done today, it’s in the pages of Society and Space that you’ll find it.

SE: You’ve worked on other journals in the past. How does Society and Space differ from them in terms of editorial practices and its content?

PG: Society and Space is thoroughly collaborative and interdisciplinary (there’s that word again, deadened by overuse for endeavors that are anything but). Each submission that comes in initiates a conversation among the editors: is it potentially a Society and Space piece? What does it do well? Who are possible reviewers? I still find it hard, though, to state precisely what makes a piece Society and Space worthy, though I find the editors agree quickly a vast majority of the time. First, the article must say something theoretically astute, but, secondly, even though there are exceptions in our pages, it must also be linked to specific political, geographic, and social practices. It’s a difficult balance, not least because the best approaches try to have theory inform readings of given practices, spaces, etc., and vice-versa.

SE: You have an interest in critical race theory and Africana philosophy. One of the things that we’ve said we want to encourage to the journal is critical work on race. Where do you think work is in this area is going, and how can the journal provide a forum for that?

PG: I’m careful to note that I engage with critical race theory and Africana philosophy and it led me, despite my overt chapters on figures such as Rousseau, Arendt, and Foucault in The State of Sovereignty, to begin that book project in the first place: to think of modern sovereignty beyond the tired trope of Schmitt’s dictum of it as a “secularized” religious concept than reborn a fully racialized, biopolitical concept. In any event, I’m hesitant to answer about the future of either CRT or Africana philosophy, since the first lesson one should take away from these diverse critical and philosophical endeavors is to reflect first and foremost on the racial, class, and disciplinary positions from which one would provide such an answer.

Before coming on board, Society and Space articles that tended to draw my attention were those that focused on the coimplication of spacialization and racialization—neither one without the other in our ubiquitous post-colonial spaces. This answers to a problem Paul Gilroy, among others, has hit upon time and again, namely that theories of racialization have too often either taken DuBois’s Amero-centric diagnosis of the “color line” and “double-consciousness” or, from the other side of the Atlantic, Foucault’s genealogies of a given biopolitics of Western Europe (France in particular), and applied them the world over. This is not to say that Society and Space doesn’t look to publish articles taking up the American context, or even those that address what have been central topics among Anglo-American theorists about the ontological or epistemological status of race: is race a social construct? a material one? Is it a concept with a future? (See, for example, Arun Saldanha’s “Reontologising race: the machinic geography of phenotype”).

But going beyond these specific (and perhaps tired-out) debates, one finds articles about racialization in just about each Society and Space issue considering impositions of borders, processes of territorialization, and the terror of various sovereigntisms, for example in light of local sexualized spaces (Eric Olund’s “‘Disreputable life’: race, sex, and intimacy”), or the decisive cut between living and non-living (Roxanne Lynn Doty’s “Bare life: border-crossing deaths and spaces of moral alibi”). The continual lesson one finds in just about each issue is just how racialized processes are extremely complex in each given circumstance, to the point where using the universal concept “race” may be misleading given particular forms of societal spatialization. Even taking up a canonical figure such as Frantz Fanon, whose conceptual work is often too-quickly generalized, temporally and spatially, from the avowed context of his investigations (Martinique and Algeria, for example), a Society and Space article such as Stefan Kipfer’s “Fanon and space: colonization, urbanization, and liberation from the colonial to the global city,” recognizes the tensions of such approaches, engaging this most “canonical” of post-colonial figures in ways that speak to our present concerns while recognizing the historicity of Fanon’s own interventions.

As for Africana philosophy, there’s clearly more work to be done, since while there’s cross-over with CRT, it’s been some time since Society and Space has published work informed by Africana philosophical perspectives—a problem endemic to the academy as a whole.

SE: Your focus on European philosophy intersects in interesting ways with the journal’s aim of being the social theory journal in geography or spatial studies more generally. How do you view the intersection of spatial and philosophical concerns? How can the journal continue that discussion, and in particular bring in more philosophical voices?

PG: I could answer this question by posing how the notion of place has been central to philosophy from the earliest cosmologies of the eastern Mediterranean. But let me reverse this and suggest that rather than thinking how philosophy can provide a frame for thinking of space or for producing another geo-logos, the task is precisely to put philosophical practices in their place. That is, too often in philosophy (e.g., in any political theory course where liberalism is taught) one gets a bloodless hand-off from Plato to Aristotle or from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, etc., or even from Hegel to Marx. But philosophy is itself an institution arising in specific histories, practices, and institutions, and thus seeks to intervene in given spaces and localities. This is, of course, not a new point, but it’s one I consider often when I’m reading the articles that are submitted to Society and Space. As for bringing in “more philosophical” voices, I’d merely build on the work of such previous co-editors as Eduardo Mendieta—I take him as a model in this regard—who aimed to continue Society and Space as a place where theory is not just something shoe-horned into articles to give them faux-profundity. In this way, Society and Space continues to build its reputation in my discipline, becoming a source for articles by such key figures as Balibar, Sloterdijk, Meillassoux, and others.

SE: Your book The State of Sovereignty is forthcoming with SUNY Press. Could you say a bit about the book and its core arguments? How does this work intersect with other recent work thinking about theories of sovereignty?

PG: The State of Sovereignty: Lessons from the Political Fictions of Modernity aims to counter the political theologies of sovereignty on offer in Schmitt and Agamben. It’s an oft-told story: the lesson of modernity was to be the move from the political theologies of the late Middle Ages to post-Rousseauian popular sovereignties. I think we’ve seen in Agamben, but also perhaps Derrida and Nancy, a hyper-conceptualization of sovereignty and its paradoxes. But this approach only takes us so far and I think it’s telling that philosophers return time and again to the Bourbon myths and political theologies—grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics, where we find ourselves comfortable. I think the concept of sovereignty often flatters philosophers since we quickly turn to making concepts sovereign. In my introduction, I discuss how different recent discussions of sovereignty would have been had we begun not with Schmitt’s transcendental political theologies, but with Spinoza’s avowed theological political that made sovereignty immanent to nature. In other words, what I trace are the genealogies of sovereignty on offer in Rousseau, Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and Derrida—each providing different stories about the rise of sovereignty, whether it’s Arendt’s depictions of the changeover from the archaic era to Plato’s treatment of archê as rule or Agamben’s homo sacer, which offers me a way to discuss what I take to be the shortcomings of his account. At the heart of the book is taking seriously the naturalization of sovereignty that occurred in modernity, how it was made immanent to the lifeblood of the body politic, and I take this to be crucial to reading Arendt and Foucault on what we call bio-politics. Thus, in a way, while John Agnew offers important work on how sovereignty must be disentangled from territory, I show how it must also be disentangled from the state—which is Rousseau’s avowed political project. This is, of course, the story of the rise of what Arendt called “race thinking before racism,” which in the end came to inform the state of sovereignty in all its forms of exceptionalisms, not least the legally and territorially exceptional police states operating at a distance from state oversight (this is the story of the supposed War on Terror) meant to protect the integrity of the nation’s sovereignty. Thus, while many stop at the sovereign decisionism of Schmitt, there are more lessons to be told about the state of sovereignty and the lessons for us today—lessons that, alas, teach us that sovereign mastery is a fiction with a future, even as we were often told by celebrators of the neoliberal order that it’s to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

SE: Where do you hope to take your own work in the future?

PG: Ironically, while coming on board to a journal with the word “space” in the title, I have been writing and lecturing on our need to return to time as the primary ontological category. In a sense, I’m responding to recent supposed “realisms” and “materialisms” (Continental philosophy’s recent “metaphysical” turn) to argue that the key insight of those philosophers such thinkers as Meillassoux would deem irredeemable “correlationists” is taking seriously the reality of time. The critique of the “metaphysics of presence” is perhaps to be considered a clunky set of terms best left to 1970s theorists, but my task is to show how Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault, for example, are not thinkers imprisoning us in linguistic structures, but fully confronting the real as temporal, with the upshot of helping us think a future worthy of the name beyond all essentialisms. This leads me into thinking what, beyond the work of Michel Serres, we might call ecologies of time, about which I’ll be writing while on fellowship with Australian National University next spring.

SE: Many thanks Peter. I’m sure you’ll have a terrific time at the ANU and we will look forward to the results!

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