October 25, 2022

Philosophy of Care: A Conversation

Boris Groys and Patricio Orellana

Boris Groys

Patricio Orellana: Care is an issue that you had already addressed in your writings, but now you took the topic as a the central theme of your new book, Philosophy of Care. Was it a response to the pandemic or to a recent rearticulation of the notions of care and self-care in the contemporary moment?

Boris Groys: I would say it was, of course, a reaction to the pandemic. And a reaction to the reaction of the public to the pandemic. It was also a reaction to my own personal experience with the contemporary American medical system. For one reason or another, I spent almost a year dealing with this system. And it was an interesting experience for me. It was also a reaction to a certain kind of analogy between human being and artwork, and between the physician and the curator. Both have to do with curing an object, that can be a human body or an artwork. This analogy was always interesting for me, and I wrote about it before, so that was a background for this new book.

But when I speak about self-care I have in mind some kind of ambiguity between the body in general and our body in particular. Speaking about the body is very fashionable in the twentieth century. And there’s a certain duplicity. I cannot develop it now in all its detail, but for example, Edmund Husserl differentiated between body as “body” (Körper in German) and what I would call, in English, “flesh” (Leib in German.) We can discover our own body through the desires of the flesh, and then we think about sexuality and health, about feeling alive, feeling strong, feeling active and energetic. That is what we associate with being healthy, being vital, which relates to our body as flesh, with the inner feeling of the body. But we also have a certain kind of knowledge, medical knowledge, which sees us not in terms of flesh, but in terms of the body as an object in space and time, as a thing like every other thing. It is obvious that there is a discrepancy between these two notions of health, because we can feel ourselves very healthy and energetic, and be terminally ill. So we go to the physician, and they tell us that we’ll only live for a couple of months. But then we can feel very weak and depressed and not healthy enough, and when we go to some kind of medical examination, it looks like everything functions perfectly. So there is an obvious discrepancy between these two notions when we speak about health. And the book tries to thematize it.

PO: You mentioned how the book is also a reaction to the public’s reaction to the pandemic. One of the features of this public reaction was a resurgence of anti-science discourses. Even heads of state have mobilized this sentiment—Trump, for example. Do you see anything new or symptomatic in this recent resurgence of anti-scientific discourses?

BG: No, I don’t think there’s anything new. I think that it’s a reaction of people who think that they are healthy, and it’s the medical system as an institution that makes them ill. And I wouldn’t say that it is a reaction against science, it is against institutions. It is a kind of institutional critique. The same way we have institutional critique in art, we have also an institutional critique of medicine. So as we ask the question coming into the museum, or to the university, of “Why certain institutions impose on us certain knowledge, certain art, certain taste?” and we think maybe it’s better that we define them ourselves, since we are individual autonomous spirits and flesh … We can feel ourselves, we can feel the world, so why does somebody come to me and say you are ill, or potentially ill, and you should be treated for that? I myself do not feel ill. Even if I feel myself endangered, I may accept this danger: people climb mountains, they go to war, they drink and take drugs. Those are all dangerous activities. But people practice these activities precisely because they believe in their health and they believe they have the power to endure them. So the pandemic and the reaction to it—it’s not a reaction against science, it’s a reaction against the institution.

PO: What seems to be new—and maybe this is a very broad generalization—is that these critiques of institutions and of institutionalized knowledge used to be an attribute of more progressive leftist individuals and political groups. And now we have seen the more progressive people defending the institutions of care. And these critiques came from right-wing groups. Is there a particularly right-wing or a left-wing mode of thinking about care?

BG: I think that the idea of the Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian left was, in general, a mistake and an ideological illusion. French philosophy of the sixties, and Foucault in particular, was based on a neoliberal mode of thinking, already at that time. Their critique was directed against the Communist Party, against bureaucratic control and big institutions, not against capitalism. It was a renewal of a kind of anarchistic libertarian mood, but this always existed on the right and on the left. Anti-institutional affect has traditionally united the radical right and radical left. And if you look, for example, at Deleuze and many others, with all that flow of desire and so on, it’s also a flow of money, of course. It’s the free flow of the economy beyond bureaucratic restrictions. One should not forget that the French state in the sixties was very bureaucratic. And what they saw as a country of freedom was the US, and the Soviet Union was seen as a country of oppression, bureaucracy, and domination by the institution. So this affinity between certain kind of anarchism, certain kind of neoliberalism, certain kind of libertarianism was always there.

This protest against institutions can have different motivations. If you look, for example, at the Berlin demonstrations against vaccination you see the neo-Nazi groups together with radical green groups and antifa. So we have this opposition between institutions and certain kind of libertarianism that started already in the left movement, with the opposition between Marx and Kropotkin, for example. And on the right, we also have examples of all of that. So it goes across the left and right. And that’s also why I wrote this book because, you know, I’m always political in my thinking. It is also because I think that this opposition between institution and anti-institution became more important than the opposition between left and right. Simply because all the contemporary institutions, the state institutions, big corporations, they are all working with the same model, and the opposition against them, whatever ideology this opposition is motivated by, also acts on the same model. All these demonstrations and festivals, they’re very similar. We have here a new constellation between institutions that tell you that you are basically a patient, that you are basically ill, from the beginning, for different reasons (for example, because Adam committed original sin, or for any other reason), so they have to care about you. And in a certain way, we’re grateful for that. We’re grateful for church charity, we are grateful for the social state. But at the same time, we are irritated when we feel we are so strong, independent, and autonomous. And then we want to say no, I am not a patient, I am an actor, I am active—I am an activist, not a patient.

It is a great opposition in the understanding of humanity, of what humanity does. Does it basically suffer? Then it suffers everything: pandemics, wars, the changing climate. Or is it activist, so it acts? Both choices are unsatisfactory. Because if mankind suffers, you have to do something against that. And when you do something against it, then they tell you that you are imposing your will on nature, that you are acting against the cosmic flow, you’re cruel, you kill animals, you poison rivers. And so whatever we do or whatever we suffer, everything can be criticized. What I try to show in this book is a kind of general field of criticism. I delineate this kind of abstract-enough or general-enough field of controversy without taking a side. For me it was important just to describe the controversy and different aspects of this controversy itself.

PO: When you were describing this field of controversy between active and passive, or at the beginning of the interview, the discrepancy between how the subject feels the flesh and how the knowledge that comes from outside defines a state of illness or not, I was thinking of psychoanalysis. You didn’t include any Freud discourse in Philosophy of Care. Psychoanalysis does propose a reflection about the discrepancy between how I perceive myself in relation to illness and what the knowledge of the other says about that. Do you see some kind of decline of relevance of psychoanalysis?

BG: It’s difficult to say. Of course we have two big narratives about the body in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. There is psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis is about the flesh, about desires of the flesh, where I discover my body from within. And there is Marxism, and Marxism is an attempt to describe the body from without, through its function in the social whole. In the sixties and seventies they made a lot of attempts to combine Freud and Marx but it never worked, because the attitudes are contrary. That’s also why I wrote this book. I think that we should be very careful when we speak about the body: is it flesh, or is it Körper, the body as an object? Now, I of course agree that, notwithstanding the protests have taken place in the streets of Berlin or Amsterdam or Paris or Canada, generally we tend to respect the regular medical institutions that objectify our bodies, that see our bodies as an object. We believe that everything is chemical, that we should take a certain kind of pill to change the chemical make up of our body. The body is more and more seen as something that should be manipulated from without. So when I have depression, I take valium (I don’t, because I’m more traditional), or some other pills. For psychoanalysis it’s the question of why, why I’m depressed. I know why. Because life is depressing. And I cannot change it. Whatever changes, I cannot change life in general. So I can’t change the fact that I am born and die and suffer in between. It is an experience that is so fundamental that people don’t believe it makes any sense to discuss it. So I just take some pills to put my nervous system and brain in order, and that’s it.

PO: I wanted to ask about creativity, a concept that shows up several times in the book. There seems to be an opposition between creativity and care. The creative subject would be someone careless, who doesn’t care precisely about the consequences of their actions. And care would mean conserving what already exists. In the book you also show some paradoxes in this relationship. What’s the relationship between creativity and care? In the past, you’ve written about the “new” in relation to the cultural archive. What’s the place of the new in this constellation of care and creativity?

BG: Well, there is a myth that to create something new, to be creative in general, you have to reject anything traditional, forget the past, and begin anew. That has to do with a belief in a certain kind of biology. It’s a post-Nietzschean belief, that every human being is biologically original. And we do something like other people have done it only because we submit ourselves to some kind of social and cultural convention. But if I liberate myself, my body, my vitality, and so on, then I suddenly produce something unexpected and new. I was always skeptical about this because it always seemed to me that people are very similar. And this is not because of common reason or any other universalisms, it’s simply that everybody who is writing something or painting something or doing something basically relies on the fact that other people also thought and felt what they thought and felt. If I didn’t believe in the similarity between me and other people, I wouldn’t be able to write. If you read Nietzsche, with his extreme individualism, on the level of rhetoric he always says “we,” “we the free spirits.” So he always appealed to the kind of similarity between him and his potential audience.

If I produce something creative, then I want two things. First of all, I want it to be recognized as new, creative, and original. And I show in my book that Nietzsche, who actually invented the concept of creativity, very much based his energy on this hope for recognition. And then also we believe and we hope that the product of our creativity will be taken care of. Even if Malevich says that we are working for the crematorium, actually it’s only an artistic pose. They believed that their works would be taken care of. And that presupposes—and Heidegger speaks about it—that we are very much dependent on our culture as a system of care. Our culture is a system of care: care of books, films, artworks, and so on. So this system of care gives two possibilities and they are decisive. One is to keep things longer that I live. And the second is the ability to compare what I did with what other people did, and this comparison shows whether what I did is really original or creative. Because, here again, I am not able to do so by myself. When I am carried by my inspiration and belief in my ideas, it can happen that my ideas are, actually, very trivial. You know this experience: people speak to you in a really authentic, sincere, passionate way, and they explain something that you already heard twenty years ago or thirty years ago, or maybe two hundred years ago. So there’s also a discrepancy between an inner feeling of what I am doing, my vital experience of my writing, for example, or art that I produce, and the external status of the products of my creativity that can be established only through the comparison of this product with the products of the activity of other people through a historical comparison.

Speaking about the new and creativity—it’s like I said about psychoanalysis. The role of creativity in our culture is permanently decreasing. Our most important cultural phenomenon is sports. It is obviously what attracts the most attention. And sports is based on repetition. You always run the same one hundred meters. You can do it faster, you can do it slower, but nothing changes, it’s the same task, realized the same way. I always tell my students that the creative answer would be to go very slow in the opposite direction. But this actually never happens. And that it never happens is very characteristic of our culture. And then we have technology, and technology is not creative. It produces only improvements—there is a car and it is improved. But improvement is not change. So the gift of creativity is always art. But even art now takes a turn toward noncreativity because comparison for recognition—this mechanism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—doesn’t work anymore. Our presupposition is that in art, everything is possible. We have already accepted the notion that in art all things are not comparable to each other, that everything should be different. But if we accept this idea, the difference becomes indifferent.

PO: In Philosophy of Care you write about the function of art or creative work as some kind of self-defense or self-care mechanism for the subject. So I wanted to ask if you could speak more about what is it that art can protect the subject from.

BG: If I am nervous about my death —and not all people are nervous about their death—but if I am nervous about my death then I begin to be interested in how I will look after my death. Actually, many people are interested in that. The whole concept of heritage, of what I give to my family after my death, or how my funeral will be organized—people invest in their graves. But now we have a kind of common grave —it is the internet. It is a common grave insofar as whatever I do on the internet, including this interview, is already part of my corpse because at the moment something is recorded, my life becomes irrelevant. When I die in the next moment, it doesn’t change the status of our conversation before. That means that every recording is already postmortem. So if you look at the traditional cultural situation, it was specific for the artistic milieu or cultural milieu. So the cultural milieu created objects that, they believed, would survive their life, and already represented them as dead during their life. If I write a book and somebody puts the book in their library, who knows if I am alive or dead. So this becomes irrelevant. But this irrelevance of death was an experience of elite culture. But now it is a general experience. Because the internet created an archive of the old. And this archive of the old is permanently recording us, and people are recording themselves, taking selfies, and so on and so on. And so they create their grave, or their individual sectors of the common grave.

And then, of course, what’s interesting—and this is what I write in my previous books—is that archives should be based on something solid. We think that life is a flow, and something that transcends life should be solid, like, for example, pyramids. But the internet is based on electric flow. So we have a paradoxical situation of permanency based on flow. And that is, of course, an interesting ontological-technological illusion. Because the electric flow can be switched off at any time. And all this Hades of posthuman shadows that we created will disappear. But people again believe that it will not happen, and they create these huge archives, these huge repositories of electronic images and believe that they will survive in a certain way. I’m skeptical about that. At some point, electricity will cease to flow. Our civilization very much reminds me of the old civilization of Egypt, Babylon, and Roman civilization, which were based on irrigation, water flow. And our civilization is based on electric flow. But as we know, in all these civilizations, at a certain point in time, the water flow was switched off and the irrigation ceased to function. And today we look at them as monuments, like aqueducts, and we’re fascinated. I think the archeology of tomorrow will make a huge spectacle of this very strange machine of memory.

PO: In your book you also claim that the self is composed of both a physical body and a symbolic body, which is the archive. And most of it is recorded as a digital electronic archive. Do you think newer innovations in technology such as artificial intelligence change the status of this archive? How can you rely on that kind of symbolic archive or symbolic body when it’s composed of so many things that are produced by themselves and are artificial and fictional?

BG: There’s no difference between fictional and real here. You are living, and at the same time, you know that you are recorded. You also record yourself—there is a self-produced part of the symbolic body. But you are also recorded by bureaucracy, by other people. You are recorded by Google and all these, you know, hidden and not hidden algorithms. So only a part of our symbolic bodies is produced by ourselves. Most of it is produced by surveillance of different kinds. So we have this double existence. And then, you should realize that sitting in front of a computer is very unhealthy. It just may be one of the most unhealthy activities that you can imagine. You sit in the same position, you are looking at a screen, which is bad for your eyes, the air is not good, and so on. So you ruin your body. In favor or what? In favor of your symbolic body. But then, of course, you can just say: “It doesn’t interest me what other people say about me and how other people record me. I will go somewhere, like a desert, where I will be happy.” In that case, you prefer your physical body in relation to your symbolic body. We all are split along this line of conflict. That is, of course, connected to the first question, which is, again: What is more important to us? Is it how people look at us? It is all that very fashionable discourse about identity. It’s about how people look at me. And if they look at me in the wrong way, or what I think is the wrong way, how can I correct it? Or I can decide, “So what?” and try to be healthy. Actually, I was living in the Soviet Union in the sixties and seventies. I was very well acquainted with some people who still belonged to anthroposophic communities. That started very early. And they totally ignored all Soviet power, all these ideologies. They were only interested in how their respiration worked, how breath works, and they were very old, very healthy, and lived until they were ninety years old, absolutely fit, with beautiful figures. They were interested in that, they were not interested in participating in any kind of activities for others, the were interested in the functioning of their own body. So there are very different strategies in this relationship.

PO: When you were describing the paradoxes or the strategies, I was also thinking about the cultural valorization of health and illness, particularly in relation to creativity. For example, Susan Sontag wrote about how tuberculosis was seen as a disease that was a result of a creative character, someone who had an excess of energy that ended up transforming into an illness. She also claimed that the opposite happened with more contemporary illnesses. Do you see anything different recently about the cultural inscriptions of illness? How does it look to others or what does it say about someone’s character to be ill? Are there any kind of positive reversals of illness in the in culture?

BG: No, I think that has changed. Yes, I think creativity has to do with illness of course: le poet maudit, l’artist maudit had to be ill, because creativity was seen as deviation. So why do I do something that deviates from the cultural norm? I do it because my health is deviant from the physical norm. That connection is very clear in Nietzsche, in Freud, in everybody. So the paradigmatic artist, writer, and poet, they had to be mad, they had to be ill.

When I read for the first time, at the end of the sixties, Foucault’s History of Madness I was shocked. Because he says that today mad people are in the psychiatric ward, but of course not: they are curators, artists, writers, poets, and managers of our cultural system. I remember in the seventies and eighties, the most cruel thing that you could write or say about an artist was that he was not mad enough. To say that he was not mad enough means that he was too normal, and his art make no sense. Now that’s changing together with a diminishing of psychoanalysis maybe. This concept of creativity disappears: the artist and writer are seen as practitioners of a certain métier that requires discipline, good health, energy, the ability to communicate, to present oneself, to be accepted by others as one of them. So the difference between a writer and a footballer or actor does not exist anymore. And that means, of course, that they have to be fit —not so much health but fitness is what is asked today. And that’s why all of them are going to the gym and working out. So we live in a totally different culture. Deleuze was still on the traditional line, as he said that the creators had better knowledge than the scientists, because science just knows what happens now and creators have projects oriented toward the future. But today no one has any idea what will happen in the future. The only hope people have is that the future doesn’t bring anything terrible. The hope is that everything remains as it is—that is the best hope that we can have.

PO: For the last question and I want to talk about the contemporary situation in Russia. Some commentators have been comparing this situation to the twentieth century and the Cold War between the Eastern and Western blocs. But in recent interviews you pointed out that this is not the case. How would you describe the contemporary war in comparison to past wars? Do you have an idea of how it will continue to unfold?

BG: We are living in the world of globalization. And globalization is Americanization. In the context of globalization, everybody speaks English, quotes the same authors, acts the same ways and so on. You go to China, India, Latin America, and you all have the same Americanized culture, Americanized language. But there is a certain dissatisfaction with this. This dissatisfaction has to do with this very famous phrase: “You have to play by the rules.” And the feeling is, if you always play by the rules, you always lose. This, like many other features of our culture, is very well demonstrated by this Korean television series The Squid Game, where they’re able to demonstrate this fundamental aspect of contemporary culture.

This situation produces a vague feeling of ressentiment, but everybody still plays by the rules. Russia decided not to do it. When you don’t play by the rules, you never know what comes out of it. So we can’t predict what it is going to come out of it. But Russia was moved by this ressentiment against the US-centricity of the contemporary world. It seems to me that this protest, and the kind of violence that this protest has produced, have the character of madness. And it has a character of madness that is very well seen from the inner perspective of Russian life. It is more obvious than when you look at how Russia functions from the outside: Russia is extremely Americanized. It is maybe one of the most Americanized cultures in the world. Much more Americanized than Latin America, and even more than China. Characteristically, the symbol of this war is the Latin letter Z. So in this war for Russian identity they take a Latin letter as a symbol. And more and more they began to write in Russian using these letters, V, Z—Russian words, with Latin letters. It’s one more step in the Latinization and Americanization of the Russian language. Then they took over all the McDonald’s restaurants and so on and so on. But as they tell the Russian people now, they will do McDonald’s exactly the same. So they want to repeat what the Americans are doing, they don’t want to change it or modify it—no, they want to do it, but to do it themselves.

The whole thing is very cruel and ethically beyond the pale, and cannot be defended in any way. But at the same time the phenomenon of Western sanctions, of course, created a kind of feeling of a new frontier and a new solidarity with the government, because it is the next step after 1991 for a redistribution of wealth in Russia. What happened after the end of the Soviet Union was that huge riches that were accumulated in the Soviet time were redistributed among oligarchs. And now it’s the same. All this immense wealth abandoned by Western corporations is redistributed amongst Russians. And who does it? Basically the government. So it is the next huge step in the redistribution of wealth after 1991, and it is, of course, something that people want to profit from. So they have profited from sanctions. That is unfortunately a motif that creates a kind of solidarity of profiteers of this war. So I don’t believe that there will be any internal explosion or internal protest on a mass scale. The intellectuals and cultural people are against it, but not the apparatus and not the population. And so, unfortunately, I have a feeling that it will take some time and the result is unclear.

A shorter version of the interview was published in Spanish by ElDiarioar.com.

Health & Disease, Care, Russia

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.

Patricio Orellana is a translator, curator, and scholar based in Buenos Aires. His first book-length project, on Argentine art and literature of the 1960s, will appear in 2023. His translations are mostly published by Caja Negra Editora.

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