A Living, Breathing Philosopher

Simon Critchley is renowned for his groundbreaking ethical reading of the deconstructionist movement (that’s an important thing, even if you have no idea what it means).

Interview By Steve Fowler     Portrait By Isabel Asha Penzlien

Simon Critchley is one of the most influential philosophers living today. That’s right, philosophers still exist! Critchley has written books on literature, poetry, death, humor, and the history of philosophy, and he is renowned for his groundbreaking ethical reading of the deconstructionist movement (that’s an important thing, even if you have no idea what it means). He teaches at the New School for Social Research and he is chief philosopher of the International Necronautical Society, a death-obsessed group whose first dictum is that “death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonize and, eventually, inhabit.” Excellent.

Critchley’s philosophy seems to begin in disappointment, both religious and political, and his 2007 book Infinitely Demanding lays out his radical solution to the ever-undulating morass of ethics. That should be the second book of his that you read.

The first should be the New York Times best-selling Book of Dead Philosophers. This hilarious and informative volume, which is totally readable by the philoso-layperson, details the deaths of tons of prominent thinkers while also telling us a bit about each of their approaches to life. It’s choice bedside reading. You learn a little bit, and then you fall asleep and dream about Socrates chugging hemlock in Plato’s cave while Sartre makes shadow figures on the wall using his hands and Foucault’s dick.

Let’s speak with Simon about matters of life and death.

Vice: In a sense, your philosophy proceeds from a statement of pessimism, disappointment, and nihilism.

Simon Critchley:
Yes. Nihilism is the obvious response to the death of God, by which we mean the collapse of any transcendent basis for morality, the collapse of the value of everything. Just to say “Well, God is dead” in one breath is to say, in another, that nothing means anything. This is the moment of nihilism. Nihilism is the affirmation of meaninglessness.

Makes sense.

At least, that’s my conception of it. It is something that happens historically with the collapse of religion and the end of belief in the infallibility of leaders and so forth.

There seems to be a larger shift away from what we have conceived of as nihilism. Now we’re in an age of ambivalence, with no belief, rather than a vociferous belief in nothing. It seems that the question of meaning is not answered yes or no, but not asked at all.

It’s complicated. On the one hand we’re killer apes, and on the other hand we have this metaphysical longing. We want there to be a significance to human life, and we want there to be a narrative that holds everything together. Nihilism is the moment when we feel that’s been punctured. This is one element in youth culture that is persistent—a rejection of the old gods. You find it in punk, in the cult of death of musical figures. There are many examples. Meaning evaporates, and we feel abandoned. The idea of nihilism hits you, and that can be a dispiriting experience.


It can be one of passive withdrawal, like, “Nothing means anything, so I’ll go to my corner and cultivate myself.” Or it can be more like, “Nothing means anything—I’ll join together with a few others, meet in secret, and start blowing things up.” This is active nihilism. The idea that we live in a meaningless world can be another way of describing capitalism. Capitalism is meaningless, therefore we have to go out and destroy it.

I like the way you think. But do we even get that far?

Well, no. We are not even consumerist; we are a society of distraction, idle talk, and ambiguity. Everybody knows everything has happened, everything is automatically trivial, and, again, nothing means anything. This is the world of blogging, the fake world of Facebook, the world that compensates for an absent set of social experiences. There are virtues to social-networking sites, I’m sure, but you feel an awful vacuum at the heart of them. They compensate for something that is absent. It’s strange, one of the features of the contemporary world is a lack of attention. The world floats, it distracts us in endless ways, one is outside of oneself in a constantly divided attention, and you can multiply the force of distraction, which makes conversation harder and harder as an experience.

Something that strikes me as being very dark is people creating accounts on social-networking sites for their babies and young children so they can use them as soon as they are able. Over the course of their whole life, everyone they ever meet, their entire mood history, is electronically recorded and presented.

Is it an instrument of liberation or discipline or control? I remember the extraordinary enthusiasm for the internet, but now it is a surveillance-work tool, or a social-work tool. What one dreams of is escaping that. The 90s ideas of cyberreality seem preposterous now. We design more and more elaborate means of captivity for ourselves. The idea of voluntary servitude—and you can find this in Montaigne—is that ideology is not something that is imposed on us. It is something that we impose on ourselves. We gleefully make ourselves captive to it in order to fill up all those loose gaps of experience where something else might happen. People construct perfectly seamless lives of distraction where any real encounter is increasingly hard. The most radical thing to do would be to completely disconnect.

Though you begin from an acceptance of the fact that nihilism, pessimism, disappointment, and boredom are prevalent in our existence, you never seem to lapse into irony. Humor seems very important to you, but never irony.

Absolutely. Irony is corrosive. But it also depends on what you mean by “irony.” There’s a classical conception of irony in the German Romantics that is fascinating. It’s about the distance from the absolute, and you find it in Kierkegaard and so on. But by “irony” we usually mean an idea that one does not take things seriously absolutely, a knowingness, a smirking knowingness, which means one can never be surprised by anything, because one always already knows what the thing means, because you know it’s a sham. It’s what drives conspiracy theories, which are a strange form of irony in which you know already what’s driving things.


The culture of irony is the culture of postmodernism, which I would furiously want to denounce. We have to act ethically and politically. Irony is a defensive position, against reality. It always knows what to think about reality. The idea of commitment and engagement is central to me, which is not ironic.

And humor?

Humor is opposed to irony. Humor is an operation you exercise upon yourself, laughter is laughter at yourself. So that ironic smirking self is undermined by humor, called into question by it. Humor is critical of the ironic position. I understand why people are ironic, I get it, but I think it’s corrosive and limited.

You can understand someone like Czeslaw Milosz denouncing irony a few decades after World War II, but the sense of nihilism, of isolation and alienation, is now so prevalent as a means of dealing with the absurd demands of living. Isn’t it hard to see how or why one would build an alternative?

The idea is, I suppose, that irony is a response to a world that feels distant from us and that is not engaged with us, but it’s a world that remains one that we know all about and so we can step back from it and watch reality television, knowingly. It entertains you, sure, but you’re not engaged. One lives at a distance. There’s a floating distraction in the contemporary world, life at a distance enabled by technology. I want people to commit at the level of their subjectivity. The idea of subjective commitment is at the core of ethics, something that divides the self from itself. I become an ethical self. I cannot meet that ideal, I cannot fulfill it, it divides me from myself and it makes me strive harder. This ideal subjective ethical drive is at the heart of an absolutely earnest, radical politics that insists that people will be able to engage with each other, and they’re lifted from irony at that point.

And we should posit this purely for ourselves? It’s an individual thing?

Absolutely. We live in a world outside of our control, a media universe outside of our control. We have a weak sense of the self. I’m trying to counter that. The most corrosive thing about irony in relation to social experience is that it can corrode your relationships with other people.


It can lead you to no longer see others as human beings but instead as worthy victims of a kind of reality television, of the pornographic violence at the heart of a lot contemporary culture. That offends me. Ethics is about a subjective ethical commitment to a particular other and how one meets that challenge. That’s the core of ethics.

It seems hard to know how to enact this in one’s daily life.

A key question is: How does one behave? One commits to a demand, some demand. It can be a demand for justice, equality, the good. That demand is something that structures what it means to be a self, but it can never be fulfilled in my view. The capacity for forgiveness has to be infinite. The core of ethical experience is the experience of an infinite demand that motivates my behavior.

But we all sort of remain tied to the specter of religion in Western culture. Isn’t it difficult to imagine a complete shift?

I remain optimistic. At the moment, the recession, crisis—there are opportunities. We are living through a very interesting moment. Especially in New York, maybe more so in Britain, where one in five people is connected with the financial industry. The bubble has popped, and everything is at stake, and it’s a real opportunity to be taken. Not to sound apocalyptic, but I think that there’s a genuine possibility of considerable social disorder, if it were properly channeled. It might not be—it might end up being expressed in terms of mass ethnic conflict, hatred against immigrants, foreigners, etc. I’m really watching carefully for what is happening in Eastern Europe. It’s going to be interesting how those countries react after the lie they were sold, especially in regard to the EU, and in countries like France, Germany, Italy, where there’s a tradition of resistance and opposition. I think governments are quietly terrified. There’s massive unemployment, a recession they don’t know how to deal with, and the measures they’ve taken are not working yet, and maybe they’re not going to work. There’s a prospect of significant social disorder.

How would you like to see that come to life?

Personally, I have an anarchist predilection in politics. I think human beings, if they’re allowed to break free of state law and the police, would be able to operate on the basis of cooperation and mutual aid. I think human beings have an essential capacity for goodness that is not allowed to express itself for social and historical reasons. There’s a conspiracy of stupidity and wickedness that corrodes people. The anarchist in me says if those structures were placed in question then something more powerful could emerge. What I’d like to see is a genuine end to the nation-state, an end to all those old structures. I’d like to see genuinely federalist politics—small units, towns, and cities. We’re stuck within Western Europe with a generally 16th- or 17th-century worldview—the nation-state. One might think one has gone beyond that with the EU, but that’s not the case. So the recession could have very interesting consequences. History shows in moments of genuine social crisis, usually something big happens. Also terrible things could happen. They could start to kill Jews, start to murder immigrants. That could also happen.

Mortality is a consistent presence in your work. You state rather unreservedly that death should play a larger part in people’s lives.

Philosophy is the art of dying. Part of that is the distracted floating attention, which is a part of contemporary life that Sartre would call a counterfeit eternity. We’re mortal, and that mortality has to structure our existence and the pleasures and pains that accompany our existence.

I’m getting scared now.

It’s finite, it’s going to end. The minute one grasps that, everything changes. Philosophy is an activity that has always been concerned with how one seizes hold of one’s mortality, and I see myself continuing a very ancient tradition that goes back to Socrates and Epicurus, which is that to be a philosopher is to try and learn how to die. In learning how to die, one learns how to live.

Doesn’t death feel further from our lives now than it did in the times of the ancient philosophers?

That’s part of this dreadful social picture that we inhabit. We are isolated from death, we are insulated from it, and we don’t see it—even with the death of family members. We don’t see the corpse. It’s obscene, it’s shuffled away into hospices and nursing homes, and we don’t see it close up in an experience of war. We see it on television in a way that is distant as well. It would be a very good thing for people to see a corpse once or twice in their early life to see what that means. One of the great cultures that celebrates this most powerfully is Mexico. Mexico has this powerful understanding of mortality. It’s not simply Catholic; it’s much more complicated than that. The skeleton is the national symbol. But the United States is a society based on the denial of death, where everyone is going to live forever. And that just isn’t true.

Literature and poetry blend with all your work, even the most technical philosophy. Do you conceive a central place for literature and poetry in people’s lives?

Absolutely. It has the highest importance. Pasternak said that poetry is one of the enlargements of life. For me, philosophy is something I do because I’m not really a writer. If I had the ability I would have been a poet or a novelist, but I don’t, so I do this. So for me philosophy has always been an acknowledgement of failure. The people I genuinely admire are the people who can really write, who can really open up a world.

Well, it’s an optimistic picture you paint—this place of literature, poetry, and art exalting us to an infinite ethics and an active political anarchism. But it’s hard to marry that with the reality of feelings of futility and aimlessness.

It is. Very much so. Everything is stacked against it, and history is probably going to be written by the people with the guns. But it doesn’t take much to resist. It just takes two or three people meeting and deciding to do something. So I remain stubbornly optimistic. I basically think wickedness is a social and historical outcome. It’s something that human beings have done to themselves through mechanisms like the state, the police, and the law. Human beings are capable of so much more if they’d only let themselves imagine that possibility, and that’s what art and literature and philosophy can do. They can provide ways of imagination that can shake you and allow you to shift from sleep and boredom into something else.