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Nomadic Philosopher: A Conversation with Rosi Braidotti

Nomadic Philosopher: A Conversation with Rosi Braidotti

Born in Italy, raised in Australia, educated in Paris and currently living and teaching in the Netherlands, Rosi Braidotti has created from her nomadic existence a politically motivated philosophy that provides a new framework for reinventing the female subject in our post-metaphysical world. Labelled a postmodern feminist, Braidotti aims to develop a theory that can support a heterogenous model of subjectivity for the contemporary woman. She writes her texts in polyglot fashion, sometimes first in English, sometimes in French or Italian, and then re-written for translation into a variety of languages. She facetiously names her dialects Italo-Australian, Franglais, New Yorkese Parisian patois or Dutch-lish. Currently she is the chair of the Women's Program in the Humanities at the University of Utrecht. Her books include the highly praised Patterns of Dissonance (1991), as well as Women, the Environment and Sustainable Development (1994), and Nomadic Subjects (1995).

In the jointly authored text, Women, the Environment and Sustainable Development (1994), you call for stronger links between feminists and environmental activists. What common ground exists between the two movements and what types of coalition are you proposing?

Well, it is a collective book. There were four of us involved in writing it, so it is very interdisciplinary, very broad ranging. The book was commissioned by the United Nations agency, INSTRAW, which is the Institute for the Advancement and the Training of Women (which I think, since then, has been restructured, unfortunately). And we started by doing an inventory of how in Western or Northern universities the question of environmentalism was or was not being dealt with, specifically within women's studies. That was the genesis of the project: a sort of intersection between focusing on gender or women and being concerned about ecological issues.

As we worked through the report for INSTRAW though, it became a lot more interesting and broader, so we ended up then writing it as a book. But it is very important to remember the parameters within which it really started because they also set some limitations. And as we did our survey of how the question of environmentalism was or was not represented in university curricula, in women's and gender studies, then the gap between the two areas really became apparent. And of course, this gap or hiatus was already clear if you approached the issue from the activist angle, because if you had been a women's studies activist or a women's issues activist, then You already knew that women's groups and" environmentalists do not always work together. There are some obvious and well-known exceptions, but globally the kind of work that environmental agencies or activist groups do is not always gender conscious, and alternatively, gender activists do not always take into account the question of the environment, except in the area known as "eco-feminism", which we survey very carefully in this book.

So we noticed a real gap in our university curricula and consequently in the agenda they implement, both in terms of practise, or praxis, and in terms of content, that we wanted to try and fill in. We found in the work of someone like Donna Haraway, both an environmentalist and a feminist, a good attempt to bridge this distance without appealing to, what is absolutely for us, the anathema notion of some ideas of female nature or of genuine, authentic nature that we need to come back to. How to be both non-essentialist and very much a consensus of coalition making. It is a bit of a wager, a bit of a hope for the future.

In your essay, "Feminist Critiques of Science" from the same text, you conduct a feminist analysis of science and scientific discourse. What ethical and epistemological questions does a feminist analysis of science raise?

Feminists have always shared a critical edge of concern for science, in so far as the inferiority of women has been extensively theorised and has been the object of intensive scientific discourses (in the West at least, certainly since the 16th and 17th century, and massively in modernity after that). The science question is in-built into feminism, as Sandra Harding has pointed out, so that by addressing the question of female nature, by addressing the question of human nature, by deconstructing both, of course we lay open the question of, not only the power of knowledge -- who decides what in which situational contexts or in which discursive contexts -- but also, epistemological questions that have to do with the texture almost, of the scientific disciplines: what to do with objectivity; what to do with certain notions of distance or neutrality; what to do with an increasing quantification of what we call scientific knowledge; what do we do with the regular and systematic recurrence of exclusion of always the same others; and this kind of persistence of the process of othering? It is always the women, it is always the non-whites or the blacks, it is always the children, it is always the physically disabled, it is always the physical environment.

There is a recurrence, a repetition of certain themes of exclusion. The need for such exclusions itself, is for us, an object of scientific inquiry, and yet, what we know of science, is built upon the omission of any reference to either the necessity of exclusion, or to the excluded groups. Science as a set of paradoxical intersections. But they are always building upon each other; they are two questions that simply cannot do without each other.

In your most renowned text, Patterns of Dissonance (1991), you are highly influenced by both Foucault and Deleuze. How is their work useful for feminist thought especially?

You may know that the next book I wrote is called Nomadic Subjects, where I develop much more my Deleuzian allegiance. And that seems to be, at the moment, the thinker that I am working the most with. But I think that my general position is still the one that I describe in Patterns of Dissonance, and that is that one has to be very pragmatic and relatively opportunistic about the Ywritings of" the philosophers. I have a great deal of problems marrying, so to speak, into any one philosophy, and the metaphor of divorce, of dissonance, of splitting, comes up strongly in the book. I do think there is an interesting intersection, or, if you will, a coming together of interests between feminism on the one hand and, on the other, the margin of critical thinkers who are attempting to redefine philosophy, radically, critically, in a 21st century perspective, making it relevant to today's culture, and I would definitely put all the French school into that category. There is an interesting convergence between them -- their reconstruction, deconstruction of philosophy -- and some of the things that feminists aspire to, but I do not think that the connection is given. I think it has to be constructed. It has to be built up step by step. At best, we can "use" certain philosophical ideas for feminist purposes.

I do not think that Foucault & feminism or Deleuze & feminism is the answer. And this is very important because now Deleuze is becoming extremely fashionable. I just spent a year in the States, so I can see the coming of the Deleuzian wave....It is inevitable, but you have to be very ironical about it, be a bit distant from it. I think that no one major philosopher has the answer. They have tools of analysis that we can use and they share a concern for the deconstruction of the discipline. I think that is absolutely crucial. To be willing and interested in opening up a discipline, saying this is what it is made of, this is what it excludes or silences, that is what it can do for us. As Deleuze says, the only future of a discipline like philosophy is its capacity for self-criticism, and consequently, for reinventing itself creatively.

They are certainly very radical in their epistemologies and that is useful. But it is not given; everything has to be constructed, for different reasons. Foucault is androcentric and I think Deleuze if fundamentally a romantic when it comes to sexual difference, a high-tech romantic. I am sure that this will have disastrous consequences when he is applied in a cyber- punk mode: new internet cowboys who are riding the wave of the next technological revolution. Why bring gender out of the picture? In the name of "poli-sexuality" and multiplicities. That is going to be a very big problem....Beware of any complete and unconditional alliance with any philosophy.

You comment that "feminism is THE discourse of modernity". Is this observation generated in the understanding that the so- called "death of man" is not the beginning of a crisis but an opening that allows for dialogue on sexual difference?

I always sound very categorical when it comes to feminism. I may quote a long text I have co-written with Judith Butler in the last issue of differences about this where she asks me a question: do you give feminism a higher explanatory value than any other critical philosophy? After a long, elaborate answer I basically say, yes I do, I do have a tendency to. I do believe very much, obviously, in the priority of this particular framework, which is feminist theory. I always do think that the woman-question is built into the crisis of modernity, but I also know that it is not the only one. I think the woman, the machine, the ethnic other, nature as other, are all edges of this reconstitution, reconfiguration of otherness in modernity within which we are still moving and trying to find our way. It is not as if woman is alone and I think that maybe in Patterns of Dissonance I am over-emphasizing sexual difference to the detriment of other differences. But in any case, the centrality of the feminine other and the organization of our entire modern way of thinking is something that gives feminists an edge of optimism when it comes to assessing what you can do with the crisis and how you can find a way out of it. In a sense, it is not a crisis of the female subject; she was never a subject to begin with. And it is not the crisis of the black subject; he/she was never a subject to begin with. So it is the emergence of peripheral subjectivities, and in that sense, it is a fantastic and very positive moment.

You have commented that the "gender theorists" of the Anglo- American tradition and the "sexual difference theorists" of the French and European traditions are involved in a potentially false polemic. In what way?

There are really interesting, crucial differences which have to do with the way in which sexuality is positioned in the different cultures, the construction of sexuality, in the way in which identity is then conceptualized in relation to sexuality. Of course, language has a lot to do with it. The same with the famous sex and gender distinction. You may say that it is like the ideals of the French revolution. It has conquered the world, but its universal applicability is questionable: it is a distinction that makes very little sense in non-English, non- Anglo-Saxon languages and translates very badly in a great deal of romance languages. So people in other feminist, political cultures have a lot of difficulties making due with that. The way in which sexual difference in French theory was then marketed back into English, especially in the U.S., led to a tremendous amount of incompetency: Is this nature? Is this culture? Does Irigaray by sexual difference mean something innate and given? Is it essentialistic? Is it not? I mean the whole essentialism thing was really due to harried, hasty mistranslations, and we should have instead looked very carefully at the real conceptual differences that there are at stake in people working out of the French tradition and the people working out of the more Anglo-Saxon tradition. It has been hastily put. 

There are some interesting questions there. For instance, how do you conceptualize sexed identity in a French context or in an Italian context as opposed to an Anglo-American context let alone in a post-colonial or "black" perspective? But it has not been dealt with. Now, after fifteen years of useless debate on essentialism we are finally coming to some interesting discussion on where to position the self vis a vis the political. Where is the edge of the political? How does fantasy life intersect with the political? But these are questions for the nineties, and for years we wasted time in false polemic. I am sick of that polemic and I would like some real confrontations with the real differences, and there are many.

At the conclusion of Nomadic Subjects (1995), your most recent book, you advocate a transnational and transdisciplinary methodology that, in the spirit of Irigaray, invokes "mimetic repetition" as a strategy to manipulate the philosophical canon. What is the primary agenda for a feminist post-structuralism that is framed by a nomadic subjectivity?

I think it is definitely a political agenda. It is definitely how to put the politics of female subjectivity, which has always been the focus of a particular sexual difference school, how to conjugate that with broader concern for a redefinition of what we would call "the human" at a time when it is being so dramatically restructured because of the global economy, the technological revolution, and the obvious emergence of multiculturalism and the social and theoretical cultural reality. So it is that kind of dialogue that I see as crucial. 

In my reading, post-structuralism was always avidly political. It was never the bad poetry that its critics accused it of being. So I see a lot of potential for an emphasis on subjectivity broadening out to concern, what Donna Haraway calls the "semiotic material agency". Your constant interaction with what used to be called nature, what used to be called culture, through the mediating factor which is this universal technology that we are moving in and consequently drawing into the environmental issues, drawing on the political question of new technologies, drawing on the kind of spirituality and issues of spirituality that are so important if we are going to make sense of this real cultural upheaval we are going through. And keeping in mind, basically and almost naively, the importance to still reassert the difference that women can make. This, for me, is the central issue: to go on reasserting a sexual difference as a positive factor of dissymmetry between men and women. We have got something else to offer and that may not sound very post- structuralist, but I could care less because it is ultimately that political passion that is going to carry through. 

And finally, Iris Murdoch once wrote that it is "always significant to ask of any philosopher, what he is afraid of." So I ask you, what is your greatest fear? 

My greatest fear is to become petrified: to become a tree, to put out roots and not be able to move. I have a fear of immobility, of being stuck in one spatio-temporal dimension. It is a variation of a fear of death, a kind of death, of turning to stone and not being able to move again. 

That is appropriate for someone who has written a book entitled, "Nomadic" Subjects.

Yes, I suppose I wrote the book because I was trying to both express and rationalize my own need to continually move....A lovely form of "being lightly".

You are currently teaching for the Women's Program in the Humanities at the University of Utrecht. Is this a popular program? Well funded? Accepted by the University at large? Generally successful?

I chair the program. The Netherlands University system has very ample support from above, from the government. To develop women's studies was a state policy that was started back in the 70s and they created a total of thirteen chairs, Professorships, in the country. Utrecht got two, one in the humanities, one in the social sciences. Amsterdam got three or four and other cities got one each. So they really had a policy of implementing women and gender studies from above. This was the effect of the Dutch sixties, if you wish. It had a really enormous impact upon people's way of thinking. I should also add that they also implemented chairs in gay and lesbian studies, in ethnic studies, and in environmental studies at exactly the same time. They really redesigned the face of the curriculum in the university. 

It was not all smooth or without opposition or [without] traditional disciplines thinking that these were unwelcome additions, that they were not scientific enough -- you can just imagine the sort of argument. But fifteen years down the line we have fully developed programs going from undergraduate through to PhD courses. We have very developed European programs, international programs, through the ERASMUS network and the SOCRATES network. We have just successfully completed an application to create a national graduate school for women's studies, which is a federation of every program in the Netherlands. After a two year procedure, this was finally recognized by the Royal Commission, which is a very intricate, difficult procedure in the Netherlands. But we got their stamp of approval, so we are an official graduate school in women's studies, handing out feminist PhDs. [This was] born in careful negotiations with the disciplines so that we don't give the impression that we are creating the famous academic ghetto. This is the business of getting a very first class education, except for 1/3 of their curriculum has to be on gender issues and we take care of that. 

It has been very well funded and been particularly active, very pragmatic; the Dutch are very down to earth. It is reputed as one of the strongest programs, certainly in Europe. I work on several commissions on the European level and the Netherlands, together with the Scandinavians, have the largest expenditure for women's and gender studies. 

You did much of your Doctoral work in Paris. What do you think of the recent threat to close the Centre de recherches en etudes féminines organized by Hèléne Cixous? Is this a general trend to be anticipated throughout Europe? 

I signed the petition to support the centre, though I've had my problems with her in the course of time. I think this is part of a general trend in France not to develop women's studies very much. Of course, The University of Paris VIII at Saint-Denis, where Cixous teaches, is now a rather marginal University in the French educational system. But it is a symptomatic event of how the Parisian scene has developed. We work extensively in our European network with Toulouse. And Toulouse, for instance, does not have the same problems that they are having in Paris at all. Toulouse has grown; they have a couple of new positions for women's studies and the number of students are up. They are functioning very well at the European level and they are very present on the scene, which is much more than I can say for Paris. 

There has been a strange non-development there and I do not know how to analyze it. In the University of Paris VII where a great deal of the leading figures of women's studies were located...everything came to an end when they retired because they had not secured their positions for women's studies. They could not, because they were integrated Professorships, so they simply got replaced by non-feminist scholars. So Paris VII got practically wiped out and I thought it was dramatic that they would also attack Paris VIII where Cixous was. Although I've had my disagreements with her, I've certainly written in support [of the centre]. 

It is quite disconcerting, the extent to which that particular generation in France did not manage to ensure a follow up. Whether it be Foucault or Deleuze (but that is a choice of his not to have a school), the only one who has really created a school, of course, is Derrida, who made sure that his disciples got into jobs and perpetrated his work, etc. All the others just let it go. It must be a very sort-of peculiar French trait of not passing the torch on or not caring whether or not it goes on. Certainly French history and philosophy shows that every radical generation is followed by two or three very dull and boring reactionary ones, and another radical one comes up and then it is followed by two or three reactionary ones. It seems to be a see-saw of radicalism. 

What are your thoughts on the growth of women's studies courses across Western Europe and North America particularly? Is this institutionalization the beginning or the conclusion of a generation of feminism? 

You must be very careful with that. All the comparative work we have done at the European level shows that you have to analyze case by case. One example is the United States. After being there for a year, I would say that they are not growing at all. On the contrary, things are going pretty badly when it comes to any radical epistemologies. I would say that the women's studies courses there are not acting as a motor of any major curriculum change. 

Throughout Europe we take a very different form. The Northern Europeans -- Holland, Germany, Denmark and Scandinavia -- have really moved on and used the women's studies courses and departments as windows into the university and aim at deeper transformations of the curriculum. The old idea that if we could actually have gender introduced into every discipline, then we wouldn't need to be here, I think is absolutely true. In countries like Spain and Greece, and Italy too, it is developing very fast, partly because it is new and partly because there has been a tremendous amount of research done on women outside the university. All of a sudden the university is noticing. For the first time in twenty years they are finally taking notice of all this work which has already been done in women's centres outside the institutions. And so they are in the process of bringing in this wonderful stuff which has been happening on the side. 

You have to be very careful [with this question]. Women's studies means very different things to different areas. It is also called different things in different countries, from feminist studies, which is what the Danish and the Scandinavians use, to gender studies, which has really had much success, and the more traditional women's studies. To be adequate you would have to be very space and time specific [when asking this question]. 

I should hope through the European network that we are running that there is a new impetus coming throughout Europe. If I could have it my way it would be the beginning of a process of change of what universities provide for both men and women. 

The generational issue is extremely important, of course -- and again it varies greatly in different countries. Over all, however, I think that institutional women's studies curricula are living memories and data-banks which aim at transmitting a political and intellectual radicalism which is rare and, to my mind, precious, in the 90s. The field of education joins together different generations of women and carries on a project of transformation not only of knowledge, but also of life experiences. 

Guardian of Language: An Interview with Hélène Cixous

Guardian of Language: An Interview with Hélène Cixous

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