Michael Roth by David Carrier

BOMB 73 Fall 2000
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Michael Roth. Photo by Robert Pacheco. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust.

Until this past summer, Michael Roth was associate director of the Scholars and Seminars Program at the Getty Research Institute, where I had been invited as one of its scholars. I knew Roth’s books on psychoanalysis, the French Hegelians and historiography. I was aware that his current Library of Congress exhibition, Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture , has been much in the news (this fall it will be at the Museu de Arte de São Paolo, Brazil). The Getty Research Institute hosts a dozen scholars in residence each year, and included during our term were art historians, conservators, literary critics, and philosophers. Our theme was “Humanities in Comparative, Historical Perspective.” The mission statement dramatically asserted, “Some see the humanities as the bearers of a culture’s deepest values. Others see them as an elite field of overprotected specialists working on esoteric and irrelevant topics. What do the humanities teach? To whom? For what? How is that teaching related to what is taught by the arts?”

When I Interviewed Roth, I was interested in his own research, as well as his role at the Getty Research Institute, and his sense of that extraordinary institution. Where else are intellectuals invited to take off a year from teaching to read, talk with colleagues, and work in a grand research library (designed by Richard Meier) with a billion-dollar view? That the Getty is alongside a marvelous museum is only a bonus.

After my residence at the Getty, Roth took a new position as president of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and San Francisco.

David Carrier You knew Michel Foucault. How did he influence you?

Michael Roth My first publication was on Foucault’s history of the present. At that time, I was still a philosophy student at Princeton, and Foucault was giving a seminar at NYU with Richard Sennett. It was quite a scene, with the downtown leather crowd and various academics. Foucault was incredibly serious and engaged—more so than Sennett, who at that time seemed to be flirting with new ideas. I needed a sponsor in France for a fellowship so I asked for Foucault’s address. I went to his apartment on Bleecker Street, and he asked me what I was working on. We must have talked for three hours. What was especially impressive to me was that he responded so thoughtfully to my carefully rehearsed criticisms of his work. “You know what they say about Foucault,” I would begin. And he seemed to take everything in and reply with great purpose and care. He ended our conversation by saying, “I hope I’m not keeping you from anything.” I didn’t detect any irony. Perhaps I missed it.

DC And you have written about him since.

MR I learned from Foucault that in order to understand a phenomenon, it’s often extremely useful to look at its opposite. In writing on madness, Foucault was really interested in the Enlightenment. He was extremely interested in the history of restraint, and in understanding the history of pleasure. When I started my recent project on memory, Hayden White asked, “How would Foucault do this?” I replied, “He would probably write about amnesia,” which is what I did. I still think that in order to understand what counted as a normal relation to the past, you need to look at what would be considered an abnormal opposite relation.

DC But you are also critical of Foucault.

MR The negative lesson of Foucault is that the effort to escape dominant paradigms of thought is not enough. Concern with transgression and surprise is not enough. Foucault’s Nietzschean side is not an adequate position—he did not answer the questions he sought to answer.

DC Freud and Foucault had a significant impact on the larger culture—they influenced people who never read their books. I don’t believe that any living American intellectual has had such an effect. Would you agree?

MR I suppose that no living American intellectual has had the depth of effect that Foucault and certainly Freud had. But a number of American intellectuals have had a widespread effect. Leo Strauss’s ideas had a powerful effect on the resurgence of conservatism. I suppose nowadays economic thinkers—would you count them as intellectuals?—and the new social Darwinists have widespread influence.

DC Perhaps this is a real difference between France and America?

MR What struck me when I went to France for the first time was seeing streets named after historians. On the second page of Le Monde there were debates about Foucault and Derrida. Complex ideas in the humanities seem to matter in France—that doesn’t happen in the United States. Here there is a healthy suspicion of mere ideas. Part of this is American pragmatism. What’s the cash value of an idea? If it is just an idea, it is not worth much. A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. Too much, though, is stifling. After all, you want ideas to be tested even when their practical value is unclear. There is not as much space for that here.

DC You have said that power is “something that produces truth.” Do you yourself accept that view? Foucault, you say, had a personal political commitment “rather than a commitment that is in principle open to discussion, that is a political one.”

MR There is an obvious sociological sense in which one can claim that power produces truth. If you have a truth and are not able to articulate it because you are powerless, it’s hard to know whether that truth exists. But that’s not a philosophical sense of power producing truth. What I meant was that Foucault in the end was so afraid of the negative effects of principles and of criteria that he was left with the idea that positions are held by whim or caprice. This makes them intensely private, closed to discussion in which you can appeal to common points of reference. If you cut yourself off from appeals to what is general, then you are saying, “This is what I think and I’ll fight for it no matter what others think.” Foucault certainly didn’t behave that way. He was willing to have discussions and appeal to principle. But theoretically, he was too suspicious of the political and scientific value of appeals to shared, provisional beliefs.

DC The problem with Foucault, you have said, is “how to evaluate the political content of historical work that undermines the security of the present without providing any guides for political action.” How would you solve that problem today?

MR Nancy Fraser made that claim. Foucault’s response at the time was, “Look at what I do.” He knew that wasn’t an adequate argument—your principles aren’t always evident in your actions. But if you take Foucault as a philosopher, then he’s responsible for articulating how his views can be made compelling by argument or by narrative. Some reasoning process is necessary. To give value to transgression or undermining the present makes a lot of sense if you don’t think that things can be made worse. If you’re about to be shot, you don’t worry if you should knock down the fellow with the gun—you have to act to change the unacceptable present. Today, however, we know that things could be worse. I know the objection, that this is to accept the very system which has brought us to the present. The only hope, so it is said, is transgression. But hope is a wiggle-word. I was very much influenced by Alexander Kojèvé’s use of history to answer questions about judgment. And by Freud’s general pessimism—he knew that things could get worse. And so the whole transgressive side of Foucault seemed an inadequate response.

DC How does your philosophical education inform your response to these questions?

MR I studied philosophy with a Kantian, a Marxist, and a Straussian. I rejected the conservative dimensions of this thinking—after all, I was 20. I liked the attack on liberalism, but was dissatisfied with the inability of thinkers from either the Left or the Right to legitimate themselves. I have always thought that radical thinking needs to ask about legitimation if it’s not to be just someone’s private fantasies. My interest in pragmatism, and my affection for Richard Rorty and his work, are linked to the hope that one can address this problem by displacing it. Rorty sees the problem of legitimation as something that simply cannot be solved philosophically, but that is addressed politically.

DC Mostly you are a very sympathetic reader of difficult texts. And so I was surprised at the tone of your commentary on Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It’s interesting, discovering the limits of your tolerance. I agree that Fukuyama’s scholarship is unreliable and his argumentation often bizarre. I found, still, something plausible in his claim that liberal democracy has become the only game in town. Would you disagree with that claim?

MR No, I would not disagree with that claim, which is Kojèvé’s and probably Hegel’s. It is a claim I dwelt on and tried to escape in my book Knowing and History. As for Fukuyama, I met him and liked him—the review is not personal. It seemed to me that he was twisting Kojèvé in a politically dangerous way, and that since he was operating in a polemical public sphere, I had license to write about him in the way I did. Perhaps my review evinces more frustration than it should that Fukuyama’s appropriation of Kojèvé reached such a wide audience.

DC Is Kojèvé any more plausible if taken literally? In 1967 Kojèvé met the leaders of the German student rebellion, and he told them that the most important thing was to study Greek.

MR But I think he was joking. He wrote not unseriously, but ironically. He couldn’t do what Rorty has done—find a place for social hope, for optimism, for day-to-day work that could go on. But please, never take Kojèvé literally.

DC Kojèvé claimed that “from a certain point of view, the United States has already reached the final state of Marxist communism,” on the grounds that anyone in such a classless society can get what they want “without having to work for it any more than they are inclined.” Could that be correct?

MR For Kojèvé, Karl Marx was the prophet and Henry Ford his follower. The problem was to raise the wages of workers so that they could stimulate production. Henry Ford helped create the fantasy that people had access to the things they made. Of course inequality persists, Kojèvé thought, but the working class wants to get rich—not just equal—and that’s the end of history. The Soviet Union was the only capitalist country left because it was extracting surplus value and investing for the development of heavy industry. Again, nothing should be taken literally.

DC Psychoanalysis has been beleaguered in America—attacked by feminists, by political thinkers, and also by philosophers who reject the claim that it is a science. How was your Freud exhibit received?

MR The exhibit has been very warmly, very generously received. Part of the reason was that it nearly died in infancy—so there was good feeling that it even survived. Some people perceived the decision to have an exhibit on Freud as a way to combat the sorry state of psychoanalysis. That’s not the case. The show doesn’t attempt to prop up psychoanalysis. I think that is made clear in the exhibition itself.

DC What problems did organizing the show pose?

MR You had to deal with a theory and a person that were both antivisual. Freud refused to help make a film about psychoanalysis. The unconscious processes were unpicturable, he said. So it was a challenge to make Freud’s work available without just putting up texts. We used a lot of film and video and didn’t know if people, because of that, would not look at the manuscripts. In the end, the original manuscripts, which were complemented with translations and commentary, held their own. I was happy with the balance.

DC The show also traveled to Vienna. How was the response different in Europe? What have you learned about psychoanalysis from the responses in different countries?

MR The reviews were positive. They had a chance to say something about America. Le Monde said the show was about being pedagogic, as Americans are. In Vienna they said that emphasizing Freud’s Jewishness—and we didn’t emphasize his Jewishness—was American. On the other hand, the interest that some Americans have in showing that psychoanalysis is or is not a science isn’t as marketable an issue in Europe. They don’t think it is a science—but since they have a lower estimation of science, that isn’t the end of the story.

DC In recent debates about Freud, there are larger issues at stake. His champions and critics are not just arguing about the effectiveness of a system of therapy used by a relatively small elite. Arguing about psychoanalysis provides the natural way to talk about many larger issues—about feminism, politics, and history. Why?

MR The United States may be going through a shift in how the dominant culture perceives the self and thinks about responsibility. The psychoanalytic paradigm, which was dominant, seems to be losing ground to a more materialistic neurological model. You might ask not what someone’s behavior or dreams or desires mean, but what their causes are. If our picture of the self does change like that, it would signal a major cultural change. The year the Freud show opened, the movies Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets came out. Good Will Hunting is basically neo-Freudian in that Hollywood sort of way. The hero has to get in touch with his past and come to terms with himself to get the girl. In As Good As It Gets the hero had to take the medication to get the girl. We never knew why Jack Nicholson needed medication. It doesn’t matter to the narrative.

DC In your earlier books, Jewishness is a marginal theme. In your recent work The Ironist’s Cage, it is the subject of a major essay. Why this change?

MR I was invited to write an autobiographical essay for a book on Jewish-American intellectuals. I was shocked—I hadn’t thought of myself as a Jewish-American intellectual. I said, “I can’t write about myself.” And I was 35, I didn’t think I had had a life worth writing about yet. But I decided to write about the film Shoah, and I said I could explore my own reactions to the film—which surely had something to do with my autobiography. At the time I was getting a divorce, I was in therapy—there were a lot of things going on in my life. I got interested in the continuity of my own concerns and wondered if that would lead to an essay of interest to others. Shoah, which really is a masterwork of our half of the 20th century, is a difficult film to come to terms with. My essay, “Shoah as Shivah,” was an experiment in writing that I much enjoyed. I found myself using a rhetoric that was more familiar to me. I’d like to write more in this vein, not about myself but in a voice closer to the one that is familiar to me as a teacher and a person in the everyday world.

DC Hegel wants to give history structure by showing how suffering is necessary to bring about progress. Otherwise, as you note, “the suffering of the past makes no sense, and the present holds no reasonable hope.” But is this Hegelian optimism consistent with understanding the Holocaust in a reasonable way?

MR There are three figures at play here: Hegel, Freud, and Gilles Deleuze’s domestication of Nietzsche—whose thinking in this regard I define my own against. Hegel has an escape hatch in the dialectic of history for dealing with radical suffering: the wounds of spirit heal and leave no wounds behind. Hegel is talking about terror in the French Revolution, but you can understand this as a commentary about the Holocaust. Not everything can be digested—some things have to be let go. It’s a great challenge, especially if you don’t believe in the Christian side of what he says. For Hegel there is a merciful god who through grace removes things that can’t be removed. Freud, on the contrary, would have no escape. There is no good news to redeem the suffering. One learns to live with awareness of it, or not. Radical stoicism. Deleuze wants radicalism but seems to me to come up empty. He rejects Hegel but he still wants to have progress. He uses Nietzsche’s vision of eternal return. When it goes around again, all the bad stuff flies out. That’s silly. I think Deleuze is scandalously inept in dealing with these issues. This doesn’t seem to bother his followers, who include many of my friends.

DC Nietzsche’s followers really don’t take seriously what he says about suffering.

MR Nietzsche tried not to care about the suffering of innocent people. And please don’t mention the horse he embraced when he finally went crazy. Embracing a horse is not enough.

DC Would it be relevant here to cite the question you have recently posed about trauma, “What does one do with a painful past that cannot be simply willed to disappear yet is a source of enormous difficulties in the present?” You identify trauma as “an unfinished relationship with a past … a problem for historical consciousness because the traumatic event draws one to it even as it demands acknowledgment that one can never comprehend what happened at that time in that place.” Which sounds like the Holocaust. How can we understand such a memory?

MR There is the possibility of acknowledgment that is short of comprehension. “Acknowledgment” is an allusion to Stanley Cavell’s work, which has been so important for thinking about these issues. Acknowledgment is a way of living with, abiding with, things you can’t digest but can’t expel. We’re dwelling on the negative, the traumatic, but the same would be true of intensely pleasurable experience. You can’t explain, but don’t forget, ecstatic experiences. I’ve been thinking about transformative experiences. What happens before works of art? People leave the work of art significantly different than before they got there. Maybe you can’t explain it to someone else, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happened. Here at the Getty, what happens in the Scholars Program? Some people say it has been transformative—that’s acknowledging a process or an event that cannot be put into words exactly. It changes your vocabulary—it changes the equipment that you take out into the world.

DC This is one of your deepest claims: “Mourning, or the historical consciousness that results from it, is not a reparation; it is not replacing the dead but making a place for something else to be in relation to the past.” What is this something else?

MR There’s a very personal dimension to that sentence. I was thinking a lot, and still sometimes do, about being a replacement for someone else, for a brother I didn’t know who died before I was born. I was thinking about the people I was trying to please in the work I did and in the way I was living. On another level, I was trying to understand how someone can overcome through mourning, making space for something else. What is this fidelity to the past? What god does it serve? What illusion does it foster? I think that for many in the culture such a connection is vital. It gets back to what I call the three ingredients of cultural consciousness: empirical, pragmatic, and pious connections to the past. The empirical and pragmatic are straightforward. When I started I thought these were the only two ingredients. The empirical seeks to reflect the past accurately, the pragmatic to make use of the past for present purposes. In a silly way I thought that the world was divided between them.

DC And what changed your view then?

MR I was on my way to teach a course in 19th century fiction and history, and my secretary was looking glum. “I always feel sad on this day,” she said. “Two years ago today my husband died. I felt okay yesterday and I’ll be okay tomorrow. But today I am just down.” My observation was that it was good to feel this way. That surprised me; what did I feel was a good thing? Not that it was pragmatic—a good thing in the long run for some vaguely therapeutic reason. In trying to understand this common place phenomenon, I fixed on the word pious—on piety toward the past, an acknowledgment of the claim that you allow the past to have on you.

DC This is an essentially religious attitude?

MR Not necessarily theistic. You are standing back and paying attention at the same time. I am immensely attracted to this attitude—it’s a way of thinking about the past, getting it right—acknowledging the passing of the past. Piety can be obsessive, unable to feel what is really there. What I’m trying to describe connects you to the past without the slide into the pit of obsession or an imaginary merger with the past.

DC How does this piety relate to art?

MR If you’re writing about a painting, you’re trying to make this work available to someone else, trying to open up someone’s eyes. If you described it inaccurately, you’d feel badly because if you really care about the work, you feel an obligation to make it available in a way that has integrity. Mieke Bal is coming here this month. She is eager to place works together that aren’t normally seen together. It would be fun to ask her if she feels another order of piety in relation to the work, or whether she feels that what I call piety is merely nostalgic.

DC I am fascinated by intellectuals who have power. I wonder how having an important position influences their writing—and what agenda they have. Why did you move to the Getty? As associate director of the Getty Scholars program, what is your agenda?

MR I wish I had power. Then we’d have some truth around here. (laughter) I was invited as a Getty Scholar about five years ago. It was a great experience—I was with Michael Baxandall, Julia Annass, and Susan Sontag. I had founded a humanities center at Claremont College. We brought great people into that little school. The Getty announced that they were going to hire someone to run this program. They chose me. When I was an administrator at Claremont College I always taught a full load. So I thought it would be perfect for me at the Getty—and that I could continue to write while doing this administration. Salvatore Settis and I wanted to turn the research institute into a workshop where people work together on enough occasions so that the collaboration has a serious effect. I wanted a program built around a theme—I wanted to have exhibits that would make a difference for the scholars.

DC We Getty Scholars have often asked one another, What does the Getty want?

MR In the academic world, when 20 smart, creative people are in a room, at any given time more than half think they’re in the room with a lot of stupid people. My belief is that they’re wrong. In the academy, we get into the habit of preaching to the converted—debates are so in-house. The Getty can bring people together. I see my job as a kind of translator, prodding people to pay attention to others with whom they disagree. I might facilitate someone having a conversation that will have an impact on his or her work. That’s my position. I’m not sure it involves power. The selection of themes is important not just for the scholars who come for the year, but for other people. The Getty should be out there fostering discussion. It’s very important for us to be interdisciplinary—to be involved in literature, in the sciences, in fields other than art history. What does the Getty want from the scholars-in-residence? For them to turn to one another and to new materials so as to challenge their assumptions, learn new things and still get work done.

DC Speaking as a very well informed outsider, how would you describe the ways in which art history as a discipline is changing right now—what are the most promising new directions of research?

MR In art history, as in other fields in the humanities, the linguistic and rhetorical models are no longer dominant. The linguistic turn is over. We’re in one of those periods where it’s not clear what’s going to be the new paradigm that will attract the best new people. In the new Getty applications, there’s now much concern with experience. Everyone’s in favor of that, but what does it mean? There’s been so much time spent on what Gombrich calls “the beholder’s share,” or perception. It will be interesting to see if there are models that show how art escapes the attempt to encapsulate it. How does art move us, stimulate us, transform our experience? Some of the interesting work we saw this year was from younger scholars putting together models drawn from feminism or semiotics, choosing between ideas and evidence. That’s a good sign; if you look for evidence you might change your ideas.

Martin Wilner by Francis Levy
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Touching As Loss: Jamieson Webster and Marcus Coelen Interviewed by Monica Uszerowicz
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An art exhibition responds to a psychoanalytic text.

Catherine Morris and Vincent Bonin’s Materializing Six Years: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art by Frances Richard
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Lucy R. Lippard collects the history of Conceptual Art in this polyphonic text.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila by Cary Wolfe
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“Breaking up perspective has long been one of the central themes in my works.”

Originally published in

BOMB 73, Fall 2000

Featuring interviews with Vik Muniz, Shirin Neshat, Madison Smartt Bell, Javier Marias, Misia, Michael Frayn, Karyn Kusama, and Michael Roth.

Read the issue
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