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Sophie Abriat
20min of reading
Adèle Van Reeth
Sophie Abriat
Adèle Van Reeth
Sophie Abriat

Adèle Van Reeth is deconstruction incarnate. On her radio show on France Culture, ‘Les Chemins de la philosophie’ (The Paths of Philosophy), she has spent the last nine years deconstructing orthodoxies: she methodically unpicks the ideas of writers and philosophers to better reveal them; she has also reinvented the way to speak about philosophy. Her show’s podcast is downloaded 3 million times per month – 50 minutes of culture, in which generous pieces of knowledge are transmitted. Sometimes it is a good idea to go against the easy grain of instantaneity, click bait and likes. In her life too, deconstruction plays an important role: the philosopher – though not all that she is – can conceive of existence only as permanent transformation, notably turning our destructive urges into creative virtues.

When you have a philosopher on your show, you begin by asking them whether they define themselves as a philosopher. Adèle, do you define yourself as a philosopher?
⏤ You know, I ask myself that same question all the time. I don’t necessarily know the answer. I think, moreover, that it is because I ask myself that question, that I ask it of other people. I’m generally not keen on putting labels on things and especially not on my own identity. Each time I designate myself as something, I say that it’s not quite right or that it’s too reductive: from woman to philosopher, via mother, lover, someone who enjoys sport… I’d say the same about calling myself a philosopher: why not? But not uniquely.

In your show, some philosophers seem uncomfortable with the term, as if they had moved beyond it…
⏤ It is very difficult to define philosophy, that’s a whole subject in its own right. And indeed, as a label, philosopher can be rather weighty. Everyone puts on to it what is relevant to them, or from what they want to distinguish themselves. I have noticed that there are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers! As far as I am concerned, philosophy means a taste for calling into question what seems obvious, and resigning oneself to the absence of answers to the questions we formulate. Practising philosophy means embracing the anxiety which constitutes us, and attempting to give it a form, if we cannot find in it a meaning. If we accept that as a philosophical approach, then that’s what I am. But the term philosopher does not cover everything I am.

In your show, some philosophers seem uncomfortable with the term, as if they had moved beyond it…
⏤ It is very difficult to define philosophy, that’s a whole subject in its own right. And indeed, as a label, philosopher can be rather weighty. Everyone puts on to it what is relevant to them, or from what they want to distinguish themselves. I have noticed that there are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers! As far as I am concerned, philosophy means a taste for calling into question what seems obvious, and resigning oneself to the absence of answers to the questions we formulate. Practising philosophy means embracing the anxiety which constitutes us, and attempting to give it a form, if we cannot find in it a meaning. If we accept that as a philosophical approach, then that’s what I am. But the term philosopher does not cover everything I am.

Does the word ‘deconstruction’, to which we have dedicated this issue, inspire you?
⏤ To tell you the truth, I was happy that you contacted me to talk about this subject, but I don’t know what gave you the idea! In any case, I think it was a good one. In philosophy, the term ‘deconstruction’ immediately makes us think of Derrida, and he is not a writer with whom I am hugely familiar. On the other hand, the idea of deconstruction itself applies to my relationship with things and the world. I mean, I started by telling you that I don’t like to put labels on things.

You have a very clear approach. In order to be able to find the simplicity of an idea behind the complexity of a phrase, you have said that it is essential to have a long familiarity with philosophical discourse and to have come to know the vocabulary of each author. Is deconstruction also undoing, dismantling and dissecting the thought of others to better assimilate it?
⏤ I wouldn’t evoke deconstruction if I were talking about that gesture of trying to make clear and accessible a text which is, at first glance, technically complicated. But on the other hand, you are right that that is how I define my work: I want every text, every thought of every author to be accessible to everyone. I try to find the right words to express what is being said in other, more opaque terms: it’s almost a work of translation. I like the idea of deconstructing an idea in the sense of unfolding it, as if there were a knot being untied, to provide greater clarity. We open, we unfold and see what there is inside. It’s very educational.

Why is it so important for you to deconstruct received ideas, prejudices, what we think of as the wisdom of the ages?
⏤ It’s a struggle which I’m also involved with beyond the radio show. Generalisation and set phrases are indispensable for the purposes of communication, and I use them willingly, but there is, as always, a little childlike voice inside me murmuring: ‘It’s more complicated than that!’ It extends quite far: I have a reticence vis-a-vis discourses which present themselves as possessors of a universal, general truth. You know that moment where you think you are absolutely right and you have grasped the meaning of things… well I don’t think we ever grasp the meaning of things, simply because they don’t have a meaning, or they have several, and that’s precisely why they’re interesting. Just like philosophy.

There’s a Turkish proverb: ‘To reconstruct yourself, you have to be deconstructed’. What do you think of that? It doesn’t leave a lot of room for permanence…
⏤ We could invoke here the Nietzschean distinction between the Apollonian – which involves traditional beauty, structured, symmetrical and smooth of surface – and the Dionysian – chaos, the formless, a kind of dancing abyss. We always need that duality to function. When we go back through the history of philosophy, we come to Parmenides’ question about being and non-being: does non-being exist? It is the ultimate question; everything comes down to that. If we say only whatever is is, how do we then explain that certain things simply aren’t, or that one day they weren’t. On the other hand, if we say that certain things are not, it is a paradox because if they are not, they cannot be. It’s endless: the history of philosophy stems from that. If we consider this opposition in a less rigid way, we get to the question – «do we have to deconstruct in order to construct? » which is one of the most existential questions. I would like to say yes, but a nuanced yes: deconstruction is not destruction. It is essential not to cross that line that separates deconstruction from destruction – which is a personal line, unique to every individual. There are states, processes of deconstruction, from which there isn’t really a way back, which are the opposite of construction and are a means of harming ourselves, of preventing us from moving towards what sustains us, and which are also the expression of our desire. You can see it around you and maybe it has already happened to you: we have within us an extraordinary capacity to harm ourselves. Contemporary wellness discourses doubtless have their virtues, but we mustn’t be naive, we are also made of this destructive drive and we need to know what space we have to allow it. It should be noted that we do not all have the same relationship with destruction, we are not all psychically armed to have a healthy relationship with our destruction. As for deconstruction, that is a sort of art, a savoir-faire which is acquired empirically, that is to say it is learnt through experience, and not in a handbook. To acquire this savoir-faire and make appropriate use of it, you have to maintain a certain relationship with existence which involves distancing yourself from the destructive drive which animates us and transforming it into a creative virtue. It’s a lifetime’s work!

Is it a character trait?
⏤ Yes, indeed, I think it’s a matter of character: in any case, you have to have a certain frame of mind to allow yourself to do it. Some characters are more apt than others to undertake deconstruction. But when Derrida uses the term, it is to designate an intellectual practice, the object of which is to undo a certain relationship to knowledge and theory in order to produce another way of reading – and of thinking, no doubt. He has been criticized for being too technical or too abstruse. That is a criticism often made of philosophy. I still think that it is a question of form, that there is always a way of clearly expressing an idea and therefore making it accessible to everyone.

Are you close to Derrrida’s thought?
⏤ His writing has often seemed hermetic to me. He plays with language in a way which demands a certain attentiveness to writing and the use of words and sometimes I get lost on the way. I like his attention to language, to signifiers, and, as with poetry, his approach is not always literal. When he invented the concept of ‘différence’, it was counter-intuitive: it takes some time to work out the definition. It reminds me of Lacan, who also used terms the meanings of which are difficult to grasp, like ‘lalangue’. But the trouble we have with that tells us something about our relationship with the unconscious. That wasn’t Derrida’s intention, but there is a way of reading his texts which is similar. The use he makes of language is as revelatory as the very content he is in the process of expressing. Where I part company with him is where I detect in his texts a kind of posturing. Oddly, I don’t have an intellectualizing relationship with things, I like texts which grab hold of me immediately; I have a gut feeling about what I’m reading. I am very harsh – but I’m not necessarily right – when it comes to posturing, when a text is just spinning its wheels, when it is just written to impress, and sometimes I feel that way about Derrida… and about many others as well!

Have you personally had to rethink moral and ethical constructs in your life ?
⏤ I had a Catholic religious education via the catechism until I was 10, and it was very formative for me: I thought that there was good and evil, that God existed, I asked him for forgiveness and I called upon him to help me (often to avoid a punishment or to change what I was going to have for dinner!). He was a supreme judge of sorts who might come to my aid if I spoke nicely to him. Then my faith totally evaporated around the age of 10 or 11. I remember the moment, much later, when I said to myself: ‘but actually good and evil don’t exist, they are merely ideas with which I have been inculcated!’ Today the memory of having once been a believer makes me smile. Not only am I resolutely atheist, but I don’t have an ounce of mysticism in me. I think things are as they are, with neither reason nor transcendence, and that suits me. I oscillate between melancholy and elation, which is more creative than simple, dead calm.

What was that moment of realization like?
⏤ It wasn’t a shock – it didn’t take place at a certain point and a certain date – in fact quite the opposite. It was a lengthy deconstruction of the binary vision of the world. It was a very long process because it required a distancing with regards to a certain form of education. Is that why today I feel nuance is so important? Possibly.

That’s something that seems to be missing from today’s world…What are your thoughts on this?
⏤ Any form of Manichaeism is unacceptable to me, like every attempt to designate one group as the baddies whilst proclaiming yourself one of the good guys. But militantism, be it in relation to feminism or racism, must sacrifice nuance to make itself heard. How then to reintroduce it without becoming less effective? It is a major challenge. We can’t forever be looking for middle ground between yes and no and between good and evil when some situations call objectively for a resounding, resolute no. What do we do, then, with the complexity of situations in which, in fact, binarity is no longer the most adequate prism through which to view what is happening. Things are always more complicated than we think, and so much the better... Complicated does not mean inaccessible, it just takes longer, but it is not wasted time.

Today much is said about deconstructing the idea of gender. For you is it one of the major philosophical questions of the age?
⏤ Philosophically, I don’t know. Socially, for sure.

Do we not give it too much attention in current social debates?
⏤ I rejoice in liberation from the gender binary, in this deconstruction of categories linked to sexuality. I grew up in a world where you were either heterosexual or homosexual: today, there is not the same need to choose in such a drastic manner and I think that is a wonderful thing. I envy the generation who are now 15-25 years old and can discover their sexuality without worrying about those categories. Categorizing desire is as absurd as it gets: it’s the best way of making people believe that there are ‘normal’ desires and ‘abnormal’ ones, whereas nothing is less normative than desire. I am in favour of everything that allows for a circulation of labels and designations. Nothing is permanent, nothing is fixed. I have a conception of existence in which everything is permanently transforming. I am receptive to everything which tends towards a recognition of the feminine in men and the masculine in women. Moreover, we have to take seriously the pain of those who are born with a sex that is not their own; this isn’t just an object of theoretical reflection, it’s a reality. Being born in a body which assigns you to a place you don’t belong is a tragedy. Gender is a performative notion, there is a way of envisaging it as a kind of game: we play at being a woman or a man, it is not our essence which is at stake. The philosopher Paul B. Preciado, for example, started to inject himself with hormones out of curiosity and a taste for experience. I like the complete absence of drama with which he talks about it, I think it’s amazing.

When you had Paul B. Preciado on Les Chemins de la philosophie, he said indeed that he felt like he was ‘under construction’.
⏤ Yes, exactly. I have been lucky enough to never have had to ask myself those kinds of questions, I have never felt unhappy in my female body. But I have to make clear immediately that I have never primarily defined myself as a woman, which is a stroke of luck and doubtless a privilege. But nonetheless I am very sensitive to, and mindful of the stories Paul B. Preciado and others tell of transsexuality. I think that it is precisely because it is a discourse that considers the fact that we are always in a state of transformation that it interests me so much. And that is my lived experience: we are only transformation. The people I love are those who manage to transform themselves, even ever so slightly. That gesture of recognizing that you are not one thing forever demands great courage and I think it’s great.

Paul B. Preciado developed that line of though, saying that for him it’s a matter of “deconstructing the whole of western philosophy based on a binary vision of gender and sexuality.” And you responded that it’s a difficult undertaking as it would involve deconstructing the history of humanity which is based on these norms. Is he going too far?
⏤ No, I don’t think so. In fact, I talk about this in a book, which is going to come out in April, about ordinary life. While working on this, I realised that the ordinary had never been theorised in philosophy, and it had, as a corollary, another blind spot – a sort of antidote to the ordinary – the experience of pregnancy and giving birth. Why has that never been theorized? Because for twenty centuries women didn’t study the history of philosophy and those who did in the 20th century didn’t have children. This book is a form of narrative, a sort of first-person inquiry, it’s not at all theoretical. I experienced pregnancy as something foundational which only involved me. When I realised I was carrying in me a life that wasn’t my own, when I felt a heart and a body in mine, I couldn’t doubt it any longer. These days doubt and scepticism are the very foundation of philosophy. “I think therefore I am” becomes “it’s good that I exist because I carry life within myself.” Something quite revolutionary happened to me and I said to myself, “from Socrates onwards people have made giving birth the metaphor for philosophy, but only people who have never had that experience themselves.” The experience of pregnancy itself does not change one’s way of thinking but changes one’s relationship with the world. The way in which we read texts and how we will forge the act of thinking will certainly be changed. When Paul B Preciado says that his actions have overturned the history of philosophy, I don’t think he’s far off... I truly believe that if Socrates, Saint Augustine, Rousseau and Kant had carried life within them it would have produced another mode of thinking. I don’t see how an experience as fundamental as the fact of carrying another life in your body has gone so unremarked upon in the history of philosophy.

Another extraordinary change in our thinking today is the result of the climate emergency.
⏤ Yes – that changes everything - and yet it is so enormous that it remains almost abstract.

We can no longer see things as we used to. It’s a real break, but we can’t yet see how much it has affected our way of thinking.
⏤ Absolutely. I am in complete agreement with you – it’s a revolution. And, at the same time, it makes us think about our powerlessness in terms of action. Why have all of the countries in the world not managed to reach an agreement on saving the planet? That shows the enormous divide between knowing and acting. We can know, and yet move in the opposite direction to where knowledge is leading us. That’s what Socrates demonstrated at the start: knowledge is not enough to do good. But he thought that if your knowledge was complete, you would be able to act. But the ecological crisis has shown us that is not the case.

Do you approach topics today through that prism? Do you feel an obligation to talk about it in your shows?
⏤ No, because if that was the case we wouldn’t talk about anything else. But maybe that’s what we have to do…It’s possible…I often ask myself you know, where am I in all this? When I ask the philosophers who appear on my shows “what is your responsibility as a philosopher?”, I also ask myself that question. I’ve always been very careful to make sure my personal and political opinions are not apparent because I think it’s important to maintain a kind of impartiality in order to continue inviting all kinds of guests. It’s the famous “benevolent neutrality” of the psychoanalyst – we never really know what they’re thinking. But that’s where the metaphor ends! I am there to offer people an opportunity to speak, to encourage thinking, to act as a transmitter and to play devil’s advocate…Maybe that will change because at a certain point I will want to take a stand, but that isn’t the case yet.

Are you surprised that the ratings for your show are so high?
⏤ Yes, every day. I even do shows on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and it gets three million downloads at the end of the month. That shows there’s a major demand for philosophy. I sometimes feel like I’m going against the grain and yet there is demand for this type of gesture.

It’s also true that you aren’t involved in current affairs, in the immediate – and perhaps that’s something else missing today?
⏤ Perhaps. It’s also worth mentioning that right now there are no other philosophy shows on the radio (which is inexplicable to me!). I find it hard to explain the success of the show but I think it should be understood that I am not just there to talk about philosophy…I’m also there to do a good show, I do everything I can for the guest and the listener to enjoy it as much as possible. It is first and foremost a radio show and it’s the rhythm and the choice of extracts that are important. Every day I try to create something as good as possible, whatever the subject is - which is very ambitious! But that’s what I find fun!

The first time I met you we were sitting next to each other at the Hermès show. Does fashion inspire you?
⏤ Yes, more and more. But more than fashion, I would say that it’s style and appearance that inspire me. I like textures and I can be very sensitive to a combination of colours, and what clothing creates when we wear it. It’s far from being of secondary importance – what we wear instantiates our relationship with the world. For a long time, I thought of everything to do with clothing as being of secondary importance and I came around when I understood that it played an essential role in relation to the self and the world. A propensity for transformation and its work are expressed through clothing - and therefore through fashion.

In your view can fashion be understood philosophically? Is it in and of itself a philosophical subject?
⏤ Of course – and it’s fascinating. Even if that isn’t widely acknowledged. That’s a legacy of Socratic dualism: we think of the mind being on one side and the body being on the other, and when we philosophize, we couldn’t care less about the body.

Is fashion still badly thought of in academic circles?
⏤ Fashion is the epitome of all that is bad. Not only is it ephemeral and therefore difficult to get hold of, but it’s also all about money, and appearance, and it’s a wonderful breeding ground for snobbery! And ecologically it’s a disaster! But the Institut Français de la Mode, for example, is doing fantastic work. Objects which were, until recently considered unworthy of philosophical reflection, are now for better or worse, gradually progressing into the realm of being considered worthy of such reflection.

Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki.


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