“A film, a sculpture, a pop song, but also a pebble, a cloud, a mushroom can be every bit as philosophical as a geology treatise, the Critique of Pure Reason, or an epigram thrown out with the apparent insouciance of a dandy,” writes Emanuele Coccia in his work The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (Wiley, 2018), a euphoria-inducing essay which reminds us how much the existence of plants is a never-ending source of cosmic contemplation. A refined man of letters, a sensitive aesthete, the philosopher and Associate Professor in Social Sciences at the École des Hautes Études imposes no hierarchies when it comes to knowledge, individuals and the arts. “We are living a single life, the same life,” he emphasises. On a June day at the Café Alaïa, Emanuele Coccia offers us his reflections on fashion, ecology and urban transformation, having just returned from Central Fies, a centre for artistic performance in Dro in the north east of Italy."
Do you define yourself as a philosopher?
I don’t know if it’s up to me to define myself. A philosopher, in the Pythagorean sense, literally meant “fan.” It was a way of saying, “I am not the specialist, the expert, the sophist, the person who says: ‘I am the one who likes to learn’.” I enjoy that dimension of amateurism, of dilettantism: ultimately, being a philosopher is about resisting seriousness. It’s more about saying, “It’s my passion and desire which make me alive to these questions.” It’s the opposite of thinking of yourself as a philosopher because a title or a qualification has given you an exclusive right to opine on a given issue as if your opinion is the right one. I studied philosophy because it was the best pretext to study any subject. I find it hard to recognise the reality of the division of disciplines. It’s the same thing for the label “fashion designer.” I am close to Alessandro Michele, who is quite simply a genius. You want to talk to him about anything and everything – not just fashion.
For you “philosophy [is] more present outside universities than within them, especially in art, which is a very active philosophical laboratory.” What links do you have with fashion as an analytical space? Is it, like art, an active philosophical laboratory at the moment?
Even more so than art! The fashion system is not just the most recently updated version of the costume system. Fashion began when the clothing industry came into the orbit of the historical avant garde at the beginning of the 20th century. They were defending the idea that art is not there to decorate the world and that beauty is not retinal; on the contrary, art is what allows society to go beyond itself, to admit what it is incapable of admitting, to become what it wants to become. For more than a century, it has been the task of artists to discuss scandalous subjects, social and political. They manage to say what others can’t say, to think what others can’t think. They allow society to change, to open up, to transform itself. Even more so, the watchword of the avant garde is that art and life should be reconciled so that art can become a lever of social development. It is at that point that fashion becomes important. An item of clothing is an artefact in direct and permanent contact with human life. Everyone wears clothes, across every social class.
Fashion is really the Trojan horse that allows the universalism of art to enter into life. Thanks to clothes, any moment in life can become the object of an artistic intervention. Every three months, certain designers perform a surgical operation on the bodies of society, as Azzedine Alaïa did or Demna Gvasalia and Alessandro Michele, for example, do today. Fashion is not something frivolous; on the contrary, it is at the heart of contemporary thought, imagination and creativity. It is also at the heart of Western democracy, since ultimately fashion defends the idea that no identity is definitive and absolute and we always have the right to call everything into question without relying on tradition. In fashion, everything is, by definition, transitory. We know that in three months something completely different will appear from what we are experiencing now. The really beautiful thing in fashion is that it absolutely does not want to produce a destiny: that is the existential equivalent of what we call democracy. From a political point of view, it is really the fundamental nexus, the translation of modernity. And from a creative point of view, it is the art of the arts. Fashion is linked to our identity through a kind of surgery that is not cosmetic but psychic.
Has fashion been neglected in the intellectual world as a cultural fact?
Fashion has been one of the great social, political and cultural laboratories since Chanel. It was the lever of a tremendous social transformation. Every three months, silhouettes and shapes change completely. Some people want to think of fashion as a space where norms are produced whereas fashion is, in fact, a space where norms are constructed and transformed. So, fashion does not impose gender identities. On the contrary it’s thanks to fashion that it is possible to play with gender identities creatively. And then from the economic point of view, one can hardly say that fashion is marginal, quite the contrary. Certainly, some traditional academic environments and cultural milieux have marginalised it in the hierarchy of knowledge, but I think that is less and less the case. Alessandro Michele, for example, maintains very vigorous communication with artists. I often draw a parallel between the present day and the Italian Renaissance. In the 16th century, with thinkers like Giorgio Vasari and Leon Battista Alberti, was born the idea that painting, sculpture and architecture are sites of cultural development. Artists began to say and to write, “we are thinking through a paint brush and a canvas.” Today I think we see the same thing with fashion. The idea isn’t to impose on everyone a culture of fashion but to disseminate the idea that those who don’t know about it lack curiosity.
You’re working with Alessandro Michele, Creative Director of Gucci. What gaze do you bring to bear on fashion?
Alessandro is someone who has done something very important for Gucci but also fashion in general. He’s the person who best understands, at the moment, that fashion is no longer a vehicle for distinction, but rather a vehicle for mixity and hybridity, and that’s precisely why people seek it out. Distinction is an old reflex from the 19th century when haute couture was considered a mechanism for distinguishing yourself socially and in terms of your identity. With Alessandro Michele, Gucci has positioned itself against this idea. From the beginning, he accumulated symbols, which people stupidly referred to as maximalism but was already an expression of this mixity. He developed the idea that we seek out fashion as a way of finding a terrain where we can merge with the other, socially and culturally. With Alessandro, fashion’s becoming even more universal, something everyone has in common and it is detaching itself more and more from the industrial system which carried it for more than a century. Ultimately, thanks to what Alessandro has been able to put in place, we know that even if the big fashion houses collapse, fashion will still be there.
What do you say to people who prophesied precisely that: the end of fashion?
The debate is badly framed. Fashion cannot disappear for reasons which are almost physiological. It is difficult to imagine that an ensemble of artefacts which turn life into an object of artistic attention can cease to exist. We need it more and more. Fashion is going beyond the question of textiles. It is incorporating more and more artefacts, becoming closer perhaps to a video format, but it can’t stop and it mustn’t stop, because fashion is the very idea that everything has to be subjected to an imaginative effort. In the criticism levelled at fashion, I have the impression that people want it to disappear and I personally don’t think it would either be healthy or interesting for it to disappear.
Fashion is often highlighted for its wastefulness, particularly for its considerable contribution to pollution. In your book “The Life of Plants” you mention the theory of deep ecology and an attachment to the earth as its supreme instantiation. What do you make of the current ecological debates?
The ecological issue is very ambivalent. On the one hand, ecology is the only situation in which a form of universalism can impose itself without conflict. We see that with Greta Thunberg. No one can say to her, “you’re talking about this from a white, Swedish, heterosexual point of view” – that would be ridiculous. As soon as we start talking about planet Earth, we can all be together without fighting with each other. We really have to hang on to that spirit, because we need a place where we can say to each other that we’re all the same, we are one flesh, one planet. But that universalism leads to misunderstandings. The problem is that ecology – a science which was developed at the end of the 18th century – has never questioned its own origins and historical sources. It involves an enormous quantity of metaphysical presuppositions because it aims for totality, which gives rise to many hypotheses and speculations from which it cannot free itself. In sum, ecology is an unheard of opportunity to bring us together but it has to pass through a process of radical critique.
What do you think of the notion of environmental collapse which has been used a lot in recent years ?
We’re confusing the collapse of humanity with that of the planet. The major revolution in systems of production is necessary not to save the planet, which couldn’t care less… It will still be there even if we continue to destroy it. It’s a question of guaranteeing our own survival. So everything which is at stake in this pretended ecological debate is something very human, too human perhaps. The most interesting question to emerge is how to succeed in creating a social bond, a bond of intimacy. From a historical point of view it’s as if we were arriving at the end of the wave of May 68, that is to say the destruction of moral and social structures. Now it’s about reconstructing. Some bonds are more intense than others, more intense than those of the traditional nuclear family. What will we call them? How many people will live together? With how many people will you have sexual relationships? Once the traditional patriarchal order has been distorted, what do we do? Today we can say that the feminist battle has been more or less won, at least among the elite. And then, what does that mean? How can we produce a way of co-existing in which women have the same power as men? These are questions which are becoming more urgent, and on the other hand the pandemic has accelerated the end of the city as a space of co-existence.
What do you mean by that?
There are signals pointing in that direction. Many professionals are leaving Paris and the face of the city is necessarily going to change as a result. These people need a house which is also a place of work. In the old world, domestic space produced wealth – the city was simply a political space. Modernity began when the city seized production away from the domestic space, making it a public affair. The city became the theatre for the accumulation of wealth, opportunities and social mobility. Conversely, when the house takes back production from the city, it’s the end of the city. Nowadays we are recreating the domestic phalanstery in the digital word, whether it’s 4000 people or 40, 24/7, completely bypassing the city. I think that it’s the domestic space that will produce new communal spaces and not the other way round. Uber and Airbnb illustrate the idea that there exists a communal space produced by the interaction of the private. It’s the house which produces the city and not the other way round.
In your work “Metamorphoses”, you wrote a chapter about viruses before the pandemic. You spoke with great metaphorical power. Now, a year and a half later, how do you measure the strength of your predictions? You talked about a kind of liberation from our feeling of omnipotence – is that where we are now?
That passage is disturbing because I wrote it before the pandemic. It was very anxious-making. I saw it as a divine punishment. I saw the publication of the book and the arrival of the virus coincide. The power of the virus in terms of transformation has really been to inaugurate a second globalization. We have experienced globalization through trade, conquest, exploitation, politics… It’s as if the virus had produced a second globalization, but one which is happening through the flesh as opposed to through commerce. This pandemic has shown us a kind of corporeal continuity between all human beings. This is a big deal because it’s a physical and sensible consciousness that we recognized in a single, selfsame flesh. It’s the first time that there has been a global event event where everyone is aware of at the same time with a unification of bodies and consciousnesses. Everything that we had created to produce politics became obsolete: nations no longer make sense. We are truly on a single planet, and we will have to invent instruments that allow us to do politics at that level. This is true for the current question of vaccination. Everything that we have produced was conceived for a fractured world. The progressivist discourses – the “true left” – are those which will allow us to understand how to find a non-imperialist way of living together, which is at the level of this self-evident truth and this shared suffering. This virus has definitely closed the door on the political and cultural experiment of the 20th century. All of the current debates about identity are not very interesting. They are battles defending territory which has already been conquered. The great battles of the future are elsewhere I think.
The theme of this issue is euphoria. Do you think this is an anachronistic notion?
No it isn’t anachronistic – we probably need some of it. I was recently talking to the dramaturg Frédérique Ait-Touati who asked me to help her with a play and we were thinking: what can we do? She suggested that we should make a play about how to party today. After that kind of punishment, which is ongoing, there is a much stronger pressure as people are not well psychically. What's complicated is that normally trauma comes to the surface much later – in psychoanalysis – the return of the repressed happens later… There are difficult times ahead of us. We need to live, to imagine moments of relaxation, of euphoria, of being transported by joy. And they are few and far between. Maybe one of the tasks of artists is to reinvent partying and maybe fashion will be the place to do it. The party space is the space of fashion, but the reverse is also true. Fashion could be the one to imagine how we can party again, and on a planetary scale.
Are there things which make you euphoric?
Yes, many. When I have a conversation with an artist with whom I am working I become euphoric very easily. But also melancholic very easily. There is a whole philosophical tradition which says that it’s not about finding euphoria or sadness but a kind of inner peace, which allows you to avoid the two extremes. But I need both sides of the coin!
Emanuele Coccia, Sensible Life: a micro-ontology of the image (Fordham University Press, 2016)
Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (Wiley, 2018)
Emanuele Coccia, Métamorphoses, (Polity, 2021)
Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki.