According to the invitation we sent out, “The Urgency of Thought” is meant to be at once experimental, didactic, and prospective. Is thought urgent at all? Does urgency call for thought? Are we, within the academic sphere, positioned to think? Is this our calling? Is it at all necessary? Our aim was to gather in Belgrade, present our current work and engage each other in conversation in order to examine together — and teach together — the different temporalities according to which we think, the imperatives to which we submit, the (academic) futures we imagine or wish to abandon — the end of the humanities — and the emergencies to which we respond. By presenting the work we are doing at this moment, we seek an exchange across disciplines, across topics and themes, commitments and priorities, and perhaps beyond the multifarious objects that have imposed themselves upon us until now. Must we think what we say, must we say what we think, about humanity, democracy, urgency?
Repeated, banalized, and even trivialized today, urgency calls on us without a possibility for compromise (yet compromise takes place all the time, of course). Today, sadly, and all too visibly, we are made to experience urgency again. In close proximity, we are forced to acknowledge — and to mourn — yet another emergency, the catastrophic disaster that has befallen the region. Is this a natural or a political disaster? What can be said of a flood that destroys lives and livelihoods at the same time as it unearths countless unexploded mines that have been buried in the earth since the wars that tore up this very region? Who can prioritize, much less distinguish, between forms of urgency? What uptake, what responsibilities remain? Who shall measure the political significance — the political urgency — that will no doubt linger?
There is perhaps no perception of philosophical thought that is more clichéd than the fact of its belatedness. Hegel’s owl of Minerva could hardly offer itself as a figure for timeliness, much less as the emblem of a speedy response to the event, however urgent. Earlier, Plato’s philosopher began his ascent long after the darkness had settled in the cave. And Aristotle is reported to have held a view, echoed, of all places, in the Jewish liturgy, that »the first in thought is the last in action«. Martin Heidegger, another latecomer, famously confirmed: »we are still not thinking«.
More examples could be adduced that would not necessarily give primacy to philosophical thought, but would surely reproduce, in one form or another, the old debate between action and thought, between the interpretation of the world and the transformation of the world. And consider that this debate may be understood as prolonged displacement of the more fundamental subjection of thought — and of action — to time. Suffice it to mention the high value placed on anticipation, or indeed on the gift of prophecy, which may have helped usher in what Renata Salecl has described as “the vision of an anxiety-free future society.” We might justifiably speak here of messianic anticipation.
But belatedness — or even the anticipatory rush toward a time to conclude, as Lacan had it — belatedness, then, pales in relevance when confronted with the accelerations, the new temporal modalities, with which we are increasingly confronted. The state of emergency, which has been inflicted upon us for some time now, seems to have made time itself “unintelligible” (as Jasna Koteska strikingly puts it) and thought increasingly obsolete. In this unexpected version of planned obsolescence — and niche marketing — everything is as if calculation and probability were on an impossible race — or collision course — beyond time, or at least, beyond the time to conclude and toward an ever-so-speedy response to that which has not yet happened or should never happen again. Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report” tellingly attends to this promise of a “never again” that is always already anticipated, a full reversal of anticipation as the absence of thought, the non-thought of aptly named pre-cogs, or rather, as Dick describes them, “precog idiots.” At the same time — if it is the same time — urgency is waved as a flag (or a red herring, unless it is a drone flying), as that which demands thought’s undivided attention while denying it the time it would otherwise seem to need. Attention Deficit Disorder is the order — and disorder — of the day, and Hölderlin’s famous question, Wozu Dichter, has now become Wozu Denker: “What are thinkers for in destitute times?” In Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida summarized the matter in the following terms:
At a moment when our world is delivered over to new forms of violence, new wars, new figures of cruelty or barbarity […], at a moment when hostilities are breaking out, no longer resembling the worst that we have ever known, the political and historical urgency of what is befalling us should, one will say, tolerate less patience, fewer detours and less bibliophilic discretion. Less esoteric rarity. This is no longer the time to take one’s time, as a number of our well-intentioned contemporaries must no doubt think — as if we had ever been allowed to take our time in history, and as if absolute urgency were not the law of decision, the event and responsibility, their structural law, which is inscribed a priori in the concept. Centuries of preparatory reflection and theoretical deliberation — the very infinity of a knowledge — would change nothing in this urgency. It is absolutely cutting, conclusive, decisive, heartrending; it must interrupt the time of science and conscience, to which the instant of decision will always remain heterogeneous. It is, nevertheless, true that we feel called upon, ‘live’, to offer answers or to assume immediate responsibilities. It is also true that these answers and responsibilities seem to be inscribed more naturally in the space of political philosophy. This is true — it will always be true — and in this respect we will always be in a state of lack. Our answers and our responsibilities will never be adequate, never sufficiently direct. The debt is infinite. Urgent because infinite. A priori infinite for a finite being, as soon as a duty, If there is one, presents itself to it.
The writers, thinkers and scholars who have generously accepted this debt and this responsibility, agreeing to subject themselves to the experiment that is this conference, belong to different and divergent fields or spheres (psychoanalysis, philosophy, history, literature, political science). They have already offered a great variety of explicit and implicit responses to the question of urgency — and of insurgency. They have engaged with the structural velocities and accelerated temporalities of capitalism in its multifarious global, political, economic, and affective dimensions (Močnik, Salecl, Lošonc, Koteska). They have alerted us to time and to the longue durée behind the flash of increasingly mediated events from genocide to the war on terror, by recalling the relevance of the Crusades, the philological roots of mass extermination and the Armenian question, and the vicissitudes of Jewish history (Koteska, Mastnak, Nichanian, Raz-Krakotzkin). They have meditated on sexual difference and the urgency of feminist history (Salecl, Zaharijevic), the mobility of migrants and the immobility of (female) citizens, the historicity of social movements (Štiks, Zaharijevic, Pourgouris). They have accounted for the intricacies of the literary imagination in the nationalist project (Khayyat, Nichanian). They have confronted the demise of sovereignty as well as its hidden potentials (Raz-Krakotzkin, Nichanian, Lošonc, Mastnak). They have taught us to read and reread the ethics of psychoanalysis (Močnik, Koteska, Salecl), and they have insisted on the importance of local and regional thinking (Khayyat, Salecl, Raz-Krakotzkin, Pourgouris, Mastnak).
But I am only pointing at a fraction of the wide-ranging and diverse work they have all done in order to convey merely a measure of the enthusiasm we all feel at the opportunity to have this collective conversation here in Belgrade, a place where so many histories have been made and unmade, slowly or quickly, at the border of empires which it remains our task to think. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting to conclude these remarks by venturing that we all partake of a long inheritance, an Ottoman inheritance of sorts, and that the enduring demise of that empire, which Ivo Andrić so strikingly described, is still with us, marking something like the longue durée of urgency.
Not that the new existence was in any way less subject to conditions or less restricted than in Turkish times, but it was easier and more humane, and those conditions and restrictions were now far away and skillfully enforced, so that the individual did not feel them directly. Therefore it seemed to everyone as if the life around him had suddenly grown wider and clear, more varied and fuller.
The new state, with its good administrative apparatus, had succeeded in a painless manner, without brutality or commotion, to extract taxes and contributions from the local people which the Turkish authorities had extracted by crude and irrational methods or by simple plunder; and, moreover, it got as much or more, even more swiftly and surely.
In these words that signal the urgency of change — swiftly and surely — we might find an implicit or explicit occasion, perhaps even a cause, of the reflections that move and motivate us. After all, we hail from Turkey and Armenia, Cyprus, Israel, and Macedonia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Serbia, and a few other places. That we conduct this conversation at the Faculty for Media and Communications — markers, if there are any, of the tele-technological future that is already our present — should serve as a plausible, if also fragile and paradoxical, sign of the urgency (belatedness, obsolescence or indeed failure) of our thought.
Convened in Belgrade, at the Faculty of Media and Communication, in May 2014, “The Urgency of Thought” conference was meant to be at once experimental, didactic, and prospective. The question guiding the participants was: “Is thought urgent at all? Does urgency call for thought?” Relating their answer to the work they are currently engaged in, the conference sought to foster an exchange across disciplines, across topics and themes, commitments and priorities, and perhaps beyond the multifarious objects that have imposed themselves until now. It was, of course, with great concern and sorrow that the question of urgency and of emergency imposed itself in a tragic manner just a week before the conference. The devastating floods and the enduring threats of rising waters, and the immense loss and suffering that ensued for the region also generated solidarity and indeed reflection. For three days, the participants and the audience gathered for a series of exciting presentations, intense conversation, and the sharing of experiences, knowledge, and friendship. Collective walks in the afternoon connected guests and hosts to Belgrade and to its history.
Speakers had arrived from Ljubljana and Istanbul, Nicosia and Jerusalem, Skopje and New York, Novi Sad and, of course, Belgrade. They belong to a wide variety of disciplines and share many interests: philosophy and history, literature and criminology, law and political thought, psychoanalysis and political economy.
The conference was opened by Nada Popović Perišić, Dean of the Faculty, who evoked the tragic situation that would remain on everybody’s mind during the conference, at the same time as she affirmed the urgency of thought, the need to maintain a space of reflection and freedom, a space of teaching and collaboration. She recalled Roland Barthes’ own description of the institution where he taught, the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, as an inspiration for the work and environment of the Faculty for Media and Communication.
Gil Anidjar welcomed the participants and summarized the motivations and intellectual agenda that was behind the diverse gathering and open agenda.
Renata Salecl attended to anxiety and to its changing patterns, the sense of danger that, earlier figured as an outside threat (“They Come from Outer Space”), has moved to the inside (“They Came from Within”), to the body, and now provokes different responses, from conspiracy theories to the fantasy of total prediction, from repression to the paradoxical proliferation of anxieties in the realm of art and science.
Moving to political economy, and to economic theology, Alpar Lošonc offered a reading of Agamben and Foucault in order to propose a genealogy of neoliberalism which brings together the theological power of invisibility and the physical power of dictatorship. What are the relations between biopolitics and money? What transformations has Adam Smith’s liberalism undergone that brought about our current state of blindness?
Addressing Walter Benjamin’s words on the “real state of emergency,” Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin asked whether our scholarly responsibility does not entail the end of writing. Seeking to activate resources of Jewish and Islamic mysticism (the 16th century Safed revival), and the anti-colonial thought of Benjamin, Scholem and Arendt, Raz-Krakotzkin seeks to rethink “the Christian ambivalence toward the Jews.” Can one counter the current state of exception with a real state of emergency? Can one read Nachman of Bratzlav together with Mahmoud Darwish?
On the second day of the conference, Jasna Koteska returned to Freud and to two early texts in their contradictory rapport to thought. Whereas the Studies on Hysteria advocate “slow thinking” as a possible solution for the unbearable contradictions suffered by the patients, the contemporaneous but unpublished “Project for a Scientific Psychology” asserts the uselessness of thought. In its complicated rapport to thought and to action, psychoanalysis
may in fact be closer to magic.
Efe Khayyat proposed that we rethink the concept of “world literature” — and the truth of fiction — by turning to two vectors, two attitudes found in Don Quixote, the first modern novel: “turning Turk” and “crusading with the pen.” Literature is a battlefield. It makes inroads — artificial paths akin to the Suez Canal — into the terrain of our imagination, and traces a trajectory that links the converted Messiah, Sabbatai Tsvi, the fantastic spies of
John Buchan’s Greenmantle, and Ahmet Hamdi Tampinar’s lost dervish mantle.
Greek literature, and the poignant question it raises with regard to “the ethnic,” the making and the unmaking of the nation, provided Marinos Pourgouris with a point of departure, and of arrival too. As it imagines the nation and / or its territory, literature establishes the ground and center of the collective imagination, yet it also escapes and resists, embracing at once a colonial and anti-colonial consciousness. Is literature urgent? Is the nation still
needed? Is its critique required?
A concern with the future resonated through all the presentations. Marc Nichanian raised the question of sovereignty in his reading of Georges Bataille and asked: “who comes after the sovereign?” Formulated in Benjaminian terms, is there an end to, an exit from, history? What does it have to do with the anthropology of the sacred which Agamben reproaches Bataille for? The “revolution of the subject” which made a subjected being into a sovereign also brought about the end of sovereignty, the end of testimony, the Catastrophe. Bataille’s “inner experience” points to the survivor as the failure of testimony: the sovereign cannot be his own witness.
On the third and last day, Rastko Močnik illustrated the failures of theories of ideology (Lukacs, Gramsci) and argued for a materialist account of ideology, a theory of ideological interpellation. Drawing on Aristotle’s logic as a rhetorical resource and on Althusser’s account of ideological state apparatuses, Moćnick presented a series of example in which public speech draws on unspoken ideological fillers, “floating ideological mediations,” an understanding of which provides for a more robust critique of the current state of affairs.
Tomaž Mastnak brought together two of his current concerns, namely, Nazism (and its resurgence) and the environment (and its disappearance). Mastnak seeks to revive the role of the thinker as a “guardian of language,” focused on preservation, on a certain skepticism toward the rhetoric of change. He proposes that we attend to patterns of “geomorphic domination” that have now become the norm (“the new normal”), bringing about ever new forms of devastation and new forms of denial (or “states of imperception”). This in turn fosters a “politics of chaos” that, destructive of the state imagined in the 18th century, must not be thought along apocalyptic lines but as more pernicious — and familiar — programs of violence and indeed of total domination. The neoliberal agenda recently promoted by John Kerry (deregulated GMOs, end of labor protection, unprotected environment) is indicative of these alarming developments and requires an urgent rethinking of the state.
For Adriana Zaharijević, the floods — and the failures of the state — raised the question of citizenship. The visibility and invisibility of citizens, the space of belonging and the space of mourning, indeed, the possibilities of agency and action in times of disaster are revealing of a certain truth, “the truth of floods” to which feminist thought and activism may give us access. What becomes visible are possibilities of identification and forms of actions, affirmed or denied, fostering a visible identity among, and confining heroism to, male citizens. The state and the media regulate and constraint. Even in their failure they confirm a certain, narrow and recurring, image of the body politic, the truth of citizenship.
Hence the urgency of imagining new forms of action, new modalities of movement. Igor Štiks reviewed new social movements in order to retrieve the distinction between “active” and “activist” citizenships. The second courts danger and illegality but it harks back to older forms of participatory democracy (plenum), dissidence and solidarity. Activist citizenship, and the movements that sustain it, operate (or could operate) along three vectors: protest, critique, and emancipation. But are we witnessing an actualization of these vectors? The sites of emergence of social movements confirm that there is resistance, there are positive declarations. But who are the subjects of emancipation? Are they free?