Introduction to Antiphilosophy

July 26, 2012

At one point in Emir Kusturica's 1995 film Underground, the viewer comes across a vast network of tunnels mysteriously interconnecting the whole of Europe. While above ground the Cold War is getting colder and the Iron Curtain divides the Continent, down there an intense, unperturbed traffic takes place: cars and tanks, people and merchandise, drunken monkeys and holy fools move freely from East to West, from North to South. In a sense, Introduction to Antiphilosophy is to philosophy what Underground is to Russian tanks and Yugoslavian mafiosi. For one of Boris Groys' chief accomplishments is to have given us access to an ample network of subterraneous pathways and communication channels interconnecting a wide range of schools of thought and movements of ideas from St Petersburg to Berlin, from Paris to Copenhagen. Above ground everything is nicely labelled and clearly divided into Western philosophy, Russian philosophy, atheism, theology and so on, but deep down contours get blurred and conventional labels no longer hold sway. Following these underground routes, for example, Russian thinkers such as Vladimir Solovyov, Leo Shestov or Nikolai Berdyaev come into contact with Western philosophy. What happens as a result is that they become even more "Russian", which only makes them more interesting in the eyes of their Western counterparts. There is hardly a more vivid illustration of this philosophical Babel than the Russian exile Alexandre Kojève teaching Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit, to great acclaim, in the Paris of the 1930s.

This volume, translated into English by David Fernbach, brings together 11 clearly written, tightly argued essays on Walter Benjamin, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Junger and other Western figures, as well as on relatively well-known Russian (or Russian-born) philosophers such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Kojève. However, what may particularly endear Groys' book to the reader is the justice it does to unjustly neglected thinkers such as Solovyov and Shestov. In their time these scholars were influential and were thought to be highly original, but in ours they are often ignored even in philosophical circles.

In a couple of introductory texts, Groys explains what he means by "antiphilosophy". He borrows his conceptual framework from the arts: just as the "anti-artist" takes an ordinary object and instantiates it as a work of art (Marcel Duchamp's "ready-made"), so the antiphilosopher "dispenses with the heroic philosophical act and substitutes it by ascribing philosophical dignity to the practices of ordinary life". In the age of infinite technological reproduction, philosophy, if it is to remain alive, has to lose some of its traditional arrogance, give up its illusions and put on more modest dress. There is no way out: antiphilosophy is "the final, absolute stage of philosophy", as Groys prophetically proclaims. He provides more details, but the vocabulary - on loan from art history - remains the same: "A traditional philosopher is like a traditional artist: an artisan producing texts. An antiphilosopher is like a contemporary curator: he contextualizes objects and texts instead of producing them."

Groys uses "antiphilosophy" thus defined to frame the book thematically. He admits that the essays collected here "were written at different times, for different purposes, in different languages, and initially they were not intended to be read together", but believes that the "antiphilosophy" label can keep them together. And yet, as the reader soon realises, while some essays are indeed "antiphilosophical", others don't seem to be so. (Significantly, the word "antiphilosophy" appears rarely, if ever, in the body of the book.) This is why it seems almost as though Groys' intelligent introduction is to a book yet to be written, while the volume in hand hangs loosely, lacking the right framing. It leaves the impression that he does not deliver what he promises, even though what he ends up delivering is not bad at all.

Introduction to Antiphilosophy

By Boris Groys. Verso, 2pp, £16.99. ISBN 9781844677566. Published 30 April 2012

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