WJTM: I want to take up this idea of conceptual generality, the sense in which your work isn't merely an inventory of local situations but an attempt to make clear a picture of the dynamics of authority and subjection -- a picture that could travel, that could move from one situation to another. In other words, you're trying to do the work we call "theory" -- maybe in a weak sense, maybe in a strong sense; this is what I want to find out. What do you think a theory is? Do you want your theories to be "strong," that is, to generate methods, to lead deductively to certain conclusions, to provide a program for research? Or do you think of theory in some "weaker" sense, as a kind of moment of speculation within practice, a moment of reflection? Are you content to have it generate a few intuitions, a few ideas, a few glimpses, or do you expect more than that?
HB: My desire is absolutely not for the dogmatic or deductive effect. That kind of theorization is too mechanistic, too hermetic, and can only ever produce epigones or intradisciplinists. I like disobedience and transdisciplinarity. From that point of view, what is important with theoretical work is that it should in the fullest sense be open to translation. I use the word "translation" here because clearly if we are talking about some kind of attribution, and some kind of descent between a theory and its elaboration, then there is no point in pretending that a particular body of thought doesn't have a priority; there must be a text for it to be translated. It may be a priority that is internally liminal or displaced, but there is something there that endows a particular kind of authorization and authentication. That said, however, what I have been trying to elaborate each time are forms of theorization that in some way embroider on the notion of ambivalence, and ambivalence is a category that cannot be fixed in a kind of hermetic structural relation or functional immanence. Yet it still has to produce a set of concepts, procedures, and strategies that somebody will be able to take up and take elsewhere.
That brings us back to what the ambition of theory may be -- what theory desires. That's difficult to answer, but I think a theory should go beyond illuminating the deep structure of an event, object, or text, should do more than establish or embellish the framing discourse within which this object of analysis is placed. What the theory does first of all is respond to a problem. You look at what you can't use -- you look at the explanations you have for something and you feel that they aren't translatable, that they don't adequately illuminate something about another form of thought, or the event of a thought. So you are moved to begin to rethink.
WJTM: So theory is something that arises in the face of a problem, and it must be translatable. Let me give you back a picture of this theory. It looks like a narrative structure. Theory, in short, would be an act of relocation or dislocation responsive to a moment of wonder, or of anxiety, or of danger. You must shift yourself into some position to narrativize.
HB: You must put yourself elsewhere, or be pushed into another space or time from which to revise or review the problem. This idea that theorists sit and think of first principles in a state of equanimity, and then sort of build their models I simply disagree with that. I think you're first brought up short, in shock. The act of theorizing comes out of a struggle with a certain description of certain conditions, a description that you inherit, and out of the feeling that you have to propose another construction of those conditions in order to be able to envisage "emergent" moments of social identification or cultural enunciation.
The desire for theory, and maybe the desire of theory, is a drive to engage with these "conditions of emergence," in Foucault's phrase -- a phrase I might translate as the "terms of generalization." I mean by that the point at which an event, object, or ideology seeks to authorize itself - to become a representative discourse, a general discourse. It achieves this empowering or over-powering status not merely through the cogency of its own paradigm replicated or mediated into other sites and situations. The work of regulation, appropriation, or authorization requires another kind of risky, indeterminate mimetic process whereby the discourse of authority has to "project" its paradigm onto adjacent and antagonistic fields of meaning and events.
This act of projection -- which is at once an intervention and an attempt to initiate and institutionalize something "extraterritorial" - demands that the boundaries of the authorizing paradigm are themselves breached or displaced as they negotiate the status of generality. There is the breach caused by the resistances of the local, or of the specific, as they are articulated into a generalizing discourse; and there is the breached paradigm of the discourse of authority itself, for that discourse gains its ascendance only through a number of local skirmishes that take place at its discursive boundary and threaten its closure. Theory must therefore intervene in the agonism between the local and the general, the empirical and the conceptual, the instance and the institution, in a strategy of realignment or rearticulation that can negotiate polarizations without acceding to their foundational claims, or being caught within their binary representations. It must work at the very point at which there is an infraction of discursive boundaries, or of the boundedness of an event. The theoretical intervenes in the very movement of displacement that both demarcates and interrogates what it means to be inside and outside a discursive field. By questioning the terms of generality as they attempt, through a process of dissemination, to embed themselves, one can say with some force that theory has no priority over experience and that experience has no authority over theory. Their relationship is translated.
WJTM: In place of some absolute generality, the term "translation" comes back again. You're saying something like, The condition of the theorist is to know at minimum two languages.
HB: Or to know double languages, to double one's sense of generality. There's one more step to discuss, though. Our notions of the uses or abuses of generality or universality are often based on some kind of binary thinking: theory/specificity, generality/particularity, universality/historicity, conditionality/context. Often that's the tennis match. In The Location of Culture I've tried to get away from that model, to suggest that there may be ways of thinking about the general as a form of contingent conditionality, or as an "interstitial" articulation that both holds together and "comes between" -- not only in the sense of being a space or mode of passage but in the colloquial sense of "coming between," that is, meddling, interfering, interrupting, and interpolating: making possible and making trouble, both at once. There may be a way of thinking generality not in that binary and mimetic way but through the iterative. Perhaps the conditions of generality can be established through repetition and displacement, as Judith Butler too suggests in her fine work on the performative as social agency.
WJTM: You and I have talked about an appropriation of your work that discovers a general presence of ambivalence. We have ambivalence in Mexico City; yes, there's ambivalence in Puerto Rico; there's ambivalence in Hong Kong. . . . I take it that's a version of theory you're worrying about.
HB: Exactly. That didactic version seems to me to be concerned with transmitting a notion of generality without translating it. What is interesting about iteration is that it introduces that uncanny moment where something may look the same, but in its enunciation, in the moment of its instantiation, in the thing that makes it specific, it reveals that difference of the same. You are not, as in the general discourse of generalization, presented with the first principle each time; the first principle is always in the space of secondariness. That may be a different way of thinking through the notion of precedents and precepts.