Q&A with Robert Harvey

By | November 9, 2017

Robert Harvey answered some questions about his new book, Sharing Common Ground: A Space for Ethics

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

The book demonstrates how thought fueled by imagining liminal life – life at its limit – in what Foucault termed heterotopias, or “spaces otherwise,” stimulates ethical dealings with each other.

What drew to you writing about this subject?

I’ve devoted most of the scholarly dimension of my career to trying to figure out if art – as I have stubbornly surmised – is a repository of stimuli for making politics (the creation of the future) the moral activity it ought to be. My archival and analytical research in 2013-2014 for the Pléiade edition (Gallimard) of Marguerite Duras’s complete works led me to discover an important philosophical dimension in an ignored short story. This, in combination with a thorough rereading of Michel Foucault’s reliance on literature and, in particular, on the poetry of René Char, led me to the core thread of the book, which I call “hope from heresy.”

How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?

I started focused research on this book project at the beginning of 2013. In many ways Sharing Common Ground builds upon my study of our propensity for empathy in my 2010 book with Bloomsbury, Witnessness. But in addition to the work on Duras for Gallimard, to which I alluded above, I had occasion in the context of a graduate seminar in Spring 2013 to return to deep reading of major works by Foucault (who, incidentally, had been at Berkeley when I was in graduate school). Two things struck me in the sinews of Foucault’s writing: his abiding deference to inspiration from René Char and his use, in The Order of Things, of the strange formula of the “point of heresy.” From those two springs, my thirst for a project was satiated.

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?

Groups of human actors can together form the basis for an ethics-driven politics. Michel Foucault inspired generations of humanists when he forged the notion of “heterotopia.” Like utopias, heterotopias are at a remove – but only spatially, not temporally. Unlike utopias, heterotopias “claw and gnaw at us,” for they are of our world. Concentration camps, cemeteries, and slums are names for some of these “spaces otherwise” as Foucault was prone to put it. Unable to ignore them, what are we to make of these rebarbative spaces? My answer is that when two or more people imagine spaces otherwise,” their endeavor to do so in common can foster ethical relationships of an especially insightful and impactful sort. In the course of this demonstration, I also challenge Giorgio Agamben’s radical reduction of present and future society to the model of the camp by reinforcing the critical difference between biopolitics and biopower that Michel Foucault did not always clarify. It is in this difference, where biopower still holds its own against biopolitics, that a future for the species to which we belong may be envisioned.

What initially drew you to Literary Studies?

Having always studied philosophy or, more broadly, the history of ideas, I was magnetically drawn to literary texts that took up the challenge of philosophy’s hardest questions not by means of argumentation, but by means of narrative, style, poetic language.

Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?

Two books in the series that particularly strike me as essential are The Invention of Monolingualism by David Gramling and Beyond Discontent by Eckart Goebel – the first because monolingualism is the sure route to the demise of the species against which Gramling’s sweeping study is an eloquent cautionary tale; the latter (which actually came out first) because I never understood how the sublime, which I think is so fundamental to bringing reason to ethical maturity, and sublimation sometimes come to cohabit until Goebel’s masterpiece.


SharingRobert Harvey is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at Stony Brook University, USA. His teaching ranges from literary and film theories to modern and contemporary literatures and the interpenetrations of literary and philosophical discourse. His 2010 book published by Continuum/Bloomsbury, Witnessness: Beckett, Levi, Dante and the Foundations of Ethics appeared in French as Témoignabilité (2015). He is a major co-editor of the Œuvres complètes of Marguerite Duras (2011, 2014). Harvey was a Program Director at the Collège International de Philosophie, 2001-2007. His latest book, Sharing Common Ground: A Space for Ethics, is now available from Bloomsbury.

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