Translation and Conflict: The Violence of the Universal — a conversation with Étienne Balibar


Jean Birnbaum's interview with Étienne Balibar about his new book Des Universals was first published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder. 

You recently published a book on the question of the universal (Des Universals, Paris: Galilée, 2016). This notion, which seems so familiar, however often remains rather unclear. If you had to give a definition to a class of 17 year olds, what would you say?

I would say that it is a value that designates the possibility of being equal without necessarily being the same, and thus of being citizens without having to be culturally identical.

Indeed, in our era universalism is often associated with consensus, and first of all with a bien pensant Left, presumed to be weak and naïve… Yet in your view universalism is anything but an idealism.

First of all, my objective is not to uphold a "left-wing position," but to debate universalism as a philosophical question. Of course, I am on the Left, but the Left itself is is traversed by all the conflicts inherent to the question of the universal. The universal does not bring people together, it divides them. Violence is a constant possibility. But I first of all seek to describe internal conflicts.

What are the main such contradictions?

The first is that universalism is always inscribed in a civilisation, even if it does seek timeless formulations for itself. It has a site, conditions of existence and a place of enunciation. It draws a legacy from great intellectual inventions: for example, the Abrahamic monotheisms, the revolutionary notion of the rights of man and the citizen, which are the foundation of our democratic culture, multiculturalism as the generalisation of a certain cosmopolitanism, etc. So I uphold the idea that universalisms are in competition, which means that it does not make sense to speak of an absolute universalism.

This is almost a law of history: in constituting itself, a universalism does not entirely replace another one, because there are still conflicts liable to being reactivated.  That is also the reason why I find Hegel so interesting, so long as we read him upside down: he constantly worked on the conflicts between universalism, in particular between Christianity and the Enlightenment, hoping to "transcend" their contradictions.

But what we see today is that religious universalisms are immersed in an interminable crisis, while the universalism founded on the rights of man has itself also entered into a profound crisis. A universalism with an unfinished crisis thus faces a universalism whose crisis is only just beginning. This, among other things, explains the violence of their confrontation.

For most people, "universalism" is synonymous with bringing people together and fraternisation. Yet you say that at the heart of universalism there is also exclusion. What does that mean?

Of course, in theory there is a contradiction between the universalist ideal and exclusion. The problem is one of understanding how these opposites become two sides of one same coin. My thesis is that exclusion penetrates into the universal both by means of community and by means of normality.

When we establish communities whose raison d’être is to promote universalism in certain forms (empires, churches, nations, markets) we also formulate norms of belonging to which individuals must conform. If you take Christianity’s idea of community, there are the elect and the damned.

And if you take a modern political community like the one based on the rights of man, constructed around the idea of the nation, it is not only foreigners, properly speaking, who are excluded, but so, too, those who are not "real nationals" or who are considered ill-suited for active citizenship. Of course, all this is the object of a dispute, which does shift the boundaries. Only recently have there been women electricians, and workers are still not really electable… But the question of racism brings an extra degree of conflict.

Elsewhere I have maintained that modern racism is like the colonial repressed [in the psychoanalytical sense] being inscribed at the heart of citizenship. It is a dark face of the republican nation, and one which incessantly returns, thanks to the conflicts over globalisation. We have the tragic illustration of this in France even today, with a certain usage of laïcité [French state secularism]. With the nation increasingly uncertain as to what its values and its objectives are, laïcité less and less appears as a guarantee of freedom and equality between citizens, and has instead set to work as an exclusionary discourse.

Moreover, what all this has in common with religious universalism is that the argument used to justify exclusion almost always consists of saying that the excluded are the ones who are refusing universalism, or who are incapable of understanding it correctly: "no freedom for the enemies of freedom," or those supposed to be its enemies. In that regard there is a great constant in the West, but so too in the Orient: it is not universalism as such that is violent and exclusive, but the combination of universalism and the community. And since, fundamentally, we cannot avoid this latter, we have to find the means of civilising it. In my view that is a fundamental political task.

You go quite far in this idea, for example when you state that universalism and racism have "one same source"…

Careful, now: I do not say that universalism as such is racist, or that racism is the form of universalism within which we live. It is simply that I do not want people to believe that these two things have nothing to do with each other. That is why we have to learn to think philosophically about the impurity of the institutions within which we live.

The common source of these two opposites, namely universalism and racism, is the idea of the human species that was fashioned by bourgeois modernity, of which Kant is a representative par excellence. How could Kant be both the theorist of unconditional respect for the human person, and the theorist of cultural inequality among races? That is where the deepest contradiction — the enigma, even — lies. Yet this has to do, first of all, with the way in which we define progress. It does not simply consist of setting a horizon for humanity in general, but also of setting up certain characteristics of gender, nationality or education as norms of humanity itself.

While it has its different variants, this is a discourse common to both the French and American revolutionary movements of the eighteenth century and the social emancipation movements of the nineteenth century. They provided the basis for our lives today. But what is fundamental, in my view, is that such a universalism also allows for resistance. In the eighteenth century France’s Olympe de Gouges and Britain’s Mary Wollstonecraft founded political feminism by proclaiming that identifying the universal with a masculine norm contradicted its postulate of equal freedom and access to rights for all.

So we can challenge universalism in the name of its own principles, as a whole section of anti-colonialist discourse did. Look at Toussaint Louverture and Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois and Aimé Césaire. That is the other side of the tension that works away at every universalism: it can justify discrimination, but it also makes possible revolt and insurrection.

In your fine essay Saeculum. Culture, religion, idéologie (Paris: Galilée, 2012) you note that the most violent clashes are not the ones opposing a universalism to a particularism, but rather those that oppose rival universalisms. From this point of view, jihadism is itself an extremely aggressive universalism. Try going along to discuss democratic universalism and its contradictions in Raqqa!

It is true, the spaces of freedom have closed down… In all these countries falling under dictatorship, it is impossible to think and debate without risking one’s life, or one’s freedom. The emails that I am receiving from Turkey at the moment often leave me unable to get to sleep. But that is where I think we have to draw some distinctions: Islamic State is a local variant of jihadism, which itself is something distinct from Muslim fundamentalism in general. And even less should fundamentalism be confused with Islam itself, for this latter is deeply divided between different traditionalisms and varieties of modernism.

As in different times, we can see the ideological resources that a dictatorship can draw from reference to the absolute; but it is Islam that is universalist, not the Islamic State. And it is Islamic State that is barbaric, not Islam. But Islamic State is a real problem for Islam. People are so on edge, so sensitive on this question, that it is very difficult to make oneself understood. After the January 2015 attacks I wrote a column for Libération, which I got a lot of criticism for. It included this phrase: "Our fate is in the hands of Muslims."

To my mind, that did not mean saying "Muslims, you must urgently modernise, or else you are screwed and us, too!" It meant that if the resistance did not come from Islam itself, things would get worse, and in an irreversible way. It was not a means of pushing the responsibility onto the other — who, besides, is also a part of we ourselves. But it is true that each person occupies a certain place and thus finds themselves constrained to speak a certain language.

Personally, of course, I have a tendency to accord a certain privilege to the worldly [séculier], and some objected to that. But how can I do otherwise? I am not going to transform into a Muslim or a Catholic; I was a communist, as you know, and that is a very educational religious experience… That is why I also wrote that we have to invent a sort of generalised heresy, making both religious and worldly discourse capable of transgressing their own prohibitions.

You have written a lot about Europe (Europe, crise et fin: Paris, Le Bord de l’eau, 2016) and do not hesitate to speak of "We, Europeans." What is your reaction when you hear Jean-Luc Mélenchon proclaim that France is a "universalist nation"?

If I could challenge him, I would tell him that I could indeed accept such a discourse, on condition that it is the equivalent of noblesse oblige — that is to say, a République oblige. Republicanism demands a certain universalism, which can no longer rest on the identification of the nation with the Republic. To stay republican, France would have to transcend itself, formulating the idea of an extension of citizenship beyond its borders. So this is a case of "French people, encore un effort…"

As for Europe, the whole question is whether we can indeed resolve French people’s problems in the absence of a continental ensemble. I am convinced that this is not the case, even though Europe does do the worst things, as in Greece. Any programme dependent on the abandonment of the European project is doomed to fall into chauvinism, if not outright Trumpism.

When I say that, people like my friend Chantal Mouffe descend upon me and ask me "But what planet are you living on? National identity is the only framework that allows for the defence of the popular classes against an untamed capitalism!" I think that they are wrong, but of course, we need to prove that. That is my point of honour: I do not want to renounce either social critique or internationalism.

The original thing — for a figure of the post-Marxist Left such as yourself — is that you equally energetically reject both hardening identitarianism and what you call "hybridism without borders." For you, no universalism is possible without a consciousness of identity; every universalism is somehow rooted

Of course; after all, we are human subjects, who cannot live without asking "who am I?" No one can live without identity, or change it at random. But the imposition of a single identity has never been possible without violence. In my opinion, the American theorist Judith Butler is right on this point — that is, if we do not confuse what she says with the conventional variants of queer or postmodern discourse saying that we can incessantly change identity, at random. And fundamentally this is an insurmountable contradiction. We can only try and rearrange it.

The philosopher Vincent Descombes has aptly shown that the notion of identity is paradoxical, because while we attribute identity to individuals, identity itself looks for belonging. But I will add: one speaks of one’s own identity, or what sets one in relation with others, either to affirm what we have in common or, conversely, to distinguish oneself, or even to withdraw from the common. The one does not go without the other.

The fresh difficulty, today, is that we now participate in multiple communities, whose recognition criteria are not interchangeable. That is why I am exploring a path toward pluralising the universal, without toning it down or upending it with a mere sum of particularisms. This consists of constructing general strategies for translation between languages, cultures and identities; a translation with a social significance and not only a philological or literary one.

Translation and conflict are the two dialectical poles, if you will, of my work on the violence of the universal. I believe that being nothing determinate is no life, and I recognise that it is not easy to be several things at once. But it is not impossible. We need as many of us as possible to be able to achieve this — and not as an experience of the dispossession of the self.  The cosmopolitanism we need requires a certain form of identitarian malaise, which I will venture to call an active, or acting one.

Étienne Balibar and his nuances

Under a Paris rooftop, two utility rooms have been joined together. Outside, the Montsouris park. Inside, a mass of books, a computer buried in papers, and family pictures on the walls: a fine portrait of Jeanne, and the grandchildren’s drawings ("Happy birthday, Étienne"). Étienne Balibar welcomes me wedged into his armchair, attentive and considerate but with his eyelids closed, his tomcat keeping watch. Across the two hours the interview lasts for, he smiles oddly and does not open his eyes. His absent expression seems to declare: my ideas are inside me, you will not get to them that way.  

His friend Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) said "I don’t know where to put myself," and the philosopher shares with him one same way of conjugating an absolute hospitality with infinite disorder. They also share one same persuasion that uncertainty is a power, perhaps the only power for whoever claims to think. When our disoriented era is thirsty for simple speech, Étienne Balibar does not choose to make things easy: for his radicalism is a nuanced one. His political reflection is reluctant to cut any question short; it prefers to display the flaws and dig into the contradictions that work away at the discourse of emancipation from within; to prowl around keywords and well-worn terms like equality, rights, citizenship, borders, universal, violence, civility…


Balibar is rather isolated among figures on the post-Marxist Left, where complexity rarely triumphs. A student of Louis Althusser and a former member of the French Communist Party (from which he was expelled in 1981) he has often taken public stances, for instance in support of sans-papiers or the Palestinians. But looking more closely, whatever the matter in question Balibar is rarely where you would expect him, to be catching his comrades (or his supposed comrades) wrong-footed

This freedom is also fed by the academic’s intensive visits to the United States, where he teaches. He has established himself as one of the few French intellectuals to be translated and discussed in that country. Whether or not you agree with the positions he takes, in this philosopher — both difficult and generous, widely reading and citing others — you will find resources for thinking and acting, eyes wide open.