James Griffith is the Assistant Professor of Political Thought and Philosophy at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts in Slovakia. He is the author of one monograph, Fable, Method, and Imagination in Descartes (Palgrave 2018), and the translator of another, Yves Charles Zarka, Hobbes and Modern Political Thought (Edinburgh 2016), as well as the author of other articles and book chapters on early modern and contemporary Continental philosophy. His Ph.D. is from DePaul University and his M.A. is from the New School for Social Research.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on a book project on original dominion and primogeniture in Hobbes’s De Cive and Leviathan, read through aspects of Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault. The question of original dominion (the dominion that the mother has over her children) has been the focus of a lot of feminist philosophy on Hobbes, but much of that literature tends not to focus on important conceptual differences between Leviathan and the works that came before it, especially concerning authorization. On the other hand, much of the literature that discusses authorization tends not to discuss original dominion. The thesis for this section is more or less that original dominion is different from paternal and despotic dominion, and that it is disavowed in a Deleuzian sense for those who become subjects of the Leviathan before they make the contract that generates the commonwealth. As a result of this disavowal, the mother as a figure of dominion haunts both the state of nature and the commonwealth such that the subjects who generate the Leviathan nourish it through obedience. The background of these issues for Hobbes—as arguments marshaled against pre-modern forms of divine right to rule and Filmerian patriarchalism but also as interested in ending even implicit dominion of Normans over Saxons—leads him into a political form that could still be unstable. So I posit that one of the ways he stabilizes it, initiating a full break from pre-modern political thinking and acting, is by transforming primogeniture, where the eldest son would inherit the whole of an estate, from a custom introduced by the Normans into a law of nature. In doing so, the feudal estate of dominion, whether of Normans over Saxons or, less ethnically fraught, of a lord over subjects, is transformed into a patrimony, an extensive understanding of family property that exerts its own demands for responsibility. This transformation allows the subject of the Leviathan to then be transformed into a servant of his own property, and the subject’s obedience to the sovereign nourishes not only the Leviathan, but also the property.
Which books have changed your life?
As an undergraduate, I took seminars in successive semesters on the Phenomenology, Being and Time, and Politics of Friendship. For whatever reason, that combination of material made me progressively more interested in pursuing philosophy more seriously than I had been until that point. Once I locked into the rhythm of the dialectic, I was amazed by its beauty, and then the rug was pulled out from under me by Heidegger in ways I found inspiring. With Derrida, I discovered how intensely philosophical you could be while reading others and I was finally hooked.
In literature, I always feel that the mark of a great novel is when, at a climactic moment, I have to sit in the room in silence for a time while the effects wash over me. The books that have done that to me in ways I can’t forget are Absalom! Absalom!, Ulysses, and Anna Karenina. Each left me overwhelmed in different ways I couldn’t explain or describe at the time, and probably still can’t, which I suppose is the Kantian sublime feeling they were trying to generate.
But maybe the most important discovery for me was Maurice Blanchot. The first book I read by him was The Writing of the Disaster, but I don’t even know if I can say that’s the one that specifically changed my life. Reading him, the dense and perfect simplicity of his writing always astounds me. I don’t know how he does it, but he always chooses the perfect word, phrase, sentence. He always leaves me speechless.
What is your favorite film of all time?
I used to say Casablanca or Citizen Kane in high school and college because I was in high school and college and The Big Sleep for a while after college because I was an early-twenties wannabe hipster. But now I think I’m pretty settled on Orson Welles’s F for Fake, which friends of mine and I stumbled onto in one of Seattle’s great video stores back in the early ’00s. Because those stores organized primarily by director rather than genre, we’d go on director kicks and this one surprised us all, though I don’t know what exactly we were expecting. It’s not a film that fits into any genre very well, though I suppose if you had to name one, ‘documentary’ would be the best. It’s just some great stuff on fakes, frauds, and forgers. I’d recommend it to anyone with an affinity for quirky films who likes thinking about authenticity. Plus, you get to listen to Orson Welles talk almost constantly for about 90 minutes, which is one of the world’s great pleasures.
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
I always find this to be a difficult question to answer. When I was younger, I’d say Derrida and, since he had such an influence on how I think, and I should probably still say that. However, I also don’t know exactly what a favorite philosopher would or should look like. Partly this is because I continually have to relearn the lesson that major figures in the history of philosophy that I didn’t like, either when I was younger or as a result of frustration from listening to their acolytes talk about them, are almost always worth engaging. Partly, though, I also don’t know what a favorite philosopher would look like in the sense that, as philosophers, I feel like that idea can get in the way of critique or even open the door to hero worship, neither of which are going to result in very interesting philosophy on my part, to the extent that ever happens anyway. If by ‘favorite’ we mean someone whose style speaks to us, then I would be less critical of the idea, and I’d again turn to Derrida because I like that the games he plays with language are productive of the kind of reading and thinking he’s trying to instill in us, making the game more than a game even while still a pleasure, but I’d also name other, very different philosophers—Hume, if only because he’s one of very few genuinely funny philosophers in the Western tradition, or Plato, especially middle Plato, because every word is so important and loaded with multiple metaphysical, political, and historical meanings.
What three things are on your bucket list that you’ve not yet accomplished?
- When I was in high school, I was able to go to Japan for a summer and made myself a promise to get to at least one place on every continent before I die. So I’m at three now. Antarctica will probably be pretty tough, but I’m still hoping.
- Ever since I visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, I’ve had a mild obsession with learning how to make baseball bats. I haven’t made any progress in this, though.
- I’d also like to learn how to make daguerrotypes because I love the quality of those images, but I also fear I’ll kill myself in the learning so I keep putting it off.
What time of day are you most productive and creative?
When I’m starting on a writing project, I need to get myself into a rhythm with the day. If I haven’t taken care of the nagging concerns of emails and bills, I have difficulty focusing, so the afternoons become my favorite writing time. Once I get into the project and I’ve been writing for a few days, I’m less compulsive about it, but in the beginning I have to work in the afternoon. This of course creates problems since there’s often teaching, meetings, and so on scheduled at that time of day, so I usually try to make sure I can clear my schedule on weekends until I can get into that rhythm.
What’s your poison?
Beer. Fortunately, I’ve found myself in possibly the best part of the world for it.
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