Philosopher Julia Kristeva – Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo

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Philosopher Julia Kristeva - Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo

The world relates the Nobel Peace Prize with Norway. This year the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

However, Norway does not only award the Nobel peace Prize, the government of Norway annually awards the Holberg Prize ( Ludwig Holberg 1684-1754) to outstanding scholars for work in the arts, humanities, social sciences, law and theology.

Philosopher Julia Kristeva - Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo
Julia Kristeva receives the Holberg Prize in 2004

The Holberg Prize
In 2004 Julia Kristeva (1941-), the Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, feminist, and novelist, author of more than 30 books and now a professor emeritus at the University Paris Diderot, received the Holberg Prize “for innovative explorations of questions on the intersection of language, culture and literature which inspired research across the humanities and the social sciences throughout the world and have also had a significant impact on feminist theory”.[1]

Julia Kristeva is a professor emeritus at the Université Paris Diderot and author of many acclaimed works and novels, including Murder in Byzantium, Strangers to Ourselves, New Maladies of the Soul, Time and Sense, Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, and This Incredible Need to Believe.

Kristeva is also the recipient of the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought and the Vision 97 Foundation Prize, awarded by the Havel Foundation. She is the founder of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize committee.

Related: Prize Winning Documentary and Debate in Hannah Arendt in Oslo

Philosopher Julia Kristeva – Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo
Last October Kristeva was the honorary guest speaker at the conference “Cultural Crossings of Care – an Appeal to the Medicine Humanities” at the University of Oslo. During her stay in Oslo she met the Norwegian psychiatrist and author Finn Skåderud (1956-) for a public conversation to discuss questions of identity at the National Library in Oslo, questions that come up in facing the cultural dimensions of health and well-being.

Philosopher Julia Kristeva - Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo
Finn Skårderud and Julia Kristeva

Oslo is a good place for discussing urgent problems because it still provides a peaceful surrounding. What, then, are urgent problems? For Kristeva an urgent problem is that we are confronted with a process of automatization, also called robotization or transhumanism. Why should this be a problem? Well, because our whole concept of what it means to be a person is challenged with new technologies and our hyperlink in social media.

Related: Oslo Celebrates Peace and Human Rights

Singularity of the person
What then, is her answer to this problem? Well, she tries to defend the European heritage by re-thinking some of its key notions. For instance, do we think of the person as a free and unique individual and the respect we have for the “singularity of the person”. What can this mean today?  She exemplifies this re-thinking of the notion of freedom and respect for the unique individual by referring to two examples: first the disadvantaged, disabled persons, second the adolescents in the banlieues of Paris.  who in 2015 turned violent either against the world outside or inwards against themselves.

Philosopher Julia Kristeva - Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo
Julia Kristeva is a professor emeritus at the Université Paris Diderot and author of many acclaimed works and novels.Photo: Daniel Tchetchik

First, we are used to think of disabled people as human beings who lack something, be it an eye, an arm etc.; but in order to develop respect for the unique individual we cannot think of the other being lacking something. Instead, what she suggests is transforming this paradigm of lacking and focusing on the respect of singularities. Second, we remember the images of burning cars in the banlieues of Paris where young adolescents turned violent in their neighborhood.

Humanism failed
Kristeva considers herself a humanist, but thinks that humanism failed, for instance with national identity or in connection with migration but also in recognition of adolescence complexity.  Therefore, she thinks, we must tirelessly continue to rebuild humanism, a humanism that enlightens and develops philosophy.

“Puberty will always be a challenging time,” she told her audience, “the youth is challenging in any historical era”, however today we are facing some additional challenges such as weak institutions, be it on a public political level such as the European Union and European democracies or our educational institutions, be it on a more private level as for instance the family.  The latter is often characterized by a weakened authority of the adults. True, society offers certain help to respond to the adolescents needs. However, in Kristeva’s opinion the social response often is not adequate, and this reason is partly the failure in recognizing the complexity of adolescence.

Adolescent is a strong believer
In order to meet the needs of adolescence in a more adequate way Kristeva suggests that adults have to understand the need to believe. Particular the adolescent is a strong believer: he wants to reinvent the world; he wants an ideal world, to leave his parents, to build another society. This is also something essential to other cultures, the believe of an ideal world. We find this in the notion of the paradise; Adam and Eva believe in paradise, we find it in fiction, in Dante’s Beatrice, or in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette.

In Kristeva’s view – she is not only a philosopher but also a psychoanalyst – the adolescent believes that there is an absolute satisfaction. But when reality poses frustrations and so the ideal appears not to be possible, then this impossibility is reversed as vengeance towards either the bad object outside that prevents me from the realization of this ideal and I become vandal, enter in battles or as turned inside, that is I reverse this aggression towards myself, as for instance in anorexia etc. Those are the maladies of the soul.

Philosopher Julia Kristeva - Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo
Kristeva considers herself a humanist, but thinks that humanism failed, for instance with national identity or in connection with migration but also in recognition of adolescence complexity

A narrative of values
How, then, can adults respond more adequately to the challenges the adolescents are facing today? Kristeva suggests that they need to accompany the adolescent with a) a better understanding of their needs and b) to accompany them in a personal way, one to one – and also to give to them a knowledge about humanism, about the history of religion. In other words, adults have to give the young generation not only abstract ideas such as liberté, égalité, fraternité instead they have to give a narrative of values related to historical figures, to battles that our ancestors fought. Or to put the same in different words, narratives that give life, a sort of flesh to these values, are needed.

We may be surprised; we may disagree, but one thing is certain: Julia Kristeva inspired her audience and encouraged to rethink key notions of our European heritage hoping that this will contribute to a better understanding of the young generation and its needs and thus responding more adequately to the crisis of identity which occurs not only in Europe, but all over our globalized world.

Feature image (on top): Photo: Helgard Mahrdt

Philosopher Julia Kristeva – Honorary Guest Speaker in Oslo, written by Helgard Mahrdt

[1] Citation of the Holberg Committee; https://www.holbergprisen.no/en/julia-kristeva.html

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