Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe - Biography
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (March 6, 1940 – January 28, 2007) was a French critic, philosopher and writer. Lacoue-Labarthe is probably most well known for his collaborations with fellow philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy as well as his translations of Martin Heidigger, Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Nietzsche. He is also recognized for his contributions to the Deconstruction movement as well as his attempts to merge philosophy and politics.
Born in Tours, he began his literary and philosophical studies at the Lycée Montesquieu in Le Mans under the literary theorist Gérard Genette. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe then studied at the University of Bordeaux with the famed German translator and literary theorist Gérard Granel, with whom he would collaborate later in his intellectual career. Graduating in 1963, Lacoue-Labarthe began his teaching career in Bordeaux where he would remain for the subsequent four years.
As the political and intellectual climate in France began to reach a boiling point in the late 60s, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe accepted a position at the University of Strasbourg where he taught for the following thirty years. In Strasbourg, Lacoue-Labarthe met Jean-Luc Nancy. The two discovered intellectual equals in each other and decided to travel to Paris where the student protests of May 1968 were occurring. After their experiences in Paris during “Mai ’68,” Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy began a philosophical partnership that would last until Lacoue-Labarthe’s death. Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe also taught a course together for fifteen years as well as starting the “Group for the Research of Theories on Signs and Text” which lasted from 1972 to 1990.
In addition to their collaborative teaching, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy also published several articles and books together, beginning with Le Titre de la Lettre: une lecture de Lacan in 1973 and continuing for many years. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy also organized many symposiums throughout their academic careers, such as Rhétorique et philosophie in 1970, L’Écriture autobiographique in 1978 and Les Fins de l’homme, à partir du travail de Jacques Derrida in 1980. Les Fins de l’homme, which took place at Cerisy-la-Salle, struck a chord with Jacques Derrida whose 1968 article, Les fins de l’homme, was the basis for the symposium.
Derrida, who had been working with Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy for many years, asked the two to head up the group: Le Centre de recherches philosophique sur le politique at the École Normale Superieur: ULM. The Centre was dedicated to interrogating the nexus between philosophy and politics from which Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy would continue their ongoing collaboration. According to Lacoue-Labarthe, the need for philosophical interrogation in all areas was paramount, he wrote, “We…need to maintain to the end the philosophical thesis itself, according to which the truth is – always – needed.”
Having spent his formative years during and immediately after the Nazi occupation of France, Lacoue-Labarthe was persistently interested in the question of Nazism. Lacoue-Labarthe also utilized the framework of German art and philosophy from the German Romantics to Wagner to examine the question of myth as well as his own philosophical and political issues. His research into this period in German artistic and philosophical history was inseparable from one of his major themes that carried through his life’s oeuvre: his desire to comprehend the phenomenon of Nazism. To come to terms with the greatest disaster of the 20th century, he analyzed the conception of the body politic as a “fiction plastique” which gave rise to itself through what he called, “national-esthétisme” or the creation of a national aesthetic. Whilst researching the German Romantic period, Lacoue-Labarthe found that the German Romantics envisaged politics as an “oeuvre d’art totale” or, an all-encompassing work of art. It was in this “oeuvre” that Lacoue-Labarthe discovered one of the foundations for the rise of Nazism.
In 1986 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe published La poésie comme expérience, which discussed the nature of the relationship between the poet Paul Celan and the philosopher Martin Heidegger as well as Heidegger’s relationship to Nazism and fascism. In the book, Lacoue-Labarthe posits that despite the clear influence of Heidegger on Celan’s poetry, Celan was keenly aware of the political undertones of Heideggerian philosophy, as well as Heidegger’s own association with the Nazi Party and was, therefore suspicious with regard to Heidegger’s reception of his work. Despite these misgivings the two met and Heidegger admitted to being an admirer of Celan’s work. Lacoue-Labarthe explores the relationship between Heideggerian philosophy and politics through the lens of Celan’s poetry as well as Celan’s attempts, through poetry, to ameliorate his own work with Heidegger’s.
In his youth, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe admitted to being, “subjugated by Heidegger” despite his, “repugnance at his political past.” Lacoue-Labarthe never stopped questioning the nature of Heidegger’s political engagement, researching the sources and implications of Heidegger’s philosophy, Lacoue-Labarthe interrogated not only Heidegger but also the entire phenomenon of German National Socialism. That the author of Sein und Zeit could have enthusiastically adhered to the tenets of Nazism, that he never acknowledged the crimes of Hitler was a painful problem for Lacoue-Labarthe.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida both abundantly commented on the Heideggerian oeuvre and together identified an idiosyncratic version of National Socialism within his works that persisted until Heidegger’s death. However, Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida (and to a lesser extent, the poet Celan) also considered Heidegger capable of a profound critique of Nazism and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. They believed that the greatest error on the part of Heidegger was not his participation in the National Socialist movement, but in the words of Lacoue-Labarthe, his “silence on the extermination,” and his refusal to engage in a complete deconstruction of Nazism above several of his notable objections to the orthodoxies of the party. Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe considered Heidegger capable of confronting and deconstructing Nazism through his own philosophies and attempted to do so themselves.
Upon the publication of La poésie comme expérience, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe was awarded a doctorat d’état for the monograph entitled La fiction du politique whose English title was translated to Heidegger, Art and Politics, which Lacoue-Labarthe presented to a jury led by his old mentor Gérard Granel and including Derrida, George Steiner and Jean-Francois Lyotard. After receiving his doctorat, Lacoue-Labarthe received many invitations to teach guest courses at universities throughout the world. Over the next decade he taught courses in Berlin, Baltimore, Montreal and Rio de Janiero as well as receiving a permanent invitation to Berkeley. During this time, Lacoue- Labarthe also presided over the Collége Internationale de Philosophie in France.
Lacoue-Labarthe was not only a major figure in the deconstruction movement, he was also keenly interested in the theatrical arts. He participated in the Thêatre National de Strasbourg and translated several works by Sophocles reinterpreted by Hölderlin including Antigone, which was staged by Michael Deutsch, as well as Oedipus the King staged by J.L. Martinelli. Lacoue-Labarthe also wrote a play entitled Sit Venia Verbo, centered on the tragicomic figure of Martin Heidegger in 1945 Germany. Lacoue-Labarthe was a sought-after German to French translator and is most well known for his translations of Heidegger, Celan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Hölderlin and Walter Benjamin.
With regard to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s philosophies and deconstructionist ideals, Lacoue-Labarthe’s longtime writing partner, Jean-Luc Nancy said in his obituary about his connection with his colleague and friend,
One day it occurred to me to use the word “syncopate”, and you liked it as well. It was in that way, without a doubt, that we interacted with each other best, and that could give us the possibility to make a distinction between lives and thoughts. Between us, yes, many signs and strong exchanges on the side of one or the other, and our paths were necessarily different. But the différance memory, between us, Jacques’ word and the word of Jacques, the différance between one and the other differed little, all things considered, from the différance itself.
Finding meaning in the open spaces, in the emptiness between the beats of syncopation, was Lacoue-Labarthe’s life’s work and when the syncopation stopped for him on January 28, 2007, Lacoue-Labarthe left a wealth of knowledge and philosophical questions in his wake.