Interview with Todd May [Issue 13]


"To Form a Wall of Resistance"


An Interview with Todd May

Sercan Çalcı

There are those who will claim that in our authoritarian period speech doesn’t matter because power is exercised so nakedly. I don’t agree.  It’s not that speech alone has the power to overcome oppression or authoritarianism. We must see struggle as multi-pronged as well as along multiple fronts. Speech, demonstrations, civil resistance, and other forms of activity intersect to form a broader and more powerful wall of resistance than any one activity can accomplish.

In The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality, you expressed that one of the very difference between individualist anarchism and communist anarchism can be determined as the “latter’s appeal to equality alongside liberty.” I would like to begin this interview with the question of equality and its place in your thought. If the politics concerns the presupposition of equality as you remarked, what is the place of equality in the thought of post-structuralist anarchism? 

Thanks for this question and for the interview, Sercan. The post-structuralists, in particular Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard, have distinct relationships to normativity. Foucault was hesitant to make normative claims, even though I would argue that his works are deeply normatively inflected. His reason for this is that he did not want to speak in the name of those who struggle. However, even that claim has a normative underpinning, and it is hard to read such works as Discipline and Punish as anything but critical, that is, as underpinned by particular normative commitments. Deleuze, by contrast, did have something like a master value; it is creativity rather than equality. Lyotard, finally, was closer to Deleuze in having an aesthetic rather than ethical normative approach.

My own view is that the presupposition of equality ought to be a normative element of a post-structuralist politics, inasmuch as we define the latter as the rejection of the idea of a single overarching political strategy and an embrace instead of the idea that there are many struggles along a variety of fronts. The presupposition of equality would allow us to move forward across those various fronts without falling into the trap of identity politics, where struggles become too distinct from one another and, as they say, siloed. We need to have a common bond across these various struggles, and the presupposition of equality allows us to do this.


In Deleuze: An Introduction you distinguished two ways of seeing the world in order to describe a politics of difference, one that is composed of identities and surrounded by transcendent beings and the other that is actively produced by the swarms of differences. Is it possible to establish a creative dialogue between the politics of difference and the politics of active equality?

I think there is, but it’s not a direct one, and not a necessary one for political action. If we think of difference ontologically, the way Deleuze does, it means that there is always more to our reality than what is presented to us, and that “more” is not something we can access without experimentation. On the other side, active equality as I see it is collective action under the presupposition of equality. Taking both together, active equality could be seen as involving the rejection of hierarchies present in our current identities and an experimentation with what else can be created. And there is something to this idea. After all, as Foucault has warned, we never know whether what we’re creating is going to be better than what we’re rejecting, so all politics is an experimentation.

On the other hand, it is not clear to me that we need an ontology in order to engage in active equality. We do need, as I mentioned in the previous question, certain normative commitments. But I think a politics of equality can be engaged in without particular ontological commitments. In this way, I find myself closer to Foucault and his ontological austerity than to Deleuze, although this may be nothing more than a personal preference.


Do you think that there might be an ontological assumption like univocity, as the condition of such a dialogue, in which every “one” is able to escape the hierarchy of Being when it differentiates itself in equality?

Of course the claim of ontological univocity can take many forms. In Deleuze’s case, it is, among other things, a Nietzschean rejection of transcendence, of a place from which judgment of reality—inevitably a negative judgment—arises. Inasmuch as transcendence implies inequality, then yes, univocity is anti-hierarchical. However, and in contrast to the post-structuralists, I believe that one needs ethical (or moral) values, specifically that of equality, in order to escape hierarchy. Moreover, although this would take a while to unfold, I believe one can have values without transcendence. (I try to explain this in my book Our Practices, Our Selves, and also in a later chapter of A Significant Life.)


In The Philosophy of Foucault, you concentrated on the questions of who we are and who we might be with an analysis on the archaeological and geneaological thought of Michel Foucault. The expression of “might be” draws my attention at least in two of your books, Deleuze: An Introduction and The Philosophy of Foucault. What is the main reason of your emphasize on “might be” and what is its relationship with politics? Do politics of difference and politics of active equality need this “might be” as the modes of both thinking and acting?

The “might be” has two aspects to it. One is visionary; we need not be stuck in thinking that the political reality that is presented to us is the only one that is possible. In particular, we can reject the hierarchies—and the systems that support them—embedded in our present reality. The second aspect is that this rejection, as I mentioned above, is always experimental. As Foucault once said, we generally know what we’re doing and we generally know why we’re doing it; what we don’t know is what our doing it does.

Certainly a politics of active equality, a Rancièrean politics, would support the first aspect. Rancière has always rejected the idea that the hierarchies we are presented with are necessary ones. This is an influence on his thought from Foucault. And inasmuch as we take Foucault’s quote above seriously, we should recognize that all politics is an experimentation.

As for a politics of difference of the kind we might see in Deleuze, it would certainly recognize the second aspect of the “might be.” As for the first, it is a more vexed question. Although this would take a longer time to defend, I believe that Deleuze’s emphasis on creativity does not necessarily imply a commitment to equality. In this way, he is also Nietzschean. There is something potentially elitist in his thought that privileges those who would be creative over those less creative but perhaps just as deserving of the presupposition of equality.


I would like to ask how you analyze the emphasizes of new realist and speculative realist philosophies on the “correlationism” of post-Kantian philosophy. Is correlationism a point of controversy between realism and post-structuralism?

I have not read terribly much of speculative realism, and what little I have read strikes me as entirely unimpressive. The “correlationist” argument deployed against Kant confuses Kant’s epistemological perspective with an ontological one. Moreover, some of the arguments deployed in Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, for example his argument about the past, are, as we philosophers sometimes say, howlers. From what I have seen—and again, I have not seen that much—speculative realism offers bad arguments against straw men of its own creation.


In your thought “one” does not only refer to human being but to every becoming including rocks, animals, humans, sky, body etc. When we consider this “one” can also be animal, what is the place of animal question in your thought? Can the animal has a “Face” according to your Levinas reading?

I have not written much about non-human animals, although recently (in my book A Decent Life and a separate article) I have tried to approach the issue a bit. I am not comfortable with a Levinasian approach to non-human animals, because I am not comfortable with a Levinasian approach in general, as I argue in Reconsidering Difference. However, it seems to me that we in the contemporary world are learning two important facts: many non-human animals are much smarter and with much richer lives than we previously understood, and humans are much dumber than we previously understood. This should bring our moral concern closer to non-human animals than it has been.

As far as a general view of the face, I think that engagement with animals, even if only visual engagement with their pictures, can help foster a sense of connection. What some people say of Peter Singer’s seminal book Animal Liberation is not that the arguments it posed were convincing but rather that the pictures of tortured animals made his case.


The rise of populism in contemporary world brings with it several modes of authoritarianism functioning not only in the macropolitical level but especially in the cells of daily life, in our forms of language use, in our acts and bodies. What might be the link between micropolitical and macropolitical levels of actions and reactions of the struggles for equality and liberty in today’s world?

This is a large and difficult question, one that I can only take a quick stab at. There are so many levels of possible intervention, even including electoral politics, that are outside my particular approach and expertise.

One thing worth emphasizing is that, at least in the U.S., most progressive macropolitical changes that have taken place in our history have resulted from movements on the ground. Think here of the suffragist, civil rights, and gay rights movements. None of the changes toward equal treatment that we have seen in the U.S. would have taken place without pressure from below.

Of course the terms micropolitical and macropolitical can mean different things. Micropolitical does not have to mean changes from below. In my own use of the term, it has two different elements. One is that it does refer to movements from below as opposed, for instance, to changes made by larger institutional structures such as the state. The other is that it does not—in contrast to some Marxist views—seek an Archimedean point from which an entire economic or political structure can be altered through some sort of revolution. It sees, with post-structuralist anarchism, politics to be a matter of struggle along a variety of (often changing) fronts, and so necessarily avoids thinking of the structure of society as a single overarching whole or reducible to a single point of revolutionary overthrowing.


In this context, do you think that we need new forms of activism, i.e. an activism functioning both on the production of self and subjectivity and on the components of major hierarchy such as capital and state?

I don’t want to disrespect a number of traditional forms of activism, many of which can be very effective. Think, for instance, of how effective the reaction to the caging of immigrant child was. Not that children are not still being caged, but a number of kids were removed from their cages because of traditional pressure: demonstrations, donations to legal organizations, etc. However, there is always room for new forms of resistance, which themselves can create new forms of subjectivity.

One way to think of politics is as an ongoing clash of strategic maneuvers. Our adversaries make moves and we make moves in response to those, and vice versa. When I do organizing training, I always emphasize the importance of making the adversary react to you rather than reacting to the adversary. This involves creativity, and much of nonviolent action is dedicated to this creativity. (Here, perhaps, is where the spirit of a Deleuzian thinking can open up new forms of resistance.) Thinking creatively, in turn, can mold our subjectivity, opening new ways of acting and being. All of this is empowering people in our struggles against the egregious ways in which our economy and our political system is oriented.


Palestine problem has an important place in your political thought. In addition to USA’s decision which recognizes Israel’s capital is Jerusalem, the conference held in Bahrain have set the stage for the new developments that are probably deepening the Palestine problem. Nevertheless, we witness that protest demonstrations have been proceeding, which are organized by Palestinians under the name of Great Return March in order to protect their memory and future, despite the every attack of state of Israel. How might we understand the social memory that links intifadas to Great Return March?

All struggle needs historical memory. To see oneself as part of a larger history of resistance and alternative visions for the world seems to me to be a crucial aspect of political activism. It is part of the forming of one’s subjectivity in the sense you asked about above. To recognize myself as part of a particular history—a history of promoting justice—is a way of taking myself up and forming myself. It is a subjectification, but in a positive way. The social memory of the intifada—particularly the first intifada—has an important role to play in how the Great Return March and other activities of resistance are carried out, and particularly in how the people who carry them out see themselves and form themselves through their activism.


Lastly, I would like to speak of the academics from Turkey who were dismissed from their profession, subject of the investigations and even sent to the prison because they signed the petition of “We will not be a party of this crime!”, which expressed that Kurdish problem cannot be solved by the violence apparatus of state, the state must cease the planned and deliberate massacre on Kurdish people and on the other peoples of the region and that peace must be immediately established. Today, according to you, what is the power of speech in the face of authority?

We have seen the power of speech in the very example you posit here. Authorities who don’t feel threatened don’t dismiss and imprison those who protest against them. The traditional first response to resistance or questioning is generally silence. The hope is that if resistance is ignored it will go away. It is usually when that resistance threatens to become effective that repression occurs. (Of course these are generalities to which there are exceptions.)

There are those who will claim that in our authoritarian period speech doesn’t matter because power is exercised so nakedly. I don’t agree. It’s not that speech alone has the power to overcome oppression or authoritarianism. We must see struggle as multi-pronged as well as along multiple fronts. Speech, demonstrations, civil resistance, and other forms of activity intersect to form a broader and more powerful wall of resistance than any one activity can accomplish. Speech in particular, because it is often recorded, has the particular capacity to stay in people’s minds after, say, a demonstration has ended. It is no accident that the authoritarians among us are criticizing the press as being “an enemy of the people.” They recognize the power of speech and for that reason seek to suppress it.