Forty-four-year-old philosopher, author, and film director Luis de Miranda is no stranger to the philosophical (nor the literary) community, and I was lucky enough to catch him between the flurries of his many ongoing projects at the University of Edinburgh. The Portuguese-born polymath discusses ‘crealism,’ a movement he began in 2007 and continues to ventilate through his ever-expanding bibliography.
Much of your work revolves around the central concept of ‘Creal.’ What exactly is ‘Creal’ and your understanding of ‘crealism’? You’re now dedicating your PhD to the notion of esprit de corps. Should we assume there’s a connection here? In both French and English, espirit de corps refers to a sense of loyalty and respect between a group of individuals, but you give it greater significance. In your own words, what exactly is it?
My novel Paridaiza, published in 2008, first contained the concept of Créel (‘Creal’ in English) as a liberating keyword, a snag within a totalitarian regime. Creal is obviously a portmanteau compound of created-real. At the same time, I elaborated on the concept in an essay on Deleuze (Is a New Life Possible?). A philosophical concept answers a question and Creal is my answer to the question What is more real than the Real? The Real is a prominent concept in the history of philosophy since Plato. The last few centuries in particular have obsessed over the idea of reality, with its materialistic ubiquity (materialism) or, conversely, its disappearance (the loss of the Real in Baudrillard for example, or the absolute and impossible Real of Lacan). I proposed to puncture the idea that the Real is more than reality as we practice it, produce it, or believe it. If I’m to describe a more authentic realm, as a condition of possibility of the Real, I’ll call it Creal. This not only describes a Protagorean world where humans would be the measure and creators of all things: it’s an ethical cosmology. The Creal is an ethical absolute (that would ideally have to be agreed upon by social contract) proposed in order to avoid any form of totalitarian absolute, because I’m convinced that human societies need at least one ultimate value to function properly. Creation as an absolute is, in my view, the only absolute that constantly self-destroys, which therefore could avoid any form of totalitarianism, on one hand, and indifferent chaos on the other. However, I’m not a pure social constructionist, because I’m reluctant to use building metaphors, which are a bit too technical, and also because I find it difficult to believe in a pure anthropocentrism of creation. There are other forms of crealism around, which insist on an exaggerated human creative power. Mine is the idea that we constantly edit, filter and organize the infinite propositions of the Creal, which is such stuff as the cosmos is made of, the immanent creative flow of possibilities and impossibilities, the mysterious and invisible ‘dark energy’ of the cosmologists, if you will: at most, we co-create. Within this frame, my interest for the universal concept of esprit de corps expresses the view that human co-creation is always a collective process of ordering, naming, and valuing. Loyalty, togetherness, and repetition (of daily rituals or beliefs) create a slow epic that is the spiritual fuel of social change. That’s why, when I started my PhD on esprit de corps at the University of Edinburgh last year, I simultaneously founded the Creation of Reality Research Group (The Crag). Esprit de corps is a subset of creation of reality. It’s a concept that covers a process that can be positive or negative: groups can help individuals become sublime, but they can also smother.
When discussing historical philosophers we tend to unite their intellectual corpus under a general theory or supposition about the world or reality in general. If you imagine a group of students discussing your life’s work a century from now, what would they say and to what extent are the concepts of Creal and esprit de corps essential to that?
Ah, posterity! Is it anything more than a collection of posthumous posters? For me the concepts of Creal and esprit de corps are intuitive tools that might perhaps allow me one day to unite thought and existence into a crystal-clear system. Although I’ve developed an embryonic version of that system in my previous books, I’ve not yet reached a general theory, because I’m not obsessed by what the French call esprit de système, the need to place all there is into a unique box. The idea of a general theory is certainly a useful asymptotic desire, but the speculative journey might be more interesting than the destination.
As with any radical notion, these ideas must have encountered a great deal of opposition.
Does anybody care, really? I have to say that until now I’ve experienced a warm reception since I set foot in your English-speaking kingdom. May I say that I’m falling in love with the UK? The University of Edinburgh is extremely welcoming to my ideas and propositions; it’s a very open-minded hub, with a long tradition of intellectual innovation. Until now my interventions in conferences within the UK have been very encouraging. In France, I admit, I’ve sometimes faced opposition, lack of support or simply indifference, though I’ve not been uninvited in the media. I feel that France, over the last few years, is experiencing a historical moment of strange intellectual regression, conservatism, and excessively competitive yet un-triumphant individualism. But it would be unfair to say that I’ve been unable to publish everything I’ve written there. Even in Paris, I’ve been encouraged by a small group of supportive readers. To be fair, I feel I’m still a philosophical novice, despite several published books. If I am to be — one day — really ‘radical,’ this is something I’ve yet to conquer. Thanks to Creal, I feel very young and full of energy and curiosity towards the future!
Time Out Paris recently described your work as ‘the cutting edge of the cutting edge.’ Do you have company within this philosophical vanguard, or perhaps even a forerunner or two?
I’m starting to realise that your questions might be slightly ironic, as I’m not used to this degree of hyperbole. I’ll therefore answer in an even more hyperbolic manner, quoting from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (my favourite book from my latter teenage years): ‘The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.’ Or better: ‘But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?’
By my lights, many of your ideas seem to draw on early modern influences. Is this something you’ve heard before?
No, but it’s very interesting. Lately I’ve realised Descartes is certainly a stronger influence than I’d thought. I think he’s still very accurate, for debates around the opposition between materialism and emergentism for example. When I lived in Stockholm, I identified the churchyard where Descartes was initially buried. There stands a tree about 350 years old, which perhaps started to grow by feeding on his decomposition. Every time I’m in Stockholm, I like to go and hug this tree, as homage to my idea of what Descartes stands for: spiritual self-determination. Even earlier in time, I find that Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is very crealist indeed: God made us half-finished in order for us to actively and creatively complete ourselves.
To move away from your work and over to you as a researcher, you are currently affiliated with the University of Edinburgh. What are your thoughts on Scotland as an intellectual community, and how does it compare with France and Portugal?
I wouldn’t say the University of Edinburgh reflects the Scottish spirit, because it’s now an international and global innovative hub, which I like and admire very much. But I will tell you an anecdote that reflects what I think is the Scottish spirit. One day, I arrived at Aberdeen airport from France and noticed that the trolleys by the baggage delivery-point needed to be fed with a pound coin to be used. I kindly told the attendant nearby that it was absurd to ask people who’d just arrived from abroad to have a pound coin in their pocket. He smiled and answered, ‘You’re right. You didn’t see me do this.’ He then used a small knife to unlock the trolley for me. I thought that was a fantastic gesture of common sense coming from a man on duty! We’re in a world where human initiative is slowly disappearing and being replaced by computers or protocols that encourage cowardice and somnambulism. Scotland to me feels like a region where humans still resist the invasion of numbers. That might be the same for the rest of the UK – I don’t know yet – but I certainly feel there is in the UK a general sense of good citizenship and respect for the public good that’s now missing in France or Portugal. In terms of ‘intellectual community,’ I feel that strong-thinking clubs or sublime intellectual groups tend to be, all around the world, more and more difficult to create and nurture. This is another reason I’m studying the genealogy of esprit de corps: I dream of being part of a strong creative or intellectual group, in the fashion of the surrealists for example or the eighteenth century Encyclopedists. Today we need to learn the magic of elective affinities again, as Goethe put it. I see Academia as a possible utopia for such intellectual communities to emerge, provided that the space for research and blue-sky speculation is still guaranteed. Universities need to remain places where creative nesting can emerge, and speculative groups that don’t need to prove their research has an immediate impact on the economy. We shouldn’t teach students to only adapt. We should teach them to be creators of realities, and communities of passion.
Had you never chosen philosophy in the first place, where would you be now?
Well, before I discovered philosophy was the most important activity for me, I wrote and published a few novels, which were considered to be too philosophical anyway. When I was eighteen I hesitated between writing books and composing songs. Perhaps if I’d not followed up on writing and thinking, I’d have been a singer. I still write a few songs once in a while, like this one, which was meant to be the soundtrack of my book L’être et le neon, a conceptual history of neon signs.
Finally, and this is an unusual question: having studied and written philosophical literature in both English and French, and as a master of each tongue, which do you feel most complements the general structure of philosophical dialectic? Historically, French would have been favoured over English, and Latin over both.
I’m certainly not a master of the English language yet, but I’m working on it. I’ve just finished writing my first philosophical essay written directly in English, which I’m about to submit to the Royal Institute of Philosophy, as it answers their 2015 essay competition, ‘Do Life and Life Forms present a problem for materialism?’ I don’t feel that English is a less philosophical language than French. But I’d certainly encourage philosophy departments in the UK to open their minds and ears to what they call ‘continental philosophy.’ Now I’m writing in English, I feel that I’m slowly finding my true voice, somewhere between the English imperative of clarity and economy of means, and the French philosophical tradition of innovation and style. I’m seriously determined to write my important work to come in English, even if I’ll not easily abandon the beauty of French, which, when well written, lends itself to a certain Latin-like floral coldness. As I’ve told you, I’ve fallen in love with the UK and its language. As a matter of fact I’ve always had a preference for British humour; if I don’t get my PhD, I might try a career in stand-up comedy. But then again my jokes might be terribly philosophical…