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  • Writer's picturegabriellehalpern

Contrepoints*: "The philosophy of hybridisation is a philosophy of life"

From an interview with philosopher Gabrielle Halpern published by Contrepoints on 15 June 2021 and conducted by Corentin Luce.

The term hybrid itself, from the Latin ibrida (individual of mixed blood), had its spelling changed to bring it into line with the Greek hybris, which refers to excessive violence and can evoke the notion of raping nature. Is this symbolic of the reality behind it?

As you pointed out, etymologically the term hybrid refers to the idea of a "bastardisation", a forbidden mixture, an improbable marriage, which transgressed the norm, habits, identity or the established order. This is where a form of violence lies. But we need to be clear - the hybrid doesn't transgress nature, the world or reality - because nature, the world and reality are hybrids - but rather the transgression is in the way we, as human beings, enclose them in boxes. What the hybrid violently transgresses is our way of approaching reality, enclosing it in silos; and our inability to think about things together, jobs, situations, sectors, generations, companies, worlds, sciences, which seem contradictory or too radically different.

The question of the hybrid, to which I’ve devoted many years of research, notably through my doctoral thesis in philosophy, is in this sense fascinating, since it probes the question of identity (bastardisation, mixed blood, transgressed identity, the 'no-identity' or the 'overflow of identities'), relationships with the other, our mental boundaries, our relationship to reality.

The term hybrid is full of negative imagery - to say that something or someone is a bit hybrid isn’t really a compliment! So the starting point of my research was to try to understand why we have such a complicated relationship with what is hybrid. I immediately drew a parallel between this notion and the figure of the centaur in Greek antiquity, the figure that is the epitome of the hybrid.

Whether in large statues, small sculptures or paintings, the centaurs you've come across in museums or on the street have almost always been represented by artists as monsters, disreputable, rather aggressive beings. It must be said that the texts from Antiquity describing these half-man, half-horse beings are not very kind to them and our imagination has been fed for centuries by the fear they awaken in us.

The Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote that a myth is "a story invented to answer a question or an anxiety"... But which of our questions do centaurs answer? And what anxiety do they reflect? The centaur represents that part of reality that we distrust, because it doesn’t fit into any of our boxes.

It incarnates the mix, the elusive, the heterogeneous, in a word, the hybrid! Inextricably linked to the hybrid is the notion of unpredictability: while you may know how a horse or a human being reacts, you don't know how the centaur will behave, and its unpredictability gives it a sort of mystery, and therefore power, that can be frightening.

So it is with all those who don't fit into boxes, who have several lives, several training courses, several jobs, several backgrounds, several cultures, several origins and identities, and who are so often marginalised (outside of companies, outside of schools, outside of public institutions, etc.) and misunderstood, even though they hold the key to enabling worlds to enter into dialogue and to become hybridized.

We’re dying from the juxtaposition of worlds, from these endless silos, from these sterile boxes in which people want to put us, from these labels that suffocate us and with which they want to label us. We’re dying from all those thoroughbreds who don’t understand that one can be a musician and a painter, an artist and a company director, a banker and a writer, a politician and a chemist, a man and a woman, a religious and a sensual person, a monstrous and a moving person, a savage and a metaphysician.

We’re dying from all those who only understand inbreeding, who hate mixtures and who spend their lives breaking down contradictions by solving them; from all those for whom A is A and A cannot be non-A. Centaurs invite us to mix retirement homes, coworking services, artist residences, start-up incubators, gyms, youth hostels and vegetable gardens.

They encourage us to turn train stations into museums and museums into schools. To hybridise generations, to hybridize genres, rather than juxtaposing and opposing them. To hybridise lawyers and designers to create new contracts and put the law at the service of innovation; to hybridise materials to make new and sustainable materials; to hybridise the scientific, the economic, the administrative and the political to meet the health challenge. "The game of art consists in blending scaffolding, appointments, cells, superstructures", as Friedrich Nietzsche said...

On the other hand, I reject the connection between the notion of hybrid and the idea of hubris, which is the feeling of omnipotence, of excessive self-confidence, of limitless pride. Unlike the thoroughbred, the centaur lives in essence in humility, since he straddles (!) several worlds at once, he is a ferryman, a translator, a linchpin between them...

But he is also an eternal stranger. There can be no excessive self-confidence when others look at you as a stranger. I would like to quote Primo Levi, who was both a chemist and a writer:

"I’m an amphibian, a centaur [...] I’m divided into two halves - one is the factory, I’m a technician, a chemist. The other is the one I write with".

He continues:

"Being a chemist in the eyes of the world and feeling a writer's blood running through my veins gives me the feeling of having two souls in the same body [...] I’ve remained an impurity, an anomaly as a maverick writer, not from the world of letters or the university, but from that of industry".

How do you explain this process of hybridisation that seems to be characteristic of our time?

For centuries we have been turning our brains into a gigantic factory for the mass production of boxes and cutting up everything and everyone around us.

It was because of this obsession that we wanted a school to be a school; a restaurant to be a restaurant; or a shop to be a shop! We mistreated reality because we didn't understand or accept the fact that it contains a significant part of the unknowable and ungraspable!

Now, gradually, we are finally beginning to reconcile ourselves with reality and to free ourselves from the silos into which we wanted to force it! We are gradually accepting that the world is hybrid, that it is less predictable, that it fits less into our boxes and that hybridisation is becoming the great trend of our time.

For several years now, we have begun to perceive weak signals in almost all areas of our lives:

Whereas we used to live in an industrial society, we've now moved on to a service society, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. What’s more, they’re tending to merge into what we might call a society of uses or relationships... Even buildings are becoming serviced! It's no longer just about selling a product or a service, but about creating a relationship that customers will want to enter into. Traditional business models are therefore being reinvented;

Technologies are giving rise to immaterial economies, alongside the real economy; this invites companies to interweave one with the other to propose new offers and conquer new markets. The analysis and exploitation of data, for example, opens the door to an era of customisation and personalisation, whether it is your means of transport or your clothes;

Schools, universities, research laboratories, companies and public administrations are increasingly beginning to work more closely together. These multidisciplinary and even transdisciplinary approaches are increasing the number of double degrees, transforming job descriptions, hybridising professions and blurring organisational models;

Objects are no exception to the rule, and a real cross-fertilisation of functions and uses is taking place within them: the telephone, to take the most trivial example, is also an alarm clock, a radio, a scanner and a camera. It is paradoxically, and at the same time, a space and a time for leisure and work;

Local areas are seeing an increase in the number of "third places": these are unusual places that combine economic activities with scientific research, social innovation or cultural infrastructures. It is as if the social and solidarity economy were gradually asserting itself as the economy of tomorrow and that soon all places will turn into third places;

Furthermore, companies are becoming increasingly aware of their social responsibility; under the effect of the transformations in our society, they understand that they can play a virtuous role and that they hold part of the solution to make the world a better place.

Consumer behaviour and marketing methods are also following this trend and new types of shops are emerging where it is no longer just about buying and selling, but also about learning, playing, cultivating, meeting... There is an interweaving not just of channels - remote/face-to-face - but also of uses, sectors, functions and activities.

The need for companies to adopt sustainable development, respectful of resources, results in a progressive hybridisation of their functioning with that of Nature. The circular economy, for example, is an interesting avenue, since it mirrors the basic movement of the environment where nothing is lost and everything is transformed!

These weak signals seem very different from each other, but they are all connected by the same extraordinary trend - things no longer fit into our boxes! Situations, objects, companies, professions, places, economic models, nature, people, ideas, territories, citizens, arts, generations, sectors, sciences or buildings: nothing fits into our boxes any more, precisely because of these interweavings.

Little by little, we are beginning to understand that hybridisation can be an opportunity for individuals, for companies and public institutions, and for society. It makes us better, smarter, less intolerant, less dogmatic, more humble and more agile.

For example, for a company, its competitive advantage will be its ability to hybridise knowledge, materials, uses, functionalities, sectors, technologies, products and services faster and in a more original way than others. This will give rise to ‘third-services’, ‘third-objects’, ‘third-organisations’, ‘third-places’ and ‘third-uses’.

Hybridisation can be the greatest driver of creativity and innovation! These are the weak signals that give hope in the world to come; it's precisely because hybridisation is the great trend of our time that the future can make sense again.

Categorising reality in order to make it intelligible, is this not an inherent need of the human species, making it particularly complex for us to grasp hybridisation?

Our five senses - taste, hearing, touch, sight and smell - give us a lot of information about the world around us. But once they have brought us their bundle of reality, there is still a lot to do, as our brains still have to process this information, like when we empty our bags after doing the shopping.

We have to take each item and put it in the right place in the fridge, the cupboard or the wardrobe. Our brain works in a similar way. Identifying information, matching it with older information, sorting it into the right categories.

But does everything really fit into our boxes? Yes, because the process is biased: we only buy food that will fit into our storage spaces, or we cut it up into pieces and force it into them. Rather than inventing or building new storage spaces, we prefer to do without all the non-standard foods, everything that can't be stored on a shelf...

To do without anything that looks like a centaur! And that's how we miss out on the world, without even noticing. This way of approaching the world makes us mistreat reality and this is what leads me to say that the crisis, the real crisis that we are experiencing is that of our relationship to reality.

In my opinion, this categorisation of reality is not inherent to the human species, but is particularly present in the West, since it is in the West that rationality has developed. Note that we are not talking about reason as opposed to faith or emotion, but as a way of thinking and approaching reality.

Although reason was originally very useful for building the sciences, it has become somewhat rigid over the centuries and has been transformed into a factory for the mass production of boxes. In the history of ideas, at the beginning, reason served humanism (explaining and understanding Nature/reality/the world), then it served anthropocentrism (mastering and dominating Nature/reality/the world); today, it serves transhumanism (suppressing Nature/reality/the world in order to recreate it).

As you will have understood, my Celebration of Hybridisation is the opposite of an invitation to transform the human being into a robot. The term hybridisation is distorted when it is used to talk about a "human/machine hybridisation". In my opinion, there is no hybridisation in this.

All this is the result of a desire for the omnipotence of reason, which we transfer to our technologies and other machines, without realising that we are also transferring to them all our flaws and biases...

But there are other ways of thinking! We ourselves have formatted our brains for categorisation... So there is no fatality in that - thanks to brain plasticity, and by virtue of the constant practice of hybridisation, each of us can become a centaur!

Doesn't the hybridization that you call for end up leading to the total negation of substance, of essence, recognizing only movement ("A Thousand Plateaus", by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze)?

Indeed, and I accept this, quite simply because life, the very definition of life, is movement! The philosophy of the hybrid is a philosophy of life. If I, as a human being, stop hybridising, if a company, if a profession, if a sector, if a technology stops hybridising, it dies!

I don't believe in "essence", and I'll go even further: it's not identity that should define us. There's too much of a tendency to confuse it with history or with culture, but they're not the same thing.

Etymologically, the word identity comes from the Latin identitas, - "quality of what is the same" -, itself derived from the classical Latin idem, - "the same"... Identity goes hand in hand with identical to refer to the idea of purity and homogeneity. It's astonishing that this word has become not only a political concept, but also a centre of gravity of our public debate.

It's astonishing because this word is based on an illusion. "Quality of what is the same" - but who is the same? Nobody is the same; it would be vanity to believe so! Everyone changes and the world changes. There is no such thing as crystallisation, since everything always ends up in smoke. The very fact of having imagined and conceptualised the idea of identity is a terrible misunderstanding, based on a refusal of death.

Death, which is the massive change, the definitive change, the ultimate change. In life, there is no identity, only movement, metamorphosis, endless combinations and re-combinations. Nature is not about identity either; it has much more imagination. So how did we come to erect an altar to the idol Identity and offer it all the powers of worship?

Identity gives the illusion that each of us or everything has a single, indivisible definition, given once and for all and unchanging. This is false, identity is only a temporary truth!

Faced with this hybridisation, is the call for change/adaptability the only horizon for our societies?

Your question hints at a form of regret; in my opinion, the call to change is quite simply the call of life! All living things are called upon to undergo metamorphosis, plants, animals and human beings; only the dead never change...

This is perhaps what makes death so terrible! We who often find it so difficult to experience change should remember that the very possibility of change is the luxury of the living.

How can we tame the centaurs?

In fact, what we need to tame aren't the centaurs, but the anxiety we feel when confronted with our own metamorphosis... Let's follow the advice of one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century, Elias Canetti, who said that, since "life is an eternal shrinking", there is only one way to resist it, by "throwing your anchor as far as possible" towards what is radically different from yourself.

That's what hybridisation is all about! It isn't the new technologies that will enhance us, but ourselves, by having the courage to become centaurs!

(*Translator’s note: Contrepoints is a French online magazine)


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