Boyan Manchev

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A Portrait of the Philosopher as a Movie Star

(In Bulgaria ON AIR, February 2013). Read in Bulgarian

Boyan Manchev, one of Bulgaria’s most popular contemporary thinkers, spoke with Bulgaria On Air about the tasks and the traps of philosophy in the 21st century

text Anton STAYKOV

In the minds of most people, the term “philosopher” is related to images from the past – from the marble bust of Socrates, to the toga-clad Voltaire of Houdon, or to the somber, unknown faces of thinkers from the past century in black and white photos. We spoke with Boyan Manchev, one of the most popular Bulgarian thinkers worldwide, about the contemporary image of the philosopher – and philosophy’s new functions.

What is the image of the philosopher at the outset of the 21st century? According to some, the modern thinker is not only an observer of social processes and practices in the arts, but rather actively manipulates them...

I will share an anecdote with you. A few years ago, the Parisian club Palais de Tokyo organized an event called ”24H Foucault”. Michel Foucault, who died of AIDS in 1984, was and still remains one of the most influential figures in modern philosophy, an inspiration for the younger generation with his radical, critical skepticism and his powerful social role. Foucault became a cult figure on the intellectual stage during the 1960s and 70s. He imposed a new image of the philosopher – neither a bearded Greek thinker, nor a strict and elegant German academician, but rather a real lion in the auditorium who makes his way to the podium through a crowd of tape recorders, cameras and enthusiastic female students. But Foucault was also a passionate philosopher in action, who could be seen on the Parisian barricades in 1968, on every open platform, and sometimes in jail or even in prison.

Socrates spoke in places where he could be heard by the most people. Is philosophy today a hermetically sealed practice?

It should not be such. The turnaround I was talking about – the social and political sea change of the period around 1968 – was also a turnaround in the iconography of the philosopher, obviously symptomatic in his new social role at the time. The paradox is that the image of the philosopher as a critical inspirer during the succeeding decades has progressively been transformed into the image of a new intellectual “cult figure.” Returning to my anecdote – at that event 8 years ago, we did not see particularly characteristic images of young philosophers; I do not see them in the scores of public forums around the world, in which I participate, either. On the other hand, the crowded space in Palais de Tokyo was full of Foucault lookalikes, in his famous image: a stylish suit with a turtleneck, bareheaded and stern, horn-rimmed glasses. Imitation and copycatting dominate the world of images today. The criticism of the 1960s was transformed into a lifestyle, into brightly-coloured “revolutionary” t-shirts with the faces of Che Guevara or Marx. Now the image of Foucault, as well as the images of Antonin Artaud or Heiner Mueller in the theatre (with their spectacles and cigars), has become a trend-setting image. As if young philosophers, as well as young artists, think a lot about their fashion look and professional image – perhaps this is the reason why they do not have their own recognizable image.

That means outward appearance has become of great importance to philosophers, like it is for pop stars?

The philosophers of the 1960s went outside of the lecture halls or turned them into platforms of free thinking, into a type of intellectual and social laboratories. Today, the majority of young philosophers have returned to the universities and are working on weighty, solid dissertations and their own philosophical image. Of course, there will always be exceptions. A philosopher should be led not by the exceptions to a rule, but by the rule of exceptions. A philosopher must have his own voice, authentic presence and image. Let me describe my own insight into the relationship between a philosopher and an image: if someone looks like a philosopher, you had better doubt it. A philosopher should always approach the unexpected and unimaginable with respect.

Is there a new “foundational philosophical question” today? It seems the subject of contemporary philosophy is focused on the social aspects more than the ethical aspects of modern man?

Yes. The main question of philosophy today is the question about today. This is not thinking about the burning issue of the day, but the kind of thinking that allows us to understand the world of today in a critical way, in order to act and change it, not by sinking in the quicksand of our depriving ourselves of a world. Philosophy which is not an action - action with and because of the concepts, action through ideas - is devoid of sense.

The philosophers of ancient Greece were a pride for their polis, as well as a wealth for the island cities; they were even traded between cities like present day football players. What is the role, the glory of being a philosopher in Europe? And what about in Bulgaria?

The answer stems from what has been said above. If a philosopher is seeking recognition, he should work to see a future world and even, if you will, to see a future people. The relationship between present, past, and future is a task not only for the philosopher, but for every creative work. Every free work is a creative one. Therefore, we should not think about how to free ourselves up from labor in some utopian kingdom of idleness and passive consumption, but how to liberate labor itself, in order to make it a source of pleasure and action. This is a philosophical, as well as a political task, which faces each one of us.

You are playing two roles in the theatre – a theoretic observer and an active creator...

I do not look at my acting as anything different from my occupation with philosophy. The uniqueness of the theatre of Ani Vaseva, with whom I worked on the scripts for Play about Dying and Frankenstein, is that her theatre is not like the pretentious and tedious, intellectualizing theatres, of which there are more than enough in Europe, but a philosophical theatre in the strong sense of that word – a theatre that penetrates into the realms of thought and desire by using radical images and uncompromising stage actions. Her theatre does not philosophize; it thinks. Therefore, she tempted me to step outside of my lecture halls and to enter the realms of the fridge.

Tell us about the cities where you have lived over the last several years. Boyan Manchev is an urbanite, isn’t he?

During the last five years, my life and work have followed a course between Paris, Sofia, Vienna, and Berlin, with the route following different configurations depending on the period, with “vacations” in Utrecht and Amsterdam. I have also made short visits to Petersburg, Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Istanbul, Stockholm, Porto, Milan, zurich, Helsinki, etc… At one point my library and wardrobe were scattered across five homes around Europe. It was a strange feeling – arriving at the airport and instantaneously encountering a different sensory rhythm. Inevitably this has led to a feeling of abnormality, where being awake or tired, inspired or exhausted has become indistinguishable. The body transcends itself and, nevertheless, gathers itself again in the sense of a home and the desire for a place. The more I travel, the more distinctly I feel that concentrated thought requires the concentration of the body in one place. Now I decline about three fourths of the invitations I receive, but even the minimum number I accept, put my body to the test. This week I marked a personal record: during the period of three evenings in a row, I read three visiting lectures on three different topics (the concept of modernity, the relationship between techniques and disorganization, and fictional utopias for the body in romantic philosophy) in three different cities (Paris, Berlin, and Sofia) and in three different languages (French, English, and Bulgarian). Perhaps it is no accident that my last three books were also written in three different languages: French, Italian, and Bulgarian.