Knitting spaces of feminist thought

Fina Birulés

Retrat de Fina Birulés © Camilla de Maffei

Distilling thought involves the strenuous task of condensing sense and syntactic skill. Those who know Fina Birulés know of her tenacious precision in thought and speech, a precision of deep clarity that has an enigmatic effect. They also know about her preference for the fragment, for the indication, for the decentred path of the canon or the cliché. Without making a fuss, but with forcefulness, she defuses the totalising trends of thought. At the same time, the latest philosophical fashions are completely alien to her, as they confuse the authenticity of the message with a public exposition of the self and of one’s own virtues and commitments, while underlining the absolute novelty of each occurrence.

Fina Birulés (Girona, 1956) is a leading international figure in feminist thought and in the study of contemporary feminist thinking, especially the work of Hannah Arendt. She is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona, where she has founded and promoted various research groups to introduce students to women and gender studies since the 1990s and where she is the director of the Philosophy and Gender Seminary—ADHUC Research Centre for Theory, Gender, Sexuality. For this work she received the Creu de Sant Jordi in 2017.

Her discreet presence is always an event. It makes you think. Thought has an irreducible bottom that cannot be transformed into something else. It creates a sense of attention and silence around itself. Even when the one who is thinking does so before two thousand people in a public place. If you ask Fina Birulés about her story, she tells stories about other women, the world and possibilities. She affirms the importance of what must be conveyed with the lightness and elegance of the ellipsis.

What was Barcelona like for you?

I came to Barcelona for my university education. I was dazzled by the amount of things that could be done, due to the anonymity of the big city. The years 1973 and 1974 were carefree and subversive, with a certain anarchism that ended suddenly with the attack on the Scala nightclub in 1978, which has never been fully clarified. The same anarchism was found at Zeleste and could also be seen in Plaça Reial with figures such as Ocaña. I remember that when they invited Federica Montseny to Montjuïc, she seemed surprised not to know who the enthusiastic hippies were gathered in the crowd. It was a Barcelona very divided between the hippies and the politically engaged. It has been explained this way many times, but I think there were many bridges between both sides. If you were from Barcelona all this may not have seemed so exciting, but I was coming from Girona, which at that time was almost a provincial city, with very little theatre and very little cinema ...

Where did you hang out back then?

I would spend my days at the Filmoteca and my nights at Zeleste. At the same time, I had many ties and lived with people who were politically engaged. I lived in many shared flats: on the Rambla de Catalunya, before the Olympics, where the transvestites would prostitute themselves; in Sarrià, in Sagrada Família, in Hostafrancs ...

It was also the Barcelona of neighbourhood associations.

Yes, especially in Hostafrancs. I collaborated with the neighbourhood association and I was a travel companion of my friends from the PSUC. Barcelona was very exciting at that time because everything was about to change. It was already happening, but there was a feeling that everything was about to change. And Franco’s death, which was celebrated with a bold and contented enthusiasm, ended up exploiting all this. Everyone sees an end to the Franco regime, but in the great demonstrations of “Freedom, amnesty and autonomy status” it was necessary to run. And in these demonstrations and struggles, while many of us sported a sticker with the logo of the Government of Catalonia with the words “We want the statute,” my anarchist friends carried one that said: “We want a vermouth!”

Now they would go for a vermouth!

In the end... That Barcelona was very interesting culturally, but at the same time it had neighbourhoods and suburbs that were totally neglected... The lack of interest of the state and of policy in people’s lives, especially people with less resources, was very visible. Now there have been democratic institutions and transformations of the city for many years, with which many things were organised that were generated from the neighbourhoods. The Barcelona that I knew during the Transition was largely swallowed up by the institutions. When the political parties were recognised, they tried to keep everything that was new and innovative about the neighbourhood associations and turn it into something institutional, which may be good, but at the same time it has a price: from that moment on we speak of representation and not on participation. And there was some discouragement in the participation, because suddenly everything could be done if a subsidy was requested. Much of the spark of wanting to act collectively remains, though sometimes in a flatter way.

And what was the university like?

There was a bit of everything: apolitical types and staunch supporters of the regime, as well as teachers and students who were organised in reading groups. For example, there was a seminar that met on Saturdays to read Das Kapital with Antoni Domènech, Manuel Cruz, Gerard Vilar... There was a lot of activity, sometimes a lot of institutional paralysis, but it was still possible to do many things that are not done today, probably because they can be done outside. Back then, the university was something of refuge because the chancellor was still the authority. Now the chancellor would rather let the police enter or almost be the one to call them.

Persones travessant un pont vistes des de dalt. © Camilla de Maffei © Camilla de Maffei

Was your decision to study philosophy a tragic choice, in the way of Hannah Arendt (“either I study philosophy or I jump out the window”)?

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do philosophy, it was a possibility... I had thought about studying cinema, which you could only do in Madrid, but in my house we weren’t so sure, and I thought: “I’ll work and do it later.” I took some courses after finishing my degree, but it ended up as almost nothing. I was stuck between cinema, the classics and philosophy, and in the second course, which at the time was called common courses, I had Emilio Lledó and was fascinated about how you could study and think starting from the Greek classics.

In any case, you often go to literature and film in your thoughts ...

Yes, and I do not think that literature or cinema are illustrations of thought. Sometimes, in philosophy we tend to think that they are mere illustrations and that what really matters is the concept. I think there can be dialogue, and in this, sometimes, it is not philosophy that commands, but what the narration or narrative would be. An important part of literature, and cinema by extension, offers visions that allow us to think or imagine what experience may have been like in another era or elsewhere in the world. I believe that narrative and cinema are very interesting for paying attention to syntax. In philosophy I do not say that we write poorly, but I am sure that we write strangely, and some more strangely than others. The language of philosophy has a desire for abstraction that nominalises verbs, that makes linguistic turns that are conceptual at the same time and, although perhaps necessary, are highly compensated if we tend to cinema, literature... It is very interesting to see how a film is built, what phrases are included, what syntax, what goes before and what goes later, how each frame drags along the meaning of the previous one and is open to that of the later ones.

And you love for poetry?

Poetry interests me very much, maybe because I don’t know how to write it. To me, it seems like a language that could be brought closer to this weird language of philosophy, but really it’s a language that is only strange because, on the one hand, it goes to the essence and, on the other, it makes words resonate. Poetry is admired for the ability to say what cannot be said. I also believe that it has the virtue identified by Wystan Hugh Auden: “Blessed be all metrical rules / that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts / free from the fetters of Self.”

How did you go from doing an analytical Marxist thesis to one on the philosophies of history and later to research on the work of female philosophers?

During my studies I had a series of typical professors from Spain at the end of the Franco period, with very little curiosity, very by-the-book and very close to the Church, on the right, conservative... Later, some professors started to introduce what seemed subversive at the time: analytical philosophy, Marxist thought… As a result, we got turned on to both analytical thought and Marxism. My thesis was a mixture of both. I tried to study the limits of dialectical materialism from an analytical point of view. In fact, it was a kind of ingenuous dialogue between Marxism and analytical philosophy or positivism.

What remains of that dialogue in your thoughts?

That was very much a product of the time, but it taught me a lot about thinking with a certain order and approaching Hegel beyond the manuals of dialectical materialism. From the blend of Marxism and analytics, I began to take an interest in related to thinking about politics. But not by using political theory or a Marxist model, with which I was not unfamiliar, but rather by asking the questions: “What does it mean to understand the past? What does historiography mean?” These subjects led me to the philosophy of action, to paying attention to the retrospective story, which, when I found Arendt, was very helpful to me. And Arendt also helped me to question some of the things I had done until then. In fact, even if there is now a desire to turn her thinking into a kind of discourse that fits everywhere, I think that it is very uncomfortable for what we usually think about and for what I thought at the time.

An unforeseen and provocative encounter.

Yes, I had read it by chance before devoting all the years that I have spent. I had read On Revolution, which left me indignant or at least very perplexed. I had read passages of The Human Condition that surprised me because they spoke about birth and not about mortality.

And then?

I returned later, when the Philosophy and Gender Seminary was created, which began largely because the students asked why there were no female philosophers. We put some professors and a few young students or PhD students together to work. We thought that there were very few female philosophers and we saw that we had opened a whole field of research that has lasted from the early 1990s until today. At that time we divided up a few female philosophers to work on, to translate... And I chose the one that had left me so perplexed.

Did the Philosophy and Gender Seminary, to which you have devoted yourself as passionately as reading Arendt, begin as an experience of self-organisation within the Faculty of Philosophy due to a great shortage and at the cost of a dual or triple research agenda?

At first, and almost always, it worked due to the availability that people had at the time. We divided into subgroups that met at the weekends. We read, discussed, wrote articles... For example, we did an issue of the journal Archipiélago on Arendt. We also did a monograph, “El cos de les idees” [The Body of Ideas], in the Transversal journal, featuring Ada Colau and Carmen Corral. We finished the first translation of an interview with Judith Butler. The goal was to find texts, read them, translate them... Alongside the recovery of female philosophers, some of us had an interest in training and in discussing contemporary feminist theory. At that time, we created a small group and read Luce Irigaray, Italians like Alessandra Bocchetti and female philosophers like the Diotima ones...

Is this where the notion of overturning the authoritarian idea of authority comes from?

Yes, the feminist theory reading group varied in components, but the constants were Maite Larrauri, Mercè Marçal, Rosa Rius, Carmen Corral and myself... and for while Anabel Mejuto and some young people participated, coming and going depending on their availability and the period. We wanted to create a joint discourse and a monograph on authority came out, in which Mercè Marçal and Maite Larrauri played major roles. Maite because she was closely linked to Italian thought on difference, which at that time argued about authority. And Mercè, because she had struggled for the transmission and visibility of literary work by women for many years. The group was very productive, although together we only finished this piece on authority. And through Mercè Marçal, the group achieved the talent to get the best out of each member, weaving relationships between the Seminary and the Comitè d’Escriptores del Centre Català del Pen Club. Consisting of Mercè Marçal, Montserrat Abelló, Josefa Contijoch, Mercè Ibarz, Lluïsa Julià, Neus Aguado and others, this committee organised a large number of activities. One of the most interesting was  “Cartografies del desig” [Cartographies of Desire], a set of dramatised lectures with the participation of actresses, musicians, composers, singers and pianists, with Araceli Bruch, the soul and driving force behind that innovative project.

Diversos retrats de Fina Birulés mentre parla. © Camilla de Maffei © Camilla de Maffei

You have always preferred working in a group, with people of different ages and backgrounds, rather than setting out on a solo career.

It’s true, but it must be said that it has been linked to the time and context in which I have been moving. At the Seminary, we moved with the desire to generate spaces that could have a certain continuity and not so much to make visible what each of us knew or could do. We did it with the intention of preventing what always seems to happen: every woman who begins seems to have to start the discourse from scratch. We wanted there to be some fabric, for better or worse, from which to begin. This has always seemed important to me politically. It has nothing to do with the politics of political parties or a politician’s management, but with politics in the broad sense of the word. When you are in a shared space with others, it is worthwhile to weave some kind of relationship that in some cases enables a “philosophical” friendship, as someone once said. In other cases, it is simply enough to weave a new form of relationship with texts, with legacy, with words, a space through which something else can move.

Thought as well?

Maybe because I don’t know how to think alone. Maybe it’s totally selfish! There are people who write in opposition. They can’t write unless they’re saying: “That’s not it.” But me, if I don’t feel questioned by what someone else says, even if it isn’t exactly close, if suddenly someone says something that I had not thought about, I it doesn’t occur to me to immediately say: “That’s not it.” Maybe whoever says “That’s not it” later rethinks it all, but for me it’s the other way around and it serves as stimulus. If I’m alone, I think I can’t think. A stupid way of saying it is that I’ve always had the feeling that I like reading more than writing. Maybe because I am a little lazy, or because I can’t write very well, but also because reading asks me questions. Reading is not something that I do to see how the novel ends, but with the feeling of “Let’s see if there’s something that will get me going...”

Rejection of what comes from the other seems quite endemic to academic life.

Yes, to the structure and the relationships within the universities. It is the way that power groups are made. “You are on my side and not on the others’ side,” almost always related to the contempt that you supposedly have for others. It is seldom thought that someone is writing something that may or may not be interesting. It’s a way of “producing schools.” I would say that the Seminary has not been linked to producing schools. It is true that there are currents, but these common spaces that have arisen from the feminist effort to convey, to think together, have had and have to do with knitting different relationships, which is the opposite of the idea of creating coteries. Even though the image of feminism is always presented as made of coteries.

You often say that the feminist revolution has been a revolution without a model, but it has not been action without knowledge, in the sense of not being aware of the importance of what is being done.

I think that a huge part of feminism has been inherited from the great movement of the 1970s, though it has gone on changing, and has transformed a bit since the early 21st century. At one point, the importance of what was being done was taken seriously. This is a feature of most women who have left or have found themselves outside the norm as a result of their female status: knowing that what they are doing is important. Arendt is one case of this and Simone Weil is another. They are aware that they are contributing something, despite knowing that it is possible that it remain in the margin of the margins. As soon as the importance of what has been done is taken seriously, there is a desire to weave relationships, to weave institutions...

And how do feminisms fit with the institutions?

It is one thing when feminism manages to be accepted and can be developed minimally in the institutional framework. In the university world, this “minimally” translated into “having to do a double degree.” There was a long period in which feminism could be inside the institutions paying double price, due to the double/triple agenda we had. Another thing is when what was later called state feminism took shape. Political parties and institutions yielded to some of women’s demands, laws began to recognise equality between men and women and women’s institutes were created. Changes in the law are very important, but they cannot solve all the problems and all the transformations that women demand. This institutionalisation has led to a certain simplification: important subjects related to the “question of women” or “female question” are reduced to two or three. In contrast, the insurrectionary feminism of the 1970s, I think Adrienne Rich said, affirmed: “We are sick of being the feminine question, we are the women who question.” Surely the only thing that institutional feminism can do under the current government structure is issue equality policies. An great part of the political life of men and women does not only have to do with equality. Equality is very important before the law and in the order of economic possibilities and resources, but not just that. Mathematical parity policies do not automatically reform the problems arising from relationships. It is good to pay attention to differences, to relationships not reductive to those of equality, meaning to conflicts and asymmetries. And it is important that there are other groups that make this point visible.

The eternal disagreement between feminisms...

Retrat de Fina Birulés © Camilla de Maffei © Camilla de Maffei

I don’t think disagreement is such a bad thing! When something has been forgotten, it’s interesting if someone talks about it! In fact, feminism is always asked to be everything: environmentalist, not homophobic, not racist, etc. And that’s very good, but it is the only movement that is being asked to do this. At the same time, it has had and still has the ability to accommodate groups that question it and that put new issues on the table or reopen some that were thought closed. And that seems very interesting to me; women have gained a lot from this disagreement. What is nice about all this is to let yourself get interrupted, let yourself get questioned and not go with a complete package that explains everything¾when you can say everything, you also say very little. For example, the long discussion about how to understand femininity... men have virtually not reflected on what masculinity and its forms are. I think that, even though we have argued a lot, this discussion, which is always presented as an uproar, has been very enriching.

Is transmission a central part of this policy?

The issue of transmission has always been there in the Philosophy and Gender Seminary, but what there was at first was discovery: the discovery of texts, the possibility of translating... Perhaps, basically, translating and transposing are already ways to transmit. But at first, we felt the need to make female philosophers visible, which was quite hard to do. Given the hindered history of transmission of the work of women, it has often been thought that it is important and that it must be transmitted to repair a historical injustice. The work of women has been excluded from history, but it seems to me, and not only to me, that it is also important to transmit the work of female philosophers because they fill theoretical lacunae that would otherwise remain. Its contribution is important for rethinking the conceptual tools we have. Recovering them helps us in the present, and not just to remain content that we have repaired a historical injustice.

Why is transmission so especially important now?

It seems important to me at a time when transmission is being questioned, both from the point of view of what the curricula are (schools, universities, etc.), where know-how predominates, and from the idea that it is not necessary to transmit information but rather to generate plastic individuals who should be able to face the new changes coming, but no one knows what they are. I think that transmission is currently work that has a lot to do with a desire for the world to have a certain “stability,” and by that I mean shared discourses, discourses that can be even discussed, conceptual networks... but if everything happens at the accelerated speed of our times, it turns out that we do not know what it means to conserve, or what it means to innovate, or what it means to be plastic. Transmission has been at the centre of my life because I have spent many years working as a philosophy professor, which basically presupposes an effort of transmission. Now transmission is a matter that has to do with at least two things: the one who transmits and the one who receives. And we must trust that what we want to transmit will be received by someone, who will use it as they deem appropriate, which will be faithful to the legacy, and that means being a bit unfaithful, that is, not repeating it mechanically but expanding it. The Belgian philosopher Françoise Collin spoke of “cabotage navigation.” If the legacy is the coast, you have to move away a bit, follow the wind, and go back to it from time to time.

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