Michael Hardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Empire: Conversation with Michael Hardt, Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, Duke University, March 12, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Linking Activism to the Intellectual Life

When you were doing this work, were you doing a lot of reading about things that you didn't know about, or was it really just the political work?

There seemed at the time to me, and I wonder about this even now, a disjuncture between my intellectual life and my activist life. It's not that I wouldn't read about things going on and such, but the practical activists' militant questions seemed on a different register. It was hard to connect them to scholarly issues, and sometimes still is. That's partly due to an anti-intellectualism in the U.S. activist circles, but not only that, it's also genuinely difficult to make the two connect.

While you were doing this work, were you also practicing the vocation that you had at least initially assumed, that is of an engineer?

Indirectly. For instance, this was '84/'85, and the National University in El Salvador had been occupied by the army in the early years of the eighties. All of the equipment at the university had been taken by the army and sold, so when they reopened the university they didn't have equipment. So for one thing, I started a program of collecting computers in the U.S., donations of computers through the Church Council so it could be tax deductible, and taking those computers to the Engineering Department at the University of El Salvador. I would get all these parts that didn't work, fix them up, and take them down to the University of El Salvador. I wasn't making brilliant use, I suppose, of my education, but it was related and seemed like a way I could be helpful.

And practical, it sounds.

Right.

During this period you studied or went to work in France, [also]? You were working for a solar energy company?

I worked as an engineer for a solar energy company, first in the U.S. and then in Italy before that.

Before that, okay. But then, was it this political experience that led you to want to go get your graduate degree, or were you already getting your graduate degree?

I was already doing this by, let's say, '86, or something, '85, I started in comparative literature, which, again, I didn't see any direct connection between the two. I mean, vaguely, I guess.

I guess I thought when I was an undergraduate that engineering appropriate technology for the Third World could be a political choice. It seemed that the theorizing, philosophical work that was allowed to be done in comparative literature programs sometimes seemed related to the political things. But like I say, it's very difficult to make all these things match up.

I get the sense in what I've read about you and from your work that you were drawn to interdisciplinary studies, that you wanted to see beyond the confines of any narrow discipline.

I think, really, only later. I mean, as much as anyone is drawn out of intellectual curiosity, I suppose. It's only later, finishing a doctorate and doing other intellectual work that at least I would be able to thematize the need for interdisciplinary work. That was only something that comes with a kind of intellectual maturity, I suppose.

What did you do your dissertation on?

The dissertation in the U.S. I did on Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, and on Italian politics in the sixties and seventies, thinking that the two had some relationship to one another.

And so through this education and this odyssey you acquired language skills. I like to emphasize that in these interviews, because that seems to be an important way to prepare for the future. So you had Italian and French under your belt, or acquired them?

And a certain amount of Spanish.

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