If the United States were the social laboratory of post-modernism, the Europeans, the French in the vanguard, were the theoreticians. As is often the case, Americans do first, think second, and, philosophically almost never by themselves. Thus the dissolution of the patriarchy, economic – juridical individualism, the reign of consumerism, and moral relativism were experimented with in the United States with more spontaneity and radicalism than in Europe. But the post-modern wave owes its concepts to the work of French philosophers. Without American hegemony combining material power and social imitation, hard and soft power, the anti-world of the last forty years would surely have been impossible; but without the elaborations, or lucubration, conducted in Europe by certain thinkers, it would have not exercised the same intellectual seduction.
On both sides of the Atlantic, however, this hegemony was never complete. History has no end, and no era is perfectly synchronous, and all domination finds its counterweight. Against post-modern nihilism, the Katehon did well – By the inertia of cultural traditions and family structures, through a patriotism impregnated with religiosity and a populism that just bore Trump to power in America, by a movement of reaction against the human rights “moralism” which must still find its political translation in Europe. I am one of those who thinks that the nihilo-globalist configuration is dead, on the spiritual level as on the material one. But the corpse continues its destruction, like a zombie. So we must still dispose of the remains.
On the other hand, it is useless to enter into the subtitles, altogether quite optional, of deconstructionist philosophy. The internal diversity of its currents, really, is not essential. All its variants are joined together on the same front line by their common targets: historical rootedness, philosophical substantiality, moral decency, and in the strictly political scheme, nations in their identity and states in their sovereignty. In all, deconstruction intertwines both principal 68er ideologies: post-Marxism and libertarianism, which have quickly surpassed their initial antagonism. The first can be represented by Toni Negri whose “global multitudes” will succeed national classes, whose first passion, more than the anti-capitalist struggle, is to destroy “this shit of the national state” (sic). As for the other current generalized by Mai 68, libertarian and “other-idolizing”, cosmopolitan and “self-phobic”, it brought about the immigrationist “moral left”. It’s what I address here through its gurus Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida.
The Americans, who offered them seat after seat, group them under the label “French Theory” with a few others. This favor speaks on their behalf. If great artworks reach a place in eternity, major philosophies actually remain, for the most part, children of their time. It is not only permitted, but necessary to appreciate them them in the context of their Fatherland. This “geo-localization” even becomes indispensable when a philosopher pretends to fight against what dominates his epoch. In this respect we could be amused by the intellectual popularity that the deconstructionists enjoy in the United States among the so-called liberals: occupying the left wing of the democratic party, progressive in moral matters, leaving the pillars of economic liberalism intact, they are, in other words, libertarian – liberals. Major actors of post-modern capitalism in its ideological superstructure, and beneficiaries of its economic infrastructure, have made the French deconstructionists their erudite servants – similar to the Greek slaves in antiquity who would chide decadent Roman youth. With the difference that they would maintain the foundations of European history that the deconstructionists want to destroy. Speaking of the “70s”, these philosophers were the post-modern “servants of capitalism.”
Read from Columbia to Berkeley, thus Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida are the most famous figures of French Theory. I will briefly outline the common ground of their thought. Having thrown around Heidegger’s opportunistic sentence that the biography of thinkers counts for nothing, I will also say a few words about their personal political journeys
Deleuze forges powerful, Nietzschean concepts animated by the forces of art and life. A naturalist, he believed in following the growths of political “biotope.” Thus he proposed, in the ABC-book that helped to popularize his thought a great deal, the notion of “revolutionary becoming.” A situation that comes to this unsustainable point that ends in an explosion of liberty which uproots the “trees” – metaphors for all oppressive orders. On this ground the swarming “rhizomes” then return, which designate unpredictable libertine freedom in Deleuzian botany. As liberty would sprout there, in the undisciplined, anarchic, “flux”, between “branches”, before freedom-killing trees quickly strike back back and fatally take root. Deleuze calmly states that revolutions “go bad” without truly saying why, to him oppression seems to need “to happen” with liberty in a sort of cosmic balance.
Evidently we cannot imagine an eventual positive role for the state with him, not in the value of substance, of what endures in the Stoic sense, as we are caught up in “desiring” fluxes. Flux whose consumer – destructor potential occupies the blind spit of this thought. And it’s without flagrant injustice that the Deleuzian vocabulary of “nomadism,” “deterritorialization”, and thus “flux” finds itself in the language of country-less financial capitalism today. And it’s also unsurprising that it serves to dissolve the identities of peoples with immigration, and with it, their political sovereignty. Deleuze, resistant to the rigors of Hegelian dialectic, despises stopping points, of rest and constraint, in other words the institutions indispensable to collective liberty. Thus he dismisses the necessary negative political moments – coercion, institution, authority – as Spinozaist “sad passions,” Nietzschean “weak forces,” in other words the pathologies of submission. And his thought offers the viewpoint of a sort of artistic anarcho-naturalism, which by constitution, has very poor historical support. Not understanding European history through its great cultural works, he supremely ignores it as civilizational destiny. For those who make this destiny their fight, Deleuze only offers booby traps.
As for this personal journey, we can recognize a certain fidelity and Stoic probity there. It certainly cultivated the fetishism of the marginal in the joyous (?) disorder of the university of Vincennes, then evaded the embarrassing questions on the social and existential consequences of leftism, refusing, in short, to look the black sun of May 68 in the face. But after having embraced the vitalist streak of 68, without ever looking back, he never personally chased after the selfish or material benefits of the avant-garde.
With Foucault we sometimes read sparkling theoretical prose, as in the unforgettable openings of his two masterworks, “Discipline and Punish,” and “The Order of Things.” We also learn much there as a body of facts – historical, scientific, and aesthetic – giving each essential proposition provisional support. But despite such a positivist will, the Foucauldian concept of power slips between the fingers like the water of Thales: the universal element filling everything, at this point it would be spread through institutions, discourses, and daily practices, it becomes unthinkable. With this logical consequence we can only escape omnipresent oppressive power by traveling along extraordinary lines of flight. As Deleuze fell into the idolatry of the marginal cultivated by his epoch, thus Foucault reserved the experience of liberty to the insane, criminals, parricides, transsexuals. Since the state (and all institutions that comes from it) was in effect only a pure agent of oppression, anything -literally from Maoism to human rights through the Iranian Revolution – becomes a possible resource for him. Yet having well understood the passage of hierarchical “vertical” societies to societies of “horizontal” control, Foucault, entirely repulsed by the state, does not imagine mobilizing against new forms of domination. As for individual “subjectifications,” of which he undertakes an original history from the Greeks onward, finding, not by chance, a particular predilection for the Cynics, they are now marvelously accommodated in new consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism absorbs all alternative lifestyles as long as they do not touch, through rigorous and substantial thought, its reactor core. It accumulates the benefits of its own criticism by employing an army of “impertinent” servitors (including the “rebel-ocracy” of the spectacle, according to Philippe Murray’s expression, occupying the furthest end of the leash).
Honored by the thinker, the institutions of the republic were not such bad mothers for the university academic. Until 68 he led a good career without making waves, which he pursued at Collège de France. A bit after Mai he became a “fellow traveler” of Maoists specializing in the question of incarceration, before intellectually addressing the Islamic Iranian Revolution at the same time as “les nouveaux philosophes.” (Deleuze had the good taste to keep them in the contempt they deserved). He completes his path with them by joining human rights, which invaded the political field in the late 70s, with hedonism to form the infernal couple of the two following decades. Things get even worse postmortem because the principal editorial heir of Foucault, François Ewald, became a consultant, moreover for the Fédération française des sociétés d’assurance (French Federation of Insurance Companies), the ex-Maoist Denis Kessler became the director of Medef (Movement of the Enterprises of France, the French employers organization). I believe that Foucaldianism no longer fears turning into liberalism one day, it is not against its apparent atmosphere, but in step with it. It’s done. In his life, Foucault adopted the stances of institutional, majority criticism, freely and without risk. With such a sign we can suspect that his claimed positivism, which should a priori lodge its deontology in respect for facts, of having sheltered a deaf servility to implied hegemonic fact, shamefully or unconsciously, under the flamboyance of concepts and poses.
Finally Derrida. He delivered some powerful texts in the epoch of “Writing and Difference” (1967) before strengthening the idea that between concept and metaphor, philosophy and literature, borders should be erased in favor of the notion of “écriture” – which cannot be confused with style according to him. Placing himself in the track of Heidegger, Derrida intends to “(de)construct” the fundamental equation of the Greek philosophical project: the understanding of the essence of things by rational thought. If there is no reason to exclude this project from criticism, which is one of its fundamental gestures, it doesn’t exhaust all its potentialities. We could risk seeming like a humble naif to linger for a moment, despite what disgust, melancholy, or consternation the future of the contemporary West inspires in us, on the highest realizations of the Logos. Thus it would be for Derrida to urgently deconstruct, or more subtly, he would teach an internal deconstruction that thought should garner. But while Heidegger intended to make a “Greco-German” voice more ancient than the calculations of technical rationality, Derrida received his inspiration, from a source close to himself, in Hebrew letters. It draws from, after Lévinas and many other Jewish intellectuals, philosophy from Athens to Jerusalem. He lost himself there without return. While the world is supposed to escape to the logos which endeavors to illuminate it, he henceforth closes himself off in an “écriture” indefinitely undecipherable, in effect we take the route of a desert theology.
Derrida naturally enough adopts the tone of Ecclesiastes belittling the vain human edifices, thus referring the great philosophers to their unthinkables, that which is repressed by their conscious logic, their rational intentions to a letter that, “disséminante” and “ différante”, surpasses them because the infinite works in it. He passes the distinctions on which Western thought rests (cause and effect, substance and accident, object and subject) to the Kabbalistic steamroller with a formal fury that expresses a sort of cold hate. In such an atmosphere of confusion, we move against the spirit of logos with its livable determination. Nothing here seems capable of subsisting, enduring, establishing itself or affirming itself, except maybe, the figure of the prophet philosopher who seems to possess, by himself and himself alone, the consistency of the particular and the magisterium of the universal. He judges without mercy, brandishing a Law as absolute as it is withdrawn from the common, the political works, the cultures, and the particular worlds of peoples (except Israel…) who desire to be someone in history. What remains, on the overall balance, is an impediment to thought and a Judaic contraband theology.
While Deleuze settled with his living concepts in an un-dialectical affirmation, Derrida administers to meaning an infinite correction which, only ever affirming the imperfection of the world, brought a master of obscurity to the professorship. So we go from one French theorist to the other, from the libertarian refusal of dialectic to its submersion in the cold waters of a negative theocracy. Both yield equivalent results: sharing the same hostilities – metaphysics against substance, politics against the nation – they bind philosophy to the cosmopolitanism of human rights.
Derrida showed himself to be more publicly discreet than Foucault. Enjoying comfortable marginalization in the French university, he stacked up American professorships, supported Czech dissidents, returned in 1995 to the support committee for Lionel Jospin, which he left in 2002 because he judged his immigration policy to be merciless … He ultimately accomplished the faultless path of a grand conscience of the “gauche pétitionnaire” – Sephardic Antigone of the amphitheater against the evil Creon of the state – who ventures onto the battlefield only sheltered under the Paraclete of cosmopolitan natural law.
Unless we believe in the Trojan Horse strategy, doubtful in general, we must return to the evidence: insomuch as these thoughts are highly desired by the centers of the “post-modern” capitalist world, which mix hedonism and legalism, they are unfit to fight its toxins. Worse, they expand them. Intellectually emasculating the political capacity of peoples, deconstruction distrusts the state and nation – the actor of power and its legitimate source – to the benefit of unaccountable resistances. Through nature according to Deleuze, through facts with Foucault, by law in the terms of Derrida, we end up losing measure of things, the authority of facts hesitates and the spirit of the laws become unthinkable. By driving away from leftists their patriarchal, national, and industrial configuration, they have lent their ample thoughts to the capitalist enemy, who I would say, have advanced to the puerile stage with them, globalist and consumerist. Through their particular cases the magisterium of 68 is to blame, with its “impossible heritage.”
The French Theorists deconstructed, criticized, or subverted the categories of the Western philosophical tradition. But the weight of things constantly thwarts their vanguardist pretensions of surpassing what, in this tradition, shelters the conditions of a livable world. Even when they approach it more humbly, the same logic of their thought causes them to mistreat “post-modern” history, they do not search in their own epoch, and so they only find expiration dates, shaking with pleasure for each death notice that they think they can announce. In reality, they are complacently posted wherever the “old world” is already dead, they only conjure up past threats by blinding themselves to the present dangers.
Let it be understood: I am not saying the intellectuals in question are behind the times. No, I am quite on the contrary shocked by their collusion with capitalism which seems to inform their critique. If they were “untimely” or “importune,” they would have played as Nietzschean hammers. If they surpassed their epoch, they would follow the totem of philosophers according to Hegel, “The owl of Minerva takes flight at the fall of dusk.” In short, if they thought about their epoch by moving away from it, by surmounting or surpassing it, they would have fulfilled the modern role to which they pretended. But by espousing the elite’s path of 68, they are bygones from a so-called Marxist libertarian revolution to the vintage “anti-racist human rightism” of the 80s. So onward to American universities. But they subsist today, the time of their splendor has passed, an implacable logic returns: by ignoring the basic permanence of things and rushing to the vanguard of the critique of domination, they were irredeemably condemned to espouse the forms that domination stipulated.
Basically old Jacques Duclos was right. In a small work published in the summer of 1968, the Stalinist leader warned against the descendants of Bakunin throwing stones in the Latin Quarter. These leftists he warned, spread a disastrous revolutionary “amorphousness”: their hatred of forms, mores, and institutions condemned them to define liberty as pure negation or, equivalently, as pure plasticity. “To destroy is to create,” thus said Bakunin the eternal adolescent.
At the dawn of modernity, Descartes had a premonition of the terrible audacity that would rise before infinite, unlimited and Promethean will whose power had been revealed by the new science. Power that could be exerted not only against an imperfect intellectual tradition, but also, and it was Descartes’ fear, against all moral and political orders. Thus he did not cease to warn in his “Discourse on Method” against a “democratic” extension of radical doubt that he practiced in the domain of pure thought. From the apprehensive grandeur of these beginnings, we have passed to consumerist “68er” leftism. If it retreats into the past, it continues to irradiate our present as a buried but still active geological stratum.
For forty years, modern liberty thus failed on an artificial beach which, after 1968, buried the hard, virtuous paving stones of the “Gaullo-Communists.”
A hateful little “me” acts there, made from fickle paste, who demands an allowance, and to consume without cleaning his room. Soon a father in roller skates singing Vincent Delerm, he doesn’t hesitate to wear dreadlocks, which are quite accepted at his “job,” hurting his case before the eternal judge of all styles. With age, he takes upon the aspects of an old, arrogant and whiny baby, claiming the nasty air of enjoyment again and again, and who resembles Dany Cohn-Bendit trait for trait, annoying everyone … But Cohn-Bendit will die soon, his world is in its terminal phase, and deconstruction will remain in the history of European thought as the symptom of a passing depression. Political realism, ethical decency, and philosophical consistency have begun their insurrection. But that’s another story. It’s opening before us.