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From Bataille to BadiouLignes, the Preservation of Radical French Thought, 1987-2017$

Adrian May

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786940438

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786940438.001.0001

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Lignes: The Preservation of French Radical Thought

(p.256) Conclusion
From Bataille to Badiou

Adrian May

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The conclusion brings together the different threads of the book to highlight the significant contributions of Lignes in the present moment. Whilst French politics has drifted ceaselessly to the right since the 1980s, some intellectuals have of late seemed to re-embrace Marxism and the radical left, Lignes helping this rejuvenation to a large degree. Lignes is described as having preserved two major strains of la pensée 68, a literary deconstruction similar to Jacques Derrida’s (though one more focused on the opaque and material nature of language than abstract, conceptual deconstruction), and a post-Althusserian Marxism. Politically, the review is shown to have consistently carried out a dual critique of liberalism and the extreme right, providing a coherent account of the rise of the FN and the growing crises of liberal capitalism in the new millennium. Along with the review’s new interest in feminism, gay rights and the environment, suggestions are made to the future lines of thought Lignes could pursue in coming years.

Keywords:   Intellectual history, La pensée 68, French Theory, Althusserian Marxism, Deconstruction, Michel Surya

In a recent Lignes inquest into the state of French politics, Éric Fassin lamented the fact that he is now considered an ultragauchiste, whereas he had always considered himself to be centre-gauche. In response, he protests: ‘It is the political landscape that has changed (not me!), in ceaselessly carrying itself to the right’ [C’est le paysage politique qui a changé (pas moi!), en se déportant sans cesse vers la droite] (LNS.41.2013, 53). This statement also neatly characterises Lignes’ position over the last 30 years, as its political convictions varied surprisingly little whilst a drift towards the right inexorably continued all around it. Many cultural commentators have confirmed the sentiment that there has been a ‘rightward (and downward) shift in Gallic thinking’ (Hazareesingh, 2015, 246). For example, if throughout the twentieth century there was a general (if unfounded) assumption that intellectuals tended to be left-wing, such an impression was challenged in February 2007 as a Nouvel Observateur cover boldly asked if the intellectuals were now turning to the right: ‘Les intellos. Virent-ils à droite?’ As Bernard Noël wrote in its twentieth anniversary issue, the existence of Lignes has done little to stem the rightward flow of its epoch: instead, the modest goal of the review ‘is neither to convince nor to win, but to keep it in check’ [n’est pas de convaincre, ni de gagner, mais de tenir en échec] (LNS.23.24.2007, 298).

We are now in a position to gauge the contribution of Lignes over the past 30 years. Although the review has always occupied a marginal position in the French intellectual landscape, its achievements have been (p.257) no less significant for that. Principally, Lignes must be credited for its dogged preservation of la pensée 68 in an era of French thought which often seemed devoted to its eradication. For Lignes, the intellectual genealogy represented by this broad definition can be divided roughly into two branches: the neo-Nietzscheans and the former Althusserians.

The neo-Nietzscheans dominated the first series, which was originally oriented by the review’s defence of Georges Bataille from his liberal critics. Following the Heidegger affair, the links between Bataille, la pensée 68 and fascism were coming under intense scrutiny. Given that Bataille’s thought programmatically oriented many of Lignes’ early concerns, cleansing his record of fascist sympathies was a crucial step towards legitimating the review’s neo-Nietzschean project. Although it was the Tel Quel generation that first turned attention towards Bataille, much of what we now know about Bataille’s life and work is due to the diligent efforts of Lignes’ editors and contributors, Michel Surya and Francis Marmande above all. Maurice Blanchot proved a thornier problem for the review, given the unclear nature of his political commitments in the 1930s. The review initially chose to emphasise Blanchot’s post-war political texts and actions for the radical left. The Lignes dossiers on Blanchot, Robert Antelme and Dionys Mascolo were some of the most significant issues of the first series, preserving texts that would otherwise have been lost for posterity and restoring an intellectual legacy of 1960s engagement that profoundly influenced later thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. Lignes contributors were among the first to represent Blanchot as an important post-war political thinker; no less important, then, was the recent issue heavily condemning his participation in proto-fascistic and anti-Semitic milieus in the 1930s. The 2014 Blanchot issue of Lignes was the most explicit exposé of his political past from those critics considered to be his friends. This issue should go a long way to ending the interminable controversy surrounding Blanchot’s past, allowing the critical debate to move on to more fruitful terrain.

The review’s return to the French thought of the 1930s and 1960s was part of a wider attempt by Surya to revalorise an intellectual project which was being marginalised during the liberal moment of the 1980s. The defence of Bataille allied Lignes with a broader preservation of French neo-Nietzschean thought, and not least the work of one of the review’s most prestigious collaborators, Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy’s deconstructive anti-essentialism and post-foundational political thought heavily influenced the review’s embrace of the impropre over the propre: (p.258) wary of any fixed identities and the formation of exclusive political communities, Lignes remains staunchly anti-nationalist and open to cultural difference. Symptomatically, like many other left-wing reviews of the post-Cold War era, Lignes was also initially cautious regarding collective political enterprises and militant vanguardism, preferring instead an open, discursive plurality. The changing European political context, especially the perennial resurgence of the far right, would force the review to become more trenchantly oppositional in the course of its lifespan, however. Similarly, other aspects of the review’s initial literary neo-Nietzschean critical ethos also had to be altered when faced with contemporary events. The initially aggressive atheism of the review was swiftly abandoned when it was clear that the new targets of laicité from 1989 onwards would be France’s Muslim minority. And, whilst Surya was clearly frustrated with the moralising tone, justifying everything from vicious attacks on modern artists to the Gulf War and financial capitalism, the review still tacitly moved with the times on some moral issues, such as the acceptability of paedophilia. Lignes’ responsible critical approach demonstrates that French neo-Nietzscheanism does not necessarily promote an amoral nihilistic relativism: although the review often argued in favour of a total artistic liberty, it also emphasised that the absence of moral absolutes necessitates a greater degree of personal responsibility. Just as Julian Bourg characterised the shift from the 1960s to the 1980s as one From Revolution to Ethics (2007), we can detect a parallel shift in French neo-Nietzscheanism from the libertarian spirit of the 1960s to a more liberal emphasis on rights and responsibilities in the 1980s.

Literature continued to play a significant role for a small group of contributors to Lignes throughout its history, although creative writing never featured as heavily in the review as Surya would have liked. The books published and celebrated by the review sat squarely within a tradition of black erotica from Sade to Bataille (the writing of an adventure) and the more formally experimental writing of the 1960s and 1970s (the adventure of writing). Writing represented a space of fundamental liberty for the review, where heteronomous and libertarian values were still allowed free play. Writing was significantly theorised by the review as a materialist experience of thought, one necessarily filling in the gaps left by the more puritanical discipline of philosophy. Alongside a need for political clarity in worrying times and the palpable exhaustion with jargonistic textual terrorism by the start of the 1980s, this emphasis on the materiality of sense rather than the abstract (p.259) deconstruction of concepts differentiated Lignes from the legacy of Jacques Derrida. This literary form of sensual deconstruction provides a slightly different image of radical thought and writing in France in the 1960s and 1970s than the focus on more philosophically trained ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers has usually produced to date, and this literary heritage is worth exploring in further depth.

The review therefore also played an important role in publishing and supporting minor literary works that would not have appeared with more commercial publishers. Yet a degree of cultural conservatism or contemptuous exceptionalism can be detected throughout the review’s literary stance. It is perhaps partly this attitude, which runs contrary to the political aspirations of other contributors, which prevented literature from playing a more central role in Lignes. This is also a sign of the times: as critics like Perry Anderson and Frederic Jameson have noted, contemporary culture privileges the visual and the digital over the textual, and literary fiction simply does not have the same central position in cultural debates it held during the modernist period (Anderson, 1998, 60). Many newer Lignes contributors also saw Benjamin’s pragmatic approach to cultural politics as being more in tune with their era than Adorno’s withdrawn elitism. Rather than reifying autonomous art as wholly separate from a degraded mass culture, Pasolini was seen by some as a model of intellectual activity, producing experimental aesthetic products but deliberately inserting them into wider cultural and political debates. Indeed, Lignes mobilised works of art for exactly these purposes from its very first issue, and so, even when not theorised as such, it has often seen books, films and artworks as ‘packets of forces’ through which to influence public debates (L.32.1997, 103).

Lignes’ first series also saw the collaboration of Trotskyists, such as Daniel Bensaïd, and deconstructive Marxists, like Étienne Balibar. These two in particular stressed a materialist politics to the left of the Parti Socialiste, and, as the review became increasingly frustrated with the electoral sphere, it sought the closer collaboration of former Althusserians to articulate stronger accounts of activist agency. Alain Brossat was one of the key inclusions to the new editorial board of Lignes’ second series, and he brought more militant figures into the review’s pages. Michel Foucault became a more frequent reference, and the review housed more activist, specialist intellectual activity, especially in favour of migrants’ rights. Keen to foment divisive dissensus rather than liberal consensus, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière pitted themselves against the negative ethics and the wariness regarding (p.260) political communities found in the neo-Nietzschean heritage. Both emphasised the emergence of new, extra-parliamentary political actors. Rancière’s disruptive subjects emerge when those previously uncounted by the current order force themselves to be counted and included, the sans-papiers being the primary example. Badiou attempted to repolarise politics through the explicit creation of binaries, antagonisms and, hopefully, genuinely novel events. After the financial crisis in 2008, there was a publishing boom surrounding books on Marxism and radical philosophy, prompting the phenomenal success of Badiou’s De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? and his transformation into a media celebrity. Significantly, after 30 years, the implicit ban imposed on communist and Marxist thought since 1977 was lifted by the close of 2007, with Lignes playing a large role in this wider cultural transformation.

The neo-Nietzschean and former Althusserian currents of la pensée 68 sometimes pulled in contradictory directions. This can be seen most clearly by contrasting Blanchot to Badiou, the former encouraging a constant probing, questioning and complication of any received political discourse, the latter turning everything into an explicit binary, an us-against-them position, to force a problem towards a resolution. Yet such a polarity is inscribed into Lignes’ intellectual genealogy in the form of Blanchot’s two vectors of political activity, one naming and proscribing the possible, the other demanding the impossible (Bataille, 1997, 596). It has been part of the constant fecundity of Lignes to hold these two vectors in constant tension, rather than resolving one in favour of the other.

The creation of the Lignes book series, first with Éditions Léo Scheer and now as the independent publisher Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, has allowed Surya to publish over 150 works of literature, philosophy and criticism to date. Alongside new monographs written by regular Lignes contributors, Surya has used this collection to extend his pedagogical project of preserving and recontextualising la pensée 68, and republished works are often accompanied by new explanatory prefaces. The most significant volumes include nine monographs by Georges Bataille, many of which were previously unpublished as stand-alone volumes (most significantly La Souveraineté); Maurice Blanchot’s Écrits Politiques (1958–1993), now translated and expanded for Fordham University Press; the first independent publication of Michel Foucault’s influential essays Les Hétérotopies and Préface à la transgression, alongside the previously unpublished Le Corps utopique and a Dialogue with Raymond Aron; an unpublished conversation (both in print and on DVD) between Jacques (p.261) Derrida and Jean Baudrillard after 9/11; and numerous other posthumous volumes by Dionys Mascolo, Henri Lefebvre, Gilles Châtelet, Daniel Bensaïd, Jean-Noël Vuarnet and Paule Thévenin.

The reputation of Lignes as a willing supporter of la pensée 68 has also led to several joint editorial ventures. The review has developed a working relationship with l’Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC), a large archive of contemporary French literature and thought in Caen. This collaboration has produced several volumes of previously unpublished collections of Félix Guatarri’s writings and letters; a posthumous volume of articles by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe; a transcript of the seminal meeting between Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1988 in response to the Heidegger affair; and an extensive collection of letters between Georges Bataille and Éric Weil as they founded the influential review Critique. Lignes’ more radically militant phase also led to closer ties with the Anglo-American publisher Verso: Alain Badiou’s Circonstances series, including the phenomenally successful De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, were quickly translated into English to an equally enthusiastic reception, and Badiou and Slavoj Žižek’s three conferences on The Idea of Communism were jointly supported by both publishers. When one includes the many articles by Lignes contributors, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière, that have subsequently been published in translated volumes, one begins to get a sense of the significant scope and impact which Surya’s marginal review has managed to exert on the reception of French thought across the globe. And if, as some commentators believe, the quality of French thought has declined since its heyday in the post-war period, Lignes continues to publish some of France’s most incisive and relevant contemporary representatives.

There are also signs that the review is undergoing another period of transformation, reinvigorating its critical apparatus to sustain itself into the future. As noted in the previous chapter, Lignes seems to be paying more attention to identity and minoritarian politics, especially gender and sexuality issues. There is more the review could do in this regard, and both expanding the kind of literature it privileges and broadening its base of contributors could breathe new life and critical vigour into Lignes. Another sphere in which Lignes is showing a belated interest is the environment. For the majority of the review’s lifespan, when ecological concerns were not entirely ignored they were often disparaged as either a myth or a distraction from economic inequalities. Arno Münster’s Pour un socialisme vert (2012) was the first expansive (p.262) ecological manifesto to appear in Lignes, and positive appraisals of eco-socialism have since appeared from Claude Calame (LNS.39.2012, 13–38) and Pierre Sauvêtre (LNS.41.2013, 127–131). Félix Guattari’s Qu’est-ce que l’écosophie? (2014) more firmly tied ecological issues into the review’s intellectual heritage in la pensée 68. And, more radically, texts such as Calame’s Avenir de la planète & urgence climatique (2015) participate in the deconstruction of the binary between nature and culture. This destabilisation of the distinction between man and his environment builds upon the rapprochement of the human and the animal in the Lignes issue Humanité animalité (February 2009) and Surya’s Humanimalités (2004). Such accounts bring Lignes closer to contemporary new materialist thinkers, such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour, who attempt to theorise a truly post-humanist body politic, radically decentring human consciousness and agency to conceptualise the coexistence of all things. Crucially, in the introduction to the recent Lignes issue on new materialisms, Martin Crowley roots these new theoretical approaches very much in the heritage of both Louis Althusser and Georges Bataille (LNS.51.2016, 5). Therefore, as well as continuing Lignes’ more traditional work by developing and extending the works of key intellectual predecessors, this issue extends the review towards the anglophone world by including articles by two French thinkers who have been extensively discussed in recent years, Catherine Malabou and Bernard Stiegler.

Lignes has survived for nearly 30 years, and has witnessed a period of not only extraordinary change but also surprising continuities. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that, even in philosophy, its main focus has always remained politics (symptomatically, the only issue of the review dedicated to Jacques Derrida (May 2015) was devoted entirely to his politics). The review was born in the dying years of the Cold War, yet the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent spread of liberal capitalism changed the geopolitical map in one fell swoop. However, since the late 1980s, to various extents and in different manners, both Western and Eastern Europe have experienced comparable political challenges: the collapse of the traditional left as progressive politics was hamstrung by the competitive needs of globalised capitalism, and a rightward drift in political discourses as concerns over immigration and a resurgent nationalism slowly filled the political vacuum created. Such a political shift was volatised as the Cold War was replaced by an apparent clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamic world. A new era defined by terrorism and securitisation was signalled most obviously by (p.263) 9/11. France is one of the European countries most obviously suffering the effects of such a conjuncture, with François Hollande proving to be the most unpopular French President ever, the Front National receiving support from up to 40% of the population in recent polls, and a spate of terror attacks, from Paris to Nice, precipitating the country into a state of panic and anxiety ahead of the 2017 elections. Although these problems feel very contemporary, something new and distinctly threatening, reading Lignes from start to finish produces a compelling narrative of how France has arrived at this point today. The central, political core of the review has remained astonishingly coherent and consistent throughout its history: from Bataille to Badiou, a degree of continuity exists in the desire to combine a resistance to the French far right with a critique of democratic liberalism. In warning against the dangers of recalcitrant identity politics based on firm ethnic or religious divisions, whilst attempting to theorise ways of overcoming the democratic deficit felt by many European populations, Lignes continues to mine issues of the upmost importance for our age.

Although the review pitted itself strongly against the ‘liberal moment’ of the 1980s, Lignes actually championed many of the key tenants of liberalism, including freedom of expression, freedom of identity and sexuality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, individual responsibility, secular governance and internationalism. What it resisted was, first of all, the intellectual backlash against Marxism and la pensée 68 that characterised the anti-totalitarian aspect of the liberal moment. Furthermore, the liberal confidence in the free market to shape a society that served humanity’s interests was never shared by the review. Scholars of the liberal moment have noted that ‘neo-liberalism failed to attract widespread support within a French intelligentsia that was increasingly open to liberal ideas in the 1970s and 1980s’ (Sawyer and Stewart, 2016, 13). Yet from Mitterrand’s U-turn on Keynesian policies in 1983 to the Sarkozy presidency, the replacement of Gaullist statism with neoliberal economics has been the inexorable drift of government policy, realising ‘the worst nightmares of those who were understandably suspicious of sleeping with the enemy’ (Sawyer and Stewart, 2016, 5). Most Lignes contributors, whether Marxists, anarchists or libertarians, were already deeply sceptical about the capitalist system. Yet from the mid-1990s onwards, the review saw the necessity of sharpening its critique of international financial capitalism and its impact on the parliamentary left. From Surya, through Baudrillard and Debord to Anselm Jappe and Groupe Krisis, contributors made significant attempts to update (p.264) the previously aesthetic strains of domination theory for an era of globalised financial capitalism. Surya was keen to stress that the political legitimacy of capitalism should still be a matter of public debate rather than reduced to a moral debate about responsible governance and good behaviour. Groupe Krisis’s definition of structural alienation also successfully moved cultural Marxist approaches back towards political economy, suggesting that the current capitalist system was both out of our control and declaring open war on humanity. However, domination theory as a whole was criticised by other contributors for failing to provide concrete political solutions to economic inequality, especially after the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

One criticism of Lignes is that, in its desire not to compromise intellectual thought through governmental collaboration, it has not engaged closely enough with the institutional nature of contemporary governance and finance. For instance, Badiou and Ranciere’s theories of dissensual agency were accused of bypassing the sphere of political economy almost entirely (Žižek, 2004, 75). On the other hand, it was the rare moments of activist effervescence (the new social movements between 1995 and 1998 and the period after the 2008 financial crisis) during which the review really housed pragmatic alternative policy debates. Surprisingly, the former Trotskyists, such as Daniel Bensaïd, and Western Marxists, like Étienne Balibar, were the most invested in developing concrete political strategies that mediated the demands of the people with the electoral sphere and existing institutions. It was through Balibar that the review hosted its only issue dedicated to the European Union (February 2004), and this dossier, prepared for the review Transeuropéennes, only appeared in Lignes as a gesture of goodwill following the financial collapse of the former review. The EU has otherwise only been lambasted in Lignes for its immigration policy and treatment of Greece after the financial crisis. Yet, as Europe continues to face a severe migration crisis which further fuels the nationalistic tensions already rife in a post-Brexit EU, greater European collaboration will surely be at the root of any satisfactory solution. Whether one feels that the EU is far from perfect or that institutional collaboration is a form of domestication, the review’s most fundamental concerns are tied up with the organisation of Europe’s political future, and this surely merits further discussion within the pages of Lignes.

Above all, however, the review’s most coherent critique of liberalism was that its adherents were overconfident that it would be enough to stave off the return of nationalism and the far right. The review has, in (p.265) this sense, shown itself to be a prescient and invaluable witness to its era. The 1930s were used as a moment of contrast and comparison to examine how a perceived democratic deficit produced a rise in populism and unleashed dangerously nationalistic or racist passions. From David Rousset to Étienne Balibar, contributors theorised the destructuring impact of free-market capitalism as international competition and chronic unemployment turned social groups against each other. In this reading, liberalism’s focus on individualism rather than broad social solutions to economic inequality would only heighten, rather than alleviate, such fragmentation. Furthermore, Brossat and Rancière noted that as the ability of states to control the flow of capital decreased, their need to control the flow of populations increased, fomenting the concern with migration and the rising use of retention centres across Europe today. Throughout Lignes’ history, then, it has also been sensitive to the political mobilisation of racist or xenophobic discourses. It immediately sensed the Islamophobic direction which the new discourses of laicité would take, vigorously protested changes to the nationality code, lamented the xenophobic stress on national identity increasingly taken up by both left and right, and demonstrated the transitory nature of stigmatising discourses which targeted Muslims, disaffected banlieue youth and the roms whenever politically expedient. Whilst the disproportionate public noise generated by the foulard and the burkini often seems strange to those outside of France, in this sense it is merely the localised symptom of the tensions being felt by the majority of Western states over the last 30 years as they struggle to balance the demands of free trade and the free movement of labour with public distress regarding rising economic inequality and falling living standards. Lignes has not been able to seriously change this train of events. Yet, as a witness to the fragmentation of the consensual climate of the 1980s, as economic and migratory pressures eroded the progressive potential of the liberal moment and instead inaugurated a period in which crisis seemed to become the paradigmatic mode of governance, the review does at least provide a coherent orientation for the contemporary critic to make sense of the prevailing trends in European politics.

Lignes has outlived the lifespan that could have been reasonably expected of it. This book has demonstrated its intellectual importance and cultural contribution throughout its 30 years, largely due to the dedicated efforts of its principal editor, Michel Surya. Lignes is also proof of the continued significance of this cultural format in the French media landscape. Reviews are still flourishing in France, largely thanks (p.266) to the financial support of the state and a variety of cultural organisations. Contrary to repeated claims of their demise, this book has also demonstrated the persistence of a wide array of intellectual types, from those more concerned with literary autonomy and creative freedom, through militant or engaged intellectuals and media commentators, to committed specialists developing effective and concrete interventions on behalf of causes such as migrants’ rights. Whilst famous thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Alain Badiou continue to receive a great deal of attention in anglophone humanities departments, there remains a densely populated intellectual sphere in France that receives precious little attention. Studies of 1960s reviews, such as Tel Quel, revolutionised how academics viewed French intellectual culture from that period; if today the general feeling is that the quality of French thought is diminishing, this book stakes a claim on the continued relevance of intellectual reviews and suggests that, on further examination, there is much of continued significance and interest for the rest of the world.