Judgment of Paris introduction



Judgment of Paris introduction Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1992

It is the spirit of social life which develops a thinking mind, and carries the eye as far as it can reach. If you have a spark of genius, go and spend a year in Paris; you will soon be all that you are capable of becoming, or you will never be good for anything at all.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[1]

Recent thought from Paris has experienced surprising popularity in the English-speaking world. Highbrow bookshops and university reading lists are filled with titles by Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault and their ilk. Now that these names have established themselves, it is appropriate to reflect on what kind of impression has been made by recent French theory, and whether it has been a good thing.

Clearly, there are some who will doubt its worth. A certain kind of reader approaches a book on recent French theory with great scepti­cism. The thoughts are: ‘It’s all dressed up to sound intelligent, but does it really have anything to say?’; ‘All this Parisian theory is just a passing fashion-let’s get back to plain, unadorned common sense’. This kind of reader is suspicious of appearances: you can’t judge a book by its cover. While the present volume welcomes a reader such as this-happy to have its arguments tested out against a ‘real world’ of facts and reason-it is hoped that this reader will remain aware of the specific nature of the kind of reading being used. Simulation/ reality, fashion/history, theories/facts-it is exactly these kinds of difference which are the subject of critical attention in much recent French theory. These kinds of difference concern the distinction between appearance and essence: the dustjacket and the contents of the book. There is much of modern life which still rests on this difference: for example, the position of psychotherapist often depends upon the notion of a hidden self that lies obscured by surface personality. This ‘getting to know the real person’ is one of the many places where the difference attended to by the French between simulation and authenticity has relevance to everyday life­—academic debate need not be its sole domain of application.

The purpose of this volume is to examine the products of this attention in English- and French-speaking settings. It makes a link between the ideas and their contexts in French and Anglo cultures. The difference between these two cultures has often been stereo­typed: while the English are traditionally known as favouring practi­cal forms of life, the French are seen to license ostentation. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared English and French couture along similar lines: while the French invented the ruffle, the English added the shirt.[2] One strives to appear different and the other just gets on with the job.

In this introduction I’d like to adopt the stereotyped shirt-making Anglo as a background to understanding how recent French thought might be evaluated. This evaluation is not based on the formal truth­-values attached to ideas from Paris, but on the cultural space they have established for themselves in English-speaking countries—not whether recent French theory offers a replacement for the Anglo picture of things, but how it is incorporated into this picture. Derrida’s concept of difference and Kristeva’s attention to the semiotic are both examples of moments in French theory which attend to the packaging of meaning-moments that might be simpli­fied in the axiom: though you can’t judge a book by its cover, you need the cover as a means of containing the essence of the book. In Paris, normal relations of meaning are overturned: repetition comes first, we are spoken by language, and logic is just an accident.

This French thought is alien to our common sense. How does an Anglo reader deal with it? Should it be dismissed as fancy intellectual footwork or be taken as a serious challenge to deeply held values? How a reader deals with this question will depend partly on how they regard things French. The purpose of this introduction is to construct pictures of French culture which present alternative forms of negotiation: opening up to it as a language for revealing the invisible ground on which common sense operates, or closing the door on it as a foreign currency in which only the elite can speculate. This is a Paris pictured alternatively as a lamp which reveals the world outside it, or a bonfire that makes a spectacle of itself.


The status of Paris as intellectual centre is by no means unique to the modern world. The life of the thirteenth-century Catalan theologian Ramon Llull provides a sense of the power of Paris when very dif­ferent ideas held sway. Ramon Llull is a precursor of Leibniz: it was Llull who first conceived the possibility of a philosophical machine that could account for the nature of the world in terms of a limited number of logical operations. While Leibniz designed his Ars Combinatoria for use within an academic context, Llull’s theological diagrams were reproduced as illuminated manuscripts, intended by their colour and simplicity to convert Saracens to the Catholic faith. After spending many years perfecting his theoretical system, Llull travelled unassisted to Moslem countries and presented his argu­ments in their marketplaces. At 75 years of age, he enraged the Moslems of the North African city of Bougie by contesting their beliefs in a public square. When summoned before the Moham­medan bishop for what seemed certain execution, he continued his case for the existence of the Holy Trinity, confident that the bishop’s erroneous belief would crumble when confronted with reason. Llull was very lucky to escape with only prison and torture; no one, in the end, listened.

Where did Llull gain this confidence in the strengths of philo­sophical argument? While other Christian warriors were mustering their forces in England and Rome, Llull chose to take his authority from the city considered to be the centre of reason: Paris. Llull described Paris in a letter to Philippe Le Bel in 1287:

O fountain of supernatural wisdom, which has made drunk with marvellous doctrine so many teachers of Paris, [who are endowed] with such authority! ... Happy is that University which has brought forth so many defenders of the Faith and happy that city whose soldiers armed with the wisdom and devotion of Christ, are able to subdue barbarous nations to the Supreme King. [It is in Paris] where the source of divine learning springs up, whence the lamp of truth shines forth. From thee light goes forth to all peoples; thou shalt sound out the witness to truth, and to thee shall come masters and disciples from all and all shall drink from thee the knowledge of every science.[3]

In Ramon Llull’s world, Paris acted as a fulcrum for the power of divine disputation: it was the ground of truth on which he could lever his arguments. As a theological centre, the force of Paris was seen to radiate outwards, giving strength of argument to those who quested to extend the Christian empire.

In today’s world, Lull’s picture of Paris as a ‘lamp of truth’ seems based on both an idealisation of the city and an imperialist under­standing of knowledge. The alternative to ‘lamp of truth’ looks in the opposite direction. Paris here is a self-absorbed city turned towards its own spectacle, indifferent to the world around it. Earlier this century, Paul Valéry’s account of the ‘delirious professions’ that are conducted in Paris shows a city which is carried away with itself:

There is no place on earth, I thought, where language has greater frequency, more resonance,. less reserve than in this very Paris where the literature, the sciences, the arts and politics of a great country are jealously concentrated. The French have stored all their ideas in one enclosure. Here we live in our own fire ... Just think of the temperature that may be reached in a place where so great a number of prides are comparing themselves to one another. Paris contains and combines, and consummates or consumes, most of the brilliant failures summoned by their destinies to the delirious professions ... This tribe of uniques is ruled by the law of doing what no one has ever done and no one will ever do. This at least is the law of the best-that is, of those who have the pluck to will something obviously absurd.[4]

Valéry’s description makes intellectual life in Paris seem like some wild fashion parade-it is a fire in which the brightest survives briefly while the rest of the world looks on. The ‘lamp of truth’ which Llull used to guide his mission has here turned into an intellectual bonfire. The fire operates as an amusement that defies order, not as a guide for others. In Valéry’s picture, intellectual difference is promoted for its own sake rather than for the sake of reason. The consequence of this picture is that such ideas are not to be taken seriously. This opinion is cast in a more recent context by Emmanuel Lévinas, a foreign-born philosopher living in Paris, who wrote in 1950:

The end of humanism, of metaphysics, the death of man, the death of God (or death to God!)-these are apocalyptic ideas or slogans of intellectual high society. Like all the manifestations of Parisian taste (or Parisian disgusts), these topics impose themselves with the tyranny of the last word, but become available to anyone and cheapened.[5]

In this picture, though Paris might seem to deliver ideas of astound­ing historical depth, they turn out to be simply forms of intellectual scandal designed to titillate the crowds.

So these are two kinds of pictures for treating ideas from Paris: as a lamp that illuminates the rest of the world, or as a bonfire that draws the world’s attention to itself. One treats Paris seriously, the other not. Despite this difference, both pictures place that city at a distance from the rest of the world. Paris is where knowledge glows brightest-it just depends whether you are looking towards it or away from it.

At this point, our stereotyped Anglo reader is likely to cry foul: surely you cannot confuse the ideas that emanate from Paris with the uses that are made of them. Ideas should be judged independently of their cultural ownership-that a machine is made by a foreign power has nothing to do with its standards of performance. This protest, however, defers to an abstract notion of ideas which does not allow for their interaction with local conditions of thought. Clearly, that certain ideas have certain uses in Paris does not limit their application elsewhere. However, for an idea to work it must find some purpose with which to engage.


The reception of schools of thought by cultures foreign to their originating context need not be seen as simply an attempt to import a system of knowledge intact: ideas are not necessarily free agents able to look after themselves. The ‘adequation’ theory of ideas claims that objects of thought are prior to the ideas we have of them: thought has no life itself, it simply mimics what already exists. But this does not account for the possibility that ideas might have a life of their own, particularly as they are used to construct different versions of a world. An alternative way of looking at the ‘idea’ is given by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who provides the maxim: ‘The idea is a live event’.[6] Bakhtin proposed that the idea is an utterance to be understood within a dialogical context. He dem­onstrated this in the novels of Dostoevsky, where characters are resented as beings who attempt to ‘get a thought straight’. The idea becomes embodied in consciousness:

As it loses its monologic, abstractly theoretical finalised quality, a quality sufficient to a single consciousness, it acquires the contradictory complexity and living multi-facedness of an idea-force, being born, living and acting in the great dialogue of the epoch and calling back and forth to kindred ideas of other epochs. Before us rises up an image of the idea.[7]

For us, Dostoevsky’s novels demonstrate how European philosophy became personified in the life of the 1860s declasse Russian intellec­tual: they show how an idea such as ‘everything is permissible’, born of a French-speaking local aristocracy, fell into argument with Russian Orthodoxy and radical popularism. But where is a Dostoevsky now to write of the destiny of contemporary French thought in the lives of English-speaking intellectuals?

What is available mostly takes the form of satire, such as the comic novels by English academics David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. Such satire sees the recent manifestation of French theory as not worth taking seriously, and as such may seem not worth taking seriously itself in this discussion. However, the kind of comic space which it makes available for French theory represents one kind of opening for alternative thought in the English-speaking academies. For this reason, their comedy is worth taking seriously.

Malcolm Bradbury’s novel Mensonge is one such satire on recent French thought. Bradbury presents a fictionalised case of the greatest French deconstructor, who, true to his theory of authorship, has destroyed all traces of his ideas. While the plot cleverly points to some of the paradoxes of a deconstructive practice, it is the tone of the writing which has most to say about the treatment of French theory. Mensonge associates recent French theory with a chic world: Today it would be foolish, or decidedly unsmart, to attend any congress or cocktail party in the great cities of the world, and not be able to parry a Lacan with a Derrida, lead with Foucault and follow up with a Kristeva.[8]

Bradbury’s satiric portrait reflects an Anglo reader looking sceptically on the high fashion of French theory. There is a difference between the English satire and the scepticism acknowledged by the Parisians themselves: while ideas in Paris are prized for their rarity, the same ideas in England are used as signs of social inclusion. While in Paris it is the desire to be different which holds sway (Valéry’s ‘tribe of uniques’), in Bradbury’s version of the English-speaking academic world, the governing motive is to be a member of the same knowing group. The butt of Bradbury’s satire is the socialite who acquires a new French idea simply because it supports their claim to belong to the clique.

How seriously should one take this satire? What if it were true that French theory was taken up in the English-speaking world as a phenomenon of intellectual fashion? Is it fair to judge French theory simply according to the uses that are made of it? This is certainly not a rare process: one is more likely now to evaluate nationalism by its uses in the twentieth century (for example, Nazism) than by its logical coherence. However, there is the sense that a serious examination of French thought should take place on a formal level-not at the cocktail party but in the seminar room. Without denying the import­ once of an institution that is removed from the ‘real world’, I want to claim that the academic world is inappropriate for the evaluation of French theory presented in this volume.


It is a paradox of the academic world that it denies its worldliness. The official picture of ideas occludes their sensitivity to context: they are seen ideally as ‘immutable mobiles’[9] that freely circulate around the globe expanding the base of universal knowledge. How are ideas freed from their ecological niches? In Institution and Interpretation, Samuel Weber presents a description which is of some use to us here. Weber claims that the university provides the mediation which turns local knowledge into professionalised knowledge. He describes the university:

It was and remains the gateway to the professions, marking the transition from the local, geographically determined community of youth, centred around the family, to that ‘translocal’ academic community, structured in terms of the professional disciplines themselves.’[10]

Within the English-speaking liberal academic tradition, ideas are not generally associated with specific rhetorical conditions: they are judged in the light of individual reason. Because of this, the recent success within these universities of a set of ideas antagonistic to the ground of individual subjectivity has a certain irony. Weber describes the ‘price’ paid by these ideas in the English-speaking context:

If authors such as Derrida, Foucault, and, to a lesser extent, Lacan, have been granted admission into the American Academy, the price they have had to pay has generally entailed the universalisation and individualisation of their work, which has thereby been purged of its conflictual and strategic elements and presented instead as a self-standing methodology.[11]

This is the central irony of the dissemination of recent French thought into an English-speaking academic world: that an intellectual movement which stresses the dependence of meaning on context should be adopted so successfully without consideration of its own context.

There are already signs of impatience with French post­structuralism. This comes not from a lack of faith in the ideas of the movement, but rather as a response to its disconcerting success. How does an apparently subversive theory account for its acceptance as orthodoxy within the academic community? This problem has not escaped the notice of American deconstructors, such as Barbara Johnson.[12] Johnson advises against feeling ‘comfortable in the abyss’; she claims this complacency counters the ‘surprise of otherness’ which is the most tangible expression of an imperative in deconstructive reading practices. To counter this she promotes a form of intellectual ignorance: forget the edifice of learning accumu­lated in the name of deconstruction and think again! While this strategy might be useful in maintaining the vivacity of deconstruction within academic life, this form of forgetting is much less forced when one confronts the problem of its assimilation in a local context.[13]


A successful academic practice is established through the annual round of overseas conferences and regular contact with international journals. The university lifestyle requires the routine maintenance of global links that can connect a lecturer in Sociology at Sydney Uni­versity with what they are saying about deconstruction at Yale Uni­versity. In this picture, ‘Paris’ may simply be seen as one of the world’s leading laboratories, producing the latest innovations in argu­mentative technique. This ‘Paris’ need not be in France; it could be anywhere.

This picture is a plainly inadequate representation of what Paris signifies in English-speaking cultures. Indeed, it is an attempt to obscure the unique voice established for Paris through centuries of travel and cultural exchange.[14] Emerson wrote of France that it served as ‘a kind of blackboard on which English character draws its own traits in chalk’.[15] What does this blackboard say to us now?

An alternative picture of knowledge opposes the abstract com­munity of academics to more locally constituted cultural groups. But this is uncharted water, and we are unsure of its depths. A sign of this uncertainty would be to claim that the ‘international market’ of ideas has removed the possibility of regional schools of thought-has not communication technology more truly brought home the adage that Paris is a ‘moveable feast’? However, to raise this question means we have not really departed the French coast-we have merely tried to hide behind a figment of ‘contemporaneity’. The very identifi­cation of the globalisation narrative with the names of Baudrillard, Lyotard and Virilio means that we need to stand back from this too if we are seriously to consider the impact of recent French theory.

There are other routes to thinking about our picture of Paris besides the arguments in French theory itself. There are certainly less sophisticated approaches to Paris. Paris as a tourist location provides a popular parallel to its place in the academic calendar of intellectual exchange. The following is an extract from a newspaper supplement chosen at random from brochures on European travel. It introduces Paris as the centre of ‘life’:

France has an aura unparalleled anywhere. It has an air of expectancy about it, a feeling that things are always happening, an atmosphere of amour and the buzz of life itself. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Paris, undoubtedly one of the great capitals of the world.

This is a typical description of Paris: a world capital unique for the intensity of ‘life’ which happens there. Paris appears as the point at which characters from English-speaking countries come to lose themselves in the hazards of romance and sensual pleasure. In Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, the American character Strether finds his normal order of existence unbalanced by the diversions of the Parisian streets. The stereotyped Anglo subject exists in a tightly ordered system of accountability, for which every action compels a reason. Paris appears as the location in which this obsessive hold can be loosened and the Anglo subject distracted by the ‘life’ spilling into its streets.

In case this picture of Paris appears specific to fictional discourse, a selection of excerpts from travel talk by young Australians demon­strates its penetration into everyday conversation:

There was something, a different atmosphere in Paris. It was more alive and there everyone was doing things and going places, always busy and it was really alive.

I loved Paris. When I got there, I don’t know, it was just so unreal, to actually be in this very famous city, and my first response was to love it. To love seeing these things that I’d seen only in photographs before.

Paris was the first continental place that we got to. And it was a bit frightening, cos it was so different. And it was the first place we’d been to which didn’t have the English language as spoken by the majority. But after a day there, you could really let yourself sink into the Parisian life.[16]

No doubt Paris may be seen as one of the stops in a more general pilgrimage to the centres of history in Europe. But its particular status appears as a location which can distract a traveller from normal habits: you feel alive in Paris, France.

This sketch suggests a space for things French which writers such as Derrida might occupy within an English-speaking culture: that things French reveal phenomena which negate the practical order of sense-they can show how text defies meaning. This is by no means an unfamiliar position. In Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the souls of philosophers are closer to the world of ideal forms; in contrast to the ‘common ambitions’ of most people, philosophers are gripped with the ‘madness’ of lovers. Here there is room to think about the imag­inative role of Paris as a site for philosophical truths that are at odds with the practical rationality of daily life. Such a space may free thought from the limiting question of what use it can be put to. This Paris may indeed be romantic in the sense that it distracts thought from the ‘real world’.

To think about the ‘usefulness’ of recent French theory may thus be contrary to its tenor in our thinking-French theory inhabits a space in Anglo thought that is outside practical rationality. Paris is granted special exemption from the claims of usefulness that are normally employed to judge ideas. Should our inquiry therefore cease with the coda ‘Ah, Paris, vive la difference’? But it is just beyond this point where there is thinking to be done. Why do we need this Paris? Perhaps Paris serves as a kind of utopia for alienated intellectuals. It is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century that the dominant values of English-speaking cultures concern productivity. For this reason, intellectual activity is marginalised: freedom from utility is one of the conditions of critical thought. As a utopic space, Paris provides an imagined location that is specially reserved for ‘thinking’. This comment by John Tittensor provides an example of how Paris can be seen as an intellectual utopia:

People [in Paris] are interested in writers, in why they choose their craft and how they exercise it and what they think about Life and Art and Politics and France and The World in General. There is no deference, deferring is not the French way; writers are seen as part of the fabric of society, as sources of ideas and necessary provokers of discussion; and discussion, of course, is the French way.[17]

Rather than have to defend their government grants against the resentment of the taxpayer, French intellectuals appear to be actively sought after as a significant voice in their own culture. For intellec­tuals in English-speaking countries, Paris is good for morale: it is a working example of how things could be otherwise.

It is this yearning for Paris among intellectuals which is the target of much satire concerning French theory. While this yearning may seem to lay the ground for change in English-speaking culture, it can also immobilise the intellectual into a form of ‘dreaming’: ‘this Anglo world is too crass to bear thinking, it is better to be elsewhere’. In this light, then, Paris is used as a source of exotic fashions paraded by groups anxious to distinguish themselves from the multitude.


Is there an element of truth in this satire? Could it be possible that an openness to the complex texts of Derrida is in part due to a senti­mental residue for things Parisian-the same partiality which may exist for other cultural items, such as Chanel No. 5? Is this why Derrida is more popular in English-speaking universities than his own? These are perhaps the thoughts entertained by those more traditional thinkers who claim that recent French theory is simply a ‘fashion’, destined to pass once common sense is restored. I would claim that to dismiss this opinion as provincial philistinism is to follow the predictable pattern: isn’t this ‘turning up the nose’ at popularisation just what is expected of intellectual snobs? I propose instead to give this idea all the rope it needs.

So the French are theoretical sophists, and their followers here cling to gleanings of Parisian savoir faire in order to distinguish themselves from the masses. Bradbury’s satire makes the link between these ostentatious displays of knowledge and the conspicu­ous consumption of French goods:

Like the finest French vintages-with which, it must be admitted, the leading participants are from time to time confused-the great names and the finest labels of the movement are spoken of everywhere, though as with the wines not all those who know the labels seem entirely aware of the contents of the bottles. Like the best French couture, the tags speak not only of quality but the highest chic, and are safe guarantees that one is getting not thought off the peg but the best possible design in the field of ratiocination.’[18]

The import of this picture here is clear: those who follow French thought are more concerned with appearances than reality; they are a class of consumers rather than producers; they are victims of fashion rather than proponents of an alternative ideology; they need not be taken seriously.

This is perhaps what the label of ‘fashion’ does to an idea: those who profess it are seen as self-admiring victims and secondary to the main business of life. The German sociologist Georg Simmel puts this in the context of cultural imperialism in his 1904 essay on fashion:

The currency, or more precisely the medium of exchange among primitive races, often consists of objects that are brought in from without. On the Solomon Islands, and at Ibo on the Niger, for example, there exists a regular industry for the manufacture of money from shells, etc., which are not employed as a medium of exchange in the place itself, but in neighbouring districts, to which they are exported. Paris modes are frequently created with the sole intention of setting a fashion elsewhere. Judging from the ugly and repugnant things that are sometimes in vogue, it would seem as though fashion were desirous of exhibiting its power by getting us to adopt the most atrocious things for its sake alone.[19]

From this global perspective, Simmel claims that Parisian fashion has an emulsifying effect on other countries: it separates off exotic pock­ets from the common standards. A French trend is adopted ‘for its sake alone’.

This then, perhaps, is the anxiety grounding the label of ‘fashion’: that a currency exists which one cannot exchange with the official values of common sense. It performs no useful function. Perhaps I have cast this attitude too rigidly, but it is better to lay open such claims forcefully than let this divide persist unchallenged.

The idea of theory as fashion serves to dismiss post-structuralism as a short-lived movement, destined to change once the clique becomes bored, or its ideas become too accessible. It is no surprise, therefore, that narratives are emerging now about the ‘death of French theory’. In a recent review of French academic life, Thomas Pavel[20] constructs a picture that limits post-structuralism to condi­tions that are specific to an ‘ideological elite’. The connection between this elite and post-structural theory is made in two ways: as fashion and as frustrated imperialism. In terms of fashion, Paris has a highly concentrated intellectual life which demands a rapid turnover of ideas-what emerges is likely to be superseded within a gener­ation. And in terms of imperialism, Pavel argues that post­structuralism was the product of the yearning in French intellectuals for empire: the dissolution of the French empire led to a transfer of allegiance to the Soviet bloc-allegations of totalitarianism are coun­tered by the doubt cast by thinkers such as Foucault on the ‘free­doms’ of western liberalism. In the current scenario, a new generation of young Turks combined with the unavoidable recog­nition of the failure of the Soviet system have served to relegate the works of post-structuralism to second-hand Parisian bookshops. What has replaced it is a renewed faith in independent scholarly activity, in which history is seen as a function of individual action and local strategies. The semiotic empire departs along the same path on which it arrived: the catwalk of theory. In its place are the more sober schools of neo-historicism and structurationism which point to a host of micronarratives rather than epic (non)systems of philos­ophy. (This season’s fashion is more individual and subdued.)

Well, should we feel liberated now this decadent regime of Parisian theory has crumbled? There are two points worth making here. First, much of the criticism of French theory as the expression of the conditions peculiar to Paris-as subject to fashion and imperialist ambitions-does not necessarily generalise to its uses in other cul­tures. It is difficult, for instance, to think of Australian intellectuals identifying with a lost empire. The picture of Paris as an intellectual hothouse perhaps reinforces the need for other communities to give the ideas that emerge there the time they need to take root and bear fruit. The second point concerns the alternative posed to post­structuralism. The return to an academic community in which schol­ars work within their own autonomous fields seems at first to guarantee a certain level of freedom and difference-not everyone has to study the function of signification. Yet the basic paradigm offered for this renders academic work homogeneous: you till your plot of land with exactly the same method as everyone else. The methods are all the same: find out what the goal is, and then interpret action as a strategy for its realisation. It is in this way that the post-structuralist movement has been explained as an act of imperial restoration: see the goal as the restitution of the French empire and interpret the linguistic turn of recent French thought as a means to this end.

There are two serious omissions in this paradigm. The first is the possibility of conversation across the minor specialisations: will a student of Renaissance English Court poetry have anything to say to someone researching African post-colonial politics without resorting to some general philosophy of meaning and power? We risk becom­ing bogged in a mode of interpretation by which all actions are seen simply as means to an end, and books are judged without reference to their covers. Second, we risk not being able to see outside the framework of practical rationality, where decisions are made on the basis of the most efficient means to pre-established ends. While this value dominates the official stage-gearing the universities to pro­duction, the technologisation of sport, etc.—it leaves unspoken the question of the end towards which this activity is directed. Without a means of stepping outside practicalities, a culture threatens to close in on itself. This is why an English-speaking culture must always turn to more expressive cultures in order to frame moments of solidarity, where some end is in sight-Malcolm Bradbury and friends will still resort to champagne to mark a common achievement. The Anglo reader’s curse of ‘fashion’ disavows a lack in the capacity to reflect on one’s projects. And as such it leaves the ends that are already in place unquestioned.[21]

In the argument about theory as fashion we are faced again with the alternative pictures of Paris held by Llull and Valéry. In the context of recent French theory, Paris acts as a ‘lamp of truth’ by providing an aperture through which ideas that are counter to the dominant interests can enter into conversation. And as ‘bonfire’, it offers a currency for the expression of local interests whose circula­tion is restricted to a fashionable few. One picture takes a romantic view of theory as a truth remote from everyday concerns, and the other rests in a practical perspective where all actions are strategies of power. The argument between these two perspectives is what makes French theory a ‘live event’, responded to differently by dif­ferent audiences. It is this response that might be called ‘the judg­ment of Paris’.


The alternatives of power and truth represent a philosophical narra­tive that is reproduced not only in Plato’s Phaedrus, but also in the fable of Paris the god. In Greek myth, ‘the judgment of Paris’ refers to the choice granted the god Paris between the offerings of three goddesses. Helen, in Euripides’ Women of Troy, tells the story:

Paris was made judge between three goddesses. Athene’s bribe was this: that he should lead the Phrygians to war and destroy Hellas. Hera promised him a throne bestriding Asia and Europe, if he placed her first. Aphrodite, with extravagant praise of my beauty, promised him that, if he judged her the loveliest, I should be his. What next? See how the story goes. Aphrodite won; and from my marriage Hellas gained this benefit: you today are neither overwhelmed by Asian armies, nor ruled by an Asian king. The gain for Hellas was for me disastrous loss . . . [22]

The choice granted Paris is between the qualities of military strength, political power, or beauty. This can be reduced to two alternatives: power or truth. There is no purely rational way of making such a choice. Recent French theory presents all English­-speaking cultures with a challenge: is there anything that exists with­out a reason which is not rubbish? The thinking from Paris is that reasons come later.

It may seem that this scenario is too lofty for local thinkers, particularly from a country that stands to the side of major-league intellectual life. Yet there are conditions peculiar to an Australian context which grant a freedom to think otherwise about ideas. The geographical and cultural distance from Paris inhibits many French writers from coming to universities and talking directly about their theories.[23] In order to disseminate their ideas, therefore, it often happens that local academics take a specialist interest in one particu­lar writer, for whom they are sometimes called on to speak. Though mostly this voice clarifies the original texts and defends the perceived intentions of the absent writer, in the context of this volume the contributors have been given the licence to stand back from their authorised involvement, and speak to the relationship between their writers and foreign contexts in which they are read.

The essays have been divided into three groups according to the kinds of possibility drawn from the French author: writing, reading and social uses.

The first group of essays deals with the potential for writing uncovered by French theory. Kevin Hart reveals the space present in Derrida’s work for contextualisation, or ‘counter-signing’ the text. Hart shows how he has used this space to work with poetic possi­bilities uncovered by the instability of meaning in language. Brenda Ludeman presents testimony to Kristeva’s project of semanalysis: she claims that it serves to liberate a previously occluded materiality of meaning. This is something which Ludeman presents as a unique promise for an art writing that is not contained within the monologic narratives of academic art history. David Odell points to Blanchot’s recovery of the forgotten moment in dialectical thinking: a con­sciousness in abeyance to the infinitely knowable, what Odell names the ‘gnostic sublime’. Odell describes the form of récits employed by Blanchot as a means of having theory speak through fiction. In the case of Hart,, Ludeman and Odell, French theory has been able to point towards an understanding that is lacking in the Anglo picture-that is, how language ‘speaks’-and point as well to the possibilities this allows in the practice of writing.

One way of reading French theory is to use it as the measure of one’s intelligence: how far can I as a reader reach towards the subtle consciousness contained in the texts? Other ways of reading French theory are presented by Virginia Trioli and Henry Krips. Trioli takes Barthes’ view of the involvement of the reader in the text to develop a narrative about her own autobiographical relation to his writing. The far-reaching light Barthes sheds on the relation of reader to text is used to reflect the act of reading Barthes so that reading becomes writing and the distance between text and life almost cancelled. Krips traces the discursive space opened to the English-speaking reader by Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault is placed in the position of revealing the story that in many ways is the one that contemporary western readers live their lives by: as beings ‘liberated’ from repressions. Is Foucault then liberating his readers from this narrative? Krips demonstrates that Foucault’s text fails to point to any single ethical response. This indeterminacy is seen to open the text to the effects of context. The readings of both Barthes and Foucault therefore point to the existence of fictions by which lives can be organised.

The final group of essays concerns itself with the social contexts in which the texts of particular French writers may be seen to oper­ate. Peter Cotton’s discussion of Lacan places his psychoanalysis between the technocratic attitude of the Anglo-American psychotherapeutic scene and the historical picture present in the works of Heidegger. Though Lacan provides an alternative to an attitude where effectiveness is prior to understanding, he is seen by Cotton to be unable to account for the historically specific nature of the split subject which he sees as a symptom of the modern principle of ‘self-positing’. The political setting constructed for Baudrillard’s texts by Chris McAuliffe concerns the particular struggle against orthodox Marxism whose reductivism he hoped to expose. McAuliffe contrasts this tactical use of Baudrillard with the ‘radical loss’ which Baudrillard is seen as promoting in his reception in the Anglo art world. Such an alternative makes reading Baudrillard a more active pursuit on behalf of the reader. Julian Pefanis’ chapter on Lyotard presents a writer who has set himself up against both Freud and Marx. Pefanis shows some of the specific roles of Lyotard’s text in informing an anti-militancy in Paris. Finally, Clare O’Farrell provides a ‘double reading’ of Bourdieu: she gives an account of his theory and then attempts to situate it within the social milieu of Paris. Cotton, McAuliffe, Pefanis and O’Farrell all actively read their authors to discover their place in the argument and place their ideas in a context of use rather than truth.

In general, the recent French theory spoken of in this volume gives space to the process of representation: not just the book, but its cover as well. This is a space denied by the reductive emphasis on practical rationality dominant in the Anglo mind. This kind of space mends into poetry, art, autobiography, politics, etc. Certainly the contributions point also to some shortcomings in the make-up of these theories, but this seems almost necessary to keep them open for dialogue with different cultures.

In order to highlight their response to French theory, some of the writers in this volume have taken chances with the standard aca­demic voice. A reader might be advised to think of these as attempts to give life to ideas, rather than rehearse a series of ready-made points. If nothing else, these attempts should serve to lay open the space in which it becomes possible to ‘own’ one’s allegiance or antagonism to Parisian ideas, to think that one might not be simply Following a fashion from elsewhere. And maybe in doing this we can turn our backs on the bonfire, and see what of our own world comes alive in its glow.

[1] J.-J. Rousseau Emile transl. B. Foxley, London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1911, p. 307

[2] English Traits London: George Routledge & Sons, 1848

[3] J.N.Hillgarth Ramon Llull and Llullism in Fourteenth-Century France Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 151 (my emphasis); see also Anthony Bonner (ed.) Selected Works of Ramon Llull vols 1 & 2, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985; for a more philosophical outline of Llullian thought, see Francis A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

[4] ‘Letter from a Friend,’ Monsieur Teste transl. J. Matthews, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 50-51

[5] ‘No Identity’ Collected Papers transl. Alphonso Lingis, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987, p. 147

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics transl. Caryl Emerson, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1984, p. 88

[7] ibid. p. 89

[8] M. Bradbury Mensonge London: Andre Deutsch, 1987, p. 17

[9] Bruno Latour Science in Action Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987

[10] S. Weber Institution and Interpretation Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 31

[11] ibid. p. 41

[12] A World of Difference Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987

[13] Of course, there is a more angry form of impatience with the success of French theory. Jean-Michel Roy (‘The French Invasion of American Art Criticism’ Journal of Art 2, 2, 1989, pp. 20-21) complains of the uncritical acceptance by art critics of ideas attached to French proper names: ‘ . ... is language ‘fascist’ simply because Barthes said so?’

[14] The perspective of ‘moral topography’, in which different countries are seen to participate in an argument is elaborated further in K. D. Murray ‘A life in the world in Australia’ Australian Cultural History 10, 1991, pp. 32-45).

[15] English Traits p. 141

[16] This travel talk is part of a corpus of 80 hours of discussion about the experience of being overseas. It was collected as part of a doctoral thesis investigating how sense is made of personal change.

[17] John Tittensor ‘French books and writing’ Meanjin 44, 1985, p. 535

[18] Mensonge p.17

[19] Georg Simmel ‘Fashion’ American Journal of Sociology 62, 1957, p. 545

[20] Thomas Pavel ‘The present debate: News from France’ Diacritics 19, 1989, pp. 17-32

[21] This picture grants a role to French thought which the Russian theorists Lotman and Uspensky (Y Lotman and B. Uspensky ‘Semiotics of culture’ New Literary History 9, 1978, pp. 211-32) might term a ‘de-automatising mechanism’: a mode of presencing which counters the closed rationalities of accounting systems.

[22] Transl. Philip Vellacott, lines 924-933

[23] At a recent meeting hosted by the marxist journal Arena, a discussion about deconstruction and politics raised such conflicting representations of Derrida’s ideas that it was suggested as a joke that he should be phoned and thus settle the issue with a definitive statement.