Transparency in Postwar France
A Critical History of the Present
Stefanos Geroulanos

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Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: The Matter with Transparency
chapter abstract

In this introduction, at stake is transparency as a concept and how it worked in postwar France. The introduction approaches transparency via four sites of its conceptual emergence—in the self, epistemology, ethics, and politics. First, that the self could be transparent to itself and that achieving this transparency was the purpose of ethics. Second, that the mind could know the world in an unmediated manner. Third, that relations between individuals could be pure, and that such relations were ethically desirable. Fourth, that society could be transparent to its members and to the state. These will be handled across the book, and this opening lays out the project of the book by examining Jean Starobinski's famous interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1957 book Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction; comparing the critical French treatment of transparency with the mostly "positive" treatment elsewhere in Europe; and offering methodological reflections.

1 Was Transparency an Optical Problem? A Short History
chapter abstract

Transparency is usually taken to be a visual matter, thanks to common usage and to etymology. This chapter recalls that the optical meaning has never been predominant or self-sufficient; that transparency is more than visual transparency, and that the concept of transparency is neither restricted to nor metaphorically derivative of the visual site. What we mean by transparency affects (and is affected by) the way sensation, objects, and materiality—not to mention mediation, objectivity, light—are constructed within a system of thought: were we to press the point, we would admit that transparency is a concept that has made sensation, perception, mediation, and knowledge possible. "Manifestation" and "showing through" are conceptual, epistemological and not simply visual issues. To explain the centrality of epistemological and ethical dimensions of transparency, this chapter focuses on four reference points—Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, and the French Enlightenment—from the specific perspective of postwar France.

2 France, Year Zero: Perception and Reality after the Liberation
chapter abstract

A widely shared component of the early postwar climate was the sense that the relationship between the perceiver and the world perceived had changed profoundly. Many French intellectuals regarded the end of World War II as more than a political matter: the shift was decisive enough to produce an overwhelming disarrangement that ended long traditions in metaphysics and epistemology: everything would be seen differently from now on. This chapter focuses on two important contemporary texts: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's manifesto "The War Has Taken Place" (1945); and Emmanuel Levinas's De l'existence à l'existant (1947). According to the former, the world had increased in complexity such that the prewar belief that "we were consciousnesses naked before the world" no longer held. The latter explicitly sought, against the entire tradition since Descartes, to rethink the subject as lost in the opacity and worldlessness of the night.

3 The World's Opacity to Consciousness: Sartre and Merleau-Ponty
chapter abstract

It was Jean-Paul Sartre who most firmly established the opacity of the world to consciousness as a necessary premise of phenomenological ontology. His svelte critique of prewar philosophy, and his move to separate consciousness from the world found strong support and philosophical force in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and especially in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. Together these began an intellectual revolution. The revision of philosophical principles about transparency that he offered in his 1943 magnum opus Being and Nothingness became central to the postliberation period. The "new French philosophy" that started with Being and Nothingness was highly respected even among its more vociferous philosophical critics, on the grounds that it set a new standard in the conceptualization of the relationship between humans and the world.

4 The Image of Science and the Limits of Knowledge
chapter abstract

This chapter attends to three reassessments that were central to the development of an epistemology of concepts and scientific rationalities from the 1930s on and became particularly significant, in French philosophy, to the development of a persistent critique of traditional humanistic practices, including the postulate of transparency. First, the marginalization of idealism, which forced a series of reinterpretations of the relationship between mind and world, especially in the form reason–reality, and eventually led epistemologists to the dismissal of existentialism. Second, the critique of scientific determinism, which redefined "science" in terms of the limits of human knowledge. Third, the disparagement of the claim that progress constituted the motor of science and reason.

5 Machines and the Cogito
chapter abstract

This chapter attends to Georges Canguilhem's arguments against René Descartes's postulate that the cogito needs to achieve transparency of knowledge, and against the transparency of the cogito itself. Canguilhem articulated these arguments in a text that has been lauded for epitomizing postwar epistemological concerns: his 1947 lecture "Machine and Organism," published in Knowledge of Life in 1952. Canguilhem's text speaks to three concerns relevant to the critique of transparency: the postwar displacement and reappreciation of Descartes's thought; the critique of epistemological transparency, which Canguilhem identifies with the cogito, positivism, and idealism and criticizes for explaining away organismic complexity and failing to understand the place of technical domination; and the postwar critique of the purity of scientific inquiry, where his emphasis is on the historical and conceptual situatedness of the observer.

6 From the Total Man to the Other: UNESCO, Anti-Colonialism, and the New Humanism of French Anthropology
chapter abstract

This chapter tracks the institutional and discursive transformation of French ethnology to the point where it could assert itself as the only guardian of humanity and "the other." Claude Lévi-Strauss's rise played a key role in this process, although many of his widely heralded arguments—particularly his opposition to the humanist pretenses to transcultural transparency—were common currency among anthropologists. The chapter follows three major themes. First, the path followed in French ethnology from totalization to internationalization, which resulted in a praise of alterity and a very different relationship to "home" and to the strictures of post-Durkheimian theory. Second, the role of UNESCO and its antiracism campaign in modifying the purview, objects, and rhetoric of anthropology in the early 1950s. Third, the reorganization of the science itself during the decline of the French empire, with changes that were often explicitly supportive of decolonization.

7 What Is Social Transparency? A Second Short History
chapter abstract

The concern with transparency is not just an abstract one; it is a vivid and multifaceted political issue which affects a wide range of problems—from the definition of a religious community to the use of language, from ethnic particularity to policing, from norms to social exclusion. Several traditions that concerned transparency in the community, in the individual, and in interpersonal relations of "fusion" painted utopias side by side with realities and promised that social and intersubjective transparency either existed or would become possible. This chapter outlines a number of such traditions that were highly visible in postwar France, starting with Catholicism, and reviews motifs of social transparency during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their spread to new domains, such as architecture and urbanism. The intention is to set the stage for the specific criticisms intentionally or collaterally directed against "social transparency" that will be discussed in subsequent chapter.

8 Between State and Society, I: The Police, the Black Market, and "the Gangster" after the Liberation
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on the place of the police in the postwar order, and the "others" to a police-effected social transparency. Not only was it quite impossible to purge the police, but a series of missteps made its mediating role in French state-society relations especially tricky. The police were consistently accused of failing their purpose of securing transparent order and surveillance throughout the later 1940s. After discussing their role, this chapter focuses on the black market as a grey zone lying beyond the state's economic control and on the figure of the "gangster," as imagined in French postwar film, criminology, and psychoanalysis.

9 Between State and Society, II: Psychology, Public Health, and the Rebellion of the Inadaptés
chapter abstract

In the 1950s and 1960s, criminology and psychology contributed to a further set of developments: the medical and psychocriminological efforts to "adapt" children and adolescents into the "normal" mainstream. "Adaptation," a concept that criminologists, child psychologists, and education specialists often explicitly adopted from biology, quickly became a crucial concept in school policy: the inadaptés—"maladapted" or "maladjusted" children and adolescents—would become a major concern for the state's education and policing of the younger generation from the mid-1950s on, as well as for social transparency. The chapter pays attention to the way that psychoanalysts (Jacques Lacan most famously) argued against the use of psychology for a social adaptation that emphasized "normal" developmental schemata and criminalized inadaptation. This was a profoundly violent process, they argued, which caught children and adolescents—whether "adapted" or not—in one conceptual crossfire of social management.

10 Alienation, Utopia, and Marxism after 1956: A Clarity Worse Than the Penumbra
chapter abstract

Marxism was transformed by the postwar debates around transparency and contributed to them in return, even if ambiguously. Gone, already by Stalin's death, were claims like Walter Benjamin's, that "to live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence." With the institution of Socialisme ou Barbarie and the decline of pro-Soviet communism in the 1950s, communism became far less committed to a transparent society that may overcome the fog of dialectical history. This chapter focuses on three moments instrumental to the great transformations in the 1950s: the change in Merleau-Ponty's political thought from the late 1940s to his Adventures of the Dialectic; the development of a theory of alienation and everyday life in Henri Lefebvre's revisionist Marxism and in the journal Arguments; and the development of the category of ideology in Althusser's thought, in particular across his reading of transparency in the early Marx.

11 Face, Mask, and Other as Avatars of Selfhood: A Third Short History
chapter abstract

This chapter examines postwar conceptions of selfhood, subjectivity, and identity with the help of a group of concepts that I am treating here as "avatars" of the self. The first part tracks philosophical uses of the face and its masking in the period 1930–60, when the symbolic value of "the face," which was associated with sincerity and wholeness, corroded and was gradually replaced by that of masking and theatricality. The second part engages with the meaning and multiplication of "the other" in discussions of dialectics, homogeneity, and especially the unconscious as understood by Jacques Lacan.

12 The Norm and the Same
chapter abstract

How did classic conceptions of the norm and the normal become an object of epistemological and political mistrust? How did the new biomedical and psychological understanding oppose scientific and policy-oriented epistemologies that relied on the reduction of social complexity to normality-oriented and adaptive norms? This chapter discusses interwar debates on norms and the normal, then attends to the replacement of that approach by nascent concepts in anthropology, philosophy of medicine, and psychoanalysis. Looking closely at the construction, in the first decades of the century, of the relationship of norm and normal, and then at the work of Georges Canguilhem, Jacques Lacan, André Leroi-Gourhan, and eventually Michel Foucault, the chapter shows how the "tyranny of the normal" became a major intellectual concern in the 1950s and 1960s.

13 The Third Order, or the Structural "Symbolic" as Epistemological Interface
chapter abstract

Intellectual pressures around separations and alterity, the breakdown of the human subject, and the abhorrence of normalization, in wide circulation in the 1950s, found their most systematic advocate in structuralism and its shift of the site of thinking about language, philosophy, and the human sciences. This chapter focuses on one gesture broadly identified with structuralism: the invention of a new domain in which experience, behavior, meaning, and knowledge could be examined. The replacement of both aprioristic and empirical models with intermediate structures was a decisive innovation. In this new space codes, systems, or relations loomed whose totality was unavailable to experience, impossible for a human subject to individually understand; subjective, empirical, or realist approaches had always missed them, yet they were not transcendental: they required a new kind of analysis. By 1960 this approach appeared to bring a philosophical revolution to all aspects of the human relationship with reality.

14 Lévi-Strauss's World Out of Sync
chapter abstract

That "western Man" was so out of sync with his world that his immediate representation of it—and of mankind itself—was a monstrous anamorphosis promoting the gravest of injustices was a central assumption of Lévi-Strauss's anthropological and philosophical project. It also defined the persona that Lévi-Strauss so strategically deployed in the 1950s. It permeated his sense of the role of thought in the present world as much as his depiction of world history and of the place of human diversity in it. This attempt helped Lévi-Strauss stand out among the intellectuals of the postwar period: his refusal of humanism equaled his compassion for the suffering of others. He founded his entire project to provide a formal theory of human societies; and also to turn the disappearing divergence of these societies into a moral cause. This chapter examines the implications of this approach.

15 The Ethnographer, Cinéma-vérité, and the Disruption of the Natural Order: Chronicle of a Summer
chapter abstract

Ethnography thematized the ethnographer's return to Paris as an uncomfortable return from other to self: the hero arrives in a changed Ithaca, but no conclusive reconciliation seems likely. The ethnographer who engaged with this thematic most interestingly was Jean Rouch, the director of the ethnographic films Les Maîtres fous (1956) and Moi, un noir (1959). Rouch marked his own return by teaming up with a leading revisionist Marxist, Edgar Morin, director of the journal Arguments, to make Chronicle of a Summer. Asking Parisians "How do you live?", Chronicle centered on workers' and professionals' ordinary life and work and instituted cinéma-vérité as putatively transparent representation of the everyday. Yet this transparency was ambiguous and profoundly troubling to the directors and to the film's protagonists. Examining Chronicle allows us to show in what way Rouch understood his camera to be constructing rather than merely representing reality, thereby warping representation.

16 Return to Rousseau: Lévi-Strauss, Starobinski, Derrida
chapter abstract

"We are never done with Rousseau," declared Jean Starobinski in a 1962 article. "Every generation discovers a new Rousseau, in whom it finds an example of what it desires to be, or of what it passionately rejects." On this, Claude Lévi-Strauss agreed, though he instead mapped Rousseau onto the indigenous tribes, especially the Nambikwara. This chapter presents Lévi-Strauss's use of Rousseau, which was designed to complete and historicize his account of the anthropologist's task, then compares his Rousseau with that of Starobinski, and concludes with Jacques Derrida's effort to rethink the place of Rousseau (and of Starobinski's and Lévi-Strauss's representations of Rousseau) in contemporary engagements with interpersonal relations, transparency, and the politics of philosophy. Derrida's reading of Lévi-Strauss in Of Grammatology constitutes the chapter's focus.

17 Return to Descartes: "The Last Tribunal of the Cogito"
chapter abstract

French philosophers in the 1960s were convinced that theirs was the time for the recalibration of thought, that the history of philosophy had to be illuminated through the new philosophical developments alone, and that their work was bringing forth a radical rethinking of modernity, away from the hyperrationalist, colonial, and violent past and present. The elaborate rethinking of the modern philosophical tradition they proposed can be read today as a shared attempt to stop it and start afresh. No figure illustrates better than René Descartes the importance of modernity and its history for postwar thinkers. Descartes was used for the purpose of advancing two related claims: that a self-transparent cogito had been formative for modernity; and that this was today a grand illusion, historically obsolete and philosophically destructive. The focus of the chapter is the critical invocation of the cogito by Canguilhem, Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault.

18 "Speak Not of Darkness, but of a Somewhat Blurred Light": Michel Foucault, Modernity, and the Distortion of Knowledge
chapter abstract

Few thinkers used the term "transparency" as much or as rigorously as Michel Foucault did in The Order of Things (1966). Foucault handled the term "transparency" as a key to the arc of modernity, and as a profound illusion of his time. This chapter shadows Foucault's use of the word transparency, which he first equated with representation in the Classical Age. In modernity, this equivalence ended; human finitude—established alongside the transformation of labor, life, and language around 1800—imposed a "screen" on knowledge, and the hope for transparency veils and distorts even that screen. The final part rereads the conclusion of The Order of Things in order to argue that Foucault's present is more ambiguous than often recognized, and that he outlined a potential movement of knowledge toward a kind of transparency that Man cannot capture: while in line with knowledge, it escapes from the human altogether.

19 Cybernetic Complexity: Prehistory, Biology, and Derrida's Program for Liberation
chapter abstract

This chapter considers together two central themes of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology: its promise of a "liberation," the trace; and its treatment of then recent languages of communication (ie. cybernetics and information theory) that claimed fundamental, even universal language status. It traces the emergence of cybernetics in France in the 1950s, specifically its influence on biology and prehistory, paying attention to Derrida's reading of André Leroi-Gourhan's 1964–1966 Gesture and Speech and also to his highly critical 1975 interpretation of François Jacob's The Logic of Life. By positioning philosophy vis-à-vis biology and cybernetics, indeed by taking up cybernetics and seeking to "liberate" its program, Of Grammatology radicalized the broad histories and languages for the human proposed by biological and paleontological theories based on cybernetics and thereby superseded the earlier technophobic reaction to scientific determinism.

20 The Present Time and the Agent of History before and after May 1968
chapter abstract

Thinkers like Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida actively emptied the leading epistemological and political economies (and even revolutionary hopes) of meaning, and just as actively dissolved the humanist present so as to begin to ask about the human and knowledge in the future. This is the narrative of a bifurcation of the "now." In this narrative, ending transparency did not mean succumbing to opacity; it meant endorsing complexity and irreducibility, taking up a chance at the liberation of difference and self-division. This supersession of modernity that was on the horizon evaporated with May '68. The structuralist advocacy of non-agential forms—linguistic, computational, or symbolic—that broke apart the present lost credibility and currency in the face of social struggle. This loss was in part due to the events of May themselves: they were collective political acts of men and women with an agency that was decisively political and social.

21 The Myth of the Self-Transparency of Society: Claude Lefort and His Circle
chapter abstract

The rise to prominence in France of a new generation of democratic theorists in the 1970s might have signaled a similar repatriation or rehabilitation of transparency; one would expect that democracy and the famous antitotalitarian moment would align French thought with contemporary European and American trends. But this was far from the case, as is evident in the work of the anthropologists, political theorists, and historians who surrounded the influential philosopher Claude Lefort. If anything, Lefort and his associates in that "new" democratic theory—notably Miguel Abensour, François Furet, Marc Richir, and Pierre Rosanvallon, but also Marcel Gauchet, Bronisław Baczko, and, to a degree, Cornelius Castoriadis—sharpened and institutionalized the critique of transparency and used the term transparency in a univocal, single-minded fashion, to reference one of the major fictions of totalitarian (especially contemporary communist) states: a society transparent to itself.

22 Nineteen Eighty-Four: Information, the Scrambled Signs of the Ideal, and The Postmodern Condition
chapter abstract

The critical attitude toward transparency began to change in the later 1970s, and in the mid-1980s transparency became the object of a new worship. French governments warmed to the rhetoric of governmental transparency and freedom of information. This process was piloted by the one political event supposedly capable of connecting state and society—François Mitterrand's ascent to the presidency. But after Mitterand's 1983 "austerity turn," shifts in governmental policy and the need for their intellectual legitimation marginalized the critique of transparency. Former critics like Laurent Fabius and Michel Rocard became committed advocates. Against this backdrop, the book concludes with Jean-François Lyotard's identification of transparency with neoliberal economies of knowledge, his disdain for "progress" and emancipatory programs, his invalidation of ideals new and old, his long list of failures of an "enlightened" modernity—new ways of responding to and resisting the brave new world of the 1980s.