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Militant readings: politics and literature in 20th century French philosophy from Sartre to Rancière, Blanchot to Badiou.

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Winter School 2014

2.30pm – 5.30pm | 7-11 July | Room 0106 (Note classes will run between 2-3 hours in length.)

For proponents and detractors alike, 20th century French philosophy can often be identified by reference to two of its exceptional properties: its strongly political focus and character, and its investment in literature. Through a series of case studies – some of which are well-known, but often caricatured beyond recognition, and others which are deserving of more serious attention – this course proposes to explore the singular knot that 20th century French thought has consistently tied between the political and the literary. From debates between Blanchot, Sartre and de Beauvoir in the 1940s, to the jousts between journals such as Tel Quel and Change in the heady days of 1960s literary theory, to the post-68 period of revolutionary fidelity or nihilist disenchantment, and finally to more recent explorations, no other philosophical tradition of the 20th century has shown such a persistent – and peculiar – interest in thinking politics and literature together.

How have French thinkers of the last century articulated the relation between politics and literature – and, indeed, between these practices and philosophy itself? For what philosophical and extra-philosophical purposes have they done so? What can this teach us about the very style of thought characteristic of French philosophy, its limits and its singular virtues? What remains to be learnt from this history today? These are some of the broad questions that this course will attempt to address.

Course Schedule:

Lecture One:

Oui, je suis ce Danton ! Je suis ce Robespierre !
– Victor Hugo, Réponse à un acte d’accusation

In the first half of the first lecture, we will offer a concise historical overview of the political, literary and philosophical context of post-Revolutionary France. We will track the development of a knot of problems in which 20th century writers and philosophers will find themselves endlessly entangled, including: the link between aesthetic innovation and political revolution; the causal power of literature in general to effect social transformation, whether progressive or reactionary; and finally the responsibility of the writer in and to society as a whole. The literary movements and concrete political events to be succinctly surveyed will include: the development of Victor Hugo’s Romanticism from a reactionary Royalist position to an alignment not only with Republicanism, but with the spirit of the blood-soaked Terror of 1793-94; the entanglement of Symbolism and fin-de-siècle anarchism; the Freud-inflected Marxism of Surrealism, whose revolutionary references are both 1789 and the Russian Revolution; and finally the conversion to Socialist Realism of the ex-Surrealist Louis Aragon. The vision that will emerge from this brief overview will be of a literary tradition whose self-understanding has been intertwined for more than a century with politics – but not, importantly, with a politics that is, of necessity, exclusively Left or Right, revolutionary or reactionary.

Any writer who is not induced by the fact of writing to think, “I am the revolution, only freedom allows me to write”, is not really writing.
– Maurice Blanchot , La littérature et le droit à la mort

In the second half, we will explore, against the backdrop that has just been outlined, the post-War debates about the political destiny of literature engaged in by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Blanchot. With Sartre’s What is Literature? (1947) as our starting point, we will examine the divergent estimations of literature’s power, and the conflicting judgements about the responsibility of the writer, that these thinkers made. In a post-War climate in which the question of the collaboration of many of France’s authors with Nazism could not be avoided, Sartre and de Beauvoir demanded a form of literary production – la littérature engagée – that would reconcile itself, after decades of hermetic formal experimentation, with the demands and experiences of the broadest possible public, thereby promoting a socialist, democratic culture motivated by the search for a concrete freedom. Against this, Maurice Blanchot argued that the very essence of literature lay in its refusal of any and all community, the writer wilfully subtracting themselves from linguistic and communal norms. Drawing on the imaginary of the French Revolution, Blanchot argued that this withdrawal was the manifestation of a freedom even more radical than that promoted by the existentialists, one analogous to the experience of the revolutionaries of 1789 and 1793: la liberté d’une tête coupée.


  • Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death”, in The Work of Fire
  • Simone de Beauvoir, “Right-wing thought today”, in Simone de Beauvoir. Political Writings
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?

Lectures Two and Three:

If all literature ceased, no revolution would be possible.
– Jean Ricardou, Problèmes du nouveau roman

In the second and third lectures, we will explore the extraordinary effervescence in the creation of literary theory during the 1960s and early-1970s. With the rise of structuralism and the dominance of linguistics as a pilot science in the humanities, literary theory was poised to take centre stage in cultural production, attracting an audience of politically-radicalised students and marginal academics who would themselves go on to be the instigators of the events of May ’68. We will focus in particular on the political repercussions – both real and imagined – of the theoretical innovations made by journals such as Tel Quel and Change and their extraordinary line-up of contributors, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva to Jean-Pierre Faye. Refusing the model of sartrean engagement, which was grounded in the communicational lucidity of prose, the theorists of la nouvelle critique took as their model the linguistic and formal subversion effected by nouveau roman writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute – and, before them, by the poet Mallarmé – and argued that such linguistic transformations were the necessary prolegomena to any revolution. Without the formal experimentation exemplified by Mallarmé and his successors, those who wished to change society would remain ensnared in the ideological mechanisms of bourgeois society – mechanisms which were, at root, linguistic – and so risk reproducing the order they hoped to overthrow.

Mallarmé is a machine gun.
– Vivianne Forrester, La Violence du calme

Amongst the individual works and theories that we will investigate in these two lectures, we will privilege those that link linguistic and literary innovation to political revolution, our aim being to both understand the arguments advanced for the existence of this link and to evaluate the actual historical impact that they had. These works will include: the collective publication Théorie d’ensemble, which grouped together works by the members and collaborators of Tel Quel and advanced a theory of textual productivity that synthesized Marx, Freud and the deconstruction of Saussurean linguistics effected by Derrida; Philippe Sollers’ Logiques; Roland Barthes’ The pleasure of the text; and Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language. We will attempt to understand these theories in the context of their production, arguing that they arise from the fortuitous conjunction of a competitive avant-garde publishing sphere, which dramatically accelerated the rhythm of theoretical innovation; the demands and ambitions of an audience made up predominantly of students and marginal academics dissatisfied with a technocratic capitalist society and its incarnation in the University; and finally the events of May ’68 and –  more distantly but equally decisively – the Cultural Revolution in China, which led to a distinctly French form of Maoist politics.


  • Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
  • Jacques Derrida, “The Double Session”, in Dissemination
  • Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language

Lecture Four:

We are lamp-bearers. Just as the poem does with the deserted salon, we inspect the political place in order to discern therein the staking out of antagonism that will relay the promise and organize the future.
– Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject

The fourth lecture will be structured around a confrontation between the work of Alain Badiou and Jean-Claude Milner. Taking Badiou’s Theory of the Subject and Milner’s Tombeau de Mallarmé as our focus, we will consider the divergent ways in which these two formidable thinkers have sought to think through, often via the literary in general and the work of Mallarmé in particular, the fortunes of emancipatory politics in the aftermath of May ‘68 and the post-89 context. We will begin with Badiou’s early masterpiece, Theory of the Subject, a work that we will read as (a) a vast philosophical synthesis of the Marxist, structuralist and post-structuralist thought of the 1960s and 70s; (b) as a surpassing of these philosophical currents via a re-working of the materialist dialectic; and finally (c) as an effort to construct the tools necessary for thinking – and effecting – radical social change. But we will be particularly attentive to the role that literature plays in this project, in particular the work of Mallarmé. How can the writings of an obscure petit-bourgeois poet from the late-19th century illuminate the situation of a committed Maoist militant in the mid-1970s? For Badiou, Mallarmé’s poetry both points the way towards the formal requirements of a truly materialist dialectic and provides the model of uncompromising fidelity in the face of reactionary forces.

There comes a time when one is tempted to say: nothing took place. This moment is Mallarméan.
- Jean-Claude Milner, Prose redeemed

In the second half of the fourth lecture, we will confront the militant fidelity to the sequence of events following May ’68 that Badiou argues for, and which he articulates via the figure of Mallarmé, with the work of Jean-Claude Milner. In Tombeau de Mallarmé, Milner unfolds a revisionist reading of Mallarmé’s sonnet Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui in which he argues that the poet negates the reality of the emancipatory movements of the 19th century. For Mallarmé, as Milner glosses him, Victor Hugo was wrong to wait for the day of the revolution, as no day could ever come; and Baudelaire was equally wrong to mourn the failure of the 1848 revolution, for no revolution ever occurred. This reading of the events of the 19th century is in direct conversation with those who, like Badiou, would carry the hope of emancipation that the events of May ’68 promised. For Milner, the lesson of Mallarmé is that it is necessary to leave behind the political vision of the world that inspires both Badiou’s political commitments as well as the militant readings of literature that this course has explored.


  • Alain Badiou, Theory of the subject
  • Jean-Claude Milner, Tombeau de Mallarmé

Lecture five:

It is this paradigm of aesthetic autonomy that became the new paradigm for revolution, and it subsequently allowed for the brief but decisive encounter between the artisans of the Marxist revolution and the artisans of forms for a new way of life.
– Jacques Rancière, The politics of aesthetics

In this final lecture, we will consider the way that Jacques Rancière has recently attempted to re-think the whole post-Revolutionary history of the link between the literary and politics, delineating a set of productive contradictions that have been its motor and the source of the political desires it has fostered. For Rancière, it is the very autonomy of literature, its refusal to sacrifice itself to any norm exterior to those it proposes for itself, that has, paradoxically,  inspired those who would deploy it for extra-literary – indeed political – ends. In addition to exploring Rancière’s work as a sort of high-altitude survey of the fortunes of the link between literature and politics, we will see how his writings resonate, perhaps surprisingly, with those of Quentin Meillassoux on Mallarmé, in which the fortunes of political emancipation and poetic innovation are fleetingly – but symptomatically – tied together again.


  • Quentin Meillassoux, The Number and the Siren
  • Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech



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