'Response to Rancière'
Paris, 7 April 2015
I have just read your interview with Eric Aeschimann in the Nouvel Obs, and I can’t tell if we live in the same country… what can I say? … maybe not even on the same planet, when I see you beginning your comments by saying that ‘obviously everyone agrees in condemning the January attacks’.
This statement is so blatantly untrue that it discourages any kind of response. I’ll say nothing. It’s up to you to explain what you mean by this. What is this talk of ‘obviously, everyone…’ all about? Please, tell us, I’d love to see this ‘everyone’ – it sounds like a fine bunch, even if it leaves out quite a number of people.
Thinking about it further, I think that what you meant to say is that you weren’t on the killers’ side; and the reason you put it awkwardly is that you were no more on the side of the people who they murdered.
So when we think about this ‘everyone’ (that doesn’t include… everyone) we quickly get to the problem of the universal. You are saddened that universalism has been ‘appropriated and manipulated’, and ‘transformed into the distinctive trait of a particular group’. But the worm is in the fruit – that is, in the concept itself. Universalists are not so blind that they can’t tell that not everyone is on their side. The fact that there are universalists also means that there are particularists, and indeed singular individuals. So universalism is of course only ever ‘the distinctive trait of a particular group’. And the particularists, for their part, have reason to consider universalism to be the universalists’ own particularism.
There’s nothing unreasonable about that. Those who think that ‘great universalist values’ (your term) are just the ‘new look’ instruments of Western imperialism are legion. They are in the majority in the UN General Assembly. Putin and his Slavophile philosophers as well as the masters of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the new Islamic Caliphate, not to forget the now late Lee Kuan Yew (who created Singapore) and the Castro brothers, are all in agreement on that.
You say the same for France, telling us that the great universalist principles have been instrumentalised there by a will to domination, which devotes its efforts to attacking ‘a particular community’. So you immediately repudiate a universalism that promotes nothing more than xenophobia and racism. There, I have to say – hang on a minute.
Let’s draw the distinction between the national and the international. When it comes to the concert of nations, it is not so absurd to think that we ought to acknowledge that universalism is a particularism – our one – rather than obstinately try and insist on making it universal. After all, in that case we’d have to call from the grave the armed Universal as was once embodied by the famous ‘maneater’ – the French Emperor – in the name of the Rights of Man. But in the name of what do you want the indigenous population of France to submit their particularism – which is universalist – to the particularism of the ‘particular community’ in question?
When Aeschimann asks you about the wearing of the veil and women’s liberation, you reply, ‘the status of women in the Muslim world is problematic, certainly, but it’s the women concerned who first have to decide what they consider oppressive. And, in general, the people who suffer oppression have to fight against their own submission – you can’t liberate people on their behalf’.
Your last line, here, sums up well Robespierre’s objections against Brissot, when the latter called on revolutionary France to mount ‘a crusade for universal freedom’: ‘The most extravagant idea that can arise in any politician’s head is the belief that one country invading another by force is enough to make it adopt its laws and its constitution. No one has any love for armed missionaries: the first counsel of both nature and prudence is to push them out, as enemies’ (Speech to the Jacobin club, 2 January 1792).
But this argument doesn’t concern the question that’s here being posed, which isn’t a matter of foreign wars. Aeschimann didn’t make any reference to freeing Afghans or Saudis; he asked you about the emancipation of veiled French women. Dismissing the question of the mores of the ‘Muslim world’ – when actually you’re being asked about our compatriots’ fate, and leaving the problem on their shoulders – just will not do. It’s washing your hands of the question. If they are subjected to others, then that is not only a problem for them, nor only a question for the ‘particular community’ to which you refer. It concerns the national community as a whole.
I don’t think you’re doing any better when you claim that the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo editors was not an attack on freedom of expression, the polarization on that question apparently only being a matter of ‘delegitimising part of the population’. You see freedom of expression as ‘a principle regulating individuals’ relations with the state’.
No, Rancière. How come the 7 January killings sparked a wave of feeling incomparable to that which followed the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 200 and left 1,400 people injured? Because a determined force struck at the heart of Paris, telling humanity as a whole that certain things must never be said or even represented anywhere in the world. This egregious attack on people’s rights spoke to a mad desire for universal submission. The killing awakened the most diverse reactions: terror, revulsion, resistance, but also understanding, support and admiration.
In fact, all this had already existed in embryonic form since 14 February 1989, in ayatollah Khomeini’s famous fatwa. Remember? He exhorted all Muslims – the universal of the faithful – to execute Salman Rushdie, his publishers, and anyone who had read The Satanic Verses, shooting on sight. Iran’s master thus showed that he could openly sentence the citizens of foreign states – living in these states – to death for blasphemy; and that he could do so with impunity. So are you really telling us that this wasn’t anything to do with freedom of speech, because this situation doesn’t fit with your narrow definitions?
A curious mix. A fine trick. When the West was forced to admit, against its will, that its universalism was only a particularism, Muslim particularism revealed itself as a universalism. Armed universalism is back. The American neocons’ efforts failed, and now it’s Muslim universalism’s turn to take to the stage of History and play ‘the soul of the world’.
It, too, will fail. For one thing it is divided, torn from within by the schism that sets Sunnis against Shiites. And the democracies have a resilience that the totalitarianisms that see them as only emasculated, corrupt and chaotic have misunderstood. For your part, you seem to have failed to grasp the transnational dimension of France’s difficulties.
There is a Jewish universalism, because the Seven Laws of Noah are for everyone; but it is not a proselytising universalism, and at its heart is the chosen people’s openly asserted particularism. There was an era when Christian universalism was young, lively and at times bloody; today it settles for talk of ecumenism. Communist universalism only still exists in terms of memory and wishful thinking. Still in the hunt are capitalist universalism and Muslim universalism.
The recent nuclear deal with Iran shows that Obama is relying on soft power to subvert the austere Islamic Republic from within. Doubtless he’s hoping that one day they’ll be queuing up in Tehran to get their hands on the latest iPhone – ‘Apple Akbar!’ can substitute for the old Takhbir. The fact that the most fanatical of the Iranian revolutionaries greeted the same deal with such enthusiasm shows that they don’t think that’s true in the slightest. A titanic struggle, then: who will win, the gadget or the One? The object or the master-signifier? Will this lead to a marriage of intensive production and nationalist identity, the Chinese way?
Russian particularism claims to be in the same ballpark as the great contemporary universalisms. It is relying on reviving an eschatological theory of ‘Moscow, the third Rome’. Every day we can see the European far Right ever more being drawn into its orbit. Will its International go much beyond that?
And as for French particularism, it no longer has the ambitions that Charles Maurras inspired in De Gaulle: that is, making this old nation the leader of the small and medium powers resisting the great Empires. It limits its goals to maintaining the ‘French model’ – which is no longer a model for anyone. I read the same sneering remarks that you make about French-style secularism (and laïcité is French and nothing more) every week in the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. All of them say the same: come on, French people, one more push to be capitalist. Be multicultural, liquidate your Leitkultur, let people and goods pass freely. To each his own loves, his own clothing, his own food – leave them in peace.
A fine trick, again here – people like you, standing up for the most exploited of the exploited, end up working for the King of Prussia.
You make out that the Parti Socialiste is the gravedigger of the Left. That is to misunderstand the Communist Party’s role in burying the Man-of-the-Left. At its height under Thorez the PCF – pro-Moscow down to the marrow – managed to present itself as a national or even nationalist party. Another trick, this; when the Party was left to itself, far from sinking roots in the nation, it lost its meaning.
You yourself only see attention to the national factor as ‘rapid rightward drift’. You hope for ‘mass, democratic movements’ (though God knows where from). As you tell it the last forty years have been nothing but ‘economic disasters’ and ‘geopolitical chaos’. And this from you – one of the most distinguished thinkers on the radical Left!
The Mass has been said. The proletarians are with the Front National. The radical Left is crumbling and the centre Left drifting to the centre. The offer on the Right from Sarkozy to Juppé is the broadest one. That’s the new situation.
Dear Jacques-Alain Miller,
You ask whether we’re really living in the same country. I can only ask whether we’re really talking about the same article.
You say that you are curious to meet the ‘everyone’ that I said agreed in condemning the 7 January butchery. I think that it’s right in front of you, every day. I was referring to the broad consensus of publically expressed opinion in France after the attack.
There are of course some second-hand quotes, and there’s been talk of school students who said that the victims had it coming. But the thing about these views is that they were reported like voices coming from another world. Whereas I was talking about the world you and I are in. I was saying that I had no intention of repudiating this consensus, and that there was something else that I wanted to talk about.
So let’s get to the heart of the question.
You accuse me of rejecting universalism, under the pretext that it is today merely a vehicle for xenophobia and racism. And you so kindly assimilate me to the ranks of the dictators, according to whom the ‘great universalist values’ are just instruments of a ‘new look’ Western imperialism. For my part, ever since Althusser’s Lesson I have unfailingly fought those who claim that universalism, human rights, formal freedoms, humanism and democracy are but a mask for exploitation or domination. I have not changed on that score, and nor shall I. And that’s precisely the reason why I’m worried to see that a kind of ‘universalist’ discourse has developed over the last decade or two that seems almost designed to justify the claims of these dictators and all those who agree with them.
Of course universalism is always the universalism of a determinate group of humans. But that does not free it of having to fulfil its own principles. When universalism is a one-way street; when it is reduced to a system of rules and constraints (or even abuses) that will necessarily only affect one part of the totality that it is meant to regulate; and when it is arrogantly waved around as the thing dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’ – then for those who are effectively being targeted, it can only reinforce and radicalise the feeling that universalism is a fraud, specifically designed to oppress them. So I defend universalism against those whose actions do so much to defame it.
I am not ignoring the issue of veiled girls in France. My argument that it is for the women concerned to tell whether they find it oppressive, and that you can’t liberate people on their behalf, first and foremost concerns the question of the veil in France. On the first point, once upon a time we learned that what seemed to us most oppressive about the exploitation of labour was not necessarily the same thing that the people concerned suffered from the greatest; and the same is true of Muslim women’s condition, in this situation. We know that they have a number of different interpretations of wearing the veil, including as a provocation. That is why I believe that the ‘national community’ has more important things to deal with, and that the way that the question has been ‘nationalised’ has significantly strengthened the identitarian retreat that it was supposed to be fighting.
As for freedom of expression, I would maintain that strictly speaking it is defined in terms of the relation between the state and those who want to express their opinion. As against this you tell me about those who announce to ‘humanity as a whole that certain things must never be said or even represented anywhere in the world’. We could debate what universal meaning the Kouachi brothers ascribed to their action. But I would maintain that the problem that it poses cannot be boxed within the limits of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of the press’. Just after 7 January a certain Jacques-Alain Miller wrote that ‘nowhere in human history has it been allowed to say just anything’. And I think when he said that he was not trying to justify the crime; rather, he wanted to emphasise that the question of what is said and not said, as well as the question of the effects that words have, goes beyond any legal definition of freedom of expression.
There have always been people who are prepared to kill others in order to silence words they do not like, and there always will be. The problem is to know what can be done in a specific community – in this case, the French community, or the community of those who live in France – to stop such people from multiplying in number, and to prevent their actions earning the admiration and support of a wider part of the population. For that very reason, simply to say that there is a right to say anything, and that this is inextricably linked to French identity, is not just insufficient but counterproductive, because we know that even the editor of Charlie Hebdo himself said that you could not just say anything in his paper – indeed, you could be sacked for it. We need something more than this, in order to be able understand each other’s reasoning, to see what can and cannot be agreed on, to find out where there is room for compromise, such that those who have to live together can get along by means other than murder and anathema. There is also a responsibility on each person in terms of what s/he thinks is right to say, or not say, and the way in which what s/he says is likely to be understood. Those who cry ‘multiculturalism’ when we mention these issues are certainly not doing any good.
Finally, you talk about me sneering about French laïcité and here you compare me not to the post-communist or Islamist dictators but to the haughty English-language press. What I said about laïcité was this: in recent years we have invented a laïcité that no longer has anything to do with what this word had meant in France for more than a century. Before, it was to do with the state and its institutions, starting with schools. And activists’ fight for laïcité was a struggle for public funds to be reserved to state schools only. We have recently invented a new laïcité that is not an obligation on the state, but on individuals. We have reinvented laïcité as a universal obligation that concerns a very particular object – an item of clothing, now transformed into a vehicle for religious propaganda – and a very specific category of the population, namely girls of the Muslim faith. If you want to criticise what I say about laïcité, then it’s for you to prove that no such radical transformation of this notion took place, or that it changed for the better. But you don’t do that.
You also object that the Parti Socialiste didn’t kill the Left all by itself and that the PCF also played its part. But my argument wasn’t about their respective good and bad points. It is simply a fact that despite everything that the PCF did over the decades, this never managed to kill off the Left, whereas the Parti Socialiste has succeeded in absorbing and then killing the Left. Moreover, since you don’t define any political space with which you identify, there is no basis for us to discuss the dreams of the future that you claim I am the victim of.
See the original piece here.
Both letters were translated by David Broder.