French intellectual history

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)

Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

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Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

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Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

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Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

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La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

We should justify ourselves no more: Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia

by guest contributor Laetitia Citroen

2016 has been a particularly prolific year for the French-speaking African intellectual community, with symbolical landmarks like the appointment of a Congolese award-winning novelist, Alain Mabanckou, as guest-lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris and the gathering of some of the best minds of the continent (many of whom teach in the US) in two international and interdisciplinary conferences—one at the Collège de France, and one at the Universities of Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal—to think about the future of Africa in terms of its economy, philosophy, and culture.

afrotopia.jpgThe organizer of the Conference in Senegal, Felwine Sarr, is a young economist and philosopher whose most recent book could serve as a manifesto for this new dynamic. Afrotopia powerfully advocates for a new Africa. Sarr combines work as an economist with a broad philosophical background in both European and African traditions. This essay is punctuated with deft quotations from Castoriadis, Lyotard, and Foucault alongside Mudimbé, Wiredu, and Mbembe, all as Saar discretely takes up the heritage of Frantz Fanon. In spite of the title, the author’s purpose has nothing of the dreamy or the unrealistic. Afrotopia is not an u-topia, a place that does not exist; rather, it is a topos, a place that can and will appear because “there is a continuity between the real and the possible.” This book is not an optimistic dream; it is a galvanizing declaration of love to an entire continent that has so much potential and only needs to become aware of it. It is also a deeply philosophical analysis of the numerous invisible ties that prevent its economies from ‘growing’ and ‘developing.’

The book also treats the ‘economy’ of Africa in the most philosophical sense: the complex network of relationships that connects African people on all kinds of levels, a study of what constitutes the inner equilibrium of the continent. Despite Sarr’s training as an economist, you will find not find here any graphs or compilation of numbers imported from World Bank Reports. Instead, he dwells on the importance of sustaining the link between culture and economy: “in human communities,” he writes, “the imaginary is a constitutive part of social relationships, including the most materialistic ones. An economic interaction is, first and foremost, a social interaction. The imaginary and the symbolical determine its production. Therefore, cultural factors will influence economic performances. (…) African economies would take off if only they functioned on their own motives.” Quoting French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis, Sarr argues that the first step is an “imaginary institution” of this new Africa, of this “Afrotopia.” African intellectuals need to take the time to define their own “autonomous and endogenous teleonomy”: to set the goals of the African societies themselves or, to put it in other terms, to block any external attempt to determine what would be good for Africa. In many ways, the term ‘development’ itself needs to be decolonized.


Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/ pour Jeune Afrique)

The author hence argues that not only have International Aid Agencies forgotten to take specific cultural features into account, but that they have also brought their own teleology. Real African ‘development’ cannot and will not take place if it only aims at objectives—like ‘growth’—that Westerners consider best. He quotes his friend the Togolese novelist Sami Tchak, who once provocatively asked him: “When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” Afrotopia is precisely an African place, not a copy of the global north. When reflecting on other ways of defining ‘development,’ Sarr refers to the philosophy of development as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum founded it; he also underlines the symbolical value of all economic exchanges as studied by anthropologists of economy—like Jane Guyer—who show how all economic behavior is based on cultural meaning. Simple examples of this could be the money sent home by emigrants of the diaspora or the importance of hospitality.

Therefore, writing about the African economy entails much more than drawing graphs. The pure rationality of an homo economicus yields no satisfactory explanation of economic exchanges in Africa—or, the author hints, anywhere else. So studying the economy of Africa proves nothing short of studying the social interactions themselves; Afrotopia must be a place that thrives ‘economically’ in its fullest meaning ; it has to be a place that “makes sense to those who inhabit it.” Understanding this requires taking distance from, or completely abandoning, the “methodological individualism” of orthodox economic thinking. Therefore, Sarr calls for an “epistemic decentering,” even for an “epistemogonia.” Western economics yield an épistêmè of sorts that need to be reconsidered before being applied to African situations as other non-Western economists, like Ugandan Yash Tandon or Indian Rajeev Bhargav have pointed out. Africa needs to speak about itself in its own language, and it is time to “leave the dialectic of appropriation and alienation behind.”  Africa is not faced with a binary choice of either being alienated, of losing its identity to the hands of new colonizers, or of willingly embracing the Western civilization.

But this carries wider implications than simple methodology: the debate about Africa is stuck in a dialectic of tradition and modernity. The lack of ‘modernity’ in Africa commonly refers to the lack of technological and industrial ‘progress.’ Yet why do we still speak in these terms about Africa when philosophers in the West have long started theorizing postmodernity? Sarr situates his Afrotopia as part of this new way of thinking: simple mimetism of Western values is no real ‘progress’ for Africa; and the ‘weight’ of ‘tradition’ is no synonym of backwardness and refusal to change. Rather, it is also the unique root from which the continent can draw its future, as Japan did one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end, Sarr advocates for an “Afrocontemporanéité” rather than an African modernity: equally averting from nostalgia of a mythical past and from pure awe at technological progress, Sarr argues that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, in its contemporaneity, and make sure it is as unique and true to itself as it can be.


Zeinab Mialele colletion (© Charles Bah/Fima)

There is no fatality. Africa is not this tragic continent that has lost all connection with its ancient culture, nor is it this strange space that will eventually come to resemble northern countries. The author calls pragmatically for thinkers who will take Africa as it is right now, with the inherited and the assimilated. As can be seen in the beautiful creations of young African stylists (Sarr takes his examples in all realms of activity, from fashion to urbanism), whose syncretism can be a virtue: “we are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.” In a way, Sarr also foresees Africa’s capacity to jump directly into the twenty-first century without endlessly asking itself about its past – be it colonial or pre-colonial – and invites us to trust its capacity of poiésis, of creating something new. For instance, the continent has not yet built environmentally harmful industries on its soil, and could therefore start implementing cleaner ways of production right from the beginning, and even use its resources as leverage to impose these clean industries in the rest of the world.

So where is this Afrotopia, and how can we find it—the real place of Africa, the one it has not yet been able to bring into shape? The must first exist as a mental place; it needs to be built in ideas, intention, and will before it is built on real land. As with any proper construction work, however, the foundation must be clean, and the tendency to uncritical imitation must be set aside. This is, indeed, a very classical idea in the postcolonial context look back to Fanon’s Black skin, white masks (1952). Africans should stop running away from their true selves. For Sarr, economy (and therefore civilization) is not about comparing childishly who has the more riches; it is about building societies that pursue their own happiness, defined according to their own values.

One thing that could have been interesting in addition to this powerful global analysis may have been an inquiry into the unity or diversity of ‘Africa.’ The author brings up intellectual and political references from all over the continent – from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, from Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—and we would want to know more about his vision of “the continent” as a whole. What constitutes its unity? The question, of course, can be asked about any continent, and Sarr rightly complains that Africa has been asked that question many more times than others. But for a continent that is far too often considered as a massive entity, sometimes even confused with a ‘country,’ it would be extremely enlightening to have his contribution to a question that will likely never be fully answered.

In the end, what the author pleas for is time—it is the “longue durée” (long-term) defined by French historian Fernand Braudel as the time allowing civilizations to build themselves cautiously, carefully and wisely and the time necessary to structure strong and autonomous values one by one. It also marks the time that is needed to ‘imagine’ this new Africa, the time needed for intellectuals to conceptualize this Africa yet to come. It is the time needed for governments to plan in the long run, and not be forced to make rash decisions when selling their precious resources because the needs are too urgent. But the advent of Afrotopia is near at hand: it is like the blueprint of an entirely new continent, and this book sounds like the guideline for a whole generation of philosophers, economists, historians, architects, musicians, artists who will transform the current Africa into this “Afrotopia, this other Africa which we should hurry to make real, because it realizes its happiest potentialities.”

Laetitia Citroen studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Lyon (France). Her dissertation examines the philosophical background necessary to rethinking economic development in West Africa, namely through taxation, in a less abstract and more humanist way.