by R.U. Sirius & Carmen Hermosillo
Wired, June 1994
Pol Pot was educated in Paris. Years later, back home in Cambodia, he ordered his Khmer Rouge to execute all people with glasses — part of his war against intellectualism. Was Pol Pot’s hostility displaced? Or was it a perverted irritation, shared by so many, with the convoluted thought processes and obfuscatory language peculiar to French intellectuals? The latter seems, at least, a good guess.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for French writers. Back in my college days, I would argue with the fans of the Spanish-language surrealists like Federico Garcia Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Sure, the Latins were deeper, more subtle, better writers. But those original Dada guys, Breton and Tzara — blithely tossing firecrackers of dense language, contradictory words striking against one another in paroxysms of pleasurable non sense — now that’s what I call an afternoon’s fun.
The legacy of torturous French writing certainly predates the likes of de Sade. Indeed, we can trace that French quality of huffiness all the way back to Voltaire. Or take Sartre, please. Only a Frenchman could come up with a philosophy of complete individual freedom and responsibility and use it to justify Maoism. (American college students in the 1960s don’t really count in this regard. We’re talking elegantly phrased philosophy here, not youthful rituals of self-righteousness.) I don’t know whether Pol Pot shared vin et fromage with the nauseous one, or if he preferred the more violent thinker, M. Jean Genet.
But this is all old news. The big names now are Bataille, Deleuze, Derrida, and Baudrillard: the fab four of postmodernism. Generally, the French pomo thinkers succeed at two things: They offer a hysterical (read paranoid) but insightful perspective on the cruel and schizophrenic nature of late 20th century techno-culture, and they engage in linguistic sophistry to try to save Marxism’s irrelevant ass. Trendy French thinkers deal with language and reality in techno-terms; in other words, they view it all as a big machine or a complex system. And they therefore exert great influence on the cybercrit (genus academia) segment of cyberculture.
Reading any of these guys is exhausting, and it takes valuable time away from watching television advertising, which generally communicates the pomo experience with that American kind of immediacy that we all crave — even when it’s on behalf of Trendy French Perfumes. This is why I’m providing you with this handy guide to Trendy French Intellectuals. Quicker and easier even than Monarch Notes, this guide will give you enough information to banter in hip academic circles and, believe me, quoting Lacan can get you laid.
Let’s start with some historically influential French thinkers. You need to know them because even though they are not directly related to the philosophies of postmodern discourse, they influenced the guys in the latter half of this guide — the really trendy ones.
Voltaire was the icon-at-large and philosopher-punk of the Age of Reason. He’s best known for his tale Candide, which expressed his contempt for those among his contemporaries who denied the existence of evil. Voltaire was an original flamer, creating that top note of bitchiness without which the arrogance of French philosophy would have been impossible. He offended so many people during his career that many were surprised he died of natural causes, in old age.
Working from his first-hand experience of the French aristocracy and the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade used dense and darkly beautiful language, heavy with irony and sexual reference, to express his conviction that life was absurd. He spent 27 years in various states of imprisonment and detention in French prisons and castles as a result. He is, along with Lucifer and Aleister Crowley, one of the West’s most mythic Bad Boys.
Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and les Symbolistes
The French Symbolists of the 19th century took the “elegantly wasted” decadence of British fops like Coleridge and supplemented it with the language of romantic hysteria. The speed and jumpiness of these poets predates and predicts the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs and the dense language of Spasm culture a la Arthur Kroker. Rimbaud’s oft-quoted “intentional disordering of the senses” inspired the likes of Keith Richards and Patti Smith in more modern times. Today, after the H-bomb, LSD, MTV, and VR, we find even the most poetic among postmodern youth longing for a reordering of the senses. Ain’t gonna happen, son.
Tzara and Breton
These two were among those who created the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. The Dadaists were this century’s original media jammers, specializing in public acts of irrationality, scandal, and confusion. Dadaism eventually became Surrealism. The Surrealists agreed with Freud that human consciousness, like an iceberg, lies mostly invisible beneath the surface. Surrealism attempted to explore the hidden areas of human consciousness through strange juxtapositions of words and images. As such, Surrealism is a favorite reference point for both the psychedelic and multimedia cultures.
Marcel Duchamp — inventor of modern appropriation in the form of the ready-made — changed the way the West sees art by showing that art is more likely to come from the eye of the artist than from the artist’s hands. In other words, he demonstrated that artistic vision is more important than technical mastery. An elegant and quiet man, Duchamp is now honored in the art world, referenced by appropriationist collage artists like Negativland and John Oswald and blamed for Jeff Koons.
Jean-Paul Sartre was an existentialist. That means that he took atheism seriously. Atheism implies that there are no divine laws. If there are no divine laws then what you do is totally up to you and your desires and needs. Conversely, whatever happens to you is totally your own problem: The consequences of your choices are your personal responsibility. Somehow, in spite of this, he positioned himself 180 degrees to the left of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. Imagine yourself dead. Your consciousness is completely annihilated, you have ceased to exist and you will never ever exist again. This is death as the existentialist imagines it. Enjoy!
Georges Bataille said of Jean Genet that he “chose to explore Evil as others have chosen to explore Good.” Jean-Paul Sartre saw Genet as a saint. His romanticized view of the thief and the criminal was Americanized by Norman Mailer in the seminal 1950s beat-attitude essay, “The White Negro,” and may have ultimately led to a culture of Oliver North and Snoop Doggy Dogg. I leave it to you to fill in the blanks.
Debord and the Situationists
Guy Debord was the spokesperson for the Situationists International, social critics who, in the 1960s, were the first to suggest that image was the real commodity in our society and that image would replace more traditional goods in the economy of the future. To understand image as commodity, just consider the entire world of television — from the advertisers conflating their every product with sex, to the stars, their PR firms, and the gossip industry that makes them who we think they are. Also consider the consumer of television images and what he or she is purchasing from the couch. The Situationist concept of the “society of the spectacle” — in which living is replaced by viewing — maps perfectly to our culture of virtuality. The Situationists might be considered partly responsible for the smug superiority and intolerance of today’s politically correct.
Georges Bataille was a French novelist and critic whose ideas very much influenced postmodern thinking about sexual politics and eroticism. In one of his most interesting collections of essays, Literature and Evil, Bataille argues for the primacy of what he calls “powerful communication,” which he defines as privileged moments of supreme awareness based on emotions of sensuality, drama, love, separation, and death. In short, Bataille makes explicit the French intellectual’s partly repressed tendency to be a drama queen.
Roland Barthes’s early work suggests that literature, in the traditional sense of the word, used language in the service of class divisions. (There. I just saved you from reading a few million words, most of them adjectives.) But the idea that traditional language excludes the exploited classes has unfortunately led to the attempt to alter language by foisting incomprehensible replacements on college students. Barthes also felt that authentic modernist literature would have to testify to its own ideological guilt. His point of view was well articulated by Bataille when he said, “Literature is not innocent.” This was adopted by Sex Pistols’s memetician Malcolm McLaren as “No one is innocent.” You will note that M. Barthes didn’t volunteer his own guilty ass for imprisonment or execution.
Jean Baudrillard is a social theorist who has made his living explaining the emergence of mass culture and the increasing importance of social images as commodities — very much in the vein of the Situationists. To get a feel for the Baudrillardian “social-image-as-a-commodity,” consider the term “spin doctor,” listen to Michael Jackson’s lawyers, or examine the difference between a television commercial and a PBS “pledge break.” Baudrillard talks about the regression of simulacra, the media hall-of- mirrors in which any reference to the actual disappears. Mick Jagger talked about the same thing 20 years ago in the film Performance, only he was in a bubble bath with the still-attractive Anita Pallenberg and an underage androgynous French Girl. Baudrillard isn’t that much fun, though he’s the most popular Trendy Frenchman with the college crowd.
Deleuze and Guattari
In their ongoing attack on the theories of Freud, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have proposed something called “schizoanalysis” as an alternative to psychoanalytic practice. They said, “A schizophrenic going for a walk is healthier than a neurotic on a couch,” a philosophy that we find in practice on the streets of Berkeley, California. Scholars influenced by these two have recently raised the banner of cyberpunk science fiction, since the genre speaks directly to the schizoid character of techno/media life.
Jacques Derrida is a philosopher concerned with the act of reading. He imagines the scholar as a kind of priest and sees criticism and analysis as religious ritual performed upon a text. This makes Derrida very popular among academics, who would otherwise feel completely irrelevant in our media apocalypse. Recently, even academics have described Derrida’s thinking as out of date. Derrida’s progeny however, such as the brilliant Avital Ronell, have made it their business to read technology and the meaning of techno-culture. The results are overwrought … but amusing.
Michel Foucault explored and analyzed the political and bureaucratic aspects of control and punishment. He was among the first to recognize and define our emerging technocratic surveillance culture in terms of the “panopticon,” a multitiered prison complex in which all activity is visible to the overseers. Poor Michel. He didn’t know about anonymous remailers.
Julia Kristeva explores the place of the female in the patriarchy, or dominant social order. Like the American novelist Kathy Acker, she questions the whole idea of identity and asserts that the feminine has been marginalized and identified as Other. Other(ness) is a major buzzword in pomo feminist and minority discourse these days. For instance, female sexuality, in Western European culture, is frequently portrayed as a mysterious commodity with an aura that can be easily transferred to an artifact and purchased by the consumer. Americans have vulgarized this exotic romanticism to the point of unintentional parody by associating, for instance, bad beer with buxom bimbos. The only mystery, finally, is how anyone can be that stupid.
Jean Francois Lyotard looks at what he calls “narrative,” the idea that through language we tell ourselves stories about life, stories that have an internal logic and structure. He compares this with scientific language, which sees itself as superior to narrative language because it requires “scientific proof.” Lyotard shows how scientific language eventually becomes a self-validating narrative itself through philosophical and political consensus. Science tells itself that scientific thought will ultimately end in the emancipation of humanity through Progress. This, according to Lyotard, is a crock of shit.
Jacques Lacan did for philosophy and language what The Residents did for music. The Residents placed a high value on obscurity. Lacan placed a high value on the difficulty people had understanding his language. If you’re unfamiliar with The Residents, then this may be a Lacanian discourse of sorts. Lacan said things like “language points to a lack” which apparently means that if you’re talking about it, you’re not getting any. And you thought the French were always at it! Quoting Lacan might score you the most points in postmodern intellectual circles. The reason for this remains — of course — obscure.
It might be argued that, taken as a whole, the Trendy French Philosophers have created a poetic and hyperbolic — if convoluted — rejection of late 20th-century capitalist techno-culture that offers little in the way of hope for that culture’s transformation or defeat. On the other hand, they are sufficiently fascinated by that which they critique to pass long hours in coffee houses, basking in their negation. As such, they serve as a tremendous inspiration to America’s techno-jaded slackers.