Transparency in Postwar France is Stefanos Geroulanos’s second book-length contribution to the intellectual history of twentieth-century France. His previous work, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (2010)—also published with Stanford University Press’s Cultural Memory in the Present series—had charted the rise of a specifically French brand of anti-humanism through critiques of both secular and theological valorizations of the human subject (in the work of Koyré, Kojève, Blanchot, Levinas, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Hyppolite, and others). Starting from the interwar period, this earlier work offered a prehistory of the anti-humanist tropes that came to dominate postwar French thought, challenging familiar and overly simplistic stories of a clash between phenomenology and structuralism and of the emergence of so-called “post-structuralism.” In this new and equally groundbreaking study, Geroulanos deepens and extends this picture for the second half of this periodic arc. The displacement of subjective foundations—evinced in affirmations of the radical finitude and non-essence of human existence in An Atheism—is here supplemented, and further decentered, by what the author identifies as multiple forms of mediation, alterity, and complexity. These range from post-liberation experiences of the black market, public health, and policing to the reception of cybernetics and the discovery of DNA, from developments in ethnography and documentary cinema to the prodigious outputs of figures such as Canguilhem, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Leroi-Gourhan, and Lefort. As the book shows, these forms worked to disturb notions of transparency, presence, and identity associated with the more traditional cultural and ideological bases of French society at the time.
Despite its titular focus, therefore, Transparency in Postwar France irradiates a wider intellectual force field where thinkers, authors, discourses, artefacts, and practices can be seen as engaged in a continual contestation and renegotiation of the fundamental norms and ideals of the period. The approach of the book—which a broadly chronological framework arranges into a series of diverse but connected episodes—reflects the interdisciplinary and composite nature of its object. Tracing a “disparate, incremental, recursive, or convulsive” conceptual history (10) and proceeding “in rhizomatic rather than linear fashion” (23), the book moves between philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, biology, linguistics, literature, and the visual arts—alongside material, technical, and institutional phenomena presented not merely as “contexts” but as “texts” in their own right, as themselves embodying the crucial epistemic and ontological assumptions at issue in these debates. As Geroulanos notes, “transparency” figures as a “phantom concept” (21) structuring a whole constellation of related concepts and counterconcepts beyond any individual intention or statement. Its history can be neither contained as the history of a single term nor abstracted in the formulation of a stable or unitary concept. This is suggested by the proliferation of overlapping positions and ideas—instances of “separation, others, obstruction, heterogeneity, doubts, masks, ambiguity, dialectical remainders, abnormality” (12)—marking numerous sites of resistance to the ideals of transparency.
The originality of the book lies not only in the breath of the material and the diversity of its examples. It also traces the outlines of a paradoxical set of gestures, oscillating between the critique of transparency as an ideal and a reality. Thus, what emerges is at times an attempt to expose transparency as an ideological sham or mere surface effect serving to dissimulate power structures and codes which determine various kinds of signifying and social processes. Other times, this claim against transparency takes much stronger form and involves outright denials of its ontological and epistemological reality, alongside affirmations of an ethical and political register reclaiming the “non-transparent” as an irreducible but positive element that frustrates attempts to homogenize or totalize physical, organic, technical, psychic, and collective being.
On this score, we get a sense of the multiple challenges that the Cartesian and positivist heritages faced in twentieth-century France: from new scientific theories and paradigms that looked beyond the reach of conscious experience; the disruption of everyday life brought about by the rapid development in urban spaces, social infrastructure, as well as in the domestic sphere with the arrival of new media and technologies; the decentering of individual and collective identities that resulted from the experiences of war and decolonization; disenchantment with the universalist ideals of the republic and republican citizenship and anxiety over the epistemic norms underpinning new forms of governmentality, bureaucratic management, surveillance, and totalitarian domination; not to mention the lasting influence of modernist, avant-garde, literary, and aesthetic treatments of experience, language, and representation as scenes of fragmentation and dispersal.
These trends saw a gradual reversal in the 1980s and 1990s, when the values of transparency were reappropriated in the broad realignment of the political and cultural left that accompanied France’s transition to market liberalism. As a “critical history of the present,” this is where Transparency in Postwar France invites us to reflect on the ambiguous status of the concept within contemporary discourse: deployed as a buzzword by liberal centrists and Silicon Valley data giants, it also demarcates a space to confront state, military, and corporate abuses of power—as recent memories of the War on Terror connect with present concerns over the public and private corruption of Western democracies. Indeed, such a critical history offers no simple answers as to how to orient oneself intellectually in the present. Rather, it helps to highlight the force the idea of transparency still has in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world. As the following responses demonstrate, its future remains contested.