Symposium Introduction

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.




A French Story of Attraction and Repulsion

Stefanos Geroulanos’s Transparency in Postwar France offers an elaborate and well-informed survey on what we could call a French period of hostility towards transparency lasting from the end of the Second World War to the early 1980s. Geroulanos examines several scholars and public intellectuals to offer a precise picture of French hostility towards transparency which came to be perceived as a “dead weight” (10). Geroulanos’s erudite and unprecedented analysis has great merit and shows how transparency as a requirement in public affairs, scientific considerations, intersubjective relations, and even in the subject’s relation to itself, was inverted into a dated, oppressive promise, slippery and poisonous in the context considered (10).

Among the many issues raised by the book, I would like to select one and devote to it this short note. I have focussed mainly on the later developments in the book, in particular the circumstances under which this period of French hostility towards transparency ended. The conditions by which French scholars or public intellectuals reconciled themselves to the concept of transparency are tackled in the section “1983, the Seventies, and the Revival of Transparency” (370–75). It is a great merit of Geroulanos to have not confined the book to the French suspicion of transparency, but also to have raised the following question: How does one explain, at the end of the 1970s or the beginning of the 1980s, the shift towards a more positive use of the concept of transparency now no longer associated with alienation or totalitarianism in the French context?

In fact, the renewed interest in transparency that took place at the end of the 1970s was not specific to France, but concerned a wider movement in Western countries, where the notion of transparency became paramount. In a recent paper, I have traced the evolution of the use of the word “transparency,” relying on Google Books Ngram Viewer.1 The instances of the words “transparency” and “publicity” measured here are between 1800 and 2008. The empirical evidence shows a significant increase in the use of “transparency” since the 1980s. However, such an evolution remains unexplained in my paper. Geroulanos proposes interesting assumptions regarding the French context: the development and wide dissemination of theories of communication “that contributed to a new identification of ‘transparency’ with ‘institutional openness’” and the “translation [in French] of Jürgen Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” (372).

Parallel to these, Geroulanos reports “a profound revision of the relationship between administration and citizenry that began in the later 1970s,” which actually exceeded the French context. But what exactly initiated such a movement is still not completely clear. Political scandals, such as Watergate, could be an interesting hypothesis (372). However, political scandals also happened prior to the 1970s. They have accompanied the lifespans of representative governments. Many political scandals tarnished the eighteenth century.2 Bentham perceived the visibility of public officials’ behaviour as essential to fighting the calamity of political corruption.3 Consequently, political scandals led to reinforcement of the demand for more visibility in political organizations well before the end of the twentieth century. It would be necessary to identify the roots or—to take a Koselleckian perspective—the social need that was at the origin of the increasing use of the word “transparency” at the end of the 1970s, visible not only in the French context. What was the anamnesis of such a fascination with the notion of “transparency”? Why did transparency begin to replace publicity at that time? Progressively, public debates that used to refer to the problem of “publicity” tended to refer to the problem of “transparency.” In the 1950s and 1960s, debates about the freedom of access to administrative information did not result in a demand for “transparency,” but rather in requests for “publicity.” For example, in 1951, Finland adopted the Publicity of Official Documents Act, whereas in the United States the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) adopted in 1966 did not mention the words “transparency” or “transparent.” If we consider the recent Swiss law on the transparency of administrative information (2004), it is the word “transparency” that is used.4 These instances illustrate how the term “transparency” has progressively replaced that of “publicity” in official documents and ultimately taken over the signification of information publicity.

In my view, such fascination with the word transparency results from the multifunctionality of the metaphor of transparency. Transparency lies in the capacity to absorb numerous virtues or aspirations, such as sincerity, clarity, consistency, truthfulness, purity, and efficiency. Simultaneously, transparency should be able to protect us from diverse and multiple problems, such as ignorance, tyranny, arbitrariness, and inefficiency. Having said that, the question of the “timing” remains unsolved, and one of Geroulanos’s numerous virtues is to have raised this puzzling interrogation.

  1. Sandrine Baume, “Publicity and Transparency: The Itinerary of a Subtle Distinction,” in Transparency, Society and Subjectivity: Critical Perspectives, ed. Emmanuel Alloa and Dieter Thomä (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 203–24.

  2. Kiera Chapman, Scandal: Gender, Publicity, Politics (1789–1850) (PhD, University College London, 2005).

  3. Phillip Schofield, “Political Corruption. A Critique of the First Report of the Nolan Committee,” Current Legal Problems 49.1 (1996) 395–416.

  4. Federal Act on Freedom of Information in the Administration (2004, Switzerland): “Art. 1 (Aim and subject matter): This Act seeks to promote transparency with regard to the mandate, organisation and activities of the Administration. To this end, it contributes to informing the public by ensuring access to official documents.”

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    Stefanos Geroulanos


    Response to Baume

    To begin with, I should like to thank the authors who honor and humble me with their essays on Transparency in Postwar France. Each of them catches elements that I sought to bring out in my reading of the brilliant and demanding legacy of postwar French thought; each raises detailed and hard questions that I have trouble responding to. I would rather that readers of this forum would take to these texts (and the book!) rather than read on with my “responses.”

    In her essay, Sandrine Baume focuses on the reemergence of transparency in the 1970s and asks about the explanation implicitly offered in the book on the post-1975 reemergence of transparency. Baume correctly notes that the book does not go far enough in answering the question why transparency returned in the 1970s. Emphasizing that the Freedom of Information Act (1966) and other contemporary laws did not speak of transparency per se, she asks:

    It would be necessary to identify the roots or—to take a Koselleckian perspective—the social need that was at the origin of the increasing use of the word “transparency” at the end of the 1970s, visible not only in the French context. What was the anamnesis of such a fascination with the notion of “transparency”? Why did transparency begin to replace publicity at that time?

    I obviously have no easy or complete answer to this question; it plagued me as I wrote Transparency in Postwar France and it has continued to do so ever since. As I argue in the book, transparency was all the rage in 2008–2010, when I began writing (15), though I only realized some of this belatedly. Just how ever-present it was in the early years of the Obama and Cameron administrations is only made clearer by its recent political disappearance: it is plainly absent in the political platforms of most Democrats running for president, replaced by alternate catchwords (“ending corruption,” “integrity,” “equal justice,” and “responsibility”) though it is quite openly deployed by Donald Trump as a claim to his own authenticity—consider his Twitter handle. Even Facebook promises it on its every page. At any rate, the ease with which transparency reemerged internationally is indeed somewhat surprising. Two main points.

    First, transparency did not simply reemerge in the 1970s alone. It was here-and-there resurgent in politics, philosophy, and science in the Anglo-American world as early as the late 1940s: anticommunist efforts (whether in Popperian “open society” or in the attempt to insist on a liberal self); the prioritization of equality in the advocacy of civil and political rights; the clash of the standardization of bourgeois goods with a consumerist need for originality and authenticity; the broader baby-boomer ideology blending homeownership, liberal education, and personalized activism all participated in a separation of individual from government and a dual establishment of personal privacy efforts with a state that in its ever-growing complexity and power was to be held at arm’s length. Neoliberal politico-economic efforts only strengthened these separations. In Europe elements of what we now call governmental transparency were active also in the establishment of a citizen population and the presentation of social space as being open in an unprecedented fashion. Of course the reality was often quite different, particularly for immigrants, minorities, and activists, but ideologically even the pretenses mattered. (I would add further that by no means would I want to give the impression that British and German thinkers, perhaps most notably Adorno, simply followed under some transparency banner.) In the pretense to an advanced democracy in West Germany, in international circles, and elsewhere as of the 1950s–1960s, the claim arose that responsive government and structurally, even architecturally visible government were one and the same—and fundamentally anticommunist. State violence in the 1970s (in West Germany as in Italy) and already in the 1960s in France (against Algerian demonstrators, for example, in 1961) showed of course the limits of the “public sphere,” the pain suffered by those left out of it. After 1970, in France, the demise in popularity of the Maoist (and, less directly, third-worldist) claims to an active world proletariat that could serve as a true general will, an increasing center-right demand for government responsiveness to social instability, and a more general post-Vietnam and post-Watergate recognition that governments were indeed responsible to their citizens and should not operate in general secrecy all fueled the shift. In the early 1980s, I argued in the book, it was the socialist government in France that, after the end of François Mitterand’s nationalization policies in 1983, and grasping around for a new political language and promise, introduced forms of transparency as governmental responsibility toward the citizenry and the welfare state. Demands for the clarification of past violence—from the Vichy Syndrome in France to the Oedipal rejection of parents and grandparents in Germany—also played a role, as did the European Economic Community’s expectations of international accountability. The subsequent institutionalization of what eventually came to be known as transparency should be attached for the most part to governments of the center and center left that, in the face of liberalizing pressures, argued for transparent government, “smarter” government, etc. Thus the logic that advocated further transparency was elaborated also far more in fits and starts and only really became a reality in the late 1990s and 2000s—that is, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the financial free-for-all that followed it in Eastern Europe, the confrontation of ideologically hardened conservative parties with far more centrist versions of the left that came into government and had to defend the welfare state on some grounds. By 2008 it was a latest “last utopia” of its own: transparency posited the promise of well-ordered political action and state responsibility and responsiveness.

    The “need” thanks to which transparency became internationally visible in the 1970s (though I’m not sure it was quite a social need, as posited by Baume) could be described as a blend of several conceptual shifts: the state’s change (across much of 1970s–80s Europe) away from more traditional, heroic, great-man politics, the decline of revolutionary, liberatory thought, the loss of the proletariat and world proletariat as the object and agent of freedom: all of these aided (or offered up as possible) the utility of showing a government as responsive, open, identifiable, ruling gently over a public sphere of debate and (sometimes) over a welfare state that cared for the citizenry. One thing I tried to do in the book is to draw on the resources of another tradition, from not so long ago, where a breezing rejection of transparency participated in the development of a philosophical and political alternative that remains very relevant today.

    When I started this book, I was interested in the way that transparency appeared politically triumphant and appeared to vindicate an entire philosophical tradition: government aimed supposedly at openness, a society without shadowy zones, an idealized Habermasian public sphere. Transparency struck me (and I was hardly original in that regard) as an ideological key. Several years now in the Trump dramatic universe, more since the security-technological alignment of government with social media and other agglomerations and distributors of information, still more since the successive public recognition that privacy was under threat—then that all along it had been an illusion—transparency’s force and danger is mutating. Its pressure on life and social behavior remains unmistakable. Its claim on politics has become both visibly fragile and unmistakably cynical: Where the US president denounces attempts to hold him to account and celebrates laughable, verifiably false “truths” for which his word alone is guarantee, his opponents have trusted in the immense powers of federal agencies as though these had a trustworthy history as agents of truth.



Minor Concept, Major Insights?

Transparency in Postwar France is a work of great ambition that proposes a novel interpretation of the history of French thought from 1945 to 1975 and, for intellectual historians, a new method of inquiry. Stefanos Geroulanos approaches the historical period he sets out to study from a new angle: at the center of his analysis is the minor, according to him even “phantom”-like concept of “transparency” (as well as several other terms related to it such as “perception,” “self,” “other,” “objectivity,” “norm,” “representation,” and “information”). He examines the writings and debates of major figures of French or Francophone thought, focusing on philosophy (Louis Althusser, Georges Canguilhem, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Claude Lefort, Jean-François Lyotard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre), the sciences humaines (Henri Lefebvre, Michel Leiris, André Leroi-Gourhan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Jean Rouch), literature and literary theory (Georges Bataille, Jean Starobinski), and cinema.

Opacity in French Thought

Even though “transparency” was not considered a genuinely philosophical concept in twentieth-century French thought (and still is not today), charting the textual traces it has left behind sheds new light not only on the ontological and epistemological debates of the period, but also on a number of political and ethical controversies of the postwar era. Geroulanos shows that mistrust of transparency and Enlightenment ideals more generally was in fact common among many French intellectuals. From Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967) and Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition (1979), opacity—in the relation between self and world, self and self, and self and others—and otherness—as a constitutive element of the formation of the self and of culture—emerged as key themes, first barely discernible, then more and more prominent, theorized and celebrated in equal measure.

This development took multiple forms and came in successive waves. By the mid-1950s, the term “transparency” had entered philosophical vocabulary, most notably in the writings of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Over the decade that followed, the idea of a transparent self was dismissed as a relic of the conceptual past. It was fashionable to take Descartes and Rousseau to task for their philosophical naiveté. Structuralism provided a new language of theory, locating the symbolic at the crucial interface between consciousness and its relation to the world and others. From the mid-1960s, theories of information and complexity, in tandem with Derrida’s deconstruction, profoundly transformed prevailing conceptions of communication. In the wake of 1968, the critique of transparency took on a more politicized hue, as in the case of Lefort, who linked it to “totalitarianism,” or Foucault, who excavated the “panoptic” logic at work in prisons and social life.

In fact, Geroulanos emphasizes that throughout the period denouncing transparency as an illusion almost always contained a political charge. The late 1940s were already characterized by a profound crisis of confidence in the “other,” a result of the devastation of the war, the experience of occupation, the memory of the heroic clandestine activity of the resistance, and the omnipresence of the black market as an indispensable means for securing survival in the aftermath of the conflict. With economic planning and the series of postwar trials aiming to purge French institutions of Vichy collaborators known as the épuration, the ideal of transparency nonetheless informed a whole range of postwar state actions. The state, however, came under sustained attack in May ’68, a revolt galvanized by the freewheeling anarchist zeitgeist, preceded by the critique of Stalinism and followed by the condemnation of the gulag system. By contrast, the 1980s saw a resurgent optimism about the state’s anticipatory and transformative capacities and ushered in a defense of economic and administrative modernization. Not for nothing did glasnost, the demand for democratic “transparency” in the Soviet Union, become a watchword of the decade. Yet over the last twenty years critical voices have once again expressed concern about the political implications of transparency as imposed by the state and technology companies, which enforces social control, increases surveillance and extends (while privatizing) the panoptic regime through information networks and social media. In this context, Transparency in Postwar France could be read, as the author himself suggests, as a necessary and overdue investigation into the history of unease about transparency. The book paves the way for a rediscovery of earlier critiques of this supposed ideal and their potential political uses for our present. Geroulanos challenges the idea, widespread today, that the rise of neoliberal capitalism is intrinsically linked to unprecedented contemporary calls for greater transparency. As he demonstrates, entreaties of this sort are anything but new; demands for more transparency were widely discussed as early as the mid-twentieth century.

Geroulanos’s research revolves around close readings of twenty-two “entangled microhistories” encompassing a vast array of domains: ontology, the philosophy of perception, natural science, psychology and psychoanalysis, theories of alienation, Marxist debates, film (cinéma vérité, the Nouvelle Vague), ethnology and structuralism, deconstruction and theories of life, cybernetics, information science, theories of communication and political philosophy. By looking at well-known texts through the prism of transparency, he develops original reinterpretations of notorious turning points in the history of twentieth-century French thought, including the rift between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Lacan’s seminar, the quarrel between Derrida and Foucault over the correct understanding of Descartes’s cogito, and Althusser’s essay on ideological state apparatuses. In addition to revisiting a number of classical texts, Geroulanos has scoured more than thirty journals and twenty archival collections. This extensive source work underpins, to name but a few examples, his elucidation of Canguilhem’s early epistemological writings and his appraisal of Alfred Métraux’s critique of racism at UNESCO and anthropological debates with Lévi-Strauss, Leiris or Marcel Griaule, but also his engagement, in chapter 9, with the postwar discourse among public-health specialists and psychologists about “inadaptés” adolescents, which is greatly enriched by Geroulanos’s use of the French National Archives.

Transparency in Postwar France is part of a remarkable series of publications on modern French intellectual history by US academics (Julian Bourg, Ethan Kleinberg, Samuel Moyn, Knox Peden, Camille Robcis, Judith Surkis and others). The very existence of this body of research is also a painful reminder of the relative decline the history of ideas has experienced in France during the last decades, although it should be added that a number of meritorious works, produced more often by philosophers than by historians, have kept this tradition alive. Even so, the history of the atrophying of intellectual history in a country supposedly fascinated with ideas remains to be written. Geroulanos’s enterprise also echoes, more than a quarter of a century after it first appeared, Martin Jay’s magisterial analysis of the role played by the critique of vision and of ocularcentrism in twentieth-century thought (Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, 1993). However, the critique of transparency exceeds the critique of vision and the visible, throwing up broader epistemological, ethical, and anthropological challenges. Moreover, Geroulanos probes not just an isolated and “self-sufficient” category, but a theoretical nexus organized around a concept. His argument does not proceed in linear fashion to chart the rise of a philosophical idea, but takes detours to do justice to the fragmented nature of the subject-matter (389–90n24).

The Strengths of Weak Concepts

The method powering Transparency in Postwar France is remarkable in its own right and deserves comment. Geroulanos presents his approach as an alternative to the contextualist history of ideas practiced by the Cambridge School as well as a certain sociology of intellectual life, but also to the critical genealogy inspired to a greater or lesser degree by Foucault and to the Begriffsgeschichte of German provenance. His is a “semiotic history” (21) that fastens not so much on the meaning, but on the “uses” of a concept by uncovering its various facets. He pursues this endeavor in three distinct directions: first, Geroulanos extends the French tradition of “historical epistemology” to include nonscientific concepts; second, he proposes a “critical history of the present” that grounds and fortifies the current critique of transparency by pointing to its largely forgotten historical predecessors; third, the history of transparency during the French trente glorieuses—the three postwar decades of rapid economic growth—unfolds as the history of a conceptual network rather than of a single idea.

Geroulanos’s method departs from Koselleck’s and his disciples’ program through its rigorous and deliberate focus on minor concepts and ideas that do not usually enjoy the limelight of intellectual discourse. These categories, he writes, should be seen as valuable links between commonly used and better-known concepts of established historical pedigree (such as “norm”) which, precisely because of their seeming self-evidence, do not grant the same privileged access to a “period’s self-understanding” (25). Nor does the study of these major concepts necessarily facilitate the identification of the historical cesura on which Geroulanos insists: the clear-cut, yet multifaceted break with a centuries-long idealist tradition which had turned the transparency of the self, of the world, and of others into the metaphysical presupposition of theories of knowledge, ethics, and political philosophy. Minor concepts, on the other hand, and the place they occupy within a theoretical system, can be precious guides to the zeitgeist of a given period. To this synchronic descriptive virtue should be added their diachronic quality as indicators of disruptive “conceptual events.” In Geroulanos’s case, attending to a minor concept also alerts the reader to a previously neglected aspect of the exception française: the critique of transparency does not seem to animate other national intellectual traditions in the same way. In this respect, the comparison with Germany, where the impetus of much postwar critical theory and democratic thought—Habermas immediately comes to mind—could on the contrary be said to center on the need for transparency, is particularly instructive.

The Constitution and Uses of a Corpus of Texts

It is not hard to anticipate possible objections to the forceful methodological strategy devised and implemented by Geroulanos. Some readers might question the coherence of the materials assembled in Transparency in Postwar France. It is not always clear—or should I say transparent?—how some of the chapters—for instance the one scrutinizing the idea of maladjustment in criminology, public health, and psychology, or the admittedly brilliant dissection of Derrida’s engagement with cybernetic theory—relate to the overall theme of transparency. When Geroulanos delves into postwar policing, the black markets or the gangster movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s, one might be forgiven for thinking that these chapters are somewhat extraneous or at least too removed from the main argument, so that the reader is left in the dark as to whether they introduce and contextualize information that will be treated at greater length later in the book or are merely meant to corroborate the central claims about transparency in cultural domains other than philosophy.

In any case, the critique of transparency takes various—and more or less explicit—forms throughout the book. In a number of case studies the term is not even mentioned. This suggests that, depending on the sources chosen, a history of the concept of transparency in postwar French thought could have looked very different. It is unfortunate that the author’s criteria for including some disciplines, works, and thinkers, while neglecting others, are not always apparent. The French adepts of a more lexicographically-minded intellectual history (like Jacques Guilhaumou) or of the social history of ideas (Frédérique Matonti, Bernard Pudal, Mathieu Hauchecorne, Arnault Skornicki) might reasonably wonder why the inquiry does not hinge on the history of the word transparency (perhaps also comprising its synonyms and antonyms, its uses and intertextual circulation), rather than—the option preferred by Geroulanos—on the broader spectrum of more general ideas associated with the term. Whatever the respective benefits of a purely lexicographical approach or of a methodological outlook taking into account more than the sole appearances of a word, Transparency in Postwar France would have gained from explicating in more detail the point of departure, the logic of discovery, and the mode of production of the textual corpus that have led to these research results as well as the stumbling blocks encountered on the way.

Geroulanos, to be sure, clearly appreciates just how disparate and different the criticisms of transparency lodged during the three postwar decades were. This variety can nonetheless be broken down into two distinct reactions to the demise of the philosophical systems based on the idea of transparency. Some argued that the transparency of the world, of the self, and of others represented a lost paradise of sorts that could and had to be regained and restored. This is certainly one way of reading the postwar theories of alienation (Merleau-Ponty, Lefebvre, Debord, but probably not Althusser) treated in chapter 10 and the ’68 protests. Others, on the contrary, contended—and this could have been the red thread of a different intellectual history running parallel to the one written by Geroulanos—that alienation should not be conceived of in terms of decline and loss, but as a primordial fact of being and as an immediate given of consciousness and of life in society. What is commonly labelled structuralist and poststructuralist thought arguably belongs, despite its undeniable heterogeneity, to this second camp.

Geroulanos intimates that there are two normative horizons underlying the anti-idealism and critique of humanism against the backdrop of which the discussion of transparency needs to be set. Either French thinkers (like Lévi-Strauss, whose relation to Rousseau is the subject of chapter 16) strove to rebuild the intellectual edifice of the Enlightenment on new foundations, or their acknowledgment of an irreducible opacity drove them towards a skeptical (Lyotard) or even nihilist position.

The Party of Transparency?

In its details and ramifications, Geroulanos’s argument is nothing short of a tour de force. It is of course tempting to enumerate examples that run counter to his account. Is it really true that French postwar thought was resolutely hostile to philosophies of transparency? If it was not, where are the idealists and traditional humanists in Geroulanos’s tableau vivant? One searches in vain for their names, their institutional importance, cues to their ideas or their reactions to the critique of transparency. For example, Geroulanos evokes the planning efforts of French governments as an important aspect of the historical context and as an instance of the postwar state’s will to transparency. He knows full well that the social sciences, at the time undergoing rapid expansion, furnished the planners with considerable intellectual resources. However, not every social scientist subscribed to the epistemological conceptions (examined in chapters 4 and 5) of a Bachelard, Canguilhem or Koyré. In fact, many, if not most, sociologists, psychologists, and economists at the time held more conventional views of science and pursued an empirical and positivist research agenda. For them, the act of knowing and access to the real world and its data emanated from the possibility of transparency.

Geroulanos, a historian, tellingly passes over the work done by historians—with the exception of a few brief passages on Lucien Febvre (75–77). Would it be misguided to view the Annales School of historical writing, which, under the auspices of Braudel, Labrousse, and many others, neared the peak of its influence during this period, as a branch of research in the humanities that displayed a notable faith in the workings of science? It is of course true that for these groundbreaking historians, the object of the social sciences did not preexist their research but had to be painstakingly constructed, in accordance with the precepts of the French school of epistemology. But does this process not amount to an “unveiling” that does not let the opacity of the observable world have the last word? The political and critical role of history during the Algerian War, exemplified by, among others, Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s disclosures about torture and the abuses of state power, similarly gets short shrift in Transparency in Postwar France. Doubts thus remain about the sweeping scope of Geroulanos’s assertion that the period saw a loss of faith in the revelatory powers of science.

Criticism of the Enlightenment and its fantasies of transparency may well have been more reactive than hegemonic—perhaps even a primarily philosophical reaction to the rise of new disciplinary rivals. The overwhelming majority of the authors discussed by Geroulanos were indeed philosophers by training. The unstated, if not carefully disguised, rationale behind their insistence on the constitutive absence of transparency and self-evidence of the world might turn out, at least for some of them, to have been an attempt to vindicate their intellectual authority in the face of the triumphant empirical sciences. In any event, such a hypothesis cannot be rejected outright and is worth exploring.

What Is a Minor Concept?

As stimulating as Geroulanos’s book is, its methodology may not easily lend itself to other historical contexts and intellectual domains. Admittedly, this is a rather speculative reservation. Disinterring minor concepts across various disciplines, cultural spheres, and intellectual contexts, Geroulanos submits, can be a way of reconstructing the spirit of a past era—provided, as has already been pointed out, that these concepts functioned as links between more canonical ideas. If these caveats are heeded, intellectual historians can expect a significant analytical and descriptive return on their methodological investment. In other words, writing the history of the uses of such concepts and of the controversies associated with them should make it possible to convincingly depict an intellectual constellation.

Yet for this methodology to be reproducible, no matter how successfully it has been used in Transparency in Postwar France, a set of criteria for identifying and evaluating the value of a minor concept is necessary. Geroulanos might lay these out in future publications, but so far there is no hint as to how it occurred to him that studying the philosophical critiques of transparency would be a fruitful exercise. Other related concepts (such as “homogeneity,” “purity,” and “trust,” or, from a slightly different point of view, “autonomy” and “information”—major, established keywords of the period) would have made for suitable candidates. Would any of them have yielded comparable results, confirming or invalidating the postwar exception intellectuelle française? Without the tools of lexicometry, how is one even to assess the importance of a minor concept?

These are intractable issues that exceed the bounds of the present review. To be fair, nowhere does Geroulanos make grand prescriptive claims about his own approach. In fact, foisting it upon his colleagues would be contrary to his epistemological sensibility, which not only allows for the relative opacity of historical meanings and contexts, but also proceeds on the basis of tacit and non-codifiable forms of knowledge, in this case an extraordinary familiarity with the sources and an astonishing intellectual intuition. Maybe it would be wrong to demand too much transparency from a researcher who so impressively brings to life past doubts about transparency.

Thanks to Geroulanos, French readers and specialists in modern intellectual history will have a better understanding of the singularity of French thought in the second half of the twentieth century. His book draws numerous original connections between the authors, problems, and works of the postwar decades, giving rise to a new image of intellectual life during the trente glorieuses. Although the theoretical moment unearthed by Geroulanos stands under the aegis of opacity, the conclusion at which this review arrives could not be clearer: Transparency in Postwar France is not only an extraordinarily innovative work, it will become a classic for the history of the period.


Translated from the French by Giovanni Menegalle and Danilo Scholz

  • Avatar

    Stefanos Geroulanos


    Response to Jeanpierre

    Laurent Jeanpierre is exceedingly kind in his praise for the book and pokes in interesting ways at the methodological proposals I offered. As I made clear in the book and as Jeanpierre and other participants in this forum note, I respond with deep chagrin to the general separation of method and argument that pervades intellectual history and the now quite traditional method on whose basis we usually link intellectuals, biographical and cultural contexts, ideas, politics, etc. In writing about problems that do not belong to a relatively straightforward recounting of ideas-in-context, I have sought to organize a schema that would allow for the linkage of different concepts and their concurrent study. So I am delighted by Jeanpierre’s attention to “minor concepts” as I tried to outline them, and also that these critiques come up—not least because the “method” I presented should not be treated as in any way set in stone. Without suggesting that the criticisms are necessarily unfair, the approach I practiced and proposed in the book deserves some clarification, and for these reasons I will argue in its defense somewhat more strongly then I might think necessary.

    Jeanpierre calls the different chapters “dossiers” and I appreciate that formulation. He then quite reasonably asks about my motivations regarding the specific objects I focused on. Why these dossiers rather than others? What motivated decisions for inclusion/exclusion? Jeanpierre uses that question to turn to three main criticisms.

    First, that French lexicographical and social historians of ideas might prefer for the study to concentrate on the very term of “transparency,” perhaps its synonyms and antonyms, uses and intertextual circulation, rather than “the option preferred by Geroulanos—on the broader spectrum of more general ideas associated with the term.” I admire the scholars that Jeanpierre cites to make his point, but I do not think I would offend them by saying that this is an inexact distinction which helps more to shield the rigor of an idealized version of the social history of ideas; or that the social history of ideas has been generally uninterested in problems like this. None of the scholars Jeanpierre cites work quite in the direction he suggests, and maybe he could make a bit clearer how their work would substantially revise the ambit of my account. If a historical semiotics is being practiced in France, as it now is in Germany, all the better.

    Jeanpierre has a point that conventionally to elucidate an idea is to elucidate it in context, and not to bind it so closely to others; where he suggests that “in reality” I work on them, I propose that neither scenario (“on them” or “on transparency”) suffices on its own. First, there is no rigorous way of distinguishing where a concept ends and others begin. Context, in the way it was understood already by Quentin Skinner in his famous 1967 “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” essay, is fundamentally discursive context; at stake for me are the ciphers that enable usage, that grant value to a concept, that show it at work. Second, this does not mean that a concept is reducible to its conceptual context: without it, different kinds of work are carried out. It is necessary to attend to the entire web, sometimes talking about things that do not seem entirely relevant, sometimes telling the story of other linked concepts or counterconcepts: in this case, self/other, self/normal/other, face/mask, authenticity/inauthenticity, inside/outside, light/night, light/opacity/obscurity, openness/public-sphere/censorship/disinformation, ambiguity/complexity, information and its opposites. And so on. Note that these are not binaries and they do not simply pull apart the transparency concept, but they nonetheless engage it. Many of them veer from concept to metaphor (I have linked very little to metaphors themselves here).

    The moment that a concept is engaged, others are engaged as well, the images that go with them, and the applications of these images. The development of a normative vocabulary attached to the critique of transparency relied on these interconnected dossiers. “Transparency,” by virtue of its relevance across epistemological, ethical, and political fields, by virtue of its long history, is particularly involved. So we can only tell the story of a concept or a meaningful term by seeing it emerge from under the umbrella of others; by seeing it wade into their waters; or, per the metaphor that I used in the book, by seeing it become more tightly woven into others’ webs here, or unravel there. Jeanpierre’s critique tends to disparage sections of the book as at first sight more distant or broad (“more general ideas”), on the grounds of his desire for further clarity on the rationale for their inclusion. That criticism falls flat, in my opinion, because immediately after setting it up, Jeanpierre launches into detailed praise of precisely the terms in which my analysis identifies the meanings of the word and the critiques it generated. The gains that Jeanpierre appreciates would make no sense if the sections he dismisses as less than relevant to “transparency” are indeed dropped. Even if, from the perspective of an established “social history of ideas,” my choice of content and the terms in which I organized the object of this study seem unconventional (or limit me to certain thinkers), I take some solace in reading Jeanpierre claiming it hits the mark. For—and this is a response to his first point just as much—my argument is precisely that if the critique of transparency is to be understood at all, it has to be understood at the sites of its appearance, at the sites where it joined or abridged particular problems, and together with the terms associated with it—and not only as a single term but as part of a broader series of concepts, metaphors, problems that populate key spots in postwar thought. Put differently, there was no secret history of transparency as a lexicological unit that is somehow bypassed by this book. Nor was there a “true” social history. So, for example, Jeanpierre objects to my discussion of policing, and especially the moral history that psychiatrists, police, and government officials used in theorizing gangs and adolescents as gray zones of power; my argument was that this was essential both to the perception of social space as opaque vis-à-vis the state and imposed upon by the state; it was essential to thinking the critique of social homogeneity, and that of the state as imposing a violent transparency. It prefigured the terms in which, the police and the state were understood in the student revolutions and especially May ’68, and it was just as essential for arguments like Michel Foucault’s in Discipline and Punish. (As I suggested in my response to Fernando, I wish I had had more room to make such comparisons. Other scholars have similarly suggested that I could have focused more on the banlieue, or on the policing or prostitution, or on the language concerning state secrets and their protection; these align well with Jeanpierre’s broader criticism that other objects could have served well.) Regarding a couple of other subjects too, Jeanpierre and I generally disagree on their centrality: he downplays the argument on information and cybernetics, where for me it is the direct extension of several problems in the book, as for example the interwar and postwar critique of scientific determinism. Cybernetics in its French reception (and notably in Derrida) raised and “resolved” anew various problems, in particular, the problem of a Cartesian knowledge and of the fundamental non-transparency of the world to the mind. The reason to engage with the legacy of cybernetics was the indeterminism problem (chapters 4, 5, 9, 12, 13, 17) because it played precisely into Derrida’s thinking, joining his own critique of epistemological transparency with his examination of the trace.

    Jeanpierre has a third concern, namely that a population of thinkers, whom he says amounted to a “majority,” actually supported transparency. He dramatizes these figures (whom he does not name) by indicating that I do not “make explicit their names, their place, their force.” I worry that here Jeanpierre reverts to the priority of a society of intellectuals, each of whom provided identifiers of “positive” and “negative” impressions—and this flattens in my view entirely the highly complex realm in which “transparency” operated. For concepts that are in constant debate, “major” concepts (per the rather heuristic term I used in the book), this might make sense. But for concepts used en passant, it’s not quite so. Precisely because he does not conceive of concepts as possible to study in their interaction with one another and in the way that intellectuals made use of them as resources, Jeanpierre proposes that we can find what the “majority” thought (and that it was not what I proposed). In the text, I stated that I would not deal with Catholicism because I did not think it quite involved a critique of transparency—though certainly not a straightforward “endorsement” of transparency either—nor with many of the currents of French Communist thought because, while I think my argument still worked in these cases, I found that these stories were too complex to set up and the payoff insufficient. At any rate, I do not think that these domains, nor the feminist and anticolonial domains I discuss elsewhere in this exchange, simply belonged to a now-silenced majority that stands at odds with my line of argument.

    Continuing this line of approach, Jeanpierre sets up a distinction between some thinkers who would dream of restoring transparency and others for whom its lack is an ontological given. This is an abbreviation to which I would not ascribe. A first difficulty (that one does dream of things one considers impossible) is somewhat evaded when we see whom he has in mind. Jeanpierre notes Merleau-Ponty, Lefebvre, Debord, and Althusser as marked by me on that first side of the argument. Yet as I argued, almost none of them sought such a restoration. (The exception is Debord when he wrote about the “festival,” and he too thought it only momentarily attainable.) On the contrary they were committed to mocking such a restoration (on Merleau-Ponty alone, see pp. 11, 37, 41–44, 48–63, 125, 157). My point in the chapter at stake is not that May ’68 ushered in a new transparentism but rather that it did produce some new sites where positive ideals of transparency—that fantasy of a “festival,” for example, or the renewed image, in Maoism, of a world proletariat—could coexist, however tensely, with the usual negative ones.

    Would it be misguided to view the Annales School of historical writing, which, under the auspices of Braudel, Labrousse, and many others, neared the peak of its influence during this period, as a branch of research in the humanities that displayed a notable faith in the workings of science?

    I think it would be misguided: I would leave aside for now the distinction Jeanpierre draws between science and its critics, in order instead to note the normalized image of the Annales School that has become common currency. Compare to that image Braudel’s famous, foundational essay on the longue durée. Its opening paragraphs work with precisely the argument I propose in the book, and my point has been to invite Jeanpierre and other readers to read such texts again with my approach in mind. The preeminent conventional French “scientific” account sees the Annales as a sort of good humanistic historical inquiry, and strips that École of its antihumanist radicalism. As he notes, I did point to Febvre, because Febvre (alongside Georges Friedmann) had few qualms in around 1945 articulating that the world the historian works in is not some glass house. Like Jeanpierre I would hope for a reading, along these lines, of Bloch, Febvre, Braudel, Labrousse, and a number of other historians, classicists, and sociologists—let’s begin with Friedmann, the sociologist of work, Edgar Morin (who features in the book in one of his defenses of a certain transparency of cinéma vérité), Pierre Bourdieu as well. Of course these are not thinkers committed to the same projects, nor the same epistemologies. But their epistemologies had certain points in broad agreement, and this is what I have prioritized here.

    To reread them with this perspective in mind means to attend to the ways in which the profound critique of agency and humanism involved in Bloch, Febvre, and Braudel’s writing, as much as in Bourdieu’s and Friedmann’s, involved a just as profound suspicion of transparency: both the historical agent’s ability to understand the forces that shape herself and history, and perhaps even more so the historian’s pretense to transparently knowing the past. The same would go for Vernant, Vidal-Naquet (whom Jeanpierre then mentions, and whose political work on Algeria and on the Holocaust had everything to do with rejecting the false pretense of transparent knowledge he attached to Faurisson), Marcel Detienne (on the Masters of Truth), Nicole Loraux, maybe the early writing of Pierre Nora as well. Surely I should not be expected to write on everyone: others might consider and pursue such directions, and how they concretely diverge from, and criticize, the account I offered. For these intellectuals, both history-writing and political activity have involved the profound problem of epistemological opacity and of indeterminism: that we simply cannot fully grasp the world we live and act in, nor experience it without gray zones. To think the past, they argued that we need to deny local causalities and—in cases like Braudel’s on the longue durée and even Labrousse’s economic history—think in terms fundamentally unavailable to a basic logic of visibility and unveiling; to seek instead quasi-structural influences and historical developments that might at first seem to be more general. Moreover, their commitment to science that Jeanpierre notes does not fundamentally diverge from the commitments I do discuss—this is a specific and quite stretched understanding of science. (It is here that, despite the ostensible thematic distance, the chapter on Derrida makes its mark: I am interested specifically in the development of dynamic, ever more dynamic, models in the postwar period.)

    At any rate, Jeanpierre’s point is well taken—these other objects and thinkers deserve to be included in such a study as much as others, whether more or less famous, that I turned to; and that some fields that I did not (or chose not to) write on should at least in principle be included in a study like this. In this way, he raises the very question that concerned me as I wrote: what are the most relevant threads to follow on this web? I’m pleased and grateful that on some matters I seem to have come close to his own concerns, and just as much that on others we can continue this discussion.



The Politics and History of Making Visible

Transparency in Postwar France is a brilliant, erudite book, at once wide-ranging in its scope and intricate in its details.1 Geroulanos tells the story of the postwar emergence of a moral and philosophical critique of transparency, until then understood as foundational to knowledge and to humans’ interactions with each other. As he writes, for a generation of postwar thinkers—including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jean Starobinski—“Separation, others, obstruction, heterogeneity, doubts, masks, ambiguity, dialectical remainders, abnormality, and the circumvention of reductionisms became the central tropes and themes” (12). Transparency in Postwar France is therefore an intellectual history anchored in the social; it is, according to Geroulanos, “a hermeneutics of conceptual events that allows us to discover a non-causal but continually reorganized relationship between concepts and history” (21). There is no way to do justice in a short review to the various historical and conceptual threads that Geroulanos deftly weaves into that hermeneutical web, so what I will do instead—especially given the symposium’s dialogic nature—is set out a few questions that arose as I read the book.

Geroulanos begin the introduction with an epigraph by Foucault, from his essay “The Analytic Philosophy of Politics”: “The role of philosophy is not to discover what is hidden but to render visible precisely what is visible, that is to say to make appear what is so close, so immediate, so intimately linked to us, that as a result we don’t see it” (1). I am curious about a series of implicit interconnections here. First, if the role of philosophy is to render visible that which is so close that we cannot see it, what is the role of historiography, especially the kind of historiography represented by Transparency in Postwar France? In what sense does Geroulanos’s book partake in the same mode of making visible? Second, I wonder about the distinction—or lack thereof—between the imperative of transparency (against which this new postwar generation of thinkers was writing) and the imperative of making visible? While I understand the difference between transparency and visibility (matter that is visible can nonetheless be opaque), I am interested in what could be seen as similar imperatives to disclose or reveal inner workings, to know fully as itself a form of unmasking.

Geroulanos takes up the question of masks and unmasking immediately after the Foucault epigraph, through a discussion of Starobinski’s critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s quest “to render himself transparent and to conceive of a society that returns to the unmediated ‘Nature,’ uncontaminated by human design, that preceded social obfuscation” (2). For Starobinski, this quest was bound to fail because “a modicum of opacity, dissimulation, and masking remain essential to subjectivity” (7). Geroulanos reads Starobinski’s critique, in other words, as marking a break with Rousseau and European philosophy. I am curious, however, about potential continuities anchored in the very separation between the real and the mask concealing it. Does the structure of this critical conversation across the centuries, including Starobinski’s rejection of transparency as an imperative and as a possibility, entail the positing of a fundamental difference, a radical nonidentity, between self and mask? There seems to be a difference between imagining a truth or a reality that remains impossible to access because of the mask, and a notion of subjectivity as a series of “masks,” where the subject and the mask are coextensive or identical, where the mask is the subject, and there is no final distinction between mask and self. One might argue that the very distinction between transparency and masking actually suggests a deeper structure of a shared intellectual-qua-ontological tradition, where the argument between Rousseau and Starobinski, restaged by Geroulanos, is one within a tradition rather than between two traditions. The anthropologist in me can imagine other traditions where even the notion of a mask does not make sense because that is all there is, since there exists no true or real self that can be masked or unmasked.

Continuing in this anthropological vein, I want to turn to Geroulanos’s discussion of postwar anthropology’s denunciation of the discipline as a colonial exercise of Western power. Michel Leiris, for instance, called the ethnographer a “‘collaborator’ of the regime,” his scare quotes “evoking Vichy and offering a direct analogy between the Occupation and colonialism” (103). Through the work of Leiris and other anthropologists—Geroulanos spends the most time on Claude Lévi-Strauss—anthropology “shifted” from “the accumulation of colonial knowledge and . . . the training of officials . . . toward the study of ‘other peoples’ and the celebration of human diversity” (92). Indeed, for Lévi-Strauss, Western humanism, which had failed so miserably in its colonial incarnation, would be reborn through anthropology, “the one science aware of the violence of the West and of the need for ‘the other’ to replace it. . . . Cleansed of its colonial past, anthropology could be identified with the future of humanity—a humanity that this science articulated in terms of cultural difference” (105, 107). Geroulanos is most interested in Lévi-Strauss’s propositions as they relate to transparency; in Race et histoire, for instance, Lévi-Strauss fears the elimination of otherness and the homogenization of the world wherein, Geroulanos writes, “homogenization is isomorphic with transparency” (108). But what are we to make of the claim that anthropology could be “cleansed of its colonial past,” that it could go from being colonialism’s handmaiden to become something else, ostensibly by thinking differently about difference and diversity?

Let’s backtrack a moment. In “Anthropology and the Savage Slot,” Michel-Rolph Trouillot understands anthropology as part of a larger “geography of imagination” and “geography of management” that constitutes the West, in which the Savage—the “native”—comes to serve as evidence in a Western debate about universal humanity and the basis of moral and political order (what Trouillot calls the trilogy of Savage, Utopia, and Universal Order).2 In other words, the Savage has always been a reference, positive or negative, in a conversation between Western interlocutors, whereby “they” tell “us” about what “we” are and how “we” should be. The discipline of anthropology continues a conversation that Rousseau and Montaigne, de las Casas and Sepulveda, began. Thus, Amerindian cultural survival functions for Lévi-Strauss not as an imperative in itself—not for the “particular” sake of Amerindians—but rather for the future of humankind, of universal “Man” (though [European] Man is, as always, a universal-yet-particular doublet). Trouillot’s analysis is not so much a criticism of anthropology as it is a statement of fact of anthropology’s conditions of possibility. Indeed, Trouillot, like Lévi-Strauss, saw anthropology as having an important moral-political mission precisely because it is the one discipline that thinks about and through the non-West. As Geroulanos writes of Lévi-Strauss’s vision, “the anthropologist assumes destabilization as the purpose no one else can fulfill. Temporally, vocationally, geopolitically, it is through this mission of disjointedness [via the other] that he can taint the supposed epistemological and ethical transparency of optimistic humanism” (251). Geroulanos’s term “destabilization” is important: the project of anthropology can only push against or destabilize, rather than create anew.

That raises, however, the question I posed earlier: if Trouillot is correct that anthropology is part of a broader geography of imagination and management that constitutes the West, what are we to make of Lévi-Strauss’s claim (and is it Geroulanos’s too?) that anthropology can be “cleansed of its colonial past” to become something entirely different? What would be the structural conditions of possibility for this shift? Does decolonization enable this epistemological rupture, or does that take too much at face value the formal end of colonial rule? I ask these questions not to denounce anthropology’s enduring coloniality, but as someone who still grapples with the implications of Trouillot’s longue durée analysis for what anthropology can and cannot do.

Moreover, are there continuities between the old humanism that Lévi-Strauss found so noxious and the “new humanism” he propagated? As Geroulanos writes, through Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss developed an ethics of “identification with the other—‘the other that is most “other,” weakest, humblest’” (270). This ethics opposed any identification “specifically with one’s own kind. One has a chance of forming ethical relationships, not by connecting to the human element, but by being close to ‘nature’ and hence refusing to make oneself the source of identifications” (270). But what is the nature of otherness in this emergence of the self through identification with the other? What is the basis for “one’s own kind”—what are the “kinds” to which Lévi-Strauss gestures?—if otherness is commensurable with the self? It seems to me that otherness here takes shape as commensurable difference rather than incommensurable difference. Put another way, we are talking about kinds of difference rather than differences in kind. So the Amerindian is a double figure, both not-quite-human because he is nature, but also identifiably human because in-identity with the European self. The European, too, is a double figure, both the only human (because he requires identification with the other to become closer to nature) and one of many humans (because identification with the indigenous is possible). All this is to say that there might be something quite old in Lévi-Strauss’s new humanism. And that, of course, raises the question as to continuities between this new/old humanism of Lévi-Strauss, and the recent ontological turn and what seems to be yet another redemption song through the Amerindian other.

In fact, as Geroulanos writes, Derrida critiqued Lévi-Strauss for bringing an eighteenth-century fantasy of natural goodness back into postwar thought, and with it a mystical, heterotopic reversion to sincerity and transparency. Derrida’s critique was a structural one: Lévi-Strauss was part of a deeper logic or structure Derrida called “classic,” one that underpins Western philosophy. In the end, for Derrida, Lévi-Strauss “reconstructed the self-society isomorphism and, with it, the rule of the subject over the world” (281). Derrida’s critique, read alongside Trouillot’s, raises some questions about the nature of Geroulanos’s argument, and in particular his theory of change: what accounts for the epistemic shift he is tracking with regard to transparency? If transparency is such an anchoring imperative for post-Enlightenment thought, can the force of transparency—the way it structures European epistemology, morality, and desire—be so easily overcome by these postwar structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers?

I have other questions about continuity and discontinuity, concept and event. Geroulanos states outright in the introduction that he does not cover histories of gender or decolonization, noting: “The net I should cast to cover these adequately would be too wide, the argument would wear thin; besides, my sense is that the logics of the feminist movement and decolonization cannot be properly synthesized around the figure of transparency” (23). But why wouldn’t transparency figure in the same way in feminist and anticolonial thought? Were not feminist and anticolonial thinkers in conversation with, and writing against, some of the same imperatives of transparency critically interrogated by Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and other such postwar thinkers? Feminist and anticolonial thought has long seen the hidden, the shadowed, and the opaque as spaces for non-normative flourishing, in part because the colonial project was one of knowing—of making visible and transparent—both the domestic and subjective interior of the colonized subject. Indeed, Geroulanos mentions Edouard Glissant’s notion of the “right to opacity,” but only as an aside. I therefore could not help but wonder how thinking with the critical projects of, say, Glissant, Luce Irigaray, or Aimé Césaire—not as “token ‘representatives’” (23) but as part of a postwar intellectual moment—might have changed the story Geroulanos has told.

But there’s another layer to that question: were not many of the thinkers Geroulanos writes about—Derrida, Foucault, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss—even if they were not engaging directly with feminist and anti-colonial intellectuals (some were, of course), nonetheless living in a political moment defined by decolonization and feminism? And, in this postwar moment that so profoundly shaped their thought—this is, after all, the crux of Geroulanos’s argument about “the relationship between concepts and history” (21)—if these thinkers weren’t engaging explicitly with gender and colonialism in grappling with the question of transparency, if they did not see themselves as influenced by these two movements, what are we to make of their myopia? We have come full circle to the epigraph by Foucault with which Geroulanos begins the book, about the role of philosophy as rendering visible that which is so close, so immediate, so intimately linked to us that we—that they—don’t see it. Is Geroulanos arguing that gender and colonialism were, at times, foundational to postwar thinkers’ grappling with transparency, even if they did not see it? But then why repeat the same occlusion by sidelining those questions in the book?

I want to end by asking about the politics running through Geroulanos’s history of the present, a politics that is sometimes implicit and other times explicit. In the conclusion, he invokes “political leaderships that willfully neglect and embrace financial and technological power, cater to an opaque circulation of information, and pry apart society, particularly at its margins and at the expense of the weakest.” “In this environment,” he continues, “the dismantling of transparency that I have tracked in this book can serve as a differend. . . . After all, justice cannot do its work without committed resistance to these spectacles of power, and sometimes it needs a shadow out of which to eventually arise” (381). I am compelled by this call for shadows. Indeed, queer and feminist theorists have long been suspicious of the demand to disclose, and long appreciated how shadows provide cover from power’s gaze. Yet, in this day and age, the state also seems to do its most insidious work precisely in the shadows: the shadow zones of no-law, of rendition and Guantanamo and domestic detention centers. State power now works through both transparency and shadow. Or perhaps it always has, and what is new is that its shadow work feels wrong to us, because of own our moral investment in transparency. I suppose what I am asking is whether this intellectual history of the present is also the social history of an epistemic shift such that its readership must work against itself in its practice of reading. In other words, are we not all in some way interpellated by the ideology of transparency?

  1. This essay is a loosely revised version of discussion comments for a forum with the author at Stanford University’s French Culture Workshop on October 19, 2017. I am grateful to Dan Edelstein for the invitation.

  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

  • Avatar

    Stefanos Geroulanos


    Response to Fernando

    Mayanthi Fernando asks: Are we forever interpellated by transparency? It is a question which we should leave to hang, one that might have read quite differently a couple of years ago, when Transparency in Postwar France came out, and even more so when I began assembling it around 2009. But it is a fair and persistent question: Are we stuck with a particular way of conceiving ourselves, of conceiving our government and society, our politics, our relations to technology and to one another, that could not escape this promise and problem?

    And if that question matters, Fernando focuses on my reticence to discuss decolonization at length in this project, and to make use of resources it made available within the contexts relevant to my study. To restate the critique with which she follows this argument:

    Were not feminist and anticolonial thinkers in conversation with, and writing against, some of the same imperatives of transparency critically interrogated by Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and other such postwar thinkers? Feminist and anticolonial thought has long seen the hidden, the shadowed, and the opaque as spaces for non-normative flourishing, in part because the colonial project was one of knowing—of making visible and transparent—both the domestic and subjective interior of the colonized subject.

    My brief response is that this is a fair objection. Fernando’s is a difficult question for me to answer, for several reasons, not least of which is regret—I indeed wish I had taken the space to engage both feminism and decolonization further. Let me note that I do acknowledge that transparency indeed figures as a target of Césaire, Fanon, and Glissant (as I note in the book—23, 172, 181, 259, 342, etc.). Nevertheless (and this is what I meant when I marked in the book that I was not going to engage with colonialism in detail), I thought that the colonial question marked the limits of the promise of the transparency concept to elucidate French thought. More importantly, I had little evidence to suggest that anti-colonial thought could or should be abridged from the perspective of a problem that seemed to me rather conventionally “internal” in its philosophical and political history, and I worried about such an abridgement. I thought that, just as I did not write about Catholicism, nor much about communism—and the centrality of communist thought to anti-colonialism would have been paramount—and as I could not find some way that would have shown me a particular advance of the argument, I decided I should specifically note that these were the limits of my object.

    Now, as I have the occasion to expand on this subject here, allow me to do so. This shows my concerns about the limits of my object in the book, as well as some possibilities that I would have liked to pursue. Indeed, there were several other thinkers, writers, and filmmakers I would have liked to include: Trần Đức Thảo, who wrote for Les Temps modernes in the 1940s yet remains largely forgotten, or Jean Genet, for Les Paravents (The Curtains, 1961); certainly a long series of influential anticolonial filmmakers including Gillo Pontecorvo (Battle of Algiers, 1966), perhaps Marcel Camus (for Orfeu Negro, 1959, and Os Bandeirantes, 1960), surely Chris Marker (Les Statues meurent aussi, 1953; Coréennes, 1959; Demain la Chine, 1965; Loin du Vietnam, 1969; Le Fond de l’air est rouge, 1978; Sans soleil, 1982), Costa-Gavras (for his 1970s Latin-American films), perhaps Godard too. I decided that the difficulties that I would face in introducing these figures were insurmountable: not only did I not think that a serious argument could be mounted that Césaire’s thought, for example, should be handled under the banner of transparency, and in a manner that would crucially add to the argument of the book (I looked instead at Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks); but conversely I would have to explain how key anticolonial cinematic arguments would or would not take priority over arguments by, among others, Césaire. At what point was the depiction of the Casbah in Battle of Algiers as something into which the French light could not be shone (light in the sense Sartre gave it at the time: France’s sun of torture) more or less significant for the advance of the argument than looking to anticolonial writers proper? Could I possibly prioritize Pontecorvo over Césaire? As for Glissant, Poétique de la relation dated to 1990, and would have been the only post-1981 text considered—would this not perhaps suggest Glissant was derivative of the history I had offered? Would that not be even worse, in the sense of overstating the importance of a history of transparency within the broader conceptual frame within which it played its part?

    In retrospect, I do think that three key interventions would have made a difference. First, I wish I had discussed rather than mentioned Trần Đức Thảo in the chapter on Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Beauvoir (63). Second, a discussion of Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism definitely belongs in the critique and undoing of norms presented in chapter 12, even if normativity is not exactly his language. I could have expanded from there. Third, I might have made an argument based on the anti-colonial films and works released in 1959; perhaps comparing them to others from the early 1970s. There, even if the filmmakers were not the same intellectuals as Fernando proposes (or other usual figures among anti-colonial intellectuals), a far more complex argument might have emerged on the attention to (and forgetting of) race. Fourth, I wish I had made clearer how and to what extent a globalist thinking among left-wing intellectuals was confronted with anti-colonial thought and how this spoke to the mistrust of concepts of open society. It was likely possible to stage that point in the context of anti-Vietnam War protests, and it would have made a very real difference again in showing the limitations and blind spots of the critique of transparency. Finally, I wonder to what extent the pre-banlieue environment, from the zone around Paris, to the growing population of colons repatriated from Algeria and elsewhere, including immigrant populations as well, was perceived as constituting gray zones into which the state could not quite reach, and if similar figures emerged to the gangster and maladjusted adolescent that I discussed in the book.

    I think this—plus my general wish that I’d written more on Fanon and Genet—might give a first sense of how the argument might have proceeded differently. Still, I wonder, with the exception of the first and last points above, whether the transparency object was the right circumstance to address these questions.

    Citing Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Fernando also asks about anthropology: “What are we to make of the claim that anthropology could be ‘cleansed of its colonial past,’ that it could go from being colonialism’s handmaiden to become something else, ostensibly by thinking differently about difference and diversity?” She adds, later: “And is [this claim] Geroulanos’s too?” To the latter, the answer is easy—absolutely no, I was certainly not making that claim, and I used Jacques Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss to precisely that end. (Perhaps I assumed that my irony towards this claim, premised on my earlier book on the history of antihumanism, was clear . . .). At any rate, the former claim is indeed a pivot for early postwar anthropology, as important in Lévi-Strauss’s claims to novelty and legitimacy as to the work of several contemporaries. Lévi-Strauss’s self-presentation was deeply problematic and self-congratulatory. But I am concerned instead with the way that it generated a “solution,” however problematic: against humanism’s pretense to be apiece with normative, egalitarian universalism, Lévi-Strauss structured the anthropologist’s interlocutor as an other irreducible to systematization. Hence the link back to the critique of transparency: society and humanity were not homogeneous. The pretenses to purity followed from there.

    To close, somewhat elliptically, by returning to Fernando’s closing question: I would avoid “forever” but as I indicated in responding to Sandrine Baume, I think that yes, we are once again interpellated by transparency, except in a darker form than even a few years ago.



Technologies of Transparency

Through a skilful articulation of transparency’s many levels—transparency of self, others, and world—Geroulanos’s book shows us that the rise of this concept in liberal democracies has developed out of epistemological inquiry and Enlightenment aspirations.1 It also shows us how resistance to the positivity and homogeneity of transparency has emerged in work that pays attention to various counterforces and interruptions—“the secret, difference, separation, the opaque, the private, the spectacle, the power of uncontrollable information, the transience of becoming, the obscure object of desire, the counternorms of those ill-adapted to normality, the small heterogeneities of life” (28)—in the particular context of postwar France.

Trained in post-structuralist approaches to culture, I have been drawing on Derrida’s “taste for the secret” and Glissant’s “right to opacity” to consider transparency in the contemporary period in general and the ways in which this has manifested in digital technologies and datafication in particular. Finding a book that illuminates connections between different twentieth-century critiques of transparency and argues for an exceptionalist reading of the French context was a gift. It reminded me that there is a whole (counter-)tradition of thinkers who can be enlisted to explain why promises of political transparency and the fanfare that announces the arrival of open government data portals seem hollow; why transparency practices are shot through with the contradictions and aporias of transparency as a concept. This means that such a condition precedes and shapes the ways in which transparency is applied and discussed. The complexities of the concept must be considered alongside any account of how transparency rhetoric is employed for less-than-transparent reasons, or how transparency supports highly ideological configurations of global markets. While the individual thinkers with which Geroulanos engages have different concerns, when brought together in the service of making clear connections between epistemological, personal, intersubjective, and political transparency, they become eminently inspiring for thinking a new politics of visibility in the digital era.

Geroulanos only gestures towards digital technologies. While it is clear that “the cybernetic deployment of digitality extends beyond the computing machine”2—that cybernetics, as the study of systems of command and control, feeds into the operation of, but cannot be reduced to, digital computer technologies—we could class Geroulanos’s discussions of how cybernetic models permeated work on information by Lyotard, Leroi-Gourhan, Jacob, and Derrida (317–31; 378–79) as laying some ground for a consideration of the role of technology in the provision of transparency. Geroulanos also turns briefly to the French Left’s concerns with the ideological threat of information technology in the 1970s (371); and the role of information technologies informs his discussion of Lyotard’s report on the politics and condition of information and knowledge (378–79). More explicitly, in the very last paragraph, as he grapples with the challenge that Trump represents to open government on the one hand, and with the fact that resistance to transparency can arrive in populist totalitarian form as well as radical French thought on the other, Geroulanos notes that “for years the aestheticization of self-exposure has been legitimizing practices of data mining” (381). In my response to Transparency in Postwar France, I want to put digital technology and datafication center stage to think about the issues that arise when they are mobilized in the service, and justified in the name of transparency.

There are many digital transparency technologies including, for example, self-quantification apps that track and visualize our body’s vital signs and everyday behaviours, social media platforms that prompt us to reveal what’s on our minds, and open data portals that offer up the raw data of states and organizations for anyone on the right side of the digital divide to see, and so forth. There is nothing new about enlisting communication or calculating technologies to help us achieve openness, whether it be Rousseau’s pen, the printing press, tabulating machines to assist in census information collection, or recording and imaging devices. The appeal of transparency, of course, is that it is supposed to circumvent the distortion inherent in mediation. Like transparency “itself,” any transparency technology must appear invisible—something we see through rather than look at.

But we know that this is a fallacy. We know from Marxists like Adorno and Lefebvre, with whom Geroulanos engages, that transparency’s apparent neutrality is an effect of its ideological form. This is what enables transparency, in relation to political and economic governance, to be harnessed in the service of making structurally inequitable systems operate more efficiently. In practical terms, provisions of open data by governments ostensibly committed to transparency, for example, can reproduce inequalities by advantaging those citizens who already have the cultural, political, and social capital that enables them to engage meaningfully with data and policymakers just as fiscal transparency can simply optimize markets rather than tackle uneven distributions of wealth.

While heeding Geroulanos’s warning that critiques which “identify transparency with neoliberalism . . . fall prey to a magical thinking according to which transparency works everywhere in the same way” (26), it is important to note that transparency can be mobilized in the service of a variety of desires, including neoliberal desires, that cannot always be openly advocated. It therefore gives an apolitical sheen to highly political visions. This is particularly evident in the way in which transparency in the guise of open government data is offered as a democratic good while actually making smaller government and looser regulation possible because it serves as a self-regulatory mechanism in lieu of centralized monitoring and policy-making.

We have also learnt enough about the political economy of data mining—which produces markets in “behavioural futures,” as the main component of what Shoshana Zuboff names “surveillance capitalism”3—and the black box nature of algorithmic governmentality, to say nothing of the highly curated nature of a social media feed, to know that Big Tech and the digital technologies that it employs in the name of transparency (as well as “communication,” “sharing,” “empowerment” and “community”) are not themselves transparent. This intransparent limit point to transparency is exploited and monetized in the digital era, to be sure. But it is also a basic condition of transparency. Surveillance capitalists, that is, harness and make visible a condition that is already apparent in the concept of transparency. In this way, we could say that transparency itself is a technology. It mediates even while it is defined by the absence of mediation. In a move reminiscent of those that Geroulanos discusses and makes productive, transparency as a mediating technology renders its own purity impossible.

I want to bring open data, and more specifically, open government data, into this conversation because it is often seen as a universal good—a move towards the commoning of information—enforcing accountability and empowering citizens. When considered alongside the marketization of data captured through the surveillance mechanisms of Silicon Valley, or the securitization of data carried out by the intelligence agencies, it is easy to see why open government data is positioned on the side of progressiveness. And yet, I would argue that open government data contributes to the (anti-)political settlement which we more readily associate with the opaque practices used by surveillance capitalists and intelligence agencies.

Open government data is generally understood as the provision of big and small digital data on the part of government agencies. It is largely celebrated in the mainstream for democratizing knowledge distribution and research, invigorating economies, increasing efficiency, ensuring accountability, and operating as a key element in digital democracy or “democracy 2.0.” The Open Government Partnership currently has sixty-nine participating countries (not all of which, it should be noted, could be described as liberal democracies) at various stages in implementing open government plans. Though its funding was cut in 2010 from $35m to just $8m and its future under Trump is somewhat precarious, the US’s open government data portal,, is notable in this regard, providing public access to many different datasets produced by government agencies. There are many reasons to applaud transparency measures such as this, especially when compared with closed regimes in which extreme forms of corruption are endemic. Still, this might be a false construction of the issue. For within ostensibly “open” liberal democracies, we must ask which forms of openness take precedence in any particular era, and what kind of subjectivities they promote. Regions wishing to make the move towards more open forms of society and state often look to those dispositifs already in operation elsewhere and thus forms of openness, and the political settlements they compound, travel through what I have elsewhere termed (with plenty of caveats given the contentious nature of the latter word) “transparency imperialism.”4

In sharing its datasets with citizens, the state places a call upon us. Althusser’s “Hey, you there!” becomes “Hey, you there! Come closer and watch.”5 Because this hailing works alongside mass dataveillance of the kind Edward Snowden revealed, subjectification involves being seen under conditions of surveillance and becoming vigilant. This means that the (pre-)subject who turns to be seen is in fact always already “seen” (as data rather than citizen), and is therefore a datafied, relational, technological-human assemblage who comes into being through the act of looking as much as being looked at. The subject must acquiesce to being surveilled, but also has to be seen to be seeing. More accurately the subject is asked to see through: the transparency of the state is the interface that hails us and we cannot but occupy the position (whether we feel technically capable or not, whether we perform the function or not) of auditor, analyst, witness.

Watching and seeing through (as well as acquiring and refreshing the technological competence required to do so) become forms of immaterial labour. As Isin and Ruppert recognize, “acts of sharing place unique demands on citizen subjects of cyberspace.”6 In the process, the subject is bequeathed responsibility without power. She is given the responsibility to watch without the expertise to know what to look for, nor the power to act in a meaningful way on what might be found. Open data offers the promise of agency and freedom (of information) but shapes the scope and manifestation of those ideals.

The act of looking, of being asked to look, is more complicated still, for even while this call to be vigilant is made, the reach widens to draw in unelected mediators: third-party application developers and data visualizers. Data entrepreneurs step into the ideological call to help fulfil the demand to watch, to see (through) the state. The “datapreneurs” happily perform this function—taking the datasets made available by the government on websites like and turning them into user-friendly interfaces. In doing so, those datapreneurs are also, themselves, responding to a hailing: to help operationalize the new “data economy.” The provision of open government data is fuelled not only by its purported social value, but also its economic value. In fact, in his foreword to “Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential,” presented to the UK parliament in 2012, the Rt. Hon. Francis Maude mentions “demonstrating the value of open governance to economic growth” before “improved citizen engagement and empowerment” when explaining the priorities of the British chairmanship of the Open Data Partnership, which goes under the heading “Transparency Drives Prosperity.”7

The data economy is earmarked to stimulate and fuel economies, with some impressive potential figures cited. For example, a report by McKinsey from 2013, estimates that the global market in open data, measured in terms of job creation, profit margins, and efficiency savings, is worth up to $5 trillion a year. The World Bank finishes its own macroeconomic report on the value of open data stating that, “While sources differ in their precise estimates of the economic potential of Open Data, all are agreed that it is potentially very large.”8 While these two reports are not limited to open government data, a report from the Open Data Institute analysing various reports on the value of open data tells us that “those studies focused on the value of public sector open data alone found that it is worth between 0.4% and 1.5% of an economy’s GDP.”9

At once asked to watch the newly transparent state, with all its data organs on display, and to rely on the mediating and translating functions of datapreneurs to do so, our relationship to government is shaped by the market. Neoliberal ideology has long ensured the public acquiescence to and accommodation of the marketization of many aspects of social and political life, from education to health. What is new here is that the market (embodied by third-party datapreneurs) gets to decide the very stakes of the political; and many apps made possible by and are concerned with real estate, finding the best school or surgeon, checking food safety statistics, transport information, and weather data.10 They help citizens to navigate a variable field of provision rather than even out that field (by, for example, implicitly encouraging people to avoid underperforming schools rather than ensuring that those schools receive more assistance). They encourage us to play rather than fix the system. The risk is that it becomes increasingly difficult to participate in and navigate the state outside of these commodified, shaped, and edited forms of aggregated data. The reliance upon data mediators or datapreneurs to make the transparency of the state meaningful means that ultimately the market determines, after Rancière, the distribution of the sensible—what we can know, see, hear, touch, encounter. Only those datasets that can be made to yield profit (in some form) will be shared in such a format that the data can be received, understood, and rendered actionable.

In summary, if closed data practices like dataveillance curtail political subjectivity by treating the multitude as a dataset, open data practices bequeath responsibility without power to citizens and rely on datapreneurs to determine what data becomes visible and, therefore, the (anti-)political scope of open data. This is why I have been trying to consider, coterminously, what resistance might be offered by a “secrecy of the left” or a “radical transparency.”

Radical transparency, an “openness to openness,” should be a mode of revelation that not only avoids the reinforcement of neoliberal subjects and relations, but understands the mediated nature of, and ascribes alternative cultural values to, data and transparency. It would need to politicize data, transparency, and openness in general—to ask what role revelation should play in democratic representation. This would not necessarily involve a move away from data technologies—neither data as such nor the technological infrastructure that make the storage and circulation of it are ipso facto the problem here. Rather it is the delimitation of their position and role within a network by political, technological and economic protocols with which we can take issue.

According to Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, hypertrophy, “the desire for pushing beyond,” is more politically effective than resistance with the latter’s implicit “desire for stasis or retrograde motion.”11 Hypertrophy involves pushing technology “further than it is meant to go.”12 While Galloway and Thacker are thinking about the technological “exploit” that computer viruses and hackers seek, I want to ask what it would mean to push transparency, as a technology itself as well as an ideal that enlists technologies, “further than it is meant to go.” It might involve platforms that are programmed to explicitly state the value of open data (to whom or what). It might require communications technologies that enable large-scale sociality to ensure that transparency is horizontal rather than top down.13 It would obviously entail a commitment to the kind of structural shifts that would enable equal access to technology and the skills to navigate it rather than just an in-principle democratization of data. This hypertrophy, then, might make a commitment to not ever more data, but data that is radically contextualized; the prefix “radical” pointing towards an account of the conditions, assumptions and politics that informed the production and gathering of the data in the first place rather than the provision of metadata (which merely makes data searchable) or the packaging of data within apps (which might decontextualise as much as contextualise). Whatever form this hypertrophy takes with respect to transparency, “during the passage of technology into this injured, engorged, and unguarded condition, it will be sculpted anew into something better, something in closer agreement with the real wants and desires of its users.”14

Both a secrecy of the left and a radical transparency require critique, speculation, experimentation, and imagination. Some of the most useful thinkers to draw on are those Geroulanos has brought together in his book.


Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, translated by B. Brewster, 127–88. London: New Left, 1971.

Birchall, Clare. “ Delimiting Transparency.” European Journal of Social Theory 18 (2015) 185–202.

Clough, Patricia, et al. “The Datalogical Turn.” In Non-Representational Methodologies: Re-envisaging Research, edited by Phillip Vannini. London: Routledge, 2014.

Franklin, Seb. Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.

Galloway, Alexander, and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Garsten, Christina, and Monica Lindh de Montoya. Introduction to Transparency in a New Global Order: Unveiling Organizational Visions, edited by Christina Garsten and Monica Lindh de Montoya. Cheltenham: Elgar, 2008.

Gilbert, Jeremy. Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Oxford: Berg, 2008.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

———. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Isin, Engin, and Evelyn Ruppert. Being Digital Citizens. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Maude, Francis. Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential. 2012.

Open Data Institute. The Economic Impact of Open Data: What Do We Already Know? November 2, 2015.

Spivack, Nova. “Post-Privacy World.” Wired, July 2013.

Stalder, Felix. “The Fight Over Transparency.” Open 22 (2011) 8–22.

World Bank. “Open Data For Economic Growth.” 2014.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile, 2019.

———. “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30 (2015) 75–89.

  1. Sections of this piece have been previously published as Shareveillance: The Dangers of Openly Sharing and Covertly Collecting Data (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

  2. Franklin, Control, 47.

  3. Zuboff, “Big Other”; and Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

  4. Birchall, “ Delimiting Transparency.”

  5. Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 174.

  6. Isin and Ruppert, Being Digital Citizens, 88.

  7. Maude, Open Data White Paper.

  8. World Bank, Open Data For Economic Growth, 20.

  9. Open Data Institute, Economic Impact of Open Data.

  10. It is important to recognize that this is not the whole story. There are, for example, some potentially revealing apps made possible by freely available data that highlight possible connections between donations and votes (e.g. Greenhouse at

  11. Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2007), 98.

  12. Galloway and Thacker, The Exploit, 98.

  13. This is Felix Stalder’s suggestion in “The Fight over Transparency,” Open 22 (2011) 22.

  14. Galloway and Thacker, Exploit, 98–99.

  • Avatar

    Stefanos Geroulanos


    Response to Birchall

    As in the essays by Sandrine Baume, on the reemergence of transparency in the 1970s, and Mayanthi Fernando, on the question of how the appeal of a counter-ideal of shadows cuts both ways, the recent and political implications of transparency are key in the essay by Clare Birchall, on the role of transparency in contemporary data ideologies. Birchall’s essay far exceeds a comment on the book and constitutes a remarkable study of digital transparency and datafication, as well as of the way these have transformed quite radically what we mean by transparency, government, and privacy today. I cannot do justice to her engagement, and I do not think I would argue here with anything she says.

    Birchall shows at several moments in her essay just how the logic that coalesced in and after the 1970s has mutated into a profoundly troubling scenario now that appeals to transparency are mediated by the technologies and digital transformation that have ruled over the past two decades. To recall the way Mayanthi Fernando put it in her text,

    Queer and feminist theorists have long been suspicious of the demand to disclose, and long appreciated how shadows provide cover from power’s gaze. Yet, in this day and age, the state also seems to do its most insidious work precisely in the shadows: the shadow zones of no-law, of rendition and Guantanamo and domestic detention centers. State power now works through both transparency and shadow.

    Birchall demonstrates, however, that technology has altered the conceptual playing field in such a way as to render these terms very differently. Birchall’s account of digital technologies begins by putting pressure on my point (26) that one should not simply look at transparency today as an extension of neoliberalism. Rather, she convincingly argues that the force of digital transparency today relies on the concurrence of a surveillant state and “an ideology that champions private control of public services, creating shadowy spaces that fall beyond accountability.” This has several effects. First “transparency in the guise of open government data is offered as a democratic good while actually making smaller government and looser regulation possible because it serves as a self-regulatory mechanism in lieu of centralized monitoring and policy-making.” Second, and here I abridge her argument very fast:

    The concept of privacy imagines a state violating the rights of a fully self-present liberal citizen. But the way in which data mining works means that the security services are not particularly interested in the actions of individual citizens except inasmuch as those citizens are relational data subjects. . . . The offence, I suggest, is less the intrusion into private space and more the disavowal of the public as potentially political. The surveillant state imagines its citizens in this configuration as primarily an aggregated dataset. . . . Even when people coalesce around privacy concerns, step into the light of the demos, they do so in order to insist on their right to step back into the apolitical shadows of individualism, away from the possibility of collective creativity or an identity-in-common.

    Birchall’s account of the illusions that come with seeking to salvage privacy aligns well with a poetics of the shadow (hardly apolitical, as Fernando showed in her own text!) which itself proves too easily used by power. Birchall’s insistence on state and company uses of aggregated datasets indicates well that what once seemed a straightforward and difficult-to-compute government-led biopolitics of population control has become a dramatically more agile and complex technological schema. What I would note here is that these meanings of transparency have been fairly closely related and coextensive: the term was used in both the context of an open society with a responsive (at times indeed limited) government, and also in the framework of information and the limits of privacy. Here we stand at the very opposite pole to the Habermasian hope: the very promise of Öffentlichkeit is turned inside out into its nightmare.

    Birchall may therefore well be right in implying that the resources I appealed to belong in a past which cannot adequately capture the challenges of today. This raises three questions: First, are they? Or, to put it differently, is the understanding of transparency in the context of the surveillant state-and-market so fundamentally transformed by their reach that we cannot quite rely on earlier critical responses? Second, from the perspective of my argument, does this alter so strongly the position I held on neoliberalism, namely that it should not be fully credited with the new illusionism of transparency?

    On the first question, I find myself at once in agreement with Birchall’s analysis and see no reason to undercut the positions raised in the book. Birchall notes transparency’s

    compatibility with an ideology that champions private control of public services, creating shadowy spaces that fall beyond accountability. Transparency can be mobilized in the service of a variety of desires that cannot always be openly advocated. It therefore gives an apolitical sheen to highly political visions. This is particularly evident in the way in which transparency in the guise of open government data is offered as a democratic good while actually making smaller government and looser regulation possible because it serves as a self-regulatory mechanism in lieu of centralized monitoring and policy-making.

    I completely agree. But this is close to the rationale with which I sought to bring out postwar French thinkers’ handling of normativity and information—Merleau-Ponty, Canguilhem, and Lacan in the first case, Leroi-Gourhan and Derrida in the second, with Lyotard following up. It is the last two, especially Lyotard, who mustered an argument—quickly misinterpreted in the United States through the frame of the “postmodern”—that showcased, for a pre-digital environment, many of the same pressures, and indeed linked them to the neoliberal economics ascendant in the late 1970s. More important though, and present throughout Birchall’s analysis are the articulation of the split self, the appeal to alternate norms and the demand that we oppose certain types of abnormal or anomal subjectivity to a “transparent society” with totalitarian hues. It is very much these tools, neither reducible to a single intellectual tradition nor as strongly present outside postwar France, that offer us grounds for pushing against the pressures of digital transparency, even if now we need additional ones as well. It is by working toward additional sources of critique and recalibrating deconstructive and “postmodern” approaches, that Birchall’s account has its greatest strengths.

    On the second question, I also continue to think that the link to neoliberalism, while strong, is not absolute. More reasons and sources have contributed than the transformation of state and market under neoliberalism. The strength, it seems to me, of Birchall’s account resides not so much in the link of neoliberalism and transparency but in the informatization and digitalization of the two. In the book I objected to reducing neoliberalism and transparency to one another, not because such a link is lacking, but instead because to leave the two as interchangeable reduces our critical options and force. This in turn makes it impossible to think beyond transparency—both toward democracy and toward a critical self—especially in a context where digital and virtual interpersonal relations are morphing and new forms if not of privacy then at least of shadow need also to be reconceptualized. Consequently, while transparency is certainly a market-based and state-based pressure, at the same time it is also one name for responses to state power. A Habermasian Öffentlichkeit does not seem to me to be something we ought to jettison on the grounds of the help that transparency offers to forces of power as a political, financial, and digital catchword. This was clear from Fernando’s argument—that just as power (financial, political, etc.) hides much when it carries the banner of transparency, so do its opponents. The dialectical result is one that Birchall also points to. To seek ways beyond this current technopolitical condition is to recognize that determination by these dynamics of openness and shadow pushes us to develop new approaches to norms, information, and response.

    I might pause here by returning to Fernando’s question on whether we cannot escape being interpellated by transparency—for it is also a question of Birchall’s, albeit inversely. It would seem that yes: we are interpellated by subjectifying concepts and metaphors that derive from the political and economic, as well as now technologically oriented domains, and these have indeed shifted, as Birchall shows. Perhaps Birchall is also right—that the work I did in this project, once pushed forward to the present time, is suggestive only to a certain degree, for we cannot think with the problem of transparency alone. And perhaps in the digital age both transparency and its critique are exhausting themselves.

    • Avatar

      Clare Birchall


      Further thoughts

      I want to thank Geroulanos for his generous and attentive reading and offer some further remarks in response to a few of the points he raises. He writes, “Birchall may … well be right in implying that the resources I appealed to belong in a past which cannot adequately capture the challenges of today.” I want to be clear that privacy is the only concept I find to be lacking in the contemporary conjuncture, for the reasons I explain in my piece, and think of it as a separate case from the others that Geroulanos identifies in his book that interrupt, resist or critique transparency. In fact, I find those other concepts – particularly opacity, alterity, the absolute or unconditional secret – to offer clear advantages when it comes to imagining ways of being in common and of organising that can respect singularity without collapsing into atomisation.

      I want to stress that I completely agree with Geroulanos’ statement that, “the link to neoliberalism, while strong, is not absolute.” When referring to neoliberal incarnations of transparency, I often use the phrase “this transparency” (as opposed to that other or any other formation): the articulation of transparency that dominates techno-democratic-capital in the global north. And this is why my critique of transparency is (mostly) contextual. I don’t rule out the possibility that a different articulation of transparency could be useful to the Left or progressive politics in the future. There are salient and pressing reasons as to why the opaque nature of power causes concern, particularly for the disenfranchised who have been systematically rendered invisible. We do not have to do away with transparency altogether, particularly if it can help to rectify historical and ongoing injustice. But we do need to raise the bar if transparency is to function as anything more than an extension of ideology or a tool to optimise control.

      For any implementation of transparency technologies, tools or policies, therefore, we may wish to ask the following to ascertain its progressive potential:

      1. Does this model of transparency facilitate a political response rather than merely a contribution to the flow of communicative capitalism, to employ the language of Jodi Dean? Or, put slightly differently: Is this model of transparency one that will best serve the interests of politics understood as an arena of dissensus and agonism?
      2. Does it (mis)read social problems as information problems?
      3. Will it enable the formation of subjectivities and networks that have more chance of having meaningful political agency or will it simply make inequitable structures and distributions more efficient?
      5. Does it offer, to adapt Jacques Rancière’s term, a genuine redistribution of the sensible?

      Transparency in politics is only a means to an end – good and fair government – not an end in itself. If the means supports an ideology that the Left cannot subscribe to it may be necessary to find alternative routes to good, fair government as well as a different vision for what might constitute “good” and “fair” in this context.

      Of course, many of the theorists that Geroulanos invokes in his book are not critiquing contextual transparency – transparency embedded in cultural and institutional forms – but, rather, transparency as an ontological or epistemological claim. I take inspiration from that critique but am primarily engaged with thinking about practices and politics. As such, I’ve appreciated Geroulanos’ book for how it turns to “material, technical, and institutional phenomena … 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 the curators of this symposium point out in their introduction.



A Semiotic Approach to the History of Concepts


On January 21, 2009, when US President Barack Obama used the occasion of his inaugural White House memorandum to pledge his administration’s commitment to creating “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” the elevation of transparency to a preeminent public virtue seemed complete. “Governments should be transparent,” the memorandum intoned, in a normative injunction presumably directed as much at itself as at the others expected to follow its lead; a sentiment that would receive a distinct echo, during the same years, among groups as varied in influence and orientation as the multinational whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks, the international Pirate Parties movement and the multilateral Open Government Partnership initiative, alongside many others. At this moment, transparency seemed almost a universal ideal and desideratum. But this was not always the case, and nor was it the case everywhere. And one need not return to the early modern political doctrine of raison d’État and its vindication of arcana imperii to find a principled opposition to transparency; as Stefanos Geroulanos’s important new book contends, we need look no further than a competing intellectual tradition specific to the postwar period of the twentieth century.

In Transparency in Postwar France, Geroulanos sets out to demonstrate two distinct but interrelated theses: first, that the concept of transparency, although marginal in itself, played a significant role in shaping a number of key intellectual concerns in France during the years more or less coinciding with the so-called trente glorieuses; and second, that in the dominant image that was constructed of it in this context, the concept was invested with a completely different valence to that which it received in other settings during the same period. With respect to the overwhelming tendency toward greater transparency and openness that has marked most intellectual cultures in modernity, the case of postwar France, Geroulanos suggests, presents a singular anomaly: French thinkers viewed it instead as an object of suspicion, derision and critique. To establish this twin thesis, the book undertakes a curious experiment in intellectual history. It seeks to trace neither the history of a single idea, nor that of an individual concept, but proposes instead to show how a panoply of well-known ideas and concepts, specific to a particular intellectual tradition and language context, appear in a new light when treated as webbed together by a “phantom concept” (21) that manifests itself only through their interplay. The concept of transparency is thus not itself the hero of the history it is understood to constitute; rather, it is revealed only through the dense web of counter-concepts—mask, night, other, complexity, difference, theatricality, ambiguity, heterogeneity, to name but a few—whose refusal of it in fact forms the immediate subject matter of the book. “Semiotic history” is, accordingly, the highly suggestive name that Geroulanos gives to the kind of intellectual history in which he is engaged in this work,1 and it is the utility of this approach that I intend to probe in my remarks.

We are, I think, invited to understand “semiotic history” as a specific intervention within the particular historical subfield to which Geroulanos’s study contributes: the history of concepts. Geroulanos receives the term “semiotic” from Clifford Geertz, who uses it to describe the ethnographer’s approach to the interpretation of cultures; but it is important to recognise that he also employs it polemically in contradistinction to the prototypical model of the field—Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte, whose programmatic essay on this topic he also cites—which defines its practice in terms of “semantic history.” Directly building on Geertz’s well-known suggestion that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,”2 the semiotic approach views concepts themselves as the “points” or “knots” in such a web, the sites, themselves variable, where, in a given configuration, two or more of the many strings composing the web intersect with one another. The important point—what gives the web its semiotic character, in the strict sense—is that concepts are always in some way tied to one another, and as such must never be studied in isolation but only in their relation to other concepts. To write the history of concepts, then, Geroulanos contends, “is to address the way in which they are strung together, pulled, yanked sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another” (24); it is to trace the forms in which they are threaded together and to study their intricate patterning.

If “intellectual” is the name Geroulanos gives to those puppeteers—be they philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, filmmakers (all of whom feature in his book)—who, either by pulling the strings this way or that, by creating new articulations or by dissolving old connections, provide the web with its distinct physiognomy in a given moment, it is nonetheless important to note that the history of concepts for which the web furnishes the model remains irreducible to the delimited perspective of particular individuals. And not only on account of the fact that such intellectuals are themselves as much products of the web as they are actors within it. The semiotic approach in fact strictly precludes it, demanding as it does the existence of a more or less shared, more or less public language (or idiom) that allows the interplay of concepts to be recognised as such. And recognition is the key word here: as Geertz himself stresses, what hinders semiotic analysis is not the incapacity to decipher signs, but the inability to construe them as signs, to recognise them as elements in a larger signifying network.3 Concepts, for Geroulanos, are thus not only irreducible to specific intellectuals; for the same reason, they must also be irreducible to specific sociohistorical contexts. Which is not to say that he promotes a decontextualized approach to the history of concepts. Rather, the opposite is true. Because concepts obtain their significance only relative to other concepts, they can never be decontextualized: they are—as such—inherently contextual. And just as concepts cannot be isolated from their context, so contexts themselves can never be separated from the conceptual web that gives them momentary consistency in the first place. From either side, a law of inseparability applies.

There are, to my mind, both benefits and risks attached to this approach. And it is here that its point of difference with respect to Begriffsgeschichte begins to become apparent. One of the most problematic aspects of the research program that received its signature expression in the eight volumes of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe concerns the status and utility of its elementary unit of study: the “basic concept” (Grundbegriff) itself. Historical semantics, in the sense in which Koselleck intended this phrase, investigates the meaning of concepts, not the meaning of words. For a history of concepts to be methodologically autonomous, it is thus imperative for concepts and words to be clearly distinguished. But this is far more difficult than it might at first appear. For concepts become available for historical analysis solely by means of the words through which they are conveyed. All concepts are thus necessarily attached to words, but the opposite is not true: not all words are automatically attached to concepts. “The concept”, Koselleck thereby concludes, “is connected to a word, but is at the same time more than a word.”4 And yet, it is nonetheless the condensation of this “more than a word” (which in a sense defines the concept) into a word, a word that must be both “indispensable” to a given period as well as fiercely “contested” within it, which simultaneously furnishes the principal criterion for distinguishing basic concepts from concepts in general.5 A basic concept, in this sense, would manifest itself in a single word freighted with more significance (in both senses of the term) than can be stabilised in a unitary definition.

But focusing on individual words in this way poses difficult problems concerning restriction and selection. It is not always the case that concepts can be adequately captured by means of a single word; in certain instances, a constellation of terms, even in the absence of a unifying centre, can instead prove the rule. Moreover, concentrating on individual words carries a certain danger of abstraction, in the sense that it risks isolating them, in too artificial a manner, from the nexus of interrelated terms with which they would have coexisted in a still-living discourse. Potentially even more fraught is the question of selection. In Koselleck’s account, basic concepts are more or less self-selecting, in that they appear so central to a given time period’s social and political vocabulary as to have become indispensable to it. But to privilege a period’s most distinctive concepts is still to exclude other, less obvious ones, which may prove equally worthy of study and indeed yield more far-reaching results; nor in principle, though this was the orientation favoured by the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, is there any necessity to restrict the history of concepts solely to the social and political arena. In the final analysis, there is no reason even to limit it solely to the study of verbal expressions, whether spoken or written, and the possibility of integrating its methods with those of iconology (for example) presents a promising avenue for future research.6

Geroulanos’s semiotic approach to the history of concepts offers an attractive alternative to both of these issues. On the one hand, as we have already seen, it eschews the analysis of individual concepts and their corresponding registrations in favour of that of the larger conceptual web in which the former would be but single points or knots, themselves eminently variable. In this way, for example, rather than inquiring what transparency is, or indeed whether or not transparency exists, it asks instead: what is the problematic context, each time specific, in which something like transparency becomes an issue? And through which configuration of interrelated concepts is this problematic context instantiated in a given iteration of the web? In so doing—and this would be its second corrective—it challenges Begriffgeschichte’s almost exclusive focus on central concepts, by showing how a concept such as transparency, which might have seemed minor in its own right, in fact performed a constitutive role in shaping the specific conceptual formation under examination. Rather than being clarified through contextualisation, transparency in this perspective becomes itself clarifying of the context in which it figures. It may never attain to the status of a Grundbegriff; it may not register in the various lexica through which a culture inventories its key terms (indeed, it may appear marginal even to the specific context in which it is understood to participate); but the analysis of such a minor concept can nonetheless still prove just as revealing of a period’s concerns than other more obvious candidates for investigation.

This is important work. But to speak of a minor concept is not the same thing as speaking of a phantom concept, as Geroulanos implies at one point by apposition. For a phantom concept need not itself be registered lexically alongside the other points or knots in the conceptual web it is understood to coordinate; it need only be evoked by them. And this is a troubling feature of Geroulanos’s account, to the extent that transparency is more often than not attested only negatively as the implicit target of a highly variegated critique. It is one thing to argue, as Geroulanos does, that “because transparency is tied to other concepts, it is reflected or expressed together with them, in moments of social and cultural tension,” but it is another thing again to posit reflexively that “it, in turn, expresses, relays, short circuits these tensions” (26), since the former in fact provides no evidential basis for the latter. In this case, the contrast with respect to Begriffsgeschichte, which the author himself is keen to emphasise (see 388n56), poses certain problems for his intervention.

Begriffsgeschichte is in the first instance a historical-philological method that emerges out of source criticism. In this mode—analogous, up to a certain point, with the Cambridge School of intellectual history—it aims at a historical clarification of past conceptual usage which avoids the two major pitfalls of the history of ideas tradition that Koselleck saw exemplified in the influential writings of Friedrich Meinecke: on the one hand, the careless transfer of expressions specific to the present to the past; and on the other, the naïve treatment of ideas as constants assuming different historical forms but themselves perennial and unchanging. Through increased methodological precision, it makes available a form of synchronic analysis that is attentive both to the specificity of language usage and to the particular circumstances in which it is used.7 But it becomes a historical subfield in its own right only in a second moment, which in fact follows, though this is little understood, as a direct corollary of the first. To distinguish the past use of a concept from our current understanding of it is at the same time to institute a gap between them, whose own history can in turn be reconstructed. Precisely because it requires translation from one context into another in order to effect this clarification, the synchronic analysis of concepts thus simultaneously enables and necessitates a diachronic counterpart to supplement it. It is the latter that gives Begriffsgeschichte its distinctive character; that, in Koselleck’s own words, allows “the individual historical analyses of concepts” to reconstitute themselves as “a history of the concept.”8 If this second phase of investigation must initially disregard what Koselleck calls the “extralinguistic content” (außersprachlichen Inhalten) of concepts, it nonetheless recuperates it at an ulterior level: it dissolves the immediate social and political conditions of conceptual usage, but precisely in order to transform persistence or alteration in the use of the same concepts into “indices” of persistence or alteration in their extralinguistic content over time.9 In this way, the synchronic and diachronic modes of analysis become so strictly intertwined as to be finally inseparable.

A semiotic approach to the history of concepts forecloses the possibility of undertaking this second phase of investigation, which I have suggested constitutes the specific facility of Begriffsgeschichte as a historical subfield.10 But it is important to recognize that it does so on account of the equivocal manner in which it first secures its object of study. Precisely because the identification of its concept is not contingent upon registration in a source language—being instead that which receives its profile only negatively, in the sense that we have seen, through the interplay of competing counter-concepts—transparency as such remains inseparable from the specific context that each time evokes it. In a strictly semiotic perspective, the investigation of a concept such as transparency thus entails no consideration of its extralinguistic (or indeed, as the case may be, extramental) content; what matters alone is determining the particular significance attached to it in a given configuration of the conceptual web through which it is elicited. In Geroulanos’s account, then, transparency is not a concept that is received, one that can be tracked from one context into another, but a concept that is each time defined anew, as the presumed other of this or that intellectual’s primary concern (one prominent example of which is of course the “other” itself). And yet, for all this, its semantic kernel remains paradoxically stable across the range of instantiations under consideration. It is almost as if the book asks that we hold together two seemingly mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, an understanding of transparency that is radically discontinuous, attested only in local situations, in themselves unrepeatable; on the other hand, an understanding that is equally continuous, preserving a substrate of invariant meaning beneath what would be mere surface effects. Transparency in this way is transformed into a means or a vehicle for telling a story about something—postwar French thought perhaps?—but not necessarily about transparency itself.

I do not view this as a problem in itself. The work of canonical figures in the postwar French scene such as Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan, for example, receive stunning reinterpretations here from the perspective of their refusal of transparency. But it does generate complications for the global argument of the book, to the extent that the latter frames itself as “a critical history of the present.” Geroulanos is absolutely correct to stress that transparency’s “current meaning” is only “the temporary result of a social and theological negotiation rather than the culmination of a long tradition” (26). But while the semiotic approach he adopts in this book delivers compelling and extensive evidence for a competing valuation of the concept, it seems far less suited to demonstrating a corresponding difference (or similarity) in its meaning, as the above quotation would appear to suggest. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case: the success of the book’s argument in fact requires that we presume more or less stability in the concept’s meaning in order to allow its critics in the past effectively to confront its champions in the present. And this is precisely what the semiotic approach appears unable to verify.

  1. “Perhaps a better term for the intellectual history I am attempting,” he writes, “is semiotic history: to pull historically relevant meaning out of the uses of an idea that seemed minor on its own terms yet was meticulously woven into the fabric of postwar life and thought, an idea phrased always in terms of a critique that gained momentum and became emblematic of the period itself” (21–22).

  2. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973), 5.

  3. See Geertz, “Thick Description,” 13. The great linguist Émile Benveniste, who proposes a fundamental distinction between the semiotic and the semantic, offers the following clarification: “The semiotic (sign) must be recognised; the semantic (discourse) must be understood.” Émile Benveniste, “Sémiologie de la langue,” in Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), 2:64–65.

  4. Reinhart Koselleck, “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History,” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 85.

  5. See Reinhart Koselleck, “A Response to Comments on the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” trans. Melvin Richter and Sally E. Robertson, in The Meaning of Historical Terms and Concepts: New Studies on Begriffsgeschichte, ed. Hartmut Lehmann and Melvin Richter (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1996), 64–65.

  6. Indeed, certain of Koselleck’s own writings remain pioneering in precisely this regard. See, for example, Reinhart Koselleck, “War Memorials: Identity Formations of the Survivors,” trans. Todd Samual Presner, in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 285–326.

  7. See Koselleck, “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History,” 81.

  8. Koselleck, “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History,” 82.

  9. Koselleck, “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History,” 83.

  10. In truth, there is a third aspect of Begriffsgeschichte outlined in Koselleck’s programmatic essay, which pertains to the structural possibilities contained in concepts that may be revealed through the study of their semantic stratification. It is this last aspect that in turn makes Begriffsgeschichte a propaedeutic for a theory concerning what here he calls “the conditions of possible history” (see Koselleck, “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History,” 91); but this dimension is obviously less pertinent in the present context. For commentary, see Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Koselleck, Arendt, and the Anthropology of Historical Experience,” trans. Tom Lampert, History and Theory 49 (2010) 212–36.

  • Avatar

    Stefanos Geroulanos


    Response to Heron

    Nicholas Heron, more intensively than Laurent Jeanpierre and Sandrine Baume, contrasts my approach to Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual history. He gives a correct account (I think) of what largely separates my approach from his. It would require an essay of its own for me to clarify my distance from Koselleck—all the more since he himself evolved and changed considerably, and some of his later approach follows somewhat different terms than his earlier work. I should note, nonetheless, that as regards Koselleck’s earlier work which is cited here, I find my reticence to be growing. At any rate, Heron proposes Begriffsgeschichte to have benefits that my approach lacks, because of its management of conceptual and semantic continuity. (This proximity is not so distant from Jeanpierre’s criticism insinuating a looseness of context, but it is aimed differently.) Precisely because I highlight the attachment of a concept to others linked to it, Heron argues, I overstate its contingency, which leads to an undercutting of the ways in which such concepts as transparency do have a certain longue durée continuity.

    That may well be the case. I think Begriffsgeschichte works better if our goal is an autonomous conceptual history, as was Koselleck’s. But then again, the autonomy of a conceptual field is hard to commit to—to me, when pushed to the extreme, it recalls a “history of ideas” style—and it is somewhat dysfunctional methodologically. It is hard to commit to because it is not evident to what degree we could, really, suggest concepts to be operating on their own domain. I prefer to see them attached, if tentatively, to social problems and situations and hence not as translating such situations but instead as interwoven with them. (Methodologically dysfunctional, because it only works if we take it in toto: but what if we are looking at metaphors? what happens when we link concepts to their own concepts of history, concepts of meaning and representation etc.? I tend to think Koselleck could systematize this with force in his early work, but less so in his later writings, once he began to discuss images and memorialization.)

    Heron correctly surmises the ensuing distance between the more embedded history of concepts and metaphors that I am looking at, and Koselleck’s. He writes [and I comment in brackets]:

    If this second phase of investigation must initially disregard what Koselleck calls the “extralinguistic content” (außersprachlichen Inhalten) of concepts, [. . . but what if we do not accept that there such an extralinguistic content can be discerned or parsed out or disregarded/recuperated because this is a fallacy] it nonetheless recuperates it at an ulterior level: it dissolves the immediate social and political conditions of conceptual usage, but precisely in order to transform persistence or alteration in the use of the same concepts into “indices” of persistence or alteration in their extralinguistic contents over time [but, we can use concepts as indices without this distinction, and it does not seem to me satisfactory at all to allow this transformation]. In this way, the synchronic and diachronic modes of analysis become so strictly intertwined as to be finally inseparable. [I do not think that this last bit is workable without reduction.]

    This leads to a beautiful paragraph, in which I do not want to intervene:

    In a strictly semiotic perspective, the investigation of a concept such as transparency thus entails no consideration of its extralinguistic (or indeed, as the case may be, extramental) contents; what matters alone is determining the particular significance attached to it in a given configuration of the conceptual web through which it is elicited.

    So here we arrive at a distinction between the two approaches. Koselleck’s approach does grant continuity. For my part, I do not follow how concepts could possibly have extramental or extralinguistic contents that we acknowledge but do not consider. I do not follow this, because I do not think that language in history operates in such a way that it can be strictly separated from its milieus. In fact, I do not think concepts have content, much less extralinguistic or extramental content: I think they are attached to (or on a different register refracted across) ideas, contents, objects, social behaviors. Meaning is constructed and retained across these attachments, with language keeping them generally stable in their sets of references. At most, they bear a selective citation schema, a set of references. But because they exist within relatively determined frameworks (or contexts, if you prefer), they tend to have stable attachments, only some of which are cited at any given point. If this does lose a sense of diachronic continuity—not because the term cannot be generally associated with a meaning that we derive both from language and from these frameworks and milieus—it grants us stronger access to the specificity of these frameworks and milieus.

    Moreover, I worry about an argument that would insist that conceptual history focus on the explicit invocation of concepts with content. (1) This would suggest that the invocation of a specific concept and only that invocation would carry the work—what about the proximate metaphors of a concept of the state, for example, and the role they play? (2) I think it positions concepts working across languages and translations in a way that stabilizes too strongly their meanings and referents.

    My thanks go to Nicholas for helping to make the distance a bit more explicit. I am nonetheless receptive to the criticism that I am trying to have it both ways, and that I am undercutting longue durée continuity in conceptual meaning. I’ll return to this point in the conclusion below.

    As this is the concluding section of my responses, I want to address another question raised by Heron, Jeanpierre, and others. Is the approach that I offered replicable? Can this historiographical practice, which blended historical epistemology, history of concepts and Metaphorologie, and history of the present, be repeated on other subjects? That is the concluding methodological question of Heron and Jeanpierre. It is also the inverse in a sense of Fernando’s “are we always interpellated by transparency?” (Might I ask, instead are we interpellated only by transparency?)

    My sense is that this approach is indeed replicable, and that conceptual history can only gain from experimenting with variants. In a recent project, Todd Meyers and I looked at the metaphorical value acquired in the 1920s and 1930s by a medical concept of the body as brittle and integrated, which informed several social, political, and economic debates. We elaborated this in contrast to other concepts of the body in its relation to society, in order to show both its influence and its support of a technocratic idea of governance and a certain individualism, against a racial understanding of wholeness and integration. (We did not operate in quite the same way as I did in this book.) Leaving aside my work, it seems to me that this approach could negotiate a number of different problems that are clearly historical and yet do not have easy references or easy stories, problems that are not easily or conventionally historicized because they do not belong to a straightforward idea, because they do not have an easy political or cultural backdrop, because they do not fit in specific fields alone. Let us begin with smaller ones—minor concepts once more—for example for a history of the paradox that David Foster Wallace called the math melodrama: how did we (“we”) come to believe in autobiographical narratives, to grant truth to life and prioritize biographies over work and abstraction. What are the consequences of such a commitment, and what conceptual and social changes made such a conception of the self possible? Alongside, how did microbiological or neurological selves come to develop as consistent ideas, if we allow that this is not simply a matter of specific scientific work? Or how did we come to commit to suffering as a point of identification, or to think of trauma as even potentially transgenerational?

    These concepts are tricky in the sense that they seem fluid, that they dissipate and do not allow for an easy history. But we could also expand a bit toward more conventional subjects, especially ones that lack a clear definition. I think an approach along those lines could well serve the transatlantic, transgenerational history of “postmodernism,” a maligned, poorly understood concept that has existed mostly in distortions, one whose tale was told at least as much by those who refused “it” as those subsumed, often uncomfortably, within it.

    Or consider, more broadly, the problem of defining other slippery concepts like “race” or “history” or “culture”—where even in individual authors, even in individual texts, multiple definitions may be in play. We could provide accounts that accentuate continuities, but why would we? Would it not be more significant to watch the transformation of these concepts, on their own and as related to others, to understand perhaps why the practices in which such concepts are embedded play out differently, while remaining affected by them. For example, is it not better to think of “the state” in terms of the coeval and concurrent but frequently very divergent conceptions that the term brings out? Or should we give up on the local conceptual history, on the principle that concepts have somehow clearer, broader import but practices are specific? Do we have a definition of race or state or history that actually precedes or can be abstracted from the local usages of such concepts? Or should we specifically go for discontinuity and conflict, and start over? I hope the “model” I have offered here helps pursue indeed more specific and local forms and conceptions. I can think of the work of several historians, philosophers, at times anthropologists too (including some who have written in this forum), that points in such directions—but perhaps I should abstain from naming them and leave the reader who has come thus far to make their own decisions as to who to align here.

    More concretely still, perhaps such an approach can help us understand even very conventional subjects, like war, the state, community, progress, alienation, revolution, and so on. Once we do not sit and pretend that their meaning is obvious and fairly stable, perhaps we can come to see how they belong to the worlds and histories most proximate to each invocation, so that they at times, and even in very brief periods, come to mean different things. Here, the aversion to continuity would be a benefit, precisely where these concepts might not be easily recounted in social or political terms. These would have to be a similarly webbed histories—in each case a cat’s cradle where each fraction of each hand movement powers forward each knot in the web. To spark such a way of reading concepts and texts was indeed the dream of this book.