The French Technique

Ian James, The New French Philosophy

Polity Press, 220pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745648064

reviewed by Marjorie Gracieuse

Ian James’ new book offers a compelling account of the most recent and interesting figures that constitute the actuality and singularity of the contemporary French philosophical landscape. It is a thought-provoking exposition of the conceptual work of seven living French thinkers, extending from Jean-Luc Marion to François Laruelle via Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, Catherine Malabou, Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou. Combining philosophical acumen and critical analysis, James’ book is a confident and learned study, fascinating in its scope, rigour and clarity. Each chapter is devoted to a particular French philosopher, each time allowing the reader to evaluate the theoretical and practical originality proper to each, but also to seize the issues and measure the tensions at stake within their thought.

James presents his project as taking the idea of ‘a break from the linguistic, textual or discursive paradigm of (post-)structuralism as its initial premise’ and locates the beginnings of this break in the 1970s. It is, therefore, not around a specific or fashionable concept like ‘immanence’, but rather from a complex and dynamic network of intertwined theoretical gestures, that James deploys his impressively detailed analyses. Although some passages are wordy and complex due to the very nature of their textual sources, James escapes any dogmatic or jargon-filled account of philosophical systems by precisely connecting each thinker to their ‘outside’, whether it be the thought and problems formulated by other philosophers or simply the more or less valuable remarks of their most renown commentators. This is an efficient reading strategy, as it allows the reader to compare ideas and explore new perspectives and problems within and beyond the rhetorical and discursive complexity of each work.

One would be wrong, however, to think that this book is just an interesting survey of the most prolific French thinkers of our present time. In fact, James’ study is itself an original and fruitful philosophical synthesis, which succeeds in introducing the reader to what could be called, using Gilles Deleuze’s expression, the ‘new image of thought’ that starts emerging from the multiple conceptual constellations that constitute the dynamism of contemporary French philosophy. According to James, and despite their different ways of experimenting with philosophical potentials, the seven thinkers presented in this study have all attempted to radically rethink questions of materiality and the concrete. They pay constant attention to the creative relation between a discursive gesture or technique and the material realm from which thought develops. It is this commitment to rethink, if not dismiss, traditional dualisms that has led the most recent French thinkers to adopt a constructive rather than deconstructive method of philosophical history.

The book revolves around the problem of clarifying the new sense of what has been called ‘the real’, both as practical source of novelty for thought and as theoretical concept of concrete materiality. James convincingly demonstrates the importance of the new French philosophy for contemporary debates about materialism, particularly in relation to a new thematisation of the constitutive role of the real. It can no longer be considered as a stable foundation, but is rather as a plastic material with which we do not cease to engage and interact. In James’ view, this transformation in philosophical practice has occurred ‘in response to the necessity of a repositioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques of thought’. Again, a key aspect of his approach is to rethink the status of worldly appearance in order to re-engage in new and highly original ways with the question, or rather the practice of ontology from the perspective of which being, thinking and matter are ultimately one.

James lays welcome emphasis on major and oft-disregarded texts, presenting a solid analysis of French philosophers’ most important theses and concepts. The book is clearly successful in analysing the development of philosophical concepts over the last three decades and in pointing out the conceptual resonances, theoretical tensions and lines of force that make up the captivating network of contemporary French philosophy. This insightful comparative approach enables the reader to engage with the most significant innovations in the domain of Continental philosophy and to readdress ethical and political questions such as that of the subject and democracy. James produces ample evidence for helping the reader to grasp the theoretical and practical gesture of philosophers, exploring their effort to reinvent a style of writing that would be adequate to the fragmentary, excessive and infinite nature of the real.

One can only be happy to note that this book was written by a non-professional philosopher. Indeed, James never lets himself be mesmerised by the all too often intimidating allure of French philosophical idiom, but knows how to extract from it a thesis that forces us to think it anew. This thesis consists in asserting that the renewal of the techniques of thought does not, and cannot go without the search for a new style and a renewed philosophical technicity. Technique, which has been so often condemned by a certain philosophical tradition, is no longer dismissed by contemporary French thinkers, but rather positively affirmed as the most specific and promising resource of philosophical thought. James makes the convincing argument that ‘the renewal of philosophical thinking can only be achieved in the transformation of the techniques of thought itself’, and that the technique of thought which each thinker adopts is necessarily a function or formation of the material real which each, in their different ways, seeks to think.

This means that interpreting and transforming the world are no longer two separate tasks for the 21st Century French philosophy: the creation of new conceptual techniques, insofar as they enact a transformation in the very materiality of thought, is now considered as an effective and powerful means to resist philosophical and non-philosophical dogmatism. If the real is not so much to be thought but to be created, philosophy must become attuned to the indiscernibility of thought and matter, in order to ‘renew itself and move beyond the closure of the metaphysics of the past to the opening of new forms in the future’. No doubt about it, Ian James’ book is definitely a welcome contribution to the task of invigorating and renewing scholarship on French philosophy, and will hopefully raise new interest in texts whose theoretical and interpretative matrix is still ongoing.