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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.1 (2003) 1-21

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A Destitution of the Subject?

Étienne Balibar
Translated by James Swenson

Introductory Note: The following paper was originally presented at a colloquium, “Normes et structures,” at the Université de Rennes, March 22–24, 2001. The style of a conference presentation has been preserved.
The paper I would like to present to you today represents a simple attempt on my part to establish an order among a certain number of texts. My working hypothesis will be that the notion of text occupies a point in between those of work (œuvre) and statement (énoncé). Both of these possibilities—extension in the direction of totality and restriction in the direction of the elementary—are implicated in the notion of text, but no a priori suppositions are justified concerning either the unity of works, classified by author or by groups of authors, or the univocality of statements, subjected as they are to the inevitable process of dissemination through reading and appropriation. The perspective of assembly and interpretation of texts corresponds to a practical, even professional goal of mine, which forms the immediate background and condition of possibility of my participation in this colloquium. Having signed a contract [End Page 1] with an American publisher, I am now obliged to put together an anthology of Postwar French Philosophy, 1 roughly spanning the years from 1950 to 1980 (although these entirely conventional dates need to be relaxed somewhat in order to bring to the fore both continuities and divergences, as well as a few significant retrospective movements). The limits set by the publisher for length are quite generous, but still restrictive enough to force us to stick to the most essential texts. The fact that my associate in this enterprise, John Rajchman, is of a different nationality and has different disciplinary training than I guarantees in some respects that the selections chosen will not be overly narrow and one-sided. Still, we cannot but impose simplifying protocols—contestable by definition—on our description and “classifications.” The advantage we can hope to gain from this sort of process is that it requires the clearest statement possible of our hypotheses with respect to the crucial problems and tendencies of French philosophy in the period under consideration (which should not be confused with a survey of schools and debates).

In the end (and this is what motivates my presence here and the proposal I gave the organizers of this colloquium to speak about this subject), my principal hypothesis is that structuralism—and I will presently try to specify the meaning we should give to the word—will, as far as philosophy is concerned, have been the decisive moment in French thought during the second half of the twentieth century. If our hypothesis that it was a decisive moment is justified, then there is every reason to believe that the retrospective characterization that is now possible of fundamental aspects, events, and statements particularly characteristic of structuralism is not in the least a final recapitulation, much less an obituary. On the contrary, what makes such a project meaningful is the prospect of showing that the structuralist movement, multiple and incomplete by its very nature, is still going on—although it may be in sites where and under denominations that we cannot immediately recognize it. In a well-known text entitled “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” published in 1973 in François Châtelet’s collection Histoire de la philosophie, Gilles Deleuze attempted to enumerate a number of marks or transversal criteria in the writing of his contemporaries so as to formulate a diagnosis of a first turning point in the structuralist trajectory, indeed, to contribute to that turn. My own modest intention here, following upon another cycle of broadening and transformation, is likewise to try to formulate a diagnosis, and perhaps also to contribute to a renewed movement. [End Page 2]

The considerations I am proposing center around the question of structuralism’s contribution to a philosophical reformulation of the question of the subject...


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pp. 1-21
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Archived 2004
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