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  • What about the Billeter-Jullien Debate? And What Was It about? A Response to Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
  • Ralph Weber

No doubt Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is right to highlight that the debate of 2006 and 2007 (if indeed it can be called a debate1) between Jean François Billeter and François Jullien was particularly heated. It was to some extent a personal affair in that both protagonists overstepped the scholarly bounds set for an exchange of arguments, the heat at times reaching the boiling point. Billeter reproached Jullien for no less than instrumentalizing China, fashioned as the absolute Other and instrumentalized for almost no other purpose than to continue a philosophical discourse established by Jullien himself, a discourse that became ever more auto-referential, furthering only the most dubious of ideological interests. In one passage, Billeter goes so far as to claim that, rather than allowing the “Chinese authors” their own voice and letting them develop their own arguments, in the end “it is always him [i.e. Jullien] who talks” (Billeter 2006a, p. 45). Regardless of just how personal Billeter’s opposition to Jullien was meant to be—and at least one commentator claims that beyond the polemical title the text offers a “rigorous argumentation” (Danjou 2006; cf. also Zufferey 2006)—Jullien certainly took it personally, asking himself in his riposte, Chemin faisant, just why Billeter was so angry at him (Jullien 2007, p. 137).

His riposte is marketed on the title page in big letters as a “Réplique à ***,” which is explained by the series editors, Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin, in terms of the reaction to a splinter that more often than not swiftly removed is quickly forgotten but that occasionally provokes a considerable reflexive gesture, of just the kind that Jullien offers, thanks to ***. A quote by Foucault precedes the text itself, reading: “There are critiques to which one responds and others to which one gives a riposte. [End Page 228] Perhaps wrongly so, for why not similarly lend an ear that is attentive to incomprehension, to banality, to ignorance or to insincerity?” Only once, at the very beginning of the text, is Billeter’s name (by implication the subject either of incomprehension, banality, ignorance, insincerity, or a combination of all four) fully mentioned; thereafter only his initials, JFB, are used. Even until recently the practice of giving the silent treatment has persisted, as when Jullien in the interview with Martin and Spire simply observes “that the sinologists who criticize me … have themselves produced nothing since that critique—do you need names?” (Martin and Spire 2011, p. 209; italics in original), before referring the reader to the many books he has written since Chemin faisant. Needless to add, this point is premised on quantity trumping quality, which is at least slightly disconcerting given that Jullien’s works have been found as early as 1996 to be marked by “a great deal of overlapping if not outright repetition (or at least rewriting)” (Reding 1996, p. 162)—something that apparently still is the case in his many books “produced” since then.

From one standpoint, Botz-Bornstein is also right in referring to the affair as mainly a French debate, involving a sizable number of participants and spanning a considerable period of time, from Billeter and Jullien’s 1989 and 1990 exchange in the pages of Études chinoises over how to read Wang Fuzhi (see Billeter 2006a, p. 37 n. 1); to several volumes on and in co-operative works with Jullien (Jullien and Marchaisse 2000, Marchaisse 2003, Cornaz and Marchaisse 2004, Chartier and Marchaisse 2005, Jousset 2006, and Serrurier and Bricout 2011); to the publication of the partisan Oser Construire: Pour Jullien (Chartier 2007) and Billeter’s answer to it (Billeter 2007); to the many discussions of Jullien that continue to take as their starting point the exchange with Billeter (cf. Keck 2009). The text by Martin and Spire, for instance, makes ample reference to the debate, as Botz-Bornstein mentions, and speaks out in favor of Jullien (Martin and Spire 2011, pp. 77–97). Yet, the debate is also the starting point for Jean Levi’s (2011) recent criticism of Jullien. Beyond the borders of France...