- François Jullien’s Unexceptional Thought: A Critical Introduction by Arne De Boever
François Jullien is a master of repetition. Over his more than thirty books, he introduces a carefully defined set of concepts--such as “blandness” and “efficacy”--and then pairs them, opposes them, and sets them in different contexts, returning to them repeatedly without ever saying quite the same thing. One can imagine an introduction to Jullien’s work that traces each of his concepts through its development from book to book, noting explicit and implicit connections to the traditional Chinese thought that gave rise to it. In François Jullien’s Unexceptional Thought, Arne De Boever takes a different tack. As he puts it in his introduction: “I focus on certain books and topics that stood out to me within Jullien’s work and in relation to the present moment as worthy of inquiry” (p. xii). The content of the book is determined by these two criteria: firstly, De Boever’s interests, which fall roughly within the field of critical theory, and secondly, “the present moment,” which turns out to mean contemporary intellectual and ideological trends. Jullien’s Unexceptional Thought is not, then, a comprehensive survey of Jullien’s work, but a series of essays on topics governed by these two criteria.
What are the topics that stand out to De Boever? Chapters One and Four address his primary topic: the method developed by Jullien for negotiating the gap between different regions of thought, most obviously but not exclusively the regions of Chinese and Western thought. Chapter One discusses whether Jullien’s approach to China may accurately be called “orientalist,” and Chapter Four situates Jullien’s method in relation to several contemporary intellectual trends. Sandwiched between these analyses of Jullien’s overall method are two chapters on specific fields of inquiry. Chapter Two focuses on aesthetics, and Chapter Three on politics. The latter is more successful than the former. De Boever introduces Jullien’s concept of efficacy, lists three of his works that develop this concept, and shows that Jullien refines the concept of efficacy and changes the style of his presentation from one work to the next. Chapter Two, on the other hand, says a little about landscape painting and the role of nudity in art, but it never develops the urgency and contemporary significance of the other chapters. [End Page 1] De Boever gives up the topic of aesthetics a little more than halfway through the chapter and spends its last ten pages introducing the political themes to be developed in Chapter Three.
The reader can easily skip to a specific chapter, as each reads like an independent essay. This impression is enhanced by the fact that each chapter, including the introduction and conclusion, ends with its own bibliography. The relative independence of the chapters is useful for the reader interested in only a few of the book’s themes, but it creates a problem of repetition. Unlike Jullien, who varies his repeated treatments of concepts, De Boever will make the same point, or repeat the same sentence, almost word-for-word in different chapters. Minor cases include a paragraph on Lisa Lowe, Eric Hayot, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Chapter One (p. 3) that reappears with the same thesis and some of the same language in Chapter Three (p. 72). More disconcerting is De Boever’s claim in Chapter Two that he “would like to start thinking about Jullien’s thought--a little provocatively--as ‘unexceptional,’” when he has already been explaining that Jullien’s thought is unexceptional throughout the introduction (especially xxiii). Such repetitions suggest that the book is not meant to be read from beginning to end.
The book also calls into question, sometimes explicitly, De Boever’s competence to write it. De Boever warns that he is “largely assessing Jullien’s oeuvre from the Western side,” as he has only “limited knowledge of the Chinese materials that Jullien studies” (p. xx). He follows this...