Purple Magazine
— S/S 2015 issue 23

François Jullien

François Julien in his office potographed by Olivier Zahm François Julien in his office potographed by Olivier Zahm



François Jullien has long been one of the world’s preeminent sinologists — a specialist in Chinese thought. Over the last decade, he has also emerged as one of today’s leading thinkers, exploring inter-cultural relations between China and the West. He is re-examinating the major issues of contemporary life, such as intimacy (De l’Intime, Grasset, 2013) and the question of dialogue between cultures (On the Universal, Wiley, 2014). His writings, highly subtle, lively, and accessible, invite us to rediscover the intensity that lies hidden in all aspects of our life.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Donatien and I thought we’d start from the beginning, with China, although for you China is perhaps not the beginning. How did you end up going there? Here in France when we think about China, Mao’s China is what comes to mind first as a political or revolutionary model for the ’70s. Later, with the development of an industry that fuels the worlds of fashion and luxury, we came to think of China as a post-capitalist model. We hadn’t thought of China as a conceptual model. Is China a conceptual model for you in the sense of a figure of alterity or exteriority? Is a figure of exteriority even possible?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — In my view, China is not a conceptual model. I’ll tell you how I got there. It was strategic on my part. I was a Hellenist at the École Normale Supérieure and said to myself, “We say that we are, fundamentally, the heirs to the Greeks, but what do we mean by that?” As a Hellenist, I told myself I needed to find a backdoor strategy — so that I could attack the Greek tradition from some outside position, an outside position that would make it re-emerge — and not just take this phrase “We come from the Greeks” to be a commonplace of thought. I wanted to put the notion into relief, and I chose China — not out of any interest in China, but because I needed to find a way of thinking that was outside the Indo-European language. In general, at the École Normale, when you want to “get beyond” the Greeks you turn to Sanskrit. I also needed to step outside the historical questions. So I couldn’t turn to the Arab world, either. Once you’ve excluded India and the Arab world as lying on the margins of the Western world and start looking elsewhere, you end up with China. You get outside the Indo-European language, outside history; you find a point of exteriority that allows you to return to European thought by a detour, and you start questioning the things that European thought takes for granted. What I do is capture the unthought-of in our thought. That is why I go through China. It thus had nothing to do with politics, either. I first went to China in late ’75, when I was 24 years old. This was after the Maoist period, but I suffered some of the fallout, since it was nevertheless the hardened China of the end of Mao’s reign. Another reason was that I didn’t want a philosophical specialty. I don’t think anything could be more sterile than specialization, but the university as an institution urges us toward it. It urges us to specialize in political philosophy, moral philosophy, aesthetic philosophy, or what have you. To me that’s anti-philosophical. Passing through this little-known elsewhere, then, I had occasion to find myself in need of everything — art, ethics, politics. Everything was in play. So there were two aspects to it: first, finding some outside point from which I could put European thought into perspective and where I could take a step back in my mind; second, finding room to maneuver, and not letting myself get stamped into the institutional mold of philosophy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You use the term “heterotopia” in talking about China, saying it’s more of a heterotopia than a utopia.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — The term comes from Michel Foucault, in the opening of The Order of Things. Foucault in turn got the proposition — China as heterotopia — from Jorge Luis Borges. The great insight contained in that introductory page is when Foucault says that utopias reassure and heterotopias unsettle. That’s precisely what I was looking for in China: the disquiet, the restlessness of heterotopia, as opposed to the consolation and reassurance of utopia. I wanted to see how thought could be shaken up. Although I’m citing Foucault, I should point out something that sets us apart. After introducing the term heterotopia, in opposition to utopia, he speaks of “the patent impossibility of thinking that.” This is what he calls the alterity of China. For me there is no patent impossibility. It’s simply a matter of working, learning Chinese, reading. In short, there’s a certain amount of patient, humble philological and philosophical work to be done, a certain amount of elaboration and translation, after which it is not patently impossible to think that. The whole purpose of my work is to illuminate the differences between Chinese and European thought, so as to reach common ground and intelligibility. It is in no way patently impossible to think that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a cliché but nevertheless true to say that China inspires fear, even intellectual fear.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — China inspires fear because there’s a great difficulty in the enterprise. What one finds in China is not concepts but coherences from text to text, and one must then generate concepts from these coherences. There is no Chinese model, no modelization of Chinese thought. There are coherences that we must elaborate into concepts, vis-à-vis European thought, so as to set up new problematics of the thinkable.

DONATIEN GRAU — Which clearly stakes out your position. You are on the European side because you generate concepts from coherences.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Because I write in a European language. Because what I’m saying is philosophical. I have not gone Chinese, or converted to any sort of Orientalism, or become a Buddhist. I am taking a philosophical, and thus a Greek, approach. I am simply trying to find a strategy-by-detour to give myself some elbow room, so that I’ll no longer be bogged down within the Greek thing. This is where I operate; I have this room to maneuver. What this gives me, in other words, is new initiative. I think being a philosopher means being able to take new initiative in thought.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the world of China has given you this initiative?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. It’s not the world of China itself that’s done it. That world is thoroughly caught up in tradition, lineage, rote learning, and ideograms. It is passing through that world, and the disruption caused thereby, that provides new initiative. It’s not the world in and of itself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But is there anything peculiar to the Chinese world that you have learned or used or integrated?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Of course, because it’s a great culture, with a strong current of thought that, although not conceptual, has its own intelligibility. It does not stand in paradox with respect to ours. The simple matter is, first, that you mustn’t approach things in terms of thought but in terms of language-thought: a language without conjugation, declension, or morphology. The lack of conjugations affects thought and is much more unsettling than any criticism of one side by another. It’s a fundamental shake-up because it means you don’t have to select a tense or a mode when you verbalize. Philosophy lives by criticism. Being a philosopher means saying no to previous philosophers — and thus refutation, criticism, and in Nietzsche even suspicion. When I say “disturb” I mean something different. To disturb, for me, is to rattle the foundations, to shake up what we do not know can be shaken up. Take, for example, the cogito of Descartes. Descartes commits to the cogito as the most radical of operations, the initial operation, the great starting point of his thought, the great lifting of the curtain, but he doubts only what he knows to be dubious: having a soul, God, etc. He was a mathematician. But it never occurs to him to doubt what I, coming from China, think to be dubious: i.e., the isolation of a single concept as a thought or a being. He doubts nothing that has to do with being, with the verb “to be.” This is precisely what China teaches us to doubt. One of the things that drew me to China was learning that there was no verb for being in classical Chinese. You can say “I am big” or “I am tired,” or employ the linking-verb function, but you cannot say “I am.” There is no verb for the edifice that the Greeks erected, which shows up in Homer before it shows up in Plato: namely, the opposition between being and becoming, being and seeming, which forms the basis of truth. Lacking the support or the convenience of the verb “to be,” China says and thinks something else. Doing without being seems interesting to me because it provokes a reaction in our thought, without in any way criticizing or refuting it, even in the Nietzschean sense.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Since the beginning, then, you’ve been doing a philosopher’s work. Today you are more and more a philosopher; you are becoming a philosopher.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I have always been one. I simply had some studying and reading and philology to do. For me, philology and philosophy go hand in hand, but these days most of my efforts go toward clearing the philosophical ground in my territory. I first had to move into the territory and work patiently and locally with questions that seem to have no bearing on one another, but they gradually weave together into the net of a problematic, which in turn helps disengage and elucidate a proper philosophical inquiry. It’s true, then, that there’s been a shift in my work.

DONATIEN GRAU — There can be a sort of tension between a philosophical, constructivist perspective and an anthropological approach.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I am extremely troubled by the suspicion among Sinologists that I have constructed for myself a China that is not the true China. This is not the case at all. I am against that. I have never abandoned my work in philology, never stopped reading texts in their entirety, and their commentaries, and the commentaries on their commentaries. I see how fertile an endeavor that is. So the idea that I’ve made myself a China in the mold of the philosophical matters that concern me is false, and it wouldn’t be very fertile. It would be a fantasy China. I haven’t set out to write Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. I’ve done something else entirely. I’ve submitted myself to disruption, to the disruption of China, and of Japan. And I have never emerged from that disruption. Now, I am simply trying to reap the benefits. My work is undergoing a shift. Now that I’ve spent a few years paying my dues, I think I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, of the heavy investment that is Sinology. It’s a never-ending thing. But from this investment, I must stake out the philosophical ground that I am now trying to till.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There was a little detour within your detour: Japan.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, absolutely. It’s a detour off a detour, for no detour is fixed and monumental. The detour is a way of proceeding, not a destination. As a Sinologist, I made this decision because, from Japan’s perspective, China is already the West. It’s already an order of rational thought, with nothing of that embrace of sensation, that awareness of the fleeting, such as Japanese culture has developed. I went to Japan to be a Sinologist. Because Japanese took shape on the basis of Chinese writing, because it is contaminated with Chinese, there is at once a proximity and a gap. The Japanese, moreover, have done great work in philology. In spending two years in Japan, I discovered the country on its own terms and let the Japanese thing soak in, precisely to achieve a separation from China. Thus a separation within the separation. No separation or detour ought to be a set thing. It’s a way of proceeding, a strategy — and a strategy is to be employed every which way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re now constructing a philosophy of life. Would you agree? Does the idea stem from people like Foucault or Gilles Deleuze?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No. It is proprio motu. It has no parentage. It came about of necessity through my own work. I’ve made this investment in China and been compelled to veer away from the question of being. What question does one veer toward in veering away from the question of being? The question of life. Life demands that we elaborate a separate set of categories. We mustn’t consider life as if it were in the shadow of being. We must consider it by shifting our thought away from being, away from questions of knowledge, truth, coincidence, adequation. Life demands that we think in-adequation, un-coincidence, the passage into our other. It’s a whole other conception. Nor should we conflate life in any way with becoming. Becoming lies in the shadow of being. The call to do this would be Nietzschean, if anything. Nietzsche has already considered a way out of the question of being, of metaphysics, of ontology. But it came about as an internal necessity to my work — on the one hand, because China brought me to it; on the other, because I think it’s the chief philosophical question. The Greeks, unable to take up the question of life with their own tools, their own concepts, the idea of truth, etc. ended up displacing true life into being. So says Plato. So the question of being was sort of a dodge around life, a projection of life onto the plane of being and truth, a displacement of life into a beyond, with everything that this entails. My approach would lie along a Nietzschean line, in view of the Platonic approach and denouncing it for what it is, denouncing the atavism of philosophy.

DONATIEN GRAU — So you’re looking at the immanence of the world.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No. What matters to me is finding some other way to connect immanence and transcendence — in other words, to stop linking transcendence with the other life, the beyond, and thus with escape. Thinking about how to exist means carrying life, or opening it up, to a transcendence, to an infinity, a reaching beyond. We’re mired in a whole discourse of life, in that whole discourse of personal development. The phrase “Remember to live” — taken from Goethe and revived from the Epicureans, which says that the essential thing, finally, is life — is a discourse that I do not find the least bit profound. “Live,” they tell you. All right, fine. Let’s live. The imperative. But that changes nothing. How can we think about the intensive aspect of life? I do it by thinking “existence,” but not with respect to being — the old philosophical problem: being and existence. As Descartes says, “Cogito sum existo.” Rather, rub “life” up against “existence,” and think of existence as ex-istere — i.e., to keep outside of, the ability to carry life beyond itself, and thus to open immanence up to a transcendence that is not a transcendence to the beyond but, instead, a capacity to soar. Soaring and slackness: those are the categories of transcendence; this has nothing to do with an elsewhere or with fleeing, but everything to do with living through existence. To live through existing. Live-exist as a single verb. We see it in painting, art, and poetry. A real poet is a poet of soaring; a real painter, a painter of soaring. Modern art has gone further. Kandinsky is someone who has sought to take flight from figuration and strip away everything that is not soaring. Cézanne as well.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The purity of soaring.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, indeed. It’s a return upstream. Upstream from representation and even from figuration. We connect with soaring itself. I think of soaring in relation to slackness. Slackness is the sea gone still, a motionless boat. A sort of fixity that is determined. Soaring is what escapes determined fixity and thus opens the way to infinity. This is the source of the intensive aspect. Landscape is land held in tension. The idea is to think up new categories from scratch.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You speak of resources, in fact.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. It’s an essential term in these matters. To live off landscape is to live off landscape as a resource. It’s not the means or the manner but the resource. The “off” is very interesting. It points to the source of the resource. Thus we have the resource as an object of thought. For me intimacy and landscape amount to the same question: how to prompt a new welling up of intensity. How to find soaring in relations, through intimacy. Soaring in the world, through landscape — with landscape demarcated from land. As traditionally defined, a landscape is a part of the land; landscape reveals possible intensity, possible tension. What is slack in the land soars in landscape. The same goes for the intimate relation, which is a sustained tension.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To pursue this question of landscape, you say that living off landscape presents us with a chance to connect landscape to life. How does landscape help one to live?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Here, China has something to teach us. There are in the world two great landscape cultures. One has been developing in Europe since the 16th century. The coinage of the word landscape — that is, paysage — in French. We find the same semantics everywhere in Europe: pays, paysage, in Italian, in Spanish, in Russian. Here we have a Europe taking shape, with landscape considered as a function of the land. The dictionary definition is: part of the land that nature presents to an observer. There’s something very reductive about this. Fortunately, poets and painters and novelists, Stendhal, for example, have made landscape into something other than the dictionary definition. In European thought, landscape begins with the subject/object. The object in front of the observer. Part of the land, thinking in terms of parts and wholes, an old Greek concept. Thinking in terms of relation with the world as object, as developed by the Renaissance. A portion of the land, because the cut of the horizon depends on where I, the subject, stand. I move, the horizon shifts, and the landscape is transformed. There is in the world another landscape culture, the culture of China, which its painters and poets founded a thousand years earlier, in the fourth or fifth century. In China, as in Europe, it is born of painting. This is no small matter.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And not of poetry?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Both occur in China. In Europe, it’s mostly painting. The first major text on landscape was written by a painter. It’s interesting because it provides a sort of analogy for further reflection. Landscape enters painting with the abandonment of likeness. That’s what happens in the 19th century, and it is the reason that landscape becomes the predominant motif throughout that time. It’s the difference between landscape and view. It produces a world-creating tension. Land is not a world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So there’s no need for likeness?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No. A landscape in art is not a likeness. Landscape on the Banks of the Seine [Paysage bord du Seine] is not View of the Seine [Vue de Seine]. The one has nothing to do with the other. Landscape makes a world of the land. That is the tension. Landscape is world-creating.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It spreads the land.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. It spreads it into a whole. It is a whole of the world. What China teaches is that very early on, long before European painting, Chinese painting set aside resemblance as child’s play. It was a game for children. China conceived of landscape with respect to life. In other words, landscape is a source of life. In my book, I’ve translated some lovely texts where we learn that living off springs and rocks is a way of life. The first great landscape thinker in China was Dongbin, who refused to take a post. There are a lot of civil servants in China. This was reported to the emperor, who thereupon saw that there was a whole other resource outside the court and the civil service — the capacity to rove, to wander around the mountains and the waters. How do you say “landscape” in Chinese? Fundamentally. You say, “mountain-water.” There’s a tension set up in that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that mean both elements must be present?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, a correlation. There is no tension without correlation. Tension between mountain and water, high and low, the immobile and the mobile, what one sees and what one hears. The water is brooks and ponds. As soon as there’s a mountain, there is water. Between what one sees, the mountain, and what one hears, the water, there is tension. How, then, to unleash the landscape through a correlation, through the setting up of a tension? How to radicalize and pluralize simultaneously? Because we have the mobile/immobile, the formless/form-bound. You will never read what I’ve just said in a Chinese text. You’ll read “the mountains and the waters,” or, in later parlance, “wind/light.” Wind, the diffuse, the invisible, whose effects we can sense, and light, which draws things forth and renders them visible. There is always a correlation, a source of life. The tension carries into life. It interested me to see how meager the European dictionary definition was. The Dictionnaire Robert reads, “Part of the land that nature presents to an observer.” Europe’s painters and poets have gone beyond that. I’ve tried to develop certain concepts with which to think about landscape: tension, singularization, etc. Tension between mountain and water, between light and wind. When the perceptual is also the affective, we have a landscape. That’s my definition. We have land as long as there is only the perceptual, but the land becomes a landscape when the perceptual reveals itself to be affective at the same time, and thus allows me to perceive inwardness and outwardness at the same time, indissociably. My other definition of landscape is when materiality settles and disperses and becomes what we call spirit. “The spirit of a landscape,” as we say. Here, too, China helps me think. It’s just as we say the spirit of a wine or of a perfume.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Always that tension…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Exactly. It’s a materiality that settles, disperses, spreads, and emanates spirit, not in the metaphysical sense but in the sense of distillation or quintessence, in a pregnant sense. Landscape, I think, lays this out. Having produced concepts on the basis of the texts I read and of Chinese coherences, concepts of landscape: the perceptual-affective, spiritual dispersion in the sense of wine spirits, the setting up of tension, the faraway, singularization — if I reread Stendhal’s description of Lake Como, I find it’s all there. I can in fact get past the geographical and theoretical break — that is, with China and its landscape culture on one side, and Europe and its different landscape culture on the other, which have had no communication and stand in mutual ignorance. There is no influence or contamination and thus no possible comparison. At the same time, when I reread Stendhal on Lake Como, at the beginning of The Charterhouse of Parma, I find all the concepts that I’ve developed on the basis of Chinese, including the faraway of the Alps and the overheard bell.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So Stendhal was Chinese?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No, but the intelligence of landscape is transcultural. It’s what interests me as a philosopher. I am not an anthropologist. As a philosopher, I’m interested in turning every subject to good account. The concept accomplishes an extraction from sundry subjects for the purpose of formulation.I think Stendhal tapped a resource of landscape on which I can shed some light with the concept I’ve developed, from the Chinese sphere.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your ideas on intimacy open up a whole new area. Before your essay, the terms had a vaguely psychologizing connotation, something horrible, fit for a women’s magazine. All of a sudden you’ve made intimacy into a real experience, or even, as you say, “an unprecedented experience,” something that could occur…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — And that is a major category for thought because intimacy reveals an essential thing. Here, I examined things historically because it’s important to me to apprehend the historicity. Not the history, mind you; the historicity. There is a historicity of thought. Thought is inventive; there is a before and an after.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Intimacy has never really been studied historically…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Not as a concept, no. The people who’ve come closest are Rousseau and Stendhal, who produced a description, rather than a concept, of intimacy. There’s a chapter called “On Intimacy” in Stendhal’s On Love, but it actually talks about something else. Still, the word intimate is important in Stendhal’s novels. It appears at specific, crucial moments. There is historicity because intimacy is invented, or discovered. The turning point is Christianity, specifically Augustine, and the phrase “interior intimo meo” — “more inward to me than my most inward part.” Intimate is a superlative. The most inner, the most inward. There is no equivalent for the outer. You have the external, and that’s it. You have height, and the deepest depth. But the intimate has no external counterpart. My purpose was to rid myself in every way of the philosophy of interiority. Interiority doesn’t interest me, but intimacy is “the most inward part.” That is not interiority, the enclosure around the psychological or subjective realm. It is, rather, a breach. We have Augustine’s statement, which is matricial: “Tu autem eras interior intimo meo et superior summo meo” — “Thou wert more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.” God is outermost. God is the God of creation, the absolute other. My most inward part, finally, is the opening unto the other. This is what Augustine tells us. He says it with respect to God, but we have shifted God into the human. It’s the shift from the Confessions of Augustine to the later Confessions of Rousseau. The other in Augustine’s Confessions is God. The opening words are: “Great art Thou, O Lord.” And the strength of Augustine’s Confessions is that God is not something to be spoken of. God is the interlocutor; you address him with the informal thou. In Augustine, the dialogue with God institutes God. In addressing God, one addresses a consistent person, a person whose consistence constitutes me, provides me, the subject, with my own consistence. “Thou art more inward to me than my most inward part.” Intimate is already a superlative. Augustine takes the superlative and generates a comparative. It’s a painstaking, elaborate undertaking. It is God the outermost, the great other. And finally we shift from God to a human other — Madame de Warens in Rousseau’s Confessions, or Madame de Chasteller in Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen. Here we see that my innermost part is an opening unto the other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Not everyone sees the intimate relation, which is non-amorous, in those terms. Not everyone sees the depth in it.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — It simply takes a little work. That’s why intimacy grabbed my interest; it takes us out of the banality of the theme of love. Why does love disappoint me as a theme? Because it’s always theatrical. The declaration of love, “I love you,” is an astonishing phrase because it amounts to saying “I alienate you; I objectify you.” What’s more, it’s always brief. When you magnify the other in love, you always run up against a limit. Every qualification entails a disqualification. Whereas intimacy reveals that the resource lies in the in-between, in the relation. I wouldn’t want to say “I am intimate,” I alone, as one might say, “I am in love.” Rather, “I am intimate with you. We are intimate.” Intimate is that astonishing thing: a French word. In German it has a sexual meaning. I’m following Rousseau and Stendhal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how does it work in sexual terms?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Within the conception of intimacy, the sexual side opens out onto metaphysics. Sexual penetration is something that seeks out the more physical, the more local, the more inward aspects, and is at the same time an opening onto infinity. That’s the essential point: the sexual as an opening onto infinity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Without recourse to the notion of love.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — No, because, once again, intimacy signifies my most inward part, my intimate conviction, and as soon as I verbalize this there must be the other. The intimate gives rise to a “we.” Love does not. Love is “She loves me, she loves me not.” If it’s intimate, she and I are of no consequence. And thus the difference in status, she or I, vanishes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Love generates history, perhaps.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Intimacy as well. One becomes intimate, falls into intimacy. That’s how it works in all of Stendhal’s novels. How Lucien Leuwen and Madame de Chasteller fall into intimacy. They dare, they dare not. Social restraint in all its forms, intrusion… On the contrary, one enters into intimacy. The resource of intimacy is the in-between. It’s the relation. That’s how infinity enters into the picture, whereas love, the eulogizing of the other, is finite. I qualify the other as much as I can, but disappointment necessarily follows. Intimacy, on the other hand, is the promotion of us. I’ve analyzed the failure of the two protagonists of La Princesse de Clèves: even at the end, when they’re alone and face-to-face, and could live together, the “we” never arises. Each is trapped in his own perspective. She is afraid that if she yields, if she gives herself to him, the other will grow bored with her. The same old story of the hunter and the game. And his frame of mind is that of a conqueror. But each is trapped in their perspective. No “we” ever arises. The relation falls apart because they have never tapped into intimacy. I say this in the sense of tapping a resource. It’s possible to pass it by. Many people pass intimacy by, but those who have opened the door, who have opened a breach in their innermost selves — more inward than my most inward part — and granted ingress to the other, know what they’re talking about.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps there’s a fear of intimacy as well.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, and it’s dangerous, because you end up renouncing your “as for me”; you end up declining to do two things: to project onto the other and to expect anything from the other. It’s very clear in Stendhal. Jullien Sorel takes up with Madame de Rénal for reasons of ambition; he takes her hand so as to tell himself that he’s taking the hand of someone who’s above him. And he takes her hand again; he imposes himself on her. It’s ambition, the plebeian in revolt. And gradually it shifts into something else; he discovers something else. He has no further ambitions with respect to her. There’s an opening, his self-renunciation, the renunciation of his “as for me.” It’s an effacement of the boundary between the inward and the outward, and it’s perilous. One runs a risk with intimacy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You add the dimension of protection when you bring up the Simenon story, where two people come to form a couple in a very fortuitous and secret way aboard a train during the exodus of the Second World War. You say that the situation suddenly opens a space for them, a protection that is completely immaterial. There’s something almost vital in that intimacy.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Completely vital. One lives off intimacy, not off the other. Simenon avoids words of love; there’s no need for them because that’s not what it’s about. We clearly see how the two characters take shelter together from the world’s debacle; they find a disinterested opening. Who is the other? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the resources that open up between you and me … so indirectly, obliquely, without any grand utterances or declarations. There’s a moment when he says, “I love you,” and she lays a finger on his lips.No theatricality. Intimacy is a rejection of that, an abstention from all ostentation, declamation, or consumption. It is not modesty or a retreat. There’s nothing forcible about it. One cannot play at intimacy. Once it arises, it can go unsaid. If intimacy has arisen, if it has ambled along, then we are intimate and no longer know from whom it came. That, for me, is the essential thing. There is a true we. Love is not this we.

OLIVIER ZAHM — If there is no need to say anything, then perhaps that’s why it has not figured into our thinking.
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes. It’s very difficult. A novel can trace the path to intimacy, but once we reach the point of it, there’s nothing left to say. And the novelist has nothing left to do. He must stop. Stendhal brings his novel to a close or leaves it unfinished.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps the filmmaker’s job is a little luckier…
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — Yes, because it’s something that can be shown indirectly in attitudes and gestures. The shift into intimacy is often a gesture preceding the word. Before we say that we’re intimate, there’s a caress. The gesture of intimacy is very important because each of us has his “as for me,” his private space. The gesture of intimacy comes out of that, prompts a displacement, constitutes a sort of abrupt event, a sort of cataclysm, which causes a possibility to open. There’s a risk taken, a risk to do with infinity, and thus with what we call existence. Intimacy opens the way to the resource of existence. Life is mortal, life is short, but to exist is precisely to affirm that one has exploited a resource that opens unto infinity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Each party affirms it, but what happens within a couple?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — The life of a couple, marriage, very well, but here we’re dealing with determination, with proximity. Whereas the intimacy of two people living together is like two people’s joining forces to lift something. You get together to do something. You live together; in other words, you agree to exist within the bond you have formed, within that commitment, which must always be re-established. That’s why the great theme of intimacy is meeting. In intimacy one is always meeting the other. The meeting is never a settled matter.
DONATIEN GRAU — On a final note, I’d like to ask about the political import of your work. Does your insistence on the relation between two individuals, and on the ensembles of civilization, constitute a retreat from the political figure of the philosopher?
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN — I’m told time and again that my work resides at a certain remove from politics.I’m told of the belle époque that preceded it. My reply is: No. My work is political throughout. It takes no political position. To my way of thinking, philosophical work is all the more political for not being a matter of opinion. Nobody cares about my political opinion. What might be of interest, however, is how I develop this or that reflection, and the connections that bring politics into play or unsettle them. The gap is political. Thought about what is not liberty in China is political. China has been a political subject all on its own.The fact that China has thought up no kind of regime other than monarchy, for example, so there is no regime because there’s only one. The extent to which politics have not been modeled in China. The Greeks modeled politics. China hasn’t come up with other political forms than monarchy. No one has thought up other words than king. The voie royale. The government remains today a government of one, whereas the regime is capitalist. The communist parties of other countries have either been cut down or mummified. China is a hyper-capitalist country with a vertically hierarchical communist party. Monarchy, bureaucracy, with the idea that the exercise of power is to be unitary. I went to China to see how Maoism was working out, and I stayed around. Also, the Greece/China relation is eminently political: on the one side, there is the invention of democracy; on the other, its absence. There’s a real clash there. The gap is a gash in the raw. The concepts I generate — resource, gap, in-between — have a political vocation. There are two ways to intervene philosophically in politics. Either you give your opinions and get on a soapbox, like Sartre, to defend the cause of the people — I think those days are over, and there’s always a temptation to turn things into theater; it’s a play, and Alain Badiou falls prey to this — or you conduct your work in thought, with all the political consequences that this entails. Today, with the political world utterly shut off from thought and political debate, there is but one idea: re-election. I think that the way to take action politically is to develop concepts that can make their way in. For me, the concepts of the gap and the in-between are concepts of silent transformation that are making their way, or that can make their way. Their political effects are more powerful than any position I could take or any harangue I could deliver. The point is to leave aside the notion of difference and start thinking about the possibilities of commonality. It’s leaving aside differences, and thus also identity. Renouncing the totally aporetic questions of cultural identity. Can you tell me what France’s cultural identity is, or Europe’s? The preamble of the European constitution sought to specify what makes Europe Europe. The result was a terrific row. Christian or secular? Both, of course. We must rid ourselves definitively of the idea of a possible cultural characterization or identification and, moreover, lay bare the tension, the tension-generating distance. The gap is the distance that opens up and establishes tension, and establishing this tension activates the in-between. We must speak of open distance. Distance, not difference. This is not a matter of distinctions. The gap sets in tension what it has separated, and that tension renders operative the in-between, where commonality arises. This, I think, is a conception of eminently political value. But everyone plays his part. I generate thought. Let others help thought make its way.


[Table of contents]

S/S 2015 issue 23

Table of contents

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