Second Annual Paris Program in Critical Theory Journée d’études

Program for May 25, 2010 – École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

A day of presentations and discussion on the work of students and independent scholars who have taken part in Northwestern University’s Paris Program in Critical Theory. Every Fall, the Paris Program, directed by professor Samuel Weber, brings together an international array of doctoral candidates from diverse departments to engage in the close reading of a text while persuing independent research. This journée d’études extends this academic community abroad by providing the occasion for participants to regroup in a semi-formal setting to discuss the year’s work.

The organizer would like to thank Samuel Weber as well as M. Eloi Fiquet, director of the Ecole des hautes études en Sciences Sociales, for making this event possible.

For more information, please contact Lily Woodruff at


9:30-10:00 – Coffee, tea, set up
10-10:45 Vladimir Cepciansky “Deconstruction and the Danger of Agelastic Evangelists”
10:45-11:30 Miriam Jerade “Violence and Derrida”

11:30-11:45 Coffee Break

11:45 – 12:30 Charles Coustille “The unfinished thesis of Charles Péguy”

12:30 – 1:15 Jennifer Croft “The Moral Borges”

1:15 – 2:15 Lunch

2:15-3:00 Julia Langbein “Exhibiting Paro/dy: Les Arts Incohérents 1882-1893”
3:00-3:45 Jacob Lewis “The Virtual in Second Empire Photography”

3:45-4:00 Coffee Break
4:00 – 4:45 Bernard Geoghegan “Automata and Iconoclasm”
4:45 – 5:30 Lily Woodruff “Constructing Instability: From Perceptual to Institutional Critique in GRAV’s A Day in the Streets


From left to right: Julia Langbein, Charles Coustille, myself (Lily Woodruff), Jacob Lewis, Vladimir Cepciansky, and Jennifer Croft.


Vladimir Cepciansky “Deconstruction and the Danger of Agelastic Evangelists”

I will be presenting part of a chapter on satire in Derrida which belongs to a broader dissertation project on the satirical spirit in James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Jacques Derrida. My goal is twofold: 1. To show how deconstructive philosophy shares a lot of its ventriloquial modality with literary satire. 2. To show how agelastic (humourless) readings are bound to be deaf to the Derridean text. In the first part I concentrate on the Searle debate in Limited Inc where Derrida himself saw fit to respond to the “brutality” in Searle’s “aggressive” misreading of “Signature événement contexte” by making explicit some of the violence that was only implicit in the deconstructive move itself. On a philosophical level this violence is produced by “iterability” being introduced as a “necessary possibility” conditioning all experience. Introduced not through a transcendental critique of the norms of our cognitive abilities, but through a singular reading of normativity in action in a given philosophical text. Deconstruction is thus reminiscent of the Cartesian meditation, founding its argument, not on asserting a logical necessity nor on making synthetic a priori judgements, but on a “necessitation of the will” (Frankfurt), which makes its “immediate inference” necessarily valid each time it is made, but, to a certain degree, only when it is made (when it is effective). My thesis is that this joining of Kantianism and Cartesianism can only take place in a normative fiction, i.e. in satire. In the second part I show how Martin Hägglund’s celebrated reinterpretation of Derrida’s “ethical turn” is too fond of the quasi-transcendental (Kantian) part of deconstruction which makes him more or less blind to its Cartesianism. If Hägglund’s text is at times involuntarily funny in the Bergsonian sense (through its mechanicity) it is at heart agelastic and deaf to the often humorous effects of normativity on which deconstruction depends.

Miriam Jerade “Violence and Derrida”

Nous tenons que la violence est un axe sous lequel lire plusieurs moments de la philosophie de Derrida, dès les écrits des années 60 sur la critique du signe et du système logocentrique comme exclusion de l’écriture du système de la parole, qui impliquait également une subjectivité comprise dans la présence du s’entendre-parler dans le soliloque. La violence a été également le point nodal des écrits de Derrida sur la force de loi ou la violence est abordée à la fois comme fondement du droit et comme les violences légitimées par le droit ; ce qui mènera Derrida à se demander sur la relation entre le droit et la justice mais également sur le lien entre déconstruction et justice. Ces analyses qui comprennent la violence à l’origine de toute institution, y compris de la démocratie politique, qui découlera dans les derniers ouvrages dans une critique du langage de la souveraineté.

Sans sous-estimer la distance qui sépare ces textes, nous voudrions nous demander s’il y a des liens entre ces textes à partir de ce questionnement incessant sur la violence, montrer le lien entre la violence transcendantale, celle du Présent Vivant, dont Derrida parle dans « Violence et métaphysique » et les violences du nationalisme linguistique ou de l’hospitalité conditionnée auxquelles Derrida oppose une pensée de la justice comme temps disjoint dans Spectres de Marx.


Cependant, il y a une violence intrinsèque au langage comme écriture ainsi qu’il y a une violence constitutive dans la relation avec autrui. Pouvons-nous alors penser la déconstruction en tant que vigilance pour éviter la pire violence, ce qui ne signifie aucunement une philosophie ou une téléologie de la non-violence mais, comme Derrida l’écrit dans « Violence et métaphysique » en 1964 : « Cette vigilance est une violence choisie comme la moindre violence par une philosophie qui prend l’histoire, c’est-à-dire la finitude, au sérieux ; philosophie qui se sait historique de part en part… » (ED, 172).

Charles Coustille “The unfinished thesis of Charles Péguy”
Charles Péguy is well known for his endlessly reversing political positions: first a Catholic, then a dreyfusard and a socialist, he came back to Catholicism and died as a patriot during the First World War. But what never changed was his hatred toward French academic life. His pamphlets against the Sorbonne are now considered major pieces of French literature. But one interesting fact is often forgotten: around 1909, Péguy thought about defending a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne with no other subject than a severe criticism of the Sorbonne’s methods. This event – which, in the end, never actually took place – was not simply a provocation; not only will a close reading of the drafts for this thesis shed light on the academic context at the founding of the modern French Universities, but it will also confront decisive questions about our University, about what we recognize as academic and non-academic, and also about what Derrida called “les oeuvres universitaires”.

Jennifer Croft “The Moral Borges”

After enjoying fourteen centuries of widespread popularity in Europe and then in the Americas, the duel adhering to strict codes of conduct all but vanished from the face of the earth at the turn of the twentieth century. Two world wars aided in its vanishing as a social practice; shifting perceptions of honor, integrity, and selfhood throughout the twentieth century ought to have eradicated the duel in literature, likewise. Vladimir Nabokov would argue that Anton Chekhov’s 1891 novella, “The Duel,” marked the beginning of the end of the genre, for being fraught with modern questions, and yet Nabokov himself wrote several duels, as did Joseph Conrad, G.K. Chesterton, O. Henry, Witold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, and even, in 1998, Roberto Bolaño. These modern duels, I argue, act as oblique enactments of moral and ethical engagement and striving, and it is in the dueling scenes of 1970’s Brodie’s Report that the universal narrative of the ritual sacrifice meets Borges’ eternal return to the idea of eternal return to produce a kind of comprehensive, Borgesean account of the world as “vaivén,” perpetual swinging or moving back and forth.


Julia Langbein “Exhibiting Parody: Les Arts Incohérents 1882-1893”

In August of 1882, journalist Jules Lévy announced an exhibition “of drawings executed by people who do not know how to draw” and called it the exhibition of the “Arts Incohérents.” The first tiny exhibit was so heavily attended that a second was held three months later, a much-anticipated event, almost impossible to imagine, in which Manet and Wagner viewed not just drawings but sculptures carved out of cheese and a canvas painted with a broom, the work of mostly pseudonymous artists, writers, and amateurs.

Lévy’s seven exhibits between 1882 and 1893 have entered art historiography scarcely and additively: either as historical post-script or preamble. For some, the Incohérents simply put into performance the practice of caricaturing Salon paintings in the press, a genre known as Salons Caricaturaux or Le Salon pour rire. While it is compelling to imagine these mock-exhibitions as graphic satire come to life, that interpretation elides a host of important differences between the two (e.g. Salon caricatures always targeted a specific painting; the art of the Incohérents mostly parodied contemporary art practices in general.)

The other historiographic tendency is to see the Incohérents as proto-Dada, or proto-modern—exhibitors of the first monochrome canvas, experimenters with ephemeral materials, vaunters of unskilled art-making. To us, these “art works” look modern (a blank canvas in 1882!), look teleported back from modernism to a time before they were conceptually possible as art.

My account of the Arts Incohérents resists this seductive retrospection and instead focuses on the movement’s response to the changing relationship in the 1880s between an increasingly private, “independent” exhibition practice and the art criticism that had seen its duty as public. Incohérent parody surely targeted contemporary art and exhibition practice, from its phony medals to its elaborate joke catalogues, but it implicitly makes a hilarity of the possibilities of the language of art and art criticism. The refusal to “cohere”—socially, stylistically— was a play on the militant cohesion of private artists’ circles, but it was also a challenge to language: what partisan critic will take to task a seagull made of peas? How will he describe a sculpture that rots or melts? Why berrate a dancer for her inadequate chiaroscuro? Above all, and most disingenuously, the comic “incoherence” of the group provoked a dilemma expressed by more than one critic: how can one bring aesthetic judgment upon something that only means to make laugh?


Jacob Lewis “The Virtual in Second Empire Photography”

What constituted the virtual for the second generation of photographers working in Second Empire France? How did their approaches to the virtual—here meaning the potential or structural possibilities of photography that were manifest in terms of discourse and practice, but not necessarily in terms of resulting photographs—influence conceptions of photography for subsequent generations? An investment in the virtual is strongly evident in the historical pursuit of two facets of modern photography: instantaneity, which refers to brief exposure times that challenge the limits of human vision, and reproducibility, which refers to the ability to derive multiple prints from a single source. Here I discuss the conceptual framework to my dissertation From Repetition to Reproduction: Charles Nègre in Pursuit of the Photographic and trace how these two facets, long considered to be inherent to the medium, were in fact subject to manipulation, interpretation, and an ever-expanding horizon of expectations in the hands of photographers and writers. I pay specific attention to the photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880), whose oeuvre offers a privileged means to investigate the multiple intersections of instantaneity, reproducibility, and the virtual in early photographic production.



Lily Woodruff “Constructing Instability: From Perceptual to Institutional Critique in GRAV’s A Day in the Streets
“You are perhaps a member of what one calls the greater public.” So the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) interpellated their audience to ask, “Could you respond to several questions in order to help define the relationship between art and the greater public?” Accompanying a sequence of public happenings that they mounted in their celebrated Une Journée  dans les rues (1966), the GRAV distributed a questionnaire with the goal of discovering public attitudes to contemporary art, that audience’s self-perception, and the viewing contexts seen to be appropriate to art. Hardly a sociological or marketing inquiry however, the responses that they suggested humorously undercut the efficiency of technocratically-organized society instead pointing to the multiple aesthetic, social, and commercial criteria by which art may be valued. While many critics and artists of the mid-1960s promoted a “technocratic humanism” based on a prospective aesthetic of advanced technology and efficiency, I argue that the GRAV’s promotion of “instability” countered this movement as it diminished artistic authority instead calling attention to the creative act of seeing itself as carried out by a democratic community of spectators. This paper highlights the critical relationship between such sociological interdisciplinarity within the GRAV’s otherwise purely visual, phenomenological research to argue for the importance of Op and kinetic art to the history of institutional critique and relational aesthetics.

Comments on the journée d’études:

“The journée d’études went very well! … The papers were fascinating, and sparked vivid discussion. Everyone commented in the end that the day was gratifyingly productive, and one person mentioned that it was more useful than any professional conference she’d attended!” (Lily Woodruff)

“The Journée des Études yesterday was a big hit. Neither too many nor two few talks, and our schedule enabled good discussions.” (Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan)