Book Review: French Philosophers on TV

Adding to the pile of crap on my desk, here’s a review (by Farhang Erfani of fame) of what promises to be an interesting book about French philosophers and French television.

TURNING ON THE MIND: French Philosophers on Television
By Tamara Chaplin

Reviewed by Farhang Erfani

France truly is unique in her adoring treatment of her intellectuals. Slavoj Žižek, undeniably the most mediatized philosopher alive, claims that France, Germany and Great Britain express “three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism.” Žižek illustrates their differences by showing how each country builds a different type of toilet, flushing cautiously, radically or pragmatically. This strange point, which I read in Žižek ’s work in English, heard him make in French on the radio, and watched him make on YouTube with different subtitles, highlights a particular European desire for uniqueness. In France, this is known as l’exception Française.

Tamara Chaplin has written a wonderful book on the relationship between French television and French philosophers. Her well-researched project draws from “hundreds of hours of TV footage, numerous personal interviews, almost four thousand program summaries” and more. Starting at the beginning with Jean-Paul Sartre’s appearance on primetime television in 1951, the first television appearance made by a philosopher, Chaplin spans about fifty years and “more than 3500 programs [which dealt] with either philosophers or their work.” This book should be required reading for philosophers, historians, and anyone else interested in the relationship between the media and intellectual discourse.

In the 1950s, Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, though to a lesser degree, dominated the cultural and intellectual landscape. The decolonization period of the 1960s is followed by the emergence of the “New Philosophers” of the 1970s and subsequent topics, in the ’80s and ’90s, such as anti-totalitarianism, or Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. Her book is peppered with lovely narratives and detailed descriptions of particular shows. Readers will enjoy reading about how philosophers were filmed arguing in a taxi while being driven around Paris, or about Michel Foucault’s hijacking an entire show, moving away from the topic of the day—which was his own book—to publicize his new interests and political causes.

But why did the French put philosophers on TV? Chaplin looks at the role that the French government played in the 1950s: “In the second half of the twentieth century the French state embraced the technology of television not simply to ’educate, inform, and entertain’ …but as a tool in service of nation building.” Perhaps more accurately, we can speak of nation re-building. After the German invasion and occupation, the French state put its philosophers on display to emphasize the nation’s greatness and pride. The ideological project met its own limits during the Algerian war, where the philosophers criticized France’s imperial ambitions.

According to Chaplin, “due to the performative nature of their disciplines, founded on the Socratic dialogue and rooted in an embodied oral practice, philosophers are in fact uniquely suited to the demands of television.” It is true that philosophy is performative, but this claim has its own limitations. For example, philosophy is also an important part of French radio. France has weekly philosophy broadcasts on the national airwaves. Furthermore, philosophy’s performativity is not limited to French philosophers. American philosophers are no less Socratic, but they do not appear on television. So, once again, why France? Chaplin rightly points out that philosophy is a requirement in the French lycée (high school). This allows for greater philosophical literacy, extending the disciplinary reach. But philosophy is taught in other European high schools. So to emphasize France’s uniqueness, she points out that there is a long-standing tradition in France, since Descartes, of trying to write clearly, concisely, and to appeal to a broader public. As she puts it, “vulgarization has been an integral part of the French tradition.”

This last claim is more difficult to digest. Clarity may have been the hallmark of philosophers from Descartes to Voltaire, but few would make the claim that Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou (who had his own television show in his early twenties) and even Sartre strove to make their writing accessible to the common reader. Sartre’s public fame owed more to his literary works, which indeed vulgarized his more theoretical writings, but it is not fully accurate to say that philosophers in France—especially today—write for the general public. Some do, but I find Chaplin’s claim too strongly put.

As a philosophy professor who grew up in France and now teaches in the United States, I have a more substantial concern than the questions raised above. I found Chaplin’s treatment of the New Philosophers to be quite interesting. New Philosophers, with Bernard Henri-Levy as their iconic leader, found their voice by condemning the previous generation of thinkers for not taking a strong stand against Soviet totalitarianism. The fame they have achieved is not based solely on their ethical outrage, though; they were extraordinarily media-savvy.

More traditional philosophers criticized them for being flashy, sensationalist and superficial. Chaplin defends them more—and better —than one would expect. She rightly points out that these newcomers brought ethical and political concerns back to the debate and established “a market for popular philosophy in France.” At the same time, I find that she gives them (and television) too much credit. To my mind, she has convincingly argued that philosophy and television can be compatible; she cites Foucault, who rightly said that one should “never be convinced that a book is bad just because it has been on television.” Yet the converse is not necessarily true. There are bad books—and bad philosophers—on television, too. Foucault and Sartre were great stars on French television, yet they are taught all over the world by those unaware of their media performance. The New Philosophers, on the other hand, are not taken seriously outside of France.

Reading Chaplin’s book—which I highly recommend despite some of these minor philosophical objections—helped me clarify my dislike of the New Philosophers. She helped me shed my ingrained disciplinary bias against television. I can now dislike them solely based on disciplinary rigor; they are plainly bad philosophers.


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