There is a paradox in the idea of transformation. If a transformation is deep-seated enough, it might also transform the very criteria by which we could identify it, thus making it unintelligible to us. But if it is intelligible, it might be because the transformation was not radical enough. If we can talk about the change then it is not full-blooded enough; but if it is full-blooded enough, it threatens to fall outside our comprehension. Change must presuppose continuity—a subject to whom the alteration occurs—if we are not to be left merely with two incommensurable states; but how can such continuity be compatible with revolutionary upheaval?

One might risk the generalization that French radical thought has, on the whole, plumped for unintelligibility rather than continuity. From Rimbaud’s ‘Il faut être absolument moderne’ to Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the paralogical innovation, which creates its own law, this vein of avant-gardist theory would rather be opaque than old-fashioned. From Sorel and the Surrealists to Jean-Paul Sartre, from Levinas to Lyotard and Derrida, such thought returns incessantly to the break, crisis, disruption or epiphany of otherness that will tear you free of everyday inauthenticity—of doxa, das Mann, the consensual, the practico-inert or the être-en-soi—and throw open for you instead the portals of truth, freedom and authenticity. It is a current of thought suspicious of the German and dialectical, for which a certain revolutionary continuity would still appear possible.

The result is a series of sharp oppositions between the kingdom of necessity and the realm of freedom: between otherness and identity, truth and knowledge, sublimity and beauty, history and Nature, freedom and bad faith, Vernunft and Verstand; the crisis-ridden truth of the subject and the stabilities of the symbolic order, the emancipatory impulse and the positive disposition of objects, the disruptively Dionysian and the smug Apollonian certainties of the civic arena. What is required is some acte gratuit, act of faith, political conversion or existential commitment that will catapult you out of the one realm into the other, leaving behind the drearily deterministic narrative of tradition, biology, ethical consensus and political conformity for the heady milieu of liberty, engagement and authentic selfhood. One can lend a deconstructive twist to this born-again narrative by insisting that nothing simply escapes or is left behind, that each pole of the opposition inexorably implicates the other, that the metaphysical or identitarian are not simply to be given the slip. But it is still obvious enough which pole is most to be valorized.

There is a sense in which Michel Foucault hedged his bets here. On the one hand, the more positivist Foucault soberly dismissed all talk of absence, repression, silence and negation in the name of taking supremely seriously what actually existed, in the shape of given regimes of objects and discourses. But the more Dionysian Foucault could always be felt lurking around the edges of these sombre investigations, bursting out here and there in some extravagant praise of Bataille or sudden purple poetic flight, giving free rein for a moment to a clenched refusal of all regime and positivity in the name of something which trembled on the brink of articulation but could not yet speak its name. Jacques Derrida, by contrast, has always been far more ready to share with us his thoughts on the unthinkable, and in such works as Donner la mort has been busy providing us with an extravagant parody of an ethics of otherness. Ethics, for the later Derrida, is a matter of absolute decisions, which must be made outside all given norms and forms of knowledge; decisions which are utterly vital, yet which completely evade conceptualization. One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one’s case comes up in court. Such ethical choices are at once necessary and ‘impossible’, wholly mine yet ‘the decision of the other in me’, a kind of implacable destiny for which, like Oedipus, we are nevertheless entirely to blame. Confronted in our solitude with such asocial, incommunicable crises of judgement, ‘we fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible’. It is not quite clear how this bears on such questions as whether to eat meat or strike for better conditions. Gayatri Spivak repeats the position, leaving us with the spectacle of ‘an impossible social justice glimpsed through remote and secret encounters with singular figures’.

Derrida’s view is both fideistic and Kierkegaardian. It is a new-fangled version of the fideistic heresy that faith is merely some blind leap in the dark, quite impervious to reason; and it has a remarkable resemblance to Kierkegaard’s conception of faith as an incommunicable holding fast to an opaque, impossibly paradoxical Otherness, that can never be conceptually formulated but must be lived in fear and trembling. The ethical thought of Alain Badiou, the former French Maoist who is now a member of the militant ultra-leftist group L’Organisation Politique, might best be seen as both supporting and subverting this model. On the one hand, Badiou has no time at all for fashionable postmodern ideas of otherness, and is splendidly savage in his onslaught on them. His judgement on this whole Levinasian legacy is terse and scurrilous: ‘a dog’s dinner’. Ethics, he believes, have now come to displace politics (one might say much the same about culture), as a bogus humanitarian ideology of victimage, otherness and ‘human rights’ thrusts aside collective political projects.