As I finish this book, I am struck by my sense of having been caught up in my French interlocutors’ desires. It was not just that they were largely ambivalent about their site; I believe that in several cases, they also hoped that I would reflect their ambivalence, their uneasy mix of idealization and resignation, back to them. If I am useful to them a spokesperson, it is not as a substitute for their own academic expertise, but as a conduit for that which has no place in their standard genres of self-presentation. I have not tried to write a better social or intellectual history of French philosophy. I have tried to let their reflexivity grab me, even “by the throat,” and then to see where it takes me.
Faced with precarity and destabilization, this project has been a test of the viability of an ever more deeply displaced and ethnographically projected form of reflexivity. Call it reflexivity by proxy, because rather than fixating on the autobiographical or personal reflexivity of the ethnographer (Marcus 2007) or insisting like ethnomethodologists that everyone is always reflexive anyway (Lynch 2000), it is interested in the reflexivity of the Other while construing this as a historically particular, rather than generic, form of consciousness. Maybe this reflexivity by proxy does, in the last analysis, teach us something about ourselves, or maybe it teaches you something about me, but it does this less through personal revelation than by trying to give itself over as deeply as possible to its object. Reflexivity by proxy is both very distant and incredibly close to home. In this, it seeks both to problematize “us” while also trying to rebuild collectivity within a disappointed utopian public.
I suppose that some readers will still be disappointed by the style of the analysis. Card-carrying critical theorists, if they are committed to a fastidious engagement with the conceptual rubrics of “French Theory,” may well see this book as a work of sloppy vandalism. Disciplinary philosophers may not recognize much of what they think is their disciplinary activity. And I regret that it has not been possible to write in more detail about the details of the philosophical texts: when I tried, in earlier drafts, I found that textual analysis fit poorly into the ethnographic genre. But I also think we have to break the chains of lineage, legibility, mutual recognition, and disciplinarity that have long dictated how we should approach philosophical sites. This is not a matter of disrespect for its own sake, a gesture which would again only reproduce the conventions of philosophical melodrama and rebellion. Rather, it is about leaving aside conventions when they become traps.