Five twentieth-century French writers played, and continue to play, a pivotal role in the development of literary-philosophical thinking that has come to be known in the United States as post-structuralism. The work of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Raymond Roussel, Michel Leiris, and Francis Ponge in the 1930s and 1940s amounts to a prehistory of today’s theoretical debates; the writings of Foucault and Derrida in particular would have been unthinkable outside the context provided by these writers. In Politics, Writing, Mutilation, Allan Stoekl emphasizes their role as precursors, but he also makes clear that they created a distinctive body of work that must be read and evaluated on its own terms. Stoekl’s critical readings of their work -- selected novels, poems, and autobiographical fragments -- reveal them to be battlegrounds not only of disruptive language practices, but of conflicting political drives as well. These irreconcilable tendencies can be defined as progressive political revolution, on the one hand with its emphasis on utility, conservation, and labor; and, on the other hand, a notion of dangerous and sinister production that stresses orgiastic sexuality and delirious expenditure. Caught between these forces is the intellectual of Bataille’s time (and indeed of ours), locked in impotence, self-betrayal, and automutilation. Stoekl develops his critique through dual readings of each writer’s central work -- the first reading deconstructive, the second a search for the political meaning excluded by a deconstructive approach. Repeating this process on a larger scale, he shows how Derrida and Foucault are indebted to their precursors even while they have betrayed them by stripping their work of political conflict and historical specificity. And he acknowledges that one of the most painful questions faced in prewar and Occupied France -- that of the unthinkable guilt and duplicity of the intellectual -- may not be as remote from contemporary theoretical concerns as some would have us believe.
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