n his 1936 Les Fleurs de Tarbes, Jean Paulhan defined the French avant-gardes’ obsession for originality as a form of Terror against language and literature. Identifying revolutionary Terror’s charge on the monarchy and avant-garde’s attack on lieux communs [commonplaces, or platitudes], Paulhan emphasises how terror brings about a dangerous semantic collapse which threatens humanity itself. Instead of this contingency of avant-garde’s language Paulhan proposes what he calls a language of Maintenance: a language that reinstates lieux communs as valid and universal forms of expression. Yet he overlooks how inter-war avant-garde writers such as André Breton conceived of surrealist writing as a radical form of language that could be shared and modelled by all. For Breton, semantic instability was not incompatible with fostering a strong sense of community; attacks on platitudes through automatic writing free language from ‘any control exercised by reason (…) any aesthetic or moral concern’.[1] Raising the issue of the possibility of combining semantic instability with community, modern French writers thus foregrounded a reflection on language in a context of terror that political responses to the events of Charlie Hebdo have failed to take into account.

These political responses have relied on commonplaces of the French Republic (secularism, freedom of speech, tolerance among others), thus using a language of maintenance that undercuts alternative forms of expression, even when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, called, in a modernist fashion, for radical breaks with the past on the 16th of February: ‘we need a break; French Islam must accept all of its responsibilities, this is what the vast majority of our Muslim citizens is asking for’.[2]Valls’s intervention in fact only applies to one part of the French population: change must come from the Muslim community, and not from public political authorities that have in France long stigmatized its north-African communities. His use of language reveals an obsession to identify, rationalize and reassert the sovereignty of the nation-state against the Other, and in doing so, empties and disembodies not only the victims but also religious communities in the name of republican values. The plurality of Muslim voices is turned into ‘l’Islam de France’.

Political discourse not only reproduces the I/Other dichotomy by distinguishing French and Muslim citizens but also betrays a failure to break from a pattern of sacrificial violence on which France’s political regime has been built (see Goldhammer 2005). Valls’s identification of the event as rupture perpetuates the instrumentalisation of violence to assert the legitimacy and strength of the French political model. This can be traced back to the Revolution but reappears again with the 1871 Commune, the end of World War One or the colonial discourse on Algerian terrorism during the war of decolonization, which bespoke a refusal to question the assimilationist model of identity on which the Republic was and still is based. The language of rupture relieves the State from playing any active role in re-thinking and re-semanticising values such as laïcité (secularism) on which it founded its response to the attack.

Yet the trope of the radical break with the past, as the modernist and avant-garde tradition shows, is inherently linked to an acute awareness of one’s historicity, and of the historicity of language itself. Language’s layers of meanings challenge the writers’ will to express the very specificity and singularity of the Self; it challenges paradoxically the desire to name one’s experiences. This explains what Susan Sontag calls modern art’s fascination with silence. Silence is what makes the experience more palpable to the audience; silence can undermine “bad speech”, that is, ‘speech not organically informed by the sensuous presence and concrete particularity of the speaker and by the individual occasion for using language’ (Sontag 1994, page 20). Technology, media, issues of security, of politics…all this left no time for silence, to acknowledge and engage creatively with the semantic instability that arises from acts of terror, instead giving rise to a divisive and discriminatory language that by instrumentalising images of rupture perpetuates a form of symbolic violence which denies any possibility of radical change. 


[1] See: ‘Surrealism, n. [is] psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’ (Breton 1997, page 26).[2] Translation from : http://blog.mondediplo.net/2015-02-17-Islamo-fascisme-Manuel-Valls-meilleur-que-George


Breton A (1997) ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924) in Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (eds), Manifestos of Surrealism. Ann Harbor : University of Michigan Press.
Goldhammer J (2005), The Headless Republic, Sacrificial Violence in Modern French Thought. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press.
Sontag S (1994) ‘Aesthetics of Silence’ in Styles of Radical Will. London: Vintage.