Collectivity and the Digital in French Thought and Culture

by Susie Cronin (Volume editor) Sofia Ropek Hewson (Volume editor) Cillian Ó Fathaigh (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection VIII, 174 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 135


The relation between the digital and the collective has become an urgent contemporary question. These collected essays explore the implications of this relation, around the theme of #NousSommes. This hashtag marks the point where the «personal» modalities of social media have become embroiled in collective expressions of unity, solidarity and resistance. As this volume demonstrates, the impact of this cannot be isolated to the internet, but affect philosophy, literature, cinema, politics and the public space itself. The contributors approach the issue of #NousSommes from a diverse range of disciplines and methodologies, bringing out both the continuity and discontinuity with other forms of collective expression. Important contemporary philosophers such as Nancy, Derrida and Deleuze are engaged here, as are issues of ecology, community, automation, postcolonial identity and addiction. Featuring eight academic essays and an interview, this volume testifies to the importance of French philosophy and culture in understanding the digital and the collective today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introducing #NousSommes
  • ‘Who is this we that is not me?’: Ecosophical Ethics
  • #WeAreTheEarth: Rethinking Ecology and Community: The Case of Humanist Anarchism
  • Je suis Charlie: entre émotion et identité sociopolitique
  • ‘The metamorphosis of the world into man’: The Anthropocene and the Historical Administration of Human Identity
  • Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as the #NousSommes of Social Media
  • Liberté, égalité … Totalité? Décrypter les dangers de #JeSuis avec Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Un nous contemporain: réseaux sociaux, discours nouveau et addiction
  • La communauté comme passage: l’éthique du poème d’Henri Meschonnic
  • #NousSommes: refondation onto-axiologique de la confiance
  • #NousSommes and Automatic Politics: An Interview with Martin Crowley
  • Notes on Contributors/Notes sur les auteurs


This publication emerged from the twentieth annual French Graduate Conference, held at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in May 2017. The conference received generous financial support from the Society for French Studies, Pembroke College, and both the Department of French and the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Cambridge, for which we are very grateful. This conference would not have been possible without the endless help and assistance of Bill Burgwinkle. We would like to thank Laurel Plapp and Simon Phillimore at Peter Lang for all their kind support and patience. We are grateful to Edinburgh University Press for permission to reproduce Patricia MacCormack’s article. Finally, we would like to thank Ian James, Peter Collier and Martin Crowley, whose support was invaluable in developing the publication.


Introducing #NousSommes

#JeSuisCharlie. #WeAreOrlando. #NousSommesStrasbourg. These are simply a few examples of a new idiom and phenomenon that has emerged, whereby the ‘personal’ modalities of social media become embroiled in collective expressions of unity, solidarity and resistance. How do we read these digital signifiers? These hashtags bear attachments of grief, pity, trauma, pain, but also represent messages of collectivity, community, courage, strength and hope. The meaning of these apparently simple formulations is fundamentally ambiguous. While these hashtags may at one and the same time appear clear and univocal, and have reached the point of almost constituting one of multiple forms of expected responses to traumatic events, they also open up new and fundamental questions about violence, trauma, collectivity and identity in the age of the digital. What makes these articulations particular, and what makes the digital dimension worthy of special attention in its scope for accommodating articulations of solidarity, struggle, despair on the one hand, and hope, collectivity, community on the other? Does the digital hold this power on account of its limitlessness, its intangibility, its ability to inspire utopian rewritings as a kind of space beyond the present, the immediate, physical world? This volume seeks to address these issues from a rich diversity of angles, precisely converging around the theme of #NousSommes/#WeAre.

It was only four years ago, on 7 January 2015, that the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack took place. Twelve people were killed, and eleven were injured. The tragedy was met by political, social and communal responses, and from this density of commentary and response emerged the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. This first-person singular attached itself to the symbol of Charlie. In this we saw the cohesion of a multiplicity around one single symbol. The dissemination of this hashtag had important, explicit political ←1 | 2→effects whose various manifestations included that of forty-four world leaders joining arms in a rally following the attack. And, yet, like these world leaders, the unification around this symbol was a confused one, vulnerable to differing interpretations. Diffracting and multiplying into various articulations, the tag began to appear in the unification of other groupings, which saw the emergence of tags such as #JeSuisJuif or #JeSuisUnPolicier. More than this prolific multiplication of reiterations, this apparently unified wave of solidarity, however, the sharing and adoption of these terms concealed broad alignment with a rather noble, albeit nebulous, set of values. The sharing and usage of #JeSuis and similar tags gestured at once to a defence of free speech, support for a presumed parcel of ‘Western’ values, a protest against terrorism and violence, and a desire for safety. While this movement of #JeSuisCharlie brought people together, outstretching limbs to and from various corners of cyberspace, it also masked the divisions behind this apparent (re)iteration of agreement and solidarity.

Indeed, this proliferation of alliances was not limited to the singular, but broadened into the first-person plural: #WeAreOrlando following a fatal shooting in the United States, as well as #NousSommesStrasbourg. Here, the issue of collectivity was articulated more explicitly. Rather than simply being a unification around the symbol of Charlie, this appealed to a plural identity, an identity both pre-established before the event, but also partially determined by its resistance to such an event. Unlike the symbolic movement in Charlie, this ‘we’ had fewer connections to abstract values (such as free speech) and instead referenced the city as its identity. It would be a mistake to draw a hard distinction between the singular and the plural here. However, it remains the case that this movement away from the singular brought these questions of collectivity into sharp relief. If we privilege the ‘nous’ within our title, it is precisely in order to emphasise the digital aspects of this communal question.

Despite their many advantages in formulating new communities and modes of expression, social media offer neither an independent public space nor one that is immune to the questions of power and hierarchy. Indeed, entranced by the false sense of security and freedom experienced by many individuals in their use of social media as a personal tool of expression, user engagement typically neglects to consider the ways in which online ←2 | 3→spaces and modalities of ‘sharing’ are far from unbiased. Social media are then best not naively assumed to function simply as sites for identities to form freely and spontaneously, but are on the other hand sites in which identities may relatively easily be manipulated, reassigned and corrupted. Cyberdemocracy has proven itself not to be free from the problems of democracy in the more tangible world; if anything, new and more elaborate issues have arisen in the transposition of freedoms and contributions into this new and unfamiliar space. The outstanding requirements and issues of managing equality of expression in online space have been brought into focus by recent political campaigns, whereby rather than enriching knowledge, the internet has also been seen to have opened up a space for misinformation, fake news and anonymous, malicious influences. As is the case with regards to any expression in any medium, the question of whom is speaking, from where and why was never far behind.

One of the common critiques employed against ‘online activism’ is that the manifestation of affect seen in a hashtag does not materialise into corresponding, real political manifestations in ‘public’. Noise is made, in other words, around buzzwords and issues, but little or nothing is changed in the ‘real world’ by this digital outcry. Certainly, the act of sharing a hashtag does not necessarily amount to a substantial political commitment. That said, in the case of certain phenomena, such as the #MeToo movement, there are still very real political effects and developments that follow from these online, ‘shared’ forms of social media activism. Online spaces provide areas through which considerable ‘traffic’ passes, making a pronouncement on a prominent platform akin to a public occupation in a main city square, with the lifting of any geographical restrictions. As such, the power of social media as platforms for spreading certain political and social messages is indubitable. While the hashtag #NousSommes may not be an identical form of public manifestation as a protest, then, we aim to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of digital gatherings. Our aim in this volume is to consider the public and political importance of such forms of protest, as well as to elaborate new ways of understanding the offering of online tools and platforms to processes of identity formation and assertion.

While articulations like #NousSommes carry within them an important, and often unrecognised, degree of political agency and potential, ←3 | 4→it is also difficult to escape the traumatic passivity on which they are based. These words are issued and spurted as responses to trauma, repeated oftentimes more in persistent incredulity than in empowered resistance and conviction. What marks the singularity of #NousSommes and kindred movements is the role of the digital in mediating this trauma. Both our experience of traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, and our response to them become embedded in a new virtual element. Our experience of these events is not simply broadcast through television and other media, media of which we are the recipients, but our response to them has also become partially determined by the digital, media that endow us with dual entitlements and responsibilities as consumers and contributors. While seeking to take into account the important and recent change that has occurred in the incorporation of the digital as a voice through which trauma, identity and solidarity may be articulated, it is also vital to avoid collapsing into an opposition, which considers these digital processes as somehow derivative or artificial. We are convinced that these hashtags need to be understood as part of a collective process of negotiating traumatic events, but one which challenges both our understanding of the collective and our understanding of the trauma.

It is important for us to stress the novelty and urgency of the discourses with which this volume seeks to engage. While such modes of expression may have first prominently manifested themselves in #JeSuisCharlie, this has not prevented them from developing thereafter. In many ways, digital articulations of community, grief and belonging are still very much an emerging phenomenon and one that has changed substantially even since the #NousSommes/#WeAre conference took place in Cambridge in May 2017. It is precisely because of this that we need to think through these. With increasing frequency and importance, these digital manifestations are becoming part of our public space. This volume seeks to capture this urgency and both engage with the already determined versions of this #NousSommes, as well as the potentials and possibilities contained within it. Importantly, these potentials are not limited to the specific phenomenon of these hashtags, but also greater questions around the digital, the collective, trauma, the human, and the machine.

Novelty and urgency also characterise another narrative which shapes this volume: the ‘Anthropocene’. The Anthropocene is a proposed new ←4 | 5→epoch that encompasses the impact of human activity on the Earth. The Anthropocene Working Group presented their recommendation to the International Geological Congress in 2016 on the basis that nuclear testing, pollution, deforestation and development, among many other factors, have altered Earth beyond the stability denoted by the Holocene – our current geological age. This volume approaches the Anthropocene cautiously and critically, analysing the problems associated with placing human activity at the centre of our geological and cultural narratives. These problems might include our persistent othering of animals, expressed by a number of contributors in this volume, or an identity crisis produced by our inability to comprehend or take control of this new epoch – despite its emphasis on our intervention and impact. Ultimately, the Anthropocene forces us to rethink community and agency: understanding the #NousSommes produced by the Anthropocene is a crucial part of understanding this new epoch.


VIII, 174
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
French philosophy Francophone studies Digital Culture #NousSommes
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VIII, 174 pp

Biographical notes

Susie Cronin (Volume editor) Sofia Ropek Hewson (Volume editor) Cillian Ó Fathaigh (Volume editor)

Susie Cronin completed her PhD in French at the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her research focused on the evolution of assisted and online literatures in the French context from the 1960s to the present day. She is a former invited researcher of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. She has previously published on Italo Calvino and French digital literatures. Her most recent research engages particularly with the works of Serge Bouchardon, Annie Abrahams, Xavier Malbreil and Jean Pierre Balpe.  Sofia Ropek Hewson completed her PhD in French at the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and focused on the work of Paul B. Preciado. She has published on Preciado, the work of Catherine Malabou, pornography, drag and queer theory. Her most recent work focuses on the history of contraception. Cillian Ó Fathaigh is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on contemporary French philosophy, political philosophy and phenomenology. He has been an invited student at the École Normale Supérieure (Ulm) and he is an elected scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge and of Trinity College Dublin. His PhD offers the first comprehensive account of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of institutions.


Title: #NousSommes
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184 pages