shocked, shocked

One of Gainsbourg’s most controversial musical successes was an antipatriotic rendition of the “Marseillaise,” which he sang in concert and recorded in the 1970s. It was the national anthem sung with a sneer, sung to stress the ultimate hollowness not only of patriotic symbols but of all attempts at significant association, at the delusion of belonging to anything larger than the basic, instinctual self, and it was, significantly, sung by a man who looked the part, whose very appearance was a calculated act of indifference to the decent opinion of mankind. Gainsbourg’s “Marseillaise,” outraged many, delighted many others. Its appeal, for those to whom it appealed, lay, of course, in the very outrage it inspired in those who found it offensive. There is something very close to the French soul in this nihilism of style. Lying beneath the smooth surface of more conventional French stylishness, the stylishness of international fame and big business, whose centerpieces are on the avenue Montaigne and the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and in the big tents set up in the Tuileries for the spectacular semiannual fashion shows, is, this leather-jacketed Gainsbourgian snicker, this reminder of contempt.

— Richard Bernstein, Fragile Glory: a Portrait of France and the French, Knopf, 1990, p. 211

le bon historien, la mauvaise critique

In regard of two paragraphs read yesterday:

Furet’s reference to “the imaginary” seems to derive in a loose way from the influential analysis of Cornelius Castoriadis in his L’Institution imaginaire de la société.8 [8. Cornelius Castoriadis, L’Institution irnaginaire de la socié, 4th ed. (Paris, 1975). The terminology of Castoriadis appears explicitly in Georges Duby, Les Trois ordres ou l’imaginaire du feodalisme (Paris, 1978). The affinity with Castoriadis is developed at some length in Alain Bergounioux and Bernard Manin, “La Révolution en question (A propos d’un livre de François Furet),” Libre 5 (1979), 183-210.] In Furet’s view, power was fundamentally displaced in and by this imaginary discourse; rather than being anchored in society or institutions, power was located in and appropriated by discourse about equality. For Castoriadis, “the imaginary” is “ce structurant originaire, ce signifié-signifiant central” that is prior to any discourse since it makes discourse possible by identifying the objects of intellectual, practical, and affective investment.9 [9. Castoriadis, 203.] Furet, in contrast, is interested in “the democratic imaginary” as a special creation of the French Revolution. In the end, his use of l’imaginaire is more Tocquevillian than Castoriadian, for he explicitly associates it with un délire sur le pouvoir (79): “The Revolution is a collective imagining of power, which only breaks the continuity and drifts towards pure democracy in order to better assume, at another level, the absolutist tradition” (108). In other words, the Revolution was a great talking machine whose grinding gears drowned out the insidious truth of administrative continuity.
      With his semiological analysis, Furet moves quickly away from the young Marx towards the mature Derrida. For both of them, Rousseau is an important figure. In Of Grammatology Derrida analyzes Rousseau as one of the later representatives of a more general Western “metaphysics of presence,” which shapes Rousseau’s discussion of sovereignty as well as his investigations of language and writing. As Derrida shows, Rousseau was obsessed by the problem of representation: “‘In any case, the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.’”10 [10. Derrida quoting Rousseau in Of Grammatology, transl. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1974, 1976), 297.] Representation to Rousseau was the corruptive principle, the alienation of presence, the catastrophe of the signifier-representer.11 [11. Ibid., 296-297.] Rousseau wanted transparency in politics and in language. The people could be sovereign only if individual wills were transparent to the general will, just as language could only be authentic if it was transparent to the essence of the thing.12 [12. One of the most illuminating discussions of the concept of transparency in Rousseau can be found in Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle (Paris, 1957).] There was to be no mediation, no representation, nothing opaque between the people and power or between words and things.

To record what I said:

  1. To say that “Furet’s reference to “the imaginary” seems to derive in a loose way” from X, is to say nothing of consequence. Seems, madam! nay, it either is or or it isn’t; I know not “seems”. In the event, Castoriadis’ concept of the imaginary connects with the original faculty of positing or presenting oneself with things and relations that do not exist. What Castoriadis calls the “radical imaginary” of the individual and the ”social instituting imaginary” of the collective, relates explicitly to the human creative capacity. According to Castoriadis, society constitutes itself through a “radical imaginary” that serves as a cultural prototype for creation and alienation alike, at once underwriting its official ideology and inspiring its radical utopian notions. This comprehensive conception goes far beyond Furet’s historiographical premisses, which merely privilege the conceptual realm that Marxist historians relegate to superstructure, over what they postulate as the economic base. There is no need to elevate “the imaginary” to a radical stature in order to undertake this methodological reversal. Hence the weasel-phrase “in a loose way”, used to qualify Furet’s alleged debt to Castoriadis. By a similar token, any Volkswagen owner is indebted in a loose way to the populist ideals of Adolf Hitler. Hence the admission that in the end, Furet’s use of l’imaginaire is more Tocquevillian than Castoriadian. Being that Furet is a self-admitted Tocquevillian, the foregoing argument ipso facto reduces to groundless insinuation. Not so the concluding paraphrase of the paragraph. Whereas Furet makes the point that  the absolutist tradition of the old regime was aggravated (q.v. “in order to better assume, at another level”) by the totalitarian tendencies of the revolution that purported to liberate its beneficiaries from the yoke of royal oppression, the reviewer employs clever metaphors to reduce it to a bombastic amplification of Tocqueville.
  2. To deem Furet’s analysis “semiological” is to undermine its historiographical authority. Witness the purported move of Furet towards the mature Derrida, allegedly borne out by the evidence of Rousseau being an important figure for both of them. It goes unmentioned that Rousseau was an important figure for the principals of the French Revolution. For some reason, the attention that Furet pays to the most important progenitor of the ideology that forms the core of his subject matter, is taken for the grounds of associating him with the bugbear of postmodernism. It should go without saying that “guilt by analogical association” doesn’t stick. Derrida is a nominalist, for whom “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”. By contrast, Furet stands squarely in the realist camp memorably inspired by Marc Bloch: “Le bon historien ressemble à l’ogre de la légende. Là où il flaire la chair humaine, il sait que là est son gibier.” The reviewer neglects to cite any evidence of Furet’s postmodernist specialization on Historia rerum gestarum, let alone his tendentious erasure of Historia res gestae. The effect, and the manifest intent, of her juxtaposition of Furet and Derrida, is to smear the former with the nugatory taint of the latter. Whence the superfluous addition of Derridean showing to the observation that “Rousseau was obsessed by the problem of representation.” The first thing that any reader learns about the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques, is his intolerance of any intermediaries standing between the individual volitions of the citizens, and the dictates of their general will. There can be no critical justification for crediting this truism as a showing by Derrida. (Nor can the citation of Starobinski’s literary criticism in regard of the concept of transparency in Rousseau witness anything beyond the reviewer’s desire to crow about the breadth of her extracurricular reading.) This is a smear tactic, pure and simple. To return to the author, note that Furet denied any connection between his work and that of Derrida. Of Derrida, Furet said, “I detest what he does” (interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994).

If this is what passes for reading in the “social sciences”, I am quite happy to remain a social retard.