French intellectuals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 10 13:21:19 MDT 2001

Chronicles of Higher Education, September 7, 2001

France Takes Its Intellectuals to Heart, Even as They Doubt Themselves


Periodically, someone on the Parisian journalistic or literary scene
announces that the intellectual in France is no more. Almost 20 years ago,
the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard buried him in Tombeau de
l'intellectuel. Last year, the historian and publisher Pierre Nora
proclaimed, in an issue of Le Débat, that the intellectual as oracle had
seen his day. Between 1980 and 1990, however, some 30-plus books published
on the history of the French intellectual testified to France's enduring
fascination with the intelligentsia. Since 1990, there have been over 80
more, with four recent biographies dedicated to the life of Jean-Paul
Sartre alone. And the transfer in 1996 of André Malraux's ashes to the
Panthéon seemed to crown the 20th-century intellectual's glory.

Then, last winter, the debate began anew. What sparked it was the
publication of a book by Régis Debray, a comrade in arms of Che Guevara and
ghostwriter for Mitterand. The book, titled IF: Suite et Fin (or French
Intellectual: Continued and End), is a sort of funeral march for the French
intellectual, a once-courageous fighter for truth and justice who has
narcissistically sold out to the media for the gratification of his own
ego. According to Debray, intellectuals no longer seek to illuminate, but
rather to denounce, because denigrating others promotes their own
self-image. Once enlighteners, they have become dead weights from whom the
French must free themselves.

While it might appear that the intellectual of France has suffered a
certain loss of prestige since the 1970's by becoming increasingly
"médiatique," how accurate was Debray in arguing that the substitution of
newspaper interviews and televised debates for manifestoes and
demonstrations testifies to the intellectual's demise? I would argue that
Debray mistook change for something far more terminal.

First, the term "intellectual" once denoted a shared vision whose
collective sense originated in the France of the Dreyfus Affair. At the
turn of the 20th century, France was completely divided over far more than
the guilt or innocence of a Jewish army officer convicted of treason. The
affair was a sociopolitical scandal that established a proactive role for
writers, artists, and academics. As journalism became an increasingly
respectable enterprise and the power of the press expanded, publishers'
aims became more overtly political. Both Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards,
as they were called, turned to journals and newspapers to promote their
causes and political points of view. In 1898, Émile Zola published his
famous "Lettre au Président de la République" (the article that became
known as "J'accuse"), and the next day the first of the protestations des
intellectuels appeared, calling for a retrial for Dreyfus. Those consisted
of lists of names followed by professions, degrees, and prestigious
associations, and established the spirit of solidarity and collective
social conscience of the French intelligentsia.

The word "social" is key here, for the fight for truth and justice that the
Dreyfus Affair represented would render liberalism, with its concern for
others and opposition to oppression, virtually synonymous with the
political activism of writers, artists, and academics. Though a passionate
and highly conservative defense of French tradition and nationalism was
begun at the time by the novelist Maurice Barrès and others, the
intellectual quickly came to stand for the upholder of leftist values. Both
the nationalist (to say nothing of anti-Semitic) Ligue de la Patrie
Française and the liberal Ligue des Droits de l'Homme were founded in 1898.
That the former became defunct shortly thereafter, while the latter is
still in existence, is telling.

Nevertheless, the intellectual in France in more recent times has not
easily been defined by homogeneity. Though the leftist intelligentsia is
entrenched in collective memory (and collective memory is far stronger in
France than it is in the United States), it has hardly been oxymoronic, if
difficult, to speak for the past 15 or 20 years of a conservative
intellectual elite in France. A number of writers, like Alain de Benoist
(founder of the journal Krisis); research groups, like GRECE (Groupement de
Recherche et d'Etudes pour la Civilisation Européenne); and political
figures, like Alain Griotteray, have established the intellectual right as
a more powerful force than it once was.

Moreover, the lack of a common purpose runs deeper than political factions.
Even on the left, some intellectuals champion the universalist values that
were once a liberal hallmark, while others praise the difference and values
rooted in various racial and ethnic groups. The diminished sense of
community that some French intellectuals chafe at, therefore, is an
indication not so much of the decline of the intellectual as of the decline
of intellectual cohesiveness.

Second, it is significant that the socially conscious French intellectual
tradition -- once bolstered by the postwar generation of Sartre, Malraux,
and Albert Camus -- took a decisive turn with the generation that made its
mark after the student revolt of 1968, the generation of Roland Barthes,
Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. The postwar generation
had introduced a sense of the lack of fixed or overriding meaning in life,
but its intellectuals still -- or as a result -- believed that each
individual could create a sense of meaning for himself and, in so doing,
make an impact on society. The generation of '68 took the rejection of the
Enlightenment ideal of the perfectibility of the human mind -- the ideal of
an ever-progressing rationality -- much further, devaluing the speaking
subject in favor of a highly theoretical linguistic and cultural
determinism from which the intellectual's image would further evolve. As
the journalist Jean-Marie Domenach put it, where language had been viewed
as a reflection of reality, now reality was a reflection of language. All
that meant that those who used language to address and influence public
opinion found themselves with less of a role to play.

With decreased autonomy and thereby reduced influence on the one hand, and
with an orientation more theoretical and less political on the other, the
intellectual's power in France has weakened relative to the increase in
abstract and anti-utilitarian thought. The irritation with France in
American academic and political milieus (witness the Sokal Affair, in which
a fabricated postmodern text was accepted by a prestigious American
journal) hasn't helped the French intellectual maintain his prestige abroad.

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Louis Proyect
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