Monday, May 24, 2010

Dominique Lecourt's "The Mediocracy"

(Trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, 2001)

As Matt McLennan pointed out in his review essay on Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," the discourse of humanitarianism depoliticizes global conflict by portraying it as an opposition between evil and good people, between "resource-hungry, power-hungry people on one side, and those who just want to go about their lives on the other." Behind this dichotomy of good and evil lurks any number of Northern prejudices and stereotypes concerning the global South, if not a kind of resignation that such distant destruction is intractable, since the global South, according to this paternalistic view, lacks a strong 'tradition' of liberalism, tolerance and democratic 'values.'

North American philosophy has largely internalized these constraints and, with the rewards of funding and grant money, it has provided any number of ideological justifications for global inequalities or imperial violence under the rubric of liberalism, tolerance and democracy. Which might help explain the scorn with which some of these partisans of humanitarianism greet "French philosophy" in North American academe.

For years, Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard represented, in their opposition to humanism or humanitarianism, the pinnacle of professional and political irresponsibility to many of their opponents. Now imagine the intensificaiton of scorn for those former students of Althusser, Jacques Rancière and the outspoken and unapologetic former Maoist Alain Badiou, the latter especially prepared to lead the militant youth off to the next Cultural Revolution. Those 'responsible' members of North American academe must wonder how France continues to place such irresponsible philosophers in the most respectable institutions. One wonders how many of these responsible philosophers felt relief at the prospect that 'The Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy' at Middlesex University will have to shutter its doors.

It must come as some surprise then that "French philosophy" is not the mainstream philosophy of France. Instead, since the 1970s, the nouveaux philosophes have capitalized on the convergence of corporate media, big business and humanitarianism in France.

Dominique Lecourt's The Mediocracy is a translation of two texts, separated by two decades, that indict the  the 'New Philosophers' for their role in reducing the revolutionary spirit of May '68 to a philosophy of consensus, consolation, and humanitarianism. The first, originally published in 1999 as Les piètres penseurs, reflects on the consequences of the nouveaux philosophes as media intellectuals, and the second, Dissidence ou révolution? (1978), presented here as an appendix, is a fiery polemic directed against André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al., as they were emerging as a-- sorry for all the inverted commas here, but they are necessary-- 'dissident' 'school' of 'thought' in France.

They would find it fitting to be called dissidents, because this is just the kind of hyperbole that they would pass off their philosophy under the cover of modesty. This 'modesty' has a specific rhetorical context, for what binds the New Philosophers to each other is their common renunciation of their so-called revolutionary past. As Lecourt notes, there is a long history of criticizing Marxism as totalitarian because in theory it seeks to grasp human relations as a totality. This is, by the 1970s, a textbook manoeuvre in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, but it had often been conducted from the outside of Marxist discourse. Being former Maoists, the nouveaux philosophes approached this critique from the inside, so to speak. Their joint renunciation of what they called their 'complicity' in 'Marxist' oppression coincided with the French publication of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.

Renunciation, as Lecourt points out, is not the same as self-critique. Self-critique, in its better moments, is brought on when one recognizes changing conditions in social relationships, and as Lecourt points out, by the 1970s, Marxism had fallen into a critical crisis. But the New Philosophers did not seek to renovate their theoretical commitments, they outright rejected them. However, since much of what has transpired since their turn to democratic values and free-marketeering has been, in the West and across the globe, an intensification of capitalism through neo-liberal policies. Insofar as they've resigned themselves to the imperfectibility of human 'nature,' they are now arguably more complicit with the situation than before. Not only do they preach resignation, but they actively work against new emancipatory change. Lecourt states, already in 1978:
Renunciation, resignation: under the cover of its 'radical anti-Marxism', the Western ideology of 'dissidence' is an ideology of the political abdication of the intellectuals. [...] It inflects [this conjecture] in the direction of flight when it is confronted with the 'discovery' of the crisis of Marxism. Rather than analysing the real history of this crisis in order to identify what is at issue with it, the New Philosophers prefer to proclaim that 'the class struggle has disappeared', explaining that ultimately it existed solely in the theoretical imagination of Marx and his successors (174).
Lecourt lists the formulas of complicity in a footnote: Lévy's 'The idea of a dominant class is meaningless,' Glucksmann's 'Capital does not exist,' 'Labour does not exist...' I supposes it's quite comfortable in the green rooms of the French media...

This poses the question of how Glucksmann or BHL or Luc Ferry became known as a group of philosophers rather that, as we would say today, pundits. Lecourt recalls, when he initially sought to publish Dissidence ou révolution?, Althusser's reproach for taking the group too seriously and lending, via critique, an air of legitimacy to them. However, in retrospect, Lecourt recognizes that they-- the Althusserians and others-- had underestimated the savvyness of the New Philosophers. He identifies  two crucial factors at work in the ascendancy of the New Philosophers, both of which involve the appropriation of the work and legacy of established figures in French thought, Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Lecourt argues that Foucault bears some responsibility for the rise of the New Philosophers, which was nearly concurrent with Foucault's critique of Marxist historiography and Freudian (Lacanian) analysis. The New Philosophers simplified and generalized Foucault's analyses of power and knowledge to add philosophical weight to their critique of the entire praxis surrounding revolution and the seizure of state power, and, as they saw it, its inevitable catastrophe. Lecourt cites numerous passages where Foucault's subtle research is broadly generalized and appropriated by their critique of power. What is more surprising-- insofar as Foucault's critique of Marxism is generally decontextualized in his reception in the English speaking world-- is that Foucault returned the favor. He not only did interviews with them, he also wrote a glowing review of Glucksmann's Les maîtres penseurs, lending intellectual legitimacy to the nouveaux philosophes. It's difficult not to think that Foucault's tactical alliance with these mediatic anti-Marxists does not betray some opportunism on his part. This alliance, Lecourt notes,  ultimately drove a wedge between Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

More important to the rise of the New Philosophers is how they exploited a reunion of two long-quarreling philosophers. Lecourt argues that one image in particular cemented the nouveau program of humanitarianism. On June 26, 1979,* Sartre joined joined a delegation to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to request assistance for a humanitarian mission to help people fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam. After the meeting, a photograph was captured of the ailing Sartre being accompanied, arm in arm, by Raymond Aron and André Glucksmann. Lecourt writes that it was a potent image :
More potent, perhaps, than was realized at the time. For it did not just involve a kind of public reconciliation between the two veteran rivals of the French intelligentsia, through the intermediary of a philosopher who had been a pupil of the one and a fellow traveller of the other. The trio had in fact just solicited the aid of the President of the Republic for the operation 'A boat of Vietnam,' mounted by Bernard Kouchner. Humanitarian action was making its official entry into French politics at the very top....The Elysée trio was conveying this message: now is no longer the time for political analysis and action; let us aid the victims without pondering the responsibility of the various parties in the human disaster that is unfolding (116).
Humanitarianism, Lecourt argues, requires the substitution of ethics for politics. It requires a discourse which seeks to 'combat Evil.' The problem with combatting 'evil' is that it depoliticizes whatever catastrophe it comfronts. By 'naturalizing' catastrophe-- in the sense that it presupposes a particular picture of human nature that we have already discussed-- all moments of suffering are emptied of their political significance. It is, to use a Lacanian pun, a kind of 'television':
without rooting these images in concrete reflection on any singular history, and without offering viewers the perspective of a rational understanding, it is not human 'fraternity' or 'solidarity' that is solicited and reinforced, but utter sentimentalism that is exploited (119).
But there is another side of the image of Sartre-Aron-Glucksmann (not, I think, stressed adequately by Lecourt): it portrays politics as an elite and administrative affair. The various strands of consensus, democratic values and humanitarianism are picked up here: politics is not a popular or emancipatory praxis, it is something conducted by elites, intellectuals, and our elected representatives. Didn't Sartre ask, only a few years earlier, if elections were not a trap for fools (piège à cons)?

The worst thing about death, Sartre argues, is that people can then say whatever they want about you (Being and Nothingess, 694). And in this regard, it becomes clear that Lecourt's Mediocracy aims to defend a radical intellectual legacy that is always in danger of being canonized and depoliticized. It is not only the legacies of Sartre or Foucault, but May '68 and even philosophy itself, which are all in danger of being appropriated by the New Philosophers. These "multimedia moralists," he argues, reduce philosophy to a glorification of the individual and a preservation of 'values.' Political analysis becomes what Lecourt calls the intensification of public opinion, "translating the spontaneous expression of...affects into noble discourse" (136). These days, the New Philosophers don't even bother with the "noble discourse." Here's BHL-- who we've already lampooned for his shoddy research-- parodying himself on the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull:
Silence, says the volcano, silence, I'm the one who is speaking now. Nobody move. Until further notice, your flying machines are no longer allowed in the sky. Each of you stay exactly where you were at the instant my eruption of sulfur, nitrous gas and bitumen (Marquis de Sade again) began. And no one, it's true, is stirring. And the planet, in fact, is holding its breath, waiting for the volcano to become silent. And a shiver goes through us all, at the idea of a force which extends beyond our will and suddenly dictates its own law.
That is the lesson of the volcano. Under the volcano, certainly not the beach, but the necessary patience of things. From the burning throat of the volcano, a message of humility and a call for moderation. Blessed be the volcano. Fortunate the chaos it foments. And this time, may Empedocles remain standing straight in his sandals.
The labored reference to a well-known slogan of May '68 ("Beneath the paving stones, the beach") says it all: no more revolutions, nor more critiques of political economy, the true lesson is "the necessary patience of things." An easy moral for consensual times. Between the latest free associations of BHL and the earlier works of the New Philosophers, the emphasis is the same: politics concerns the private sphere of existence, only there is it possible to cultivate one's individuality and advance one's interests, rather than  concerning a transformative and revolutionary practice. A familiar refrain in the English speaking world, but one that required a significant amount of effort to establish itself in France. Lecourt's The Mediocracy is a powerful intervention, at turns personal and polemical, against the mediatic punditry of the nouveaux philosophes, against the daily-televised blather that insists that we accept the world as it is.

*Being part-memoir, Lecourt dates this incident 1978.

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