Think Piece

Time Travelers: Nomads in French Thought, 1970s-1980s

by guest contributor Anne Schult

By Anne Schult

When the Parisian Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration opened an exhibit with the title Mondes tsiganes last year, it saw itself confronted with an unusual question of justification for the central object of its presentation: were the Romani people, in fact, immigrants to the French nation and their images thus rightfully placed in the halls of the former Colonial Palais, or were these gens du voyage something else altogether? Officially categorized as “nomads” by the French state in 1912, the Romani have been subject to both cultural fascination and racial othering throughout the 20th century—a fact attested to by the exhibit’s extensive photographic record of 800+ images taken by state officials, anthropologists, and curious by-standers in an attempt to arrest the restless at least temporarily.

Yet, the Romani constitute but one contemporary example of a broader French interest in those perennially on the move. In French intellectual circles, the figure of the nomad has repeatedly been used as a tool for both boundary-making and collective introspection—one that found broad application in the post-Marxist, post-structuralist climate of the 1970s and promised to address a particular set of political problems in the French Fifth Republic. Indeed, it was no coincidence that the nomad gained intellectual popularity at the exact moment the criticism of totalitarianism and a newfound fascination with ethics took root among the Left-leaning French intelligentsia: the notion of a radical state required a new and equally radical counterfigure. Within this explicitly antinomian discourse, nomadism as concept offered a particularly potent alternative to the scheme of perpetual revolution associated with the perceived failure of the 1968-movement and its immediate aftermath. On the one hand, it was used to contest dominant class-driven narratives. In a conceptual rethinking of the revolutionary paradigm, the nomad promised to recover the individual from state oppression through norms, laws, and institutions. On the other hand, it alluded to similar dynamics of control and coercion between the French state and its erstwhile colonial territories and became a lens with which to re-examine conceptions of the non-Western “other.” In short, nomadism offered a new language to talk about anti-establishment modes of being and becoming.

As detailed below and in two forthcoming posts, nomadism emerged in three distinct narratives across a variety of academic disciplines in the 1970s, progressively extracting the nomad figure from its historical context and thrusting it into the realm of contemporary politics. First, political anthropologists, in their re-evaluation of ethnology’s inquiry into primitive societies, rediscovered nomads and began to refute then-prevalent stadial theories that posited them as powerless historical agents. Second, throughout the 1970s, the nomad arose as a more metaphorical element to describe and criticize state repression of mobility in the present. Finally, nomadism developed into a broader, more abstract antistatist concept in philosophy during the 1980s, introducing the idea of nomadic thought as practice. These three narratives developed partially in parallel, and partially by scaffolding onto one another; yet, in all of them the nomadic was constructed in relation to a specific temporality that, ultimately, also had clear implications for the mode of academic inquiry itself.

Time Travelers, Part I: Nomadic Societies and the Recovery of Alternative Pasts

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Though long considered an essential marker of primitive societies, nomads received particular attention in the subfield of political anthropology from the 1960s on. Most prominently, the then-prevalent evolutionist postulate—which asserted that humanity had progressed from a “natural state” of nomadic bands and tribes to sedentary state-centered society—was challenged by Pierre Clastres’ essay collection La société contre l’état (1974). For one, Clastres took issue with the fact that nomadic hunter-gatherer societies were typically deemed devoid of political power because they exhibited a subsistence economy that forwent the production of surplus in light of logistic restrictions due to their mobility. To him, the assumption of a causal relationship between the rise of the capitalist-authoritarian complex and the accumulation and exhibition of power was misguided in two ways.

First, nomads’ lack of an economic surplus did not stem from the fact that they were not capable of producing one—to the contrary, Clastres argued, they were principally societies of abundance. Rather, he posited, they chose not to do so: theirs was a more egalitarian form of society in which the need for surplus production and its associated sociopolitical hierarchy simply did not arise. A nomadic organization of society was therefore not inferior to the modern state, but simply distributed power differently to prevent the emergence of authoritarian figures. In Clastres’ formulation, nomads were thus not simply without, but explicitly against the state.

Indeed, and this was Clastres’ second point, the fact that the state would take root eventually was to be interpreted not as progress but as the corruption of a more egalitarian past in human history. Nomads’ social stasis, their essential conservatism, thus served a valid if hopeless purpose, and Clastres posited the devaluation of this stasis as the result of an anthropological misreading of history. As he asserted, many fellow anthropologists perceived history as a simple story of linear progress, a “one-way street” that charted archaic, nomadic societies as lingering at the beginning of the human trajectory towards modernity. By contrast, although he did not contest the nomads’ belonging to prehistory, Clastres located them at the threshold of a history of demise.


This piece is the first installment in a three-part series on nomads and the nomadic in French thought of the 1970s and 1980s. The second part focuses on the short-lived interdisciplinary journal and collective Cause Commune and its attempts to resituate the nomadic as a subversive tactic for the present, and the third part traces how the nomad arose as a more metaphorical element to describe and criticize contemporaneous state repression of mobility over the course of the 1970s.

Anne Schult is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Carnet anthropométrique d’identité “Nomades”, 1951 © Musée national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration

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