French intellectual history

Violence, Intimate and Public, in Bel-Ami’s Republic

By Contributing Editor Eric Brandom

Mme Forestier, who was playing with a knife, added:

–Yes…yes…it is good to be loved…

And she seemed to press her dream further, to think of things she dared not say.


“L’argent” (“Money”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

These are lines from a dinner scene early in Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 Bel-Ami (I have consulted, but in places substantially modified or replaced, the Sutton translation). The novel follows the talentless and superficial George Duroy—eventually Du Roy, since the sparkle of aristocracy is all the more fascinating en République—as he makes his social ascent through seduction, daring, and a little judiciously applied journalism. Duroy is driven by desire, especially for wealth, status, to be adored by people in general, and to possess women. His lack of moral feeling for anyone but himself means that he is able to make good use of his one real advantage, which is that women find him uncommonly attractive. Robert Pattinson played him, perhaps without the requisite physicality, in the 2012 film. In this post, I want to think about violence in Maupassant’s novel. Indeed I would like to use the experience of reading to give historical depth and complexity to the notoriously ambiguous and freighted concept of violence.


Bel-Ami is a rich text, taking as major themes not only great passion betrayed, but also journalism, gender, and colonial politics in the early Third Republic. It does not appear particularly violent compared to, for instance, Zola’s Germinal (1885), which breaths misery and social politics from every page, or the same author’s Nana (1880), also about an implausibly sexually attractive individual. For just this reason it seems to me that we may learn something from Maupassant about what counts as violent, what registered as dangerous violence in the Third Republic. As the lines quoted above suggest, violence is by no means absent here. Violence is both presented to the reader in the action of the plot, often at an ironic distance, and also is an effect produced in the reader. These two sorts of violence do not line up. So here I consider several “violent” incidents, including those that are physically—manifestly or naively—violent and those that are not. Indeed it seems to me that it in this novel, and perhaps in the larger society out of which it came, we might look for the most dangerous violence at the juncture of what is spoken and what one does not dare say, of the public and the intimate.

Bel-Ami opens with Duroy as flâneur, going down the boulevard with barely enough money in his pocket to last out the month. He has a powerful thirst for a bock (beer), and covets the wealth of those he can see enjoying the pleasures of life in the cafés. He has just finished two years in “Africa” and the memories are not far away: “A cruel and happy smile passed over his lips at the memory of an escapade which had cost the lives of three men of the Ouled-Alane tribe, and secured for himself and his comrades twenty chickens, two sheep, some money, and something to laugh about for six months.” The novel’s plot is launched when Duroy by chance meets Charles Forestier, an old friend from the military. He is introduced to the borderline honorable professional of newspaper work at the fictional La vie française, owned by “le juif Walter.” We are introduced to Madeline Forestier, whose talent for political journalism and willingness to ghostwrite propelled her husband Charles into prominence, and will now do the same for Duroy.

French expansion in African is woven into the plot. Indeed the way in which the novel takes journalism in general, and the actualités of Third Republic colonial ventures in particular, as a theme is one source of scholarly interest. Duroy’s first publication in the newspaper, which meets with a success he is never able to emulate again without the assistance of Madeline, draws on his experiences in Africa. But there is a larger colonial venture in the background of the novel. Put briefly, the minister Laroche-Mathieu connives with Walter to convince the public that the French will never go into Tunisia. This has the effect of driving down to practically nothing the price of Tunisian government bonds. Then Laroche-Mathieu’s government does decide to invade, determining among other things to guarantee the solvency of the bonds. Walter turns out to own a great quantity of them. From merely wealthy he becomes among the richest men in Paris—from “le juif” he becomes “le riche Israélite.” This subplot ties the novel both to the current events of the 1880s and to Maupassant’s own newspaper career.

But colonial experience is manifest in the novel on quite other levels. Through no fault of his own Duroy becomes involved in an affair of honor, a duel with a reporter from another paper. In a darkly comic scene Duroy, who is capable of self-reflection only in the mode of self-justification, considers the ridiculous possibility that he will die. His military past returns, above all in its irrelevance: “He had been a soldier, he had shot at Arabs without much danger to himself, it is true, a little as one shoots at a boar on a hunt.” Unfortunately for him, “in Paris, it was something else.” The duel takes place, as it must; both parties fire and miss; honor is maintained. Such duels were relatively common among bourgeois men and especially among journalists on the right like Duroy. So well institutionalized was the practice of risking one’s life—even if relatively few people died—for one’s honor that it could be seized by women to criticize the gender divisions of the Third Republic. In an elaborate set piece that farcically repeats his own experience, Duroy attends a charity banquet involving a series of epée and saber duels as entertainment. One section of the spectacle is women sparring to the erotic delight or forbearance of all.

The violence of Algeria has no existential weight for Duroy, as little as do the semi-nude fencers. This has not to do with the victims (Duroy has no feelings for anyone beyond himself, Ouled-Alane or French, man or woman) or more surprisingly even with the objective risk of death.In Paris, there are other men looking at him. It is fame, unequal recognition—to seduce Paris—that Duroy really wants. The duel is violence that does not take place, mere potential violence, as meaningless as the long late-night monologue in which the poet-columnist Norbert de Varenne spills out to Duroy all that he has learned about life and death.

The duel, staged and public, is a comic event for the reader and, at least as he tells it in retrospect, for Duroy. But there are also many moments of intimate violence that are less comical. Charles Forestier succumbs to a long-term illness, and Duroy proposes himself to Madeline as a replacement at the deathbed. Eventually, she agrees. Later, however, Madeline stands in the way of Duroy’s plans to marry Suzanne, the prettier of the now fabulously wealthy Walter’s two daughters. But how to rid one’s self of a wife? Duroy brings in the police to make a public discovery of Madeline in a compromising situation with Laroche-Mathieu, and force a divorce (this, too, was topical–debates around its legalization in 1884 were intense). Duroy breaks down the door to the furnished apartment and the police commissioner follows him in. The policeman demands an account of what has obviously been going on from Madeline. When she is silent: “From the moment that you no longer wish to explain it, Madame, I will be obliged to verify it” (“Du moment que vous ne voulez pas l’avouer, madame, je vais être contraint de le constater”). Duroy is able to turn the revelation—which of course is nothing of the sort—to his own advantage not only by divorcing Madeline but also, in a series of newspaper articles, by destroying the career of Laroche-Mathieu.


“La santé de l’autre” (“The Health of the Other”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

This elaborately public scene with Madeline is to be contrasted with the scene between Duroy and his longtime mistress and benefactor, Clotilde de Marelle. They are together in the apartment that she rented for that purpose long ago; she has just learned, elsewhere, about his impending marriage to Suzanne Walter. Marelle, processing what he has done, how he has kept her in the dark about the plan, abuses him: “Oh! How crooked and dangerous you are!” He gets self righteous when she describes him as “crapule” and threatens to throw her out of the apartment—a miss step because she has been paying for the apartment all along, from back when he had no money at all. She accuses him of sleeping with Suzanne in order to force the marriage. As it happens, Duroy has not and this, it seems, is a bridge too far—at least so he can tell himself. He hits her; she continues to accuse him, “He pitched onto her and, holding her underneath him, struck her as though he were hitting a man.” After he recovers his “sang-froid” he washes his hands and tells her to return the key to the concierge when she goes. As he himself exits he tells the doorman, “You will tell the owner that I am giving notice for the 1st of October. It is now the16th of August, I am therefore within the limits.” It is almost as though Duroy was compelled to assert to a man, of whatever class, that he was “dans les limites.” As Eliza Ferguson succinctly remarks in her rich study of Parisian judicial records related to cases of intimate violence, “the proper use of violence was an integral component of masculine honorability.” In certain situations juries and even the law itself recognized that an honorable man might inflict even fatal violence on a woman. Duroy is of course not an example of honorable masculinity, but he is intensely concerned with that appearance. Familiar with his style, Marelle simply will not accept the appearance he wants to impose in the space of their intimate life. He resorts to physical violence of an extreme sort.


The only scene in the novel that does not follow Duroy in close third takes place between the Walters, when Madame Walter discovers that her daughter Suzanne has disappeared, doubtless with Duroy. Duroy, of course, had earlier seduced, used, and then grown bored of Madame Walter, a devout Catholic who had never previously done anything so immoral. Her relationship with Duroy is, again of course, unspeakable. As she explains to her husband that Duroy has made off with their daughter, Walter responds in a practical way. Rather than rage at betrayal, he is impressed by Duroy’s audacity: “Ah! How that rascal has played us…Anyway he is impressive. We might have found someone with a much better position, but not such intelligence and future. He is a man of the future. He will be deputy and minister.” His wife cannot explain the depths of betrayal she feels, at least without admitting her own culpability, so that she is rendered hypocritical even in her righteous anger. The public face of things, carefully arranged by Duroy, brings appalling suffering to the private.


“L’absoute” (“Absolution”), Félix Vallotton (image credit: Gallica)

The novel’s violent moments are at this juncture, when the not always unspoken code of illicit intimacy is broken. Violence is generally inflicted on women by Duroy, using publicity, using his capacity to apply the logic of public to that of private life, honor to desire. In Duroy’s Third Republic the deepest moral corruption, the most serious violence, is not corruption in the usual sense of the word, the turning of the public to private ends, which is how one might normally think of the Tunisian affair, but rather the brutal and repeated enforcement of the public in the intimate. Here, then, is a way of thinking about differentiation within the broader category of violence. Some violence mattered more than other violence in the Third Republic. Men beating women, French soldiers killing Arabs out of boredom, or a duel in defense of masculine honor—this was violent, but not serious. The interruption of logics of intimacy and desire by logics of publicity, the betrayal of a tacit agreement by spoken law, these are the sorts of transgressions that are not so easily sanitized by ironic distance.


Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte Chénard

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In a book impressive by the vast array of themes, authors and traditions from which it draws, Jeffrey A. Barash proposes a dense reflection on the theoretical and practical aspects of collective memory, its symbolic institution in the public sphere, and its scope in contrast with what he calls the “historical past.” Barash’s inquiry plays on these two levels: the specificity of the distant past on the one hand, and the conditions of the lived experience given through collective remembrance on the other. The advantage of latter is that it escapes the problem of the remote past, which only exists through the operation of the historian. The specific object of history—the past—is by definition a reality that ceased to be. Therefore, we have a better chance to grasp memories created out of the experience of living generations (the shared experience of Martin Luther King’s speech, for instance, or the memory of the survivors of the Holocaust). Barash argues that collective memory, as an object of investigation, only comes at the forefront after a radical shift from a metaphysical and atemporal conception of human nature to a reflection based on an anthropological turn. An epochal change took place in the inter-war period in Europe: the tragic events of the 20th century paved the way to a vision of history and temporality based on discontinuity rather than continuity. The interplay, or tension—or even to a certain extent dichotomy—Barash draws between memory of lived experience and the “historical” past lies at the core of his demonstration and will be the focus of my intervention.

?The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge? from Au stralian artist William Longstaff (1929) depicting Canadian soldiers' ghosts marching up Vimy Ridge.jpg

The Vimy Ridge Memorial in Nothern France (Captain William Longstaff;
© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art,  CWM 19890275-051)

In chapter six entitled “The contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding,”Barash sets himself to “radicalize” the insights into historicity brought this distinction (p. 169). Briefly stated, collective memory has a specific limit, that of the temporal finitude of groups who share these experiences of remembrance. Collective remembrance will inevitably fade in the past and in the process become more opaque to us. For Barash, experience is the condition of collective memory. In that sense, his approach has definite phenomenological undertones. Temporal change and discontinuity make collective memory slip into the “historical past,” of which we can only have “passive recesses” and not a direct and full experience. The conclusion Barash draws follows accordingly: “In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension” (p. 170).

From that affirmation, one might think that Barash completely rejects the “historical past.” There are two main reasons for that. The first is quite clear: he insists on the fact that any supposed historical continuity—and its corollary, the idea of a stable identity of groups—could be instrumental in justifying ideological claims. The second reason has to do with the way we approach the past. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion the “flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), Barash claims that collective memory is based on the experience of the social and the political “in the flesh.” Given that, the remote past cannot but become a second-order “reality,” a “secondary form of recollection” (p. 35). There is, in the theoretical reflection on history broadly construed, an irremediable gap between Erfahrung and Wissenschaft, between experience and knowledge. In Barash’s view, there seems to be an unbridgeable distance between written historical accounts of the past and collective remembrance that spans generations, but still remains available in a more immediate manner.


Unveiling of the Vimy Ridge Memorial on 26 July 1936 (© George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19910181-036)

As it turns out, Barash’s enterprise is more nuanced: the distinction between the two spheres serves the purpose of preserving the specificity of the latter as much as of the former. He does not develop extensively on that point, but it seems as though the “historical past,” narrated through specific forms and “mises en scène” (such as in historical novels) performs a function of its own. Barash writes: “However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt to recover vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective” (emphasis mine; p. 196). The question is thus: does he propose something like a “practical past” beyond, or drawing from, the “historical past”? What is the specific ethical or normative function of the historical past that could make it “practical”? And can it intervene in the shaping of collective memory?

My suggestion is that his distinction involves a third sphere, that of a “practical” past. In his most recent book, Hayden White revives Oakeshott’s distinction between a “historical past” and a “practical past” (Oakeshott, On History, p. 19, 42). The historical past possesses no definitive existence: it is only an inference the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened. In contrast, the practical past concerns everyday life. The former is primarily theoretical, while the latter is oriented toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world. As White points out, the practical past includes ordinary people carrying “archive of experiences” (White, The Practical Past, p. 99).

A substantial interpretation of the “practical past” would be tantamount to seeing history as providing lessons. This, in turn, would imply that there are unchanging features of human nature or at least transhistorical elements that would authorize the transposition of past actions and judgments to present circumstances. The stronger normative version of the practical past as historia magistra vitae faces serious objections: one would have to embrace a strong metaphysical claim such as the existence of natural law.

Jean-Pierre Houel - Prise de la Bastille (1789) - Carnavalet Museum

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source

Doubts about a “practical past” in the sense of history providing normative guidance are not new. Hegel already expressed skepticism at the idea that we could learn anything about what one ought to do from studying the past. However, the purpose, in White or in Koselleck’s case, is not to recover some lost conception of history as a teacher of life. There seem to be another possible interpretation, one that is also found in Barash’s book: seeing the historical past as foreign leads to a more acute awareness of the contingency of the present.

White proposes to conceive of the practical past as a “space of experience.” (White, The Practical Past, p. 14) The recuperation or re-enactment of the past, it is true, could reinforce or justify “political mythologies,” but it could also serve to reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views. One could think here of Quentin Skinner’s renewal of the Machiavellian republican conception of liberty. Koselleck’s notion of the party of the “vanquished” (Besiegten)—those writers of the past whose vision or doctrines have not triumphed – performs a similar function (Koselleck, Zeitschichten, p. 77). Both are illustrations of an indirect, yet practical usefulness of the past seen as foreign in essence. This, in turn, presupposes discontinuity: the renewal of the past is only possible in light of its alterity.

This idea of a practical past is perhaps best expressed by Claude Lefort’s notion of the “unthought” (impensé). Some events, social symbols or shared experiences carry vast reservoirs of meaning, which appear to be inexhaustible. In contrast with the “historical past,” the practical past could be constituted of such elements that provide continuity amid the discontinuity in temporality. As such, these events—revolutions, moments of foundation—connect past and present. It relates to what we could call a “politics of temporality” insofar as it concerns political and social events that “do not pass in the past” to use Claude Lefort’s expression (ce qui ne passé pas dans le passé (Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, p. 64-65). Some experiences and their remembrance endure in time and provoke a constant necessity of re-enactment. In other words, these events carry an “unthought”: something that has not yet been thought or has to be thought through again. Could it be the case that such a renewal of the past participates in shaping collective remembrance, not only in an instrumental way, but also in a meaningful one? In that regard, the role of imagination described by Barash makes it possible to envision such as relation to the past.

The idea of a “practical” past certainly supposes more temporal continuity than what Barash is ready to concede. Yet there is a sense of temporal continuity that goes beyond collective memory. Barash’s view presupposes what I would call a “minimal continuity thesis.” As in Koselleck’s thought, there are in Barash’s philosophy of time “structures of repetition” (Wiederholungsstrukturen) observable in the shared symbolic representations. Furthermore, minimal temporal continuity is a necessary condition of measuring and diagnosing temporal change. Far from being an obstacle to overcome, the opposition between continuity and change is a dynamic and productive tension in interpreting collective memory and the historical past.

Barash’s version of what I presented as a “practical” past is not, however, mainly about reactivating past concepts or ideas. Rather, it concerns a more fundamental insight: that of contingency in history and the illusion of an absolute standpoint. In the end, there is no vantage point: one can never achieve a totalizing perspective on history or look at collective memory from above. His interpretation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu exemplifies this point (p. 201).

The past was once an uncertain future. As such, it is as contingent as the present and cannot teach what to do in specific circumstances. That being said, looking at the remote past, even through imperfect historical sources, could highlight the contingency of our situation and in turn demonstrate the need for a plural reading of the present. Seeing the past as practical—and not simply historical—means recognizing the plurality of possible outcomes and the multiplicity of narratives that can emerge out of it and shape our collective representation of the past and the present. The past puts the present in perspective, even when, as Barash reminds us, historical accounts cannot deliver an objective and unbiased view of historical “reality.”

Sophie Marcotte Chénard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for Ethics. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Social Sciences from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on theory and philosophy of history, 19th and 20th-century German and French thought, contemporary political philosophy and interpretive methods in the history of political thought. She has published on Claude Lefort’s phenomenological approach and Quentin Skinner’s contextualism and has a forthcoming article on R.G. Collingwood’s historicism in The Journal of Philosophy of History. She is currently working on her forthcoming book entitled Encountering History in the Making: Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Historicism, which focuses on the relationship between political philosophy and history in the early writings of Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron.

Book Forum: History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).


University of Chicago Press (2016)

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, he addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember. Chapters include discussions on some of the central theorists of memory from Sigmund Freud to Maurice Halbwachs to Gerald Edelman; on the centrality of the image in twentieth-century mass media; on the reputed ‘skepticism’ of Roland Barthes and Hayden White in regard to the capacity of history to distinguish itself from fiction; and on the origins of “collective memory” as a theoretical concept to interpret the enduring “quest for stability and permanence” in the wake of twentieth-century challenges to metaphysics by Martin Heidegger and many others broadly influenced by him in post-1945 France (128).

Behind these different explorations lies, however, an ambitious attempt on Barash’s part to identify an “impartial” or “critical” space for historical reflection in the sociopolitical sphere of public life in which historical thinking unfolds. Barash defines the critical function of history in the public sphere mostly by what it does not do: history is most clearly different from mythic, ideological recollections of the past but also, if more subtly, from the emergence of the ostensibly human quest to imbue the past with a common meaning through the nourishing of what Barash calls collective memory. In what follows, I consider his attempt to identify a space for history independent from collective memory and myth. Beforehand I will briefly establish as Barash himself does the central dilemma at stake.


Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

Barash astutely begins his book with Plato’s concept of anamnesis. In the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that anamnesis recalls in the present what was always already known by the immortal soul prior to embodiment. Recollection brings one back to the hyperouranian vision of eternal truth that the soul had before falling into this world of flux and death. The political consequence of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis is significant as Hannah Arendt understood in her important essay on authority (Arendt, Between Past and Present, 91-141). Arendt discusses Plato’s attempt to establish a system of authority that would transcend the conflictual and violent life of the polis. According to her, Plato sought to establish the hegemony of reason in the person of the philosopher king as the possessor of the truth gained through anamnesis. The philosopher contemplates the ideas that “exist” in a realm beyond this world of uncertainty and change. The philosopher contemplates the truth, and the truth is unassailable precisely because it transcends the uncertainties, imperfections, and perspectivalism of finite human existence.

The collapse of this Platonic notion of truth since the late nineteenth century has opened up for Arendt and others the possibility of embracing time or contingency as the basis for a democratic politics of equality. The argument being this: if timeless truth cannot exist for mortals, then no one single person or group can claim the right to rule over another (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 19; The Human Condition, 32). The lack of absolutes or indubitable foundations precludes any one view from becoming dominant—a community comes together in shared recognition of the fragility of any view. This anti-foundationalist notion of democracy has been embraced by a range of post-1945 thinkers from Theodor W. Adorno to Jan Patočka to Jacques Rancière. In what can be viewed as an important addition to this post-1945 conception of democracy, Barash suggests that history—including the one he writes—brings to public awareness the “group finitude” that subjects any given collective memory to “modification” (215-216). History also underscores the impossibility of ever bringing to full clarity the “opacity” of the past (105-106, 113, 170). Hence, history reveals the fragility and limits of memory as the collective product of mortals who cannot transcend the gap between past and present, since a holistic view of time eludes the “finite anthropological vision” (113).


Hannah Arendt (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1949)

A historical awareness of the finitude of collective memory proves especially important because it can undermine the ideological mobilization of collective memory for an exclusionary politics. One of the hallmarks of the radical right’s assertion of authority in modern European history has been the creation of myths about the alleged eternal homogeneity of the community whose interests it claims to represent. The radical right perpetuates a nationalistic memory that claims to be absolutely correct. By insisting on the fragility and limits of any collective memory, history challenges the ideological assumption that the past can be known with absolute certainty.

History also challenges ideological interpretations of the past in another way, as Barash shows in his gentle critique of Barthes and White’s portrayals of history as a form of fiction. In Barthes’ words: “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary” (quoted in Barash, 179). While Barash appreciates Barthes’s and White’s challenge to naïve empiricism, their view is nevertheless “too extreme” for him (176). Many historians will probably agree, but I think it might be worth considering alongside Barash the deeper issue at stake here regarding the status of critical thought. Barthes’s deployment of the word ideology brings us back to the relevant nineteenth-century debate between British empiricists and German idealists over the question of whether reason is independent of history. Is reason universal and necessary? For Marx, a student of Hegel and Kant on this question, if reason is not universal and necessary, then it has to be conventional or ideological. And, if reason is ideological, then how can philosophy possibly fulfill its critical task? Herbert Marcuse lucidly summarized the issue in Reason and Revolution, writing that empiricism “confined men within the limits of ‘the given’” (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 20).


Herbert Marcuse

Barash’s project aims to rescue “critical” thinking from the conventions of the present as well but he does not do so through Hegel (177 and 216). How does he proceed? He locates a critical space for history by distinguishing it from myth, the central difference being that history relies on “the critical methods of reconstruction on a factual basis” (216). The historian builds a narrative partly from the facts of what happened. This view may sound like conventional empiricism at first glance, but it turns out not to be. To understand the nuance of Barash’s argument, we must ask a basic question: What is a fact? The strict empiricist claims that the facts are the unassailable truth that renders the authority of the historical narrative indisputable. The empiricist is an inverted Platonist who forgets the history of the fact. The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means human actions and deeds. The facts are wrought by humans and that which is wrought by humans –– in the western metaphysical tradition at least –– has long been viewed as contingent beginning with Plato who views history as the study of the shadows of the cave.

Barash is not an empiricist in the traditional sense as just described. He strikes me as advancing what I might call a “contingent empiricism” –– an empiricism that strives to remain open to modification and change in full awareness of the temporality of one’s own exploration of the past. There is no Platonic escape from time in Barash’s account other than the “illusory” escape of myth (113). If there is no escape from history, if our perspective of what happened changes as we change and we change as we explore what happened, then the past cannot be grasped in a final or certain manner. The “opacity” of the past always withdraws from one’s temporal grasp. The only way to claim a final account of the past consists in turning the past into a constantly present thing that never changes.

If all is equally temporal, one might express worry that such a view leads to a vitiating relativism whereby every claim and behavior is equally justified. But this worry overlooks a central presupposition of critique. Any critical project, if it is to engage in an egalitarian exchange of reasons and is not to be mere apodictic Declaration (a “Machtspruch”), implicitly holds some value constant as the basis of the critique it offers. Returning to Barash’s book might illuminate the point. In the end, I see Barash as orienting history towards an affirmation of temporality or transience. The critical edge of such a view of history is not only that it challenges the mythic assertion of homogeneity but also that it undermines the ideological impulse to declare a secure and certain interpretation of our world. History disrupts certainty by affirming the complex condition of change that humans have struggled to make sense of since the ancient period. Ironically, history holds time constant as the basis of its critique of ideology and myth.

To conclude, let me return to my initial praise of Barash’s book. It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life. In this respect, I look forward to the exchange on his stimulating book.

The editors wish to thank Michael Meng for his graciousness in volunteering to write the inaugural post.

Michael Meng is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland (Harvard, 2011) and co-editor of Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana, 2015). He has published articles in Central European History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, The Journal of Modern History, and New German Critique. He is currently writing a book on death, history, and salvation in European thought as well as a book on authoritarianism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)

Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

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Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

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Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

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Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

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La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

We should justify ourselves no more: Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia

by guest contributor Laetitia Citroen

2016 has been a particularly prolific year for the French-speaking African intellectual community, with symbolical landmarks like the appointment of a Congolese award-winning novelist, Alain Mabanckou, as guest-lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris and the gathering of some of the best minds of the continent (many of whom teach in the US) in two international and interdisciplinary conferences—one at the Collège de France, and one at the Universities of Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal—to think about the future of Africa in terms of its economy, philosophy, and culture.

afrotopia.jpgThe organizer of the Conference in Senegal, Felwine Sarr, is a young economist and philosopher whose most recent book could serve as a manifesto for this new dynamic. Afrotopia powerfully advocates for a new Africa. Sarr combines work as an economist with a broad philosophical background in both European and African traditions. This essay is punctuated with deft quotations from Castoriadis, Lyotard, and Foucault alongside Mudimbé, Wiredu, and Mbembe, all as Saar discretely takes up the heritage of Frantz Fanon. In spite of the title, the author’s purpose has nothing of the dreamy or the unrealistic. Afrotopia is not an u-topia, a place that does not exist; rather, it is a topos, a place that can and will appear because “there is a continuity between the real and the possible.” This book is not an optimistic dream; it is a galvanizing declaration of love to an entire continent that has so much potential and only needs to become aware of it. It is also a deeply philosophical analysis of the numerous invisible ties that prevent its economies from ‘growing’ and ‘developing.’

The book also treats the ‘economy’ of Africa in the most philosophical sense: the complex network of relationships that connects African people on all kinds of levels, a study of what constitutes the inner equilibrium of the continent. Despite Sarr’s training as an economist, you will find not find here any graphs or compilation of numbers imported from World Bank Reports. Instead, he dwells on the importance of sustaining the link between culture and economy: “in human communities,” he writes, “the imaginary is a constitutive part of social relationships, including the most materialistic ones. An economic interaction is, first and foremost, a social interaction. The imaginary and the symbolical determine its production. Therefore, cultural factors will influence economic performances. (…) African economies would take off if only they functioned on their own motives.” Quoting French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis, Sarr argues that the first step is an “imaginary institution” of this new Africa, of this “Afrotopia.” African intellectuals need to take the time to define their own “autonomous and endogenous teleonomy”: to set the goals of the African societies themselves or, to put it in other terms, to block any external attempt to determine what would be good for Africa. In many ways, the term ‘development’ itself needs to be decolonized.


Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/ pour Jeune Afrique)

The author hence argues that not only have International Aid Agencies forgotten to take specific cultural features into account, but that they have also brought their own teleology. Real African ‘development’ cannot and will not take place if it only aims at objectives—like ‘growth’—that Westerners consider best. He quotes his friend the Togolese novelist Sami Tchak, who once provocatively asked him: “When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” Afrotopia is precisely an African place, not a copy of the global north. When reflecting on other ways of defining ‘development,’ Sarr refers to the philosophy of development as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum founded it; he also underlines the symbolical value of all economic exchanges as studied by anthropologists of economy—like Jane Guyer—who show how all economic behavior is based on cultural meaning. Simple examples of this could be the money sent home by emigrants of the diaspora or the importance of hospitality.

Therefore, writing about the African economy entails much more than drawing graphs. The pure rationality of an homo economicus yields no satisfactory explanation of economic exchanges in Africa—or, the author hints, anywhere else. So studying the economy of Africa proves nothing short of studying the social interactions themselves; Afrotopia must be a place that thrives ‘economically’ in its fullest meaning ; it has to be a place that “makes sense to those who inhabit it.” Understanding this requires taking distance from, or completely abandoning, the “methodological individualism” of orthodox economic thinking. Therefore, Sarr calls for an “epistemic decentering,” even for an “epistemogonia.” Western economics yield an épistêmè of sorts that need to be reconsidered before being applied to African situations as other non-Western economists, like Ugandan Yash Tandon or Indian Rajeev Bhargav have pointed out. Africa needs to speak about itself in its own language, and it is time to “leave the dialectic of appropriation and alienation behind.”  Africa is not faced with a binary choice of either being alienated, of losing its identity to the hands of new colonizers, or of willingly embracing the Western civilization.

But this carries wider implications than simple methodology: the debate about Africa is stuck in a dialectic of tradition and modernity. The lack of ‘modernity’ in Africa commonly refers to the lack of technological and industrial ‘progress.’ Yet why do we still speak in these terms about Africa when philosophers in the West have long started theorizing postmodernity? Sarr situates his Afrotopia as part of this new way of thinking: simple mimetism of Western values is no real ‘progress’ for Africa; and the ‘weight’ of ‘tradition’ is no synonym of backwardness and refusal to change. Rather, it is also the unique root from which the continent can draw its future, as Japan did one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end, Sarr advocates for an “Afrocontemporanéité” rather than an African modernity: equally averting from nostalgia of a mythical past and from pure awe at technological progress, Sarr argues that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, in its contemporaneity, and make sure it is as unique and true to itself as it can be.


Zeinab Mialele colletion (© Charles Bah/Fima)

There is no fatality. Africa is not this tragic continent that has lost all connection with its ancient culture, nor is it this strange space that will eventually come to resemble northern countries. The author calls pragmatically for thinkers who will take Africa as it is right now, with the inherited and the assimilated. As can be seen in the beautiful creations of young African stylists (Sarr takes his examples in all realms of activity, from fashion to urbanism), whose syncretism can be a virtue: “we are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.” In a way, Sarr also foresees Africa’s capacity to jump directly into the twenty-first century without endlessly asking itself about its past – be it colonial or pre-colonial – and invites us to trust its capacity of poiésis, of creating something new. For instance, the continent has not yet built environmentally harmful industries on its soil, and could therefore start implementing cleaner ways of production right from the beginning, and even use its resources as leverage to impose these clean industries in the rest of the world.

So where is this Afrotopia, and how can we find it—the real place of Africa, the one it has not yet been able to bring into shape? The must first exist as a mental place; it needs to be built in ideas, intention, and will before it is built on real land. As with any proper construction work, however, the foundation must be clean, and the tendency to uncritical imitation must be set aside. This is, indeed, a very classical idea in the postcolonial context look back to Fanon’s Black skin, white masks (1952). Africans should stop running away from their true selves. For Sarr, economy (and therefore civilization) is not about comparing childishly who has the more riches; it is about building societies that pursue their own happiness, defined according to their own values.

One thing that could have been interesting in addition to this powerful global analysis may have been an inquiry into the unity or diversity of ‘Africa.’ The author brings up intellectual and political references from all over the continent – from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, from Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—and we would want to know more about his vision of “the continent” as a whole. What constitutes its unity? The question, of course, can be asked about any continent, and Sarr rightly complains that Africa has been asked that question many more times than others. But for a continent that is far too often considered as a massive entity, sometimes even confused with a ‘country,’ it would be extremely enlightening to have his contribution to a question that will likely never be fully answered.

In the end, what the author pleas for is time—it is the “longue durée” (long-term) defined by French historian Fernand Braudel as the time allowing civilizations to build themselves cautiously, carefully and wisely and the time necessary to structure strong and autonomous values one by one. It also marks the time that is needed to ‘imagine’ this new Africa, the time needed for intellectuals to conceptualize this Africa yet to come. It is the time needed for governments to plan in the long run, and not be forced to make rash decisions when selling their precious resources because the needs are too urgent. But the advent of Afrotopia is near at hand: it is like the blueprint of an entirely new continent, and this book sounds like the guideline for a whole generation of philosophers, economists, historians, architects, musicians, artists who will transform the current Africa into this “Afrotopia, this other Africa which we should hurry to make real, because it realizes its happiest potentialities.”

Laetitia Citroen studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Lyon (France). Her dissertation examines the philosophical background necessary to rethinking economic development in West Africa, namely through taxation, in a less abstract and more humanist way.