Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

December 31, 2007: Death and the Endings of an Era?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

December 31, 2007: Death and the Endings of an Era?

Article excerpt

December 31, 2007. On a day when it is common to reflect on the events of the year just ending, some, no doubt, asked if this was the year when an important movement in social theory ended. This, 2007, was the year Jean Baudrillard died. His passing marks the disappearance of the last of the notables of the postwar traditions of French social thought. Only Claude Levi-Strauss, approaching 100 years, survives Baudrillard, but he has long been silent as a writer.

To be sure, Baudrillard was not the greatest figure in the movement--even allowing that French social thought, as a philosophical dispensation, defied the very idea of greatness. Great or not, so many of its important

personages died before their time--Michel Foucault, most strikingly (1984), but also Nicos Poulantzas (1979), Roland Barthes (1980), Jacques Lacan (1981), Michel de Certeau (1986), Louis Althusser (1990) Felix Guattari (1992), Gilles Deleuze (1995), Emmanuel Levinas (1995), and Jean-Frangois Lyotard (1998). A few died closer to Baudrillard's time--Pierre Bourdieu (2002) and Jacques Derrida (2004). It was not that they were all young in death but that their followers desired more from them and mourned their silences. One marks the incompleteness and idiosyncrasy--the oddball irregularity--of such a list by adding names of others who had little to do with tout Paris in the 1960s and after: Erving Goffman (1982), Edward Said (2003), and Richard Rorty (2007)--each of whom engaged the French from the remove of North America. Goffman's absent Self, Said's orientalized English novel, and Rorty's contingent philosophy beyond the mirror of nature were eerily close to French preoccupations in their days. They shared an appreciation for the eclipse of the strongly centred modern culture. Aside from the early translators and heirs of the French in North America, in the early period after 1968, only Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World-System, I (1974), with its indebtedness to Ferdinand Braudel and Fanon, could be described as critical of the centre--a critic working in, if not of, North America.

The French movement had everything to do with the death of an old order and the discovery of loss, mourning, and absences. In the years before his death, Derrida allowed publication of an English language col lection of his funereal orations (The Work of Mourning, 2001). The collection is apt to the question of endings for reasons other than Derrida's own seriousness about the centrality of death to the work of philosophy--a disposition he took in large part from Ldvinas, hence Heidegger. Neither Derrida nor any of the French of this time were strictly devoted to a line. Instead, they took up a philosophical, literary, political, even scientific, attitude that stood them at odds with modernity's prevailing ideology of centres, sources, subjects, ends, and progresses. Derrida's decentring thought--again not a method but an orientation--began with the ubiquity of absence. This, of course, is exactly what made the movement so inscrutable in much of North America, especially those loosely united states of mind to the south that cling still and anxiously to a philosophy of positive truth and a politics of normal progress.

If there is a single starting point for the French philosophy of absences it is neither Heidegger nor Freud, important though they were in the formation of the various divergences within, and characteristic of, the movement. It was, oddly, a thinker whose enduring ideas were something of an afterthought in a small, if distinguished, academic life. Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics comprises the posthumous notes from his course in general linguistics at Geneva from 1906-1911. Gathered by loyal students after his death, Saussure's structural linguistics were literally written from death by a man who, in life, was and remains a missing person. Little is known of his life, except that he spent a number of years in Paris, early in his career, before retiring to his native Geneva. …

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