Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Nostalgia for the Subject: French Intellectual Thought of the 1980s

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Nostalgia for the Subject: French Intellectual Thought of the 1980s

Article excerpt

What has come to be characterized as the nostalgia for the subject in French intellectual life in the 1980s centers around a revisionist hermeneutic debate concerning the interpretation of the events surrounding May 1968 in France. A variety of contemporary intellectuals such as the socially engaged figures Alain Touraine and Cornelius Castoriadis as well as the reactionary neo-liberal humanists such as Gilles Lipovetsky, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut have debated the question of whether or not there is historical or cultural continuity between the dramatic "performances" of May 1968 and the intellectual and cultural climate of the 1980s. At the core of this controversy is a not-so-new mode of thinking that has challenged the post-structuralist assumption that the subject was dead or at the very least was part of a signifying system in which its only role was to "function" in a series of power relations. Consequently, the investigatory critique by neo-humanist thinkers of the phenomenon Derrida has termed "les fins de l'homme" signals a nostalgia for the thinking subject and a call for the return to human subjectivity.

In this context, what is most distressing is the attempt led by Ferry, Renaud, and others to demonize what they characterize in a most reductionist manner as "la pensee 68".(1) The naive positivism of these two critics conflates epistemological issues such as the death of the subject with a variety of left-wing political strategies associated with the events of 1968, that is to say, its empirical reality. The result is the invention of an indeterminate category that blindly brushes aside the quintessential role of Sartre's radicalism, and refers in a rather broad, free-floating way to a variety of social phenomena that magically become interrelated. The world is indiscriminately divided between good and evil. Derrida, Foucault, Bourdieu, and Althusser, those so-called nefarious dehumanizers of man, reason, and history, are uncritically lumped together, put on trial and opposed to the more felicitous proponents of such neo-liberal trademark items such as democracy, human rights, and universal values. If Nietzsche and Heidegger are characterized as the irrational master thinkers of the 1970s and are therefore associated with "antihumanist French individualism" (a most infelicitous chiasmus in itself), then it could be said that Kant, Tocqueville, and to a certain extent Hannah Arendt constitute the frame of reference for the return to the idea of "subjectivity" permeating certain sectors of 1980s French thought. Referring to the events of May 1968 as a turning point in French cultural and intellectual history, Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut describe that period as being both democratic and hedonistic in nature.(2) In their analyses they delineate three distinct points of view from which one might begin to understand and interpret the significance of May 1968, perspectives that reject the amorphous entity they call the "system" in the name of the prerogatives of the latent individual. In "Le Desordre nouveau," for instance, the political philosopher Claude Lefort is seen as viewing May 1968 as an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic movement liberated from the fantasmatic belief in the possibility of creating a good socieq.(3) Cornelius Castoriadis, on the other hand, in "La Revolution anticipee," is characterized as regarding the May movement as being quintessentially democratic in nature because of the imperative to practice direct democracy in the form of revolutionary groups such as the student action committees that transcended the bureaucratic paralysis of traditional party politics.(4) Finally, for Gilles Lipovetsky, the democratic values associated with 1968 emerge neither from its anti-bureaucratic, anti-capitalist and self-management imperatives nor from its critique of authority and bourgeois values.(5) Instead its democratic impulse is realized in the retreat from the public to the private sphere. …

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