Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives SRB

SRB Archives

This editorial appeared in Volume 7 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Revolting Failures

David Galbraith

Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May '68. Peter Starr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. xiv+268 pp. ISBN 0-8047-2445-8.

1968 is the year that refuses to die. Whether the focus of utopian imagination, nostalgic yearning, or (for both right and left), "the origin of the present crisis," the date continues to signify richly in arguments over politics, culture and theory. The annus mirabilis and its consequences are at the centre of Peter Starr's Logics of Failed Revolt. This is a study which seeks to account for the power of what became known across the Atlantic as "French theory," and to untangle its responses to the failure of the revolutionary moment of May 68 in France, when the wave of strikes and protests threatened briefly to overturn De Gaulle's government. Starr's discussion focuses on the twelve year period from 1965, "the 'year of the first cracks' in the wall of the Gaullist order" (3) with the catalyzing effects of the escalation of the Vietnam war, to the emergence of les nouveaux philosophes in 1977, which marked a definitive rupture on the part of large sections of the French intelligentsia from a broadly Marxist political outlook.

Starr is most concerned to explore in the work of a series of prominent theorists "the strategically central role played by a series of commonplace 'explanations' for the failure of revolutionary action" (2), which he identifies as an underlying theme in French theory from 1968 until the end of the 1970s. He points to three of what he calls "logics of failed revolt":

'According to the first, or what I call the "logic of specular doubling," revolutionary action is doomed to repetition because revolutionaries invariably construct themselves as mirror images of their rivals. Derived from Lacan's work on narcissistic aggressivity in the mirror stage, and with significant roots in nineteenth-century anarchist polemics, this logic is commonly conflated with a second logic, a "logic of structural repetition," that I trace to a structuralist misprison of the critiques of Stalinist bureaucracy articulated by such forerunners of the French New Left (le gauchisme) as Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. . . . Complementing these logics of structural repetition and specular doubling, one often finds various "logics of recuperation," whereby specified forms of revolutionary action are said to reinforce, and thus to be co-opted by, established structures of power. (2-3)
He has, he says, a threefold aim: to examine "the genealogy of the logics of failed revolt as a constellation of theoretical commonplaces with direct political implications," to use these logics "to disclose and to highlight . . . fundamental differences in their respective political, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, feminist or 'semanalytic' contexts" and to interrogate, through a Lacanian grid "the cultural determinants of a theoretical moment largely shaped by the events of May 1968" (3). Starr's argument is articulated through readings of Lacan, Althusser, Jambet and Lardreau, Barthes and Kristeva, and Cixous. The book concludes with an account of the "internal contagion" (188) laid bare by the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and a brief discussion of the status accorded "terror" in discussions of theory and its asymmetrical relationship to practice.

As he acknowledges, Starr's exploration of the condensation of politics and theory in the class of 68 has important precedents. One, first published on the tenth anniversary of les événements, is Régis Debray's Modeste Contribution aux cérémonies officielles du dixième anniversaire; another is Edgar Morin's 1986 essay, "Mai 68: complexité et ambigüité." In spite of its jaundiced tone, Debray's analysis of May as "the cradle of a new bourgeois society" whose modernizing dynamic overcame the cleavage between a deeply traditional "France of sentiments and behaviour" and a modern capitalist economy provides a useful counterpoint to Starr's discussion of "logics of recuperation."Note One Debray's pointed evocation of "all the Columbuses of modernity [who] thought that behind Godard they were discovering China in Paris, when in fact they were landing in California" also prefigures elements of Starr's account of the theoretical and political misrecognitions of May.(2) Morin's distinction between "two primary lines of descent in May's intellectual genealogy, a 'Marxist-Leninist-religious line' . . . and a 'libertarian-communitarian' line" (6) provides Starr with a "useful heuristic tool" (6). What had seemed like a fusion of these two impulses in the build-up to May, emblematized perhaps most strikingly in the distance from its protagonists in Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise (1967), soon devolved intoits constituents. Two years later, the abortive collaboration of Godard and Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the making of Vent d'est (1969) fell apart when, as Godard noted at the time, "all the anarchists went to the beach."

Starr emphasizes the centrality of Lacan to the emergence in theoretical culture of the "logics of failed revolt." In an account that stresses the "profound ambivalence or duplicity of Lacanian theory's take on revolutionary politics" (40) (and anticipates his later reading of Jambet and Lardreau's L'Ange: Pour une cynégétique du semblant (1976), he explores the attractions of Lacan for the Maoist-influenced militants of May, stressing both "the ease with which the field mapped out by Lacanian theory could be recharted in explicitly political, even revolutionary terms" (38), and the necessarily selective readings of Lacan's work which both this project and his simultaneous appropriation by the Tel Quel group entailed. His discussion of Lacan's work ranges widely, from his reading of Antigone in the 1959-60 seminar to the 1980 letter dissolving the &E acute;cole freudienne de Paris, stressing in all cases the profoundly ambivalent intersection of radical politics with Lacan's readings and practice of mastery and servitude.

This lengthy and densely argued reading of Lacan is followed by a much briefer account of Althusser, which teases out the multivalent significance of the concept of "rigor" in his work, and a discussion of Jambet and Lardreau which explores the intersection of Lacan's reading of la belle âme with Maoist conceptions of cultural revolution.

Subsequently, in a section entitled "Conjuring the Impasse," Starr turns to "cult of 'writing' in French theoretical work of the early to mid-1970s" (109). He locates, in the status accorded écriture in the work of Barthes and Kristeva a "significant double development." One on the hand, he suggests, "the ideologies of writing typically reinforced the assumption that effective oppositional practice presupposes a 'fatal complicity' . . . with the systems and structures to be dismantled"; on the other, "writing served as a vehicle for a compensatory utopianism" (114). Through this "constitutive tension," he reads the "invitations au voyage" that took Barthes from his early dialogue with Sartre to his late evocation "of a fictional 'imposture' that best allows language to be understood 'outside the bounds of power, in the splendor of a permanent revolution of language'[emphasis added] (139), and carried Kristeva from Maoist China to the United States. Subsequent chapters focus on Kristeva's Revolution de langage poëtique (1974) and on the status of hysteria in a series of Cixous' works.

This is an important book. We have too few accounts of recent theory which take seriously the historical intersections of theory and politics. Starr's readings are carefully argued, and display a very fine grasp of the intellectual itineraries of his subjects. Nonetheless, I retain some reservations about Starr's analysis. The book is somewhat uneven in the density of its historical and political analysis. While the reading of Lacan moves very successfully from theory to political positioning (a movement facilitated, to be sure, by their compacted agglomeration in the École freudienne, and by the richly documented account of their peregrinations in Elisabeth Roudinesco's La Bataille de cent ans ), other chapters would have benefitted from more substantial documentation and contextualization. Starr's account of Althusser is particularly abbreviated. Although he gestures towards the political context of Althusser's work (as Althusser himself so often positioned his work), he might have discussed more carefully the philosopher's tortured relations with the PCF. His allusion to Althusser's "progressive rapprochement" with the party (85) seems to me a serious misreading of Althusser's itinerary, which emerges in the absence of a more sustained account of these relations. He might also have looked more at the milieu of the &E acute;cole Normale and its intersection with political culture. Certainly, a discussion of the thinly veiled Oedipal responses of many of Althusser's students in the aftermath of 68 (and the migration of many to another master in the &E acute;cole freudienne) might have provided a useful counterpoint to his account of Lacan.

While Starr has recourse to sociological explanation in, for example, his attribution of the "constitutive tension" which he finds in the uses of écriture, to "the increasing integration of the intellectual within the pedagogical and ideological structures of Fifth Republic France" (114), these problems might have been posed with greater rigor and handled at greater length. Onesignificant gap is the absence of attention to the "marketing" of theory and theorists in the French media and book trade. Although Starr criticizes as too "[h]ighly plotted" (128) Debray's analysis of the "voyages" of the French intelligentsia, the latter's discussion of the intersections of intellectual celebrity with the material infrastructures of publication and dissemination in Le Pouvoir intellectual en France (1979) remains an useful point of reference for the sociology of theoretical activity.

It may be that a slightly expanded focus might also have undermined some of the coherence of Starr's narrative. Certainly, the absence of Deleuze from his discussion is striking, particularly in light of his centrality in the articulation of what Morin called the "libertarian-communitarian line." Moreover (and not surprisingly), Starr's account is somewhat skewed towards those theorists whose work has been taken up most actively on the other side of the Atlantic. If he had examined the trajectories of other sometime fellow-travellers of Tel Quel such as Gérard Genette he might have been forced to confront logics other than those of "failed revolt," including a much less vexed attitude towards the literary. Similarly, a discussion of theorists whose itineraries showed less spectacular political volatility than Sollers or Kristeva might have suggested that later scepticism towards politics was less universal than he implies. Although there are a number of possibilities here, the example of Derrida is most telling. In spite of the tendency of some of his North American followers to avoid his long-standing political engagement (and its undeniable theoretical consequences), Derrida continued in the aftermath of la nouvelle philosophie both to engage in significant political activity, and to broach more explicitly in his work questions of politics and institutions, and of his own affiliation with the Marxist tradition which had been so massively abjected by others.(3) It may be that Derrida's initial (and signal) distance from Morin's "Marxist-Leninist-religious line" in the build-up to 68 and its immediate aftermath facilitated a more responsible and sustained engagement with the political.

The question of continuity is not entirely abstract. While a repetition of the utopian moment seems unlikely (such would be a revolution in the sense which Starr evokes at the beginning of the book) the May events perhaps ought not to be consigned absolutely to an irretrievable past. They may yet stage an ambiguous return, with unpredictable consequences for both theory and politics. Certainly, many commentators evoked les événements in their responses to the breaches in the neo-conservative social consensus opened up by the strike wave of 1995. To be sure, the differences are profound: the new movement more defensive (indeed often desperate) and without the explicitly utopian longings of 1968. Starr's own attempt to think about the political consequences of definitions of community in America in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots points to his own awareness of the possibility of their continuing resonance. Indeed, the long line of ruptures and upheavals in French political life and intellectual life, which May 68 underlined so powerfully, may not be entirely over.

Notes

1) Regis Debray, "A Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary," trans. John Howe, New Left Review 115 (1979), p46. Back to where you left off.

< a name="two">2) Debray, p58. Back to where you left off.

< a name="three">3) See, for example, Spectres of Marx (1994).Back to where you left off.

References

Debray, Régis. (1979). "A Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary," trans. John Howe. New Left Review 115.

Debray, Régis. (1979). Le Pouvoir intellectuel en France. Paris: Ramsay.

Derrida, Jacques. (1994 ). Spectres of Marx. London: Routledge.

David Galbraith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, University of Toronto.


Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives