Monday, February 21, 2011

The Waterloo of "l'Intellectuel français"

It must have been more than 30 years ago now that Michel Foucault wrote an article entitled "La mort de l'intellectuel." Apparently Le Monde didn't get the message, because it invited four "intellectuals" to comment on the "Arab revolts." The choice of participants in this forum tells you something about what the word "intellectuel" means today. We hear from Alain Touraine, Alain Badiou, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and André Glucksmann. None is a specialist on the region in turmoil, on the history of revolutions, on Islam, on Arab culture, on the political economy of the rebellious states, on social movements in the Arab world, on previous rebellions against military dictatorships, on relations between the military and civil society, or any of a hundred other topics that might confer authority to speak about one or another aspect of the unfolding wave of rebellion.

To be sure, Le Monde did publish the other day a piece by Olivier Roy, a specialist in political Islam, to which I linked previously. But in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an "intellectual." An intellectual is one who has risen above his or her specialty, if any, to acquire a quasi-priestly authority to pronounce on n'importe quoi -- and as often as not, to say n'importe quoi about it. But I wonder if this sort of rootless speculation has any purchase on the French audience today. Perhaps a piece like this in Le Monde is simply a throwback to the day when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day. Badiou I gather can still muster a coterie of youthful admirers. And Le Monde evidently wanted to cover certain bases: the old new Left, the psychoanalytic camp (and a representative of women), the old Nouveaux Philosophes (and at least they didn't turn to BHL), and the "radical" guru of the hour. But what do we learn from their musings? Too little to justify the time spent reading them, I'm afraid.


Louis said...

But in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an "intellectual."

I think you nailed it. That is the difference in the French context between the "intellectuel", heir to indignation and bearer of the torch, and the berated and reviled "expert", difficult to follow because such is reality when you look at it, and always suspicious of a lack of "vision".

Michael said...

Could you be a little more specific about the Foucault essay? Some brief googling turned up nothing (but that's probably just me).

Also you, and your readers, may be interested in this:

Thanks for the always interesting blog!

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I may have the title wrong. The article I have in mind appeared in L'Arc in the 70s. I may also have the argument wrong. It was a long time ago. But as I recall, the gist of it was that the "general intellectual" was being replaced by a "specific intellectual," that is, a specialist in some defined subject.

bouillaud said...

You are right on these old fashioned "intellectuals", I doubt that anyone under 40 really cares about what these persons have to say, but did you ever consider the hypotheses that le Monde wants to offer some fun to the readers? "la vieillesse est un naufrage"...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Foucault, l'intellectuel spécifique

Etre intellectuel, c’était être un peu la conscience de tous. (...) Il y a bien des années qu’on ne demande plus à l’intellectuel de jouer ce rôle. (...) Les intellectuels ont pris l’habitude de travailler non pas dans l’universel, l’exemplaire, le juste-et-le-vrai-pour-tous, mais dans des secteurs déterminés, en des points précis où les situaient soit leurs conditions de travail, soit leurs conditions de vie (le logement, l’hôpital, l’asile, le laboratoire, l’université, les rapports familiaux ou sexuels). Ils y ont gagné à coup sûr une conscience beaucoup plus concrète et immédiate des luttes. Et ils ont rencontré là des problèmes qui étaient spécifiques, non universels, différents souvent de ceux du prolétariat ou des masses. Et cependant, ils s’en sont rapprochés, je crois pour deux raisons : parce qu’il s’agissait de luttes réelles, matérielles, quotidiennes, et parce qu’ils rencontraient souvent, mais dans une autre forme, le même adversaire que le prolétariat, la paysannerie ou les masses (les multinationales, l’appareil judiciaire et policier, la spéculation immobilière) ; c’est ce que j’appellerais l’intellectuel spécifique par opposition à l’intellectuel universel.
(Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits II, 1976-1988, Gallimard, Paris, 2001.)


Cinchona said...

"Intellectual" is an adjective, not a noun. "intellectuals" as a special class of peope is absurd. But we get it. The elites at Le Monde , and the Left in France, have this ridiculous idea that they are smarter, know more, and have the wisdom to understand these complex issues, even though they don't have the knowledge.
They totally misread what was happening in Egypt, and what the likely consequences of destabilizing one of the keytones of stability in the region would bring. They never questioned who was behind the movement, where the funding came from, and what was the long and short term goal.
A wiser position to take might have been, to present a panel of people with expertise on the Middle East, with different perspectives and fields of knowledge, and different political points of view.
Looking to a bunch of elitist Leftists looking through the same lens, adds little.

Mark said...

Expertise, specificity and depth are all good things. However, there is also a reaction against this ever increasing tendency in academia which produces specialists whose broader culture is often woeful. In fact, so imbued do we become with the belief in the sole scientific validity of the particular that the universal is lost: It's possible for example (not in Roy's case I am sure) to have tremendous knowledge of Arab political history since WWII without general knowledge about Arabic philosophy in the middle ages and or European political philosophy for example. As micro-fields of knowledge are expanding themselves into immense universes, there's a feeling that it's not intellectually acceptable to have strive for a synoptic view. Specialists guard their territory jealousy from the incursions of interlopers they like to call amateurs. However, there is another point of view of those who feel that specialization does not result in useful knowledge. The terrain of the intellectual is precisely to rise above the specific since there is a sense that something important is lost from too great a level of particularity or specialization. I am surprised in some way to hear this from you Art since Tocqueville was anything but an academic specialist; wasn't he more of an amateur intellectual in the sense that you seem to oppose? Wasn't it his genius to have discovered something critical about the nature of the French Revolution that was invisible to those who had lived through it as well as to the specialist historians of his and subsequent times? Yes, his research entered intimately into details, but wasn't his vision focussed on much larger questions? Also isn't there a case to be made that Foucault himself was an interdisciplinary amateur, an intellectual, interested in the particular, but looking for answers to questions that a specialist would never pose?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Cincinna, The OED has "intellectual" as a noun going back to 1652:
1652 E. Benlowes Theophila ii. v. 24 First Race of Intellectuals.
1723 H. Rowlands Mona Antiqua Restaurata xii. 255 It may be very often the Interest of Superiors, to depress and darken the Intellectuals‥in order to dispose and model their Minds.
1813 Byron Jrnl. 23-4 Nov. in Lett. & Jrnls. (1974) III. 215 Canning is to be there, Frere and Sharpe,—perhaps Gifford.‥I wish I may be well enough to listen to these intellectuals.
1847 J. J. Ruskin Let. 2 Sept. in M. Lutyens Ruskins & Grays (1972) vi. 50, I want you to stand well with Lockhart and the Intellectuals.
1898 Daily News 30 Nov. 5/1 Proceeding to refer to the so-called intellectuals of Constantinople, who were engaged in discussion while the Turks were taking possession of the city.
1925 Amer. Mercury Oct. 130/2 That Young Intellectual who, if he ever finishes the assassinatory book of which we have heard these last three years, will tear the world up by the roots.
1931 A. Huxley Music at Night 226 Most professional intellectuals will approve of culture-snobbery (even while intensely disliking most individual culture-snobs).
1969 ‘M. Innes’ Family Affair i. 10 Bobby was an intellectual. His tutors knew that he would put up a good show in Schools, and only wondered how good it would be.
1977 R. Rendell Judgement in Stone (1979) iii. 17 He rather fostered the air he had of the absentminded, scatty, preoccupied young intellectual.
2001 Times 2 Jan. 8/7 The 58-year-old career civil servant‥sees himself as an intellectual rather than a manager.

In French, the word came into wide currency as a noun at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Mark, I take your point and have often argued myself against narrow specialism. But Tocqueville is a case in point: he didn't simply pronounce about America, as so many of his contemporary "intellectuals" did; he studied it. He knew whereof he spoke. As Eliot said of poets, "there is no substitute for genius."

Cincinna said...

Art, thanks for the grammar lesson. I have my own OED so I am well aware of the academic definition.
I am talking about the 21st century, and the pretension of people calling themselves "intellectuals" , In France even listing it as an actual profession.
My point about elitism, and elites who think they know better than you I remains.
I agree to a certain extent about "experts". There are many people outside Academia who have devoted their lives to in depth study and are good sources for information and opinion.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I consider myself an "intellectual" without regarding myself as better than anyone else. I think you misunderstand my comments on intellectuals: it's the pretense that an "intellectual" can talk about anything that I object to. There are people, as Mark points out, who take a more general approach to the world than others, but there must still be some content to their knowledge claims beyond a generalized claim to be able to pronounce on any subject. It's the latter that I object to, not to the title of "intellectual" as such.