7 Post-structuralists and post-modernists


Before the student revolt in France stood the world on its head, the Algerian revolution stood the French enlightenment on its head. Even the occupation did not wholly compromise the Rights of Man, as the resistance saved France, and democracy's, honour. But Algeria was different. For decades the Algerian migrant workers who made up the main nationalist party l'Etoile du Nord had hoped to share in French liberty, by the extension of democracy to the Algerian departments of the French Empire. In the fifties, though, Algeria's chief export - men - was barred from French markets due to a slump. For the jobless Fellahi now concentrated in Algeria, dreams of French beneficence disintegrated and a bloody war against French rule ensued. It was France's response to the revolt that disturbed the intelligentsia. Under General Massu, the French paratroopers chose the role of SS, torturing opponents of what had palpably become a military occupation.

The issue was one that divided French intellectuals - and disgraced those who equivocated, like Camus, leading to something of a clear-out of the old guard. At the same time, the Algerian war stirred the passions of many younger thinkers, like Jean Francois Lyotard and Pierre Bordieu who were in Algeria at the time. Sartre opposed the war, writing a preface to the communist newspaper editor Henri Alleg's account of torture at the hands of the paras (1958. Years later Massu told the Spectator that comparisons with the SS were absurd (25 June 1994), but before applying the electric generator to him, Massu's paras boasted 'This is the Gestapo here!', p 47. Massu said later 'I tried the la gegene on myself: it was not so terrible.').

Sartre was drawn to the involution of French humanism that the war represented and found an authentic representative of the revolt of the Fellahi in Frantz Fanon. The West Indian psychiatrist who had served in the French Army in the Second World War was working in Algeria and began to question who was really mad - his Algerian patients or the French occupiers. Fanon embraced the cause of the FLN and became its chief propagandist. In the preface to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth Sartre drew out the consequences for liberal humanism: 'there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves' (p22). Nor did Fanon disappoint Sartre's ambition to see the Other turn his back on 'an abstract assumption of universality': 'The two zones are opposed', wrote Fanon 'but not in the service of a higher unity … they both follow the logic of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible' (p30) Fanon announced the end of the Rights of Man, but there were other ideologies that were to be deconstructed.

May '68

In the ferment of ideas associated with the students and workers revolts of May 1968 in Paris, it was the one alternative to mainstream liberalism - Soviet Communism - that was deconstructed. The iconoclastic mood was only superficially contained in the formulae of the revolutionary left. In content this was a intellectual revolt against all grand narratives. Many French intellectuals coming from different disciplines (Gilles Deleuze- philosophy- , Felix Guattari- Lacanian Psychoanalysis-, Claude Lefort -Philosophy and Politics- , among others) worked further on what they considered the failure of the May Revolution: instead of choosing the freedom of anarchy people had finally opted for re-establishing the pre-existing (repressive) order in every aspect of life. Deleuze and Guattari in particular strongly criticized the way in which psychoanalysis had turned into a bourgeois system of social control based on the knowledgeable authority of the analyst. Instead of having the unconscious ocassionaly slip over the Ego , they believed the It as a desiring machine replaced it. It is hard not to feel puzzled and shocked when reading the first lines of The Anti-Oedipus: "It breathes, It heats, It eats, It shits, It fucks"

Georges Bataille's theory of an erotic exuberance The Accursed Share, drew upon Mauss's theory of the disruptive surplus that must be spent. In the long post war boom, it was a plausible view that the politics of need were resolved and belonged to the past, and that the real conflicts belonged to the realm of desire. Jean Baudrillard drew upon the American New Deal economist JK Galbraith to characterise a Consumer Society, in which the problem of realising a market outstripped that of exploiting labour, and hence codes of advertising took precendence over the Marxist 'law of value'. Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, manifesto to his 'situationist international', parodied Marx's Capital to characterise a Society that is 'an immense accumulation of spectacles'.

The unorthodox Greek Trotskyist Cornelius Castoriadis' small band of French followers Socialism or Barbarism included JF Lyotard, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Claude Lefort. It was Socialism or Barbarism that articulated the Revolution in the Revolution that engulfed the Communist Party in the may events - even though Castoriadis and his followers dissolved their organisation the previous year.

The mood of iconoclasm interacted with all parts of the intellectual scene. Revisionism was given a boost in Lacanian and Feminist psychoanlysis as much as the Maoist deviations in Marxism. But the most potent reaction was in the emerging philosophical orthodoxy of structuralism. In Althusser's hands Levi-Strauss's structuralism assumed a peculiarly scientistic objectivity so rigid that it was bound to shatter under the slightest pressure. Already Althusser's 'structures' had multiplied to the point when all objectivity seemed relative, and the 'lonely hour of the last instance' in which economics was determinant 'never came'.

So-called 'post-structuralists', like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, were similarly interested in symbolic codes and discourses. But rather than seeing these as fixed, they were now seen as in flux. For Derrida, following Bakhtin, de Saussure's codes were an 'endless play of difference'. Foucault moved from analysing power relations to seeing power as distributed throughout society, so that we could never hold simply to a 'repressive hypothesis'. Both authors drew upon German irrationalism to disrupt what had come to be seens as the rigid schemas of structuralism; Foucault drew upon Nietzsche's 'Geneaology' as a way of historically overturning moral codes; Derrida reworked Heidegger's 'destruction of [traditional] ontology' as a deconstruction of orthodox rationality.

The formula of 'post-structuralism' was broadened by JF Lyotard to embrace increduity towards 'all grand narratives', as 'post-modernism'. Where all universals, whether nationalist or liberal, Marxist or literary are understood as simply ideological discourses', they deserve only 'incredulity'. Lyotard's 'post-modernity' had an impact far wider than the specific discussions, translating readily into other philosophic and sociological idioms, either as the post-analytical philosophy of Richard Rorty or post-modern economics of Daniel Bell and Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

Amongst sociologists inspired by Jurgen Habermas there was a reaction against the radical relativism of postmodernism. Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck developed a 'reflexive sociology' in which social relations were not fixed but mutually impacting. This it was hoped would avoid the pitfalls both of positivist sociology and also the anti-enlightenment thinking of the post modernists. However, in Beck and Giddens' hands the defence of Enlightenment was qualified by the Frankfurt School's critique of 'instrumental reason'. The open-ended nature of risk, particularly struck them both: Industry and social complexity brought with them 'manufactured uncertainty'. It seemed as if the current of irrationalism represented by postmodernism had been reproduced in all but name.

July 1997