The Institut d’Etudes Politiques, better known as Sciences Po, is the most central of the Grandes Ecoles where the French governmental and administrative elite are educated, or, as the French say, “formed.” The mathematically inclined prefer Polytechnique, artists, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, academics, L’Ecole Normale Supérieure, but Sciences Po is the gateway to most high-level careers in politics, journalism, management, and public service. Thanks to the persistence and persuasiveness of Maxime Cenzi, a student at Sciences Po and a passionné of GA, I was invited to Paris in late March to participate in the so-called “grands O[raux] de Sciences Po” at which several speakers debate a selected topic, in this case, la mondialisation (see Chronicle 227).
I won’t go into much detail concerning the “debate” except to note that the French, often thought of as exemplars of exquisite politeness, are more accurately characterized by a somewhat different cultural trait that locally goes by the name of goujaterie. My ideas seemed to go over well enough with the audience, but there wasn’t much time to develop them since the first speaker (whom I gallantly refrain from naming) took far more than her allotted time to say extremely little, and the others, both politicians, were more concerned with scoring points against each other than engaging in anthro-philosophical reflection. With all today’s fascination for things American, an étranger is still welcomed with difficulty into le débat franco-français [the Franco-French debate]. It was nonetheless a stimulating experience, one surely few of my countrymen have had, to address the future elite of France from the podium of the main amphitheater of this supremely Gallic institution.
More fulfilling was the talk on GA I gave at Sciences Po two days later, to a small but committed audience. This may well be the first time I have ever given a full-length exposition of the ideas of Generative Anthropology in French; my GA seminars at UCLA have always been held in English. The experience recalled to me that French is my language of predilection, and gave me all the more the feeling of being a French thinker exiled in my native country.
When I go to Paris I walk for kilometers on end. Paris is a pretty small city, only 105 k2 (Los Angeles is 1200) and with the exception of those dull left-bank arrondissementslike the 15th, you can find something of interest in almost any street. (My shopping recommendation for this trip is the Dépôt-Vente du 17e, 109 rue de Courcelles, Métro Place Péreire.) Even when I take the Metro one way, I usually walk the other.
I feel at home in Paris–far more so for many years than in my native New York. But this is not a “natural” phenomenon; I could well say that I have arranged my life precisely so that I can feel at home in Paris. My stepdaughter lives there with her family; so does her grandmother (my ex-mother-in-law)–my French family as it were. For someone who didn’t visit France until after obtaining his PhD, its capital’s hometown status is made, not born.
Becoming a student of French was both the most intelligent and the dumbest thing I have done in my life. I doubt if I shall ever have the luxury of knowing which, although the current evolution of the profession seems to be trying to drop me a hint. Obtaining this second cultural identity was not merely a triumph over the obvious difficulties but a real inner liberation. It represents neither a denial of my American origins nor a simple pose. Many, no doubt most, of my dearest and most intimate relationships over a lifetime have been conducted in French.
This still doesn’t tell me whether I did the right thing in taking up this “field.” To say that it has grown less receptive to my way of thinking is true but largely irrelevant, more alibi than demonstration. Although I once committed a faux pas by indicating to my (female) Dean that I preferred the “old boy” system of the past to what we have now, I was never, God forbid, an “old boy” myself; as in that Aesop fable where an animal stuck in the mud doesn’t let a friend brush away the flies because they would only be replaced by more bloodthirsty ones, I simply found the old-boy bloodsuckers less ravenous than those of our era. (Though the figure is ill-chosen, since it’s not the old boys or girls who do the sucking.)
Clearly the needs of the academic market with respect to such things as language professors are more symbolic than real. Their most important function is arguably to provide a model of the well-oiled circulation of academic ideas. Outsiders such as I find it easy to mock these ideas, whose value is not measured by their correspondence to reality but by the degree to which they are adapted to this circulation. It is not therefore without interest that the Darwin-Gresham mechanism that dominates academic life selects inexorably for the victimary. The ideas that circulate best are those that defend victims against oppressors, ideas that may be repeated ad nauseam without our having the right even to find them boring, let alone false or irrelevant. Such considerations, no doubt, are only vaguely relevant in the hard sciences, and as a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science one would think I should have gone into one of those. But I never really enjoyed science and I don’t think I am particularly gifted for it, or even for mathematics, at least on the level required to make an original contribution. It’s the human that fascinates me, but, alas, the human is where the idea market, at its current (and future?) level of maturity, seems able to operate only in unselfconscious victimary language.
The French are a bit less victimary than Americans; they still retain a “republican” rather than “democratic” sense of their polity, even if on social issues like gun control, abortion, the death penalty, or universal health insurance (not such a bad thing), they stand far to the left of the American center. We may let people have guns, but we also let them wear religious dress to class; we may execute minority murderers, but we also admit minority students to schools on a priority basis. For the moment, at least, the French don’t believe in hyphenated (and privilege-graded) identities; one wonders if this is national character or merely the equivalent of the French lag in such areas as computing and venture capitalism. At Sciences Po, the key French elite educational institution, a new policy will admit some students this year from schools in “disfavored” areas, bypassing the normal entrance examination…
Well, I’m too old to worry about such things. Finding an audience for GA among the brightest young people of France is reward enough. As I told them, whether the lecture hall be full or empty, there is no substitute for the originary hypothesis. If people prefer the authority of Kant or Aristotle on moral matters to the construction of a generative model of morality, there’s nothing to do but await the slice of Ockham’s razor. Meanwhile, victimary thinking seem to be evolving toward ever firmer denial that the human species is morally superior to others. This evolution corroborates my position that the success of victimary discourse is not dependent on the existence of victims, but it makes ever more remote the likelihood of that Ockham shave. Perhaps the survival of our species requires this self-righteous false modesty–motivated, needless to say, less by love for other-specied creatures than by the need to one-up the fellow-specied Philistine down the street. Perhaps this hecatomb of human self-awareness will even “save the planet”…
As that arch-Frenchman Pascal said:
L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. . . . Mais quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue . . . Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. . . . Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale. [Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he’s a thinking reed. . . . But if the universe should crush him, man is still nobler than what kills him . . . All our dignity consists therefore in thought. . . . Let us therefore work at thinking well; voilà the principle of moral reflection.]
And voilà a cultural ideal this old hérisson [hedgehog] can relate to. So let’s hear it for croissants and café au lait and Paris in the springtime.