what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

French Letters

The last post suggested it was not easy to find well-written books which gave a true sense of the intellectual styles and trajectories of individual European countries – at least not in the English-language. Perry Anderson is one these rare characters – to whose extensive analyses of contemporary France, Germany and Italy I duly supplied appropriate links – taken from his stunning study The New Old World (2009) which occupies a prominent place in my library. I have just discovered that the book can be read in its entirety HERE (all 560 pages).
I would rate the book easily the best I have ever read on what it is to be European – about a third being a survey of the literature on the “European Project”; another third being insightful and acerbic analyses of the political and intellectual currents of the “Core” European countries (with the noticeable and dismissive exclusion of the UK); and the final section (“The Eastern Question”) devoted largely to Turkey.
I reread Anderson’s chapter on France after the last post – and have to say that it gave me a better feel for the contemporary French scene (excluding the last decade) than the book my post was focusing on viz “How the French Think”

And there are other well-written books on France which explore the intellectual as much as the political – with the outstanding La Vie en Bleu – France and the French since 1990; Rod Kedward (2005) due surely for an update?
I bought it quite recently and was immediately gripped by its opening style. But, full confessions, I soon put the book aside – basically because it’s too daunting a read at 700 pages…One review (just double-click the hyperlink in the title) puts it nicely - 
In recent decades, historians have increasingly attempted to uncover the unique combination of attributes that precisely defines France.  They variously study the national “passions”, realms of memory, or socio-political characteristics in order to define that most elusive of elixirs: Frenchness. Some authors champion a specific set of characteristics, arguing that the key can be found in immigration, diverse social traditions, or cultural identity.
All share a common quest to determine what makes France tick, and how its unique path formed the national consciousness and institutions.  This is not merely an antiquarian exercise.  In an age of urban rioting by the children of excluded immigrants, ongoing debates about the legacy of Vichy and Algeria, and strident anti-Americanism, these studies have a striking contemporary relevance. The latest such effort is Rod Kedward’s “France and the French: La Vie en Bleu since 1900”, and it ranks among the most ambitious of its kind.
Already acclaimed for his now-standard studies of collaboration and resistance during the Vichy years, Kedward here offers an examination of “French political cultures and their chequered narratives, in which the meanings of the past reverberate through every action of the present” (p. xiii).  Simply put, he wishes to eliminate the traditional boundaries between modes of historical inquiry, arguing that political history cannot be adequately addressed without the inclusion of society, culture, memory, and even behavioural studies. 
Only a proper examination of these “multiple narratives” offers a genuine aperçu into French history and its contemporary resonances…… Kedward argues that the history of France since 1900 has been dominated by three central themes – the Republic; Ideology; and Identity.  From the turn of the century onwards, the population and government were obsessed with the idea of the Republic, a neo-Jacobin conceptual framework perceived to be universal in its application. 
Kedward contends that this uniformity dissipated after 1930, inaugurating an era of ideological conflict, in which the nation evolved from elitist party politics towards multiple strands that encompassed “the margins, the outsiders, the subjugated and the minorities” (p. 3).  The period culminated in the événements of 1968,pitting Gaullism against a variety of left-wing alternatives.  Yet the experience of that year both confirmed the existence of ideological pluralism and simultaneously denied it, yielding to a third duration in 1970, the age of identity, when notions of gender, race, sexual orientation, region, and even ecological commitment all trumped allegiances to political parties and doctrines.
 Although various tropes re-emerge in each section--the fight between economic modernization and tradition, the proponents and detractors of dirigisme, struggles for gender equality--Kedward deftly demonstrates the evolution of the various arguments, shifting through the paradigms of unity, diversity, and difference that characterize each historical period.

Inspired by Hazareesingh and Anderson, I now want to go back to Kedward and try to do its 700 pages full justice. I know it deserves it – but it’s so much easier to read smaller books!!!
On that subject, let me remind my readers about my ten tricks of fast reading and comprehension. They are very simply expressed -

- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- Mark extensively (with a pencil) – with question-marks, ticks, underlines, comments and expletives
- Read the reviews (surf)
- Identify questions from these to ensure you’re reading critically
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments
- Identify the main schools of thought about the subject
- Check the bibliography/index at the end – to see what obvious names are missing

And what did I discover when I applied the last test to “How the French Think”?? That it doesn’t have a bibliography or “further reading” list and that Kedward is not even in the index!! Bad blood somewhere???

Other books on French thinking

After the Deluge – new perspectives on the intellectual and cultural history of post-war France ed J Bourg (2004)

The Anthropological turn in French Thought – the 1970s to the present – an academic thesis  Lignes – thesis on a cultural mag; Perry Anderson’s studies are always good for an analysis of journals – here’s an entire thesis devoted to one French mag!!

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