21 June 2011

France, Modernity and Post-Modernity: a Case for Muttering

When you walk around any city in France, you will see people who seem to be talking to themselves. This could be a barely audible muttering or it could involve full-fledged statements.

I am not exaggerating.

And Bluetooth earpieces are extremely rare here.

At first that puzzled me. Why would a middle age woman searching furiously her loudly ringing cell phone declare to no one in particular "I didn't think they would call me now"? Why would a man explain why he is putting a bottle back to a supermarket rack by stating "they seem to have change the label"? Why a professional woman, upon noticing the first drops of a rain, declares loudly "I checked before I left the weather, they did not predict rain"?

It seems like they are explaining their behavior to a higher authority, one that is always looking and monitoring: it looks like they are trying to make that authority understand that what appears to be erroneous behavior on their part is perfectly normal or easily defensible.

Since a lot of the times there is no one paying any attention to what they are doing, initially, I did not get why they were so preoccupied with being misunderstood.

Then, one day I was walking in the 7eme arrondissement and I had an-apple-fell-on-my-head-oh-my-goodness-so-gravity-exists moment.

I noticed a stern looking building with windows well protected by iron bars.

I thought that it could be minimum security prison or a factory from the early years of Industrial Revolution. Or maybe a government building like a post office. I moved closer to see what the building was and I discovered that it was a primary school.

I immediately remembered how Foucault described the functional nature of these early buildings used interchangeably as prisons, hospitals and government buildings and of course, as schools. They were designed for the surveillance of prisoners, patients, workers and pupils. His term for the accompanying process was normalization.

Modernity, in the philosophical sense of that highly misunderstood term, belongs to France. Just like Rinascimento belongs to Italy. It was the French "philosophes" organized around Diderot's "Encyclopedie" who heralded the beginning of a new epistemology. When Nietzsche declared in Gay Science "God is dead. We killed him" he meant (as Heidegger correctly understood) that metaphysics as we know it was dead. Instead of making a divinity and the privileged relationship of the few with that divinity the basis of knowledge (episteme), these philosophers posited a uniform methodology and the rational capacity of human beings as the foundation of know-ability (or science as we call it).

This is why scientific method and Reason with a capital R became the shorthand signifiers of Modernity. What is important to remember is that when that new methodology was coined it was enthusiastically applied to every facet of life. They looked at society and came up with sociology (which is why Auguste Comte's brand of positivism is almost always used as a synonym for Modernity). They looked at individuals and came up with psychology. They looked at the colonial subjects and came up with anthropology (which is why that discipline was associated with colonial endeavors for a long time).

And of course, as it was the era of Capitalism and Industrial Revolution, they looked at the physical world and created as many disciplines as needed to make that world intelligible and eventually and inevitably exploitable. (To the extent Marx and Darwin understood that gesture, they are part of Modernity and its concept of Science, but their schools include important epistemic differences that post-modernity people simply ignore, but that is a thought for another time)

The rational and universal gaze of Modernity turned everything and everyone into an Object to be studied, dissected, classified, categorized in an effort to make them knowable. That is what Foucault meant by the process of normalization. Knowing meant transforming the Object into something that can be understood with that universal methodology. If the object was not intelligible it was either "unknowable" as it fell outside of the realm of Reason (pathological, irrational, unfit, etc) or it has not yet been brought into the realm of Reason, that is, normalized.

Bentham's Panopticon, which exemplified that universal need for observation and turning everything into an object,
was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham's Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault's famous analysis of it.
As the requirements of Scientific Method created a universal Subject who is seeking knowledge by observing everything and transforming them into knowable objects, social practices and structures began to mimic that meta-discourse. Scientific Method led to best solutions, best practices, best behaviors, best policies and best remedies. Anything that stayed outside those parameters, like beliefs, emotions, whims, magic or spirituality were discarded as irrational, pathological and defective. As a side note, this also marks the beginning of medicalization of social practices which still continues today.

The corrupting influence and discriminatory effects of this Cartesian insistence on single best solutions for everything and the Scientific Method and Reason used to find those has been the central focus of the post-modernity movement. That influence has nowhere been more strongly experienced than in France. The entire school system, scientific institutions, scientific disciplines, government and society were all structured around these principles.

As a result, French people deeply hold the belief that there is one best solution to every problem. Once it is found there is no need to change it. They are used to be observed in school, at the office, at a restaurant, in a cafe, in short everywhere in their daily lives.

Moreover, they learn from a very young age onward a long and detailed list of things that are not allowed and things every self-respecting French person should know. I call these "ça se fait" and ça ne se fait pas" lists. Things that are done and things that are not done.

They are lengthy and detailed. And everybody knows them. If you don't know them or apply them routinely you are discriminated against. That is what I meant by French racism being more cultural than ethnic. A black person who conforms to these norms is more accepted than a white person who ignores them.

All of this makes French people very resistant to change. As a BBC correspondent once reported, reforms are not possible in France, they need to do revolutions to break everything and start again.
"We French don't do reform, we do revolution. Nothing changes until everything changes. We are on to our fifth republic and the Americans are still on their first."
It also makes them incredibly defensive. Admitting to a slightest mistake means something enormous within the framework of Modernity: Something as laughably insignificant as being in the rain and not having your umbrella with you might imply some kind of irrationality, something defective about you. So, you have to tell the world, you had checked the weather before you left and it was not your fault, it was theirs.

This is also why you should never criticize a French person from whom you are expecting a service. The criticism that you might view as constructive or insignificant could be perceived by them as a huge accusation questioning their entire being and identity. One thing is for sure: if you do they will never perform the expected service.

In other words, the discriminatory and oppressive Modernity of which everyone was critical is well and alive and internalized in France. It affects the behavior and attitudes of the French people in countless ways on a daily basis.

For this they have my sympathy and I always smile and nod comfortingly when I am present for one of those one-sided explanations. With all due respect to Milan Kundera, living in conformity to the Cartesian Reason is an unbearable burden. You understand why post modernity originated here, with Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard and why it is an almost inevitable and doubtlessly healthy rebellion.

But precisely for that reason, I have very little sympathy for post-modernity advocates in places where there is hardly any Modernity (in the sense explained above). In a country like the US where three quarters of the population believe in guardian angels, prayer induced miracles and a six thousand year old God created world, how can you pretend that you are fighting the oppressive hold of Reason that permeates everything? How can you rebel against science when most of the population do not believe in scientific conclusions like global warming or climate change? How can you rise up against Cartesian logic in a place where it is a dirty word and an insult? In a society where it is believed that religion provides more true answers than science on everything, post-modernity is not a way to curtail the excesses and eschew the discriminatory basis of Modernity: it is simply a way to by-pass all of its gains to end up in pre-modern epistemology: That is knowledge generated by a divinity and brought to us by the privileged relationship a few men have with that divinity.

In post-modern America, a televangelical minister is disproportionately more important than a Nobel-winning scientist.

Without Modernity, its antithesis does not bring the desired dialectical elevation (that's synthesis to most, aufheben or aufhebung to philosophy majors). The antithesis simply occupies that empty space. And with Modernity discarded, the framework that was defined by its opposition to it, becomes meaningless.

An education system based on Napoleonic decree that at a given moment every pupil in France should be turning the same page is oppressive Modernity. A meta discourse based on "Jesus loves me and talks to me," not so much.

That is main reason why I secretly enjoy those one sided explanatory tirades in France, as they signify that this is, with the possible exception of Germany, the only place where post-modernity makes sense.

In France, I am with post modernity.

Everywhere else I am its most implacable enemy.

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