The Shock of Recognition, and an Update for Jean-Philippe Mathy

Mathy artwork

Tonight I had a rare readerly experience: a shock of self-recognition.
It happened while I was reading Jean-Philippe Mathy’s provocative book, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars. As a scholar of the French Revolution, I have long suspected that my politics and history were involved in this choice (see related MLA Commons site).

But what Mathy explains so startlingly, and what I did not suspect until now, is the generational tide of this return to the Republic. My eccentric (to me) embrace of republican ideals in 2014, here in South Bend, Indiana, is actually not so unusual or odd. Rather, it is a generational phenomenon shared by a cohort of intellectuals who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Mathy calls it a “return to la République” and argues that this move is akin to regression: it is “a retreat to a fall-back position on the part of a generation of progressive intellectuals non-plussed by the demise of the emancipatory narratives that they had championed in more idealistic times and fearful of the consequences of an amoral, relativistic capitalist culture” (French Resistance, p. 25).

Mathy concludes that this nostalgia for a happier moment has ground into an impasse. French intellectuals think that they are under siege on two fronts: “On the one hand, we have countless descriptions of the way the liberal solvent has eaten away at the moral fiber of republican humanism; on the other, discussions of extreme cultural pluralism as striking a decisive blow at the integrity of the nation, understood in the tradition of Michelet and Renan as a voluntary association of free and equal individuals” (French Resistance, p. 107).

Paradoxically, those morose thoughts have left me energized tonight. Energized because much has changed since 2000.

If Mathy’s narrative of Franco-American relations is correct, then my experience must be part of a new phase. Because what motors my embrace of la République is not a reaction against cultural pluralism, but rather an attempt to reignite the “emancipatory narratives” of more idealistic times and indeed to make the 2010s a time of renewed civic engagement. And I am not alone. The people whose work I feel most connected to are French, not American.* In their words and their deeds, people such as Martial Poirson, Jean-Clément Martin, and Guillaume Mazeau exemplify an openness to Franco-American influence and exchange. As far as I can tell, they neither view Americans as a corrupting enemy nor is dialogue a mere slogan. In Skype-organized bilingual sessions on subjects of mutual concern, an extraordinary new book that traces revolutionary iconography over time and around the world**, the creation of conferences, exhibits, and other concrete actions, these scholars are re-kindling respect for la République among French and non-French sympathizers alike.

Moreover, this healthy international dialogue has propelled some new kinds of civic activism among us academics. Initiatives such as theater performances, writing workshops for kids, and other sorts of Public Humanities outreach are routinely part of our workaday worlds.

So cheer up, Jean-Philippe Mathy. The Revolution is going fine. And Franco-American relations are going fine along with it.

References: Jean-Philippe Mathy, French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

*Two major American inspirations remain the fascinating work on newspapers by Jeremy Popkin and all of Robert Darnton’s work, always.

**La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui: Mythologies contemporaines, ed. Martial Poirson (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

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