- Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May ‘68
Failed revolt? For many people, current French theory is more a revolt of failed logic. Anyone yearning for a definitive refutation of these threatening foreign trends will get no satisfaction from Peter Starr’s volume. His concept of the “logics of failed revolts” involves the obsession of revolutionaries with what they see as the inevitable return of the past. Starr proposes to examine the explanations given for the failure of revolutionary action “in representative texts by Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, and others” (p. 2). The “revolution” in question is the May 1968 uprising.
George Orwell, as a defender of proper usage and an explorer of politics and the English language, always insisted that the title of his Nineteen Eighty-Four be written out in full; the informality of the abbreviation “May ‘68” is emblematic of the spirit of the events of that year: May ‘68 was supposed to be a liberation from useless tradition and constraint. That the movement was seen as a failure is the first premise of Starr’s argument; what he proposes to analyze is the theorization of the failure. Starr sees three “scenarios”: “the logic of specular doubling” is where “revolutionary action is doomed to repetition because revolutionaries inevitably construct themselves as mirror images of their rivals” (p. 2). There is also a “logic of structural repetition” and a “logic of recuperation” in which revolutionary actions actually reinforce established structures of power (pp. 2–3). Starr goes on to argue that “these logics served as argumentative pretexts, allowing Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, and others to construct the existing political field as an impasse in order to justify significant displacements of political energies (including a politicization of the literary text)” (p. 7). This seems like a fancy way of saying that these thinkers used theory to find a decent way out of direct political commitment. Indeed, once one has understood and granted the point, there really is not much else in Starr’s book but fancy ways of repeating it.
Starr tries to delineate a specific “theoretical moment” (p. 4) beginning in 1965 and ending in 1977, but it is difficult to be so definitive about the limits of a period when one is writing only twenty years later. This lack of temporal distance leads to certain debatable assertions. For example, Starr claims that tier-mondisme—France’s obsession with models taken from the Third World—“never recovered” from certain fatal “blows” (p. 4). Yet there is no actual evidence given for this claim. The problem with this kind of history is that it either makes concrete statements which are easy to contest, or it ends up vacuous: Starr sees in his period “a play of continuity and discontinuity” (p. 7). Who could deny such an assertion? All periods involve both continuity and discontinuity (except perhaps the period of the sinking of Atlantis . . .). Starr [End Page 191] mentions works on specific French thinkers by other theorists (such as Culler) and points out that his “aim has been to bridge the gap between such studies on the one hand and the work of historians and sociologists on the other” (pp. 10–11). The question is whether such an interdisciplinary project is feasible or even desirable. The theorists do not really care about the genealogy of the theory; the historians do not need to know if the theory is right. To take one example, Starr gives us statistics of the evolution of university enrollment in France (p. 113) a few pages after discussing Lacan’s “phallic comedy” (p. 104). How many readers are going to be equipped for, or interested in, a study which combines sociological statistics, political theory, general history, psychoanalytic principles, and feminist criticism?
I was convinced by Starr’s basic argument that French thinkers were obsessed by this vision of the inevitable failure of revolt. Nevertheless, the point is both belabored and often tenuous. There are times when Starr’s...