Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 359-361
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Nothing could sound more desirable than a society that works smoothly and maximizes human happiness without repressive measures. A society where each person does what corresponds to his or her inclinations, aptitudes and desires and is richly rewarded with sensual and appetitive pleasure. A society where justice is not perceived as a means of leveling differences and distinctions, but rather as a way of encouraging each person's individual development. [End Page 359]
If the elaboration of such a society sounds tempting and even timely, we might wonder why it is taking so long to appreciate its formulation. For the work of Charles Fourier, as Michel Brix points out in L'Héritage de Fourier, outlines exactly such a civilization. And yet, Brix is not altogether joking when he says, "De Fourier on ne retenait au XIXe siècle que la première syllabe" (12).
When Fourier's social philosophy was not dismissed, it was grouped together with the work of Etienne Cabet, Robert Owen, and Henri de Saint-Simon as providing the blueprint of early, utopian forms of socialism. From this historical and sociological perspective, Fourier appears as an arcane idealist whose modest social contributions were for the most part advanced by his more practically-minded followers, most notably Victor Considérant. Rather than focusing on the limited and not very successful practical experiments provoked by Fourier's writings, Brix integrates this social thinker in a tradition of utopian philosophy - side by side to Plato - that has much greater cultural weight.
The author spends the first few chapters explaining Fourier's role in the cultural history of utopian thought, beginning with Plato's Symposium, that focuses on sexuality and love. Following these introductory chapters, the first part of the book describes Fourier's work, to which I will shortly return. The second part of the book traces its resonance with later movements, including the Surrealist movement; D. H. Lawrence's erotic modernism; the psychoanalytic models of Dr. Reich and even the revolution of May 68. All of these cultural phenomena, Brix suggests, took sexual freedom and exploration as their means of achieving a better, more liberated society. How Fourier might have inspired such radically different cultural models becomes easier to see if we look at the crux of his theories.
As Brix explains, in contradistinction to previous philosophers (with a few notable exceptions, such as Hume and Rousseau), Fourier places desire and passion, not reason, at the center of human identity. The passions are nourished by a common root, which Fourier calls "unitism," from which spring three branches. The first includes the five senses or what he calls the "luxurious passions" which, in his ideal society or "Harmony," would be gratified in every human being. Second, Fourier describes the emotive passions, which concern the bonds among human beings: friendship, love, and parenthood (or "familialism," since he abolishes the institution of marriage and with it traditional parenthood). Finally, the third branch consists of the distributive passions, which permit the gratification of our sensory and emotional needs. The distributive passions include the "Cabalist passion," that manifests our natural curiosity; the "Butterfly passion," which leads us to seek diversity and change; and the "Composite passion," which is procedural, in that it seeks the best way of fulfilling specific needs.
In Fourier's series of phallanges or social groups, human beings are classified in terms of their dominant passional characteristics, along 810 personality types for both men and women. Fourier aims to achieve the most effective way of satisfying all human desires. Even work, though not eliminated, becomes playful and inquisitive. While utilitarianism at the time depicted work as an economic necessity, Fourier describes it as a means of satisfying our curiosity and pleasure. [End Page 360]
We can actualize Fourier's phalanges no better than we can materialize Plato's idealist theory...