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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.2 (2002) 127-158

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Sexual Events:
From Clarence Thomas to Monica Lewinsky

Eric Fassin
Translated by James Swenson

“When, in early December 1897, we began to gather signatures for the first Dreyfusard petitions and the work was distributed among all canvassers of good will,” Léon Blum recounts in his Souvenirs sur l'Affaire, “I rushed to take charge of talking to Barrès.” The disciple quite naturally turned toward his master: “We formed a sort of school around him, almost a court. We felt so clearly that he, whose success had been so rapid and complete, far preferred his ascendancy over the new generation to the favor of his elders. Since he was our leader, of course he would follow us. I was almost ready to guarantee his signature on my own, and I was confident and joyous when I went to meet him.” Blum's disappointment was thus all the more cruel when the response came. “When in doubt he would choose the national instinct as a rallying point [. . .]. His letter fell upon me like mourning. Something was broken and ended; one of the avenues of my youth had been closed” (84–88).

For the reader with a knowledge of history, Blum's approach seems quite naïve: is it not obvious that the author of Les Déracinés could never be a Dreyfusard? But our wisdom is based on an anachronism. For this self-evidence does not precede the scene; it only appears retrospectively. [End Page 127] In the light of the Dreyfus Affair, the “Barrès drama” became equally clear for Blum, who henceforth saw his master from a different point of view: “Up until that point, we were able to reconcile the Boulangist Barrès with the Barrès who wrote Sous l'oeil des barbares and Un homme libre. From that point on, Barrès had to choose; he had to choose between the audience he preferred for his work and his political companions-in-arms. Boulangist solidarity had carried him, too, along with it” (88–89). But we should not make the mistake of thinking that up until that moment, Barrès had needed to reconcile contradictory demands. The Affair did not reveal a contradiction, but constituted it. Likewise, it did not reveal the gap between generations; it opened it.

This is what makes the Affair an event, even the exemplary event. An event reveals and draws a new dividing line that both separates and forms new groups. “It does not seem to me that even during the war we saw these sorts of brutal separations and equally sudden friendships created on the spot by the consciousness of an agreement.” The dividing line unites as much as it divides. “We lived only with friends who had the same feelings, because those who did not share them had ceased to be friends and those who did share them became friends on account of that fact alone” (Blum 90–92). It is this new distribution of reality, a distribution of both representations and practices, that is the mark of the event: it creates the conditions of intelligibility that make it intelligible. Blum could not have predicted Barrès's reaction a priori; a posteriori it seems self-evident. It is the Affair that allows us to understand the Affair.

This famous anecdote allows an indirect approach to the event that I hope can dissipate a common misunderstanding about its nature. Indeed, however revealing it may be, the episode is a minor one—having caused no stir, it has no place in what is normally called the history of events. To put it another way, we most often confuse the event with its spectacular manifestation. A classic article by Pierre Nora on “the return of the event,” which also sets forth a theoretical program for “contemporary history,” clearly illustrates this bias. 1 As a relation to time, history, and the present moment, the event is seen by the historian as characteristic...


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pp. 127-158
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