French Social Theory


Mike Gane

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    This book presents a new assessment of French social theory as it has developed over the last two hundred years and is an invitation to rethink some of the main concerns that have arisen out of this tradition. It is perhaps this tradition which is associated more than any other with terms like existentialism, structuralism, positivism, postmodernism and many others. And after all it is this tradition which has furnished terms such as altruism, anomie, hypertelia, as well as the word ‘sociology’. The challenge of this book is that it suggests that in the longer perspective, those interpretations that relate current concerns of French thought simply and directly to Kant miss the great innovative period of French social thought from 1800–80. As the most acute observers have pointed out, behind modern French social theory stands French Marxist theory, and behind that stands Durkheimian and Maussian anthropology and sociology, and behind these stands Comtean theory and utopian socialism (see for example Dews, 1987: 244). Thus this account is not intended to be exhaustive, rather it has as its objective the aim of discussing social theory thematically and in a longer-term perspective, and in order to do this I have provided here a new reading of the contribution of the earlier cycle of theorising (cf. Ray, 1999; Shilling and Mellor, 2001).

    French Social Theory

    The thesis of this book is that the main lines of social theory wherever influenced by Comte and Durkheim, or Marx (and Weber), are variations on a common thematic established by the Saint-Simonians in the years 1815–30. On one side is the Comtean law of the three states with its emphasis on cultural modernity and the rise of science. On the other is the social evolutionary schema of patterns of class exploitation from feudalism to modern industry. The reference of this thematic is the paradoxical triumph and failure of the French Revolution of 1789 and the enigmatic social and political crisis that followed. The question has often been posed: When does the revolutionary period come to an end? And after the recent resurgence of right-wing political movements, the question is still on the table. This is because although the Revolution is famous for its republican Declaration of the Rights of Man and for the call for Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, all forms of radicalisation of these values lead to movements that go beyond democratic political forms to their substantive realisation. These utopian movements were also associated with a conception of liberty which promised to go beyond a metaphysical liberalism: liberty became defined as a freedom to act on the basis of adequate knowledge. There is therefore in the French tradition the possible opening to a radicalism, either of left or right, against democratic forms defined simply as ‘bourgeois’ or an alien feature of British or American cultures. Just as Comte's sociology and ‘sociocracy’ has influenced both left and right traditions, Durkheim's sociology inspired both left-wing socialists and social fascism. There are many reasons therefore why a study of the long French tradition is instructive today.

    This book arranges the material into three cycles of social theory since 1800. It could well be suggested that the way I have grouped the material reflects a preference for a model of a cycle as ending in a phase of religious excess as a moment of disintegration. Another view would hold that this religious moment is indeed always the sign of an early point of a cycle. Again, yet another view would be that as I have concentrated on such a small sample of theorists, it is quite possible that the dominant social currents impelling theory might have a different appearance. These alternative views can be defended. Here I intend only to offer a reading of the major social theories of three epochs which aligns with two other periodisations. The first is that developed by Comte himself, since the periodisation I present is a continuation of the one he invented in founding sociology. The second is the political periodisation of the history of French society itself: the first period of unstable political forms from 1800–79, that is to the fall of the Second Empire, the second is the period of the Third Republic (1880–1940), and the third covers the period of the Fourth and Fifth Republics, to date. These two periodisations are also open to challenge, most evidently in the second case. It could be argued that the decisive break was the First World War. It could also be argued that there was a particularly turbulent phase in French history which lasted from the mid 1930s to the mid 1970s, and which is quite distinctive. These alternatives are plausible. Some of the conclusions I draw are an effect of the particular narrative structure which reflects the underlying thesis of my analysis. The way the analysis proceeds makes it clear that French theory has been reborn more than once. One of the important contributions of this study is to bring to light the complex ways in which such a tradition is renewed.

    But what is social theory? In this book I take it to be that rather peculiar range of thought in the zone between literary and cultural theory through to sociology (and the social sciences) at one end and at the other that mode of philosophy which is oriented to social ontology, epistemology and ethics (see Lepenies, 1988). It might be called, in contrast to the two other cultures, a ‘third culture’ or ‘third curriculum’ (see Zizek, 2001, ch. 5; Serres and Latour, 1995: 184). I touch on but do not examine extensively adjoining domains of psychoanalysis, history, literature, philosophy and epistemology. Only very indirectly is the question of the relation of theory and practice considered. It is important to note that in France at the moment there is no general acceptance of the idea of ‘theory’ for a genre of writing as there is in the English-speaking cultures (‘“theory” sounds strange to my French understanding’ (Leclercle, 2001: 36)), even though French thinkers from Althusser and Baudrillard have written famous texts on ‘theory’. Nor is there in France the radical distinction between structuralism and post-structuralism, modernism and postmodernism (see Descombes, in Yamamoto, 1998: 464), even though French theorists such as Lyotard wrote some of the defining texts of ‘postmodernism’. Baudrillard, for example, recently suggested that ‘if there is no overarching representation of the world which gives it a meaning, then there can't be a science either that would be the key to the whole story’ ([1997] 1998a: 34). This book is an examination of a particular tradition which tried to challenge universal history with the wager of a single theoretical narrative.

    Thus there is a paradox involved in writing this book. I regard myself, on the one hand, as having largely been formed by close involvement with French social theory and therefore not as a pure outsider. On the other hand, for French theorists today, ‘French social theory’ does not exist.

    Remarks on the Text

    As I noted, this book does not attempt to provide an exhaustive discussion and this has meant that many important contributions are not assessed. The book discusses sects and schools of thought, but I have refrained from providing lists of their members. There are now many specialist reference works and studies of individual thinkers, but this work is not a synthesis of such materials. I have tried to discuss the main movements in thought through significant representative contributions. I hope to have chosen the least equivocal of them. Where possible I have checked translations against the French original, and in some cases made corrections where a theoretical point is at stake. The bibliography which could have been extremely extensive has been kept to essential references.


    There are many people I should thank for help in one way or another in relation to this book. My acknowledgements have to be in three parts, for Comte-Littré, Durkheim-Mauss-Bataille and for Sartre-Baudrillard respectively.

    I owe a huge debt to members of the Social Sciences Department at Loughborough University, as well as to many students, who have discussed the ideas developed here on French sociology and social theory. I have presented papers on Comte to university departments and at international conferences, and I would like to thank in particular those who contributed to discussions in 1994 at Lancaster University (especially Scott Lash and Larry Ray), a seminar in 1994 on Comte's sociology, at the Durkheim Studies Centre, Oxford, a paper at Leicester University (especially Terry Johnson, Sallie Westwood and David Ashton), a seminar held in 1998 at Sussex University (particularly Andrew Wernick, Charles Turner, Robert Fine and Peter Wagner), a Georges Canguilhem Conference held in London (particularly Paul Rabinow, François Delaporte and Michael Lynch) and an Economy and Society Conference in London (particularly Stephan Feuchwang). I owe a debt to the efficient editor of Renaissance and Modern Studies, Colin Heywood, and to many members of the editorial board of Economy and Society, the journal that organised the latter two conferences in London, especially Beverley Brown, Maxime Molyneux, Thomas Osborne, Ali Rattansi, Nikolas Rose, Grahame Thompson, Tony Woodiwiss, Frank Pearce, Talal Asad and Sami Zubaida. I also would like to thank some participants at the two Auguste Comte Bicentennial Colloques held in Paris in 1998 and to the participants of the Comte Colloque at Cerisy-la-Salle in 2001 (particularly Jean-Michel Berthelot, Michel Bourdeau, Juliette Grange, Johan Heilbron, Angele Kremer-Marietti, Annie Petit and Mary Pickering). I have drawn on the following papers: ‘Comte's Inaugural Sociology’, Centre for Critical Social Theory, Sussex University, 1998; ‘L'état metaphysique et sa periodisation interne’, Comte Colloque, Cerisy-la-Salle, 2001.

    Since 1990 there have been a number of seminars and conferences associated with the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies at Oxford University, organised principally by W.F.S. Pickering. The first series of 1990 was published as Debating Durkheim (edited by W.F.S. Pickering and H. Martins, Routledge 1994) and this was followed by international conferences on Durkheim's key works. Conferences on the work of the Durkheimian school have included: ‘Durkheim and Europe’ and ‘Le Malaise Social: La Fin de Siècle et Emile Durkheim’. The Centre in Oxford also houses the journal Durkheim Studies, published annually from 1995. I have presented a number of papers at the conferences and workshops held at Oxford, and would like to thank Bill Pickering, Herminio Martins, Willie Watts Miller, Josep Llobera, Ken Thompson, Sue Stedman Jones, Mike Hawkins, Nick Allen, Christie Davies, Bob Parkin, Wendy James, Geoffrey Walford, David Garland, Philip Mellor, Chris Shilling, Derek Robbins, Edward Tiryakian, Jack Hayward and Philippe Besnard. I also presented a paper at the International Colloque, organised by Charles-Henri Cuin on Durkheim's Rules of Sociological Method held in Bordeaux in 1995 and I would like to thank particularly Jean-Michel Berthelot, Phillipe Steiner, Alexandre Gofman, Jeffrey Alexander, Claude Javeau and Charles-Henri Cuin for their discussions.

    With respect to my writing on the work of Sartre, Bataille, Canguilhem, Althusser, Foucault, Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and other contemporary theorists, I would like to thank Chris Rojek, George Ritzer, Roy Boyne, Chris Turner, David Macey, Gary Genosko, Paul Hegarty, Georges Salemohamed, Simon Critchley, Andrew Wernick, Keith Ansell-Pearson, John Marks, Mariam Fraser, Marcus Doel, David Slater, Richard Smith, David Toews, Andrew Benjamin, Jean-Michel Berthelot, William Pawlett, William Merrin, Peter Gibbon, Nicholas Zurbrugg, Steve Brown and John Armitage.

    Finally I would like to thank Monique Arnaud, Andrew Wernick, my nephew Nicholas Gane and readers at Sage, particularly Chris Rojek, for assistance with this project. Everyone mentioned helped me in one way or another to clarify and sharpen my ideas. I am responsible in the last instance for any mistakes of fact or interpretation.

    M. G.
    May, 2002

  • Conclusion

    The age of the law has passed, and with it that of the socius and the social contract. (Baudrillard, 1990a: 155)


    The philosophical concept does not refer to the lived, by way of compensation, but consists, through its own creation, in setting up an event. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 33)

    If the ‘positive polity’ did not succeed in establishing itself in France, either in its Comtean or Marxist form, what polity did establish itself? The answer to this question is clearly a form of what might be called, after Comte's grand narrative, the ‘metaphysical polity’ and the sequence of the sub-phases of the metaphysical state can now read perhaps as 1500–1685: Protestant period; 1686–1799, deist period; and, I suggest, 1800–2000 could be baptised the Saint-Simonian period. Certainly at moments in this period, the positive tradition (including neo-Marxism), became a major challenge to the French metaphysical polity, while at others it became a major pillar of it. The lineage of the ‘positive’ series could be sub-divided into three phases representing the three parts of this book: 1800–79 Comtean; 1880–1939 Durkheimian; and 1940–2000, neo-Marxist phase. The metaphysical Republican polity clearly was not stabilised in France until the Third Republic, with massive support from the ‘positivist’ tradition. Stabilised again in the Fifth, after the turbulence of the Fourth Republic: its form of compromise between the church and social democracy having successfully resisted the various extreme forces levelled against it.

    An assessment which applied Comte's analytic techniques today would attempt to draw up a balance sheet for the ways in which the negative and positive series characteristic of the metaphysical period have been continued up to the present time, and this would require a radically new vision of the form of the future state as a theoretical fiction. In retrospect, Comte's vision of a positive polity seems very much of its time; its value as an ideal could hardly be assessed by its efficacy as a guide to action. And this raises the question of the relation of social theory to ‘historical reality’. For it is clear that theory in the French tradition has never been a tool developed in order simply to grasp and possess a current reality. If the French tradition has attempted to find ways of addressing ideals, it has also struggled to identify abnormalities, pathologies, deviations. It has held fast to the view that the French experience has been exceptional both in terms of the problems it has had to confront, and in terms of the ideals it has generated in facing up to them. It is thus an experience of universal significance, arising not just from the fact that radical social theory has never been satisfied with the limited compromises of the metaphysical (bourgeois-democratic) society and has always wanted to go beyond its confines, but from the conviction that this society is a transitional form. To investigate this thesis it has always resorted to systematic methodological reflection.


    Method throughout has occupied a central place in French thought and in many cases has turned out, strangely, to be an Achilles' heal for key thinkers. It has also been on the ground of methodology that some of the key dramas have been played out. There is often an ambivalent relation on the part of French thinkers themselves to the Cartesian tradition with its demands for methodological clarity and conceptual rigour. None of the key thinkers in social theory from the nineteenth century on was content with this tradition, regarding it as simplistic. But all the major theorists, including those who officially denied any interest in method, expressed rules of method and tried to work with consistent definitions and procedures. There seems to be a general and elemental acceptance of the view that method is not simply important, but lies at the heart of understanding theory and knowledge itself. Characteristic of the French style of social theory has been the insistence that these rules of method be made as conscious and rigorous as possible. Method has a much wider significance in French practice than that accorded to social sciences in other traditions. In the English-speaking cultures method tends to refer to techniques of empirical investigation and to the gathering of information. In French social thought it concerns the whole range of problems from the initial definition of the status of the object of investigation, the classification of subject matter, through to the role of theory in forms of conjecture and administration of procedures of verification. This has been true of existential as well as structural, post-structural and postmodern methodologies.

    But there are some crucial differences of opinion within the French tradition about how theoretical fictions are introduced into social theory, which implies that different kinds of reading are necessary. Certainly it is tempting to suggest that the two periods of Comte's intellectual life should be read differently. In the first, that dominated by objective method, an appropriate mode of reading would be that developed by Althusser. This would be particularly sensitive to the epistemological novelty of Comte's new positive idiom, yet not be bound by the manifest order of the surface of these texts. Althusser has written of the way that a science ‘can only pose problems on the terrain and within the horizon of a definite theoretical structure, its problematic, which constitutes its absolute and definite condition of possibility, and hence the absolute determination of the forms in which all problems must be posed, at any given moment in the science’. Althusser adds: ‘Comte often came very close to this idea.’ Here there is no longer an individual subject with a vision, and vision ‘loses the religious privileges of divine reading’ (Althusser and Balibar, 1970: 25). Elsewhere Althusser acknowledged the importance of Comte's distinction between the historical order of a science's formation and the order of its doctrine (see Macherey, 1964: 52). Comte also theorised the idea of the order of exposition of a scientific doctrine, and came close to formulating the principles of structural causation so central to Althusserian epistemology. And this should not be surprising since Althusser was decisively influenced by the work of Gaston Bachelard, described by Serres as ‘Comte among us’ (in Comte, 1975, vol. i: 4). The central idea of the ‘epistemological break’, that is the thesis that all sciences are formed in a break with ideological knowledge, an idea central to the French tradition of historical epistemology (Heilbron, 1995: 262–6), is essentially a reading of Comte's law of the three states as a law of all scientific revolution. Comte gave great importance to the transitional role of biology, but Althusser tended to reduce the system of the sciences to three ‘great scientific continents’: those of mathematics, physics and history. Nevertheless, the ambition was the same, to discover the law of the social as a fundamental law of a domain. Such a law would define a unique order of phenomena. Comte and Durkheim called it sociology; Althusser called it history.

    Althusser applied the theory of social evolution to Marx, and all the problems which had haunted French theory now came to haunt this parallel theory of the transition to the final state. The theory now emphasised the material basis of production and class struggle as the driving force of history, thus picking up on the ideas of the Saint-Simonian matrix which focused on the transition from feudal to industrial society and the claim for real not formal distributive justice. Althusser's critique of the notion of praxis was based on Comte's distinction between metaphysical and scientific ideas. In fact Comte's historical epistemology was probably more subtle than that of Althusser, since all the notions of fetishism, theologism and metaphysics were levelled by Althusser to one concept of pre-scientific ideology (which has therefore no history). The key levels of the social (base and superstructure) were evident in Althusser as they were in Comte, as were ideas of scientific revolution (a radical break to a new problematic organised on a new epistemological framework) and social revolution (transition from capitalism to communism), as were key elements of theoretical analysis (for static and dynamic analysis Althusser used the terms synchronic and diachronic, etc.). In fact, Althusser found many of these ideas already expressed in Marx's own methodological writings of the 1850–60s, but they had been developed by Comte in writings decades earlier, as Althusser admitted.

    Today it is important to reflect on Althusser's relation to his own tradition. For example, his analysis of historicism as a problematic led him to suggest that when Sartre, who used the historicist method, came into contact with Marxism, he ‘immediately gave an historicist reading of it’ just as Gramsci had done (but from another tradition) (Althusser and Balibar, 1970: 135). Althusser derived his critique from the French structural tradition and this was one of the major points of latent disagreement between Derrida and Althusser. Derrida held that the leading critique of historicism had been made paradoxically by Sartre's mentor, Husserl, against Dilthey at the beginning of the century. Althusser's refusal to acknowledge this, says Derrida, ‘irritated me even if I understood, without approving of it, the political strategy involved’ (Kaplan and Sprinker, 1993: 192). Reading Althusser against himself here (but in a different direction for the moment to that of Derrida), I suggest that French structural Marxism deliberately aligned its method with the matrix that used the same materials as Comte and Durkheim (which I call Saint-Simonianism). When Althusser encountered Marx's version of the Saint-Simonian matrix, he produced a structuralist reading of it, just as Comte had done. Now it was not a ‘bourgeois’ reading, for as we know Comte associated the bourgeoisie intimately with, and as a social support for, metaphysical philosophy and its polity (parliamentary democracy). Comte's own position, which reflects his new version of masculinity, was essentially one that advocated the anti-bourgeois patriarchal bloc: patrician, proletarian, neo-papacy (not fascism which is Caesaro-patrician-proletarian). Althusser's own ideal is certainly anti-bourgeois and proletarian, but its precise political form always remained undefined (see Elliot, 1987). Wernick's recent insightful reading, which parallels the discussion of Debray (1983) and Serres (1995b), suggests that Althusser was led ‘to think Lenin's ‘vanguard party’ – the locus of fusion between intellectuals and militants, theory and practice, science and politics – into the space of Comte's revamped pouvoir spirituel’ (Wernick, 2001: 235, emphasis in original). Latent here is the social polity of a papal-patrician-proletarian social form which is common to all the Saint-Simonian variations left and right. This form and its terminology, to my knowledge, have never been carefully examined, yet the French tradition clearly suggests that it is this social structure which is the real basis of bourgeois Western democracies and will come to replace them in a final social transition. Social science discipline will play a crucial part in this, and as Comte often said scientific ‘method from every point of view has a higher value than doctrine’ (Comte, 1968, vol. iv: 155).

    Durkheim reconstructed Comtean sociology through a radical critique of its method, and by providing key new studies which would guide social reconstruction (but as I have shown, his own method failed and he was forced to return to Comte's). For Althusser the crucial task was how to read Marx in order to demonstrate that the scientific breakthrough Marx achieved involved a theoretical and a political revolution. Rather than show the science and its laws in practice however, Althusser was essentially interested in showing how Marx's theory embodied all the abstract characteristics and prerequisites of scientificity, and how this differed from pre-scientific knowledge. An Althusserian interpretation of the development of social theory would argue that in its Comtean and Durkheimian form, the sociology is developed primarily within the orbit of a bourgeois class culture which had decisively influenced its development. Marx's aim was to develop social science politically, that is from a proletarian class position and from within the experience of struggle itself. The Althusser of the 1960s held that Marx had founded the new science which discovered that all social formations were ‘determined in the last instance’ by the economic mode of production (a thesis which Derrida noted was perhaps the ‘metaphysical anchoring’ of the whole theoretical edifice [in Kaplan et al., 1993: 204]). By the late 1970s Althusser had changed his view to one closer to that of Foucault, which held that Marx's theory had only provided a first critique of ‘political economy’, a science which belonged to a nineteenth-century episteme; and so ‘Althusserianism’ came to an end.


    This book has examined method as changing modes of theoretical discipline. This must be understood as concerning ‘theory’ disciplined in two senses. The first is the discipline imposed by method, the rationalist internal forms which discipline the flight of theory: rules, constraints. The scientific gaze is trained, evidence is produced in a certain way, scientific logic is subject to a particular rigour as is the ‘administration’ of proof, in order to reach a verification, a truth. Foucault was not interested (at least in the 1960s) in the ‘speaking subject’ and strictly excluded an examination of ‘communal opinion’ in favour of what is said as it is caught in the ‘play of an exteriority’ (1972: 123). This book has examined the way Saint-Simonian thought has had epistemic organisation and how other knowledges are produced in relation to it, but with the following caveat. Foucault was careful not to limit his studies to the formed and established sciences but also to examine what he called studies of bodies of knowledge at the ‘threshold of epistemologisation’, that is at the point where knowledge formations are ‘defined by their positivity’ but where their ‘epistemological figures… are not necessarily all sciences’ (and which may never, in fact, succeed in becoming sciences). Here ‘one is trying to reveal between positivities, knowledge, epistemological figures, and sciences, a whole set of differences, relations, gaps, shifts, independencies, autonomies, and the way in which they articulate their own historicities on one another’ (1972: 190–1). I have added to the analysis Bazard's idea that such knowledge has a cyclic impulsion.

    This book has also encountered, in the manner discussed by the later Foucault, the importance of biography, even auto-hagiography, the effects of group solidarity, group projects and organisation, political experience, reflection and reaction to political events as also affecting territorial ‘intersection’ and ‘exteriority’. The second sense of an investigation into theory's discipline, follows what Foucault in later works suggested could be considered ‘modes of subjection [assujettissement]’, that is ‘the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice’ (Foucault, 1985: 27). This is also evidently social, and includes the study of the elaboration of rules of membership, bylaws of practice of members, hierarchies of authority, processes of regulation of social bodies, and forms of exclusion. This embraces that field Althusser called truth ‘in the practical state’ and asks what are the sanctions, other than exclusion and excommunication, open to cults, sects, scientific societies and political parties? And how do these relate to the projects of such groups? The aim of these groups is purported to be speaking the truth (veridiction), or practising the truth in the cause of social justice – against power, or against idola, simulacra. Mauss, for instance, describes the ‘self-sacrifice’ necessary for the formation of the ‘workshop atmosphere’ created by the Durkheimians (1983: 140). In order to achieve this, the group operates collective discipline, perhaps a discipline of ‘disciples’ in relation to a sacred college (Bazard, Bataille).

    Thus it is possible and indeed necessary to turn the later against the early Foucault. The early Foucault, criticising Marx and Comte, called ‘anthropologisation’ that situation where well-founded knowledge (language, life, production), when subject to ‘the slightest deviation from … rigorously defined planes sends thought tumbling over into the domain occupied by the human sciences … “Anthropologisation” is the great internal threat to knowledge in our day’ (1970: 348, my emphasis). The impression of ‘haziness, inexactitude, and imprecision left by almost all the human sciences is merely a surface effect of what makes it possible to define them in their positivity’ (1970: 355). In other words, unlike all the other sciences, the ‘human sciences’ do not have their own true objects but are simulacra, ‘sciences of duplication, in a “meta-epistemological” position’ in respect to existing sciences (1970: 355). Foucault during the period of high rationalism defined this space negatively and with contempt. He came to reverse this judgement however and to see that it is precisely in that zone, once called ‘metaphysics’, in which new kinds of problems concerning the transformation of human values (including human freedom) are encountered and assessed.

    I have examined one such theoretical space: the questions which Saint-Simonianism and the intellectual traditions which sprang from it posed and tried to answer. This book has been a discussion of that thought in France, from Comte to Baudrillard, which sought to find solutions to human problems beyond the confines of bourgeois and mass society. But these solutions have not been realised. An unusually violent outburst by Bourdieu against Sollers revealed deep resentments associated with its defeat and betrayal of this project: Sollers, says Bourdieu, ‘the ideal-typical incarnation of the individual and collective history of a whole generation of writers of ambition, of all those who, having moved, in less than thirty years, from Maoist or Trotskyist terrorism to positions of power in banks, insurance companies, politics or journalism, will readily grant him their indulgence’ (Bourdieu, [1995] 1998: 13).

    The question which emerges here is even more serious. It may be asked whether the basic Saint-Simonian matrix which can be analysed in its greater complexity today, has always been in a fundamental complicity with the political structures of modernisation and progressivity in France – as Foucault and others suggest part of the vast ideological complex of the new post-revolutionary ‘disciplinary’ society in France – or whether it has been, as Althusser's main works argue, in contestation with it? The former would mean that all the various types of interpretative problematics, from historicist and humanist at one end of the spectrum to structuralist and post-structuralist at the other end did not escape the culture of the new society, even though its ambitions were to transcend it. They would simply lend legitimacy to a new form of ‘social science’. Of course the ideological structures of the demand for human rights, equality of the sexes and formal liberal democratic institutions now appear to be at the heart of the project of the bourgeois ‘society of individuals’, the bourgeois enlightenment project with its new sense of ‘modernity’. But the Saint-Simonian matrix which has played such a large part in the intellectual and philosophical sphere has played a dynamic role in claiming the necessity of transcending the limits of such purely bourgeois forms through new forms of knowledge and religious belief on the one hand and new ideals of social justice on the other. The central question now is: was this ideology of opposition and transcendence based on an independent reality, or was this matrix and its promises simply a part of the dynamic of the society itself, its old function of pseudo-alterity now redundant? Do the positions of the later writings of Althusser (see Elliot, 1987: 313–23), Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard in particular simply bear witness to the last episode of a declining cycle of thought, or do they provide the beginnings of a critique of its matrix role and function as prop and supplementary social control within the very structure of power they denounce, a critique which parallels but far exceeds the critique made by Nizan of the role of the professors of the Third Republic?

    In the end, as Bourdieu rightly points out, a discusion of the work of major intellectuals can only be of interest if there is a problem that is confronted. Gary Gutting (2001) has argued that the central problem is that of individual freedom; Dominique Lecourt sees the end of Marxism leading on to issues of ‘original ways of forming relations of love, kinship, friendship, or labour’ (2001: 138). Expressing the problem in these very trite ways suggests that French social theory has indeed reached the end point of this cycle. But both of these recent accounts radically misconceive the present state of social theory because both authors work with a corpus that is too narrow and with little sympathy for an ‘end-of-cycle’ condition; a condition, it is clear, has its own necessity and cannot be ended by fiat. It is therefore instructive to turn to Comte's own end-of-cycle ideas on reading and writing theory, as they are rich and radical. Comte argues that our own system of writing, derived from the theistic stage, will be replaced in the positive polity by a new form of algebraic writing. This would be a writing in space, not on a material substance, and could be imagined as a green text on a white ground (1856: 11–13). John Stuart Mill's reaction to these postmodern ideas was scathing, calling them ‘deplorable’, ‘strange conceits’, a ‘melancholy decadence’ and ‘ridiculous’ (1961: 194f.). But had Mill really taken on board the full force of Comte's critique of pure rationalism? Mill seemed to think that the combination of positive science with a neo-fetishism was an extension of positivism into decadence (rather in the same way that Comte in his earlier work (1974b: 727) himself ridiculed the ‘vagaries’ of the reflections of Newton in old age).

    These notions could, charitably, be viewed as theoretical devices, ideal types, whose main purposes were/are to provide means of analysing current, present problems, particularly where the individual theorist has immense difficulty in living within them. These are essentially hypertelic forms. More than one such theorist, Nietzsche being the best known, has said following Auguste Comte, ‘I live posthumously’. The modality is quite different from the dilemmas later opened by Foucault: we find here in his work a complete refusal to indulge in utopian thought and general programmes, but at the same time there is an engagement in radical sexual experimentation, a desire to make unambiguous discoveries within the sexual experience (Halperin, 1995). In the messianic frames there is however an ambivalence, even tension, between the future as the terminus of a current trend or tendency, and the future seen as a leap into a new condition. French theory today is increasingly taken up with Walter Benjamin's distinction between future as programmed utopia, and future as explosive or implosive catastrophic shifts (Benjamin, 1970: 255–66). Derrida's position holds that the messianic frame is essential to the Western historical experience of justice, but what must never happen is the arrival of the messiah, a parody of the ‘wait’ for the female messiah inaugurated by the Saint-Simonians in the 1830s. This complex trans-theoretical form is a combination of positive and negative relations: a negative positivity. The ultimate anti-metaphysical position, refuting Derrida's view that the messianic is not deconstructible, is that of Baudrillard, who suggests that the day of judgement (the essential moment harmony of the messianic) came, but the messiah missed the appointment. We find in the variations of Derrida and Baudrillard the Judaeo and Catholic patriarchal forms under threat, retrenched, partially reconstructed in a Nietzschean direction. And it is the thematic of the liberation of energies, libidinal among them, which, according to Baudrillard, specifically differentiates theory today from the crises at the end of the first and second cycles.

    Patriarchal Social Theory

    Baudrillard's thematic is somewhat more complex than the disillusioned formula of messianic procrastination might suggest.1 In a recent text, he argues that the history of masculinity could be formulated as follows. At the beginning of the nineteenth century – what I have identified here as the opening of the crisis of masculinity – there was a replacement of aristocratic forms of seduction by a new (bourgeois) form of romantic love. This new configuration projected a specific ideal model of femininity onto women, or one might say the femininity of the new woman was ‘called’ into existence by men experiencing a crisis in their masculinity, their own sexual ambivalence. Politically, feminism also answered a call from men for a new woman as citizen. Second wave feminism is the more recent product of the male demand for a sexual woman who is also citizen and intellectual. But all of these progressive changes have had the effect of breaking down the symbolic structures of radical otherness in the culture between men and women. This is a demand for a sex ‘removed from artifice, illusion and seduction’, and created in a structure of sexual (in)difference. It is at this point that the initiative has passed to women:

    We have here the problem of a woman, having once become the subject of desire, no longer finding the other she could desire as such … For the secret never lies in the equivalent exchange of desires, under the sign of egalitarian difference; it lies in inventing the other who will be able to play on – and make sport of – my own desire, defer it, and thus arouse it indefinitely. Is the female gender capable today of producing – since it no longer wishes to personify it – this same seductive otherness? Is the female gender still hysterical enough to invent the other? (Baudrillard, 1996b: 120)

    Not only is there a general scenario in which the (male) messiah missed his appointment with the day of judgement. There is another moment: the day of the historic reversal of power within gender relations: did this day ever come, will it ever come, and will there be a female messiah present at the appointed rendezvous?

    Baudrillard's view here is that this appointment was not missed by para-praxis, but that the dominant invention was here born of resentment: the new male is produced only as agent of sexual harassment. For Baudrillard in a sense this is also to miss the appointment, for ‘it marks the arrival on the scene of an impotent, victim's sexuality, a sexuality impotent to constitute itself either as object or as subject of desire in its paranoid wish for identity and difference’ (1996b: 122). It is not that the female messiah did not arrive. The call for her to appear was answered – but in a way that failed to produce either a new masculinity or a new femininity. Baudrillard's analysis of Madonna provides a picture of the female messiah, and by implication the future of gender relations:

    Madonna is ‘desperately’ fighting in a world where there is no response – the world of sexual indifference. Hence the urgent need for hypersexual sex, the signs of which are exacerbated precisely because they are no longer addressed to anyone … For want of some other who would deliver her from herself, she is unrelentingly forced to provide her own sexual enticement, to build up for herself a panoply of accessories – in the event a sadistic panoply, from which she tries to wrench herself away. Harassment of the body by sex, harassment of the body by signs. (1996b: 126)

    Not only is the scene dominated by the sexual politics of harassment and resentment, but, since there is no radical other for her identity, the messiah becomes a woman who harasses her own body ‘in a cycle or closed circuit’. Madonna can ‘play all the roles’ and ‘all the versions of sex’ so as to ‘exploit this fantastic absence of identity’.

    Baudrillard's position inevitably follows Comte by rejecting feminism as a phenomenon of contemporary resentment and metaphysics. It also stigmatises modern feminism as falling under a masculine form of gender identification where femininity becomes a mode of production, this time of the eroticised material body requiring sexual pleasure as an obligatory end (cf. Grace, 2000: 122f.). Thus sexual ‘liberation’ leads not to a reconstruction of the social contract, a new dialectic, or religious bond as envisaged by the Saint-Simonians, but to a logic of excess. This logic is one that attacks and breaks down the traditional polarities of ritual exchange, and produces new hypertelic forms, be it transgenetic, transaesthetic, or transsexual (Baudrillard, 1993c: 20f.). One of the crucial sites of such a process is the culture of male–female symbolic exchanges. The modern crisis is not one simply of the female role and identity (as was widely believed in the sociology of the 1950s and in the 1990s). The cultural movement of liberation attacks traditional forms of masculinity as well, while transforming the modalities of seduction (they are complicit products of masculine desire: positive and judged by performance).

    Because Comtean sociology fell into ridicule when Comte began to devote his life to the worship of Clotilde de Vaux, emblem of Humanity in his new cult in the 1840s, Durkheim and Mauss later built up modern French sociology on a quite different terrain. Baudrillard, once a sociologist, has deserted the discipline and few mainstream French sociologists have regretted his departure. It seems clear that both Comte, who instituted a programme of ‘cerebral hygiene’, and Baudrillard, who now writes only to make the world more enigmatic, have found it difficult to come to terms with liberal democracy. Comte sought a way out of his defeat in a sentimental and optimistic world of sociological theory-fiction. Baudrillard's way out is to chase fetishistic perversities in their downward ‘spiral of the worst’ and intends never to make a naïve judgement. However, this strange variation points to a radical future for gender relations: the culture of resentment (in all its transpolitical variants) is but a form of (dis)illusion in which, paradoxically, a logic of hysterical excess is unleashed. Instead of moving to a consensus, events either shoot off with great energy, hysterically, to extremes, or become increasingly and paradoxically homogeneous. Baudrillard's position refuses to admit the adequacy of a critical sociology of this situation. The role of fatal messianic theory-fiction is to challenge a new and different world into existence. Whereas Comte sought to challenge the world into the good by offering the fantasy of a matriarchal asexual utopia and a papal model of masculinity, Baudrillard challenges it into a fantastic spiral of excess and the hell of the same.

    The Fate of the Social

    It was Durkheim who most clearly saw the relation between Saint-Simonianism and the birth of the ‘social’. His lectures on socialism suggest that eighteenth-century thought was obsessed with communal utopias; only after the collapse of the Empire in 1815 was this line of thought challenged by a genuine socialist thought, particularly that of Saint-Simon. It was not the emergence of new issues around a new social agency, the proletariat, that was the signal for these ideas. Durkheim's first conclusion is that

    what was lacking in the eighteenth century was not that the Revolution be once and for all a fait accompli, but, in order for these factors to produce their social or socialist consequences, they had first to produce their political consequences … Could it be that the changes wrought in the organisation of society, once realised, demanded others which moreover stemmed from the same causes which had engendered them? (Durkheim, 1962: 105).

    Durkheim argues that it was quite logical for Saint-Simon himself to attack the reduction of economic activity to purely individual interests for,

    having established that henceforth the only normal manifestation of social activity is economic activity, [he] concludes that the latter is a social thing, or rather that it is the social thing … Society cannot become an industrial unless industry is socialised. This is how industrialism logically ends in socialism. (1962: 180–1, emphasis in original)

    It was Baudrillard who identified the moment of the ‘end of the social’. The general theory developed in Baudrillard's work is articulated around the opposition between symbolic and semiotic cultures. These orders, in principle, unlikely as it may seem, mirror the Comtean three states:

    Relative to the dangers of seduction that haunt the universe of games and rituals, our own sociality and the forms of communication and exchange it institutes, appear in direct proportion to their secularisation under the sign of the Law, as extremely impoverished, banal and abstract. But this is still only an intermediary state, for the age of the law has passed, and with it that of the socius and the social contract. (Baudrillard, 1990a: 155)

    More specifically, the semiotic orders and Baudrillard's ‘orders of simulacra’ follow a trajectory which provides an ironic continuation of Comte's account of the rise of positivism and reason in Western Christian cultures. If in Comte's later work fetishism reappears as a necessary and irreducible fundamental force in the new social cult called the Religion of Humanity, in Baudrillard this role is more complex. First, there is a fundamental role for the fatal which is conceived actively in terms of strategies that lie at the basis of all human cultures. In modernity they become the driving force of technology fetishised in new forms of alienation. Baudrillard, following Nietzsche, stigmatises the modern state, its democratic ideologies and human rights movements, as essentially metaphysical and self-contradictory forms of resentment (fatal strategies turned against themselves). Second, whereas Comte after 1848 conceived of the future as a long, linear and programmable procession in which he wanted to see ‘order and progress’, Baudrillard's vision maintains the primacy of apocalyptic messianism over historical time. The paradox, he argues, is that the time of the world today as we encounter it seems to want to hurry, seems to have a ‘secret millenarianism about it’. Historical time, Baudrillard says, entails the belief that there is a ‘succession of non-meaningless facts, each engendering the other by cause and effect, but doing so without any absolute necessity and all standing open to the future, unevenly poised’ (Baudrillard, 1994a: 7). In effect this modern experience did not arise spontaneously nor was it easily adopted, for ‘this model of linearity must have seemed entirely fictitious, wholly absurd and abstract to cultures which had no sense of a deferred day of reckoning … it was, indeed, a scenario which had some difficulty in establishing itself … was not achieved without violence’ (1994a: 7).

    In this sense Baudrillard's strategy provides something of an updated inversion of the law of the three states in which fetishism (as a structure and as a force) comes to dominate consumer society, even science, since scientific research ‘follows’ its objects as its own destiny subject to fashion. In this context a further extreme shift can occur, such that the subject becomes the fetish of the object. The three stages are again but three logics: rituality, sociality and digitality. Whereas Comte saw the triumph of science as marking the transition to a higher form of truth and thereby a new form of legitimation of the social, Baudrillard suggests that

    Not only are we no longer living in an era of rules and rituals, we are no longer living in an era of laws and contracts. We live today according to Norms and Models, and we do not even have a term to designate that which is replacing sociality and the social. (Baudrillard, 1990a: 155)


    In this book I have reconstructed the main discursive formations that have developed out of the Saint-Simonian matrix. I have projected them into a single, if complex and unstable, abstract space in the manner of Comte's historical method. Whereas this space for Comte was planar, the complexity of this space arises here in the intersection of scientificity and the surrounding platforms that are its supporting and disseminating environment. Beginning at the fall of Napoleon I (end of a precursor political cycle of the Revolution itself) and ending with the fall of Napoleon III (and the defeat of the Paris Commune), was a cycle dominated by the works of Comte and Littré. In this first cycle there is the field of debate and argument within the Saint-Simonian milieux: the Saint-Simonian church (Bazard, Enfantin, feminism), the positivist society (Comte and Littré), The Religion of Humanity (Comte, Laffitte), the Sociological Society (Littré and Wybrouboff).

    The period of the Third Republic, 1880–1940 (from the Commune to the fall of France) is dominated by the work of Durkheim and Mauss and, at the end of the 1930s, Bataille. With Durkheim, in this second cycle, the main focus of work is within the academy, with the formation of the ‘French school’ of sociology which itself in the 1890s again turned from a political to a religious problematic, continued after the 1914–18 war by Mauss in a more and more socialist direction. At the end of the cycle there was a last turn to the extra-mural, ‘sacred college’ and its ‘sacred sociology’ (Bataille).

    The third cycle sees the reign of Marxism through three recent phases: Sartre's existential version 1945–60, structural Marxism, 1960–75, and then the ‘crisis of Marxism’, and postmodernism, 1975–2000. There were some key thinkers of the third cycle who themselves had a trajectory that carried them through the main stages of the entire period, through existential, then structural (with the important struggle of Althusser within the French Communist Party) and finally post-structural theory (most notably Baudrillard). In this last of the three cycles there are some writers who could be predominantly structural throughout (Lévi-Strauss), or those who refused to accept the dominance of structuralism (Sartre himself). The cycle itself witnessed a massive shift in the dominant idiom of Marxist thinking in the early 1960s: the displacement of humanist existential Marxism by structural Marxism (sometimes referred to as the ‘linguistic turn’, since the heuristic model for structuralism was the structure of codes). But the ‘crisis of Marxism’ which arrived in the 1970s affected both idioms and led to a final displacement (sometimes called the ‘cultural turn’) since there was a shift to the analysis of symbolic systems appropriate to a new scene – ‘the death of the social’. In effect this was a partly conscious and partly unconscious rendezvous of the Marxist and Durkheimian (even Comtean) modes of social theory, probably most clearly visible is the ‘paroxyst’ (i.e. penultimate) ‘radical theory’ of Baudrillard.

    In this perspective I examined the principal methods and theories developed at each cycle as key variations drawn from a basic matrix of Saint-Simonian ideas. Each new period has a forceful dynamic of theoretical reconfiguration and reconstruction. There is no direct continuity of thinkers between each period – no direct lineage between the Comteans still working in the 1880s and the emerging school of Durkheimian sociology; there is no direct continuity between Mauss, or the curious religiosity of the Collège de Sociologie around Bataille and Caillois, and the rising school of existential Marxism headed by Sartre and de Beauvoir which led the shift to new methods and theory in the 1940s. Within each of the three periods there is considerable continuity despite the significant shifts which are noticeable within them. Each describes a cycle of an initial period of intellectual creativity around a new programme of work. Existential Marxism was anticipated in earlier thinkers such as Lefebvre and Bataille. Comte's religious ideas were prefigured by Bazard. Durkheim's ideas were prefigured in the later sociology of Littré. But it would be wrong to say that these anticipations were simple precursors. Each of the new programmes as they got underway seemed to have great new creative momentum and sparked off new urgent debates and oppositions. Then, as obstacles are encountered and defeats to the project are experienced, new idioms of writing emerge – religious, scholastic, defensive and fragmented idioms – as utopian thought degenerates.

    One way of reflecting on the current crisis of social theory is to suggest that theory will be regenerated because its basic problems are not resolved through formal bourgeois forms:

    modern, postrevolutionary suspicion founded sociology as an attempt by Auguste Comte, and by Marx, to remake otherwise (but how?) what political economy could only demolish. This remaking has not ended. Marcel Mauss, describing the gift in primitive societies as a total social phenomenon, or Georges Bataille meditating on sacrifice, both of them unreservedly opposed to calculable reciprocity, plainly continue the same concern, and each time it is sociology that assumes Penelope's impossible task: to remake, to reweave what political economy … destroys and isolates by the cleavage that it introduces and the autonomization that it installs. (Goux and Wood, 1998: 40)

    This implies the struggle to realise the demand for social justice and solidarity cannot be achieved, within a single metaphysical frame of the Enlightenment's grand narrative for bourgeois society.

    French social theory from Comte and Baudrillard attempted to think the present from the point of view of a radical future. The hypertelic violence in Comte was visible to all those who wanted to construct a rational and liberal secular elite, after the death of God (Serres, 1995b: 449). Comte is not just a post-theological logothete who says in effect that the loss of the metaphysical world is a loss that ‘must be ordered in order to become unconditional’ (Barthes, 1976: 5). Rather, he is a logothete who transgresses the metaphysical revolution itself by closing ‘the ethical circle, answering by a final vision of values … the initial revolutionary choice’ (Barthes, 1977: 77). Comte presented a social vision that was both a perfect scientific structuration and a sentimental reactionary synthesis, which opened the door to the radical and extreme right.

    The radical view today is expressed by Baudrillard: ‘You can always fight the global in the name of the universal. I prefer the direct confrontation between globalization and all the antagonistic singularities … what happens may run against history, against politics’ (Baudrillard, [1997] 1998a: 23). Singularity against history. The challenge to theory here asks whether a problematic, such as the Saint-Simonian, based as it is on the struggle against poverty, exploitation and anomie, can still address issues that arise in a post-industrial society dominated by hypertelic forms: problems of obesity, saturation, fetishistic individualism and extreme phenomena?

    These issues threaten to take theory beyond end-of-cycle postmodernism.


    1 In this conclusion I have drawn from Mike Gane, ‘Reading gender futures, from Comte to Baudrillard’, Social Epistemology, (2001), vol. 14, no. 2: 77–89.


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