Understanding the History of Post-Structuralism via Vanishing Mediators and Anxieties of Influence, Part I: From Brunschvicg to Bachelard, and a detour via the Jazz Age

From Vanishing Mediators to Anxieties of Influence

Anyone who’s studied 20th century French philosophy, and the history of post-structuralism in particular, will easily admit that the twists and turns of its development can be baffling to those of us who didn’t live through it. And what I’ve come to conclude is that really it’s all about understanding the vanishing mediators.

This excellent term, first theorized by Fredric Jameson out of the some ideas in Hegel and Lacan, and deployed with great success by Slavoj Zizek, is as follows. When you encounter a historical chain of development that seems bizarre (ie: how did they get from A to B?!), in which a jump between one moment and another in history seems random, look for the vanishing mediator. That is, look for the transitional stage that for whatever reason, vanished after it had served its purpose.

The vanishing mediator is closely tied to the also excellent notion developed by Harold Bloom of the ‘anxiety of influence’, namely, that very often authors are incredibly influenced by one or more crucial influences in their intellectual development which profoundly shape who they are, but which they feel they need to negate strongly to gain their own freedom. Bloom presents this notion psychoanalytically, arguing that all authors need to get rid of their own textual ‘fathers’, and yet, they also often try to conceal this very process, lest they simply seem like rebellious teenagers.

The result is an anxiety of influence, an uneasy attempt to throw off the influence of the past which pervades a text like a ghost because it continually tries to deny that’s what it’s doing. Bloom does a nice job explaining why mediators vanish, namely, simply being against those before you makes you seem, well, unoriginal. The result, though, is that from the outside its own necessary yet difficult to reconstruct the vanishing mediators that really helped create the transitions between intellectual movements, or stages in people’s lives. Yet without these, the changes seem irrational, even unreasonable, and certainly mysterious. Reconstructing vanishing mediators therefore becomes an essential act in the writing of histories.

An Example of a Vanishing Mediator: The Jazz Age

Here’s a classic example. During the period between 1910 and 1930 or so, African-American culture became all the rage in NYC and Paris. Jazz became the watchword of the roaring twenties on both sides of the Atlantic, and African fashions all the rage. All of a sudden, all those things considered ‘primitive’ were suddenly considered hot, in vogue, so to speak, leading to the period called ‘Le Tumulte Noir’ in France. But by 1930, the vogue of whites for all things black was largely gone. What had happened?

As many cultural historians have shown, when the rising bourgeosie needed to find a form of public leisure to break with the peasant customs and aristocratic mores of the past, it needed to look somewhere else, because there were few models. In the early part of the century, there was a fascination with the working class (as early as Baudelaire, but continuing with the Impressionists in Montmartre), a period of powerful Orientalism in Paris (Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Bakst, etc.), but this paled in comparison to what was to come with the Jazz Age and its infatuation with all things black, something in evidence most clearly in both Paris and NYC.

But by the time the 1930’s arrived, imitating the largely urban and rural poor African-American styles was hardly exciting for the upper middle classes that, in the age of the Great Depression, were now afraid of becoming poor themselves. The vogue for all things African-American, and sometimes African, vanished nearly overnight, leaving many a black Jazz musician wondering what had happened, and why they were out of work.

Chip Rhodes does a great job in Structures of the Jazz Age, Sieglinde Lemke in Primitivist Modernisms, and Jodi Blake in Le Tumulte Noir, of explaining how it was that African-American culture became the vanishing mediator of 20th century mass culture. After Jazz music and dancing in dance halls became acceptable to suburban whites, they no longer found imitating African-American culture so fascinating. Black culture in its many forms was the vanishing mediator between the divisions between peasant/aristocratic leisures of the ninenteenth century (in which lesiure in public was only what the truly poor did), and the mass consumption, leisure, and culture of the 20th century.

Unless one links these two, however, it just seems that there was a vogue for things African, and a shift from one model of leisure to another, and an abrupt one at that. And the return to ‘law and order’ that dominated not only the 1930’s to the 1950’s starts to seem as much an anxiety of influence against the vanishing mediator that allowed it to give birth to itself than anything else. Who would’ve dreamed that the sock-hops of the 1950’s white teeny-boppers had its founding in the Jazz dance moves of New Orleans? Certainly not the girls in the poodle skirts! What’s needed is a reconstructive history.

Back to France: Alan Schrift’s Excellent ‘Twentieth Century French Thought’

Before jumping into why this is the case, one crucial text that really helps give a sense as to how all these vanishing mediators hang together is Alan Schrift’s truly excellent Twentieth Century French Philosophy (2006). I’ve read several history texts of this sort , but this one is truly a standout, I wish I’d have found it earlier, because it would’ve cleared up some lingering mysteries much sooner! I bought it because it looked like gossipy fun (Raymond Aron introducing Husserl to Sartre and de Bouvoir at a Montparnasse Cafe, afterwards Sartre goes and tracks down Levinas’ translations, fascinating!). But in hindsight, having read several books on these issues, this is the first one that left me feeling like I had an intuitive sense of why the changes that happened in France during these times did. I wish I’d read this book ten years ago!

Firstly, there’s an appendix devoted solely to understanding the nuances of the French university system, so very different from our own, explaining the differences at different points in their histories between the Sorbonne, University of Paris, ENS, EPHE, etc., as well as concepts such as aggregation, khagne, caiman, etc. There’s also an academic biography section, which lists off such useful info as who supervised who’s doctoral work, who studied with whom, and Schrift really goes out of his way to show how the incestuous nature of the very small French academic world creates these intense anxieties of influence whereby the dominant new style of one generation becomes the stifling mantle to be cast off by the next. Schrift’s emphasis on the role of institutions in producing knowledge is really carefully done.

The main body of the text is a really excellent 130pg, short but sweet explanation of the shifts in intellectual movements. I’ve gotta say, after reading this for the first time I have a sense of what someone like Brunschvicg stood for, or how the placement of sociology for so long within philosophy departments in the French academy influenced the developments of both disciplines, or why Bergson goes into such a long and slow eclipse (he had debilitating arthritis!).

From the B’s to the Three H’s: The First Vanishing Mediators of 20th Century French Thought

All of which brings us back to French Theory. The transitions between the movements, and the anxietites that haunt it, well, they simply seem bizarre unless one is able to link together the chains of vanishing mediators and anxieties of influence.

The first vanishing mediator, as Schrift nicely argues, is that the transition away from the B’s that dominated French thought in the early part of the century – Bruschvicg’s ‘slow progress of reason in history of thought’ style idealism and the first wave of Bergsonism, was largely accomplished by the three H’s of Heidegger, Husserl, and Hegel (via Kojeve). German thought, and phenomenology in particular, was what allowed French philosophers at this point to find a method to fit their increasingly more existentialist bent, giving rise to ‘existential phenomenology’ so familiar to us in hindsight today. At a time in which previous French philososophy seemed to naive to deal with the harsh times between the wars, phenomenology allowed the existentialists to talk about ‘the everyday’ in a way which got beyond what they saw as Bergsonian mystical irrationalism, and Brunschvicgian optimism.

Which helps to explain in hindsight why Heidegger, Husserl, and the Kojevian Hegel all of sudden became so important, paradoxically as German thinkers at a time when the rest of France was fleeing all things German, and helps explain why Bergson vanished so fast (Merelau-Ponty saying afterwards that if only they’d actually spent some time with Bergson’s texts, rather than just writing him off as a mushy spiritualist, they might not have had to reinvent the wheel on so many things). Notions like elan vital just seemed too otherwordly for concrete times, and Schrift does a great job of showing by Jean Wahl’s 1934 text Towards the Concrete really was the rallying cry of an entire generation that dominated French thought under the banner of existential phenomenology from the 30’s to the mid 50’s.

But then Sartrian existentialism began to fall away itself, as we all know, to the rising tide of structuralism starting in the mid 1950’s with the rise of figures like Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, and of course Levi-Strauss, the conduit to the catalystic reworking of Saussure produced by Roman Jakobson. I’ve long thought that this technocratic anti-humanism was in many ways a refraction of the Cold War, cyberneticist scientism of the age, its Manicheanism, and in this light it really can be seen as a mirror of various intellectual movements in the US at the time, from the functionalists in sociology to analytic Anglo-American philosophy to the New Critics in literary studies.

But Schrift does a nice job of showing how Structuralism’s other in France at the time was the very French version of philosophy of science called epistemologie, and represented by the crucial yet often forgotten ‘vanishing mediator’ figures which had an enormous influence on post-structuralism, namely Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Alexandre Koyre. While Koyre is a bit older than the other two, Bachelard and Canguilhem were crucial influences on figures like Foucault and Bourdieu and their return to history after the structuralist attempts to bracket all things historical. Bachelard’s influential notion of the ‘epistemological break’ in the history of science was to have a real influence on Althusser among others, but the entire approach to history of science, so similar in many ways to Thomas Kuhn, that developed amongst these three figures really was to be a major influence on the way history was read as a series of ruptures between paradigms by an entire generation, but particularly in the work of Foucault, but also in Lacan’s approach to the individual histories of subjects in psychoanalysis.


~ by chris on August 4, 2011.

One Response to “Understanding the History of Post-Structuralism via Vanishing Mediators and Anxieties of Influence, Part I: From Brunschvicg to Bachelard, and a detour via the Jazz Age”

  1. […] the first set of vanishing mediators in twentieth century French thought, described in my last post, are Husserl, Heidegger, and Kojeve’s Hegel, that set of influences that helped kill off […]

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