jeudi 8 mai 2008


It’s been a staple of rightist politicians in France since the 3rd Republique was founded (1871) to tell the French they were suffering from an identity crisis. See Dreyfus and the years preceding WWII. Not to mention 1968 and its wake. I’ve personally heard that line since Giscard became president (1974). The bottom line is to tell people: “You’re sick and you don’t know you are but I’ve got the right medicine for you.” All in all, the identity crisis is a worn out tool in the hands of rightist politicians. Their medicine they call “modernisation”. Now, what is to be understood under this word?

That is really interesting because it may be an opportunity to see how the same word may not refer to the same mental representation between an American and a French. Correct me if I’m wrong but I have the feeling “modernity” for an American usually means “state of the art infrastructures and technology”. A very realistic and down to earth concept. In France there’s been the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” more than 3 centuries ago. They were referring to the 2000 year old Greco-Roman values and merits…

Once again, it all has to do with History. When a country is the continuation of a centuries old process of thoughts and progress it has regularly to “reinvent” (for lack of another word) itself because this process is an integral part of both its Identity and Being. Rimbaud in the XIXth is famous for his

“Il faut être résolument moderne”

Hence you can understand modernity in France, and Europe generally speaking, refers primarily not to reality in the materialistic sense of it but on the opposite, refers to a mental state of mind. It nearly bears a Spirituality meaning. From there, it’s easy to understand how misconceptions arise between the two shores of the pond about just one word which actually has two opposite meanings. And this potential misunderstanding is all the more fascinating because “modernity” may be the word Americans (in general) may find the most appropriate to define their country and their culture. Misunderstanding between our two countries often comes from 2 very different (and contradictory) interpretations about one apparently same word. This is another example of such misconception.

The funny thing is that such abyss between the 2 interpretations of this very same word may lead many Americans -through what they’re given to read in their MSM- to believe France is a backward country, stuck in between the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries at best, but certainly way behind America in terms of state of the art infrastructures and technologies. Well, it’s not. The same applies with the word “socialism” which may lead many well-meant Americans into believing France is somewhat a mixture of North Korea and Stalinist Romania…

This reminds me of a quote by a famous American diplomat (was it Powell?) who complained that, when asked a very simple question, the French will start with a complete history of the world or, at least, would go into interminable references to the past and literature and arts etc. ad nausea… Darn it! Can’t they answer yes or no to a simple question? Well, I started by questioning modernity and you’ve been told about Greco-Roman values, about a XVIIth century old literary quarrel between members of the Académie Française and a quote by a XIXth century French poet.

In Marxist terms there are the infrastructures and the superstructures. Regarding “modernity”, I understand Americans would generally tend to consider the infrastructures as the place where modernity is to be found and where its meaning is best exemplified. For Europeans, modernity may be more a matter of superstructure (mindsets and moral values) than anything else.

It is often said in Europe that America is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to sciences and techniques.//…//It is sometimes difficult not to think America lags 10 centuries behind regarding its relations with the other countries and peoples of the world.

This may be considered as a blatant illustration of the difference between infrastructures and superstructures. (think religion for example)

7 commentaires:

ned a dit…

A short history of "modernity". Marxism 101.

Anonyme a dit…

"In Marxist terms there are the infrastructures and the superstructures."
Yes, but again you are quoting someone of the past. How then any American "modernity" concept could make its way through this? How would it be possible to make it understandable?
[quote] WTF with your structures and stuff, you backward blockhead?

Not that i disagree with your infra/superstructure parallel.
Plenty of dead people are around to give us clues to evaluate what a valuable modernity is.

Would the problem be that, on the other side of waters, the Founding Fathers didn't go as far as to include some "anatomy of dependance" vis-à-vis the Old World? But conquerors never look back. Constant state of the art in everything is the limit. Ask no questions.


Flocon a dit…

How then any American "modernity" concept could make its way through this?

Objection recevable en effet. Je n'y avais pas pensé de cette aussi évidente façon.

Mais n'était-ce pas au fond la raison d'être du billet? rapprocher et confronter deux understandings of the same word?

I didn't know "Anatomy of dependance".
Even the japanese article in Wiki seems to be rather short.

Tu avais écrit il y a quelque mois que les Chinois et les Japonais entretenaient également des relations du même ordre que les US et la France.

Si cela se traduit aussi dans la bloggosphère extrême orientale et que tu y participes, tu dois en lire des vertes et des pas mûres... lol

Flocon a dit…


Thanks for the link. What you don't find on youTube! Amazing.

Scholarship is really fun and entertaining (no irony here)

Anonyme a dit…

In fact, "Anatomy of dependance" refers to a typically Japanese social concept and context, and might be debated as inadequate in the case of the Euro-US relations.

What i meant to say is that accepting to be indebted to some other (an ability or humility to put oneself in the state of acceptance or recognition of another modernity) is not a notion gladly endorsed on the US side when it comes to Old World cultural values or world matters. At any rate, not as easily as Euros let US arts or entertainments or way of life influence their lives.
While we see the US as an extension of Europe, like a distant child to be admired or scolded, they take at heart to see Europe as a place to be left behind. This is that kind of parental relation which made me think of an "anatomy of dependance", albeit different from the Japanese context.

Yes, Chinese and Japanese relations have long known some Euro/US-wise (respectively) state of opinion, and still do, in their way. Like (as an extreme example) many Chinese would say that the Japanese slaughtered their own ancestors in Nanking.
They don't discuss their mutual love/hate so much because of linguistic reasons, but also because both feel that this kind of relations are rooted in each other country's destiny and no one can help.
But both accept now a thoughtless "modernity" à l'américaine, without really asking what is the bottom line. Some dictature à la mode Far East of the "pursuit of happiness"...


Flocon a dit…


accepting to be indebted to some other (an ability or humility to put oneself in the state of acceptance or recognition of another modernity) is not a notion gladly endorsed on the US side when it comes to Old World cultural values or world matters

"Les obligations que l'on a de récompenser les bienfaits et les faveurs reçus sont des liens qui ne laissent point en liberté un esprit libre."

Don Quichotte (II, chap. 58)

Ou encore

"Devoir, est-ce s'appartenir?"

Balzac (la peau de chagrin)

Ca vaut dans un sens comme dans l'autre (we saved your ass in WWII etc.).
Rien de plus naturel, on ne saurait le reprocher à qui que ce soit.

they take at heart to see Europe as a place to be left behind

Oui, j'ai une idée de billet ("extension du domaine de la lutte") avec cet élément.

Je vais m'absenter quelques jours donc pas avant +/- le 20 mai.

KD a dit…

Not much time to read, seems you have posted some very good post that I will come back.

So, Bonjour

I will return later in the weekend to catch up on reading.