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French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment

French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment

by Paul Rabinow
In this study of space and power and knowledge in France from the 1830s through the 1930s, Rabinow uses the tools of anthropology, philosophy, and cultural criticism to examine how social environment was perceived and described. Ranging from epidemiology to the layout of colonial cities, he shows how modernity was revealed in urban planning, architecture, health and


In this study of space and power and knowledge in France from the 1830s through the 1930s, Rabinow uses the tools of anthropology, philosophy, and cultural criticism to examine how social environment was perceived and described. Ranging from epidemiology to the layout of colonial cities, he shows how modernity was revealed in urban planning, architecture, health and welfare administration, and social legislation.

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French Modern

Norms and Forms of the Social Environment

By Paul Rabinow

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1989 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-70174-5


The Crisis of Representations: From Man to Milieux

In a treatise written in 1682, a certain Alexandre Le Maître, a French Protestant engineer working for the Prussians, proposed a particularly crystalline condensation of the elements of classical space. Le Maître placed the capital of a hypothetical kingdom at the geometric center of a circular territory. All that moved—and circulation was an absolutely central concept and symbol in the Classical Age—was obliged to pass through the capital, where the sovereign could profit from, learn from, and regulate it. Le Maître's scheme was never implemented, although the spatial linkage of economy, society, and power was destined for a long career. Such utopian schemas for regulating a functionally organized whole, once unmoored from the metaphysics of representation, would provide elements and techniques for later non-utopian schemas of power, knowledge, society, and space.

For Louis XIV and his court, appearance was being. Louis sought to build and run a court in which the complete ordering of life, the orchestrated mise-en-scène of every single gesture at court, and the correct public presentation of the most minute and what would later seem to be intimate acts, all aimed at the display of an elaborate hierarchy of relations. This hierarchy consisted of, was constructed from, and depended on the possibility of correct representations, of palpable form. The sovereign dream was of a realm in which, in every gesture, the order of the kingdom and the glory of the sovereign would be enacted: an endless opera.

As the economy-minded Colbert discovered to his chagrin, this opera was a great deal more than a means of impoverishing the aristocracy. Louis, having constructed in his court the greatest spectacle of the century, believed himself to be its greatest actor. One of the absolutely essential skills of the king and of the aristocracy—in addition to hunting and rhetorical skills learned from Cicero—was dancing. Dance, it was held, modeled all of the body's movements and displayed them to the greatest effect. Every gesture, every movement, and every step was measured and studiously composed. Dancing, more than an adornment, was performed with high seriousness; it was a fonction d'état to which the court's aristocrats assiduously devoted several hours each day. These courtly dances were enactments of complex hierarchical status relations. Each player had his or her role, with its prescribed and proscribed moves. The elaborate ballets, adroitly or clumsily performed, in which these relations were danced paralleled the nobility's rhythms of daily life at court, itself only a slightly looser choreographic display of order.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Lettre sur la musique française, indicted the music played at court: its tones, its harmonies, and its pacing. In the name of the authenticity and integrity of the person, of social relations, and of the human heart, Rousseau railed against the baroque play of appearance. The Revolution put an end to sovereignty; Rousseau, as Foucault ironizes, hailed the modern age of individuality and social inclusion for all.

Almost Modern: The Society for the Observation of Man

All three terms—Man, observation, and society—were in the process of changing meanings in the long threshold between the classical age and modern times (arguably between the French Revolution and the 1830s, although dates differ from country to country and domain to domain). Thus, Foucault's claim that there was a time "when the world, its order and human beings existed, but man did not," while occasioning polemics, does not differ substantially from the analyses of other scholars of the period. Modernity, the era of Man, began when representations ceased to provide a reliable grid for the knowledge of things. Modernity was not distinguished by the attempt to study man with objective methods—such projects had already a long history—nor by the attempt to achieve clear and distinct knowledge through analysis of the subject, but "rather [by] the constitution of an empirico-transcendental doublet called man. Man appears as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows." How he sought to know the social world and himself as a social being capable of reform is central to this book.

What was meant by société was changing as well. When the court used the term, they meant "high society" in a status sense. (Rousseau often, if not exclusively, used it in a denigrating manner to refer to the same people.) Liberal economists employed the term for freely-entered-into contractual arrangements, for associations. The modern sense of society as a "whole way of life," to use Raymond Williams deceptively simple definition, was taking shape as well during this period. What was meant by "a whole way of life," as well as how one might observe it, describe it, and finally improve it, constitutes another major theme of this book and of modernity as well.

In many ways the Society for the Observation of Man hovered between Enlightenment projects (and enthusiasm) for global understanding and their more troubled modern transformations. A discussion of its projects and activities serves to introduce aspects of the crucial themes of research, reform, and contingency. The Society is of interest on a number of levels. Epistemologically, Foucault identifies the Idéologues as occupying a special transitional place between the Age of Representations and the modern sciences of Man. More ominously, George Stocking has pointed to Georges Cuvier's famous research protocol for the comparative study of human physical structures as crossing another threshold of modernity, one leading toward later racist developments in nineteenth-century social science, i.e., scientific defense of fixed racial hierarchies. Recent studies have underscored the Society's historical significance as a forerunner of modern, fieldwork-oriented ethnography: the comprehensiveness of the descriptive project of other peoples through the systematic collection of social facts, as well as spatial and visual incorporation of those facts in scientific and pedagogic anthropological museums. The hopes for, dangers and partial successes of, and constantly renewed promises for the imminent construction of an empirical human science as the guide to understanding and improving first humanity, then society—"missionary and didactic pathos"—will appear in different transformations time and time again in this book.

The Société des Observateurs de l'Homme was founded during the first months of the Napoleonic period, in December 1799, with an aim typical of the Enlightenment in its scope and hopefulness: to study man's moral, physical, and intellectual existence so as to accelerate human progress and increase human happiness. Its motto was "Know thyself." The Société's approach to such knowledge—its insistence on avoiding the "spirit of system" through the gathering of facts based on observation and comparison—while itself not radically new, was nonetheless, we can now see, an indication of changes brewing at the time. Among its members were distinguished scientists and philosophers; biologists (Cuvier, Lamarck, Jussieu, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire); physicians (Cabanis and Pinel); explorers (Bougainville); and linguists and philosophers (Destutt de Tracy and JosephMarie de Gérando). Less illustrious members included its founder, Louis-François Jauffret (1770–1850), a naturalist and author of children's books. The Société's life span was a short four years. After Napoleon turned against the group, whom he dubbed the "Idéologues," and eliminated their stronghold at the Institut de France, the Classe des Sciences Morales et Politiques, the Société's days were numbered. Still, it constituted a significant incandescent moment, hovering on and illuminating one of many thresholds between the Enlightenment and modernity.

The Société's projects—to study the childhood of a deaf mute, a Chinese man in a Parisian hospital, and the influences of different professions on the characters of those who follow them—resonate with the ring of the Enlightenment. The Idéologue program called for unifying the sciences of man and nature within a common epistemology based on the rectification of language. The program was a totalizing one that attempted to encompass all knowledge. Destutt de Tracy classified his program as part of a zoology with man at its center. The dream of scientific unity, under the banner of a purified and transparent language and a naturalist method, flared brightly one last time. The gap between this project and its fulfillment was much larger, and the time in which to accomplish it much shorter, than any of these optimistic men of science suspected when they put it forward with such enthusiasm.

In March 1800 a certain Captain Nicolas Baudin (1754–1803), already a veteran of several scientific voyages, proposed to the Institut de France a project for a grandiose naturalist mission to the South Seas. Napoleon, himself a member of the Classe des Sciences Mathématiques et Physiques, approved a scaled-down version of the expedition. The Institut turned to the Société des Observateurs de l'Homme for aid in formulating its scientific agenda. Jauffret exuberantly welcomed the possibility of hailing "a new age in the intellectual history of mankind." The mission itself was rather a disaster, with the scientists bickering among themselves and with the crew, and with disease and rough seas contributing to a less than epochal accomplishment.

The Société's enduring achievements lie in its preparation of two programmatic memoirs drafted to guide the research of the ill-fated voyage: Joseph Marie de Gérando (1772–1842), recently returned from exile and recognized by the Institut for his work on signs, wrote Considerations on the Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) wrote An Instructive Note on the Researches to be Carried Out Relative to the Anatomical Differences Between the Diverse Races of Man. De Gérando, echoing Rousseau's Second Discourse but proposing an empirical solution, opened his considerations by linking the egoism of the age to the general lack of serious attention to what man really is. As nature is the true master, he argued, the path to understanding is not through the construction of philosophical systems but through methodical observation. Savages, subject to fewer modifying influences, offered an excellent field for such observations. "The philosophic traveller, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact travelling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age." If the pleasures of scientific understanding were not themselves sufficient to justify the enterprise, then the added joy, the "high feelings of philanthropy," of bringing progress and enlightenment to these benighted savages, themselves full members of universal society albeit in an inferior state, should suffice.

De Gérando's peroration urged the voyagers to spread Europe's enlightenment, not its passions, wars, vices, slavery, and egotism. He listed seven categories of faults that had flawed previous descriptions of savage peoples, ranging from incomplete observations, due to insufficient amount of time spent among the people, to hasty generalizations drawn from one atypical individual, to dubious analogies with Europe's customs, to the root failing: the lack of linguistic fluency. To remedy these shortcomings, de Gérando, following Idéologue procedures, outlined a systematic methodology for learning native languages, methodically moving from the simplest gestures to the most complex ideas. Language fluency would bring knowledge and community: "It is by learning their language that we shall become their fellow citizens." The naiveté as well as the generosity of spirit involved in this program shine forth.

De Gérando did not have a concept of society as prior to and constitutive of individuals. His method progressed from the physical environment, through the body, through sensations, and up to moral ideas; climate, food, physical strength, sleep, needs, cannibalism, clothes, illness, imbecility, physical education, and longevity; ideas of immortality and the like; attention, memory, foresight, reflection, reflective needs, and variety; the authority of the father, kinship and fraternity, women, modesty, love, marriage, divorce and polygamy, and the moral education of children; internal political relations, magistrates, external political relations, war, military art, arms, courage, peace, alliance, strangers, and hospitality; civil relations, property, and crime; economic relations, industry, domestication of animals, nomadism, tools, commerce, and amusement; population; moral and religious relations, virtues, affections, friendships, patriotism, religious ceremonies, priests, temples, idols, tombs, and traditions. De Gérando thought it highly desirable to bring back to France representative savages, one of each sex and age—best of all, a whole family, an image of society in miniature. Should the savages object, as was to be expected, the "illustrious messengers of philosophy, peaceful heroes" should regale them with accounts of the precious treasures of enlightenment. Even without such a trophy, the travelers should console themselves during the hardship they were sure to endure with the thought of increased understanding, glory, and trade for France, and of perhaps civilizing whole nations for humanity.

The linked and complementary goals of universal enlightenment and universal commerce contained no space of opacity. De Gérando was no cultural relativist but a universalist preaching progress which, with the aid of science, the whole species might well attain. The philosophical presuppositions of the Idéologues posited a common set of human capacities and responses. Human history led through stages to an increasing perfection. Empirical investigation could specify details but not really discover anything new about the overall pattern. Differences stemmed from alterable environmental conditions and could be changed.

Georges Cuvier, in his "Notes instructives sur les recherches à faire relativement aux différences anatomiques des diverses races d'hommes," argued that the first steps in understanding racial differences had barely yet been taken; in fact, during the eighteenth century not a single detailed comparison of Negro and white skeletons had been conducted. The possibility for scientific comparison emerged only with the geometric method of measuring skulls invented by Camper, which demonstrated to Cuvier's satisfaction the physical differences among races. The moral, intellectual, and artistic consequences of this diversity were less well known. Scientific progress required a disciplined collection of specimens. Anticipating that sailors might view the preservation of skulls as barbaric, Cuvier advised the captain to counter objections through a reasoned defense of the usefulness of such practices to the advancement of science. Cuvier acknowledged that exact description and the correct preservation of remains might have to suffice. His research protocol specified that portraits of all subjects should be painted in the same position, with their hair combed in the same manner, so as to reveal the foreheads as much as possible. All disfiguration, decoration, and jewelry should be ignored. Cuvier reluctantly admitted that systematic portraiture had its value, but longed for a methodical collection, especially of skulls, representing the fullest range of ages, sexes, and so on.

Cuvier and de Gérando went their separate ways. By 1817, after a series of bitter intellectual and institutional battles with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier turned to deterministic racial explanations of levels of civilization, opening the way, as George Stocking indicates, for some of the less enlightened trends of the nineteenth century. The epistemological basis of Cuvier's conception of species as fixed and invariable was his firm belief that Buffon was wrong—nature was not composed of individuals upon whom classification was imposed, but rather of a series of "types." In the following decades, as we shall see shortly, the status of "types" became the focus of passionate debates about truth and value in both statistics and architecture. Symptomatically, de Gérando shifted his interests to social philanthropy, transferring the fruits of his pioneering work with savages to understanding and aiding those other others, the poor.

Social Life: Spaces and Functions

Approaches to a modern understanding of society have vacillated between two poles: one has sought to capture man's nature through analyzing underlying, law-like universal mechanisms; the other has sought historical or interpretive methods adequate to the notion that knowledge was produced by men formed by certain historical, social, or economic conditions—that understanding and particularity were linked, that knowledge had a history, and that history was the means by which empirical understanding could be given adequate form. The sciences of man in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are a litany of attempts to perfect one or the other of these approaches or, more ambitiously, to combine them in a grander synthesis. It was in the life sciences that this discursive field was first articulated.


Excerpted from French Modern by Paul Rabinow. Copyright © 1989 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Paul Rabinow is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.  

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