Anthropology in France, a reply to Grant McCracken

“Our heads are full of preconceptions. In everyday experience, as much as in the work of social sciences, our thinking applies instruments of knowledge, which serve to construct the object when they should be taken as the object”

Bourdieu, The Craft of Sociology, 1991, p.248-9

I am right back from another worthwhile visit on Grant McCracken’s blog. After reading a post he committed on French culture & economy following his latest visit to Paris (please, read here), I feel compelled to reply.

The reason is that obviously the description which he proposes to the reader (a less than encouraging picture of the economic situation in my country) and, even more, the historico-anthropological framework he develops in order to account for that situation, did not let me indifferent.

The goal of my answer is certainly not to point at some naive misconceptions, deep misunderstandings or basic stereotypes regarding French society, I would have hunted down in the prose of some ignorant foreigner, unable to grasp the big truth of French culture. I do not claim any ownership nor special ability in defining what French culture could possibly consist of. This because, in my opinion, culture does not exist but in relational terms. That is, in the eyes, feelings, and words of those who talk about it and live through it. This allowing for an irreducible plurality of description as for what a given culture is. In that sense, a culture is the entire spectrum of points of view shaded upon it. This is precisely where my critics to Grant’s post originates.

– First of all, the problem I have with the line of thought is that it builds up on the paradox noted by Grant that despite French recurrent reference to the concept of “equality” (égalité) an informed observation of the actual functioning of the country reveals the “improbable” equality between French citizens. Then, somehow, the discussion tacks from fineness/culinary considerations to a superior devotion to aesthetic values in order to explain the inability for France to embrace “destructive creation”, that is the rules of innovation, competition and other responsiveness that the rest of the world has supposedly made his. I mean, I wonder whether the destructive creation narrative is that shared and what performative/normative mechanisms made it leave the circle of Schumpeterian economists in the first place. A genealogy of this would no doubt be instructive. Anyways.

Central to my critics, is the fact that Grant does not try, even briefly, “to follow the actors” as ethnomethodology and ANT would say. Instead of dismissing the égalité, at least implicitly, as a mere chimera at odd with true social realities, shouldn’t we try to figure out why is it that most Frenchmen, regardless of their “objective” situation , whether social status, financial resources, educational level, geographic location, are likely and even willing to bound themselves to this notion of égalité ? Couldn’t we let them define it and its accuracy and importance to their sense of what French society is /ought to be ?

By doing so, I assume, one may avoid the temptation of digging out fragile genealogies which are more speculative and artificial than grounded in the symbolic value informant work hard to attach to their practices or, as in this precise case, to the concepts and values they claim to be important to them. What does égalité mean for the persons interviewed ? Where does the imperative of such a concept for self definition come from ? How does it resist and perpetuate today ? Why despite the contradictory feeling the researcher may have, based on the analysis of external categories (salaries, education, etc) , people still name it a pillar of their national identity ? And do they themselves feel a tension ? If so, how do they cope with it ?

Could that be that the external categories miss something ? Could that be that the truth of these informants answers is as tangible, as objective, as that of the inequality shown by statistics and Bourdieu-inspired denunciations of lasting social Distinction ? Could that be that it is more than an evidence of their ignorance of sociological realities of the society they live in one may otherwise infer?

– The second critic I have also deal with methodological consideration. Actually, it is more of a remark. By reading the explanation Grant provides in order to render the progressive fall of French society / culture (?) from its overwhelmingly dominant status to a state of disgraceful and outdated model (which, by the way, will be questioned below), I can’t help thinking that everything he mentions regarding French culture and history is contra others: contra the “historical convention” of late medieval Europe; contra the “cretins” of North America and their own cultural traditions, etc. For example, he refers to these “French restaurants” which for long brought a bit of France’s fineness to rough Americans. But wait a sec ! Does that say something about the essence of French culture ? Which one ? That of Frenchmen living in France ? Or the representation of French culture as elaborated by US citizens through artifacts available in their homeland ? Artifacts, like the “French restaurants”, about which one may wonder whether they were genuinely French or some re-appropriation -obviously perfectly legitimate!- of the idea of French cuisine by locals. On another field, Francois Cusset as shwon the extent to which French Theory of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & co had been profoundly altered by what I would call local US “grammar of reception” when their texts crossed the Atlantic.

The point of me mentioning this example, is that I believe that Grant does not talk about French culture per se but rather about French culture from somewhere, from the relationship that the US citizens – with a wide array of subtle nuances – themselves have forged with it. It seems to me that Grant tells us at least as much about US cultural relationship with France than about France contemporary problems and their origins. This certainly does not disqualify his analysis but explain why I, with my personal cultural trajectory, find it slightly unconvincing.

But, I reckon, this is a bit easy for me to say ! So without having attended the interviews, I’ll risk my own interpretation of the informants consistent reference to égalité. One that includes some sort of reflexive dimension because it pretends to encompass the bound the researcher holds with his object. So here it comes : as they knew Grant was coming from the US, the persons he interviewed found it useful, effective and telling to wave the concept of égalité in order to show that here (well, in France) it was different than in the US ! That the values that they associate with the US were antagonistic, in their own eyes, to those of France! Yes, in the very situation of the interview, with an American, maybe égalité was a polite way to say “non-American” and I believe had the interviewer been German or Chinese, they would have replied differently (For example, throwing “liberté” (freedom) in the face of our Chinese guy). After all, Philippe Roger, in his impressive and exhaustive, The American Enemy, has shown how anti-Americanism has consistently been an entrenched imaginary of France cultural and political life and how it has gathered intellectual élites as well as popular classes, from the far left to the nationalist right for more than 2 centuries… in other words, an ideal almost as broadly shared as that of égalité ! :)

Lastly, I shall conclude with some brief economic considerations: France culture may no longer be attractive to “miserable cretins living in the far provinces“, hereby affecting the economic situation of the whole country but France is still the first tourist destination in the world and French luxury and fashion products have never sold as well as today. I would even argue that the troublesome but symbolic wine industry is a case in point, unlike what the appearances may led us to think: the high range wines which are still profoundly endowed with a touch of French art de vivre, like Champagne, quality Bordeaux and Bourgognes reached prices that increasingly make them very sought after objects of global speculation. The limited quantities and absence of competition on this segment make them goods or assets which value will keep increasing dramatically as Indian or Chinese upper classes grow in number. On the contrary, those wines which lack distinctive frenchness do no longer stand apart from the crowds and face stiff competition : they are considered as mere wine and no longer French wines. 2 very different product categories whose different endowment in symbolic value reflects in terms of pricing strategies, consumption patterns, distribution channels, promotion tools.

Oh ! Before I forget, unlike what the harsh critics I have outlined above may suggest, I truly admire the academic work of Grant on consumption and really love his blog. Furthermore I do not pretend to unveil any deeper true but rather wish to take an other perspective than his on the matter under discussion… a perspective that one should criticize as least as much as his.

So, please, give your (unpleasant) comments !

References:

Cusset François (2003) French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte.

Roger, Philippe (2005) The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism. Translated by Sharon Bowman.

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1 Response to “Anthropology in France, a reply to Grant McCracken”


  1. 1 DC1974 19/04/2007 at 6:37 pm

    Thank you for saying what I was trying to say with the Japanese example at Grant’s blog. And then adding all kinds of additional insight that I did not have the intelligence to add myself.


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Let this diversity of opinions be propounded to, and laid before him; he will himself choose, if he be able; if not, he will remain in doubt. "Che non men che saver, dubbiar m' aggrata." ["I love to doubt, as well as to know."-- Dante, Inferno, xi. 93] for, if he embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato, by his own reason, they will no more be theirs, but become his own. Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing, nay, is inquisitive after nothing. "Non sumus sub rege; sibi quisque se vindicet." ["We are under no king; let each vindicate himself." --Seneca, Ep.,33]"
Montaigne - Essais I, XXVI, Of The Education of Children
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