Friday, March 15, 2013

Musings on Carol Blum's Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue

This is a review of Carol Blum's Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue that I wrote for a seminar on the French Revolution in 1988. I was a doctoral student in Anthropology but I was developing a strong interest in history. I had begun to recognise that a Sociology and and Anthropology without history--the disciplines without history--were anemic and as such problematic. So I started taking History classes and started applying what I learned in these history classes to my exploration of social and cultural theory and the study of culture and ideology.

Perhaps the most controversial issue in late twentieth century social science has been the nature and role ideology has in and continues to play in social and cultural formations. Traditionally, ideology has been conceptualised as political in nature, those interrelated ideas western civilisation has referred to as conservative, liberal, or communist, or as the justifications for particular economic systems, capitalist or feudal, for example. Increasingly, however, social and human scientists have teased another definition of ideology from Marx's text, one at variance with the ideology as false conscious notion above. In this other perspective ideology is naturalisation. It is that which makes "real" a particular world view. This version of ideology perhaps reaches its apex in its Foucauldian variant where ideology becomes discourse, ways of seeing embedded in binary form in human language in all of its forms.

It is this notion of ideology that Carol Blum in her Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Cornell University Press: 1986), draws upon, if implicitly, in her analysis of the Rousseauvian discourse of virtue and her exploration of how that discourse of virtue influenced the leading "radical" participants in the French Revolution. Blum delineates how one particular reading of a virtue derived from Rousseau by Robespierre and his coterie of revolutionary disciples gave rise to a specific ideology which emphasized the natural virtuousness of man. This revolutionary reading of Rousseau, claims Blum, had an emotive quality that was mystical in nature and was believed to allow the real revolutionaries to mystically unite their revolutionary virtue with that of the general will, the virtuous common will. Revolutionary intellectuals, claims Blum, came to believe that they, because they had merged their virtue with that of the common will, could, by looking into their own hearts express the will of "the people" and distinguish between the virtuous and good and the non-virtuous and wicked in revolutionary French society. Given this revolutionary intellectuals, claims Blum, came to believe that it was their duty to give definition to and build "institutions" which would allow this revolutionary virtue to flourish. In short they believed it was their duty to build a "republic of virtue" that would allow the good to flourish, the common will to flourish. It was, for Blum, this discourse derived from a reading, or better perhaps a misreading, of Rousseau, and the rise of a dictatorship of the revolutionary intellectuals that led to the Terror.

The Terror, for Blum, is predicated on the distinction between the virtuous and the non-virtuous. Any hindrance of the revolutionary programme was ascribed by revolutionary intellectuals to the heinous and evil actions of anti-revolutionaries. Moreover, since it was believed that this evilness could not emerge from within the general will it had to, it was believed, derive solely from an external source. Hence the Jacobin emphasis on treason and the external counterrevolutionary threat. Thus the need to fight the foreign aggressor.

Blum recognises the role institutional factors like the economic, the political, and other social factors played during the revolutionary years. She convincingly shows how these others were often viewed through the lenses of a particular ideology. She shows, for example, how Robespierre's response to the economic and food shortage crisis of the 1790s was structured by his ideological predispositions. Since his view of virtue was tied to an antimaterialism and to suffering he could not support the mass riots of this period which were aimed at obtaining foodstuffs, including luxury items like coffee and sugar, since it was an abrogation of revolutionary virtue. It was thus ideology, claims Blum, which brought about or furthered the split between the Jacobins and the sans-culottes.

Blum convincingly explicates how this Rousseavian cultural script arose and how it was diffused among particular groups, sometimes somewhat differently. Girondins, for example, had a notion of virtue, they believed also drawn from Rousseau, that was quite different from that of the Montagnards' view of virtue, which they too believed was derived from Rousseau. For the former, virtue was indicated in actions. For the latter virtue was the union with the mystical general will. For the latter it was anti-rational, emotive, and expressed itself in the attempt to "legislate", give birth to, and provide definition to the "republic of virtue". Like Calvinism's notion that one's elect status was revealed in wealth, Robespierre and his colleagues believed that their virtue was revealed in attempts by evil, external enemies to assassinate them, the virtuous mouthpieces of the general will.

What is particularly interesting, for the historical anthropologist, is the binary structure of this ideology, the good/evil or sacred/profane quality of the thought. One cannot help but relate this to Durkheim's notion that humans codify culture into sacred/profane poles, to Levi-Strauss'notion that human thought is binary, and the contentions of many contemporary semiologists that discourse is given meaning by the differences between various signs or meaning-units within the arbitrary sign system.

While showing how the cultural script, the discourse of Rousseau's "republic of virtue" originated, Blum does not, in my estimation, excavate sufficiently, the relationship of this discourse to cultural scripts present in late 18th century France. It did not, one assumes, originate in a vacuum. Moreover, although she differentiates between Rousseau, the actual living and breathing biological being, and "Rousseau", the self-representation of the former, she resorts to psychologistic explanations too often for my taste to explain the differences between the two. Instead of relating Rousseau and "Rousseau" to psychological factors she could and should, instead, have related them more to cultural scripts and to social institutional factors current in Rousseau's time and place and to social and cultural psychology. The issue of self-representation, moreover, raises interesting questions of actuality/manipulation which Blum only touches on. Blum could, in other words, have explored more extensively the differences between Rousseau and "Rousseau". Despite these rather picky caveats, however, Blum draws our attention, as did Weber in his essay on the origins of rationalistic capitalism, to the crucial role ideology plays in everyday life.

No comments:

Post a Comment