Monday, January 21, 2008

Rosanvallon interview

The most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas includes a translation of an interview with Pierre Rosanvallon, conducted by Javier Fernández Sebastián in Madrid in September of 2006. Sam Moyn provides some introductory paragraphs. The interview covers a great deal of ground, but a few things in particular piqued my interest.

I’d like to hear more of Rosanvallon’s thoughts on the role of the intellectual in contemporary society. Here he says “In France, the dominant model has been that of the individual who commits his academic legitimacy or his own academic projects in the public arena in order to take a stand. It's a vision that I've never shared. I don't see what special legitimacy an individual would have to interfere in a domain that is not his own. Granted, it's acceptable in a society where the access to public speech is very limited.” So Voltaire and Zola were doing the right thing, because if they didn’t speak, perhaps truth wouldn’t be spoken. But in today’s society, many voices are able to make themselves heard, and the academic has no special duty to speak for other people. Today, the intellectual’s “work has and ought to have the function of rendering contemporary society's difficulties more intelligible...A more lucid society that better understands its questions will perhaps be more rational, will be a society in which political deliberation will be able to be stronger and more active. Hence, I've defined the intellectual as someone who first and foremost possesses tools of comprehension, tools which may also become instruments of action.” (713)

I understand this to imply that I, as a historian (let’s say) of 19th and 20th century intellectual history, am not especially in a position to use my cultural capital or legitimacy to speak out against (for instance) police brutality. Rosanvallon gives two reasons for this that don’t exactly fit together. First, there are plenty of voices speaking, why, if I have no special knowledge, should I speak? Second, no one would listen to me anyway, since the intellectual is no longer able to aspire to meaningful celebrity status. Rosanvallon still, however, thinks that the intellectual should be filling the time-honored role of explaining society to itself--that is, to render society intelligible so that it can perhaps be changed for the better. I wonder if it really is possible to provide genuinely useful and new conceptualizations of society and politics without, also, engaging oneself with issues to which one has no deep ties.

At the end of the interview, Sebastián asks Rosanvallon whether he thinks the revolutions in the Spanish-speaking world—variously described as “Ibero-American,” and “Hispanic”—should be considered along with the North American and French as the third great revolutionary cycle of the period, crucial, in their own way, to the birth of modern political culture. Rosanvallon says yes, of course. I wonder how he would conceptualize the Hatian revolution? Would he take any interest in it, or would he regard it as an aberration, overturning as it did a slave society, rather than a feudal one, and replacing it not with a slowly liberalizing set of democratic institutions, but with long-term dictatorship? Would he make anything out of the republican rhetoric of the revolutionaries, or would its failure to produce a durable institutional structure disqualify it?

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