Review: Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)
Loren Goldner

If the word “le pouvoir” immediately conjures up, in French, a constellation of centralized institutions and the meritocratic elite which administers them, America’s crazy-quilt federalism and bizarre episodes of Gothic retrogressionism take the edge off its literal English rendition as ‘power.’ By the same token, Michel Foucault’s concerns were necessarily Americanized when they crossed the Atlantic. His name has been invoked, quite externally and artificially, in monographs of an otherwise solid Anglo-American empiricism that happened to deal with ‘Foucaultian” disciplinary themes of hospital, prison, school, or family; in less fortunate cases, it gives panache to writings of figures like LaCapra, which barely rise above the level of erratic and shoddy intellectual journalism. Whether Foucault ultimately proves to be merely the advanced exponent of the ruling ideas of this epoch or their radical critic, it is undeniable that behind a wide swath of contemporary new social history, philosophy, literary studies, and art history, a Foucaultian “mood” has imposed itself, even below the level of conscious influence.

It must nonetheless be said from the outset that Paul Rabinow’s book, French Modern, whatever its problems, exists on an entirely different level. It is neither a four-footed empiricist monograph to which the ideas of Foucault are needlessly appended, nor an exercise in fashionable theory bolstered by a smattering of history. Rabinow, an anthropologist who was grappling with North African realities long before he discovered Foucault, has assembled an impressive array of materials from a remarkable range of disciplines and never lets his framework interfere in obvious fashion with their elaboration. Again and again, when the drift of French Modern seems about to become transparent, Rabinow introduces a new dimension drawn from the history of architecture, biology, public health, geography, social thought, mathematics, ethnography, urbanism, colonial counterinsurgency, the workers’ movement, and technocracy. Whatever one’s reservations are about Rabinow’s ultimate assertions, the book’s execution has a dazzling moment. If the impress of Foucault is equally evident in the structure of the argument, Rabinow’s control of his materials, unlike that of so many of Foucault’s followers, elevates him above the level of a mere disciple.

French Modern is, at its most basic level, a history and analysis of the battle between two concepts of modern urbanism, which Rabinow characterizes as “tech no-cosmopolitanism” and “middling modernism.” Technocosmopolitanism is an urbanism sensitive to history, culture, and “difference” in the Foucaultian (that is, Nietzschean and Heideggerian) sense; middling modernism is the “universal” style of urbanism, drawing its energy from a deep technocratic inspiration, justifying its sterile excesses with invocations of science, efficiency, and social welfare (it is “middling” by its transformation of high modernism into administrative and welfare practices).Techno-cosmopolitanism had its finest moment in the bold urban experiments of Hubert Lyautey, the head of the French protectorate in Morocco from 1912 to 1925; “middling modernism” is the style and conception which won out and then dominated French urbanism from the epoch of the Popular Front until the crisis of the 1970s.

Middling modernism grafted the HLMs (Habitations a Loyer modere-or, as one Godard film called them,”les hopitaux de la longue maladie”) onto the periphery of every major city of postwar France, culminating perhaps in the sinister Sarcelles complex. Rabinow clearly sympathizes with techno-cosmopolitanism, and who, confronted with the impact and patent bankruptcy of four decades of its technocratic rival, could demur? Yet the issue, where French Modern is concerned, ultimately lies elsewhere. One can admire the finesse with which Rabinow works up his multidimensional materials, without accepting the theoretical framework in which they are ultimately embedded. At the heart of Rabinow’s perspective, and Foucault’s, is an ontology of difference, embodied in Lyautey’s synthesis of French and Moroccan social spaces (called “urban apartheid” by less charitable critics), versus “universality,” associated with statist-technocratic rationality and an architecture and urbanism oblivious to historical and social space-time. The real question is just how “universal” this technocratic rationality is, and whether there is any other kind of universality. The only conceivable serious critique of Rabinow must proceed by offering a different rendition of the “logic” of the materials he presents and by bringing in relevant elements he either underplays or omits altogether; that will be the approach of this review. But it is first necessary to present an approximation of the wealth and breadth of Rabinow’s analysis.

Rabinow, following Foucault, wants to get at a “history of the present” by outlining a history of the “practices of reason,” the “norms and forms” by which certain problems come to be posed and solved, or not solved. He begins by tracing the slow beginnings of a scientific approach to social problems from the turn of the nineteenth century onward, and the way in which “society” became an object of analysis in its own right. This discussion is framed in Foucault’s schema (from The Order of Things) of a “crisis of representation” beginning circa 1800. The classifications and taxonomies of the “classical age,” ultimately traceable to the court of Louis XIV in which “appearance coincided with being” (as Versailles has often been characterized), began to give way to evolutionary modes of thought. Where the idea of the state’s responsibility for the city was concerned, the earlier representational and moralistic schema, with their emphasis on individuals, were dealt an irreparable blow by the international cholera epidemic of 1832, in which 18,000 Parisians died. No ideological constructs about disease that focused on biology, habitat, or climate could withstand the obvious fact that nearly two-thirds of the deaths had occurred in the fetid quarters of les classes laborieuses et dangereuses. The epidemic powerfully accelerated the first serious analyses of concrete social and sanitary conditions in the new urban France, such as Guerin’s famous study of Nantes. Pathology was understood for the first time “as a function of a micro-milieu, of an intertwining of biology and society.”

Parallel to this shaking of classical schema by the first rumblings of the “social question,” in which “norms” were stripped of their earlier moral connotations and frankly acknowledged as social, was the revolt against classicism at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which set French architecture on its course for the rest of the century. Henri Labrouste’s 1830 revolt against Greco-Roman classicism, his insinuation that the classical forms were not eternal but specific responses to a situation, opened the “crisis of representation” in “social forms and architectural forms” which went on for decades. Closely linked to the Revolution of 1830 (during which Labrouste had been acclaimed), the social, if not exactly the class question, erupted in the practical aesthetics of social space. But Haussmann’s renovation of Paris under the Second Empire again trampled on historical specificity, when he could raze whole medieval sections of the inner city and boast that “he was thoroughly documenting the Paris he destroyed.” Only in the Third Republic, after the reverberations of the Commune had ebbed, did a serious urban preservation movement arise.

But the unhinged demographic conditions of Paris, which were at the source of the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and of the Commune, also exercised the imaginations of conservatives intent on salvaging the social order, even if the old moral order and the decadent classes who upheld it had to be jettisoned in the process. Rabinow takes much pain to sketch the many currents which converge in the career of his major protagonist, Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934), undoubtedly one of the most interesting conservatives of modem French history. For Rabinow, Lyautey’s originality was in his break with the dead-end moral reform perspectives represented by currents such as DcMun’s Christian socialism or LePlay’s sociological studies of workers. The heroism and courage of the Communards deeply impressed serious conservatives in France, who saw the futility of traditional strategies and the impossibility of mere repression. For such people, moreover, Germany’s rise to continental hegemony, on a wide spectrum of opinion spanning left and right, could only be countered by imitation. Some of the earliest experiments in workers’ housing had taken place in France prior to the Commune, at Mulhouse and LeCreusot, but by the late nineteenth century both Germany and England were far ahead in grappling with their import.

Lyautey grew out of Social Catholicism and into a meritocratic conservatism that was determined to face squarely modern conditions. A seemingly chance trip to Algeria converted him to a version of “Orientalism,” in which Arab civilization seemed everything that the petty, despotic world of the French army (he was a graduate of St-Cyr and a career officer) and of the French colons in Algeria was not. The crushing of the Commune, as Rabinow points out, had completed the transformation of the French Army into an institution of the right, of moral order, and the nation, even though Lyautey’s perspectives were far broader than those of his fellow officers. His star was crossed with that of Gallieni, another malcontent in the officer corps and a republican counter-insurgent with whom Lyautey waged pacification campaigns in Indochina and in Madagascar. In contrast to the positivist and Voltairean Gallieni, Lyautey concluded from his experience of the rich social fabric of Madagascar that “such diversity could not possibly be ruled effectively by a uniform administrative policy.” This early clash with Gallieni’s “social engineering” already posed the question of universality versus difference which Rabinow underscores in the culmination of Lyautey’s career as head of the Morocco protectorate.

The intellectual backdrop to the debate over colonial administration (a debate opposing a strategy of assimilation to a strategy of protectorate) is presented by Rabinow in a way which a ties the perspective, taken from Foucault and Canguilhem, on the evolution of ideas from biology, geography, and sociology into the discourse of urbanism. For Rabinow, it was the neo-Lamarckian reaction to Darwin that in France was “an essential background to the migration of the concepts of milieu and conditions de vie from physics to biology, to demography, to sociology, to geography, and finally, urban planning.” In the career of Jean-Marie de Lanessan, neo-Lamarckian author of detailed historical, geographical, and sociological studies of Indochina aimed at intelligent management of the colony, Rabinow finds the figure who took the biological metaphor into the heart of colonial ideology, and who also was a major influence on Lyautey. Neo-Lamarckianism represented the breakup of the classical, representational concept of uniform “place” (“lieu”) taken from Newtonian physics, and its replacement by “the ‘between’ of two places, ‘mi-lieu’, a relational system without metaphysical grounding.”

For Rabinow, de Lanessan was laying the groundwork for a colonial administration of “difference,” as opposed to Gallieni’s “universalist” assimilationism. Conditions in France were meanwhile preparing a larger terrain of action than had been available to earlier theoreticians and actors. By the turn of the century, writes Rabinow, it had become “possible to conceive of the welfare state.” All previous attempts to confront questions of housing and urbanism had run aground on the limited perspectives and power of the state. In the last decades before World War I, municipal socialism made gains in France that highlighted the strengths and limits of changing social life through local politics. The first housing law was passed in 1894. The “social technocrats” of the Musee constituted a forum for discussion of much of what would later be called “urbanism.” Durkheimian sociology, modern geographic thought, Proudhonian regionalism, and Barresian nostalgia made the climate more favorable for serious social measures dealing not merely with the factory but with man as “habitant.” But “. . . the primacy of the social and the welfare of the population as its guiding norm had not yet been articulated as a paradigm uniting all its disparate elements.” Energy was directed “toward finding a visible, palpable, bounded form. That form was urbanism.” For Rabinow, following the path pursued by Foucault in the last phase of his life, social welfare replaces, for modern “practices of reason,” the role which Foucault assigned to the Sovereign in his conception of the “classical age.” It was the new”grounding” of any conceivable rationality.

Tony Garnier was the best known of the architects and urbanists who rode this wave as Labrouste had ridden 1830s anticlassicism, But Rabinow resurrects Henri Prost, who emerged from the same circles, as a man of equal or greater importance. Unlike the socialist Garnier, Prost, a “prime example” of “modern neo-conservatism,” looked to history and culture for ideas about buildings and cities. A stay in Constantinople was to him what Algeria had been to Lyautey. “The principle of separating cultures, in the name of respect for difference” was central for Prost. From 1913 to 1923, Prost got his opportunity in Lyautey’s Morocco. According to Rabinow, “France’s first comprehensive experiments in urban planning” took place there. In April 1914, the protectorate decreed the first comprehensive urban planning legislation in the French world. Its principles were to be a recognition of difference, reinforcing the Moroccan elite in its historical cities while simultaneously pursuing modern cosmopolitan construction in cities like Casablanca and Rabat. Lyautey further believed that the lessons of this experiment were applicable to France.

The First World War, however, greatly accelerated the triumph of the antithetical “middling modernism,” the technocratic universality based on norms of social welfare. In France as in other combattant countries, the war provided an extended experiment in state management of all spheres of life which were not forgotten with the temporary return of peace and “normalcy.” Lyautey’s own career ran into trouble during a brief period as minister of war. The denouement came with the Rif insurrection of 1925, another “laboratory of modernity,’ when Lyautey’s pacification strategy was pushed aside for that of Marshal Petain, a “middling modernist” who relied on massive manpower and firepower to overwhelm AM el-Krim. Lyautey resigned, and his experiment was over. For Rabinow, the 1931 Conference on Urbanism in the Colonies “was the last major occasion at which cultural difference (which tacitly included class differences) was directly treated for decades.’ The world crisis accelerated the statist planning first attempted in the war, and “middling modernism,” the “universalism” represented by Garnier or later by LeCorbusier, triumphed for an epoch.

Having thus, I hope, presented some approximation of Rabinow’s complex, multileveled analysis and its use of Foucaults framework of the breakup of classical representation by evolutionary modes of thought, I will attempt to unravel it critically. The author’s ability to synthesize so many strands of thought, from so many fields, should not blind the reader to a problematic theoretical core or to some troubling implications. Rabinow wants to say something about the evolution of urban planning in the French world, and first of all, in France, by drawing on a powerful example of the developments in one (very important) French colony, Morocco. To do so, he has placed the little known story of Lyautey’s connection to the broader French urbanism debate in an even more singular context. To show, as Rabinow does, that “France’s first comprehensive experiment in urban planning” took place in Morocco, may be brilliant. But this truth can be turned around in ways that Rabinow does not consider or elaborate. From at least 1848 onward, when General Cavaignac, a veteran of pacification campaigns in Algeria, crushed the workers of Paris in the June massacre, there is a certain history (and not only in France) of methods first elaborated in the colonies later being used for “pacification” purposes in the metropolis. Had techno-cosmopolitanism won, and been seriously applied to working-class housing problems in France, would this have constituted any less a “colonization of everyday life” than the Aiphavilles of the middling modernists? At no point does Rabinow seem even to consider the irony of the fact that his preferred solution to the problem of social housing and urbanism proposed by the emergence of modem class conflict was developed by neoconservatives grappling with the problems of managing colonial populations. Someone attempting to implement an urban policy similar to Lyautey’s in France itself (and Lyautey, as stated, developed his ideas in response to the bankruptcy, in France, of traditional conservative strategies in confronting the new class relations), would have encountered a much more complex resistance than a colonial administrator in the years before and after World War I. In the metropolis, “difference” meant class antagonism, and the French workers during Lyautey’s lifetime were much more assertive of their interests than the Moroccan masses (and elites) subjected to his more paternalistic and sophisticated pacification methods. It is undoubtedly true that Lyautey had a completely different strategy for fighting Abd el-Krim in 1925, but he, like Petain, also wanted to defeat him. Rabinow says that “responses to pacification are not the object of this book any more than the efficacy of the pacification strategies described,” because it would require another volume to do them justice. Yet clearly “pacification” of the workers in the metropolis and of virtually everyone in the colonies is very much at the center of Rabinow’s theme.

One important prop of Rabinow’s story, the history of responses to the rise of the working class in France and the appearance of the welfare state in response to it, has been told before and told better by social historians, as Rabinow, who is after other game, would quickly concede. His originality clearly consists in tying this history to debates over architecture and urbanism, and in locating behind these in turn the ultimate (Foucaultian) theoretical framework of the breakup of classical representation, the transposition of concepts from the natural sciences to theories and practices of the social environment. But Rabinow makes the transition from French social history to his domains of predilection a bit too quickly. There is one glaring omission in the range of “discourses” from which he draws, and that is economics, and economic history as it affects urban and social history. Rabinow does not even mention these to attempt to argue for their irrelevance to his subject. Given the centrality of finance capital in the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie, and the centrality of Parisian real estate to French finance capital, these factors surely played a role in determining the ultimate victory of middling modernism over techno-cosmopolitanism. Surely the specific alignment of forces in the metropolis, including economic forces, had some role in creating the space, in the 1912-1925 conjuncture, for Lyautey’s experiment in Morocco. Rabinow is an anthropologist and is not working from the framework of a social and economic historian, but this does not stop him from drawing on the relevance of a dozen other disciplines. Why not, then, the dismal science? The words “capitalism” and “imperialism” are deafening by their absence in a book about men who are (whatever their other qualities) also sophisticated counterinsurgents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The experience of statist management in World War I, and the continuity shown by Kuisel and others in technocratic methods from the Popular Front to Vichy to the Fourth Republic are further analyses which Rabinow borrows from social history to show how the “universalist” urbanists triumphed in the end. In the backdrop of such phenomena are big questions of extensive and intensive phases of capital accumulation, urban ground rent, the economic sources of imperialism, and the role of the state in all of them. Rabinow could rightly say that these, like pacification, are yet another issue outside the bounds of his book. But if he wishes to draw on authors like Perrot and Kuisel to tell the less novel side of his story, why neglect these domains? Why neglect the analysis of T. J. Clark (and others) of the link between the Haussmannization of Paris and the rise of a new economy of consumption? Why not discuss the festive dimension of the Commune, which expressed its critique of Haussmann both in the toppling of Napoleon’s statue in the Place du Vend™me and in the creative energies of the petroleuses? If such criticisms seem arbitrary and unfair, they point to Rabinow’s similarly arbitrary use of a “non-Foucaultian” social and economic backdrop as a vehicle for his real purpose of explaining the triumph of middling modernism over techno-cosmopolitanism. It is here that one can see how the apparent dazzle of Rabinow’s synthesis, written on a much higher level than most works of a Foucaultian bent, shares a common weakness with them, and with Foucault. This is the inability to show convincingly how, or if, cracks in the edifice of “classical representation” really intersect the large forces of classes and their interests, and really provide better explanations for “practices of reason” like technocratic urbanism than, for example, less theoretically exalted social and economic history. Rabinow’s story ends with Lyautey’s resignation, in Morocco, in1925, yet he presents this as the last losing skirmish prior to middling modernism’s hegemony, in France, for half a century. This seems perfectly plausible, but it would seem more plausible, when linked, if only sketchily, to the “constituency” of middling modernism in the metropolis. These fragilely established connections, among social, economic, and political history, the “middling” practices of reason, and finally the “crisis of representation” lead in turn to the ultimate issue of “universality” and “difference,” on which Rabinow’s (and Foucault’s) whole edifice rests.

“Alexander the Great,” writes Rabinow, “with his architect Dinocrates, drew up plans for a new world capital.” This was “the first universal space.” From Alexander (one wonders why Rabinow does not begin with Akhenaton) to the triumph of the international style of the 1930s, empires have always sought expression in a “universal” architecture and urbanism which abstracts from everything local, historical, and geographically specific. Not accidentally does Rabinow (like Foucault before him) begin with the court of Louis XIV, which set down the classical, imperial, and universal styles for the enlightened despotic states of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This Baroque architectonic was the modern classicism whose crisis Rabinow and Foucault call “the crisis of representation.” But the sleight-of-hand of Foucault and the Foucaultians is to present this “universality” and rationality of the absolutist state, its civil service, and its modern technocratic successors, as actual universality, as the latter was developed in, for example, German critical philosophy from Kant to Hegel to Feuerbach to Marx. France, with its centralist, Colbertian, and Jacobin traditions, and the abstract, formal, deductive architectonic of rationality spawned by those traditions, is not accidentally the privileged source of Foucault and the postmodernists. Conditioned by these traditions, they can conceive of no universality other than that of the state, which they moreover conceive only in the state’s own self-understanding as administrative agent, as “power,” instead of something situated in a larger set of social relations, modes of production, and the like. Thus the only thing which escapes this statist universality is an ontology of “difference” (whose Nietzschean and Heideggerian sources cannot concern us here), an irreducible and unmediated historical, cultural, and geographic creation such as the great Moroccan cities that fell under the French protectorate. Somewhat as in Said’s notion of Orientalism, French and Moroccan cultures for Rabinow confront each other only as incommensurables, a confrontation in which one can obliterate the other (“middling modernism”) or in which an aristocratic dandy with a genuine love for the Arab world can construct a more humane form of colonial pacification. We see, in Rabinow, the evolution of Fez and Rabat and Casablanca as Lyautey and Prost conceived them, but are we told what Abd el-Krim and his followers thought of techno-cosmopolitanism? Or, nearly seven decades later, what genuinely universal world culture might be emerging from this forced cohabitation in the postcolonial world?

Foucault, Rabinow, and others like them have, in the past two decades, created a certain kind of “radical” stance vis-a-vis the empty universalism of modernity that oddly echoes the arguments of conservatives and reactionaries of an earlier period (and in this case explicitly so). One need not adopt the vantage point of middling modernism to say this. One should not forget that the nineteenth-century racist Gobineau highly praised the expressive plasticity and warmth of black African culture, which he nonetheless considered deeply inferior to white civilization. Latter-day theorists of the Negritude movement, at the head of the anticolonial struggle, would take up the same image under the slogan, “not inferior, but different.” One such theorist, the Senegalese Leopold Senghor, abandoned Latin Cartesianism to become an African nationalist upon discovering Leo Frobenius’s neoromantic theories of African “pneuma” or “soul.” The non-Western world’s internalization of such projected images of “difference,” originally conceived by antiuniversalist Westerners, is the hidden history of much Third World nationalism and “differentism,” then and now. Such currents, like the Foucaultians, do not attack the pretenses of Western culture for not being truly universal, but rather discard the very idea as only conceivable in the sterile fashion of Alexander the Great and his imperial successors. (This critique of “world cities” is a page right out of Oswald Spengler.) They thus leave the victims of pseudo-universality a choice only between a self-negating assimilation and a self-imposed ghettoization within culturalist constructs of “difference” and provincialism. The latter preclude from the start any recourse to the positive side of world culture (just now leaving its specifically Western phase) in the construction of a genuine cosmopolitanism in which “differences” will become “specificities” within an internally differentiated but nonetheless unified whole.