I recently returned from a very enjoyable and very fruitful week in Paris, combining business with pleasure. I spent time with family, and also enjoyed a series of meetings with my dear friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan. We continued our long-term discussions and debates, moving forward to a more concerted effort, imagining more focused work together. His semiotical approach to power will inform my sociological approach and visa versa, with Roland Barthes, Victor Turner, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman as our guides. At least that is one way I am thinking about it now. Or as Daniel put it a while back in an earlier discussion: my politics of small things will combine with his analysis of the politics of even smaller things.
We had three meetings in Paris, a public discussion with his media class at Science Po, an extended working breakfast and lunch at two different Parisian cafés, and a beautiful dinner at his place, good food and talk throughout. I fear I haven’t properly thanked him for his wonderful hospitality.
At Sciences Po, Dayan presented a lecture to his class and I responded. This followed a format of public discussion we first developed in our co-taught course at The New School in 2010. He spoke about his theory of media “monstration,” how the media show, focusing attention of a socially constituted public. He highlighted the social theory behind his, pointing to Axel Honneth on recognition and Nancy Fraser’s critique of Honneth, Michel Foucault on the changing styles of visibility: from spectacle to surveillance, Luc Boltanski on the mediation of distant suffering and especially J. L. Austin on speech acts.
At the center of Dayan’s interest is his metaphor of “the media as the top of the iceberg.” He imagines a society’s life, people showing each other things, as involving a great complexity of human actions and interactions, mostly submerged below the surface of broad public perception, not visible for public view. The . . .
Read more: Spring Break with Daniel Dayan: the politics of small things meets the politics of even smaller things
At a Sixteenth Arrondissement party soon after I arrived in Paris in late 1984, I was cornered by a tipsy Frenchman who repeatedly exclaimed–in a tone more resigned than angry–“You’ve won! You’ve won.” This was all he would say, elaborations and explanations apparently being unnecessary.
Once I began to look for them, signs of American triumph were everywhere: Carl Lewis’s Olympics a few months before, Reagan’s enthusiastic re-election a few weeks before, and a sense that personal computers coming from garages in Silicon Valley would displace the tiny Minitel terminals linked to a central network for which the French had instead opted (a prescient model, but ten years before the internet could have made real use of them). After several months in Paris, I realized this handwringing was a daily theme in the Parisian press: the United States had won the economic game.
The idea was everywhere: the news detailed France’s economic crisis and America’s ascendency; top journalists and other members of the intelligentsia analyzed how France had gotten into its sad state; academics wrote books setting the crisis in world-historical context; politicians spun grandiose plans for pulling France out of its malaise. But no one took the schemes of the politicians seriously: the crisis, everyone knew, was there to stay. Thus Le Monde‘s annual report on the economic state of the world in early 1985 had on its cover a tiny boat, its sail in disarray, about to drop from the crest of a wave, and a large ocean liner placidly moving along in the distance. The dinghy flew several European flags, the steamer those of Japan and the United States.
It was not just France: the entire “old world” was implicated. It was just that: old, weary, perhaps exhausted. Many French, if it fit their current political rhetoric, were fond of pointing out that France had done better than most European countries. The French were happy that they were not the Germans, the Swiss, or even the Swedes who had beaten them this time. It was America, which is after all America, and Japan, . . .
Read more: An American in Paris: Thinking about France, Taxes and the Good Life
Just before the Sofitel Affair brutally ended his political career, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the IMF, was considered as the great favorite of the French presidential election, and François Hollande, who had started earlier his bid for the primary polls organized for the first time on the left by the Socialist Party, was not taken seriously, particularly in his own camp. Nicknamed Flanby, Little Gouda, or even “couilles molles” (soft testicles) by his socialist contender Martine Aubry, Hollande very well may be the unexpected winner of the competition, on May 6th, the final round of the French election. Although it has been a boring campaign, it also has been very interesting sociologically.
Strauss-Kahn embodied a center-left version of the “there is no alternative” line, smoothed by a reputation, acquired in happier times, of a rare economic competency that would alleviate the inescapable rigor ahead. Roughly, President Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn shared the same views. The President had backed the very moderate socialist for the job at the IMF, and they navigated in very close social and economic circles.
But now, one can see almost every day a sea of red flags and an amazing number of raised fists during the Front de Gauche candidate’s electoral meetings, from the Place de la Bastille in Paris to the Prado beaches in Marseilles. Enthusiastic crowds appreciate the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon‘s tough rhetoric: his speeches are loaded with the most traditional items of the radical camp with a very strong French flavor (a daily celebration of the Bastille Day, but also of 1793 and Robespierre). Mélenchon’s fondness for Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro and the Chinese communist leaders does not seem to bother any of his increasingly young and socially mixed supporters. Mélenchon’s rise has totally reshuffled the campaign, that had started with Sarkozy taking up extreme right-wing issues (mainly immigration and security) and Hollande not saying much as he was so far ahead in the polls that he seemed to be afraid of taking any side that would . . .
Read more: The French Presidential Election: In Search of Time Past
In France, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn “presumed innocent” until proven guilty? In fact, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Or worse, he is presumed guilty, until confirmed guilty since the French media usually expect courts to confirm their own “enlightened” judgment and can be extraordinarily vindictive when they don’t. Thus, a petition signed by thousands of journalists “condemning” the court that condemned the national French TV Channel Antenne II for broadcasting unsubstantiated allegations. This post is about the media treatment of the presumption of innocence.
Consider a driver who deliberately speeds and runs over a policeman in front of a crowd of witnesses in order to avoid being checked at a road block. The driver is described in the news as the “presumed” author of the policeman’s coma. The word “presumed” here is a language automatism, an adornment, a legal curlicue. There is not a shadow of a doubt that this driver‘s car hit the policeman. No matter how grotesque, the word “presumed” tends to be repeated in such situations “ad nauseaum.”
With DSK, we are in a situation where the presumption of innocence matters because the facts are not established. Despite various forms of lip service, this presumption is resolutely trampled. In a recent talk show about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, stand-up comedian Michel Boujenah expressed uneasiness about the fact that most of the journalists around him started from the premise that DSK was guilty. He reminded them that DSK had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Yes, yes,” said the journalists. Then they went on with their debate. To them, the presumption of innocence was an annoying contrivance, something akin to the presence of a vocal anti-racist at certain dinner parties; a presence that proves annoying since it prevents guests from cracking race jokes. The stand-up comedian reiterated his remark. He was definitely spoiling the fun. “OK,” replied one journalist, just add an “if” to everything I say. Just put my words in the conditional!” Then he resumed the discussion as if the guilt of DSK was beyond any doubt.
Such a contempt for the presumption of innocence serves as a background for a “public-sphere-bomb” that has just been thrown in the ongoing debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry.
In another talk-show watched by millions, Luc Ferry denounced a . . .
Read more: Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence