What a Shame

The second of three articles exploring art, class and precarity: an interview with writer and sociologist Didier Eribon

Part memoir, part social analysis, Didier Eribon’s Retour à Reims (Return to Reims, 2009) details his estrangement from, and attempts to hide, his working-class background as he entered the world of culture, going on to become Michel Foucault’s biographer, France’s foremost queer theorist and an openly gay intellectual. Retour à Reims investigates conflicts of queer and class politics, the shift of the French working class from left- to right-wing, and the feelings of guilt and shame that accompany the abandoning of your roots. Since its release in France the book has been translated into many languages and with a German edition published this year.

Paul Clinton  The book opens with you visiting your mother at her home in a working-class area of Reims after the death of your father, which you describe as an experience of the ‘melancholy of split habitus’. What do you mean by that?

Didier Eribon  The book came out of a personal crisis. When my mother told me that my father had passed away, I nearly cried – despite the fact I didn’t even like him! This was the starting point of the book: what was I crying about? I had to understand that and to explain why I had been so keen to sever almost all ties to my family. I realized it was as much to do with the fact that they represented a working-class milieu I desperately wanted to flee, as it was to do with escaping the homophobic environment in which I grew up. But we can never completely erase the past: it is still there, in our minds. And, on some occasions, such as the death of your father or mother, you are confronted by the contradictory co existence in yourself of your past and present. The split between the life you’ve chosen and where you come from suddenly becomes more insistent: the forgotten wound re-opens and sends you into disarray.

PC  I can identify with the guilt you felt as a working-class boy seeking a cultural education, but I’m less clear about your term ‘class traitor’. Isn’t education and improvement part of the language of class struggle?

DE  Yes it is, but when you get access to education, you inevitably become distanced from your family and their world if they didn’t enjoy the same schooling. (My mother left school at 14, for instance, and my father was even younger.) In Europe, how long you stay in education is one of the key ways in which you are defined socially, and this impacts on your relationships with others. If you stay in education longer than your parents or siblings, you inevitably start to differ from them. This what I call – in a sociological, rather than psychological, sense – ‘class treason’. It’s something you have to just live with. That same mix of guilt and criticism of working-class origins is explored beautifully in Raymond Williams’s novel Border Country (1960).

PC  Why did you decide to write Retour à Reims as a memoir?

DE  Well, it both is and isn’t a memoir. I wanted to write a sociological, political and theoretical book that would also be anchored in my personal experience – my life, the life of my family and the social environment in which I grew up. It’s principally a reflection on class, sexuality and politics, through self-analysis.

PC  There has been a tendency amongst Marxist thinkers to consider identity politics to be secondary to matters of class struggle – if they acknowledge its relevance at all. Was that something you were aware of as a young man involved in left-wing activism before coming out?

DE  When I was 16, I became a member of a Trotskyist organization. But I quickly realized that there was no room for me within that political and theoretical framework. As a gay man or a lesbian, you had to remain in the closet in order to be fully accepted as a militant in these Marxist parties. It wasn’t just that those issues were not considered to be ‘political’: homophobia was pervasive in the mostly student and young academic membership of the radical left. I came out at the same time as I left this commitment behind. So, the other starting point of Retour à Reims is an attempt to imagine a different kind of politics. Political history is not homogenous and different movements and politics – social classes, say, or queer politics – have their own legitimacy, without having to consider other forms as illegitimate, or legitimate only if they conform to the views of other movements. 

PC  You write about how working-class gay men gravitate towards the effete world of high culture and social distinction to make sense of their difference. But do you think that the gay community’s eroticization of working-class virility is just as problematic?

DE  This is something I addressed in Réflexions sur la question gay (Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, 1999) and, more recently, in Theories de la litterature. Système du genre et verdicts sexuels (Theories of Literature: Systems of Genre and Sexual Verdicts, 2015). In the latter, I discuss Jean Genet and Marcel Proust to show how powerful sexual and social norms, particularly those of male domination and the difference between the sexes, form the basis of – and are, to some extent, perpetuated by – the work of even sexually transgressive authors. Of course, my point is not to be judgmental about people’s desires or practices but to analyze how systems of power function and reproduce. These structures of domination are embodied in all of us.

PC  A lot of the book focuses on how representations are performative and actually act to produce social rifts. I sense, though, that you don’t think art and literature can provide a useful counter to dominant or oppressive representations.

DE  Well, they can, and they do. Art, literature, cinema, theatre and music have been very important in building counter-discourses, counter-images, counter-models and counter-conducts. They offer stigmatized groups and individuals the ability to understand and live their lives differently, providing them with feelings and aspirations that are crucial in efforts to escape from subjugation and to re-invent themselves. They were, and still are, very important to me. You’re right, however, there is a ‘but’, because things are more complicated: you can be transformed by art without transforming the world in which you find yourself.

PC  You also argue that art appreciation is intrinsically linked to social distinction or elitism. Is it impossible even for politicized or socially engaged art to overcome this?

DE  To say that art appreciation is necessarily linked to processes of social distinction does not mean that art and artists cannot be politically and socially engaged. Political action through art may be very important, but that does not change the reality of a society based on class hierarchies, in which art is always related to privilege. On one level, art can be transformative; on another, however, it keeps on being part of a system in which ‘culture’ and ‘cultural capital’ are not evenly distributed.

The word ‘distinction’ must here be understood as ‘differentiation’: art, culture and education are, undeniably, part of the mechanisms of differentiation between social classes. There is also a very strong tendency for artists and their audiences to make exaggerated and narcissistic claims that any performance in an institutional or an avant-garde venue is actually subverting norms or changing the whole world. Unfortunately, most of the time, this isn’t the case. 

PC  Precarity has become a fashionable concept in the art world. To my mind, it has afforded non-working-class artists access to the radicalism of marginalization – as if we’re all precarious now. That’s not to downplay economic hardship, but to say that this term ignores the cultural aspects of class, such as whether or not you’re able to articulate your discontent. You go further, suggesting that the concept of precarity actually produces class problems. Can you explain how this is the case?

DE  Precariousness is a reality, but not a new one, for working-class people: my family lived in a permanent state of precarity and anxiety. It can also be a useful category for social and political analysis. But if you use it as a unifying idea to replace concepts of social class and domination, it quickly becomes mystifying and dangerous. When you speak of precarity, you describe lived experiences without pointing at the social and cultural relations that produce them: it hides the mechanisms of exploitation, domination and differentiation, and for that reason it is dangerous.

For example, I feel this rhetoric of the 99 percent is fundamentally flawed, since it implies that there are no hierarchies or systems of domination operating within that group, which is simply untrue! The slogans of the Occupy movement belong to PhD students in New York! I support their actions, but I’m hesitant about their terminology. Precarity is not at all the same thing for an artist or young academic as it is for an unemployed worker in a poor area. Statistics show that supporters of far-right parties today are largely those without qualifications who live in economically deprived neighbourhoods. They are not just precarious: they are dispossessed of any form of capital, and so of any hope. Routine, simplistic and naively inclusive denunciations of ‘neo-liberalism’ – ‘we are all its victims’ – prevent a more accurate and nuanced analysis of what is going on in Europe and the US particularly.

PC  Surprisingly, given that you draw upon your own experiences in your book, you say that it’s impossible to analyse the working-class experience from within that position – it can only be written about from a distance. Why is that?

DE  An analysis has to be written at some distance from the way ‘social actors’ see their own lives. Take, for example, the way the school system functions: working-class children think that they leave education early out of choice, because they don’t like it. You need to distance yourself from their point of view to see, through an analysis of the whole system, that the very purpose – or, at least, the real result – of the school system is to exclude them. The people who are destined to be eliminated are blind to all this because it seems to them that they voluntarily and actively choose what was, in fact, predestined for them, from birth.

My book is, in large part, about the class violence of the school system. Since this is not actually experienced as violence, a sociological analysis is necessary to make it visible. You need to reconstruct the whole social system to show how individuals are determined by it. All of us, in our daily lives, contribute to the perpetuation of this social order. The task of critical thought is to describe how this happens.

PC  There’s a kind of pessimism in the book: on the one hand, you say that the left has abandoned those it seeks to represent; on the other, you argue that it is impossible to analyse working-class culture unless you’ve broken away from it. What kind of agency does that leave for working-class people?

DE  I write against the mythologies of the left. The agency of the working classes, when there is one, is not necessarily oriented toward progressive values! It can be oriented to reactionary, nationalist or racist views, as we have seen with the rise of Front National in France or UKIP in Britain. Political links aren’t given, they have to be built, and theories play a role in shaping the world through the meaning they give to people’s lived experiences.

Instead of talking in an abstract way of ‘agency’, we on the left have to work to build new frameworks in which people can claim progressive values again. We also have to reflect on the categories we use. We need to reject the simplistic rhetoric of ‘the people’ versus ‘the oligarchy’ because it’s also exploited by the far right. It’s therefore necessary to revive internationalism. Let’s build a social, cultural and intellectual Europe, through oppositional social movements, vivid intellectual debates, and literary and artistic avant-gardes.

Didier Eribon is a writer and sociologist based in Paris, France. He is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens, France, and is the author of 17 books including, most recently, Principes d’une pensée critique (Principles of Critical Thought, Fayard, 2016). This year, a German-language edition of  Retour à Reims was published by Suhrkamp.

Lead image: Jeremy Deller, Battle of Orgreave, 2001, performance documentation. The violent clashes between police (with some army soldiers in police uniform) and miners at the Orgreave colliery during the 1984 Miners’ Strike was a key moment in the history of civil unrest in Britain. In 2001, Deller brought veteran police and miners from the original battle together with English Civil War re-enactors to restage the conflict; a way to both memorialize the event and discuss the profound scars left on local communities and British socialism by the nationwide strike. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Parisah Taghizadeh

Paul Clinton is a writer based in London, UK. He is associate editor of frieze and Frieze Masters Magazine. In 2015 he co-curated the exhibition 'duh? Art & Stupidity' at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, UK.

Issue 183

First published in Issue 183

Nov - Dec 2016

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