As one approaches Paris by train from the south, and probably from any other direction, even the most cursory glance out the window will inevitably fall upon the seemingly endless stream of “tags”—i.e., names and nicknames in colorful, stylized graffiti— adorning the retaining walls that line the railway’s path through the gloomy banlieues and into the city of lights. The broad cultural range of the names themselves—which during my passage included OTELO 93, MALIK, and ALI as well as the somewhat more Gallic FILOU and DéDé DREAMER—bears eloquent witness to a changing social landscape. Yet perhaps the most striking thing about this graffiti is its unmistakably American character, both in its content (i.e., names) and in the style of its swirling, sometimes illegible lettering. This Americanness seems all the more pronounced by the fact that until lately French graffiti, like graffiti in the rest of Europe, clearly distinguished itself from the American variety by its naked directness and its almost exclusively political content.
The most striking thing about this graffiti is its unmistakably American character.
Another manifestation, perhaps, of what former Minister of Culture Jack Lang called American “cultural imperialism”? Would that it were so simple: in fact it serves as a splendid example of the profoundly ambivalent and contradictory feelings of the French toward what they see as an ever invasive force, for which they sometimes simply cannot resist rolling out the red carpet. Indeed, following the successes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other American “graffitists” on the Continental gallery scene in the late 1980s, Jack Lang himself invited some of their number to Paris as guests of the government, in but one of the many eventful moments in his sweeping and controversial expansion of state-funded arts programs. One rationale for this gesture was, of course, to get graffiti off the streets and into the galleries, for American-style “tag” graffiti was already beginning to fill the subways and alleyways. But to judge by the now Bronxian density of the sprayings that have turned many Parisian walls into palimpsests of silly self-expression, it would appear that Lang has, on the contrary, succeeded in inspiring a whole new generation of “outsiders” to cover the otherwise monochrome faubourgs with their names and cartoonish emblems in search of some sort of fleeting, one might say Warholian, glory.
Since then, Lang’s successor, Jacques Toubon, has managed to rekindle the long smoldering firestorm surrounding Franglais and the general use of English (especially its American strain) in commercial and intellectual discourse. In late February he proposed the controversial “loi Toubon,” which is really nothing more than a resuscitation of a failed Giscard d’Estaing policy from the Seventies. The list of proscriptions is a familiar one, with a few new twists. En bref: no foreign terms in advertising; all work contracts, job offers, etc., must be in French; academic and scientific conferences and publications must be in French. Violators are to be administered punishments ranging from stiff fines to revocation of all government subsidies.
It must be admitted that some curious things are happening in the day-to-day use of the French language. For example, in certain cases, one hears expressions of English derivation being used with increasing frequency in place of their perfectly serviceable French equivalents: e.g., “stopper” instead of arrêter; “réaliser” instead of se rendre compte or s’apercevoir (a usage which would have been unacceptable even fifteen years ago); “test” instead of épreuve; and so on. One could cite some even more absurd examples, such as “le crash” of an airplane, or its still sillier verb form, “crasher,” pronounced just like cracher, which means “to spit.”
The blame for this unsavory linguistic stew is laid largely at the feet of popular mass culture, especially la pub.1 Yet even assuming it were possible to enforce such a code as Toubon’s in advertising and scholarship— which is highly unlikely in both cases, since in the first, far too many mass-market products are “American” by nature if not by origin, and in the second, it would be self-defeating to deprive one’s country’s specialists of their medium of international communication—how could a government, short of resorting to severe and violent repression, ever hope to legislate the words used in everyday conversation? A language is a living organism, and people are always adopting new formulations and discarding the old to suit what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as their expressive needs. Few would dispute, for example, that the English language has gained immensely from the varied influx of terms and idioms from Latin, Norman-French, Renaissance Italian, and other sources during the course of its formation.
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But can one possibly compare the rapid explosion of Americanisms within the languages of most advanced industrial countries since World War II—a fact probably more attributable to America’s early lead in communications and entertainment technology and to the nature of that technology itself than to any real project of cultural dominion—to the far more gradual process whereby all languages have to varying degrees absorbed foreign locutions as a natural part of their historical development? “C’est cool, ton look,” after all, carries hardly the same cultural charge as an elegant Italianism in Shakespeare or a discreet Gallicism in Eliot; it is far more comparable, in fact, to the infiltration of the latest “surf talk” or street expression into everyday journalistic English within our own national boundaries. In each case the new expression, aided by contemporary technology, rushes to fill the linguistic vacuum of the popular sensibility. In this light, then, it would seem that the pop- cultural mindlessness blamed by some in France—and to a lesser extent in England, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere—on the negative influence of American culture is actually the fruit of an erosion of educational rigor and modes of general discourse similar to that so painfully palpable in the present-day United States.
But if this is so, why is France so quick to point the finger at America whenever the problem comes under discussion? There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. The first is the mere fact of the worldwide linguistic dominance of (American) English, coupled with what I can only call the unelastic, crystalline fragility of a language so long codified as French. It is in fact curious to note that in countries like Italy and Germany, whose national tongues had not really been codified until the advent of the modern age and whose dialects are still very much alive, there is far less objection to the absorption of English into the contemporary language, even though this would appear to be every bit as widespread in those countries as in France. French, on the other hand, which in its correct form still retains a classical simplicity and clarity dependent on strict application of its rules, seems to creak and strain with the addition of extraneous elements. This purity is no doubt one of the language’s historic strengths, but it probably is also what once prompted Swinburne to call it a “flimsy” tongue, and E. M. Cioran, the Romanian-born aphorist who uses French to such brilliant, “classical” effect, to refer to it as a “dead language.”
Another reason for the French sense of alarm is the same unreconciled ambivalence toward things American alluded to above, combined with a new sense of cultural conservatism, shared even by some of the Left. They want to be open to the predominant American attitude that is almost exclusively forward-looking—after all, in many ways France is, or used to be, the cradle of modern Western civilization—and yet they also want to continue to explore, understand, and preserve the immensely rich past. One way in which this latter tendency has lately found positive expression is in the recent, successful trend of publishing or republishing important but somewhat neglected authors from the past (and not necessarily the French past). What was initially a risky move by a number of small houses has become a general trend that has, moreover, enjoyed the massive support of the mainstream press. Thus in just the last two months the curious, intelligent reader has been able to take his pick of new editions of the work of authors old and modern such as Joseph de Maistre, Thomas De Quincey, C. E. Gadda, Emmanuel Bove, Joseph Delteil, and others. The American reader can only sigh and, lamenting perhaps the vastly different market considerations at work, wish that U.S. publishers would take a few more chances of this sort.
One final reason for this casting of blame lies in a reluctance or inability of the French to acknowledge their own role in the above-mentioned erosion of the general modes of intellectual discourse. Indeed, the contemporary French style of writing or speech that best lends itself to the adoption of Franglais is that same fragmented, slangy diction popularized by ’68 intellectuals and adopted by some of la nouvelle critique and now ubiquitous in certain kinds of journalism, film, advertising, fiction, and artspeak: it features a systematic avoidance of complete sentences, excessive ambiguity, rapid-fire sequences of assertions, and the reduction of all manner of expression—art, slogans, news—to the same aesthetically and morally neutral level of “signification” and “language.” The voices from these precincts, of course, tend to scoff at such tantrums as the loi Toubon, but it would be a mistake to think that these two contrary cultural attitudes do not often coexist within one same mind. Witness, again, Monsieur Lang. This may at least demonstrate, if not explain, how a country that lionizes the likes of Sylvester Stallone or Charles Bukowski—to the point where even so conservative an institution as Le Figaro (which openly supported the loi Toubon) gushes with praise and sorrow over the recent passing of “le clochard céleste” (their appellation)—could also complain about the indubitably distasteful effects of the lowbrow American culture inundating their shores. It’s a question of choosing one’s poison oneself.
A language is a living organism, and people are always adopting new formulations and discarding the old to suit what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as their expressive needs.
There are, in any case, some signs here of an awareness of the equally internal and international nature of the problems plaguing contemporary cultural debate. A case in point: a young cultural critic named Jean-Philippe Domecq, who for three years has been writing for the venerable intellectual review Esprit, earlier this year published a book of essays entitled Artistes sans art? (Editions Esprit, Paris) in which he confronts, head-on, the contemporary art and art-critical establishment, the premises of conceptual art, contemporary icons such as Warhol and Boltanski, and even such sacred cows as Picasso and Dubuffet. Now clearly a few of his arguments are debatable, perhaps even wrong, and he enters into a bit too much detail about certain figures probably not really deserving of attention; but his ideas are nothing if not thought-provoking and challenging. What did he get for his efforts? Domecq, who even defines himself as a “progressivist” with Liberal Left leanings, was heaped with scorn and derision by Le Monde and was generally called a reactionary and philistine; his plight resembled that of Morley Safer when, last September, his mischievous “60 Minutes” segment sent up much the same milieu. What did Domecq say to ruffle so many feathers? Here is a little sampling:
Even today, it remains very difficult to talk about the art of the closing century if one chooses to appraise it as much on the basis of the works themselves as on their intentions, and no longer exclusively on the basis of the latter. The task of sorting things out between the theoretical intentions and the works that have issued therefrom has, it appears, become culturally incorrect. Incorrect according to those currently carrying on the discussion of contemporary art. It is still as though aesthetic judgment had no right to free inquiry except within the prescribed ideological limits: prescribed, that is, by the theoreticians, and artist-theoreticians. Outside of these prescriptions, one is literally impertinent: classified as outside of modernity, thus disqualified, by an argumentative rhetoric somewhat reminiscent of that used by one totalitarian ideology or another to call any dissident voices reactionary.
Domecq’s next book, entitled Le pari littéraire and due out soon, promises to examine the literary scene. Obviously any effort made to apply firm judgments of value to the mediocre and interminable morass of contemporary culture is not going to win too many new friends. The lower the general standard of judgment falls, the more dogged the resistance to all judgment will naturally be. Some things are, after all, universal.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 9, on page 45
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