Droplets from the springs of Vichy

French Cultural Studies
March 28, 1997

Over the past ten years or so a shift has taken place in the teaching of French in British universities: extending French studies beyond the hidebound distinctions between "literature" and "society", expanding the notion of culture to embrace popular as well as "classical" forms, breaking the ethnocentric definition of French culture which confines it within the frontiers of the metropole.

This shift is premised on a flexible interdisciplinarity which is a welcome progression from the rather po-faced structuralist and poststructuralist theory which preceded it. If contemporary French studies is concerned with exploring the interface between francophone culture and society, then this book provides a stimulating introduction to this approach.

To guide us through the labyrinth of cultural formations in the modern period, Jill Forbes and Michael Kelly draw attention to the concept of modernisation and its effects on cultural developments. This allows us to view the transformations over the last century in terms of the tensions between past and present, and between national unification and fragmentation. Following the chronology of the period, chapters lead us from the construction of (and discontents with) a republican political, cultural and moral order in the latter part of the 19th century, through the challenge posed by the ultra-conservative and nostalgic nationalism of Vichy, to the pluralism of today, in which the (relative) uniformity of national culture and patterns of cultural consumption has fragmented under the combined onslaught of decolonisation and postmodern consumerism.

As with most collections, there is an unevenness in approach. Some sections treat cultural forms and social processes separately, rather than probe the interconnections between them. Other sections read like a list of authors, movements and events. Neither approach constitutes "cultural studies" as such, and furnishes us with little more information than is already available in numerous introductions to modern France. Elsewhere, however, fascinating channels of enquiry are opened up. To what extent was the development of mass culture and the pursuit of new leisure activities at the end of the 19th century accompanied by the eroticisation of the public domain? What were the overlaps between Vichy propaganda and Resistance values in terms of concepts of masculinity and nationality? To what extent have advanced capitalism and new technologies commodified cultural and social spheres? These are important questions for all students of French culture and society, and offer exciting ways of reconsidering recent French history.

Max Silverman is senior lecturer in French, University of Leeds.

French Cultural Studies: An Introduction

Editor - Jill Forbes and Michael Kelly
ISBN - 0 19 871501 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £12.99
Pages - 332

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