Scrubbed lives, dead motorists

Fast Cars, Clean Bodies
March 31, 1995

Not just fast cars and clean bodies but new men and couples too form the topics through which Kristin Ross explores the "reordering" of French culture. "Decolonisation and the reordering" is a rather misleading subtitle, as the book is not, except in passing, about the contribution made by decolonisation to cultural change. It examines, instead, changing social patterns in the period of decolonisation. Ross focuses on France in the five years either side of the end of the Algerian War in 1962, "the years after electricity but before electronics."

"Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great gothic cathedrals," wrote Roland Barthes at the end of the 1950s, "the supreme creation of an era". Just before the Second World War, there were half a million cars in the Paris region. This grew to a million by 1960, and doubled again within five years. Yet the street surface of the city had increased by only 10 per cent since 1900. It is, however, the way the car took off as a symbol that most concerns Ross. The traffic accident became an ubiquitous plot device in popular film and fiction, and the newspapers displayed an alarming voyeuristic interest in celebrity car deaths such as those of Albert Camus and the publisher Michel Gallimard.

Another new symbolic obsession was cleanliness. This fixation was again evident in film and fiction. Ross's example from Elsa Triolet - "Martine scrubbed every innermost recess of her body with soap, pumice-stone, brushes, sponges, scissors" - is one example among many. On hygiene, however, the book is not limited to representations. Ross examines the sociological concomitants of these changes, in particular, the growth of a factory-efficient mentality concerning domestic affairs.

There seemed to be more pressure to follow expert advice on domestic matters rather than turning to common sense, or an impressionistic memory of how grandma did it. Here Ross (apparently unwittingly) echoes Ivan Illich, who astutely analysed the substitution of professional knowledge for vernacular savoir-faire, and how the result is not only less effective, but actually incapacitates those it professes to serve. Furthermore, Ross (and Illich) observes, "labour saving" devices in practice meant the expenditure of more, not less, time on domestic tasks.

Ross turns from the new symbolism of things to images of people, and examines three kinds of "new men" in the postwar period - Frantz Fanon's maquis, the "structuralist man" of Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, and that new phenomenon in French business, the jeune cadre. "New man" is thereby a misnomer - it is not a matter of a fresh position in gender roles, but rather three new interpretations of personhood, and "man" is thus largely used in its much-criticised universalising sense. It is an usage we tend to think of as outdated, but Ross shows no sign of distance from it.

The fourth new symbolic obsession which Ross examines is "the couple". The construction of the new French couple was not only a social and class shift: it was also an economic and national necessity, linked to the modernisation effort. What really changed could readily be checked against statistics for household size and composition but, here, Ross does not involve herself with figures. What is central, anyway, is not so much gradual demographic changes as the explosion of images of the couple.

Ross turns again to film and fiction and, more than in other parts of the book, she examines the sociological correlatives of the changes. She notes not only growing privatisation but, alongside it, the irony that the image of the privatised couple was seen as a source of meaning in a faceless society, but became the very mark of reproducibility. Just as the approach Ross takes to domestic organisation recalls Illich, so here there is a hint of Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor's Escape Attempts, with its inventories of the terrifying standardisation of everyday life, and of the ways in which people try to resist it.

Fast Cars, Clean Bodies is basically a new angle on the modernisation of France, of its hurried adolescence as a consumer society. Some of the sociological connections Ross makes are well-observed. She links the burgeoning market for magazines, for example, with the growth of "constrained time". The portability, accessible prose and manageable article length of a magazine help fill the time between appointments and while commuting; and the weekly format parallels the rhythm of the working week.

All too often, academic studies of cultural change, especially for some reason those about France, become lost and useless by blurring metaphorical and symbolic reflections on their subject with the material and symbolic changes it has actually undergone. Refreshingly, Ross largely avoids this; the empirical information she gives strengthens her case immensely. Now and again, however, she risks the distortion of an academic world view, as when she proposes there is a "convincing case that the foremost American export . . . was not Coca-Cola or movies but the supremacy of the social sciences."

The limitations of the book usually stem from sociological naivety. Ross bites at the hot chestnuts of sociological theory, as when she proposes to "situate" structuralism "in conjunction with" colonisation and modernisation. Precisely what constitutes "situating" is the kind of question that stops sociologists changing a light bulb; a study like this is not intended to solve the problem, but it is unclear whether Ross realises there is one.

The overall effect of Fast Cars, Clean Bodies is, however, to provoke questions - which, together with answering some questions, is one of the hallmarks of a worthwhile book. The story of the reordering of French culture in the decolonisation period is a useful one for sociological theory, precisely because of its peculiarities - the ambivalent attitude of the French to modernisation as Americanisation, and (like the westernisation of Japan, the rapidity of which would also make a fascinating study) the vertiginous speed of the process.

David Revill is visiting distinguished lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles.

Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonisation and the Reordering of French Culture

Author - Kristin Ross
ISBN - 0 262 18161 4
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 261

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