The role of the artist and intellectual in twentieth-century politically convulsed Europe was ambiguous and altogether disagreeable. The source of this dispute is deeply rooted in moral and ethical grounds and, in order to offer a more refreshing view on it, the sociological dialectics of Niklas Luhmann will be exposed. Nevertheless, first we shall consider the philosophical state of the author’s writing context: Postmodernism, and more specifically, poststructuralism.
By the time Luhmann ponders about the meaning of interaction, or better said, the meaning as solely given by interaction, Michel Foucault has already published The Order of the things (Pantheon Books, 1970). In it, the French philosopher dissects the history of knowledge from the Renaissance to his time into individual cases of episteme, a term rather troublesome to apply. It refers to the epistemic order through which the scope of arguments, methods and speculations during a specific period of time are configured. Yet we will not engage in a complex examination of the thesis of that book, for the relevance of such is exactly what it suggests us about contemporary thought: that it is subordinate to the quest for abstract and underlying elements that resolve the meaning of events and images prima facie1. Derrida has spoken up on deconstructivist theories, Judith Butler will soon pronounce herself on the subject of the materiality of the bodies (Bodies that matter, Routledge, 1993). And, within that philosophical framework Luhman develops his theory of systems.
Later on, in a posthumous book titled Art as a social system, Postmodern German sociologist Niklas Luhmann approaches to the nature of the issue pointed out in the first lines of this essay by tooling his Systems theory. As per it he contemplates artistic production as an autonomous Social system, that emerges upon a constitutive paradox founded on the principle of its very ascetic nature and thus, that is brought to existence by dint of difference. In other words, what makes art art is precisely the acknowledgment of such as itself and in contrast to other autopoietic systems, such as Political systems, Social systems and so forth. By no means does this imply them being hermetically independent but rather as observants of every other. Accordingly, interaction, and more accurately, communication rises as the funding principle of the many possibilities of meaning; for sheer meaning is only to be primarily found in the individual’s consciousness and, the moment it permeates language it becomes subjected to its misrepresentations and deceiving forms. Put differently: “humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate.”2 Human communication operates within a network in which each system bears a function. For instance, the function of politics would be defined as: that which is constructed on the basis of the organization of the individuals in order to achieve social harmony. Art on the other hand “uses perceptions and, by doing so, seizes consciousness at the level of its own externalizing activity. The function of art would thus consist in integrating what is in principle incommunicable namely, perception— into the communication network”. Therefore, the purpose of the artistic quest, as regarded in terms of Social systems by Luhmann, is to apprehend the cognitive juncture between the acquainted intellect and primary source of external information- which will then be subdued to processing. 3
Henceforth, bearing in mind the contents of the previous paragraph, what would be the role of contemporary artists or intellectuals if suitable for them to have one? One interpretation would be denoting a legitimate position certainly dispatched from morality, principles or collective responsibility compromising their work; for that would circumscribe their processes of creation to the respective lexicon in both time and space hence exclude sundry contemplative lanes.
Albeit, a very concrete inconvenience arises from the latter assertion. An artist is an intellectual notwithstanding vice versa. If with creative production we were to refer to essayistic texts that were to directly address morality… would it still be steady ground to stand on the idea that it should not be condemned to their social effects? If the value of life and human rights was to be subjected to relativization on behalf of stark aesthetic judgements, whose authenticity would be legitimate? And what kind of realpolitik would arise from its social effect? For contemporary crowds it does not appear to be a first-order issue, however and in order to understand the complexity of the undertaking of such queries, we shall remit to politically and ethically writhed Europe, and more specifically, Post- World War Two France. Wherefore these questions are to guide us towards the formulation of the hypothesis leading this essay.
That being said, we proceed to approach the matter of contention of this paper. Beforehand however, we shall shed some light on the historical context that serves as its framework. After World War Two, Europe became atomized and remained in ruins for almost two decades. On economic grounds, not only was it devastated but it also had materialized as the United States’ charitable purpose. The Marshall Plan- an initiative launched by the American government consisting on the endorsement of funds towards the battered old Western continent- became active in March 1948 20. Post-war France was to all extents suffering from the fatigues of militaristic action and foreign intervention on domestic jurisdiction. The Third Republic had resulted in a complete disappointment for intellectual masses – either too moderated or too progressive- and its successor granted no better prospects, for it was a government established and controlled –through the figure of Pétain- by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Furthermore, a rather counterintuitive effect of American philanthropy had been growing in the hearts of the Frenchman as a sense of Anti-Americanism. Other than that, the French intelligentsia had been suffering, ever since the fascist withdrawal, from ideological expurgation. It had been enacted by the newly official sector of the former movement of la Resistánce -which had emerged during the years of the Vichy France as a counterpower block and was then the sovereign authority- namely, the CNE (comité national des écrivains), simultaneously splitting into la commision d’épuration, whose punishments were less aggressive, from banning itellectuals from public spaces to celebrating trials; and le comité d’épuration de l’édition, which would target both formerly active supporters of the fascist ruling plus those who would not declare themselves as neither in favour nor against the government of Pétain -this is key to understanding the potical appeal of these years, and we well come back to it later on.4
The premises for that purge were: that talent is responsibility, that the echoes of the written word are perpetual and that it was a rather appealing vendetta. Thereby, the publishers of magazines and newspapers who had been assiduously performing their task during the Occupation were dismantled.5 At the beginning, personalities such as Camus did support l’épuration des gens de lettres, and yet later on realized his mistake in view of the corruption of the trials –for 75% of the judges who were responsible for enforcing the law were as well judges during the times of the Vichy Republic-, exculpation based on aesthetic perspectives – Jean Paulhan claimed for mercy solely if encountered with considerable amounts of literary skills-, and them being accomplished on behalf of, rather than moral justice, ideological, military and national revindication of triumph (Judt, T., 1992).
The purpose of this essay is to attempt to answer the following question: how did the philosophical fundaments of Sartre and Camus’ confrontation translate into the several interpretations regarding the conception of the role of the intellectual within the political dimension?
The starting point of their quarrel began a few years earlier, when the legal and judicial forces were not yet governed by the obsession of national authorities and political activists with la purité.6 Parisian Jean-Paul Sartre and French-Algerian Albert Camus, met, discussed philosophy and forged a friendship. The similarities of their interests united them whereas the unevenness of their views enriched them and reinforced their bond. However, parallel to la Liberation and almost simultaneous to the starting of the Cold War, not only was their relationship put to an end, but also polarized their stances under the eyes of public opinion; for they bore very different views on the matter concerning this essay and expressed so openly along the lines of magazines such as Les temps modernes.7 The conflict which separated both gradually overcame and emerged with the publishing of L’Homme révoltée, (1951), by Albert Camus, in which he conceived Communism as an ideological justification for the violating of the principle of life, on the face of the Stalinist Soviet Union, with its gulags and its trials, such as the so-called Lysenko affair and Slansky’s trial. As Camus grew apart from Marxism, Sartre -despite his never direct enrolling in the French Communist Party- became a ferocious defendant of the movement.9 And what is more, not only did he turn a blind eye on Stalin’s realpolitik policies, but rather, when the truth about it became so stark, he justified the crimes by explaining how the paucity of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, -when regarded from the European ethos- was just a just sacrifice preliminary and needed for the sake of real cultural liberation. When Camus asserted on the preponderance of performing a non-violent revolution, Sartre assured how it could be as interchangeable as the concept of freedom of speech, as previously indicated, on the pathway towards the emancipation from American capitalism. 10
Anti-Americanism is, taking as an instance Sartre’s views, fundamental in order for us to comprehend the polarization of opinions towards Capitalism – represented by the USA- and Communism – represented by the Soviet Union. Not only does this dialectical structure correspond to that, prima facie, of the Cold War but it also and most importantly had its reflection on the European sense of collective identity. The application of the Marshall Plan featured, apart from funding, the commercial expansion of the hegemonic country.11 By these means, being against Stalinism had a much more acute connotation. It denoted: (1) an opposition to the only materialization of a system supported by ideals unblemished by bourgeois profit-based lobbies and (2) a state of alienation only reinforced by the United States’ cultural expansionism.12 For even the attempts of the Soviet citizens who had fled the country and spread the word about the crimes where distrusted and widely considered as instruments of the long-reaching arm of the States’ oversighting. 13 It would be suitable to compare the latter with Plato’s myth of the cave: when, on the prospect of the philosopher’s intention to liberate the prisoners from their chains, they murder him. And now as it may be transported to this situation, on the prospect of the only emancipated state’s potential allure to proletariat revolution – the Soviet Union-, the prisoners –French philosophers who refused to stand alongside Stalinist ideological lines- feel threatened at their comfort – and hence resolve into attacking the movement or simply not supporting it. A distinction that had neither place within the France of la libération nor within Post-war West Europe 14 – except for naturally Francoist Spain.
Another interpretation might as well be, that the French intellectuals of Camus’ and Sartre’s generation – Merleau-Ponty, Claude Roy and so forth- were alienated by their self-formulated idealization of the workers’ moral standards. For, in the words of Mounier: “the working people bore and nourished that political instinct without which ideas and good intentions would be vain and impotent” (Judt, T., 1992). Therefore, instead of only producing goods, the proletariat also produces a dignified and franc background for pro-Marxism artistic creation, or so it seems 15. This would easily locate the function of the intellectual as the forceful poet of revolution, a thought complementary to Antonio Gramsci’s views on the intellectual’s social function as a guide 16; a notion that intimately relates with that of post-revolutionary Russia in which artists and intellectual were, not even the architects but also the caterers of the national doctrine. All in all, and going back to the point that was made by the beginning of this paragraph, aesthetical condition of work seen as a noble activity combined with the unknown glorification of the faraway Russian state seem to have as well constituted a key point towards the understanding of a veiled perception.
Hitherto in this essay several ideas have been undertaken, namely: the function of art as one of Niklhas Luhmann’s Social systems and how that notion translates into the whether or not existent role of the intellectual –or the artist- on social and moral grounds; the context and some of the driving forces – Anti-Americanism and Anti-capitalism and the aesthetics of the values of the working class- of Post-war French intellectuals anesthetized and prosovietic17 -to use Judt’s terminology- attitudes and more specifically, how that particularly projected on the well-known disagreement between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. For, whereas the former developed a rather hermetic, absurd and purely existentialist perception towards Stalinist crimes and violence on behalf of revolution, the latter humanized that existentialism and vowed to lay the foundations of non-primarily-aggressive revolutionary deeds.18
The obvious conclusion to be drawn – however not obvious- is the following one. We have deliberately chosen a rather complex contextualization of the intellectual’s nature in order to take it to a tangible extreme – Sartre’s wilful blindness towards Stalinist’s violation of the right to live of every individual- and prove if there could really be a legitimated separation between the humanities’ echoes on the moral grounds upon which politics should be constructed. And there could be, but there is not have to be. Put differently, artistic creation is always going to be, however formalist19, a product of the political, social and economic times characterizing the author’s context. Their work must not be obligately confined to leadership goals, as asserted by Antonio Gromsci. Rather than that, it will most likely naturally lean towards reflecting the concerns of the historical framework of the artist. Once that episteme, to use Foucaultian vocabulary, is overcome, their works will become an epistemological treasure regarding the study of history; for they will offer a less factorial approach on the reading and understanding of humankind’s evolution.