Abstracts Esprit 3-4/2005

The adult sphere at pains to transmit values

A clinician specializing in teenage problems shares the lessons learned from his own professional experience. As he analyzes the new tacit norms that are becoming entrenched in a rhetoric of experimentation and personal choice, he worries about adults’ capacity to play their roles to the full.

Young people up against migratory and family break-ups

Most of the problems that schools are facing in “sensitive” urban areas emanate from outside the school compounds, from issues such as families’ backgrounds of migratory or social upheaval. These issues call for detailed attention. No solution can be found for young people breaking away from family and school short of a consistent educational stance from the adult sphere, and one which brings teachers and families together.

Women’s authority on the rack

Authority in education often tends to be considered as a purely abstract phenomenon, regardless of the physicality that comes into play. From this angle, gender differentiation may introduce an asymmetry that makes it even more difficult to wield authority. What does female authority amount to when neither the father nor the master figures can be conjured up? The author considers various strategies, ranging from “virilization” to well-assumed differentiation to conflict. It may then be possible to conceive of a type of authority that is not the “chief’s” and can dispense with the negation of differences.

The objectives of authority in everyday school life

A group of young teachers who are also members of France’s Observatoire de l’Education share their experiences of, and reflections on, authority. From teachers’ formal pedagogical training to awkward efforts at squaring theory with practice to the attitudes of the national educational administration, education emerges as a jumbled landscape – one where “DIY” teaching finally takes over from ideology, and where authority is primarily understood as a quest for some collective meaning and sense of purpose.

Does anything remain from classical education? Revisiting Henri-Irénée Marrou’s History of Education in Antiquity

A historian well-versed in ancient education, Henri-Irénée Marrou remains an authoritative figure. This profile shows how his individual pathway and his scholarly work must continue to provide us with inspiration.

An interview with JEAN-MICHEL REY
What does “adding credit” mean? Between literature and economics

Continuing with the enquiry he started in his book, Le Temps du Crédit (The Credit Era, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2004), the author reviews some of the defining traits of credit and trust in a contemporary context. The experience of France’s 1720 financial crash highlights the evolution which the notion of credit has gone through since then: distrust of a perpetually indebted state, expectations postponed indefinitely, and economics intertwined with politics. On this basis, any trust being attached to institutions acts as the foundation for a community that is no longer prepared to trust anyone at any cost. However, the moment credibility is earned and no longer bestowed, the authority of authors as they produce their works ends up being undermined against a background where fear and distrust rival each other.

Multiple authorities and journalists’ experiences

It is more than just a paradox that “totalitarian media” and exorbitant journalistic omnipotence are being stigmatized just when public opinion clearly queries the credibility of those very media. Nowadays, journalists have to contend with multiple authorities, who, on top of binding them economically, put into question their independence. If media professionals are to recover any authority, they must take a step back and stop considering theirs as a sacred function.

Is authority telegenic?

How are the judiciary function and its rituals to be shown on TV? Studies of the history of American soap operas show that it is possible to bring viewers into the thick of the judicial process rather than just its stage management. The specificities of the Anglo-American legal system probably make it easier to turn lawsuits into good shows without necessarily veering into caricature when transposed for TV.

The media: a lack of authority and a surfeit of power?

Have the media gained too much power for themselves? Despite this, there is a consensus that they lack credibility. How do we account for this contradiction? An analysis of consumption patterns, new techniques, and economic strategies suggests that a structural shift is under way. The media sphere no longer works as a vertical structure; rather, it looks within distinct groups to coordinate those media that are related to them by their respective special interests and by the techniques they use.

Fresh patterns of subordination at work

Within firms, the byword today is “authority as euphemism”. As they allow more and more leeway for individual initiative, managerial policies refer employees back to their own personal sense of responsibility for their actions. Beyond the negative implications of this individualistic approach, what has emerged over the past 30 years (following France’s legislation on trade union representation within firms) is an increase in the demand for more participative decision-making and for more autonomy as well as a greater readiness for dialogue. But then is this not all bogus?

The credibility of contemporary scientific statements: authority’s last stand?

Democracy is often identified with the domination of relativism and the exchange of opinions. The author of A History of Authority (Histoire de l’Autorité, Paris: PUF, 1986), Gérard Leclerc, shows how multiple legitimate statements do not coincide with an elimination of authority. The example of scientific statements shows that credibility is a function of specific institutional conditions (evaluation, the individual scientist’s status and notoriety). Most of all, and more than a “death of the author”, what we see nowadays is the emergence of signature as a universal token of validity for any discovery.

Religious authority: between faith and the church

The religious sphere includes the twin dimensions of authority: the authority of enunciation (the Book) and institutional authority (such as the Roman Catholic Church’s). How do we reconcile both? It is not enough to claim that the Revelation takes over any other authority, because tradition often acts as a prelude to the Book. But the relationship between authority and religion leads to another issue, namely the theological-political conundrum and its specifically contemporary weakening. Against the background of the identity-seeking attitudes of some organized religions that have turned into powerless authorities, the two interviewees argue in favour of a “conflict of interpretations”.

Power as a matter of life and death: on “Solomon’s judgement”

Sovereign power does not wield authority only when it is being exercised, but also when it is not. A reading of the story of “Solomon’s judgement” in the Bible validates the view that the credibility of power is as suspensive as it is effective. This “judgment”, which will never be executed, makes it possible not just to solve an apparently intractable conflict: it also frees the body social of its morbid inclinations. As it reconciles desire and reality, it hands the individual back some control over themselves.

Of time and authority: about Alexandre Kojève

Together with Hannah Arendt, Alexandre Kojève is one of those rare philosophers who have taken a close look at the notion of authority per se. Placing himself in a phenomenological perspective, his is a bid to isolate the essence of a relationship that cannot be reduced to domination but instead leads to a reflection on recognition, the foundations of which were laid out by Hegel. But Kojève is at his most enlightening with his insights about the temporal dimension of authority: from tradition to project, time is always associated with authority.

The contradictions of autonomy. Bergson as a critic of Kant

In a conception where the individual stands in isolation in front of a vast social duty or a formal moral law, it is difficult to understand what can mediate between abstract duties and individual behaviour. Facing this ethical cul-de-sac, Bergson suggests that we should allow ourselves to come under the influence of “morally creative figures” apt to open up our ethical notions.

What type of authority can be based on the symbolic order?

In areas like law and mores, the notion of the “symbolic order”, which structuralism helped to popularize, is often described as the source of any legitimate authority. Nevertheless, once it is introduced with a primarily scientific and descriptive purpose, can the symbolic order be just as easily translated into some normative discourse? Close readings of Plato, Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan help to clarify what is at stake with “the symbolic”, which must be understood as an imperative of truthfulness and as Law.

Legitimizing the state: from a weakening authority to a restoration of power

The expectations that the weakening of the state elicited have been proven wrong: far from society gaining its full autonomy, what we see is the state re-affirming its power. How do we account for this paradoxical “free-market cum authoritarian” state which keeps extending its prerogative for the sake of the individual’s freedom? What is at play here is a confusion between authority and power, the origins of which are to be found in the ambiguities of contemporary political philosophy. Two sources of state legitimacy are at work here: one authorizes government action in the name of social imperatives, and the other one, currently at its apogee, resists the power of the state with the dramatization of various types of insecurity.

Published 4 May 2005
Original in French

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