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An Introduction to Michel Clouscard’s Being and Code

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

The article is a note on the introduction to “L’Être et le Code” (Being and Code), the doctoral thesis of Michel Clouscard, read and commented by Sartre : “Being and Code shows a very ambitious undertaking. But in my opinion, it is this very ambition that makes the book valid (...) It is a true totalization (rather than totality), as it accounts for everything, even the individual (...) Its great merit is to show the best conditions for history to reveal itself concretely for what it is: an ongoing totalization.”

, Written by Réveil Communiste

This article is a translation of a French publication by Gilles Questiaux. He recalls, “the importance of the greatest French Marxist thinker, and of the greatest of all university Marxists in France, whose influence remains too weak”. He died in 2009.

An Introduction to Michel Clouscard’s Being and Code

We will not be able to read all the existing books, but we will be able to do without reading a lot of them after having read and meditated on Being and Code.

This is an edited thesis on dialectical materialism, a revolutionary discipline blurring academic boundaries, simultaneously sociological, historical, philosophical, psychoanalytic, even economical. It is composed of more than 600 very dense pages, which are also a “History of France” which describes the rational genesis of the categories of bourgeois subjectivity (and in the current situation of all subjectivity), of its aesthetics, its art and its pleasures as the forgetting of production; the forgetting of production is the left-wing diagnosis of the problem of bourgeois inauthenticity, which is opposed to the diagnosis of the reactionary “forgetting of Being” of the Heideggerians. Walter Benjamin had foreshadowed this analysis.

From the Critique of Bourgeois Epistemology to Dialectical Reason: This 47-page introduction should be published as a brochure, given its great philosophical richness in the field of dialectical materialism and beyond. This introduction is a polemical study whose goal is to identify a problematic, original and decisive methodology; that of the emergence of the subject of knowledge in history, which is associated with the moment of the French Revolution and with the name of the philosopher Kant.

Clouscard, philosopher and sociologist, was born in 1928 and died in February 2009. He is known as the one who had the iconoclastic audacity of theorizing May 68 (in its student expression) as a petit bourgeois counter-revolution, a point of view relentlessly criticized that he has amply developed in a small book with a suggestive title: Neofascism and Ideology of Desire (1973). This stance did not make him popular in the far left, and exposed him to authoritarian right-hander-type recuperations (Gramsci too has been the subject of such falsifications). Going against the tide of leftist failure, his thinking is of great depth and puts us on the path to finding the fix to the ever-worsening gap between the “left” and the popular classes.

Clouscard exposes that Kant is at the origin of contemporary epistemology, but a Kant taken up and bastardized by the Neo-Kantian tradition which seizes power in the philosophical field after the fall of Hegelianism within university, in the second half of the 19th century. Even Husserl, at the origin of the existentialist schools which claim to be a criticism of this tradition, is a hidden representative. He claims to make the transcendental subject an object of knowledge, to grasp it with a direct and mystical intuition, and only succeeds in making it fall into logical formalism, while giving a metaphysical and timeless meaning to contingent empirical contents, entirely determined by the results of class struggle. Clouscard: “The strategy of subjective idealism is to establish a hiatus between the existential and knowledge, between practice and theory, between the cultivated class and the productive class.” Ultimately this gives what François Chatelet called the PSU (university school philosophy), invertebrate eclecticism taught under the name of “philosophy” in school programs.

For Clouscard, a critical sociologist, human sciences are the model of tautological knowledge. To prove his point, he expands on the famous example of the questionnaire which always contains the answers. “Sociology is the discourse that calls itself sociological, discourse of sociologists, license in sociology, empirical science of empirical data”. The claims of logical formalism and structural linguistics are just as misplaced. The unconscious rational code of societies without stories (studied by Lévi-Strauss) serves as a principle for the expulsion of history (and of the progress of the productive forces) from thinking. There are two types of unconscious, for Clouscard, that of savage thinking and that of historical thinking. For Clouscard the reality of progress from one to the other is beyond doubt.

The central theoretical problem is that of the historical production of the subject of knowledge. Clouscard’s historical method applies Kant’s thoroughness to criticizing neo-Kantianism. The critique of neo-Kantianism ideology reveals from its contradictions what the bourgeoisie not only does not want to know but denies. The theory of the precapitalist ensemble that produces this transcendent subject needs to be written. It will be “L’Être et le Code”. His thesis can therefore be read as a history of France in the Middle Ages and Modern Times, with a detour to the subject’s psychological genetics.

Clouscard defines his historical method on those three grounds:

  1. Define the historical implications of the transcendental subject by showing that the subject of knowledge is historically produced.

  2. Then criticize the formalism-empiricism dichotomy characteristic of neo-Kantian epistemology, and its Husserlian mystical consequence, then propose the science of history, which authorizes a concrete logic (because the real is rational),

  3. finally take up the modernist implications of neo-Kantianism, in the libertarian ideological field supposedly Freudo-Marxist by reconverting the ideological couple: unconscious/structure into a scientific couple: negative/field of production.

The roughly summarized idea is as follows: to the two opposing classes, the one which produces and the one which consumes, coincides the dichotomy between the sign and the referent. The sign system consists in freedom of consumers and repression of producers. Of course, this freedom is only a recycling of models and stereotypes, recollected as a heritage in consciousness, and the unconscious of bourgeois individualism through the stages of the historical constitution of subjectivity. In that matter, Clouscard seems fundamentally Hegelian to me, each subject of a singular “me” being only a kind of re-engagement of the total history of the subject of class struggle, from Antiquity to the time of the transcendental subject (the French Revolution).

Through engaging in a polemic against neo-Kantianism, the methodology has become more precise, consisting in exposing the negative of neo-Kantian discourse, making it possible to go from neo-Kantianism to dialectical reason (a term borrowed to Sartre, but with the clear intention of relocating it within the science of history initiated by Marx).

The body—subject of the bourgeois individual is itself historically produced, it will be necessary to see how. The body-subject is unacknowledged, all our knowledge of the body-subject, of the singular body, is bourgeois or feudal, romantic myth, poetry of the dominant classes. Clouscard proposes his definition of the body-subject: passageway from substance to the subject of knowledge. To him, Lacan is clearly a regression from Freud in the knowledge of the historicity of bodily data.

Clouscard will try to illustrate the following point throughout his thesis : it is the logic of production, it is a certain mode of class relation which distributes, defines, delimits the being and the code, therefore it is only through the historical, dialectical relationship that we can specify the being-code relation. “The being of bourgeois epistemology is only the historical tearing, the distance from a producer frustrated of his production to an unproductive consumer. Bourgeois freedom is the negation of necessity, the bourgeois is free through the alienation of the worker”. The moment of May 68 is that of a new capitalism, which must liquidate religious and moral determinations. “How to regularize a hedonistic production when you are not a producer? How to enjoy without guilt? How not to name the political problem (incidentally we find here the criticism of the whole ‘anti-party’ ideology of collectives and networks who want to ‘do politics differently’, as they say).

Conclusion by Michel Clouscard:

“Dialectical reason will not allow itself to be intimidated by the cultural terrorism of neo-Kantianism and liberal demagogy, which are, alas, the implicit references of an intelligentsia which calls itself (and believes itself) revolutionary”.

The reactionary development of this intellectual and artistic intelligentsia in the West (but also in the former socialist countries) has greatly proved him right.

Gilles Questiaux

translation: Pierre-Alain Giraud

Link to the original article in French by Gilles Questiaux published in Réveil Communiste :

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