Wide-ranging scholar earns Acfas prize

by Sylvain Comeau

McGill professor of French language and literature Marc Angenot won the prestigious Prix des sciences humaines at the 64th annual conference of l'Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (Acfas), held last week at McGill.

Chantal St-Jarre, a University of Ottawa professor of health sciences and president of the jury which awarded Angenot's prize, praised the scope and originality of his work.

"He is blessed with both creativity and curiosity; the jury was impressed by the openness and versatility of his work, which spans a number of disciplines.

"There are plenty of academics who repeat themselves and recycle the same lines of argument, but Angenot doesn't. His work demonstrates constant intellectual renewal."

In addition to his award, Angenot had the added honour of a day-long symposium devoted to his work and that of related thinkers.

"(Angenot) achieves a remarkable synthesis between a number of theories," Université de Montréal professor Pierre Popovic, organizer of the symposium, said in an interview. "His work has interest at once for historians, sociologists and literary scholars like me. That's impressive."

Angenot's principal area of research and writing is discourse analysis and the sociocriticism of texts. In a pamphlet called The Concept of Social Discourse, he defines social discourse as "simply everything that is said or written in a given state of society; everything that is printed or spoken about and represented today through the electronic media; everything that narrates or argues."

In 1989, he published a monumental work applying the various methods of discourse analysis to a particular period in France. Angenot describes the task he set himself in his opus entitled 1889: Un État du discours social: "I took the year 1889 in France, and I decided to go read, analyse and try to make sense of 1,200 books, newspapers, periodicals and so on, and I asked myself, 'Is there something like a common cultural hegemony in a given society, or is a culture just a juxtaposition of different viewpoints?'

"I discovered that there was a common narrative in works by novelists, political propogandists, doctors, philosophers and so on. They were all dealing with, in their own way and within their own tradition, a common narrative about decadence--a society going to the dogs."

That discovery--about powerful reformist and Utopian tendencies as a response to social ills--led him to write several books on communist and socialist propaganda, a predominant theme in French writing. His latest book is La critique au service de la Révolution (Criticism in Service of the Revolution), published by the Inter-University Centre. In it, he examines communist literary criticism in France in the 1930s.

"The communist literary critics I discuss in my book wanted to invent another literature to replace what is supposed to be the decadent, bourgeois, perverse literature of before. There were a number of great French writers in this group, and I tried to see how they managed to paint themselves into that corner."

While he does pick apart the pillars of communist thought over the course of his books, Angenot is more interested in explaining the phenomenon of communist discourse; how to explain so many true believers in the secular religion of communism.

"It would be too easy to just criticize or condemn them. I hold a kind of paradoxical position, which is that they were not totally wrong. Even if they were sectarian, dogmatic and so on, they were asking questions about modernism which are still not going away.

"I am trying to account for their endorsement, their blindness, their total sectarian involvement in the belief that Stalin was the leader of humanism in the world."

Angenot said he found that while the original ideas were laudable, problems arose when they started to trip over their own increasingly rigid ideologies.

"The same thing always happens with activism; as soon as you feel there are inner contradictions in your position, you face a dilemma: either you give up--but certainly nobody would do that--or you try to run faster than your contradictions and try to conceal them. Human beings in an untenable position rarely admit that they were wrong."

Which brings us closer to the present day, and Angenot's opposition to committed activists of various political stripes, particularly political correctness.

"One problem is the effort to euphemize language, to make a social ill disappear just by slapping on a different label." He is also concerned about attacks from within universities on university teaching, but censorship is his biggest worry.

"There is a clear and present danger, as the Americans would say, from censorship. It is coming from both the left and the right. The anti-porn crusade reunites both feminists and religious groups.... The idea that you can erase social ills by suppressing them is a classical perversion of social activism."

Angenot is also a gadfly for Quebec nationalists. In a letter to Voir in 1992, he wrote that in an interview with the newspaper, sovereignist and Le Devoir columnist Josée Legault "showed very clearly...that her 'ideal' for Quebec requires at the start, in principle even, the repudiation of...individual rights incompatible with her tribal community."

Angenot's recent book Les Idéologies du ressentiment (The Ideologies of Resentment), published in January of this year, examines the discourse used by Quebec nationalists "and some perverse aspects of contemporary feminism, third worldism and minority ideology." The publication date was moved up following former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau's infamous "money and ethnic votes" comment on referendum night last October.

"I had written it before, but after Parizeau's reaction to the referendum, I wanted to publish my manuscript as soon as possible."

Linking all of Angenot's writing is a healthy scepticism, according to Popovic.

"Behind his writings, as in the work of all great critics, there is a social and political ethic at work. A moral lesson, in a way, which says: stop believing just anything, or at least, try to learn how well people's arguments stand up to scrutiny. His work teaches the reader to doubt, although with humour, not with bitterness."

In addition to the two books already out this year, Angenot has published13 others, as well as numerous research papers, chapters in other books, and booklets; he is also an assistant editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies, and co-editor of the Inter-University Centre's quarterly journal.

He says he is "overpublished," and offers a simple explanation for his prolific output: "I feel that I've got a few things I want to do...of course this is always a kind of private neurosis; no one is obliged to write. Maybe now that I have the Acfas prize, I will slow down and consider that I've completed my career."