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The Crisis of Culture by Olivier Roy

Théo Blanc draws on recent French philosophy to explore an idea of culture in crisis.

Oliver Roy’s latest book, The Crisis of Culture (2024), represents the culmination of an intellectual trajectory set forth first in Globalised Islam (2002), Holy Ignorance (2008), and Is Europe Christian? (2019). The common thread of these books is a reflection on the interplay between local cultures, religious norms, and globalization. The Crisis of Culture is remarkable for its ambitious formulation of a grand theory at a time when social scientists often settle for middle-range theories and/or provincial case-studies. Roy’s self-declared objective is to analyse the symbolic impact of events rather than the statistical magnitude of the phenomena under study.

In The Crisis of Culture, Roy puts forth four key arguments, concerning: (1) The deculturation of societies; (2) The extension of norms; (3) The depoliticization of controversies and of social protest mobilization; and (4) The crisis of humanism and intimacy. Let’s look at these in turn.

Roy already used the concept of ‘deculturation’ in his previous books analysing the effect of globalization on religion. In the current book, he extends its application to society in general, considering the deculturation of culture as a whole. His contention is that distinct local cultures are in crisis due to the joint effects of globalization, deterritorialization, individualization, and desocialization. This crisis materialises through several factors, including the disappearance of communal spaces (via ghettoization of the poor and gated communities for the rich); the disappearance of universalist utopias and grand ideologies; the development of subcultures that are patchworks of elements from several cultures (for example, world youth subculture, fusion food); the disconnection of markers of identity from their original cultural context (for example, the Islamic veil in Western countries is not simply a ‘traditional practice’, but also a choice embedded in a self-proclaimed quest for autonomy); the dominance of the neoliberal ideal, which values success rather than creative labour and uniformises lifestyles around consumption; and finally, the social media culture of narcissism, which has replaced reason with desire, and enjoyment as the basis of freedom. These trends are supported by global communication technologies that facilitate the creation of bubbles, the promotion of new cultural markers, and the homogenisation of lifestyles. On this point Roy’s argument echoes that of Thomas Friedman in his 2005 book The World Is Flat, which demonstrates how the internet created a comprehensive platform of global collaboration – that is, a flat world. Friedman’s depiction of the "flattening of the word" is purely technological, however, when Roy considers ‘flattening’ as encompassing meaning and not just means.

Olivier Roy
Olivier Roy in 2017

In Roy’s view, the crisis of culture paves the way to the extension of normative systems. In this, explicitly expressed new norms replace implicit cultural expectations as the main way of regulating societies. Thus, as individuals lose shared local cultural meanings, what seemed obvious (for example, concern, intimacy, irony, consent, etc) is no longer so, and so behaviour must be reinforced through explicit norms instead. Emojis, Globish, automatic translation, explicit consent, and the social media expression of identity politics, are all aspects of the communication of explicit norms. In parallel with this replacement, ‘high culture’ – literature, classical music, the theatre, and so on – is losing ground. What is questionable, ultimately, is whether explicit norms are sufficient in themselves for society to function. Here Roy echoes the philosopher Régis Debray’s interrogation into whether society can hold together without religion or equivalent ‘sacred’ ideals. Debray’s answer is negative. (See for instance, Critique de la raison politique, 1981.)

Although compelling, Roy’s twofold argument about this replacement tends to rely on too rigid a dichotomy between the time of culture (yesterday), and the time of explicit norms (today). While in France there certainly was a moment of de-normativization, namely the May 68 cultural revolution, this also implies that certain norms prevailed until then. For example, in France, contraception wasn’t available until 1967, and abortion wasn’t legal until 1975, so sexuality and reproduction were not only a matter of shared implicit culture, they were codified in laws. The 1968 cultural revolution was precisely an attempt to re-align legal norms with new shared cultural meanings.

Similarly, the deculturation theorized by Roy presupposes a ‘state of culture’ (echoing the classical ‘state of nature’) where everyone shares the same implicit code of conduct, identities are clear to everyone, and there are no significant cultural differences or conflicts. But was that ever really the case? Roy rightly says that the thesis of Norbert Elias, ‘the civilising process’ (la civilisation des moeurs), has been appropriately criticized for postulating a ‘zero state’ of culture. Perhaps however a symmetrical criticism could be addressed to Roy; namely, that the idea of ‘deculturation’ tends to presuppose an earlier state of absolute or perfect shared culture. Arguably, however, societies have always grappled with the (dis)alignment of norms and culture. Roy’s thesis would benefit from acknowledging the complexity of this historical interplay.

Another grey area in The Crisis of Culture lies in Roy’s tendency to sometimes conflate the notion of ‘culture’ with the notion of ‘nation’. Thus, when he writes that a society shares an implicit culture, this tends to conceal the fact that it’s shared because there’s been a cultural unification by a central power, often by force. One may think, for example, of linguistic uniformization in France (langue d’oc vs langue d’oïl). A shared culture is a political product of this understanding because of the tendency to erase national cultural differences in the name of the nation. But the fact that the creation of shared cultures can be a form of nationalization entails that culture was (again) never fully autonomous from imposed norms. In their 1983 book The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger similarly demonstrated how the development of nations rested on the invention of new cultural traditions claiming to be old in order to promote national unity. The reinvention of tradition might also explain why some cultural practices are more easily exportable. This is illustrated in the so-called ‘pizza effect’ – a term coined to describe the process of a cultural practice being exported, modified, re-imported, then re-naturalized in the culture of its origin. Salsa music, created by Puerto Ricans in 1930s New York, and then taken up in Puerto Rica itself, is a good example of this phenomenon.

Going even further on the interplay between nation and culture, hasn’t culture always been in crisis? Colonization, for example – the extension of one nation over another – has had deep cultural effects on the colonized populations. The irruption of Napoleon’s army into Egypt in 1798, followed later by French colonisation of the entire region, contributed to a fully-fledged cultural crisis in the Arab world. Arab thinkers asked themselves what had gone wrong and whether their culture or religion was the problem. As the Islamic writer and poet Shakib Arslan put it, “Why are Muslims delayed while others progress?” (This was also the title of his 1930 book). This particular cultural crisis led to three different responses in the Arab world: 1) The choice of modernization, secularization, and its attendant deculturation (the Ottomans) 2) The choice of Arab nationalism, based on the idea that there is a shared Arab culture (Nasser) and 3) The choice of Islamic revival, based on the idea of a shared religion. So, the crisis of Arab or Muslim culture triggered by European colonization gave birth to different ideas as to what the indigenous culture really was. Overall, therefore, one regrets that Roy’s book tends to overlook the historical interplay between norms, political power, and culture.

The third argument put forth by Roy in The Crisis of Culture concerns the depolitization of societies. This depolitization shows itself in the focusing of debates and the mobilization of protest around questions of identity rather than socioeconomic issues, such as the plight of the poor or working class. It also manifests in the fact that self-employed contractors or entrepreneurs have begun to replace those on set salaries who have the possibility to negotiate through politicized unions. It shows in the reliance of protests on symbolic actions, including the construction of ‘safe spaces’ and on arguments around ‘personal suffering’ (victimization), rather than on creating broad political coalitions aiming at maximizing support and impact. Today, identity-based personal suffering is often deemed the most unacceptable social ill, and this is why political mobilization has increasingly transitioned from the struggle of classes to the struggle of places, races and faces, and of identities in general. The overall result is the neutralization of the socioeconomic politics that had been centre stage in the post-industrial era.

A protest in Toulouse
A protest in Toulouse

This analysis leads Roy to conclude that “Insistence on suffering and on all forms of redemption and compensation avoids asking the question of power” (p.228, my translation). This conclusion, however, exposes the Roy to potentially having too narrower a definition of the political – a criticism already addressed to him after the 1992 publication of The Failure of Political Islam (see for example Salwa Ismail, Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State, and Islamism, 2003). Identity activists of different kinds – for example, feminists, Black Lives Matter, LGBT+, ZAD (zone to defend) – would probably argue that their struggle is a struggle against political power. In addition, although the current discourse stressing suffering and compensation may not be about conquering power, as Roy rightly observes, it is obsessed with power. The above-mentioned activists all claim to fight an organized system of power (‘systemic racism’, ‘the patriarchy’, etc). The notion of intersectionality is also predicated on uniting different types of dominated individuals against a common, multifaceted oppressive system.

Notwithstanding the criticisms one may address to these new forms of activism (for example, that they tend to reify different types of discrimination into a single system), it is difficult to disregard the fact that the issue of power occupies centre stage in these mobilizations. So even if these activists are not competing for political or economic power, they demand new, progressive norms to be enforced by the political authorities. What Roy describes as ‘depolitization’ may actually instead be new forms of political mobilization, taking place outside the field of institutional politics. However, the relative side-lining of socioeconomic issues described by Roy in these mobilizations is clear when one compares, for example, the rhetoric of Angelas Davis and the Black Panther Party, which had an explicit Marxist orientation, and of BLM, which focuses on racial justice.

Roy’s fourth and final key argument concerns ‘the crisis of humanism’. In contrast with the humanist paradigm that has prevailed in the West since the Enlightenment – that human beings are supremely special creatures of reason – human beings are increasingly sent back to their animality. The distinction with the animal kingdom is being erased (through anti-speciesism, ‘comfort’ animals etc), such that, for example, unrestrained natural instincts are increasingly regarded as the source of sexual assaults. To substantiate this point, Roy contrasts the case of the rapes by migrants in Cologne in 2016, which was explained in terms of the patriarchal culture of their perpetrators, and the case of Weinstein, who was described as a ‘pig’ driven by basic instincts in the #MeToo and #balancetonporc (“Denounce Your Pig”) campaigns. In Roy’s view, this marked a turn to shifting the blame for sexual violence from culture to nature.

In relation to the issue of sexual violence, Roy also argues that the “autonomization of sex and sexuality from culture leads to a brutalization of gender relations” (p.163). In other words, the ‘erasing’ of culture unleashes sexual urges by allowing desire and enjoyment to take centre stage unimpeded. This line echoes that of Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), in which Sigmund Freud argued that the restless search for pleasure can only lead to a brutalisation of society: culture suppresses libidinal urges in pursuit of social harmony. So in a way, Roy’s deculturation is, in psychoanalytical terms, the disappearance of the superego.

Aptly, ‘the crisis of humanism’ is, in Roy’s view, directly connected to a crisis of intimacy. For him, pornography is a paradigmatic example of the deculturation and desocialisation of sexuality. By superseding real intimacy, pornography downgrades sexuality to pure enjoyment and performance. Something Roy arguably overlooks, however, is that pornography is sometimes based on the blurring of consent (where ‘no’ does not really mean ‘no’), in which sexual enjoyment lies in going against an initial ‘no’. In this regard, pornography is a mirror of society’s new norms, in that its success precisely lies in violating these norms. In other words, pornography can be interpreted as both the product of and the response to the new codification of sexuality.

According to Roy, the crisis of humanism also shows itself in a crisis of debate. The temptation is to resort to what Roy calls ‘authoritarian pedagogy’, that is, to impose norms – on consent, for example – without allowing space for interactive debate and learning. Taking the example of French laïcité (secularism), Roy argues that the state increasingly relies on an authoritarian interpretation of this principle, which automatically refutes the legitimacy of counterdiscourses. Interestingly, this argument coincides with the publication of La République autoritaire? by Haoues Seniguer (2022). Seniguer criticizes the paternalist, moralistic intrusion of the state in the interpretation of religion and personal opinions, leading to what he, like Roy, calls ‘the extension of norms’. For example, the common law was no longer deemed sufficient for Muslims, and a specific text was required for them (this was The Charter for Islam of France, enforced in 2021). What both Seniguer and Roy demonstrate, however, is that one does not change convictions through authority. ‘Authoritarian pedagogy’ only produces conformity, not acceptance. Interestingly, cancel culture represents a symmetrical authoritarian pedagogy, by also closing the space for debate.

To conclude, The Crisis of Culture repre­sents an ambitious attempt to provide an all-encompassing theory of social and political trends in the global era. It also stands out in its abil­ity to analyse controversial issues such as iden­tity politics with neither nostalgia nor a reac­tionary attitude, nor unreflexive progres­sivism. One may be surprised, however, by the paradox of a book that leans to the left (the author notably deplores the sidelining of socioeconomic issues, and criticizes the mismanagement of Muslim minorities), but which has so far received the most attention from right-wing (especially Catholic) bodies. It is also ironic that in 2023 Roy was awarded the Montyon Prize from the Académie Française, a prize established in the 18th century to reward books that are “the most useful to mores” – a moralizing humanist mindset precisely criticized by Roy in his book. It is perhaps unfortunate that the book ends on a pessimistic note, instead of providing hopeful suggestions for putting humanism back into culture. Nonetheless, the book represents a major achievement in Roy’s intellectual trajectory towards providing an original and holistic theorization of the modern world.

© Dr Théo Blanc 2024

Théo Blanc is a postdoctoral researcher in political science in the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, & the European University Institute, Italy.

The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms, Olivier Roy, trans Cynthia Schoch & Trista Selous, 2024, 232pp, Hb £20. Originally published in French as L’aplatissement du monde. La crise de la culture et l’empire des normes (2022).

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