Melancholy Politics

Loss, Mourning, and Memory in Late Modern France

Paper or softback
Jean-Philippe Mathy
Published 31 Aug 2011
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“Mathy has long been a lucid interpreter of French intellectual history. His new book is particularly timely, as it sheds a historian’s light on the current controversial politics of national identity in France. Mathy shows that it is best understood in the context of a national ‘depression’—and his reflections on ‘melancholy politics’ give precise meaning to what could otherwise be a vague notion.”

—Éric Fassin, École normale supérieure, Paris

“[Mathy's] study provides highly readable and informative insight into contemporary waves in French thought and political culture.”

—Drew Flanagan, H-Net Reviews

“In Melancholy Politics, Mathy has somewhat revived or at least reinvented French intellectual history, and he does so by avowedly not writing intellectual history. Mathy is masterful on the details and maintains a litterateur’s sense of the pleasures of the text.”

—Matt Matsuda, H-France Book Reviews

“Mathy does not lose sight of the bigger picture of an age of disenchantment and writes about it in a clear and lucid way. Ultimately, he sees the mourning process not simply as a failure to work through the past but as a possible opportunity for the future.”

—Max Silverman, American Historical Review

Melancholy Politics is a stimulating and enjoyable read. . . .

[The book] is perhaps best viewed as a work of contemporary history infused with a healthy dose of memory studies theory, and should certainly be read by anyone with an interest in how a nation attempts to deal with its past.”

—Adam Timmins, Journal of Contemporary European Studies

The current cultural climate in France is often described as one of “déclinisme” or “sinistrose,” a mixture of pessimism about the national future, nostalgia for the past, and a sinister sense of irreversible decline concerning the present. The notion of “democratic melancholia” has become widely popular, cropping up time and again in academic papers and newspaper articles. In Melancholy Politics, Jean-Philippe Mathy examines the development of this disenchanted mood in the works of prominent French philosophers, historians, and sociologists since the beginning of the 1980s. This period represents a significant turning point in French intellectual life, as the legacy of major postwar and sixties theorists such as Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and Foucault was increasingly challenged by a younger generation of authors who repudiated both Marxism and structuralism. The book is not a classic intellectual or cultural history of post-1968 France, but rather a contribution to the understanding of the present—a collection of soundings into what remains largely a complex, ongoing process.



Introduction: Loss, Mourning, Memory

1. Specters of the Sixties

2. French Postmodern

3. Le Débat, Year One: The Generation of 1980

4. The Return of the Prophet: Bourdieu, Zola, and the Dreyfusist Legacy

5. Desperately Seeking Marianne: The Uses of the Republic

6. Memory Wars

7. Old Wine, New Skins: Race, Laïcité, Frenchness




Jean-Philippe Mathy is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A study of the cultural politics of loss and mourning in France from 1978 to the present. Focuses on national identity, secularism, Jacobin republicanism, and political-cultural exceptionalism.