Reading Lefebvre: Metaphilosophy (1965)

So in the midst of our global pandemic, a friend and I have started reading Henri Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy (1965, trans. 2016 [!]). This is my first time reading Lefebvre—a French philosopher and sociologist whose name seems to circulate at the fringes of literary studies. Many folks know about him, but his work seems largely untranslated and unstudied. (The exception being, perhaps, for literary folks who study “the ordinary” or “the everyday.”)

Thus far I’ve only made it through the introduction to MP by Stuart Elden, so I’m not really reading Lefebvre just yet (maybe later today). Even so, I thought it might be useful to record a few observations that came to me when reading Elden’s piece.

1) In literary studies, we traditionally teach “critical theory” as a rather linear history of ideas: first came the Greeks, then New Criticism, then . . . and so on and on until we get to “Ecocriticism” or “Affect Theory.” Savvy teachers, of course, help their students see that this linearity is a kind of ruse meant to make this mass of ideas seem manageable. Despite its utility, this linearity betrays something quite important (many things, really, but I have one thing in mind here): that the history of reception and translation can make thinkers from different periods feel as if they are contemporaries to each other—and perhaps to us, their later readers.

For Lefebvre, “the relation between Marx and Hegel” is “a major theme” not just because Marx himself clearly marks Hegel as an influence and a precursor but because texts that we may now think of as central to their respective careers were not available until the 1920s and 1930s. “Marx’s important 1844 manuscripts,” for instance, “had been published in German only in 1927” and translated into French two years later. Likewise, Lefebvre found himself producing “a collection of Hegel’s work” in the late 1930s along with “a translation of Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel.” This is to say that, for Lefebvre, Hegel doesn’t simply come before Marx, and Marx doesn’t simply come before Lefebvre. While still a deeply historical and sociological theorist, there’s a sense in which his metaphilosophical method seems to take up Hegel and Marx as if they were contemporaries.

(It’s also worth noting, as Elden does, that Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit was published in 1927 too. And that the “Nietzsche” Lefebvre comes to know is no doubt inflected by Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche. There’s also a lesson here about literary reception: e.g., Gerard Manley Hopkins was, until later editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, categorized as a Twentieth Century writer, since his Poems wasn’t published until 1918. He died in 1889.)

2) This point about reception / translation is not incredibly novel, I imagine, but it does speak a bit to Lefebvre’s position in English studies and in English-translated “critical theory.” Elden notes the staggered and partial vision of Lefebvre that has developed in the English-reading world with a telling example:

. . . in terms of Lefebvre’s longer-term work and the direct antecedents to the present book [Metaphilosophy], two books published in 1939 are perhaps most important: Dialectical Materialism and Nietzsche. The former, one of his first books to be translated into English, develops a clear and nuanced appropriation of Hegelian–Marxist thought, using the same title but opposing Stalin’s work on the topic. While [DM] could be seen as consistent with some kind of orthodoxy, Lefebvre’s reading of Nietzsche from a Marxist standpoint, especially in 1939 when Nietzsche was being praised by the Nazi regime in Germany, ran counter to the tradition line . . . [The] afterlives [of these books] diverged: Dialectical Materialism went through multiple editions and was widely translated; Nietzsche had to wait sixty years before a re-edition in France, while first edition remain hard to find. (loc. 74)

What are the consequences of the delayed translation of Nietzsche? I imagine for many AngloAmerican theory heads like me, we tend to think that Nietzsche isn’t really taken up in French thinking until his rejuvenation and resurrection by Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida—three different but still pretty compatible figures). What might it mean to read Lefebvre’s Marxist account of Nietzsche against this later “French” Nietzsche? An account in which “Marx” differs from the Althusserian “Marx” that Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida all evaded and avoided for (most) of their careers? In the work of the younger philosophers, moreover, Nietzsche seems to be taken up as an alternative to Hegel and / or Marx. This isn’t really the case with Derrida, I guess, but what does it look like when Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche aren’t at odds with each other but when they actually form a composite base of a lifelong philosophical and sociological research project (one that also engages in some way with Heidegger and Sartre)?

3) I’m also quite intrigued by Elden’s summary of “Lefebvre’s main arguments about structuralism in the present book”:

The first is that form, function and structure are all significant, both in Marx’s work and more generally, but to privilege only one of them is ideology, an ontology which becomes an ‘ism’: formalism, functionalism or structuralism. The second is that the relation between the diachronic and the synchronic is equally significant: by privileging the latter, structuralism denies history and becoming. The third is that content and form must be examined together in linguistics and semiology: la langue , language, must not take precedence over la parole, speech.

Moments like this make me somewhat embarrassed by how thin “structuralism” can seem in literary theory classes: some Saussure, a bit of Lévi-Strauss, some Barthes. But it’s really the only linguistic frame or philosophy of language that has wide traction in literary studies. And we tend to really only study one response to it (or versions of a single response). Anyway, I’m also keen to learn what the difference is, for Lefebvre, between form and structure. I imagine form is particular while structure is, well, general. But I could be wrong.

We’ll see what we see. Reading on.

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