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Reimagining Popular Front Paris

Review of Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005). vii + 449pp. ISBN 0-674-01703-X [ISBN-13: 978-0674027169]

Jeffrey H. Jackson

Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar have written a book that is both monumental in its goal and narrow in its scope. Seeking to draw connections between numerous elements of 1930s Parisian culture, they discuss everything from Détective magazine to the films of Jean Renoir to Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit to Mistinguett and the music halls of Paris. At the same time, they remain very specifically and tightly focused on the Popular Front. They have not written a book about the interwar years or about the 1930s—the Depression, for instance, is only referred to in passing—but rather about the cultural context in which the Popular Front appeared in the urban setting of Paris.

The Popular Front has remained a fascinating subject for scholars for a variety of reasons, but Andrew and Ungar want to focus here in part because they see it as a liberating moment, one which they explicitly connect to 1968. But rather than seeking to write a narrative history of the events, they attempt to invoke the moment, the "atmosphere," as they use the term, to understand the broader cultural landscape from which the politics of the Popular Front emerged. Politics and culture are intimately intertwined for them, but politics are deliberately pushed into the background. Instead, they wish to bring to the foreground the daily events, moments, episodes, trends, sights, sounds, etc. which, they claim, are normally lost in the histories of the Popular Front. Rather than discussing politicians or workers, they want to recapture the experience and the mental atmosphere of the everyday. Yet despite the encyclopedic nature of their knowledge of the period, the book is not a "total history" of the moment. Instead, it is an impressionistic evocation.

Capturing the everyday leads Andrew and Ungar to their methodology which they see through the metaphor of the newspaper, "using it less for its serial account or investigation of some topic than for the diversity of topics it exhibits in each issue." (9) The intersection of a wide range of ordinary events which are seemingly disconnected (as the separate stories in a newspaper) but which are all contained within the same temporal and conceptual framework (the newspaper itself) fascinate them. They want to read the "back" of the newspaper, they say more than once, to analyze what many scholars have deemphasized.

In doing so, Andrew and Ungar argue, they are making a historiographical intervention into a crucial subject in French history which has heretofore been told (incompletely, they suggest) as a linear narrative. Indeed, they question the whole idea of a popular "front," preferring instead the idea of "'circulation' of the cultural atmosphere." (13) And they challenge the ways in which historians and other scholars have examined the era of the 1930s precisely for the linearity which they wish to escape.

One common reference point, at least for the first half of the book, is the Stavisky riots, the events of 6 February 1934 which galvanized the leftist parties into the Popular Front coalition against the new political right. The entire first chapter is devoted to a close reading of the 1974 film Stavisky… which, like newspapers, serve as another methodological metaphor for how they read the culture of the mid-1930s. Just as this film does not draw any linear conclusions from this crucial turning point in French history, neither do our authors.

Both the method of reading and the subjects they read emerge from the idea of a "poetics of culture," a concept which Andrew and Ungar borrow from Stephen Greenblatt, in order to understand culture and art "less in aesthetic universals than in the rapport between artist and contemporaneous social institutions and practices." (7) They might have made reference to Peter Fritzsche's Berlin 1900 in which a historian also "reads" an urban setting through its newspapers for further insight into this methodology.

Doing so might also begin to ground their work more firmly in the insights of historians who have taken the cultural turn. They do cite important French historians who have emphasized culture, but these are at least a generation old (Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis, Lynn Hunt). Although they refer to the work of cultural historians who study the 1930s, it is to imply to some extent that such scholarship is inadequate. "But how should this burgeoning archive [of historical investigation into the 1930s] be mobilized for understanding?" they note, relegating that scholarship to a footnote. (8) They see their work as integrating the events and trends which others have studied. "We hunt for patterns of change...," they assert (10). But the work of expanding and synthesizing the cultural understanding of the interwar period, it seems, has been happening among historians more thoroughly than they at times seem to suggest.

In large part, though, this somewhat thin reading of the historiography of interwar historians is connected to their disdain of narrative, something made very clear when they take historian Charles Rearick to task for creating a linear story out of the Stavisky Riots. (55-56) "As opposed to standard histories like Rearick's," Dudley and Ungar note, "journalism of the period relays a vibrant immediacy." (56) Their point is well-taken when discussing a description of such a complicated event. But Rearick's book to which they refer, The French In Love and War (1997), is hardly a "standard" work as he, among others, has tried to look beyond the traditional political narrative to explore much of the same cultural terrain with which Andrew and Ungar are also interested.

The first half of the book which they call "Street Work" looks at intellectuals, particularly writers and filmmakers and the ways in which, by engaging with the issues of the moment, they helped to pave the way for the Popular Front. Here, the link between politics and culture is the strongest as Andrew and Ungar show that there was little room for a de-politicized intellectual culture given the urgency of the issues, especially the rise of Nazism and its parallel neo-rightist movements in France. Their analysis of Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise is particularly rewarding as a close reading of the film that is deeply situated both in the context of the moment and the memories of the Revolution. By examining not only ideas but also the larger context, especially in the publishing world (NRF, Gallimard, the mass press, etc.), they demonstrate how "Politics in 1930s France was growing more populist than ever...." (89)

The notion of the "popular" is particularly important as they are essentially exploring the growing emphasis of this concept in the cultural realm as the precursor to the politically populist notion of a Popular Front. Indeed, if the idea of a "front" is not really their subject, the idea of the "popular" perhaps more accurately is. The second half of the book (called "Atmospheres") in particular deals with popular culture—or popular representations of culture—especially song, entertainment, Art Deco architecture, photography, film, and the widespread imagination of the colonies including the 1931 Colonial Exposition. The particular links back to the Popular Front become looser in this section which evokes more of the mood of the decade. By providing such a wealth of information, however, Andrew and Ungar do allow the reader to enter the mental universe of this historical moment to a depth not available in most other studies of the period, especially in the area of film which is clearly one of their areas of expertise and passion.

Their notion of culture is not rooted in any social context except for this idea of the "popular." The lack of reference to the Depression seems odd for a book that focuses on the moment when the political and cultural left united; surely the Depression found its way into cultural artifacts of the time. The Popular Front's enemy was the far right, but the Depression helped the idea of the "popular" to make sense, not just to the left but to others including the populist far right as well.

All of this succeeds as a new way of presenting the moment from which the Popular Front emerges (1934-1936). At the same time, this conceptual self-limitation sometimes makes it difficult to understand their interpretation of the larger picture. One question that remains only loosely answered is why this particular cultural context, which they describe so thickly, produced the Popular Front. Their insistence on "circulation" produces a whirlwind of subjects, from film to literature to popular song, their mastery of which is undeniable. But the details and the method by which they analyze them seem more important than drawing definitive conclusions. Perhaps that is their point, but one is left in a cloud of cultural artifacts without always a clear sense of what it adds up to. They emphasize the contingent and experimental nature of writing history this way, and here they do not disappoint.

One very useful theme that does emerge is a central tension in the mid-1930s between the hunger for change, engagement, and even revolution, and the consistent power of nostalgia. They show how Paris in these years sat uncomfortably between future and past—between the hope for change and the tragedy of the Popular Front's collapse, although Andrew and Ungar seem to come down on the side of hopefulness that out of this complex cultural interplay of the 1930s, something evolutionary emerged. A more sustained discussion of this theme might have proved a fruitful way to make sense of the atmosphere without imposing a narrative.

In the end, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture is a sophisticated meditation on writing about culture in a historical context with which students of this historical moment should grapple. Andrew and Ungar greatly enrich our understanding of the Popular Front and of the 1930s with a highly nuanced appreciation of the complexities of the age.

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About the Reviewer:

Jeffrey H. Jackson is Associate Professor of History at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris (2003) and co-editor of Music and History: Bridging the Disciplines (2005). He is currently writing a book titled Paris Under Water: How Paris Survived the Great Flood of 1910.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Jackson, Jeffery H. "Reimagining Popular Front Paris: Review of Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. January 19, 2018 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jjackson/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Jeffrey H. Jackson, Reimagining Popular Front Paris: Review of Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jjackson/index.php› (accessed January 19, 2018)

APA Style Citation:
Jackson, Jeffery H. (2010, March). Reimagining Popular Front Paris: Review of Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture. Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/jjackson/index.php


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