Our Bodies but Not Ourselves

Perry Anderson on Hervé Juvin’s L’avènement du corps, in the New Left Review.

Social agendas in the West are in flux, as new kinds of issues gain salience—pension-systems, immigration regimes, reproductive rights, marital arrangements. Each is giving rise to large blocs of literature. On the left, Robin Blackburn’s Banking on Death and Göran Therborn’s Between Sex and Power stand out. On the right, Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption and Our Posthuman Future were well-received interventions. Ongoing changes have found a vaster anthropological setting in Maurice Godelier’s Métamorphoses de la parenté. In different ways, all these works aim at the forms of social science. L’avènement du corps belongs to another genre: the philosophical essay, illustrated with an abundance of striking—if rarely sourced—data, and delivered with an intellectual mordancy and crisp literary éclat that remain, even today, peculiarly French. Its author, Hervé Juvin, might also be regarded as a local phenomenon. In Anglophone societies business and culture are typically strangers, yielding at best—if we exclude the distinguished example of W. G. Runciman, a throw-back to hereditary wealth closer to the time of Rosebery or Balfour than the cbi—earnest middle-brow apologetics at the level of Adair Turner’s Just Capital; but in France the intellectual executive is a not unfamiliar figure. Operating in the insurance world, Juvin writes without overt political attachments. But in so far as he can be situated, his connexions lie with Le Débat, the country’s liveliest journal of the Centre-Right.

L’avènement du corps announces a time when the human body has started to pre-empt all other measures of value in the West, separating the experience of contemporary generations from that of all predecessors, and the rest of the world. At the basis of this sea change lies a spectacular transformation of life expectancy. When the Revolution broke out in 1789, the average span of life in France was 22. By 1900 it was just under 45. Today, it is 75 for men, and over 83 for women, and continually increasing. ‘We have every reason to hope that one girl out of two born in France since 2000 will live to be a hundred years old’. This prolongation of life is ‘the present that a century of blood and iron has left us—the present of a life that has doubled’. It amounts to ‘the invention of a new body, against need, against suffering and against time; against the world too—the world of nature, which was destiny’. The gift is restricted to the rich. ‘An entire generation will soon separate Europe from its neighbours to the south, when the median age of its population passes 50 (towards 2050), while that of the Maghreb remains under 30’.