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Albert Camus’s ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’

A Text and its Contexts


Neil Foxlee

This book was shortlisted for the R.H. Gapper prize 2011.
On 8 February 1937 the 23-year-old Albert Camus gave an inaugural lecture for a new Maison de la culture, or community arts centre, in Algiers. Entitled ‘La nouvelle culture méditerranéenne’ (‘The New Mediterranean Culture’), Camus’s lecture has been interpreted in radically different ways: while some critics have dismissed it as an incoherent piece of juvenilia, others see it as key to understanding his future development as a thinker, whether as the first expression of his so-called ‘Mediterranean humanism’ or as an early indication of what is seen as his essentially colonial mentality.
These various interpretations are based on reading the text of ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ in a single context, whether that of Camus’s life and work as a whole, of French discourses on the Mediterranean or of colonial Algeria (and French discourses on that country). By contrast, this study argues that Camus’s lecture – and in principle any historical text – needs to be seen in a multiplicity of contexts, discursive and otherwise, if readers are to understand properly what its author was doing in writing it. Using Camus’s lecture as a case study, the book provides a detailed theoretical and practical justification of this ‘multi-contextualist’ approach.


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Conclusion This study has shown that a modified, multi-contextualist version of Quentin Skinner’s intellectual-historical methodology, which has hith- erto been applied exclusively to early modern texts, can be fruitfully applied to a modern text. In demonstrating that different parts of ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’ need to be placed in different contexts if their meaning is to be properly understood, it has not only shown the need to refine Skinner’s approach, but also confirmed the inadequacies of textualist and mono-contextualist approaches, whether biographical or socio-historical (in this case postcolonial). In Chapter 1, I presented a critical account of Skinner’s method as laid out in his theoretical writings and modified it to bring it into line with his practice, supplementing it where necessary with the complementary approaches of Pocock and Koselleck. In particular, I argued that closer attention needs to be paid to the text itself than Skinner appears to think is required, and in particular to the use of normative terms to manipulate the pivotal concepts on which the argument turns; that the reconstruction of the argumentative context should be extended to contextualizing the immediate argumentative intertexts of the target text in turn, in order to reconstruct the discourses and debates of which it forms a part; and that, despite Skinner’s polemical emphasis on the argumentative context, it is also vital to take account of the biographical and socio-historical contexts in order to gain an adequate understanding of the text. After providing an improved and extensively annotated translation of Camus’s lecture...

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