Reading a Riot

The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution

by Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, translated by Claudia Miéville
Harvard University Press, 146 pp., $19.95

Now, months after the Los Angeles riots, a question drifts unanswered. It is not the familiar query—What caused the explosion?—but something more elusive: What did it mean? Commentary came almost as quickly as coverage on television, but it dwelled on the social and economic conditions of South Central Los Angeles and the anarchy in the streets, leaving other questions hanging: Could the riots be understood as something more than mindless violence? Were they saying something? Could they be read?

The notion of reading riots has now become a central concern in the efforts of historians to make sense of collective violence. The historical literature hardly provides a key to unlock the mysteries of Los Angeles, but it suggests ways of thinking about the riots and of putting them in perspective. It has flourished especially in France, where it has passed through three stages.

First, in the nineteenth century, Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Lebon advanced the notion that crowds developed psychologies of their own, which swallowed up individuals and operated outside the constraints on ordinary behavior. When applied to actual uprisings, this theory degenerated into Dickensian descriptions of revolutionaries run amok. But it fed into the study of “collective representations” and “collective mentalities” which emerged as a peculiar French genre in the early twentieth century.

Georges Lefebvre’s small masterpiece, The Great Fear of 1789, opened up the second phase in this strain of scholarship by demonstrating that crowd behavior expressed identifiable social grievances even when it seemed to be most irrational. Following the example of Lefebvre, George Rudé built the study of social and economic protest into a general account of the great “days” or uprisings that determined the course of the French Revolution until the army replaced the crown as the ultimate force in politics in 1795.

Although Rudé furnished precise information on the composition of the crowds and the economic circumstances of their action, he tended to describe the “days” as automatic responses to rising prices: when the cost of bread became unbearable, the people took to the streets. To E.P. Thompson, studying plebeian protests in England, this consumer-reaction model of behavior seemed inadequate. He examined the behavior patterns in themselves, for what they expressed by means of gesture and ritual; and he found that they articulated concepts of a “moral economy” or an implicit code of justice embedded in the folkways of the laboring poor.

Thompson’s example stimulated a group of American historians—Natalie Davis, Steven Kaplan, William Reddy, and Louise Tilly—to search for similar expressive patterns in the French sources. This third phase of research produced a rich literature on collective violence of many kinds; and it reinforced indigenous strains of French scholarship, not merely the older study of mentalités collectives but also a newer concern, inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, for the way power relations are built into modes of sorting out experience and construing reality.

The French also found inspiration in the work of another philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, which challenged them “to read…

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