The Market of Honors

On the Bicentenary of the Legion of Honor

in French Politics, Culture & Society
Author: Oliver Ihl
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This article focuses on the findings of a study of titles and honors in twentieth-century France, in which these signs are analyzed as a government technique in their own right. This article shows how, transformed into a state emulation, a style of bureaucratic authority was created, a mode of coercion that favored an impersonal style of control over and between various corps of administrators, artists, managers, journalists, or elected representatives. A government technique was constituted in the distribution of the croix de la légion d'honneur, the most famous of these decorations—one with a conception of exemplarity (that of marks of distinction serving as a model for behaviors transcending the frame of legal obligations) and an emphasis on the soundness of behaviors, the guarantee and objective of a policy of conduct openly intended to replace the policy of rights or classes inherited from the French Revolution. Philosophers and intellectuals were to transform this intuition into a political paradigm: virtue can also, in its own way, be a rule of policing. Rationalized by a fast-growing bureaucracy, these marks of grandeur that constituted a means of emulation have now been trivialized to the extent of no longer being analyzed as such. Reconsidering the conditions in which they operate, this article proposes an interpretation of uses and functions through which the decoration invented by Napoléon spawned an administration of honors, the crucible of a full-blown government science.

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