French Theory

A forthcoming book takes a fresh perspective on how poststructuralism conquered America. Scott McLemee checks it out.

April 16, 2008

Last week, while rushing to finish up a review of Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press), I heard that Stanley Fish had just published a column about the book for The New York Times. Of course the only sensible thing to do was to ignore this development entirely. The last thing you need when coming to the end of a piece of work is to go off and do some more reading. The inner voice suggesting that is procrastination disguised as conscientiousness. Better, sometimes, to trust your own candlepower -- however little wax and wick you may have left.

Once my own cogitations were complete (the piece will run in the next issue of Bookforum), of course, I took a look at the Times Web site. By then, Fish's column had drawn literally hundreds of comments. This must warm some hearts in Minnesota. Any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right -- so this must count as great publicity, especially since French Theory itself won’t actually be available until next month.

But in other ways it is unfortunate. Fish and his interlocutors reduce Cusset’s rich, subtle, and paradox-minded book (now arriving in translation) into one more tale of how tenured pseudoradicalism rose to power in the United States. Of course there is always an audience for that sort of thing. And it is true that Cusset – who teaches intellectual history at the Institute d’Etudes Politiques and at Reid Hall/Columbia University, in Paris – devotes some portions of the book to explaining American controversies to his French readers. But that is only one aspect of the story, and by no means the most interesting or rewarding.

When originally published five years ago, the cover of Cusset’s book bore the slightly strange words French Theory. That the title of a French book was in English is not so much lost in translation as short-circuited by it. The bit of Anglicism is very much to the point: this is a book about the process of cultural transmission, distortion, and return. The group of thinkers bearing the (American) brand name “French Theory” would not be recognized at home as engaged in a shared project, or even forming a cohesive group. Nor were they so central to cultural and political debate there, at least after the mid-1970s, as they were to become for academics in the United States. So the very existence of a phenomenon that could be called “French Theory” has to be explained.

To put it another way: the very category of “French Theory” itself is socially constructed. Explaining how that construction came to pass is Cusset’s project. He looks at the process as it unfolded at various levels of academic culture: via translations and anthologies, in certain disciplines, with particular sponsors, and so on. Along the way, he recounts the American debates over postmodernism, poststructuralism, and whatnot. But those disputes are part of his story, not the point of it. While offering an outsider’s perspective on our interminable culture wars, it is more than just a chronicle of them..

Instead, it would be much more fitting to say that French Theory is an investigation of the workings of what C. Wright Mills called the “cultural apparatus.” This term, as Mills defined it some 50 years ago, subsumes all the institutions and forms of communication through which “learning, entertainment, malarky, and information are produced and distributed ... the medium by which [people] interpret and report what they see.” The academic world is part of this “apparatus,” but the scope of the concept is much broader; it also includes the arts and letters, as well as the media, both mass and niche.

The inspiration for Cusset’s approach comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, rather than Mills, his distant intellectual cousin from Texas. Even so, the book is in some sense more Millsian in spirit than the author himself may realize. Bourdieu preferred to analyze the culture by breaking it up into numerous distinct “fields” – with each scholarly discipline, art form, etc. constituting a separate sub-sector, following more or less its own set of rules. By contrast, Cusset, like Mills, is concerned with how the different parts of American culture intersect and reinforce one another, even while remaining distinct. (I didn't say any of this in my review, alas. Sometimes the best ideas come as afterthoughts.)

The boilerplate account of how poststructuralism came to the United States usually begins with visit of Lacan, Derrida, and company to Johns Hopkins University for a conference in 1966 – then never really imagines any of their ideas leaving campus. By contrast, French Theory pays attention to how their work connected up with artists, musicians, writers, and sundry denizens of various countercultures. Cusset notes the affinity of “pioneers of the technological revolution” for certain concepts from the pomo toolkit: “Many among them, whether marginal academics or self-taught technicians, read Deleuze and Guattari for their logic of ‘flows’ and their expanded definition of ‘machine,’ and they studied Paul Virilio for his theory of speed and his essays on the self-destruction of technical society, and they even looked at Baudrillard’s work, in spite of his legendary technological incompetence.”

And a particularly sharp-eyed chapter titled “Students and Users” offers an analysis of how adopting a theoretical affiliation can serve as a phase in the psychodrama of late adolescence (a phase of life with no clearly marked termination point, now). To become Deleuzian or Foucauldian, or what have you, is not necessarily a step along the way to the tenure track. It can also serve as “an alternative to the conventional world of career-oriented choices and the pursuit of top grades; it arms the student, affectively and conceptually, against the prospect of alienation that looms at graduation under the cold and abstract notions of professional ambition and the job market....This relationship with knowledge is not unlike Foucault’s definition of curiosity: ‘not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself’....”

Much of this will be news, not just to Cusset’s original audience in France, but to readers here as well. There is more to the book than another account of pseudo-subversive relativism and neocon hyperventilation. In other words, French Theory is not just another Fish story. It deserves a hearing -- even, and perhaps especially, from people who have already made up their minds about "deconstructionism," whatever that may be.


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