[Paleopsych] TLS: Gallic invasion

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Apr 7 15:12:35 UTC 2005

Gallic invasion
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.5.28

    Peter Brooks
    28 May 2004
    FRENCH THEORY. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & cie et les mutations de la
    vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis. By Francois Cusset. 372pp. La
    Decouverte. 23.50euros. 2 7071 3744 8

    The coming of "French theory" to the United States is a story worth
    telling. The debarkation on American shores of such as Derrida and
    Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard, was not quite predictable. Here was
    a country that traditionally had no use for metaphysics - a country
    better known for producing pragmatism and legal realism as
    philosophical stances - suddenly succumbing to a Francophiliac mania
    for abstruse thought largely issuing from a tradition of European
    phenomenology little known in the US and expressed in a taxingly
    opaque idiom.

    To the cultural Right, it was clearly an invasion of body-snatchers,
    and the result was an American intelligentsia whose brains were rotted
    by the ideological equivalent of absinthe. In the culture wars of the
    1980s and 90s, deconstruction became a political target, a "spectre
    haunting American academia", according to a fundraising letter I
    received from one far-right cultural lobby. The very nature of
    teaching and scholarship, especially in the humanities, appeared to be
    threatened by these imports.

    A kind of cultural protectionism was called for, and a return to what
    William Bennett, when he was Chairman of the National Endowment for
    the Humanities, called "intellectual authority".

    How deep did the invasion penetrate? On the one hand, we are assured
    on many sides that we reached "the end of theory" over a decade ago,
    and now are "post theory".

    The dominant academic modes confirm that the heady days of theory
    construction are over - in France as much as in the US. On the other
    hand, you can find on campus bookshelves, in the famous Norton series
    of textbook anthologies, a stout volume devoted to "Theory and
    Criticism" - a volume that begins with Plato and Aristotle and runs
    through other classics, then in the 1960s becomes mainly French
    theorists and their American acolytes (though it devolves towards
    other thinkers when we reach New Historicism, Post-Colonialism, and
    such like). It's not easy to judge how much French theory - or Theory
    tout court as it now generally is known, embracing an occasional
    German, Slovenian and Brit as well -has become a permanent acquisition
    of American academic intellectual life. If originally the port of
    entry for French theory was the Department of French or Comparative
    Literature, now nearly every English Department in the US has its
    Theory course.

    But it is not clear just how this domestication may have altered and
    possibly muted the original theory-effect.

    Francois Cusset's lively history of the American reception of French
    theory invites reflection on these points. Cusset, a sociologist of
    communication who worked for a time in the French Cultural Services in
    New York, has marched intrepidly into a particularly nettlesome
    terrain. French Theory is full of insights and far-reaching

    It is written both with a kind of French intellectual snobbism
    (possibly an ineradicable part of one's birthright as a French
    intellectual) and much sympathy for the bizarre forms of American
    cultural life. Although he probably exaggerates the impact of French
    theory in America, he seems to me largely right in his understanding
    of the kinds of difference it has made. He makes many a mistake of
    detail, in dates and names and such, but this doesn't alter the value
    of the whole. Above all, he writes from a deep and distressed
    appreciation of how thoroughly French intellectual life has abandoned
    the generous and exciting reach towards theory of the 1960s and 70s -
    how it has fallen back into the anti-"May '68" patterns prescribed by
    such as Jean-Luc Ferry and Bernard-Henri Levy, into a "new humanism"
    which is often moralistic rather than thoughtful. Notably, literary
    study in the university has returned to old models that could have
    thrived in the nineteenth-century Sorbonne - for instance, "genetic
    criticism", which spends its time rummaging in archives for earlier
    versions of texts, then publishing a plethora of variant versions (as
    in the 1986 four-volume Pleiade Proust). It is a boon to doctoral
    students and to publishing houses, but a far cry from the challenges
    issued by Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva.

    Cusset's starting point is the conference on "The Languages of
    Criticism and the Sciences of Man" held at Johns Hopkins University in
    October 1966, which announced the arrival of the movement. The Johns
    Hopkins conference included many of the reigning and also the emergent
    French maitres a penser: Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean Hyppolite,
    Lucien Goldmann, Georges Poulet, Charles Moraze, Jean-Pierre Vernant,
    Tzvetan Todorov. But it was most of all the paper presented by the
    young philosopher Jacques Derrida - who the following year would
    publish De la Grammatologie and L'Ecriture et la difference - that
    captivated the professors and graduate students in attendance. The
    paper "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human
    Sciences" remains a major text of reference in the movement from
    structuralism to post-structuralism.

    And here is one of the keys to the peculiar implantation and
    development of French theory in American soil: the coming of
    post-structuralism virtually without there having been a structuralism
    preceding it. As Cusset well understands, the American context of
    reception for French theory was philosophically unsophisticated. Few
    American readers had much sense of the roots of French theorizing in
    the German phenomenological tradition. Heidegger was not considered
    philosophy in most American Departments of Philosophy. And it was not
    through Departments of Philosophy that Derrida, and then other
    poststructuralist masters, such as Deleuze, Lyotard and Baudrillard
    entered the university - it was through the Literature Departments.

    Not only was the philosophical context thin or absent, the kind of
    analysis associated with linguistic, anthropological and literary
    structuralism had scarcely arrived. The year 1966 also saw the
    publication of the pioneering "Structuralism" issue of Yale French
    Studies, edited by Jacques Ehrmann (whose name Cusset unfortunately
    gives as "Herman"), containing essays by Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Todorov
    and others. It could be argued that literary structuralism of the
    semiotic variety never put down deep roots in American soil, although
    the example of Barthes, Todorov and Gerard Genette did nourish the
    development of a distinctively American "narratology", which continues
    to flourish to this day. Still, Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play"
    essay was all about the decentring of structures that most Americans
    hadn't heard of in the first place.

    Literary post-structuralism thus entered a context most powerfully
    defined - as Cusset well understands - by New Criticism, a kind of
    formalism not entirely unlike structuralism (and especially the
    proto-structuralism of the Russian Formalists and the Prague
    Linguistic Circle) but largely innocent of theory. "Close reading" at
    its most insistent and probing eschewed anything not provided by the
    text under study, and it promoted a kind of sceptical literalism of
    interpretation - of metaphors and other "figural language", for
    instance - that could at times be subversive of received
    interpretations and conventional understandings of what authors

    Though its tone and manner were wholly different from Parisian
    discourse, "close reading" could teach some of the same attitudes and
    critical stances advanced by Barthes's "Death of the Author" or Michel
    Foucault's Les Mots et les choses. It is perhaps unsurprising, then,
    that deconstructive reading of the type practised by Derrida - and
    already in the US by Paul de Man - could be grafted to New Critical
    close reading almost seamlessly. The aims of the two kinds of reading
    are very different: the New Critical wishes to demonstrate the
    wholeness of the poem as a complex structure and texture, as a
    difficult but triumphant balancing act of affirmation and irony;
    whereas the Deconstructive takes us to the aporias of the text, the
    radically figural nature of language, its incapacity ever to coincide
    with the world it wishes to name. But if you are adept at the New
    Critical kind of reading, it is not hard to learn the Deconstructive
    variety - as indeed many American university students quickly did. The
    result was a plethora of essays offering persuasive deconstructions of
    texts of all sorts where all that was lacking was any sense of the
    point of the enterprise.

    The stakes to Derrida were enormous: the metaphysical tradition of
    Western thought was up for radical critique. For de Man, too, the
    issues were of great moment, concerning essentially the nature of
    literature and its language. In the work of many of the disciples, on
    the other hand, one felt that deconstruction had become one more
    academic exercise.

    Undoubtedly this sense of shrinkage and trivialization of the
    enterprise in its American incarnation had to do with its exclusively
    literary definition within the academy. Deconstruction, and French
    theory in general, took up their abode in the field where little seems
    to be at stake, at least in the view of the extra-academic public. And
    yet it was also because of this literary habitat that French theory
    could continue to flourish in the native interpretations chronicled by
    Cusset. Departments of literary study - first, Comparative Literature
    and French, and interdisciplinary Humanities Centers; a bit later
    English - became the laboratories of the new during the 1970s and 80s.
    Other fields began to look to the Literature Departments for new
    methods and paradigms. Historians, art historians, interpretive
    sociologists, musicologists, even law professors began to feel that
    something was going on in literary study that was worth attending to.

    Students - often the cross-fertilizing agents of academic change -
    brought from one field to another barbarous new ideas.

    In a larger social context, the result was the culture wars of the
    1980s and beyond (they still resonate today). When Bennett, ex his
    cathedra of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued his
    manifesto To Reclaim a Legacy, in 1984, he preached a restoration of
    "intellectual authority". If the culture wars were not exclusively
    about theory, French or otherwise, theory nonetheless was at storm
    centre since it appeared to have subverted the claim that the
    humanities were the place of unchanging verities, a kind of high table
    of the best that could be thought and said in the world. The
    humanities, and particularly literary studies, had no need of theory,
    which was distracting students from the text. Shakespeare had been
    supplanted in the curriculum by Derrida. The National Association of
    Scholars was founded to "save" literature from the theorists.

    I would argue to the contrary that the coming of theory actually
    rescued the study of literature at a time when it was threatened with
    sclerosis and irrelevance. In particular, it brought students back to
    literary studies with a sense that there was something exciting going
    on. It was a something that might in the long run turn out to be
    unsubstantiable, and perhaps unusable - but then most literary
    undergraduates aren't planning to build a career on how they have read
    either Milton or Foucault. In Cusset's perceptive term, theory in the
    United States is largely "intransitive": it is about theory, about the
    conditions of its own possibility, and hence at a second stage about
    the university itself, and the possibility of a transdisciplinary kind
    of knowing. At the same time, Cusset says - again rightly, I believe -
    that the naivety of the American student reception of theory has given
    its texts a kind of "existential function": they are models of a way
    of being, of a stance towards knowledge.

    Cusset tracks down some of the consequences of French theory in
    avant-garde artistic practices, which again can appear somewhat
    naively literal - as in deconstructive architecture, for instance. If,
    in academic teaching and learning, theory has been most productive in
    a practice of reading - a more self conscious and suspicious reading -
    another version of theory has been translated into steel and concrete,
    with results that must at times appear to the authors of the concepts
    they claim to evoke as strange progeny.

    But Cusset's story of cultural transplantation is all about "heureuses
    trahisons, glissements productifs", as he puts it - translation as
    treason and as productive slippage of meaning. French Theory is
    notable among other qualities for its sympathy with its subject - a
    sympathy motivated in part by Cusset's contempt for what has happened
    in France since the heyday of theory. His final chapter, "Et pendant
    ce temps-la en France", is a precise and needed polemic on the
    subsidence of French thought, following 1968 and then the collapse of
    Communist Eastern Europe, into a "moralisme humanitaire" in public
    discourse and, in the university, kinds of literary study that
    resolutely turn back from theory to a warm and fuzzy positivism.
    Francois Cusset's book is a kind of genial cornucopia of things that
    needed to be said.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list