Francois Cusset: French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.
Cusset's important and widely discussed French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis has now been translated into English. It's a valuable contribution to 'the epidemiology of ideas'--echoing its French subtitle's reference to 'mutations'. Focusing on seven authors (namely, Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Guattari, and Lyotard), its central topic is two-fold: 1) in what ways was French Theory taken up in the United States, and 2) why did it have such enormous impact there?
With respect to the first question, Cusset, in a wide-ranging survey, illustrates the American reception of French Theory not just in literature departments, but in identity politics, pop art, punk rock, and much else besides. This part of the book is (mostly) fun and fascinating, sprinkled with anecdotes about how academic stars such as Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari and Lyotard socialized with the likes of William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg. (Sadly, the candid photographs included in the French version have been omitted from this translation.) Also described in gory detail are fierce battles: over the 'industrialized university', over the Western canon, etc. Eventually, Cusset maintains, despite the occasional 'reaction' and 'backlash', French Theory more or less colonized the human sciences generally: cultural history, film theory, legal studies, museology, theology, women's studies, etc.
The most thought-provoking material addresses the second question. Cusset urges that there was a 'systematic misreading' behind French Theory's success. It genuinely is a mutation: despite its French lineage, really it is 'Made in the USA'; and it departs not just accidentally and in details from the original philosophical texts that inspired it, but structurally and deeply. Crucially, it is precisely this misreading which facilitated its extraordinary spread: to oversimplify, Cusset suggests that in order to render it useful (e.g., teachable, readily applicable to art works, and practical as a political 'tool kit'), American academics all too frequently merely quoted from the original philosophical texts, forged a series of 'isms' out of the unstable aporias to be found therein, and ultimately crafted prescriptions not far from 'eight simple rules for postmodern political activism' or 'three easy steps to creating deconstructive art'. The result was not so much une philosophie francaise merely taken up in the U.S., but rather, as per the original's English-language title, French Theory. Cusset sums it up nicely: 'the very logic of French theoretical texts prohibits certain uses of them, uses that were often necessary, however, to their American readers in order to put the texts to work. It is an example of the recognized interplay between betrayal and reappropriation' (278).
Having described the book's main questions and theses, I turn to evaluation. The book's greatest strength, at least for a reader such as myself, is that it explains at least in part the abiding cross-talk between French Theory and Anglo-American philosophy. My fellow analytic philosophers are notorious for complaining that French Theory is unclear, sloppy, and thin on arguments. More fundamentally, one can't help but worry that French Theory has never seriously questioned the empirical soundness of its proto-scientific roots: Freud's psychoanalysis, Marx's economics, and Saussure's linguistics. Equally notoriously, such complaints seem to carry no weight. Indeed, they are heard by those who do French Theory as reactionary, a backlash, a crass attempt to maintain hegemony. (In fact, even Cusset himself, when he addresses criticisms of French Theory, seemingly overlooks the possibility that one could object to its tenets as incorrect, based on faulty preconceptions, or merely badly argued for; instead, he assumes that all opposition to Foucault et al. must be politically/culturally motivated.)
Why such profound and long-lasting cross talk? It may be Cusset's most important contribution to have highlighted at least one of its roots. He emphasizes that French Theory had its origins in surrealist avant-garde art and radical political activism. Related to this, it rose to prominence not in spite of its erudite/exotic language, its playfulness, its 'freedom-seeking experimentation' (70), but because of these. To critique French Theory by means of 'clear, careful, empirically-grounded arguments' is, then, to miss a big part of the point. Put more grandly: as Cusset lays things out, if there is any kind of genuine disagreement between Anglo-American philosophy and French Theory, it's not over claims such-and-such. Rather, any 'disagreement' is more properly a contemporary flare up of the battle between Enlightenment and Romanticism; or maybe even better, of the 'quarrel', familiar since Plato, between the Philosophers and the Poets.
Now for the negatives. For analytically-inclined readers like myself, it's a disadvantage of the book that it isn't merely about French Theory, but is itself, stylistically, very much in its same vein. The troubles with style appear at both the level of vocabulary and of sentence structure. Cusset's word choice is often esoteric to the point of being exclusionary: e.g., rather than saying that American college life is more fun than hard work, he writes that it is 'more ludic than Stakhanovite' (35). Equally, his prose is often unnecessarily tangled and opaque, as in 'the double, convergent ambition of politicizing certain Lacanian theses and examining the psychic implications of Foucauldian politics creates, between these two remote poles--the psyche and polis, the process of subjectification and the modes of power's circulation --a zone of indistinction, neglected and incompletely covered ...' (197). This gets in the way of understanding not just Cusset's answers to the two central questions of his book, but even, for those who aren't antecedently familiar with it, what French Theory consists in: unfortunately, one who doesn't already know what Foucault et al. have to say won't learn it here.
Turning from matters of style to substance, the fundamental weakness is a lack of reliability. Cusset's epidemiological study purports to describe the specific ways in which French theory was received; and he urges that its dominance was nearly absolute. There are two features of the book which render his claims less credible than they might otherwise have been. First, there are small lapses. I mention two of dozens. Cusset refers to the 'generational grammar' of Zellig Harris and Noam Chomsky ('grammaire generationelle' in the French original, p. 110). That should of course be generative grammar. And he recounts a 1985 visit by Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman to 'the University of Montevideo'. But there was no such place in 1985. Knowing something about linguistics and about Uruguay, I happened to catch these and other specific slips. Not a serious problem, to be sure--except that, induction tells me, there must be many such errors, unnoticed by me because in domains where I lack expertise. These are errors of detail; the sort of thing that a competent fact-checker would have caught. (French Theorists in the U.S. might abjure the very idea of a 'competent fact-checker'; but Cusset, aligning himself instead with Philosophers from France, presumably would not.) The second worry about reliability, however, runs deeper. Cusset ultimately suggests that French Theory came to dominate the American Academy in general. Yet he seems to me to being drawing upon a biased sample. It's plausible that those domains Cusset really knows well were heavily influenced by French Theory; but that's arguably because he knows a domain well only if it was heavily influenced by French Theory. One example: he suggests that those who early on co-opted the Derridean program were 'the most brilliant professors of their generation' (114). Only someone with a very literature-centric point of view could make such a claim: what of Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, Murray Gell-Mann, Jane Goodall, Donald Hebb, Linus Pauling or Edward O. Wilson, just to name a few? Or again, in Chapter 4 Cusset dismisses Anglo-American philosophy as having two branches: the cult of ordinary language, and neo-conservative logical positivism. Fifty years ago, such an oversimplification would have been uncharitable but forgivable. Nowadays, anyone who truly believes this is, ipso facto, not in a position to draw conclusions about the intellectual life of the American academy.
Though not always clear and reliable, Cusset's book is well worth reading nonetheless. It describes the remarkable trajectory of French Theory not only in certain sectors of the Academy, but also in pop culture and politics. At the same time, it highlights its (to me) unfamiliar artistic and political roots. More importantly, in doing so it plausibly suggests that 'French Theory' was neither French nor, ultimately, a philosophical theory narrowly construed. Finally, it provides a novel and intriguing account of why, precisely because of its 'mestizo pedigree', it was able to proliferate so widely and so rapidly in the United States.
Robert J. Stainton
University of Western Ontario
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|Author:||Stainton, Robert J.|
|Publication:||Philosophy in Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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