Reading French Theory in French

  Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.

A review of François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, Univ. Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: François Cusset, French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis, La Découverte, 2003.

French Theory was originally published in France in 2003. I find it ironic that this book is now published in the United States in an English language translation, and even more so that it is read by its American readers as an introduction to « French Theory. » This was never the intention of the author. François Cusset does not provide a summary, an abstract or a survey of the thoughts of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. In fact, he derides the American propensity to engage with a philosopher’s work through readers’ digests, surveys or anthologies, instead of reading his books in their original form. In addition, he is critical of the very notion of « French Theory, » which he uses in English and writes in italics. He shows that this expression is an American invention, and that the authors subsumed under this term share little in common apart from their surprising fortune on US campuses since the beginning of the 1980s.

The original intention of the book was to introduce to the French public the enthusiastic reception, the unexpected developments and the violent controversies taking place in US academia and originating in the ideas of a cohort of French thinkers (all male) – Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Gattari, Lyotard, Baudrillard, with occasional references to a few women – Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. These avant-garde philosophers had their heyday in France in the turbulent 1970s, but had since lost most of their shine. They were never really considered as representatives of « French thought » in the first place – they held marginal positions in academia, and did not write in the tradition of Cartesian thinking often identified as the hallmark of the French mindset. Their success in the United States came therefore as a complete surprise to the general French public, which was from time to time informed of the controversies these thinkers elicited in the Anglo-Saxon world, from the vitriolic attacks against deconstruction to the Sokal hoax, but who could not really understand what that was all about.

The return of the repressed

The French are usually proud of their good reputation abroad. From gourmet food to artsy movies, they think French products are simply « ze best » in the world, and they are not surprised when some foreign critics confirm them in their delusion of grandeur. But, until François Cusset’s book at least, French Theory did not register on their cognitive map, and only a few cognoscenti identified it as an export product. The reasons were twofold. The first is a kind of cultural isolation denounced by the author as provincialism: translations of American thinkers who made use of French Theory were few, and the French were not really aware of the debates surrounding Cultural Studies, identity politics, and minority rights that were shaking the US since the 1980s. The second reason is intellectual repression: according to François Cusset, the ebullient seventies were followed in France by the slumbering eighties, and the radical thinkers under consideration were sidelined by an ideological backlash held under the banner of abstract humanism, social conformism and political centrism.

The result after 2000 was a return of the repressed: French theories, which had acquired new potency through their American exile, came back with a vengeance, and they were offered by part of the political left as a cure for French social ills. François Cusset shares this general orientation: from gay rights to affirmative action to political correctness, he thinks France could do well to adopt the new script developed on US campuses, and to rekindle the flame of intellectual radicalism that had dwindled in France after the death of its main intellectual figures. But his political agenda only comes up in the conclusion of the book. Meanwhile, his main goal is to help the French reader understand the American context in which these French intellectuals’ ideas acquired a new lease of life.

Political animals

As a result, the American reader of the translated edition will not find descriptions of the French intellectual landscape and, apart from a few fragments and keywords, the body of texts and doctrines corralled into the circle of « French Theory » will not be presented. The book is wholly centered on the US, and more specifically on American universities’ literary departments and on the urban cultural scene. Some of the descriptions of collegiate culture (the frat houses, the diploma ceremonies) that have no equivalent in France will be familiar to every American reader, and some chapters will read like unnecessary digressions. But there is always a value in discovering one’s own country through the lenses offered by a foreigner. After all, Tocqueville is still read today because, by explaining America’s democracy to his French contemporaries, he gave Americans a perspective on their own country that many find valid and informative up to this day.

Of course, François Cusset is no Tocqueville – he associates the renewal of Tocquevillian studies in France after the 1980s to a neo-conservative turn. But he knows the United States very well – he served several years as a cultural attaché in New York – and he will even be able to teach American critics a thing or two – on surrealism and its role in the birth of abstract expressionism, or on the contemporary New York art scene sampling and recycling theoretical formulations. More to the point, he brings to the US a perspective that has been muted from the public debate – witness, as he notes, the absence of really ambitious books of political analysis on the eve of recent presidential elections. To use a metaphor, the chattering classes in America are conversing among themselves, but they don’t notice that the room is filled with only elephants and donkeys, Republicans and Democrats, and that there is no place for any other political animal.

“To forget Foucault”

This is why, after all, American readers will learn a lot from following these French monkey-kings through their American journey. Beyond the unifying banner, they will discover that there were major differences and often violent oppositions between the producers of French Theory. Derrida made himself famous by attacking Foucault’s reading of Descartes in Madness and Civilization. Baudrillard wrote an essay titled « To forget Foucault », to which Foucault replied that his problem was rather to remember Baudrillard. Whereas, to a certain extent, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze were recognized by their academic peers and integrated into the academic mainstream, Baudrillard was treated in France as an intellectual nobody: as Cusset notes, not a single monography has been published on his work , whereas in the US he has been the topic of several studies, surveys and anthologies.

Foucault and Deleuze’s interest for counterculture is well known. Conversely, the influence that French Theory exerted on countercultural expressions is less documented. A French professor at Columbia, Sylvère Lotringer, played the go-between by organizing mass events gathering French theorists and avant-garde artists or punk musicians. Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation was brandished by New York gallery directors or post-modern architects and even featured in the hip movie The Matrix. College students with a rebellious intellect put theory texts to new uses, quoting them in fanzines or websites and cultivating an alternative lifestyle based on Foucault’s or Deleuze’s prescriptions. The « Marx boy » gave way to the « schizo kid » of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, and canonical texts acquired the status of Bildungstheorie, playing a part in the formation of tormented identities. Moving into the 1990s and 2000s, French Theory mixed with cyberculture and found its way in technological artifacts, from cyborgs and Sci-Fi narratives to electronic music and sampling. Beyond counterculture, French Theory’s influence has extended to mainstream cultural productions. The word « deconstruction » is used by magazine writers or features in TV spots; the hand gesture putting a sentence between quotation mark shas diffused from the lecture hall to restaurant conversations; and French Theory has suffused into campus life, with the new norms of political correctness and identity politics.

Philosophy and literary studies

Even though they evolved on the margin of the academic establishment, French theorists in France were acknowledged as philosophers, and were firmly rooted in their discipline. It is therefore surprising to see them belong to literature departments in American universities, not to mention the new disciplines such as cultural studies, film studies, gender studies, or theological studies, for which until very recently there was no real equivalent in France. No wonder American philosophers look at their literary colleagues and their theoretical pretense with feelings ranging from amusement and condescension to irritation and scorn. The way French texts were decontextualized by American critics led to new and interesting developments. The work of translation is never neutral. By moving from one intellectual context to another, these « travelling theories » lost some of their political potency but also acquired new meaning and power. Deconstruction, post-structuralism, and French Theory are therefore, to a large extent, American inventions. For François Cusset, it is time they come home to roost, in order to breathe some fresh air into an intellectual landscape that has become a desert of the real.

A last note on translation. I read French Theory in the original French. I cannot assess the quality of the English translation, but I can testify that François Cusset writes beautifully and with great clarity, explaining difficult ideas in simple terms without losing accuracy and relevance. I invite readers who have some knowledge of French to engage with this book, and with French Theory in general, in the original language.


Catégories : Book reviews