My dear friend Katy is annoyed. For a few months, she’s been teaching French at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, while writing her master thesis for a French faculty. Every time she shows up at a literary theory class, the Professor expects her to master everything about Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze. Yet, Katy, like most of her French contemporaries – including, I must admit, the author of these lines -, does not know these thinkers beyond the usual cliches: cool guys with turtleneck sweaters and leather jackets who supported the May 68 events before dying of AIDS or crushed by a car, but whose writings are mostly unreadable – if not simply mocked by serious scientists such as Alan Sokal. Though nothing should justify ignorance, let me tell you that we French are not really to blame. Philosophy programs in high school do not include any of these authors – we study Plato, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Sartre, leaving aside everything that has been written after the 1960s. Mainstream philosophy consists mostly of neo-Kantian scholars with long hair and white shirts – most often leaving their chest exposed – who bash May 68 on popular TV shows while advocating the return to the universal values we – the French and more widely the Western countries – have brought to the civilized world since the 1789 Revolution. There are several variants of this discourse – some more progressive and some more conservative – but this is pretty much what they say.
Why such a significant portion of recent French thought remains mostly unknown in its home country yet praised and embraced by academics all over the world is the difficult question François Cusset tries to answer in his fascinating book, French Theory : Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis, certainly one of the best accounts of recent history of thought written in French I have read so far. Cusset’s main argument in this book is that the French Theory, as it is called in the US, is an American invention. He convincingly shows how the American academia, from the most revered scholars to the average undergrad, has managed to appropriate a set of loosely-related if not mutually contradictory texts to build a cohesive curriculum of knowledge which has been used to understand all the aspects of the American society in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting from the recent controversies surrounding the Sokal hoax, which at least served as a reminder for the French public that there were still a few influential fellow-countrymen in the United States, Cusset traces back the influence of postmodern philosophy in the foundations of the American university, showing that its location in the American society allowed for the formation of a theoretical discourse which would accompany the changes in the society – the struggle for civil rights and thereafter the birth of identity and community politics – while remaining strictly confined to the academic debate. Exploring the evolution of literary theory, the rise of gender, race and cultural studies, he shows that for all these questions, French Theory offered a convenient and malleable discourse which has been transformed and affected by the leading scholars in all of these fields. His description of some “campus stars” such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson – whose main works had not been translated into French when the author wrote the first edition (2003) – is both luscious and accurate. One of the qualities of Cusset’s work lies in the way he shows that even the criticisms of postmodernism by US scholars have fostered the dispersion of French thought. The author also devotes a chapter on the way the average undergraduate student manages to appropriate these difficult texts by applying Derridian deconstructionism or Deleuze’s “surface effects” to his everyday experiences and the study of pop culture – from Philip K. Dick to Talking Heads. What I liked the most in this account is the fact that Cusset, though he undoubtedly appears as a defender of these French and American trends in thinking, never tries to apply his judgment on the theory itself. Sometimes, he shows how X tried to demonstrate that Y’s philosophy is self-refuting or relativistic but he never commits himself to this criticism. Actually, Cusset’s own views appear only clearly at the very end when he describes the reasons why Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard have become persona non grata in their home country. The coming into power of a peculiar branch of the left in the early 80s, the rise of new philosophers, their penetration in the publishing market and their fame in the medias, the appropriation of Foucault and Baudrillard by French neoliberals leading to a lot of confusion are what prevented the French from recognizing the importance of their fellow citizens in modern thought. Cusset’s conclusion is hard to read but perfectly accurate : “What overconfident French rationalists quickly see as an old structuralist tune, as a badly assimilated linguistic turn or even as a textual relativism for Amerloques* most simply characterizes the way people, all in all, act and think since a quarter Century in the rest of the worldwide intellectual landscape” [my translation]. Finally, French Theory (the book) provides a wonderful example of how ideas travel. While writing this blog entry, I realized that it has been translated into English and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I highly recommend this reading.