“Je m’en Foucault!”

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.

* “Amerloques” is the French slang for Americans. By using the term, Cusset implies that a widespread anti-americanism might also be responsible for the fate of the French Theory in its home country.

What did you learn at school, today ?

In his latest book, Save The World On Your Own Time, Stanley Fish makes a compelling plea for a value-free academic world which would be only devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and its transmission to students. This is a very provocative statement, isn’t it ? Well, though I can already hear the howls of indignation coming, I will argue that, in a perfect world, this thoughtful and persuasive essay should not be provocative at all. But let me just detail the book’s content.

Fish’s main argument in this book is that however laudable the ideals of a tolerant and peaceful society, which would foster democracy and struggle against gender discrimination and economic oppression (among others), this should not be the true purpose of an institution of higher learning to promote them. When professors offer themselves as moralists or political activists, they do not only waste their time; they also abdicate their true role: that of advancing knowledge among the students population by means of carefully chosen teaching materials and pedagogical virtue (indeed, one of the only “virtues” that has its place in a university). Though the book itself contains seven chapters (plus an introduction), it is mainly articulated around three ideas.

  • do your job
  • don’t try to do someone else’s job
  • don’t let anyone else do your job

According to Fish, the only job which is relevant here is “a) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before, and b) equip those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so” (p. 18). That does not mean that political and current questions cannot be brought into the classroom, but in order to be relevant, those questions have to be “academicized”. “To academicize an issue is to detach it from those contexts where it poses a choice of what to do or how to live … and insert it into an academic context where it invites a certain kind of interrogation” (p. 170). Instead of asking ourselves if Barack Obama is right or wrong, we can analyze (grammatically, rhetorically …) his discourse and ask whether he is compelling or not, without offering a judgement on the political ideas that are at stake. Doing the latter, argues Fish, would transform the classroom into the kind of sterile TV show students can quietly watch at home, and would provide no advancement of knowledge. Then, Fish tackles the two main criticisms which could be made about his statement: the idea that everything is political and that you cannot totally separate your analysis from your opinion on the question. About the first criticism, Fish argues that it is crucial to make a distinction between the academy politics and the partisan politics. Whereas the latter is about social goals and international relations, the former is about the good interpretation of a poem, or the relevant choice of a textbook. Those can involve some harsh debates, even harsher that debates over death penalty or abortion, Fish argues, and they are the only debates which should be allowed in the classroom. And about the second criticism, Fish argues that separating analysis from judgment is what we do all the time if we want to behave in society. If I go to my best friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah, I am not going to address the audience with a discourse on the evils of Israel’s policy in the Middle-East, even if I’m a zealous defender of the Palestinian cause (shall I precise here that the example is mine, not Fish’s !).

Stanley Fish, Photo by Barney Cokeliss

But what about free speech and democracy, which (almost) everybody regards as utterly important values, shouldn’t they be fostered in the classroom? Fish’s answer in the second part of his argument – don’t try to do someone else’s job – is unequivocal. It’s a no. Democracy and free speech are only political values, and not academic ones. Democracy, for example, is the idea that everybody’s voice weighs the same in our society, but it’s not true in a university. Teachers teach, students learn and administrators manage. That students take the same part as administrators in the numerous administrative tasks involved in the functioning of a university might not be a very good idea. As for freedom of speech, Fish argues that it is very different from academic freedom. The idea that any opinion must be valued is indeed totally opposite to the goals of the academy. Actually, only true and endured opinions, ones that can be demonstrated or rationally discussed, have their place in the university. That a professor, as a citizen, must be protected by the First Amendment is incontestable, but within the university this right is limited by the ability of this professor to do his job. Thus, academic freedom is only the freedom of pursuing the research of truth and the advancement of knowledge, not the freedom of offering any political view to the classroom without analytical insight. Fish provides many interesting examples of how a university should (or should not) react to the political events of the day, especially when they involve students or faculty members, including a very fine understanding of the issues at stake during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia.

This brings us to the third part of Fish’s argument. If professors do not do their job or try to do someone’s else job, they will end up being despised by people outside of the academy, who will pretend they can do the job as well. Businessmen, opinion leaders, politicians and lobbyists argue that the faculty offers a biased leftist point of view and that ideological and political balance should be introduced in the university, by being open to a different set of ideas. They denounce gender and race studies and plead for creationism. The irony of some arguments does not escape Fish’s mind. Coming mostly from the right wing, those activists often use a very vulgar conception of post-modernism, a movement they abhor and long tried to fight,  to enforce their conservative political views. According to them, post-modernism is teaching that no theory can be held to be true, so that every opinion should be valued on an equal footing. But Fish argues that this is a very bad understanding of what post-modernism is. “Postmodernism is a general and abstract description of the way knowledge is established and challenged. It tells us that any establishing or challenging of knowledge is a historical rather than a transcendent event” (p. 134). But historical contingency has nothing to do with scientific relativism, because “[y]ou can be persuaded by postmodern arguments on the very general level of their usual assertion … and you can still hold firmly to judgments of truth, accuracy, correctness, and error as they are made in the precincts of some particular realm of inquiry” (ibid.). Holding against those who argue that post-modernism is the denial of scientific knowledge, Fish claims that, on the contrary, this conception of knowledge shares the same properties than the values which should be at the core of the academy: it serves no political or ideological views and it is totally useless to society in general.

This brings Fish to the last point of his reflection. Because the true purpose of liberal education is merely to give students a hint of the advancement of knowledge in any given discipline, it has almost no cash value for the society as a whole. It does not make better men and women, just men and women with better analytical skills. It does not contribute much to the national product; sometimes it does not even help people find a job. The question is: how can you raise funding with such a discourse? The answer provided by Fish is deceptively simple: you can’t. But if you pretend that higher education can have any practical interest for the rest of the world, you end up managing your university like a business and consequently undermine the true beauty of academic activity: its fundamental uselessness.

Fish’s book is not flawless. Some of his examples are a bit far-fetched (when he tries to “academicize” the question of whether George W. Bush has been the worst president of the United States ever). Elsewhere, there are some contradictions. For example, he could have eschewed writing he voted for Gore in 2000 and for Kerry in 2004 to counterbalance arguments that some may find too conservative. At the end of the book, his defense of the academy makes him write that most faculties are ideologically unbiased, which is a bit contradictory with some examples he introduced before.

But overall, I think that Save The World On Your Own Time makes a fascinating read. This is particularly timely regarding the current status of our discipline. Historians of economics often offer themselves as moralists and political activists, denouncing the evils of free markets, of mathematical reasoning and general equilibrium model-building or pretending that the world would be in a better shape if economics had stopped its development after a) Aristotle, b) Adam Smith, c) John Stuart Mill or d) Friedrich Hayek (you can choose your favorite one). They desperately try to prevent their students from investigating the topics they find “morally hazardous” – meaning: opposite to their own conception of moral -, reducing fascinating scientific debates to mere ideological wars. This temptation is obvious in conferences, on the HES list (now SHOE) and even sometimes on this blog (particularly in the comments section). But if historians of economics do not do their job – which consists in writing the history of economics – and try to do someone’s else job, who’s going to do theirs?

Stanley Fish (2008), Save The World On Your Own Time, New York: Oxford University Press, 189 pages, incl. index and  a selected bibliography.