Tuesday, May 6, 2008

French Theory

François Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed The Intellectual Life of the United States [2003, 2008], is neither a history of the US academy in the 1970s and 1980s, nor is it a history of those authors named and implied in the title. It is, rather, a history of the ways in which these authors were read (this verb understood in the broadest sense) in the US in these decades. Cusset’s underlying argument in its most banal formulation is that the “French Theory” is an object created in the US mostly, but not entirely, by academics. Cusset argues that the American (mis)reading of these authors had at first two major directions: textualist aestheticism and essentialist identity politics. This creative misuse was generally the result of a failure on the part of Americans to appreciate the degree to which all these thinkers, especially Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard, were really grappling with Marx, trying to move past Marx without loosing the critical power of Marxism. Most people would not, I think, object strongly to this. By the end of the book, however, it is plain that Cusset wants to go further. Theory is not in decline, or has always been in decline, and while many of its American practitioners failed to be sufficiently (or were incorrectly, ineffectively) political, French Theory as an object constituted by these practitioners, contains a real critical and emancipatory potential even today. The final pages of the book are quite breathless. The language of politico-sexual emancipation (since capital and desire cannot be thought apart) is much in evidence.

Cusset’s obvious approval of what he understands to be his subject’s real message does not in the end detract from the book as a work of history. There are plenty of things to complain about, as there will inevitably be in a book about material which is close, and remains lived, for many people. The early chapters on student life and academic culture in the US seemed to me unbalanced and caricatured in several ways—positing ‘college’ as a perpetual gap for both a large percentage of the 18-22 age cohort, and also for the professoriate. Some sociological care should be taken here, and I say this keeping Cusset’s Bourdieusian perspective in mind. It also seems to me that Cusset is unnecessarily dismissive of identity politics as a tactical and strategic necessity. Identity politics is often practically a slur, and this seems to me to be more the result of a swinging pendulum than anything else. I haven’t studied the 1980s, so perhaps this form of politics really did do more damage than good, but I’d want a great deal more information and consideration before making any such statement.

There are smaller annoyances, which may well be the result of linguistic and cultural translation (the book was originally published in French, in 2003). For instance, at one point ‘date rape’ is defined as a kind of PC invention, an excess of the 1980s, “date rape, in which ‘date’ refers to the already highly codified American practice of gradual, formal steps of increasing intimacy, through dinner and drinks, before sexual relations, while ‘rape’ in this case indicates that a mere indiscrete question can be viewed as rape” (173). I suspect that Cusset is ascribing this view to the PC police, but it sounds like he believes that this is all date rape ever means. On another level, one wishes that the editors had caught such apparent but ambiguous gaffs as this one: “As early as in the eighteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that this tradition was a key to pedagogy in the United States...” (222-223). Maybe in the French it is clear that Tocqueville was speaking about the 18th century, and not in that century (he was born in 1805).

These are silly quibbles that interrupt one’s reading a bit, but do not affect that basic worth of the book, which is great. The book is in three parts. In the first part, Cusset tries to lay out the American context for the arrival of theory. He has chapters on Theory’s troubled relations to Literature, and a whole chapter on the vagaries of deconstruction. His general framework here is, as I suggested, broadly inspired by Bourdieu. French Theory arrived with force because it was useful for various people, especially academics. There is a little slight of hand here, because Cusset is convincing that French Theory is an object that only gets constituted in the US, so he isn’t able to offer a strong set of reasons for why some writers crossed the Atlantic and some did not. He can’t be faulted for this—the reasons are no doubt both, as it used to be put, internal to the texts and contingent to their circumstances.

The middle part of the book gives us chapters on identity politics (and here, I think that for Americans one’s opinion of the book will be linked to one’s opinion of Cusset’s treatment of this issue), the ideological backlash to Theory, the academic star system, Theory and student life, Theory in art, and the interferences between Theory’s sometimes technical discourse and America’s love-affair with technology. Especially in the chapter on the backlash, Cusset has some problems with causality. To what degree and according to what modes was the rise of the neoconservatives linked to the supposed impasses of identity politics and the deconstructivist turn of academic activism? I need a broader evidence base before I will say that academic leftists simply abandoned the field of public discourse to the right in the 1970s.

The short final section, we see Cusset’s own politics most clearly, because here we come the closest to a ‘balance sheet’ for Theory—though Cusset oddly explicitly refuses to link discourse to history at the beginning of chapter 12 (after he’s been doing so for 250 pages). We get a wonderful world-tour of French Theory, discussing its impact an the forms in which it was constructed in a number of countries across the world. Some, Cusset argues, for historical reasons, have a more ‘American’ version of French Theory than others.

Cusset is dismissive of the nouveaux philosophes, and outlines in scandalized tones François Ewald’s development of Foucaultian thinking (I wonder if he has the same feelings about Lacan’s annointed?). The problem for me is that Ewald sounds interesting. So the question becomes, how do we decide what an emancipatory text is? Or put another way, is there any way, apart from professional institutions and (Fishian) interpretive communities, to tell which texts are brilliant and deserve careful study and which are, pardon the French, bullshit? It seems to me obvious that much mistrust or dismissal of Theory, within the academy and out of it, is not so much the result of a belief that in the epistemological or political unsoundness of it all, but rather of a sneaking suspicion that it’s all being made up, that these people are hacks, or worse, deluded. That there is no there there, so to speak. When an engineer says something no one understands, you’re none the less able to judge by result. The same, in a sense, is true of the novelist or the poet, or at least sometimes is—they spout none-sense about what they write, but there are always those novels and poems that one can come back to, that do something. Theory somehow tends not to be thought of in this way. Cusset makes gestures toward thinking about this, but rarely gets beyond generalizations about America’s technological society, and its underlying philistine pragmatism. This is not a very satisfying answer.

One might argue that the scale on which Cusset is working prohibits him from making the king of detailed arguments that would be necessary to maintain that text A is better (denser, more useful, more thoughtful—or even more in tune with its context) than is text B. I’m not especially sympathetic to this defense, although it does have merits—books can only be so long, Cusset could not have provided the panoramic syntheses that he does if he had had to explain what, exactly, makes A Thousand Plateaus so amazing. It’s been done before, and isn’t his project.

All of these criticisms, on which I’ve dwelled far too long, should not take away from what seems to me to be a remarkable achievement. Derrida provides one of the blurbs on the back jacket, and I agree with him: this will be a work of reference for some time. Anyone with an interest or a bone to pick would profit from reading this book.

A final note: the way Cusset constructs his book seems to me not so dissimilar from François Dosse’s intellectual histories of the Annales and structuralism (which are excellent). I don’t know of other scholars in France doing this kind of thing, though no doubt there are—is Cusset a student of Dosse’s?

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