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
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
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
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
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