I’ve been reading Fancois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Cusset talks at length about the “Americanization of French Theory” or put differently, the creation of “French” theory by American importers and contextualizes all of this quite nicely within the American social/political background. One of the things that I always find interesting, and I’m not trying to rehash old boring debates, is the utter vitriol that characterizes the backlash against what was/is perceived as “poststructuralism” or “postmodernism” or “French theory” or “deconstruction” and very often, the corresponding caricatures that both the “fans” and detractors of each thinker creates, whether Deleuze, Derrida, or Foucault. This phenomenon is well known. However, Cusset mentions Camille Pagila’s (who is someone I respect) manifesto against Foucault from 1991, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” in passing. I had totally forgotten about this 80 page diatribe against Foucault et al. It is worth reading, but only in the same type of way that I crank up the volume when I hear Steve Perry sing “Oh, Sherry” on the radio. Here’s a taste:
Lacan, Derrida and Foucault are the academic equivalents of BMW, Rolex and Cuisinart…French theory is like those how to tapes guaranteed to make you a real estate millionaire overnight. Gain power by attacking power. Make a killing. Be a master of the universe. Call this number in Paris now!
In 2005, Pagila was still defending her claims from 1991:
It remains my position—as detailed in my long review-essay, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” published in Arion in 1991—that Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault were false gods, created and promoted by secular academics who might have been expected to be more skeptical of authority. As it became institutionalized in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, poststructuralism hardened into dogma, and many humanities professors lost the ability to respect, assess, or even recognize any hypothesis or system outside their own frame of reference. Such insularity has little to do with genuine intellectualism and is more akin to religious fundamentalism.
Most seriously, poststructuralism did manifest damage to two generations of students who deserved a generous and expansive introduction to the richness of the humanities and who were instead force-fed with cynicism and cant. I fail to see that American students are emerging today even from elite universities with a broad or discerning knowledge of arts and letters. Nor has poststructuralism produced any major new critics—certainly none of the towering scholarly stature once typical of prominent professors who had been educated in the first half of the twentieth century.
The issue I address here is what kind of thinkers or theorists should be set before students as models of progressive yet responsible scholarship. How does one cultivate sensibility or develop scholarly aptitude and judgment? Which writers prove most fruitful over time by stimulating new work in an original voice rather than by simply coercing sycophantic replication?
Now, I’m not going to disagree with Pagila that there was (and is) a good deal of slavish imitation and uncritical acceptance of many of these thinkers. Yet, why pick on the “Frenchies?” Could we not say that about any intellectual current? And isn’t it going a bit too far to blame a whole generation or two of mediocre American students on Derrida, Foucault and friends? Cusset cites an example of “a recourse to a regime of the unreadable, or to a sexual jargon more confusing to its author than its readers,” taken from a chapter on “the excrementalization of alterity” by Calvin Thomas in his book Male Matters (1995):
The anal penis…functions within a devalued metonymic continuity whereas the notion of the phallomorphic turd functions within the realm of metaphorical substitution.
Perfect. And on this, I’m with Pagila. Yet, here’s Pagilla again telling us why she hates Foucault:
When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about “power,” never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, “The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz” (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, “Collaboration was not the exception but the rule.” I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents’ generations in Nazi France. American students, forget Foucault! Reverently study the massive primary evidence of world history, and forge your own ideas and systems. Poststructuralism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs!
While I sometimes have problems with using the Holocaust as a trope to explore otherness, alterity, writing etc., this seems to me to be a gross over generalization and misrepresentation of Foucault and “French theory.” How can we with good conscience jump from Foucault’s failure to address Hitler to a wholesale condemnation of the morality (or lack thereof) of a whole group of thinkers? Has Pagila placed too much hope in Foucault? How does one cultivate sensibility or develop scholarly aptitude and judgment?
Or to change the subject slightly, maybe Badiou’s comment in Manifesto for Philosophy is apt:
…philosophy is incapable of conceptualizing the extermination of the European Jews, it is the fact that it is neither its duty nor within its power to conceptualize it. It is up to another order of thought to render this thinking actual.
Now, I’m not sure I agree completely with Badiou here, but that’s a whole other issue…