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! Continue reading
Stopped by the department to pick up my mail and saw a large picture of Derrida looking at me from The Chronicle of Higher Education bin, and looking quite disapprovingly too – “What did I do?” I thought immediately and picked up an oldish issue of The Chronicle Review (June 13)- this is an old conversation that I think already exhausted itself, but the three essays that constitute the section “The State of Literary Theory” are available online, so I thought I’d point them out (gathered all nicely together):
Jeffrey J. Williams, Why Today’s Publishing World Is Reprising the Past.
Francois Cusset, French Theory’s American Adventures.
Richard Wolin, America’s Tolerance for French Radicalism.
Wolin’s essay has a nice tone to it:
What accounts for French theory’s warmer reception in America? Owing to the dearth of our own innate intellectual traditions, Americans are, as is well known, inveterate borrowers of ideas from abroad. As Tocqueville observed: “America is one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied. … [The Americans[‘]] social condition deters them from speculative studies.” Poststructuralism’s arrival on American shores occurred at a propitious juncture: the moment when our own indigenous Enlightenment value system had been discredited as a result of its implication in the Vietnam War.
French politics has oscillated between moments of frenzied revolutionary upheaval and periods of iron-fisted autocracy. Conversely, since America’s inception as a nation some 230 years ago, a very different political culture has held sway: the culture of political liberalism. Whether one seeks to explain that by America’s lack of a feudal past (as did Werner Sombart in his classic study, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?) or by the egalitarian traditions of New England local democracy, the results are the same: In comparison with Europe, our political extremes have rarely been too extreme; they have never wandered very far from what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called the “vital center.”
Stanley Fish’s recent post in New York Times discusses the book on the influence of “French theory” in America, but finally – according to the comment section – does nothing but bring back to life an old (and very much dead) debate about the “value” of deconstruction. So every single proponent and opponent of “French theory” crawls out of their cubicles to leave a nasty comment – it’s pretty entertaining!
Stanley Fish writes:
It was in sometime in the ’80s when I heard someone on the radio talking about Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie “Bronco Billy.” It is, he said, a “nice little film in which Eastwood deconstructs his ‘Dirty Harry’ image.”
That was probably not the first time the verb “deconstruct” was used casually to describe a piece of pop culture, but it was the first time I had encountered it, and I remember thinking that the age of theory was surely over now that one of its key terms had been appropriated, domesticated and commodified. It had also been used with some precision. What the radio critic meant was that the flinty masculine realism of the “Dirty Harry” movies — it’s a hard world and it takes a hard man to deal with its evils — is affectionately parodied in the story of a former New Jersey shoe salesman who dresses and talks like a tough cowboy, but is the good-hearted proprietor of a traveling Wild West show aimed at little children. It’s all an act , a confected fable, but so is Dirty Harry; so is everything. If deconstruction was something that an American male icon performed, there was no reason to fear it; truth, reason and the American way were safe. Continue reading