French Theories

Bickering Buddies: Franco-American Cultural Spats

Bickering is an element in the cement which holds together the enduring, often testy Franco-American friendship. Sometimes the issues are small and at other moments fairly large, yet there always seems to be something creating a degree of friction between the United States and its oldest ally. The most recent example started as an academic imbroglio, a quarrel among monks where two different theories of historical research were at odds. Then suddenly it became a national issue.

French universities have a well-earned reputation for quality research. They also maintain a strict separation among academic disciplines. There are departments of history, of English, of French, and each area’s research remains focused within the parameters of its own discipline. The more established professors championed traditional research perspectives concentrating on a theme related to a “major issue” and examining it within the context of one academic discipline. Until about twenty-five years ago, American universities followed suit. Then, American scholars began to realize that this single-minded focus was too limited for studying the contemporary world with its variety of voices and movements. The Americans took the cliché that history is written by the victors and reversed it as they sought to examine what the world looks like from the viewpoint of the downtrodden, the underclasses, the poor, the sexual and racial minorities. This new research rapidly became interdisciplinary; in order to do their work, scholars routinely borrow concepts and techniques from other disciplines. Such considerations helped create new academic fields such as women’s studies, postcolonial studies and African-American studies.

These new approaches provoked a division among French scholars, particularly concerning postcolonial studies. The more traditional saw this new American thing as tendentious, trendy and politically motivated. Yet for other, usually younger researchers, the American innovations offered new perspectives for studying colonialism through its impact upon colonized people; it provided a means of reevaluating the French colonial empire and its aftermath. France’s sacrosanct mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) became a facade behind which lurked the reality of greed, racism, exploitation and violence. Many French academics objected to this sort of redefinition because it seemed exaggerated and unpatriotic. However, younger researchers thought they were exploring new dimensions of seemingly well-studied issues and coming to very innovative conclusions. This generational and methodological tension had been simmering for some time when it was thrust before the general public.

In mid-February of this year, Frédérique Vidal, the Minister of Higher Education, spoke darkly of a growing islamo-gauchisme, a vague term that has been around for about twenty years and has taken different meanings over time. Currently it serves to denounce a supposed alliance between Islamist terrorists and militant French intellectuals to undermine the French State. Vidal claimed that American-inspired research methods, combined with teachers who incite rather than explain, have produced a way of thinking “which gangrène (blights) French universities.” She distinguished between what was allegedly the product of academic research and what supposedly resulted from political activism and ideology. Her comments found support from the Far Right and some conservative researchers and thinkers, but they were largely condemned in the academic community. A spokesperson for Macron had to assure the country that their president was open to all varieties of scholarly research.

The historically-minded are probably tempted to see the recent Franco-American skirmish as a sort of a belated American repost to a French import that for a time created havoc in the Yankee halls of academia. In 2003 François Cusset published French Theory (also available in English). Initially the most striking thing about this work was that while the title was in English, almost every other word in the book was French. The reason for this strange disparity was that no real translation of the American intellectual phenomenon which came to be known as “French Theory” existed in French. French Theory refers, less to particular theories than to the incredible enthusiasm that thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Deleuze among others ignited among young American academics and beyond (Cusset reports that DJ Spooky, the composer and multimedia artist, cited Deleuze on his album covers). Equally opinionated were more traditional American scholars who found these French gurus’ prose so unreadable and their arguments so obtuse that the only new approach they appeared to propose might be termed incoherence theory. In any case, the craze for French Theory was a powerful and controversial force in American universities throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. For a time the most chilling rebuff scholars could receive about their work was that it was “undertheorized.” Eventually the awe faded into intellectual respect, and these French formulations now play a more subdued, yet significant role amid other critical approaches in American teaching and research.

French Theory was an American rather than a French-packaged creation, although this American enthusiasm for a French product was well received in France, since it flattered the Gallic sense of its intellectual superiority with regard to the upstarts across the pond. If France and particularly its intellectuals needed to have their sense of self-esteem reinforced, it was in part because they were still smarting from another source of Franco-American tension: the flood of American products that poured into France after World War II which in the eyes of some, threatened the “French way of life.” In the immediate postwar period it was considered good form for French intellectuals, almost entirely male, to rail in theory and practice against the omnipresence of American fast food, gadgets and machines. No less than the poet and Resistance hero Louis Aragon huffed that there was no reason for France to become “a civilization of bathtubs and Frigidaires.”

French women thought otherwise. In her Women and Mass Consumption in Postwar France, Rebecca Pulju details the female determination for postwar France not to be a continuation of pre-war France. Hence, the often expressed male contempt for American products left the women largely unimpressed. Maybe they could pass on le MacDo, but not the household appliances. The right to a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner became a standard demand, and between 1949 and 1957 the stock of home appliances increased by 100%. At the outset of the 1960s about 25% of French families had refrigerators. Within eight years the figure was almost 70%. Perhaps the clearest indication of what French women thought about consumerism was expressed by a Madame de la Taille in the pages of L’Express where she responded to a French man’s suggestion that postwar France should practice austerity: “Women have never heard of the forty-hour week (we do sixty hours at a minimum) and when it seems possible to ameliorate their working conditions people like you think right away about ‘austerity.’ The question shouldn’t even be raised. Home appliances bring not just comfort, but above all rest; the simple rest to which every worker aspires and has a right.”

While the antagonisms surrounding French Theory and Cold War consumerism have largely subsided, the islamo-gauchisme controversy continues, but the accusation that American universities provoked it has faded. What remains is the methodological flap in the French universities. These discussions and differences, to put matters politely, form an odd parallel with the American dustup over French Theory, where the advocates and distractors were often split along generational lines. What happened in the U.S. might well happen in France. Traditional research approaches will not disappear, but the new American research theories will also find their way into university curricula. In any case, whatever the outcome of the current academic brouhaha in the Hexagon, it is undeniable that these days the United States is sending more than refrigerators to France.