French Theory

The Cult of French Intellectuals in the United States

One of the oddities of contemporary Franco-American relations is that, while French novels, French music and even French food get a more quizzical take from American audiences than ever before, French highbrow books and thinkers have never had more prestige and influence than they possess right now.
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© Olivier Tallec

Literature is asymmetrical. The new Philip Roth, the final David Foster Wallace – and in their day the new Bellow or Morrison – remain big deals in Paris, while Francophiles here in New York have to laboriously footnote and explicate the works of a Le Clézio (“Well, he’s a tall man…”) or Modiano, even after they go to Stockholm to receive their Nobel Prize. But when it comes to scholarly, academic and philosophical influence, France has never played so large a role in American life. Derrida and Foucault, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Baudrillard – a phonetically sensible pair, like Lorca and Kafka – have prestige in the American academy and in its satellites, more intense than that of any other group. They are the Escoffiers, the Caremes, of the present day; the invocation of their names creates excitement, gives instant credibility to the work created, and has about it the instant savor of France.

As it happens, I was, more or less, present at the creation of the American kind: Eugenio Donato, an Italian-Armenian Paris-loving scholar of comparative literature – a student of Roland Barthes, and then a friend and disciple of Derrida – was, in the early 1970s, my own mentor first into Paris and then more particularly into the world of what he called “philosophical criticism”. He brought me to attend a seminar with Barthes, and I once shared a soufflé, gravely, with Derrida.

Barthes, I recall well, was an imposing egghead of a man. The American professor’s seminar habits of exploring, exhorting, informing, demanding were unknown to him. He read, and smiled, and commented on his own writing, and then took a few tentative, circuitous questions at the end – very much like a French president of that same period, come to think of it. His expression moved – just barely, but it did – between a slightly supercilious sneer and a stoically amused half smile. Reading back, I see that these sound like very much the same facial expression, and indeed they were. He just barely changed expressions, as I said. But the two expressions registered very different moods as he read and intoned. The supercilious one suggested our shared superiority to whatever mythology of the bourgeoisie he was dissecting at the moment – I particularly recall a brilliant, Barthesian riff on a recorded message service that was being used as a sort of audio bulletin board by gay men in France. He compared it to an actual bulletin board, I recall, and the scraps of messages to the scraps of papers you would find on one, and also to the tightly rolled up messages passed back and forth between prisoners. It doesn’t sound very brilliant when I recount it – it sounds a bit obvious – but at the time, the cross-modal leap seemed inspired. His second expression, the stoically amused half-smile, rose at the strange, infrequent but not unknown moments of revelation of a tiny piece of his own autobiography – references to his mother, particularly, which he made three or four times in the four or five months I sat there every week. It fascinated me. It suggested that beneath Olympian loft lay another kind of bourgeois sweetness of its own, a truth nicely revealed in depth when, two or three years later, he published his book on mourning his mom. The sudden tear in the fabric of his imperturbability was lovelier for being unexpected – which was, I suppose, exactly the intended effect.

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Derrida was – a word I suppose never before used about him – cozier than one expected. His formidably opaque prose gave way to a small, tender looking man with unruled hair, who ate his soufflé – my mother’s specialty – with a grimace of good manners, marked, as I was sure I felt at the time, by a slightly pained, comic sense that only provincial Canadians would think it right to give a visiting French philosopher predictably French food. Yet he ate it, all of it, right down, and I liked him for his sense of responsibility.

Years later while reading his last good books on hospitality, I recognized in his slightly baffled behavior his obedience to the rules of etiquette exactly as he had laid them out: hospitality consists in offering total strangers things that their place as strangers guarantees in advance that they will not want or entirely understand. But it is the essence of hospitality that the offer must be made and the gift accepted, no matter how awkwardly it must be done on both sides. It is the awkwardness, not the altruism, that is the true ‘mark’ of the hospitable act. I think this is true now. It was certainly true then.

“French Theory”: A Group of Radical French Thinkers

Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard,…What, in retrospect was the intellectual appeal of these figures? The first was the appeal of system. The newcomer initiated into the historical writing of Foucault on penology or of Derrida or grammatology, feels himself or herself to be initiated into something like a cult. A strange jargon must be mastered, complex new schemes of words (episteme, trace) must be learned, and the ability to juggle these words and these themes is essential and ostentatious. Most Anglo-American philosophy, shunning specialized jargon, also provides few thrills. We all love shop talk – in part because shop talk distracts us, is designed to prevent us from talking too much about the shop we’re caught in – and French ‘theory’ provides an in-group speech for academics.

Then there is the appeal, equally strong, of knowing something other people don’t –the pleasure of ‘unmasking.’ It can easily be thought that Derrida and Foucault (and Baudrillard and Bourdieu, too) all show that behind every appearance of rationality, order and, yes, altruism in the bourgeois order – are systems of control, policing, and oppression. The institutions of bourgeois reason are unreasonable. Language conspires to conceal its own emptiness; the madhouse is quite as mad as any madmen it may contain. It means no unkindness to say that a system of thought which allows students and professors to feel neatly superior to the bourgeois system on which they depend for their bread is bound to be appealing to students and teachers.

What makes these thinkers so persistently influential? All, radically different as they are, speak for the glamour of mind. “Glamour” I am aware, is, though a French attribute – an American usage. (Friends tell me that it has now been smuggled into French.) Intellectual glamour of the kind I have in mind is different from philosophical beauty. Philosophical beauty is the ability to give a proposition a shapely form. Intellectual glamour is the ability to give argument the flair of apparel. When we call fashionable ‘theory’ fashionable we are perhaps being wiser than we know – it is fashionable in the good sense, doing the necessary work with flair, and we recall the flair as much as the work. (Reading a recent anthology of American academics recollecting their first encounter with Derrida’s On Grammatology, all recall excitement, seduction, a memorable thrill – not emotions that one would usually associate with a formidable study of linguistic philosophy.)

A surprising playfulness is part of it. The pun, Eugenio Donato taught me, was for the philosophical critic the essence of literature, the moment when language, in a flash examines its own navel. French philosophical criticism of all kinds repolished American and English thinking by making the act of reading and observing witty again, a form of dry play more than a form of dutiful humanism or obscure abstraction. One would hardly call Michel Foucault a playful writer – but he brought a sense of individual style to a field where it had been annihilated by the claims of science. Something with very high stakes was done with very little sweat, and was designed to allure rather than persuade. If you don’t believe that persuasion is possible, in the sense of evidence and positive argument, then all you can do is allure.

Yes, I sometimes do feel guilty for my slightly misspent youth idolizing, or at least taking seriously, “philosophical criticism.” At this end of my life, I accept Camus’ view that abstraction is the enemy of intellect, and of the humanist spirit. The loss of particulars that Camus decried still haunts us, as it haunts France – the ability to make human pain disappear into a parallel paper universe of ‘discourse’. (We saw this in the black comedy inquiry last year about what exactly “Je Suis Charlie” was supposed to mean. Its meaning was perfectly clear. What was cloudy was the need to treat it as difficult, to make moral self-evidence seem less self-evident than it is. ) Yet behind the abstractions lie the particulars of the people – and glamour resides perhaps in the obscure connection between a personality and the more or less abstract forms it takes: fashion designers, to take the obvious instance, whose expression is entirely impersonal, fabrics and hems, fascinate us with their power hidden behind. In other ways, it may be said, that French ‘theory’ has an undeserved reputation for ‘nihilism’ or ‘relativism’. Barthes is the most bourgeois of essayists, while Foucault’s turn towards libertarianism of an American kind was the hallmark of his later years, and Derrida spent his own last years insisting on the importance of his idea of “hospitality” as the root of humanism. He insisted not just that the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing – but that the right hand should not know what the right hand is doing when the right hand does something generous. This may be a daunting standard, but it is certainly not a nihilistic one. It makes me even happier that I once shared a table with him.


Article published in the March 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

The Hidden Meaning of Words

In the United States, French Theory is a school of philosophical, literary and social thought that was developed in French universities in the 1960s, and which was welcomed by American universities in the 1970s. It includes a range of critical theories which all seek to analyze traditional texts through deconstruction, to uncover the underlying messages hidden or repressed by authors, and to present an entirely different take on what they originally seemed to mean. “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the laws of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible,” wrote Jacques Derrida in the opening paragraph of Plato’s Pharmacy (1968). The new theoreticians included Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of the influential review Semiotext(e).

University students across the country were seized by an enthusiasm sometimes bordering on the extreme, and worshipped Lévi-Strauss’ seminars at Princeton, Roland Barthes’ classes at NYU and Jacques Derrida’s speeches at Cornell. Derrida even inspired Woody Allen’s film Deconstructing Harry (1997). It was perhaps the first time academic debates had made it out of the confines of universities to appeal to the general public, and this movement contributed to the creation of programs such as cultural, gender and postcolonial studies in the United States. American authors involved in French Theory include Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Fish, Edward Said, Richard Rorty, Fredric Jameson and Avital Ronell.

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