French Theory

In the May 28 TLS , Peter Brooks reviews Francois Cusset’s French Theory , a study of the American reception of post-structuralism after 1966. The review provides a precis of the story, and includes a number of intriguing insights into the process:

First, it is ironic and amusing that the American reception of post-structuralism, which was marked by a stars-only conference at Johns Hopkins in 1966 (Barthes, Lacan, Vernant, Todorov, and Derrida) occurred at about the same time as its awakening to structuralism. 1966 was also the year that the Yale French Studies published a volume on Structuralism. In short, post-structuralism came to America “without there having been a structuralism preceding it. As Cusset well understands, the American context of reception for French theory was philosophically unsophisticated. Few American readers had much sense of the roots of French theorizing in the German phenomenological tradition. Heidegger was not considered philosophy in most American Departments of Philosophy. And it was not through Departments of Philosophy that Derrida, and then other post-structuralist masters, such as Deleuze, Lyotard, and Baudrillard entered the university ?Eit was through the Literature Departments.”

When French Theory arrived in those literature departments, New Criticism was waiting for it. As Brooks points out, the text-focused New Criticism with its famed “close readings” inculcated “some of the same attitudes and critical stances advanced by Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ or Michel Foucault’s *Les Mots et les choses.* There were differences between the two movements: “the New Critical wishes to demonstrate the wholeness of the poem as a complex structure and texture, as a difficult but triumphant balancing act of affirmation and irony; whereas the Deconstructive takes us to the aporias of the text, the radically figural nature of language, its incapacity ever to coincide with the world it wishes to name.” Yet, a critic with a tool full of New Critical tools can easily add the techniques of Deconstruction.

As a result, American deconstructionism was a literary movement, with little sense of the large-scale philosophical agenda that Derrida and de Man were pursuing. Despite the wide-ranging influence of this literary deconstructionism, Cusset goes so far as to condemn this cultural transplantation of post-structuralism as a kind of “treason.” American post-structuralism is “intransitive,” about nothing other than theory, that plays a primarily “existential function” of providing a “stance towards knowledge.” Cusset is equally hard on contemporary French intellectual life, which he believes has retreated from the thrill of theory into the banality of a moralistic humanism.

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