Saturday, April 26, 2008

McLemee, Scott. "French Theory." INSIDE HIGHER ED April 16, 2008.

Fish and his interlocutors reduce Cusset’s rich, subtle, and paradox-minded book (now arriving in translation) into one more tale of how tenured pseudoradicalism rose to power in the United States. Of course there is always an audience for that sort of thing. And it is true that Cusset – who teaches intellectual history at the Institute d’Etudes Politiques and at Reid Hall/Columbia University, in Paris – devotes some portions of the book to explaining American controversies to his French readers. But that is only one aspect of the story, and by no means the most interesting or rewarding. When originally published five years ago, the cover of Cusset’s book bore the slightly strange words French Theory. That the title of a French book was in English is not so much lost in translation as short-circuited by it. The bit of Anglicism is very much to the point: this is a book about the process of cultural transmission, distortion, and return. The group of thinkers bearing the (American) brand name “French Theory” would not be recognized at home as engaged in a shared project, or even forming a cohesive group. Nor were they so central to cultural and political debate there, at least after the mid-1970s, as they were to become for academics in the United States. So the very existence of a phenomenon that could be called “French Theory” has to be explained. To put it another way: the very category of 'French Theory' itself is socially constructed. Explaining how that construction came to pass is Cusset’s project. He looks at the process as it unfolded at various levels of academic culture: via translations and anthologies, in certain disciplines, with particular sponsors, and so on. Along the way, he recounts the American debates over postmodernism, poststructuralism, and what not. But those disputes are part of his story, not the point of it. While offering an outsider’s perspective on our interminable culture wars, it is more than just a chronicle of them. . . . . Read the whole article here:

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