Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kleinberg, Ethan. "Review of Francois Cusset's FRENCH THEORY." NDPR (September 2008).

Cusset, François. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. There is a central question that provides a guiding thread through François Cusset's far ranging and intellectually challenging investigation into the reception of "French Theory" in the United States: how is it that "around the beginning of the 1980s, right when the works of Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Derrida were being put to work on American campuses and in some alternative communities as the theoretical foundation for a new type of politics, those very names were being demonized in France as the epitome of an outdated 'libidinal' and leftist type of politics"? (XVIII) His study unfolds, examining the chronological periods before and after this crucial decade, casting back to roughly 1966 and then moving forward up until 2004, in an attempt to answer this question and explain the American phenomenon he terms French Theory. Cusset is fascinated by the simultaneous American invention and French erasure of French Theory and his investigation into the social, political, and theoretical causes of this transatlantic divergence takes the reader on a journey from the "public birth" of post-structuralism at the 1966 Johns Hopkins University conference that brought Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and others to the United States (and together) for the first time, through the mutations and revisions of French Theory in the American academic, cultural, and political landscape up to our current moment. To be sure the wide range and loose chronology of the book makes it difficult to discern a clear American trajectory. But what makes the book an exciting and informative read is the details gleaned as we move from the world of advanced academics to the world of cyberpunk comics, temporary autonomous zones (an early incarnation of the internet), and post-modern architecture. In Cusset's account, French Theory was never the sole property of advanced academics but a site of shared interest for those academics and countercultural figures. It is actually the symbolic capital, the star power, of the countercultural figures that led to the rising popularity of the French theorists; this light then reflected back onto the American academics who, in turn, basked in the glow. Thus Cusset's narrative unfolds in two ways. It tells the story of the academics who were instrumental in cultivating French Theory in American higher education and it also attempts to discern and explicate the points of contact with American counter-cultural forces. . . . Read the rest here:

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