ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Dr. Stuart Elden
Review of: Mike Gane. French Social Theory, London: Sage, 2003. and François Cusset, French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2003.

In an updating of Lenin’s famous comments on the three sources of Marxism, we might today suggest that much of the cutting edge of the Anglophone social sciences is formed from the component parts of English (British) empiricism, French social theory and, barely acknowledged, German philosophy. If the reflections of Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger inform much of the work of so-called post-structuralism, and the gathering of data is as much influenced by Marx’s work in the British Library as by the reflections of Locke and Hume, the leading lights of “theory” are almost exclusively French: Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and so on. If this is less true of the new generation of thought rolling in from the continent, including the ubiquitous Agamben, alongside Badiou, Rancière, and others, then historically it has been largely the case.

Trying to make sense of this phenomenon are two complementary, and within their own confines, extremely useful books: Mike Gane’s French Social Theory and François Cusset’s French Theory. Cusset’s book, despite its English title, is actually in French, a reflection from the home country on the reception of its thought abroad, particularly in the United States. Paradoxically it would be very appropriate for translation, providing a great deal of helpful orientation to the backgrounds and ideas of those who have crossed the Atlantic.

I begin here with Gane’s book, in large part because it begins much earlier. Gane begins by suggesting that attempting to trace all things back to Kant is misleading1 , and his thesis is that to understand much of modern French social thought we need to go back to the founding fathers of sociology, including the likes of Auguste Comte and Durkheim. Gane locates ideas in a well-spring of thinking in the wake of the French Revolution, and much is doubtless explained through this. In particular the historical parts of the book are very useful. Gane divides the last two centuries into three cycles: 1800-1879, 1880-1939 and 1940-2000. The treatment of the last is about the length of the first two cycles taken together in the text, but there is a still much more historical background than we might expect, and extremely illuminating it is. The readings of Comte and Durkheim are genuinely compelling, as the insights derived from close readings are cashed out in the later analysis of the more contemporary figures. One example is how Baudrillard’s work on simulacral forms is suggested to be “a radical Nietzschean reading” of “Comte’s analysis of rationalisation”.2

The treatment of the third cycle will probably be most of interest to many readers, but it would be a mistake to think that this period is itself homogenous. Gane has a generally sound sense of the fractious and internecine tendencies of the French academy and, although at times he can get bogged down in the detail, does comprehensively demonstrate that there were several conflicting tendencies. Broadly he does buy into a chronological succession, or perhaps overlapping periods, within this cycle, seen as existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism. Sartre, Althusser and Baudrillard are seen as the key figures within the variants of Marxism this gives rise to, the latter within a period that could best be described as the “crisis of Marxism”.3 The treatment of Baudrillard, as those familiar with Gane’s work will expect, is extremely good, trying to push an interpretation of his recent work beyond those remaining “stubbornly within his concept of hyperreality and the code”.4

Equally of course, much is left aside. This is an investigation of the sociological roots of social theory, rather than its theoretical or philosophical bases. It does have to be noted that the few comments on philosophers, including Sartre and especially on those from outside France, are often less than helpful. But in a work of this scope there are doubtless going to be contentious interpretations and at times mistakes. Some seemingly minor episodes are pursued in great detail, other key events are quickly skimmed over. There is also a strict limitation to the thinkers of a more contemporary period covered. Lots are mentioned, but understandably far fewer in any depth: notably, Barthes, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Canguilhem, Derrida, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Lyotard, Sartre and Serres. If that is impressive, we should note that some key figures – those of the new generation mentioned above – but also Morin, Touraine, Levinas, Lourau and Lefort, along with the naturalised Axelos and Castoriadis, are either wholly neglected or touched upon only in passing. That said feminist work is nicely woven into the story, largely through the figures of de Beauvoir and Kristeva.

In a sense then, Gane has focused on those figures who have made an impact in the Anglophone world, even though he has largely gone beyond the works which have appeared in English translation for his privileged figures. The politics of translation, looking at who gets translated, and which works, is an underexamined topic in the sociology of knowledge. The paradox is that only those figures who are translated stand much chance of being incorporated into the Anglophone canon of French theory; and yet those outside that canon are rarely translated. What we understand by this body of work is therefore largely an externally imposed construction. Indeed Gane notes the very paradox at the beginning: he considers himself “as having largely been formed by close involvement with French social theory and therefore not as a pure outsider”, and yet, “for French theorists today, ‘French social theory’ does not exist”.5

It is here that Cusset is useful, and his title of “French Theory” implies the external perspective that he is forced to take. For an English language reader some of the suggestions reflect awkwardly on our impression of what it is, in a sense, that they do ‘over there’. Or, as Alan D. Schrift  recently wondered, “Why do We Read the French So Badly?”.6 Much of course is familiar, such as the story of how American literature departments began to introduce theory into discussions, with other humanities and social science departments following in their wake.

The book begins with a rather uninteresting discussion of the ‘Sokal Effect’, which might be useful orientation for the intended audience, but doesn’t much concern those genuinely interested in theory, whatever the merits of the charges. It does lead into some interesting reflections on what Edward Said called “travelling theory” and makes a fundamental, but often neglected point: that the trends of interest in the United States are not mirrored in France, in the “hexagon”. Those figures lauded in one place may not always be recognized in the other, and many of those at the forefront in the US are often marginalized back home.7 The power of the nouveux philosophes and their iconoclasm in France has not really had the same impact abroad. And in France, at least, much has moved on.

There are some important insights here. As a history of knowledge, it offers some helpful orientations, suggesting that the refugees from occupied Europe opened the US to continental perspectives (even if, particularly in terms of the Frankfurt School, they directly opposed the ones that would later become so important). Frankfurters and French Fries as the joke suggests. Existentialism and surrealism acted as other preludes, but much of this is down to the mobility (and linguistic ability) of their proponents. Cusset traces how the disciplines of cultural studies and gender studies should be seen against the repressive political backdrop of the Reagan years, and notes the context of Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate in the initial 1970s reception of ideas.

In comparison with Gane he casts his net substantially wider, if with less historical breadth, encompassing much more about literary theory and the more purely philosophical than the sociological. He is good on the Germanic roots of much French thought, and the intellectual contexts both in France and the US. It also includes an interesting discussion of what theory might mean, as a mode of seeing, and analyses post-colonial theory and feminism in some interesting ways. Some of the material on the interrelation of theory and music is extremely useful. The material on Baudrillard’s influence on cinema is fairly well-known, but no less compelling for that. It looks in detail at some of the figures who, though influenced by French Theory, forged their own path in the US, such as Stephen Greenblatt’s new historicism and Judith Butler, Edward Said and Richard Rorty. It is good on the role of journals such as Yale French Studies, boundary 2 and Semiotext(e), and the links with figures of counter-culture such as Laurie Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, J.G. Ballard, John Cage and Kathy Acker. Some of the anecdotes are great – Deleuze and Guattari meeting Bob Dylan backstage for example. It remarks in a note the illuminating point that Woody Allen’s film Deconstructing Harry was released into French as Harry dans tous ses états, “because the verb ‘deconstruct’ does not register [ne dit rien qui vaille] with French viewers”.8 It is also a funny book in places – such as the parallels between French intellectuals and Hollywood stars: Baudrillard as Gregory Peck?, Deleuze and Guattari as Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy?

Taken together these books offer a fairly comprehensive and illuminating analysis. The Gane is more scholarly, historical and careful; Cusset is more entertaining, anecdotal and broad brush. Both are well worth reading. A translation of the Cusset would certainly be worthwhile.

About the Author:
Dr. Stuart Elden is from the University of Durham, United Kingdom.


1 – Mike Gane. French Social Theory. London: Sage, 2003:vii.





6 – Alan D. Schrift. “Is There Such a Thing as ‘French Philosophy?’ or Why do We Read the French So Badly?”, in Julian Bourg (Ed.) After the Deluge: New Perspectives on Postwar French Intellectual and Cultural History. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004.

7 – François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2003 :11.

8Ibid.:119 n1.