Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Dr. Yves Laberge
Review of: François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003.
There is a permanent misunderstanding… Everything I write is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious. …I don’t claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!1
In an encyclopaedic entry about the authors who have contributed to frame his spirit and thinking, Todd Reeser says that Michel Foucault was fond of Nietzsche, Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, because “they didn’t have the problem of constructing systems.”2 With the publication of François Cusset’s French Theory, we have an eloquent example of an analysis about a constructed system in two ways, including the sometimes misleading re-appropriation of some French thinkers by a portion of Anglo-American scholars. Cusset’s corpus is not new per se: the contributors in Lotringer and Cohen3 had questioned the interpretations of French philosophers in the United States, but in this more recent study of French Theory, Cusset provides a lively synthesis and critique of these dynamics as seen from a European (French), point of view. Furthermore, Cusset knows both fields well: his mastering of the French theoreticians is complimented by his understanding of social theory and cultural studies in England and the United States. Indeed, Cusset’s mapping of the trends and evolution of cultural studies in the United Kingdom and America can be instructive, although he is constantly critical.4
Written in French, with an English title that indicates how French thought has been appropriated in English terms, the book begins with a long introduction that refers to the “Sokal Affair,” which was followed with some interest by many French intellectuals and sociologists from 1996.5 The challenge of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont was to what they understood as “the excesses” of many popular thinkers (several of whom were already much discussed in the social sciences) as well as some of the most visible philosophers in France. In fact, with the Sokal Affair, many French scholars were among the last in Europe to discover both the good and bad influences of their intellectual production abroad in recent decades. Among the French authors targeted by Sokal and Bricmont were Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Lyotard, Virilio and Baudrillard.6
Similarly, Cusset’s aim is to demonstrate that there has been a general misunderstanding of some prominent French thinkers in the United States. Cusset sets out to describe the wrong roads and the genealogy of this unusual development.7 Indeed, Cusset’s book is exceptional in two ways: he provides insights about the history of ideas in France and United States since the 1940’s, while also insisting on the fact that many post-war French authors were not really “read” by their U.S. commentators but rather quoted in various contexts, for all kinds of purposes, mainly from the 1960’s.8 In other words, Cusset argues that this so often celebrated “French theory” that was largely used on American campuses was nothing less than invented – constructed with good will by younger scholars who needed incontestable (and often exotic), foundations to their questionable proposals and approximate reasoning.9 Consequently, most American readers focussed too much on the American interpreters of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lyotard, rather than the actual production of these original French authors. Therefore, their thoughts were filtered, adapted, reframed, and sometimes reoriented. Published anthologies or readers made in England and U.S. usually offered a selection – a montage of selected texts taken from their original context in various books. For these reasons, some French intellectuals encountered an unpredictable reception outside France, sometimes bigger than in France. Cusset argues that some of them were even overestimated as figures such as Foucault and Derrida became cultural heroes in some American circles.10 For instance, the case of the posthumous success of French historian Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) in the United States remains a clear illustration: he sold more books in America than in France, and even more after his death than during his whole career.11 In the same way, the complex semiotic theories of Christian Metz were imported in American film studies circles from the 1970’s.12 For Cusset, another case of a greater success abroad than at home is Jean Baudrillard’s.
Abundant mentions and anecdotes about the cult of Baudrillard’s ideas on some U.S. campuses are made in almost every chapter. As Cusset recalls, Baudrillard was even asked by directors such as Oliver Stone (Wild Palms) and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) to serve as a consultant for their movies. In Baudrillard’s case he was asked to participate for his expertise on questions related to simulacra, nihilism and virtual reality.13 Although Baudrillard refused, the filmmakers nevertheless used some of his early thoughts, from a selective, fragmented text. Cusset writes that, especially in the case of the U.S. media, the use of the “French theory” is superficial: “a regime of dispersion, fragmentation, superficial and randomly traffic, using only traces of French theory” [“on touché ici à un régime de dispersion, de fragmentation, de circulation superficielle et aléatoire de simples traces de théorie française; on est loin de l’institution universitaire, qui en régule d’ordinaire l’usage et le langage“].14
Elsewhere, Cusset concludes that Baudrillard has had an influence on the young American generation since the late sixties: sometimes used freely or à contre-emploi, no matter which paradigm was dominant at the time (by American Marxists, critics of the consumer society, post-structuralists, semioticians, hyperrealists, and other tentative formations).15 Cusset also mentions the symptomatic fact that some twenty scholars have written a monograph (in English) about Baudrillard’s ideas, while none exist in French.16 For Cusset, Jean Baudrillard’s thought has become a theory about itself, a norm about its own existence as a theory.17
We find in Chapter Four the central hypothesis of Cusset’s critique, when he explains that the authors of “French theory”, which initially circulated mostly in philosophy and social sciences departments in France, were first “discovered” and introduced in the United States through Literary departments, in the early 1970’s.18 Among American scholars, most philosophers and social scientists discovered their French colleagues much later; after U.S. literary scholars had set the tone through conferences, articles and seminars. Noting this new re-generation and second life, sociologist Michèle Lamont once explained that the shift happened in 1975, when these French philosophers encountered more quotations in the U.S. than in France.19
Cusset does not argue that all Anglophone commentators writing about French philosophers are abusing them. He does however feel that there is often a problem with the way in which they are appropriated, lacking the context of a deeper analysis. Among these Anglo-American experts mentioned by Cusset are Mark Poster and Douglas “Kenner” (one assumes he is referring to Douglas Kellner!)20 Why then does such a situation exist? According to Cusset, some celebrated French theorists were often used in the U.S. for “showcasing”21 but Cusset’s aim is neither to defend nor rehabilitate the French authors, nor to discuss the good intentions of these Atlantic crossings. He does not want to point out the constructive appropriations of French philosophers in America; rather he tries to show how some of them were overestimated and used in unpredictable contexts, often for bad reasons. This is why Cusset’s book is more suitable to scholars already familiar with French theory (genuine or not). Otherwise, we could conclude that everyone in America had it wrong, which is not the case either.
At a moment when mainstream French-U.S. relations are polarized in French public opinion (love or hate, fascination or rejection, French Theory or Cross-Cultural Theory, globalization or anti-Americanism), the book French Theory explains how these influences were made and imperfectly assimilated in various contexts. The conclusion makes it clear: Cusset argues in polemic terms that some U.S. scholars needed a few academic models or heroes, in order to assess the issues that they were then criticizing: including minority rights and race issues as well as feminism and gender issues.22 What Deleuze or Foucault wrote in the early Sixties about Algeria was adapted – “translated” – to describe the issues related to, say, Chicanos, African-Americans, or other ideological and cultural combatants against hegemonic conservatism.23
I agree with Stuart Elden’s recent review when he writes that Cusset’s book should be translated into English, as I believe its contribution and approach are both thought provoking and timely.24 One cannot agree with everything and every idea in the book, but it challenges and encourages debate in the areas it covers. Readers in the history of ideas, sociology of knowledge, and philosophy of science will find this an interesting and challenging book (written like a lively novel but with many footnotes). 25
About the Author:
Dr. Yves Laberge is from the Institut québécois des hautes études internationales, Québec City, Canada.
1 Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with A. Laurent” (1991). In Baudrillard Live, Mike Gane (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 1993:189.
2 Todd Reeser, “Michel Foucault”, in John Powell (Ed.), Dictionary of Literary Influences. The Twentieth Century 1914-2000. Westport: Greenwood, 2004:176.
3 Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen (Eds.) French Theory in America. New York and London: Routledge, 2001. Incidentally, Lotringer’s works are often criticized in Cusset’s book. See François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003:81-85). [This is an especially interesting feature of Cusset’s text given that it is Lotringer who perhaps knows Baudrillard personally better than most writers on French theory (Ed)].
4 François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003:148-150).
5 A. Sokal and J. Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures. London: SAGE, 1998:137-143.
6 Gane offers a reply to Sokal and Bricmont that may be of interest to Cusset. Gane points out that Sokal and Bricmont’s criticism of Baudrillard is a dismal failure because they do not adequately “reconstruct the problematic” in a way that would allow them to “reach a judgement”. Gane suggests that “Sokal and Bricmont start their chapter noting that ‘Baudrillard is well known for his reflections on the problems of reality, appearance and illusion… but when it comes to the analysis they do not seem to know or indeed want to know the first thing about these reflections or a poetics of scientific language’”. In short, Gane finds a similar lack of sincere scholarship among Sokal and Bricmont that Cusset identifies in those who abuse Baudrillard’s texts to make their own point. See Mike Gane’s. Jean Baudrillard: In Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto Press, 2000:46 ff. Nevertheless, two of the main recipients of Sokal and Bricmont’s criticism have been singled out for a different kind of analysis over the past two years: Baudrillard was selected in July 2003 as one of the “12 Great Thinkers of our Time” by The Newstatesman and Kristeva has been selected as the 2004 winner of the Holberg Prize (for outstanding scholarly work in the areas of arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology) 2004.
7 François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003:115.
13 Ibid.:274. Baudrillard confirms that he was asked by the Wachowski brothers but refused to participate in the making of the Matrix. See Jean Baudrillard. The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview With Jean Baudrillard (Ed).
14 François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003:275.
17 Ibid.:299. About Baudrillard, Cusset also writes that his “paradoxical thought, is narrative as much as a theory in progress, serving as false hints for his followers – the object of an exegetical fixation among Anglo-American experts” [“La pensée paradoxale, qui est chez lui écriture autant que théorie, et joue souvent à semer ses émules, fait l’objet chez les experts anglo-saxons de Baudrillard d’une véritable fixation exégétique.“] (Ibid.:298)
19 Lamont cited in Cusset:87.
20 François Cusset. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003:298.
24 Stuart Elden. “Book Review: Home and Away”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 1, January 2005. The University of Minnesota Press is currently translating the book (Publication date: TBA).
25 For a further discussion of Cusset’s book see: http://etudes.americaines.free.fr/TRANSATLANTICA/4/cusset.html (link no longer active 2019)