Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Abuse" of French Theory in fields such as Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Post-colonial Studies, and literary criticism

But the time and effort spent unearthing or bemoaning the passing connections between Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bono, Madonna, or The Matrix films with thinkers like Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, Virilio, and Foucault comes at the expense of a sustained engagement with the ways that American theorists such as Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and others actually appropriated, incorporated and applied the theories of these French intellectuals in their work. There is little or no discussion of the role of historians or philosophers in this reception (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, for instance, is entirely absent) and there is virtually no textual analysis. Even the chapter on "Academic Stars" (Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Fish, Edward Said, Richard Rorty, and Frederic Jameson) spends no more than five pages on any one thinker. On this level, those interested in the philosophical issues will be disappointed.

Rather than focus on the "use" of French Theory, Cusset spends the majority of his discussion of American academics focusing on the "abuse" of French Theory in fields such as Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Post-colonial Studies, and literary criticism in general. According to Cusset, it was in these "niche markets" of academic culture that the "most sophisticated tools of textual analysis and the new university came to be applied to subjects as wide ranging as gangsta rap, "Harlequin" romance readers, Star Trek fans, and even the supposed 'philosophical' subtext of the Seinfeld series." (135) Here, the counter-cultural inflection bestowed upon French Theory made it appear the appropriate tool for criticism of popular culture and allowed for the work of some of the most abstruse thinkers to seem like an appropriate tool for almost any text.

2008.09.07 Fran├žois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, Jeff Fort (tr.), University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 388pp., $24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780816647323.
Reviewed by Ethan Kleinberg, Wesleyan University

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