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French Theory

How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States

2008
Author:

François Cusset
Translated by Jeff Fort

French Theory

The must-read exposé of America’s love/hate affair with French theory

The arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s caused a sensation. French Theory is the first comprehensive account of the American fortunes of these unlikely philosophical celebrities. Reveling in the gossipy history, Cusset reveals how French theory has become inextricably bound with American life.

In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jacques Derrida

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, a disparate group of radical French thinkers achieved an improbable level of influence and fame in the United States. Compared by at least one journalist to the British rock ‘n’ roll invasion, the arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s caused a sensation.

Outside the academy, “French theory” had a profound impact on the era’s emerging identity politics while also becoming, in the 1980s, the target of right-wing propagandists. At the same time in academic departments across the country, their poststructuralist form of radical suspicion transformed disciplines from literature to anthropology to architecture. By the 1990s, French theory was woven deeply into America’s cultural and intellectual fabric.

French Theory is the first comprehensive account of the American fortunes of these unlikely philosophical celebrities. François Cusset looks at why America proved to be such fertile ground for French theory, how such demanding writings could become so widely influential, and the peculiarly American readings of these works. Reveling in the gossipy history, Cusset also provides a lively exploration of the many provocative critical practices inspired by French theory. Ultimately, he dares to shine a bright light on the exultation of these thinkers to assess the relevance of critical theory to social and political activism today—showing, finally, how French theory has become inextricably bound with American life.

French Theory

François Cusset, a writer and intellectual historian, teaches contemporary French thought at Institut d’Études Politiques and at Reid Hall/Columbia University in Paris. He is the author of several books, including Queer Critics and La Décennie.

Jeff Fort is assistant professor of French at the University of California, Davis. He has translated works by such authors as Maurice Blanchot, Jean Genet, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.

French Theory

In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jacques Derrida

The Atlantic Ocean has two sides, and so does French Theory. Reinvented in America and betrayed in its own country, it has become the most radical intellectual movement in the West with global reach, rewriting Marx in light of late capitalism. Breathtakingly moving back and forth between the two cultures, Francois Cusset takes us through a dazzling intellectual adventure that illuminates the past thirty years, and many more decades to come.

Sylvere Lotringer

A great story, full of twists and turns. . . . Careers made and ruined, departments torn apart, writing programs turned into sensitivity seminars, political witch hunts, public opprobrium, ignorant media attacks, the whole ball of wax. Read it and laugh or read it and weep. I can hardly wait for the movie.

Stanley Fish, Think Again, New York Times

Cusset analyzes cultural theory within its cultural matrix without disappearing into an abyss along the way. Easier said than done, but French Theory manages the trick, sometimes brilliantly.

Bookforum

The publication of François Cusset’s French Theory raises a series of fascinating questions concerning the trans-Atlantic transmission and circulation of ideas. Most important, it impels us to inquire why for a time French thought managed to flourish in American universities while French intellectuals rapidly abandoned the entire paradigm.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Cusset has achieved much. His book is a wonderful addition to American and French intellectual history that will force us to reconsider the history, place, and role of French Theory on both sides of the Atlantic

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Cusset reads as genealogy—multiplying perspectives, avoiding the false coherence of a smooth narrative, and thus keeps certain cultural-intellectual problems alive.

CAA Reviews

Extremely well written, full of care and insight, at times fun, at other times political and straightforward. For those who want to know more about the history of French theory as an ongoing possibility of thinking the world, then this book should be a reference.

M/C Reviews

Cusset’s study is more than the most complete intellectual history to date of French Theory as a global cultural phenomenon. It is also a manifesto for critical theory, an impassioned defense and illustration of its relevance to the understanding and transformation of today’s world.

French Politics, Culture and Society

French Theory gives those of us who are on the inside of the American academy a valuable experience because it takes the academy as something to be explained. The result is that one finds one’s familiar turf and passionate attachments presented as ethnological objects. This can be jarring, but also illuminating.

Journal of French & Francophone Philosophy

This book is an eye-opener that certainly deserves a wide readership, especially among graduate students and young academics who dwell in the interstices between academic life and non-academic life, between the cultural critiques of contemporary media arts, of popular culture, and of academic writing.

H-Net Reviews

French Theory is a significant contribution to the scholarship in both literary theory and cultural studies. Cusset offers an incisive analysis of the role of social forces in shaping our understanding of some of the twentieth century’s most influential ideas.

The CEA Forum

French Theory

Contents

Preface to the English Edition

Introduction: The Sokal Effect

Part I. The Invention of a Corpus

1. Prehistories
2. The Academic Enclave
3. The Seventies: A Turning Point
4. Literature and Theory
5. Deconstruction Sites

Part II. The Uses of Theory

6. The Politics of Identity
7. The Ideological Backlash
8. Academic Stars
9. Students and Users
10. Art Practices
11. Theoretical Machinations

Part III. There and Back

12. Theory as Norm: A Lasting Influence
13. Worldwide Theory: A Global Legacy
14. Meanwhile, Back in France . . .

Conclusion: Difference and Affirmation

Acknowledgments
Translator’s Acknowledgments
Notes

Index