- French Theory: The Movie1
Flashback: 1967, Paris
Even while he was in the process of proclaiming différance as the cri de guerre for his new radical program of “decentering Western ethnocentric reason,” Derrida was also already anticipating that it would become an inflationary sign, one that would recede the more it was multiplied and disseminated. In the first essay, “Force and Signification,” published in L’écriture et la différence (1967), we find the following statement: “If it recedes one day, leaving behind its works and signs on the shores of our civilization, the structuralist invasion might become a question for the historian of ideas, or perhaps even an object” (1978, 3). Of course, Derrida had no way of foreseeing to what extent this would come true.
The recent work by the French historian of ideas François Cusset, represents precisely such a moment when the movement of works and signs that have been translated across the Atlantic for the past forty years has finally congealed into an object called French Theory, or according to its full title: “How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.” But before commenting on this object, and because as a literary critic I sometimes prefer original sources over historical récits, allow me to continue the above quotation, which should also serve as a word of caution to the reader:
[T]he fact that universal thought, in all its domains, by all its pathways and despite all its differences, should be receiving a formidable impulse from an anxiety about language—which can only be an anxiety of language, within language itself—is a strangely concerted development: and it is the nature of a development not to be [End Page 293] able to display itself in its entirety as a spectacle for the historian, if, by chance, he were to attempt to recognize in it the sign of an epoch, the fashion of a season, or the symptom of a crisis. Whatever the poverty of our knowledge in this respect, it is certain that the question of the sign is itself more or less, or in any event something other, than the sign of the times. To dream of reducing it to the sign of the times is to dream of violence.(3; my emphasis)
The above passage, which I take to be more or less prophetic, discerns the conditions that were necessary for French Theory to become an object that is fashioned by the historian to display as “the fading sign of our former epoch, “a past season’s fashion,” or as “the former symptom of a bygone crisis.” However, in order for this to be possible, the development of the event must first be made available in its entirety, even before it assumes the nature of a spectacle for the historian, first of all, but also for the readers—that is, “for us” (and this will be the open question of my review)—since it is “we” (whoever we are) who have become the spectators of this history as well. This, I would say, in the most rigorous historical understanding, is the representational condition of the event that is marked by the appearance of French Theory. Accordingly, the very appearance of this object today (referring to this book, but also to this historical récit) that pretends to represent the entire development of this spectacle must also be understood as “a sign of our times.”
There are certain works that belong to history, or that appear as history, that could have been written by almost anyone living at a certain point in the same age. In this regard, what is called the discursive function of the historian is highly impersonal, since “he” (in this case) must speak as if from within the natural development of this history itself, as if following this development step by step toward its natural conclusion, speaking from either the point of its culmination or its closure. At the same time, there are also peculiar moments in the writing of any history where something akin to an “author function” appears. These are usually the moments where the...