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  • The Object of French Studies Gebrauchkunst
  • Richard Klein (bio)

If I may say something about the title—it points to the possibility that we are discussing the nature and future of French studies at the precise moment that France is about to disappear. There are those who believe that on January 1, 1999, when the euro becomes the common currency of the European Union, France will become a province of Germany. Effectively real sovereignty will pass from Paris to Frankfurt.

Already there are those at Cornell, for example, who think that we, in the French section, should seek to merge with the German department. I support the move (which isn’t going to happen), if only as a permanent reminder to avoid the fetishism of French. In today’s world, French is a question more than an answer to any question. French studies should be open even to the possibility that, these days, to speak French, it is becoming more and more necessary to speak German. The opposite has been true for a long time, as the French smugly know all too well—having for centuries lent their language of refinement and savoir-vivre to the Huns. The imminence of the conjuncture should remind us, too, that French studies is itself situated within the history of French—is transformed in its possibilities and embodiments by that history and by what is happening now, as we say, historically. Finally, the point here is to recall that the question of French studies has a history, that it is not merely being invented at this moment, but also reactivated as an object of discussion and debate.

In fact, the current debate has been going on for some time. In 1993–94 the issue was addressed at two national conferences: a two-part symposium was organized by the Committee for the Future of French Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin; another was held at New York University organized by the Association for French Cultural Studies and the Institute of French Studies. Summer institutes at Dartmouth and Northwestern have dealt with the issue. There is a large and growing bibliography. I cite some of the most prominent recent articles—to judge by how frequently they are cited in others I have read:

  • —Emily Apter, “Comparative Exile: Competing Margins in the History of Comparative Literature.”

  • —Lawrence Kritzman, “Identity Crises: France, Culture, and the Idea of the Nation.

  • —Marie-Pierre Le Hir, “French Cultural Studies in the United States.”

  • —Sandy Petrey, “French Studies/Cultural Studies: Reciprocal Invigoration or Mutual Destruction?”

  • —Kristen Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (often cited as the best example we have of what French studies might be).

  • —Kristen Ross, “World Literature and Cultural Studies.”

  • —Thomas Pavel, “Les études culturelles: Une nouvelle discipline?” Many questions have been raised in these articles about the possibility and necessity of doing French studies. There are those here who take it for granted that one can identify something French, can locate whatever it is that may be said to participate in a specifically French identity. Some, like Pavel, see French studies (and a fortiori so-called cultural [End Page 5] studies) as an excuse for doing n’importe quoi; it defies definition and merely authorizes more confusion and incoherence. Others, like Kritzman, have a more optimistic notion of how one could define French studies without abandoning some notion of the specificity and uniqueness, the irreducible identity of what is called French.

Some critics, like Ross and Le Hir, tend to see French studies as inevitably serving to dissolve any particularism associated with French. What is called French culture has been irretrievably pluralized by the effects of decolonization, by the multiplication of francophonies and by their insertion into an Americanized system of globalization. Kids in suburbs of Paris and Cairo wear American baseball hats turned around and grow up eating McDonald’s. Where is the French in that? The object of French studies may be nothing but France’s assimilationist tendency to colonize others, to claim a universal mission, even as it is transformed by its own failed colonial history and by the very diversity it aims to...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6539
Print ISSN
0300-7162
Pages
pp. 5-11
Launched on MUSE
1998-09-01
Open Access
No
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