Most of the papers in this special issue of Diacritics were presented at a conference on the future of French studies organized at Cornell University with a special grant from the Office of the President, Hunter Rawlings III. The charge to the speakers was less to reflect on the situation of French studies in the American academy than to offer possibilities for the future, whether through programmatic argument or illustration of the sort of work that might be undertaken under the banner of French studies. The editors have substituted for two papers from the conference that were already committed elsewhere two new papers from colleagues engaged in French studies at Cornell.
The ongoing arguments about the future of French studies seem riven by a conflict of motives and aims. There are those who wish to confirm the dissolution of any fetishized notion of Frenchness, insisting on the multiplicity of francophonies and the fragmenting effects of globalization on anything that claims to be a specifically French identity. Conversely, there are those who promote French studies precisely as the defense of an irreducible specificity of things French, which is threatened by changes in the university and in the world and which the new field of French studies might have a chance of preserving. If these are not the options that our contributors embrace, it is not because they are insensible of their attractions—or of the beguiling possibility of combining them, by defining that essential Frenchness, to be pursued or preserved, as the dissolution of the idea of an essential Frenchness.
One of the general aims of these papers is to promote and illustrate possibilities for novel kinds of reading and writing and for inventive modes of interdisciplinary study, which make French studies a lively field for students and teachers. But if there is a single substantial theme that runs through them all, it may be the mundane concern that Tom Conley calls “wondering what can be done to invigorate one of the richest of all literary canons.” How does that canon respond to the kinds of questions and issues that the unraveling and dissolution of boundaries—including those of France itself—have made possible? And should French studies, in the end, be conceived as the integration of the numerous interdisciplinary trajectories that depart from or traverse this canon or as a more distinctively specific practice for the study of everything French that is structured like a language?