Reflecting Schools

Cover00 Scott McLemee on François Cusset’s French Theory, in bookforum:

Cusset provides a serviceable map of the world of professorial superstardom through sketches of the careers of Gayatri Spivak, Paul de Man, Edward Said, and so on. And he summarizes all those terribly exciting debates from yesteryear regarding multiculturalism, political correctness, and the Sokal hoax.

The heart of the narrative is elsewhere, though. A chapter on “The Seventies” gathers up the scattered anecdotes about how various French thinkers made connections with the American counterculture, such as the interest of Tel Quel in Allen Ginsberg, visits by Deleuze and Guattari with the Black Panthers and Patti Smith, and numerous other cross-marginal encounters. Later sections treat the migration of poststructuralist concepts, or at least buzzwords, into the world of artistic practice of the 80s (the profitable misunderstandings between Baudrillard and neo-geo, for example) and the emergent cybersphere a little later.

Such wide-angle coverage makes for something considerably richer and more welcome than another book revisiting questions of “the can(n)on”—for Cusset is alert to the extreme heterogeneity both of theory and of the cultural landscape over which it spread. This in turn encourages him to focus on the small-scale mechanisms that helped constitute French Theory as an identifiable commodity, such as Duke’s Post-Contemporary Interventions series and the Foreign Agents booklets from Semiotext(e). Such venues worked “to create an impression of intellectual promiscuity between the texts and authors that were brought together in the same series or in the same collection,” writes Cusset.