Sunday, May 30, 2004

Literary Theory

An interesting article in the TLS about French theory in America. It is a review of a book called French Theory by Francois Cusset. The book is about how French theory by the likes of Derrida, Foucault and others made its way into American Universities and took English departments by storm.

The coming of "French theory" to the United States is a story worth telling. The debarkation on American shores of such as Derrida and Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard, was not quite predictable. Here was a country that traditionally had no use for metaphysics--a country better known for producing pragmatism and legal realism as philosophical stances--suddenly succumbing to a Francophiliac mania for abstruse thought largely issuing from a tradition of European phenomenology little known in the US and expressed in a taxingly opaque idiom. To the cultural Right, it was clearly an invasion of body-snatchers, and the result was an American intelligentsia whose brains were rotted by the ideological equivalent of absinthe. In the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, deconstruction became a political target, a "spectre haunting American academia", according to a fundraising letter I received from one far-right cultural lobby. The very nature of teaching and scholarship, especially in the humanities, appeared to be threatened by these imports. A kind of cultural protectionism was called for, and a return to what William Bennett, when he was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, called "intellectual authority".
I had the pain and joy of a graduate theory seminar back in the day. It was something new and exciting at my public college in southern California. There were two professors who taught it and both were young. One of the professors had come to us from a big name university and rumors flew that the other college would not give him tenure because of the theory he taught. My college did. I tried to get into his class but ended up in the class of the other professor who had a reputation for being tough. And she was, but so was the material. It was difficult and exciting and forced us to think in ways that we never had before. It was the hardest class I ever took. And one of the most rewarding.
n a larger social context, the result was the culture wars of the 1980s and beyond (they still resonate today). When Bennett, ex his cathedra of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued his manifesto To Reclaim a Legacy, in 1984, he preached a restoration of "intellectual authority". If the culture wars were not exclusively about theory, French or otherwise, theory nonetheless was at storm centre since it appeared to have subverted the claim that the humanities were the place of unchanging verities, a kind of high table of the best that could be thought and said in the world. The humanities, and particularly literary studies, had no need of theory, which was distracting students from the text. Shakespeare had been supplanted in the curriculum by Derrida. The National Association of Scholars was founded to "save" literature from the theorists.
I never felt distracted from the text or that it was forgotten. Theory provided a different way of looking at and thinking about a text. My professor was a post-structuralist firmly rooted in Foucault's camp, but she gave her students the freedom to make their own decisions and think for themselves, to challenge and question the theories and come up with their own. It was exhilarating and frightening. It made my brain hurt. But it taught me to think about literature and culture and being in ways that I would not have otherwise. Viva la France!