(French) Theory: An Anti-American American Invention

François Cusset

(French) Theory: An Anti-American American Invention

 If French Theory is American, it is so in the sense of being an errant concept, caught up in a continuous process of blurring, relocation, and deconstruction. The story of my own book, French Theory, bears witness to this fact, having allowed me to explore French Theory’s US beginnings in artists’ squats and alternative bookstores, its enlisting in political struggles in the Global South, and its difficulties in re-entering France, where it has been relabeled théorie americaine. Still, we would be amiss if we didn’t also acknowledge the ways in which French Theory was indeed reconfigured in America—through the attachment of a group label to quite incommensurable theories, the academicization of thinkers who had resisted or been denied this fate in France, and, finally, the understanding that texts ought to lead to action rather than more and more texts.

FRENCH Theory is like K-pop, Web programming, fusion cuisine, or all-news cable TV: it is American—a politically arguable synecdoche whereby a single country has appropriated for itself the name of a continent or an entire hemisphere, at the expense of its other nations and peoples, which is precisely what the following paper is about—that is, it is American not at all in the sense of an essentialized and monolithic anchoring, but in the opposite sense of an utter hybridity, inventive mixing, strategic dissolving of single identities, all processes definitely not specific to US culture but often first experimented with there in modern history for reasons of demography, immigration, self-sufficiency, and the US paradox of an isolationist multiculturalism plagued by the ghosts of slavery and discrimination.

In other words, French Theory is American not as an origin but as a sheer becoming, not as a substance and point of departure but as a process and horizon—all topics dear to the authors of French Theory, from Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of becomings to Jacques Derrida’s ceaseless war against the blackmails of origin, or arkhé—to the extent that American here is the name of a tactic, a form of power, a geopolitical battlefield on which the appropriating and the appropriable interact and confront each other.

To put it more bluntly: K-pop is obviously South Korean, Web programming is done by geeks in South Asia or international labs more often than in Silicon Valley, fusion cuisine is more typical of London and Lima (where a long-standing Japanese influence makes ceviche borrow from sushi…) than of Chicago or Denver, all-news cable TV is more advanced on the screens of Al-Jazeera or French BFM than in the old format of CNN or Fox News, and, indeed, French Theory is more indebted to the thought of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes than to the inventiveness of its US readers and interpreters—and still, the mixing of music genres, the organizing of online data programming, the marketing of multicultural cuisine, or the informing of people via a TV screen around the clock each are processes fashioned, or at least standardized, in the US while contributing, at the same time, to a certain deAmericanization of US culture. For the more such processes circulate and unfold globally, the more their unlikely US origin gets blurred, pluralized, put in question, or, as Derrida would have it, deconstructed.

To make a long story short, and to put an end to this endless introduction: French Theory might be American, but it is less a case of a US appropriation of something foreign than a case of blurred boundaries and terminal deconstruction of identity labels and national origins in a given field (in this case, the field of contemporary theory and philosophy). French Theory is the never-ending erring of a few concepts from their initial, North European contexts (Spinoza’s Amsterdam, Nietzsche’s Prussia, Hume’s England…) to their French inscription in the 1960s-1980s, then to their North American export and initial academicization, to their extension to Anglophone universities outside the US, and to their later impacts and recyclings in the entire Global South—what errs has no anchor, here nor elsewhere.

The infinitely smaller adventure of my own book, titled French Theory (itself an account of what goes by this name in terms of intellectual history and epistemic battles), bears witness to the above. I have to tell my own side of the story here—and do apologize for that. I first realized that some Americans had fallen in love with some of these obscure texts and concepts I myself had studied as a Paris student when I got to run the French Publishers’ Agency in New York City in the mid-1990s: working on deals for English-language rights as the agent of major French publishers, I was bewildered to discover that a new, abstruse essay by Derrida or an unpublished, posthumous manuscript by Foucault was of more interest to the few US publishers ready to take the risk of translation (and there are few) than bestselling French novels or trade nonfiction—I didn’t excavate French Theory from an elaborate exegesis of Judith Butler or Fredric Jameson, nor even of John Cage or William Burroughs, but from the peculiar personal experience of having to organize an auction, a legal battle of advances and bids, whenever there appeared a new book by these French philosophers whom I had never thought to associate with the country of Abraham Lincoln and Michael Jackson (to stick to the few clichés through which I envisioned the US back then).

That my own initial discovery was empirical rather than theoretical is of crucial importance here: it pointed to a story of effects, a narrative of becomings, a pragmatics of uses, and relegated to the dark (to my greatest pleasure) those issues of textual truth, philosophical genesis, hermeneutic workings, and intertextual paradoxes I was more familiar with from my French (elite) upbringing. I got the clear intuition that there was something going on over there, something that made texts and concepts raise feelings, social acts, minority struggles, or festive consequences rather than only texts and more texts. Derrida might have famously written in Of Grammatology that “There is nothing outside the text,” but I started understanding right then and there (in mid-1990s New York City) that the most surprising and creative thing about texts could very well be found outside of texts, or even that texts might lead to unprecedented ways of exploring the outside of texts, of thinking through the outside, or, as Deleuze once wrote, of “producing philosophy from the outside.” Taking a couple years off my agent job in the late 1990s to explore the academic domestication of this corpus of French authors in the US, I then had my intuition more than confirmed: it could be verified on campuses all around the Union, and finally gave shape to my book, a comprehensive case study in the contemporary intellectual history of the globalization of ideas.

What I didn’t know when the book was finished and published in French (in 2003) to an initially confidential reception was that I was only beginning to be surprised. The stakes of the book, in terms of deconstructing US cultural hegemony at the turn of the millennium, but also in terms of understanding the French reluctancy to let minority studies and identity politics (both nurtured and self-justified by a certain reading of French Theory) penetrate France’s own sociocultural fabric, were invisible then: the case study remained a limited one, not even raising the more exciting stake of what counterculture and night-goers can do with theory when they take it with them, when they bring it along to their avantgarde performances, their subversive mobilizations, their favorite Bowery lounges and experimental life forms—and that although the trigger (and central chapter) of my book was the story of Semiotext(e), a 1970s journal and collective directly instrumental in importing French Theory in the US but more at ease with noise music, psychedelic drugs, “unAmerican activities” and East Village artists’ squats than with curricula, reading lists, footnotes, or the publish-or-perish injunction. No, these various stakes, as vital as they turned out to be, started to appear a bit later, as years went by, in light of the quagmire of the new millenium’s dawn (the reawakening minority struggles knocked out by the “clash of civilizations” imposed in the aftermath of 9/11, the fight against George W. Bush’s War on Terror, the rapid unfolding of the Global South’s cultural and intellectual vitality…) but also in light of my book’s unforeseen international destiny.

Translated into twelve languages and promoted by myself in lectures and roundtables across three or four continents, the book quickly made clear that nothing was more paradoxical and counterintuitive than contemporary intellectual geopolitics: Derrida and Foucault could be read to help fashion a struggling alternative to Marxism from decolonized India to Indigenous South America, Deleuze and Guattari could be used by Japanese architects against their own traditions as well as by Israeli generals against their enemies (and against Deleuze and Guattari’s own pro-Palestinian activism), Lyotard and Lacan could feed a critique of the ideologically biased notions of “modernity” and “development” from Canada to China, and even Roland Barthes or Louis Althusser could be enrolled in Germany or Italy in a local quest for alternatives to Continental idealism and European metaphysics—while all of them were also interpreted and used both via their initial American (or at least Anglophone) reception AND against the persisting hegemony of US universities and North American imperialism. The philosophers I had read at age 20 in the dim, quiet light of a Paris university library were born again for me 20 years later as astonishing mappings of early 21st-century power struggles and culture wars worldwide. Not texts, maps. Not contexts, power relations. Not authors, motors of action and principles of pleasure. Not French, global—under the cover identity (or pen name) “American.”

The ultimate surprise came from the US, where the book was published in English translation in 2008. Apart from a long blog by Stanley Fish in the online edition of the New York Times, in which he indeed reappropriated the object of French Theory for his own sake (promoting his own work and wit, and concluding his review with the prospect of a cinematic adaptation: “Can’t wait for the movie”), the US reception of the book was more serene and academic than elsewhere: overlooking the global and political stakes of French Theory’s main topics (deconstruction, micropolitics, biopower, de/subjectification, intensities, desiring machines, postmodernism, schizoculture, minor struggles), it was mostly an assessment of thirty years of intellectual influence and reinvention, and a praise of history and sociology as more relevant to such an assessment than mimetic discourse or metatheory—thereby suggesting that I somehow stood outside of French Theory, whereas in France, readers insisted on my obvious complicity with what I was narrating.

It’s also about the old process of “routinization of charisma,” as Max Weber would put it: once duly disciplined and institutionalized,  turned into a domestic body of texts and grad school reading list, French Theory was less a weapon or a sex toy than a subbranch of the humanities. To repoliticize it all, it took the feedback effect of French Theory in France, where the late 20th-century generation of radical American intellectuals (gender constructionists, anti-imperialist thinkers, postcolonial critics) finally started to be translated and published, often one or two decades after their German or Spanish reception. French Theory became “théorie américaine,” feeding a new suspicion shared by all French conservative opinion leaders (and long held by American neoconservatives), the suspicion that French Theory was a Trojan Horse for identity politics, moral relativism, civilizational defeatism, and what was not yet called the “woke” phenomenon among transatlantic youth—the suspicion that plural in fact meant scattered, deconstruction meant nonsense, intensities were a diversion, new theories of Desire a form of decadence, and the overall corpus of these authors a devilish contribution to “the twilight of our common dreams.”

If Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, and Derrida had known that they’d be blamed on both sides of the Ocean for everything going wrong, from the decline of the West to selfish individualization, from the boom of entertainment to the rise of Islamic terrorism (hadn’t Baudrillard interpreted the 9/11 attacks as a form of “suicide” committed by US capitalism itself?), they would probably have been more wary of the American fortune and international dissemination of their works. They might even have sabotaged it on purpose.

What remains sure—and what Sylvère Lotringer, founder of Semiotext(e) and pioneering intermediary in this case of transatlantic transference, has been repeating for fifty years now—is that Foucault’s biopolitics, Deleuze and Guattari’s schizo-capitalism, or Derrida’s deconstruction describe, or at least help understand, American consumer society more than the old European-style class struggle, new technologies and virtual devices more than Continental philosophy, “infotainment” and societies of control more than the vertical traditions of French life—they didn’t know it, but they were exploring American chaos and the global future rather than the classics of literature or the age-old concepts of philosophy.

What remains sure also—and what the same Lotringer has been repeating even more often—is that theory disappears in the process of producing its own effects: the more it raises emotions, from self-emancipation to hatred, the more it inspires creative processes, from arts to cinema and the Web, the more it arms specific struggles for counter-hegemony, the more it is absorbed like a pill of MDMA or a providential second life, the more its initial texts and concepts disappear in the shadow of their consequences. The more they’re put to use, the less they’re about an eternal truth and single signification—which is why, American invention or not, French Theory can’t be easily appropriated. And this is a good thing, too.

But that said—in order to restore the agency of theory and of its users & producers beyond the determinisms of its contexts and the dead ends of its misinterpretations—it also remains sure that by virtue of its displacement and recontextualization (deFrenchization and Americanization), this peculiar body of texts and concepts has endured, in the US, three types of biased reconfiguration—if not appropriation, then at least aspects of a smooth embargo, halfway between grabbing and snatching.

The first such phenomenon has to do with the group label itself, the act of assembling, and forcing into the same category, works and authors who might have been contemporaries and even have read and occasionally praised each other’s works but who remain impossible to juxtapose and even less to reduce to the same gregarious family: French Theory is a deliberately open-ended (or inclusive) and blurry rubric, hinting just at a certain foreignness and at the timely rise of a new type of humanistic discourse somewhere between literature, philosophy, and social sciences (“theory”), and marketed in such a way that its American users and consumers will quickly forget that these people don’t have that much in common.

It’s easy to forget, indeed, that Deleuze and Foucault, despite a twelve-year friendship, didn’t have the same objects of study at all, that Derrida and Foucault had mean quarrels about key notions (such as Descartes’ cogito, seen as rationalistic imperialism by Foucault and sheer madness by Derrida…), that Deleuze saw in Derrida a “sort of textual machine” he didn’t have much affinity with, that Baudrillard famously called for the intellectual community to “forget Foucault” (to which the latter replied that his problem was to “remember who Baudrillard is”…), that Althusser was too Marxist for his work to conduct a relevant dialogue with the others’, that Barthes might have been highly respected by such peers (and sadly cried over when he was hit by a van in 1980, all French theorists visiting him in hospital) but that his focus on literary theory and cultural critique was far away from philosophy as the others’ exclusive discipline, that Lyotard, in fifteen years, moved from the praise of intensities and a critique of “libidinal economy” to more conservative works on art, history, or André Malraux, that women thinkers in the group (Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous…) suffered from a lesser recognition, and that for all of them the remote silhouette of Jacques Lacan was more a ghost than an ally, more a monster with whom each had a score to settle than a theoretical brother—in short, that only American universities would have grouped this handful of French theorists together, aggregating them under the same label, a task that, in France, only a couple of mainstream magazines dared to attempt on the few occasions they indeed converged and joined forces in specific circumstances (1966-67 and 1973-74). No, they were squeezed, by force, into the same box, in a brutal move that couldn’t but cast aside, or outside the box, all that didn’t fit the unifying label (the first or very last Foucault, Deleuze as a strange historian of philosophy, Derrida about justice or religion, Lacan when dealing with curing and healing, the second Lyotard, the very first Barthes…).

The second phenomenon is, of course, academicization itself, the domestication by the university as institution and as power-knowledge of a few texts and authors who had successfully avoided that fate in France (in part because the French academe didn’t want them at all). This one, however, is a story of intervals, enclaves, “temporary autonomous zones,” as Hakim Bey would have it. For it didn’t start in academia, and before these texts became must-quote references, doctoral topics, coded signs of affiliation among grad students, items on a reading list, or objects of resentful and formalized commentary (to turn each of them into the -isms they hated, Deleuzism, Derrideanism, Foucaultism…), they were, for a crazy few years, free-floating cultural objects, unappropriated, radically unfamiliar, circulating from Bowery music clubs to East Village artists’ squats, alternative LA publishers to Berkeley activists and geeks, and, indeed, for a short period of time, serving as weapons more than topics, games more than items, lighters more than footnotes—and, in that process, joining hands with the avantgarde experiences of their counterparts outside of philosophy, those who try and do the same as them but in music (John Cage, Laurie Anderson), dance (Merce Cunningham), theater (Richard Foreman), literature (William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg), psychedelic drugs (Timothy Leary), as well as experimental cinema, minority activism, and other undomesticated life forms.

But as the great adventure of Semiotext(e) shows, this was just a short-lived interval, and despite the memorable success of such radical festive events as “Schizo-Culture” in 1975 and the “Nova Convention” in 1978, the future of theory had more and more to do with its appropriation by the academic institution, within the walls of US campuses—Lotringer knew it in advance and warned that while theory’s fate was to disappear, it would start by leaving the hands of punks and wanderers to be handled exclusively by those men and women of teaching whom Nietzsche had called “the people of resentment.” French Theory was not a bomb—it’s a paper tiger. End of story. Academic domestication has its downfalls, with theory losing its inner political force or its extra-textual inventiveness, but it did have a major advantage in the case of French Theory in the US: it made for a longer-term influence and explains why these texts and authors are still so present in the US for the new generation today, half a century after their initial entry into the New World.

Last but not least, the third phenomenon is the US pragmatic take on theory as something someone does, or manipulates, or acts with, as an object in the hands of a subject, sometimes even as a method of reading or an interpretative prescription. Theory was an almost authorless series of concepts and arguments, a description of something happening inside the text (deconstruction), among singularities (micropolitics), through dominant discourse (power structures), or both thanks to and because of capitalistic schizophrenia (desiring machines). In the US, as an instrument to help reach a certain goal, theory became, respectively, a method of reading (deconstruction), a praise of difference (micropolitics), a debunking of domination (power structures), a recipe to delve into the abyss of capitalism (desiring machines). Not that such active and deliberate takes are wrong per se, but they all are derived from a very institutional (university) and somehow cultural (North American) necessity to do things with words, to tend towards consequences, and to select the most relevant word formations one could find to that end—with French Theory fitting the bill for a while in the US.

In other words, if appropriation is not solely a mean confiscation by the bad guys intended to disactivate or kill one’s soul, but more aptly what happens to something when a given (individual and collective) subject starts using a cultural text or object, then indeed French Theory, like more or less everything else in the whole wide world, ended up being appropriated by American culture and academe, by American hegemony but also counter-hegemony, by Amerika as a double-edged signifier—for better and worse. No reason to rejoice or regret here, but just new surfaces, new uses, new intensities.

FRANÇOIS CUSSET is interested in the history of the humanities and of critical theories as well as transatlantic cultural and intellectual transfers. He is Professor of American Civilization at the University of Nanterre, where he teaches on topics such as US politics, media, and intellectual currents. His works include French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (2003, English translation 2008) and the essay, “La Droitisation du monde” (2016), translated into English in 2018 as How the World Swung to the Right.


dePICTions volume 2 (2022): U.S. vs. … (Un-)American Crossings and Appropriations