“french theory” and the joys of decontextualiztion: cusset’s french theory

For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of French structuralism, especially the way that structuralist literary theory has been transmitted and taught and anthologized ever since its successor, post-structuralism, suffered its own eclipse.  Writers like Saussure and Levi-Strauss now exist in a curious, leveling zone of indifference, though they were once deemed necessary for any “advanced” understanding of literature.  The moment that other, newer vanguard reading practices took structuralism’s place, the old sense of urgency or shock about its writings faded away.  But I’m unsure whether any new approach to reading literature could have the impact that Saussure had in the 70s.

My curiosity led me to Francois Cusset’s French Theory, which I picked up because its story of “French theory” in the 70s, 80s, and 90s seems to have coincided pretty well with my own exposure to these writers as an undergraduate and graduate student in New York City, and ultimately as a college teacher in a very different city (Houston) teaching this material to undergraduate English majors.  From Cusset’s perspective, though, theory does not amount to an academic field, much less a discipline, but is best understood as something learned out of school, in a series of vaguely academic social settings such as art galleries, poetry readings, little magazines, reading groups, and so forth.  (Cusset writes more as a sociologist of intellectual trends than as a theorist in his own right) And this certainly accords with my recollections of theory as I learned about it in the early 80s, both in and out of classrooms. This is first and foremost a generational story, one I recognized myself in right away, and one that would come as a surprise, I think, to the students who learn about Theory primarily through courses and lectures, as today’s students necessarily do.

Mercifully, Cusset’s book rejects the pedagogical narratives of the academic survey, the carefully planned sequences of famous names, passages, and selected concepts, and all the usual defenses of theory and its value.  (That’s my job, I suppose)  Nor, thankfully, do we have to hear about these works as “great books,” or as furnishings for the mind.  Those kinds of books, and courses, do exist, and I suppose they have their value, but I was hoping for something different, and in that I was not disappointed.

Instead, Cusset makes his account of French Theory more sociological, more culturally grounded, more an artifact of a particular historical moment, with its own absurd costumes and musical soundtrack, rather than a tale of Great Writers addressing famous Works to one another, with all the usual squabbles and jealousies of writers.  Instead, the story focuses upon Theory’s reception by a hundred million philosophically illiterate undergraduates, starting punk bands, making bad art, and filling their Foucault Readers with illegible lyrics and unseemly comments.  It is a story of misinterpretation compounded by large-scale mass reading, and rendered permanent by headlong popularization and institutionalization (Foucault, Derrida, and a handful of other writers remain in print and in syllabi, at least in English departments; how’s that for success?).  And in this fate we might find an interesting kind of success for French Theory, so long as we read it in de Certeau’s terms, and not their own.  (Interestingly enough, for both Cusset and myself, de Certeau seems the one figure of this group who remained underexposed enough to maintain his critical potential even at this point in time)

The story Cusset tells here is about how”theory” enjoyed the success it did in America because it was so completely removed from its original circumstances and then misread so egregiously that it became something else.  Cusset knows his de Certeau, and admits that this kind of creation-by-misuse has its own interest and legitimacy, especially when we see how surprised and intrigued and appalled the post-structuralists were by the transformation of their work at the hands of American undergraduates and their professors.   But Cusset sometimes seems more interested in reminding us of what was lost in translation, not what was gained.

So Cusset describes an American university system lacking its own intellectual class (strike one), and which is completely detached from the larger consumer society that apathetically supports it (strikes two and three).  This university system witlessly swallowed up a series of subtle and transgressive writings produced by French intellectuals in France’s own moments of upheaval (though admittedly to little political effect in France).  These writings were cut up, consumed, and recirculated by the largely apolitical youth culture of American universities and their literature, performance, and art departments.  Significantly, Cusset complains that such readers never worried about “mastering” the hugely varied and disparate materials they chopped up and consumed with such enthusiasm.

Now all this is fair enough, but one of the ironies of this reading is Cusset’s indignation about this reception’s neglect of context.  After all, this kind of blithe removal of context was the most distinctive aspect of structuralist readings in their heyday, the cause of both the shock and the appeal of their best-known readings.  If this kind of decontextualization is a problem, then Levi-Strauss should have written that letter of apology to the Nambikwara for the method of Tristes Tropiques.  Or perhaps Cusset would argue that it’s a matter of the French writers’ strategic decontextualizations, versus the boneheaded ignorance of American undergraduates?  Even so, it’s hard for me to see such decontextualizing strategies as reflective of the “mastery” of either Levi-Strauss or Foucault over their subject matter.  Instead, I see these as risky strategies, where writers gamble that such a gesture will produce a particular kind of insight, one that is impossible without forgetting existing contexts and meanings.

One of the surest signs that structuralism’s impact has faded is the fact that all the biographical, historical, and cultural methods of contextualization structuralism once attempted to stare down can be reimposed, without comment, to explain its rise and fall.  (when did Foucault ever regard theories of national difference as having any intellectual value?_ Or rather, we think about structuralist devices of sensemaking like “oppositions” as just one more potential “approach,” among others, that can be imposed upon a particular set of materials for particular purposes.

But I think that one of the most lasting contributions of structuralist-era writing and thought had to be its willingness to undo tick-tock chronologies and expositions, to ignore or subvert scholarly conventions like periodizations, and encourage interpreters in a wide variety of fields to impose their own logical patterns of opposition or negation upon their materials.  (this may seem like a trivial gesture, but it isn’t)  Structuralisms’s contribution to literary studies, however, is largely tacit at this point.  We no longer feel the need to cite these writers when we make these kinds of gestures, which in my view work against the notion of literary criticism as mastery or better yet, appropriation.  How can one become a specialist in a particular kind of rhetorical or interpretive gesture?

Perhaps it’s time to see literary studies not just as a way of viewing works within contexts, but also as a way of removing works from given contexts, in order to construct new ones.



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