French Theory

Stanley Fish’s column on the new book by Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. (Uggh, the hundreds of comments are irritating.) Also see Scott McLemee’s column in Inside Higher Ed.

In “a particularly sharp-eyed chapter titled “Students and Users,”” McLemee writes, Cusset “offers an analysis of how adopting a theoretical affiliation can serve as a phase in the psychodrama of late adolescence (a phase of life with no clearly marked termination point, now). To become Deleuzian or Foucauldian, or what have you, is not necessarily a step along the way to the tenure track. It can also serve as “an alternative to the conventional world of career-oriented choices and the pursuit of top grades; it arms the student, affectively and conceptually, against the prospect of alienation that looms at graduation under the cold and abstract notions of professional ambition and the job market….This relationship with knowledge is not unlike Foucault’s definition of curiosity: ‘not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself’….””

Ironically (?), this made me think about my experience teaching “theory” in our Intro to Theory and Criticism course. I had assumed that students would find the straight theory stuff to be a difficult pill to swallow, and that the literary criticism would seem comparatively clear and straight-forward. But in fact they found, say, Vendler on Keats to be impossibly dense, allusive and insular, but if I effectively framed something like Jameson on postmodernism, or Irigaray or Judith Butler on gender, the students ate it up. One option for the final project in that class was to use theoretical models we’d encountered to analyze a work of popular culture. I remember well two wonderful papers I got on the fan cultures of anime, and about the Transformers phenomenon (specifically, the way the old Transformers toys were repurposed and marketed to a new generation in the 1990s).

My insight was that the students could really get into theory if it were presented to them as a kind of philosophy for living in postmodernity. Maybe even as “affective and conceptual” armor for the challenges (and let’s face it, the sometimes-grim prospects for a new college graduate) of life in 21st century capitalism.