(French) Theory: An Anti-American American Invention, Paris Institute for Critical Thinking, June 8 2022
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.
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as the agent of major French publishers, I was bewildered to discover that a new, abstruse essay by Derrida or an unpublished, posthumous manuscript by Foucault was of more interest to the few US publishers ready to take the risk of translation (and there are few) than bestselling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—