Contents Disappointed Utopia Preface

How I met “French Theory”

Figure 1: The Pantheon in Paris, with its dedication “to great men.”
Figure 1: The Pantheon in Paris, with its dedication “to great men.”

Paris is a city full of statues, and plenty of them are statues of male philosophers. You can find Auguste Comte, Denis Diderot, Blaise Pascal, Nicolas de Condorcet, and Voltaire. The Voltaire statue became the object of antiracist protests in 2020 and was moved out of sight by the local authorities. This gesture changed nothing about the French custom of putting philosophers on pedestals. Nor were the pedestals only for individual Great Men. The very genre of theory, itself historically masculine (Lutz 1995), has equally been monumentalized. Tourists flock to see visit Auguste Rodin’s generic philosophy dude, “The Thinker,” whose brawny muscles contrast with his pensive, crumpled posture. This book is not the place to recount the long history of theory, which could be traced back to Aristotle’s theoria (Roochnik 2009). Nor will I belabor the point that “theory” in its contemporary critical sense is something more than the discipline of academic philosophy. (If “theory” at its best — at its queerest, at its most critical — is about opening things up, then in a sense this is antithetical to the spirit of enclosure that animates a discipline.)

What is clear to me, however, is that today, the history of “theory” can only be written in a pluralized, global fashion, one that takes account of theory’s Eurocentric and colonial legacies while not collapsing itself into them (Mbembe 2017, Chakrabarty 2000, Gilroy 1993, Said 1978). One way to write a postcolonial history of theory is from the perspective of theoretical centers in the South, starting for instance with the Dar es Salaam School (Campbell 1991) or the anti-apartheid leftism of the University of the Western Cape (Lalu and Murray 2012). Another route, which I have chosen here, is to revisit the Euro-American “centers” themselves, but to look at them askew or off-center.

If we investigate France as a space of intellectual production, we find that it has its own internal centers and peripheries, some of which are less monolithically ”French“ than one might expect. Many of the books that Anglophones called “French Theory” were themselves the results of colonial encounters. A recent critical literature has explored the North African, and specifically Algerian, roots of contemporary French thought (Ahluwalia 2005, Davis 2011, Go 2013, Toscano 2018). Saint-Denis, where this book is focused, is not quite Paris, is an ambiguous zone both within and outside it. The Philosophy Department at Paris 8 was largely populated by foreign visitors, migrants and exiles. This polyglot site was, nevertheless, often typified as “French,” sometimes labeling its general project “Contemporary French Philosophy” (philosophie française contemporaine). Something like this more essentialized version of French Theory was the one I first encountered as an American college student.

The notion of “French Theory” was largely constructed in America, as François Cusset has pointed out (2008). And I started doing this research project in the first place because I felt unsettled by the way that that theory had once been taught to me. The ”theory” that I was taught in college had a big aura. It was a chic kind of theory, a French kind of theory, one entwined with hipster and bohemian aesthetics, with “female effacement” (Johnson 2014:27), with things postmodern or poststructuralist, with American whiteness, and with a barely repressed spirit of commodification and elite competition. We read daunting, wild texts by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Barbara Johnson and Paul de Man — a style of writing that gradually became familiar to me but initially was largely incomprehensible. I liked the rebellious style of much of that work. But it bothered me that ostensibly emancipatory ideas were constantly taught to us in an authoritarian, elitist fashion.

“Theory” was clearly an object of great prestige for adepts, but it remained a structure of confusion and exclusion for outsiders. My pangs of skepticism and reflexivity were generally encouraged by my teachers, although the ambiguity of their stance as insiders was lost on me, and I ended up writing a short ethnographic study of “the silent social order of the theory classroom” (Rose 2008). Afterwards, in spite of my theory professor’s quip that my ambivalence might be a good thing inasmuch as it save me from “going straight to graduate school,” I went to graduate school, resolved to go to France to investigate the place where French Theory had come from.

This book is the result of that project.

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