Wednesday, June 11, 2008


THE STATE OF LITERARY THEORY: French Theory's American Adventures
Chronicle of Higher Education

Why still bother with theory, French or otherwise? It would take a true rhetorical talent to convince anyone today, even an academic humanist who hasn't left his or her campus for years, that theory and the many debates surrounding it can have any impact, say, on technological change, the leisure industry, the state of Western democracy, or global geopolitics — or on the run-up to the next presidential election, for that matter. In other words, isn't it simply too late to still be speaking about French theory and its role in the intellectual life of the United States today?

The word "today" conjures up a mix of collective panic and historical changes, an utterly confused, postcommunist, postcolonial age of global civil war and absolute entertainment, religious terrorism and state terrorism — the age of a new type of empire unsure as to who its real enemies are and how to identify, much less absorb, its "citizens." In such an unsettling present, one wonders if there is anything left to expect from this weird textual object known as theory, born between the two world wars or in the crazy 1970s, depending on historical accounts, but definable today as a strange breed of American academic market rules, French (and more generally Continental) detachable concepts, campus-based identity politics, and trendy pop culture. It seems to many observers that the gap between real-life politics and theory's guerrillas is much too wide already, after 30 years of academic fever, for the two worlds to even speak a common language. Or for a possible use of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, or even Jacques Derrida to shed some light on today's global disorders — even when Foucault's genealogy of "biopolitics," Deleuze's comments on our "societies of control," and Derrida's concept of "unconditional hospitality," all coined more than two decades ago, appear to be exactly addressing our contemporary situation.

This tendency to relegate theory to a leisurely time when "reality" wasn't a problem (but did such a time ever exist, even before September 11, 2001?), and to call for more urgent issues to be raised today than just theoretical ones, is where old-style liberals, or even Marxists and neoconservative watchdogs, converge. They agree that theory is perilous today, or at best just patently useless, much as the West German federal police and the East German political police agreed that Foucault was dangerous or useless enough to deserve being arrested twice during his visit to the two sides of Berlin in 1978. That is exactly the kind of consensus that should be tirelessly questioned until it no longer holds, today no less than 30 years ago.

For in fact, theory and activism do converge today. They do so in certain new forms of social activism, within a new generation of readers on both sides of the ocean who manage to think and write in the lines of these authors, but always away from their intimidating shadows. New uses of theory's major texts are possible today, even necessary, beyond the age-old uncertainty over theory and praxis as two distinct moments, in favor of what Deleuze and Félix Guattari would call "theoretical practice" — a real practical approach to theory.

But then, how to stick to such theoretical practices when the United States is under direct attack? One of the saddest things about the immediate post-9/11 climate in the United States' public space, beyond blind patriotism and a frustrated virility willing to retaliate as soon as possible, was surely the intellectual field's deliberate powerlessness. After decades of rhetorically questioning the imperialistic West, deconstructing America's power, and demonizing the first world's neocolonialism, the various radicals bred in academic quarters stood still, mute and shocked. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York City and Washington, most of these brilliant campus radicals didn't have much to say about George W. Bush, Iraq, terror, national pride, and global democracy, apart from a distant feeling of horror and disarray. Whereas liberals of all sorts in Europe or Asia did expect some sort of awakening from their North American counterparts, or a new inspiration to come from the belly of the beast, perhaps a new tone on American campuses for times of emergency, what they witnessed was mostly self-criticism and a sense of uselessness.

When touring campuses right after 9/11, I was astounded to discover that the dominant feeling in academe was one of desperate impossibility, complete with guilt and resentment. Yesterday's tenured radicals were now writing sophisticated articles just to make a note of the insuperable gap between the world and the text, theory and "reality," intellectual leisure and the new state of global emergency. Just when theory was precisely challenged to speak out beyond self-reflection and lead to other issues inseparable from today's situation — the issues of capitalism and its new social forms, of the media and their industrial production of fear, of the exhausting of the rhetorics of promise as political horizon — academic experts again limited theory to a specialized debate.

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