French Theory Today

(Note: this statement was drafted for the students in my current seminar at NYU. I'm posting it online for others who might be curious.)

Preparing to teach a doctoral seminar on French Theory Since 1989 has been an interesting process. Of course there is something ridiculous, if not retrograde, in trying to assess the “whole way of thinking” of a nation or an historical period, much less a civilization or race. That's not the goal of this seminar. Still, I'm reminded of examples from the past when scholars and intellectuals have tried to identify the essence of, say, Greek thought, Roman thought, or German thought. Recall Martin Heidegger's passion for Greek philosophy, something he characterized in terms of the special attunement of essence, truth, and authentic presence. Or consider John Ruskin's famous distinction between Greek and Gothic, where interestingly he favored Gothic over Greek, the latter of which, reappearing as neoclassicism, represented for Ruskin a form of staid and uninspired rectilinearity. Or recall Matthew Arnold's distinction between what he saw as the Judeo-Christian and Greek roots of Western culture: the Judeo-Christian furnished the order of commandment, holy discipline, “conduct and obedience,” “doing above knowing,” and the enactments of ritual, sacrament, and liturgy; whereas the Greek furnished the order of truth and revealing, the Delphic instruction γνῶθι σεαυτόν, the ability to "to see things as they really are," and the levels of consciousness, rationality, and knowing. Or even, from a non-Eurocentric perspective, recall George Yancy's work on blackness and whiteness, where whiteness is defined in terms of the dominant or hegemonic condition, a status sufficient unto itself, a subject with the freedom to encounter problems and surmount them (as opposed to persons of color, who themselves present an existential problem for whiteness -- something developed further in Frank Wilderson's work on afro-pessimism).

What does French theory mean today? As Jean-Luc Godard and Gilles Deleuze have both argued in their two large treatises on the history of cinema, World War II dramatically changed the cultural and social landscape of modern life, just as it changed the material reality and physical geography of Europe. We might make the same argument about philosophy. The outsize role of German thought in nineteenth and early-twentieth-century philosophy was more or less undone by the war, something that, with a few uninvolving exceptions, remains true to the present day. (On the other hand, Germany is undoubtedly the world leader in media studies.) The heyday of French philosophy is the post-World-War-II period. Assigning dates to such a flowering of philosophical creativity, Alain Badiou has suggested it began with Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943) and ended with the last writings of Deleuze in the early 1990s. Across these several decades, we find the influence of a few key schools, semiotics and structuralism, but also existentialism, often overlooked in many chronicles of the rise of “French Theory.” (And interestingly there are rumblings of an existentialist revival today.) Regarding semiotics, the influence of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure cannot be overstated, his Course in General Linguistics from earlier in the century casting a long shadow over later French thought. Indeed the very drafting of the Course..., assembled posthumously by Saussure's students and thus the result of a gap between enunciation and inscription, has long served as a ready example of the kinds of textual studies it engendered. And structuralism, with its focus on the symbolic or linguistic infrastructure of all phenomena, applied itself to diverse sectors of human life such as spoken language, folk practices, and the family, and thereby easily propagating to a variety of different research fields, from linguistics and anthropology to cinema studies and theories of popular culture. The shift from structuralism to poststructuralism (and deconstruction) took place during the middle 1960s, starting around 1963 or 1964 and reaching a fever pitch in 1967 with the clustered release of the first three books by Jacques Derrida, a most auspicious publishing debut. Poststructuralism is not so much a radical departure from what came before, but a change of emphasis in which logics of difference, discontinuity, rupture, and contradiction take over from the more coherently operational “system” of the structuralist approach. Indeed many thinkers like Jean Baudrillard or Roland Barthes published what can be described as structuralist works earlier in their careers, only to switch into a more poststructuralist register later in life. Compare, for example, the Baudrillard of The System of Objects (1968) with that of Seduction (1979).

Throughout this entire period, two key figures were ever present, Marx and Freud. Indeed one way of thinking about French philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century is to see it as a kind of pact formed between Marxism and Freudianism, two schools of thought that, one must remember, require certain inducements to interoperate successfully. For this new intellectual alloy to function, important changes were required. Marxism had to undergo a cultural turn, something already underway in the work of György Lukács and Theodor Adorno, and then extended with the full-fledged structural Marxism of Louis Althusser or the hyperstructuralist, superimposed systematicity of Jean-Joseph Goux. And, at the same time, Freudianism had to undergo a kind of political or social turn, the sort of realignment that would later allow an American from Cleveland to suggest that the unconscious is not simply a question of the individual human psyche, but rather something larger, a political unconscious to span the population if not the planet.

Two additional observations regarding this tradition are worth noting before continuing. First is the importance of epistemology, matched by a relative dearth of interest in ontology. With a few key exceptions, the most important of whom being Deleuze, an ontological thinker through and through, much of post-war French though concerned itself with the classic epistemological domains, chiefly filtered through the problem of ideology and the way in which structures of representation mediate between individuals and society. (Indeed this fact has provided much fuel to adherents of the recent Speculative Realist movement, their argument being, in part, that continental philosophy has become overly invested in epistemological questions and ought rather to consider ontology for a change.)

Second is what Badiou often simply refers to as the theories of the subject. Related in some senses to the focus on epistemology, theories of the subject refer to the way in which post-war French thought took as its object human subjectivity, indeed elevating the invention of new forms of subjectivity as a primary goal of the theoretical project. Or as Badiou put it in the preface to a recent compendium of his essays on French philosophy:

“[D]uring the second half of the twentieth century, the lines of battle were still essentially constituted around the question of the subject. Thus, Althusser defines history as a process without a subject, and the subject as an ideological category; Derrida, interpreting Heidegger, regards the subject as a category of metaphysics; Lacan creates a concept of the subject; Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, of course, allotted an absolutely central role to the subject. A first definition of the French philosophical movement would therefore be in terms of the conflict over the human subject.” (The Adventure of French Philosophy, liii-liv)

Still, the role of subjectivity and the boundaries of what gets to count as epistemology are not entirely clear. And any poststructuralist would likely be confused by today's accusations that the movement was not sufficiently anti-anthropocentric, given that, at the time, poststructuralism was routinely criticized for its sharp repudiation of humanism.

All of these things furnish some of the history and context for the seminar. But what about its specific themes? Given that the seminar comes under the shell-course heading of “Special Topics in Critical Theory,” it's worth dwelling for a moment on the concept of critical theory itself. The distinction between analytic and continental philosophy appears to be of little use, for who can neatly distinguish between the two schools in the first place, and to what end? By contrast, the distinction between philosophy and theory is both easier to define and more important to defend. Critical theory has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but it still remains the only really valid intellectual undertaking available today. But why? What's so “critical” about critical theory? And what does “theory” actually mean?

The book Excommunication contains a more detailed meditation on the past, present, and future of criticality, but I find it most useful to distinguish initially between two basic intellectual postures, those of analysis and criticism. Analysis is explanatory and practical in nature. Analysis begins with breaking something down into its constituent parts in order better to understand how it works. Thus analysis typically runs “with the grain” of the object in question, trying to deduce the heart of the matter in order to elucidate its proper essence. By contrast, criticism stakes a position and then tries to defend it. Criticism always runs “against the grain” in order to expose problems, inconsistencies, flaws, or gaps in the material. Criticism is thus always a judgement, issued from the very heart of the matter; neither pro nor con, criticism seeks to encompass both assenting and dissenting positions in favor of a third stance inexistent in either of them. It is a position-taking or, to use the parlance popularized by Badiou, a “forcing” in which reality becomes subject to a condition. (Etymologically critique is cognate with the Greek terms meaning judgement, decision, event, and in the context of medicine, the turning point of a disease [i.e. if and when an illness “turns critical”].)

The two key modern sources for the concept of critique are Kant and Marx. The transcendental definition of critique, inherited from Kant, concerns the self-sufficiency of knowledge and the ability to ground claims without recourse to dogmatic foundations. Kantian critique places great value on the “conditions of possibility” for knowledge, specifying, in the absence of metaphysical dogma, what can and cannot be thought. Kantianism is thus, if you will, methodologically “orthogonal” in the sense that it tends to seek a kind of dimensional exteriority to the issue at hand, providing meta answers to immediate questions.

The dialectical definition of critique, inherited from Marx, also relies on scientific reason to pierce through the various mystifications and dogmas of the world. Marxian criticality, evident in his early writings from the 1840s, but also famously articulated in Capital and its critique of the commodity form, also follows an “orthogonal” logic in which any given problem is solved in terms of a right-angle piercing through the matter at hand. At the same time Marx also superimposes this orthogonal logic -- sometimes called a “depth model” -- onto society as a whole, allowing him to make trenchant political judgements to a degree impossible in Kant. (While Kant's ultimate deference to the power of the sovereign is notorious, Marx granted no such provision to the ruling class.) Dialectical criticism, a la Marx, seeks not so much to undergird the conditions of possibility for philosophical claims, but rather to let something disappear through a synthetic encounter with its opposite. Thus, following its Hegelian roots, Marxism foregrounds the essentially negative logic of criticism.

Such a description of critique is fairly commonplace and already well known. “Theory” on the other hand is a much more difficult term to wrangle, much less to define. What does the theory in critical theory actually mean? A perennial target of derision for some, theory has died a thousand deaths, and been reborn more than a few times. I devoured D.N. Rodowick's Elegy for Theory when it appeared, a book that chronicles the history of criticality through the lens of cinema studies, and look forward to reading its sequel. Others have attempted similar projects in an attempt to map out a number of different theoretical undertakings, not just Marxism but queer theory and feminism, critical race theory, psychoanalysis, and related fields. But theory still remains a vague term, subject to misuse and, for its detractors, destined for disuse.

Theory may be effectively defined along two basic axes: theory versus observation, and theory versus philosophy. Consider the first axis, theory versus observation (or, as it were, “mere” description). The word “theory” involves assuming a point or position, and then spectating from that position, hence its etymological roots in the Greek term meaning “viewing,” “beholding,” “contemplation,” or “speculation.” Because of this, theory has a special relationship with science, rationalism, and the notion of the concept. I see theory as essentially incompatible with all of the journalistic enterprises: observation, description, and exegesis, but also more generally empiricism, realism, and pragmatism. The latter traditions seek a full description of the world unencumbered by theoretical commitments, and often pride themselves in being beyond or possibly exempt from methodological critique, either “without” method or explicitly “against” it, as with Paul Feyerabend's notorious intervention into philosophy of science. (In this context, one must be vigilantly Althusserian when describing theory as a science; laboratory science or the scientific method, these are something else altogether.)

The history and legacy of French Rationalism is not unimportant. And I recall Badiou's jingoistic but amusing description of English as the perfect language in which to pursue empiricism. Why? Because there are so many adjectives! By contrast, the grammatical precision of French, in Badiou's view, is more adequately suited to the theoretical rigors of philosophical exploration. (Many have made a similar argument about Ancient Greek, that there is something in the organic composition of the Greek language that allowed classical Greek philosophy to blossom as it did; others are more skeptical of the nostalgic and essentialist undertones of such a claim.) Here Badiou stresses the importance of the concept, and the way in which concepts “force” a particular physical reality in terms of a hypothetical “condition.” Hence not so much the classic question “what is x?” but “what is x hypothetically?” or “what happens if we subject x to the concept?” Or, to give a more practical example, not so much “what is a human being?” but “what happens if we assume that everyone is subject to the concept of equality?”

The second axis -- theory versus philosophy -- is perhaps more controversial, the controversy arising not so much from the substantive definition of the terms but from the desire to distinguish them in the first place. These days methodological boundaries are often considered a quaint relic from the past; and everyone is expected to be flexible enough to utilize whatever method is appropriate at whatever time, and thereby at risk of performing each poorly, like the substitute teacher whose facility in any subject nevertheless remains somewhat facile through all of them. But the two terms can and should be defined, and the definitions observed and respected. The definitions proposed in my book on the work of François Laruelle are as follows: philosophy means roughly “the thing that is transcendental vis-a-vis the real,” and theory means roughly “the thing that is immanent vis-a-vis the real.” (And again, following the Althusserian/Marxist tradition, a synonym for theory is “science.”) In other words, the philosophical endeavor is one in which all problems tend toward transcendental answers, and every utterance becomes a stance oriented toward a cognitive landscape carefully curated in advance. Theory, by contrast, always tends -- asymptotically if not always actually -- toward a non-reflective stance in the world, where it discovers not problems so much as common solutions to real situations. (Note here that the previous point concerning the concept or the hypothesis does not mean that theory is somehow outside or apart from the world, quite the opposite: position-taking and immanence are not incompatible; theory is the thing situated most in the real.)

With these definitions in hand, let's assemble the components. “Critical theory” means both (A) critique, that is, a forcing or position-taking, and (B) the theoretical, that is, material immanence, defined as remaining within the real. Both components are necessary for this methodological device to function properly. Absent one, the methodology collapses into distinctly disagreeable scenarios. Absent material immanence, it lapses into bourgeois idealism or priggish moralism (“the world should be such and such -- while I have no stake in it”), and absent the position-taking it lapses into some form of dogma, naturalism, or fatalistic theology (“this is the best of all possible worlds”; “there is no alternative”; “as it was, so it shall be”).

Given all this, where are we now? What is the status of theory today? It's a difficult question, one that I've tried to tackle in various ways already elsewhere. But the gist of the analysis lies in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the so-called end of theory, coinciding with a series of vocal denunciations of postmodernism (from the likes of Slavoj Žižek, Badiou, and others), the end of the dominance of deconstruction and poststructuralism, the end of mainstream psychoanalysis (already in recession for several years and finally defeated by its old foes, cognitivism and neuroscience), and the final disaccreditation of Marxism as an economic theory (for even leftists today agree that Marxism can't or shouldn't be the basis of a national economy even as communism and certain flavors of Marxist theory have experienced a renaissance in philosophical circles). In retrospect, the rise of Speculative Realism in the wake of such an intellectual recession seems like little more than an historical inevitability, like the rise of the New Philosophers in France after the long wave of 1968 finally receded.

Two observations are worth underscoring here. First, the theoretical project is in recession today partly because it succeeded. Anti-essentialism, anti-humanism, philosophies of difference, theories of rhizomatics, systematicity, and horizontality -- such theoretical projects have succeeded beyond anyone's imagination, so much so that they are embedded in the very fabric of the contemporary world. Second, and here the bad news, the theoretical project is in recession also because it failed miserably. Foremost among the failed goals of critical theory is anti-capitalism and the abject defeat of leftism as an economic theory. But we might cite other things as well, such as the unbridled exploitation of our natural surroundings, state imperialism and military tyranny, and the malignant problems of social injustice and inequality, which in the US and abroad have never been more intractable.

In other words, we're in a transition phase today both intellectually and spiritually. I see it as a period of re-entrenchment, after the revolution, in which new borders are being drawn and new territory is being claimed. It's no Jacobin uprising, to be sure. In fact, in some ways, we're experiencing a kind of Bourbon Restoration. Notwithstanding important exceptions (Tiqqun, Badiou), contemporary France, and indeed the globe as a whole, is enduring a period of soft reactionism or conservatism, similar to the Mitterrand period. After the high water mark of poststructuralism in which trenchant socio-political critiques of everything from metaphysics to gender and sexuality were the norm, the contemporary moment is characterized by a return to classical themes and classical positions: truth and sovereignty, being and essence, abstraction, universality, even the transcendental. Twenty years ago Michel Foucault symbolized the critique of power as a regulatory apparatus and the dissolution of authority into discourse; today he stands for truth telling and the cultivation of selfhood. How much has changed in such a short time.

Hence an inaugural question for our seminar: how to assess the so-called post-critical aspects of contemporary thought? In fact, perhaps it is time to discard that old prefix post-, a relic of an older time in which supersession still meant something. I've always been astonished by the logic embedded in the monicker “pre-Raphaelite” and the notion that life could be rehabilitated, not by some further evolution, but by a revision of history that might undo the damage, whether spiritual or material, of modern life. Are we not experiencing a similar phenomenon today? Contemporary thought is thus better described not as post-critical but pre-critical in the sense that it abdicates position-taking. Likewise, contemporary thought is pre-theoretical in the sense that it turns away from the concept, the hypothesis. I'm hoping that, over the course of the semester, we'll be able to come to some conclusions about this.

Curious readers of this blog are invited to dissect the syllabus at their leisure. Undoubtedly the roster reveals my own proclivities. And take note that not all of the authors are French, in fact not all of them Francophone. But the chief goal of the investigation is to look beyond 1968 and the so-called “greatest generation” of French Theory, in an attempt to explore a list of authors not yet as widely known and, in the case of older or more established thinkers, to reframe their work in the contemporary landscape. A secondary goal is to highlight the sheer complexity of the field. For instance, Meillassoux is unquestionably important in the blogosphere, but he's not the center here; I wanted to give equal time to authors like Achille Mbembe and Beatriz Preciado (a Spaniard who has also lived and worked in France and is teaching a seminar at NYU this semester) because of how they push the French discussion in important directions. A third goal of the seminar will be to assess the tone of contemporary theory, which, in some ways, is rather incompatible with the salad days of high theory. Marx and Freud are no longer foundational sources, for example, as they once were. And finally, as the last three weeks of the semester reveal, I wanted to give students the chance to tackle some formidable texts and examine them at length. I can't say if five-hundred-page treatises have always been in vogue, but they certainly are today, and in the final weeks students will be able to select from one of five larger volumes and, in discussion with others, explore more deeply the intricacies of a single intellectual endeavor.

(The course planning process also revealed something that hadn't been predicted at the outset: the date 1989 is not a particularly meaningful partition. In retrospect, the year doesn't appear to have much philosophical significance at all, and much of what we are reading has been written in the last ten years.)

Sadly semesters are of limited duration, and it's difficult to fit everything into fourteen weeks. Some final commentary is in order as to what is missing from the syllabus, and for what reason. A first category of omissions might be labeled legacy figures, authors who have been working for some time already and are still tremendously influential on today's discourse. In this regard, the most conspicuous absences are figures like Jacques Rancière and Jean-Luc Nancy, or even Luce Irigaray, whose book An Ethics of Sexual Difference continues to influence subsequent scholarship in interesting ways. Or consider too Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion, both working in the tradition of phenomenology and philosophy of religion. Henry's book on Kandinsky, for instance, which I taught in my seminar on Deleuze's late work, is a key entry in what we might call a realist aesthetics, to be read along side Deleuze's and Laruelle's writings on art from about the same period in the early to middle 1980s.

Second are a series of texts and authors, some of whom I feel great affinity with, but for whatever reason weren't exactly right to tackle this semester. Chief among these are the contemporary French theorists of radical democracy, some of whom are working in a so-called Neo-Situationist tradition. Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee are perhaps the most visible, and in fact there's a new book from the IC, also coming soon in English. (Their unambiguously titled chapter on cyberspace and contemporary technology is already circulating online). But a variety of other texts, both connected and unconnected, would also be worth considering.

A series of authors dealing with art and technology also come to mind. Someone who probably should be on the syllabus is Bernard Stiegler, but I'm also quite interested in Marie-José Mondzain, the theorist of visual culture, as well as Grégoire Chamayou who has a book on drone warfare recently translated into English. A number of other philosophers are also of interest. I'm thinking of Barbara Cassin, the respected classicist and specialist on the sophists. Or, in a very different way, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, whom I've written on in the past but who has thus far failed to distinguish himself in more meaningful ways (and also remains more or less untranslated). Finally, I came very close to adding Reiner Schürmann to the syllabus with his formidable Broken Hegemonies. Of German extraction but having written his works in French, Schürmann remains something of a cult figure who deserves to be more widely known.

Third are the innumerable authors and texts that remain untranslated, and thus impenetrable to a seminar conducted in English. I can't hope to outline the width and breadth of such a library, and indeed can't claim to know it. But one recent book that I particularly enjoyed is Véronique Bergen's Résistances philosophiques [Philosophical Resistances] (2009), a quick and punchy read featuring a tidy three-part typology of resistance, including (a) a dialectical form of resistance evident in figures like Marx or Sartre, (b) a vitalist form in Deleuze, and (c) an axiomatic form in Badiou. Devoted to the same overall theme, Françoise Proust's De la résistance [On Resistance] from 1997 offers an account of “immanent” resistance, in the tradition of Spinoza. But, alas, these and numerous other interesting texts remain as yet untranslated.

For optional background reading, let me recommend Razmig Keucheyan's excellent book The Left Hemisphere, which provides an overview of contemporary theory, albeit without addressing a lot of material on our syllabus and perhaps more skewed toward Marxism than most of what we'll do this term. For a broader backdrop, you might consult François Dosse's History of Structuralism, a two volume chronicle of French intellectual life in the twentieth century that includes not only structuralism but poststructuralism and related movements.

For a line on the contemporary formation, I would recommend in particular Peter Hallward's landmark 2003 special issue of the journal Angelaki on French philosophy, John Mullarkey's book Post-continental Philosophy (2006), Benjamin Noys' The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Cultural Theory (2010), and Ian James' excellent recent assessment, New French Philosophy (2012).