Tuesday, December 27, 2005

hobbyhorse, anti-Enlightened

This just in: FRENCH THEORY IN AMERICA WAS REALLY NOT THAT GOOD. Yes, the originals are still better.

It's true, we've linked to things like this before. And now the most tired and tiresome debate in academic history is producing––in what must surely qualify as a miracle after decades of sucking on nature's pipe––indeed fresh juice. We could go further, of course, and point to a real, living example easily enough (no Real-ly, we could). Just as easy as the next fellow, in fact. Meanwhile, "Nobody needs French Theory," so sayeth Baudrillard, and like all mail-order mystics and dime-a-dozen pap gurus, his words they do carry an indulgent grain of truth. In any case John Holbo will be thrilled, we can be sure of it. (And no, it is not without some bemusement, we confess, that we observe the latter, irenic chief anti-Theory/[T]heory investor, caught unawares having been scooped twice in one week, first by one Michel Foucault and then by one Slavoj Zizek....the Rule of Affability, she dictates that we can only assume the latter response, no doubt the painstaking fruition of "serious study" of Zizek's better work, was far more Socratic than it was revealing.)

Oh, poor Socratic tick, you say, how thy smiling loophole, "I was only making fun of myself" doth find its cousin in the "I was only joking" for which the "Theorists" are forever castigated.

However, now that the 1970s and 1980s are probably over, and literature departments have had ample time to either earn some philosophic chops and genuine humility or risk being mocked off the podium altogether (it is only a matter of time; in the grip of this backlash we are forever ebbing and regressing––but don't think to hard about it, these things are all inevitable), well let's go off, shall we? Off to study some Francophone philosophy while we still can, shall we? And with someone interested in reading the philosophers themselves, that is, if we are truly lucky. Perhaps even in another language. Their own, for example. Poetry and literature too, absolutely, but please none of that Baudrillardian vomit. No, it was not your professors' faults, but you people have ruined literature departments for good. We mean it; that's it, man, we're back to The Snowman age again, Christian morality in Frost (yes, we remember that movie too) and counting caesurae, enjambments, alliteration and rhyming couplets; thanks for nothing. Don't get us wrong; we were brought up on this stuff, and we love it dearly. But the way things are looking now, if we're very lucky, in a good twenty years poststructuralism may even be discovered. Oh, how the image eternally returns, and the shape of the poem itself is so very snowman-like, almost an allegory of itself (one might someday say!) but Nietzsche he is long dead, and Bachelard was just some hobo in a Santa suit. And anyway none of them spoke English, and probably their ears were frozen (philosophers, as we all know, cannot sing).

The would-be genre historians of "Theory" are still all 'wong', of course (hell, in Russia they call it "filosophia," or so we hear; perhaps someone shall write a book condemning that soon enough), but let us leave them, for now. Condemned as they are to tread water upside down; happily lecturing the fishes, they are also drowning.

Still, Dear Lord, the sheer volume of bubbles they will release! Both goggled and madly googling, treading upside down as they address the same old gathered fishes (to be fair, those must be magnifying goggles) and gossiping so very freely about the whales! Our Vermont neighbor Greenblatt, sure, he's close enough for Derrida, as is Eagleton for Wittgenstein. These are exotic fish indeed, if one's target is actual philosophy. But so on they tred, splashing and quoting so much they can hardly hear themselves talk (noses, eternally pinched), but confident nontheless, that their books will eventually sell well enough, condemned as they are between the trivial and the obvious, and something they would rather still talk nothing about (let's call it for now the sun, shining on an upturned ass).

All by way of saying that I'm supremely grateful this year for some extraordinary pagan presence.

And...then...some and some...


Craig said...

In 1983, Claude Lefort ripped into his French contemporaries: "I am, as I said, surprised: how can they handle ontological differences with such subtlety, vie with one another in exploiting the combined resources of Heidegger, Lacan, Jakobson and Levi-Strauss, and then fall back upon such crass realism when the question of politics arises?"

Matt said...

Sure, there was also that. And English departments in the US have been likewise castigated, I suppose, by those less patient. But then you have even Zizek today, saying the proper task of the philosopher is to first (re)pose the questions..

Anyway, thanks for that Craig.

Ray Davis said...

Let the record show that I wasn't thrilled, I disagree with Holbo about Theory, and I feel no nostalgia for 1950s literature departments.

Matt said...

Well then, let the record show that the author hereby retracts (feel free to motion to strike thy name from the record).

(Though in all literal context, the author himself was a little bit thrilled...insofar as François Cusset is indeed great. He may even give the book as a present to everyone he knows in literature departments--provided it eventually shows up used somewhere...)

Ray Davis said...

Up to you, Matt. I'm a compulsive reviser and tidier myself.

(I wonder if I should post a Summa Ray Davis somewheres I can point to when these things happen? Some easy ways to tell me from John Holbo:

1) Although feminism, in all its forms, is by far the most important intellectual achievement of the time, I'd probably pick Derrida as my favorite single brand-name philosopher of the last part of the twentieth century. I look forward to catching up with his posthumously published work over the next few years.

2) I think analytic philosophy is a nightmarishly dead end.

3) I'm not an academic.

The trouble, though, is that I'm already getting bored by the list, so it would have to be a pretty condensed summa.)

What didn't thrill me was the Baudrillard, which I figured was your main point of reference. I thought I went through the links, but I don't remember hitting François Cusset in them. I assume you're mostly recommending French Theory? I've only read his latest n+1 bit, and some occasional pieces online, and haven't really been knocked out.

Matt said...

No, not knocking out, but it was still good.

Matt said...

Yes, as you know, the fact that we still can't seem to distinguish between the B's and the D's I find profoundly depressing.

Craig said...

I don't understand Zizek. There was a time, I think, when I thought he was exciting, but I'm inclined to believe (in retrospect) that it was a matter of youth. There may be less interesting people out there, but they are also likely proportionately more important.

But this is beside the issue of the inability of Americans (mostly) to read "French theory". I recall a guy at Queen's (Prado?) writing a book called something to the effect of Starting with Foucault, which essentially claims that anyone who has had any contact with analytic philosophy stands absolutely no chance of understanding Foucault. As though native speakers of English are hardwired to miss the point. His point extends, by the way, to the rest of the crowd. (Last I heard he was writing a book on Searle and Foucault.)

Matt said...

everything i need to know about Derrida, i learned from Zizek.

could be the tag line for quite a few folks, really.