Thursday, October 02, 2008

French Theory in America


From the late sixties to the end of the twentieth century, a disparate group of French intellectuals greatly influenced Anglo-American arts and culture. Once imported to and disseminated in US universities, philosophical ideas and writing by figures such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari came to exert tremendous force both inside and out of the American academy. Rather quickly, a diverse and radical body of thinking was codified, first as intellectual movements (e.g., structuralism, deconstruction, poststructuralism) and eventually as simply “French theory.”

This course studies the reception of French theory in the US. Our aim will be to understand why and how it became such an integral part of American culture, shaping academic disciplines (especially literary theory, cultural studies, and media studies), sociocultural trends (e.g., identity politics, new historicism), and artistic practices (minimalism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, surfiction).

In assessing French theory’s American influence, we will consider how it has been interpreted differently in the US and France, trace iterations of significant concepts (différance, discipline, abjection, simulation, minor literature, etc.), and evaluate the inflection of these concepts by US-based literary scholars (e.g., Edward Said, Judith Butler, Stanley Fish, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Walter Benn Michaels, J Hillis Miller, Gayatri Spivak, Fredric Jameson) and writers (Charles Bernstein, Raymond Federman, Shelley Jackson, Lynne Tillman, Gerald Vizenor, David Foster Wallace, Curtis White). Not least, we will speculate about theory’s relevance to twenty-first-century praxes.

Teaching Method: Short lecture followed by moderated seminar discussions and weekly presentations by seminar participants.

Requirements: One class presentation (5 pages), annotated bibliography (10–12 secondary sources), research paper (12–16 pages).

Reading List:
Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rainbow. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Harari, Josué, ed. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979.

Leitch, Vincent, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.