France in the 60s

I have been following the discussion of Theory’s Empire Ozma referred to in her last post. I especially liked contributions by Michael Bérubé, Amardeep Singh (and don’t miss his incredibly useful bibliography), and Tim Burke. But I find something very strange about the whole discussion. It seems to me as if the authors accept the basic premise of Theory’s Empire, which is that theory is an insular academic practice of little relevance to the rest of society.

But, aren’t we more in need of theory now than every before? If we just take two of the big questions of the last few years: Why do people in Kansas vote against their class interests?1 And, Why do they hate us? Don’t we need to have a concepts like hegemony and orientalism, maybe even (although I might not go that far) hybridity, to begin to answer these questions?

Sure, to the extent that literary theory has become an academic style rather than a serious philosophical endeavor, it is useless for understanding the world we live in, but most of what we call “theory” now was given birth to in an equally volatile time and place: France in the 1960s. (Its late impact on US academia has to do with the time lag in translating much of this work into English.) These academics were responding to very similar problems: the failure of workers to act in accordance with how the left perceived their class interests, and the war in Algeria. I find these ideas useful, not just for understanding literature, but for understanding the world we live in as well.

1 Yes, I’ve read Rose’s article, but I don’t think it explains away the central problem. Like the solution to Xeno’s paradox, no matter how infinitesimally you divide something up – the arrow still hits its mark. Class interests don’t disappear just because the class is fragmented. But I’ll write more about this on my own blog when I have time …

6 thoughts on “France in the 60s

  1. Pingback: pas au-delà
  2. a related question is what’s the matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas, and my answer would be: too much attention to economics vs. ideology, not enough attention to racism. Somehow Frank’s old-lefty account (the masses are transfixed by the shiny baubles of the superstructure, so they don’t see the perilous dimensions of the base) has received a huge amount of attention and praise. A much more obvious explanation for what’s the matter with Kansas and (by extension) America — Kansas’ status in the Civil War, the so-called Southern Strategy (can we not call it what it is, namely, the American Strategy?), and the relentless coded messages of the Republican Party (and centrist Democrats, when it suits them) — is left out in the cold.

    This relates to why the reception of theory in the U.S. was different than in France. Here, an interest in theory and in “identity politics” often went hand-in-hand, to the joy of some and the rage of many, not all of whom were on the right.

  3. Ozma, I agree with you about not focusing enough on racism and too much on abstract concepts like capitalism and hegemony. It is intriguing how the imcomprehensibility of language, whether in political messages to the common folk or in high theory) is at the focus of these debates.

    At a more general level, though, I tend to think that the difference in the reception of “theory” between the U.S. and say France is the different role public intellectuals play in the two countries.

    Related to this issue might be the popular perception of education in the two countries. U.S.’s anti-intellectualism makes it difficult to take “theory” seriously.

    I think the legacy of May 68 on “theory” makes sense once we reaize the powerful presence of public intellectuals in French society. There is indeed much less specialization than say in the U.S., which shortens the distance between “theory” and practice (whether in the policy room or on the streets).

    So do blogs help transform ivory-tower scholars into public intellectuals?

  4. Sure, but to have “hegemony” as a concept in practical play, you don’t need the entire edifice of High Theory as it commonly existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You need to make use of it as a relatively basic, supple concept of power and domination–and it’s by no means certain, if you’re talking about a question like Frank’s, that hegemony is the right concept of power to use. That’s when hegemony is an interesting, useful part of the toolkit: when it helps to organize a pretty fundamental root-level debate about the nature of a particular social question.

    The anthology we’re discussing, I think, is contending with what John Holbo calls Theory, with a capital-T: the entire institutional, professional edifice of High Theory that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s, which at its high-water mark combined both critical theory (particularly postmodern, poststructuralist and postcolonial theory in various permutations and combinations) and identity politics/historicism/race-class-gender interests.

    Theory in this sense is not theory–to criticize the elaborate confection of Theory doesn’t do anything to a term like hegemony, except perhaps to caution that if we use hegemony, we ought to be able to talk in relatively unadorned ways about what that concept is, and in relatively lucid ways about why we want to use it. One oi the smart things that Bauerlein and a lot of other authors in the anthology note is that when we write about an idea like “hegemony” from the outset as if everyone reading not only understands the concept but takes it as axiomatic, undebatable, but then also never really apply the concept in any kind of argued, evidentiarily rigorous way, that there’s both a kind of smugness and a kind of laziness that rides in behind that.

  5. I understand that there is a difference between theoretical models which seek to explain the world and theory as a discoursive style which serves to prop up the legitimacy of the author.

    But do we really nead a book to tell us that?

    I suppose the answer to that question depends on the extent to which “High Theory” was truly different, and to the extent that this difference is explained by the book. Having read all the discussion, however, I’m still not clear on these two points. In this sense, I feel that the reactions to the book might be more interesting than the book itself – at least at the broad level of making some kind of argument about High Theory. It does seem that there are individual contributions that have particular quibbles with various aspects of postmodern and postcolonial theory that might be interesting to read for more narrow arguments.

    So, to what extent is High Theory different? In one sense it is, because it was a theory that emphasized the importance of style. In criticizing, for instance, scientific style as a hegemonic discourse, it fell into the trap of assuming that writing in a particular postcolonial literary style was somehow counterhegemonic, when in fact it was simply a new form of legitimation.

    In terms of explaing the emergence of High Theory, one of my favorite essays about the postmodern moment in academia has always been:

    Mascia-Lees, Francis E, Patricia Sharpe, and Colleen Ballerino Cohen. “The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions From an Feminist Perspective.” Signs 15, no. 1 (1989): 7-33.

    Which points out that postmodernism became all the rage just as women and minorities were beginning to enter the academy in large numbers and master the discourses of modernsim…

  6. With regard to the example of “hegemony”, I’m reminded of an event that once took place at my university. Robert MacNamara was touring to help publicize his new book, (you know, excuse me for being cynical but the one where he gets to look like a hero for finally talking to the Vietnamese generals, and finding out just how many lives were needlessly lost in so many situations due to poor or nonexistent cultural understanding or dialogue. His is a strangely unrepentent, guilty narcissism, but anyway.) The most eloquent and direct student question, by far, was one that raised the question/specter of US hegemony, and wondered aloud about the rather large silence on the part of the speaker with regard to any signs of humility or change of heart vis-a-vis the sense of mission that led us into Vietnam.

    Now it may be expecting a bit much for a life-long statesmen to publicly express genuine doubts about the manifest deservedness of his country or anything, especially in the face of this white kid (with dreadlocks, I seem to recall), but bear in mind that the audience was clearly with the kid, as up until this point the talking/selling points––carefully gauged as just barely self-effacing enough to entice but not appease (for lack of a better word) the liberals–– had been fairly unchallenged.

    MacNamara’s evasive response ran precisely: “well, hegemony is a difficult term to define, really…” In short, he was comfortable just to infer that the kid the smug and lazy, whether he (the student) realized it or not.

    My point, I suppose, is only that there is a larger political context and greater stake to these positions of argument vis-a-vis Theory as “institutional edifice”, and in the absence of careful qualification, maybe nothing less than an entrenched and latent conservatism.

    Let’s face it, those most likely, for whatever reason, to question authority, to challenge the ediface of political speech, will sometimes be smug and lazy, and this is perhaps unfortunate (especially if it never matures into something more responsible). But one has to wonder, I think, whether the experiences that may have brought them to this initial skepticism, the precocious theorizing, the self-taught reading, maybe a bit of international, inter-economic class travel, or whatever, haven’t given them some reason to feel slightly vindicated in their (let’s say) cynicism.

    So what is this “smugness” you talk about, really? Is it just laziness, pure and simple, or are things a bit more complicated perhaps? There is no doubt many of the claims anti-Theorists make, on a rather abstract and dehistoricized level, are true, as in logically defensible. But the seeming lack of desire on the part of anti-Theorists to qualify their position (or, what amounts to the same thing maybe, excessive qualification) risks making this debate over teaching Theory less genuinely open than an elaborate defense (one painstakingly seeking to immunize itself from every angle in advance) of a certain set of priorities (namely, Anglo/analytic and liberal).

    But I’ve rambled on long enough.

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