The American “Theory Boy” and his fetish

Here’s a little excerpt from the preface of my book about French radical philosophy, where I try to open up some questions about gender and object-desire in “French Theory,” as we once knew it in America. It’s not the ethnographic part of my project; it’s not even really about France. But it tries to think a bit about U.S. college culture around the turn of the 2000s, when I was a student and when—at my institution—French Theory was still somewhat in vogue.

The kind of theory I was taught in college had a big aura. It was a chic kind of theory, a French kind of theory, one entwined with hipster and bohemian aesthetics, with “female effacement” (Johnson 2014:27), with things postmodern or poststructuralist, with American whiteness, and with a barely repressed spirit of commodification and elite competition. In the American university context, this theoretical competition was readily entangled with clumsy masculine ambition and ersatz intersubjectivity, as one can see from a late-1990s satirical song about dating at Swarthmore College.

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Questions about ethnography of theory

I just came home from visiting a literary theory and cultural studies graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. I went to Pittsburgh — not so far from where I live in Cleveland — to talk about my book on French Theory, but I ended up talking about my life, my experience in the academy, and my “career.”*

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New temporalities and spatialities of “theory” in the humanities

Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed deal with the politics of literary theory and the importation of French post-structuralist thought into the U.S. Jeffrey Williams, in “Why Today’s Publishing World is Reprising the Past,” examines a recent trend towards reprinting famous classics of yesterday’s theory scene — Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like. “The era of theory was presentist, its stance forward-looking. Now it seems to have shifted to memorializing its own past,” he comments. He explains this partly as the shift from “revolutionary,” unsettled science to the successful institution of a new “theory” paradigm, partly as a result of decreased financial support and increasingly precarious jobs in the humanities. But what seems interesting to me is the shift in temporal orientation itself. Academics play with time in so many ways. Sometimes memorializing the past becomes a strategy for making intellectual progress in the present. Other times, the fantasy of a radical break with the past is the occasion for reproducing the past without knowing it.

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