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.

Richard Wolin, in “America’s Tolerance for French Radicalism,” attempts to describe the complementary histories of French poststructuralism in France and America. Making no distinction between the American nation and American academic culture, he argues that american pluralism and “democracy’s historical strengths” made it possible to assimilate post-structuralism as “merely another framework to choose from amid the ever-expanding marketplace of ideas.” Let’s leave aside the claims that America is democratic and pluralistic through and through, and that our intellectual world forms a free marketplace. These platitudes need not detain us. What’s more interesting is the claim that the intellectual world is “ever-expanding.” Here we have a more complex spatio-temporal image of the intellectual world: to be ever-expanding is to be growing in space as it progresses through time.

This sounds like a coy analogy with the astronomers’ hypothesis of an ever-expanding universe. Yet while Wolin apparently imagines the expanding marketplace of ideas as an endless intellectual bounty, the astronomers have envisioned a world whose infinite expansion will end not in unlimited light, but in indefinite cold and darkness. We might ask Wolin, is an endless marketplace really anything but a stultifying dream? And there’s something more directly debilitating about Wolin’s spatial image of the intellectual world. He views intellectual exchange as fundamentally bounded by national borders, walled off into separate French and American worlds. This leads him to homogenize French and American intellectual spheres. While he equates America with liberal pluralism, he equates France with an unstable radical-authoritarianism. He can’t recognize the immense internal differentiation of the French intellectual field, the profound differences between Derrida’s and Foucault’s institutional careers, the separation of French philosophy into small avant-gardes, numerous sub-specialties, and many different institutional milieux. (Foucault, far from being forgotten in France, is now taught, contra Wolin, in French lycées.) And even as Wolin denounces the category of “post-structuralism” as an American invention, he employs it unwittingly himself, describing a homogeneous American response to poststructuralism unsettled only by a few “committed disciples.”

François Cusset, on the other hand, in “French Theory’s American Adventures,” takes a much more subtle view of theory’s spatial and historical situation. He asks about theory’s future, about the convergence of theory and activism, about the intellectual transformations that theory met as it crossed from France to America. He does see an inversion between the political fate of theory in France and in the U.S., but less ahistorically than does Wolin:

“What we are facing here is a symmetrically reversed situation: on the one hand, a society run by a new wave of conservatives, but whose intellectual field, limited to isolated campuses, enjoys a proliferation of radical discourses, minority theories, and bold textual innovations, with little effect on the rest of America’s public space; on the other hand, a country run by a new wave of liberals (François Mitterrand’s “socialists”), but whose broad intellectual field, occupying a central role in the public space, has just been taken over by a herd of young center-left humanists, with the result of sweeping away leftist and radical tendencies and replacing them with a universalist moral blackmail still on the front stage in today’s France.”

That is, while a conservative American government faces a segregated but lively subculture of campus leftism, a liberal French government is accompanied more harmoniously by a widespread culture of “center-left humanism” that actively suppresses more radical leftist discourse. Hence, in contrast to Wolin, for Cusset it’s America that’s more politically bipolar and France that’s more oppressively and homogeneously liberal. And Cusset foresees new possibilities for the spatiotemporal flow of poststructuralist theory:

“French society is now at a time when all those American intellectual currents, forbidden for import over the last three decades, can finally be put to use in making sense of an unprecedented situation. Indeed, universities and independent publishers are working hard these days to make cultural studies, minority theories, “pop” philosophy, gender analyses, and the postcolonial paradigm not only better known in France (the only major country where prominent theorists behind such currents had not yet been translated), but also critically reformulated to better address specifically French issues… [French theory authors,] their texts, and the endless interpretations they inspire (together forming one cultural continuum) can still help us fashion a future of struggles and world making — within but also beyond higher education, in the United States but also throughout the rest of the world.”

In other words, while Jeff Williams laments that theory is being reprinted and memorialized in the U.S., Cusset informs us that American cultural and theoretical critiques are now being imported into France with renewed intellectual vigor. (For example, Judith Butler’s 1990 classic, Gender Trouble, was recently published in France, in 2005.) Wolin, for his part, rejects “poststructuralism” as irredeemable irrationality even as he rather cheerfully characterizes it as one more competing product in the intellectual market, as if he’s uncertain whether to give it a philosophical thrashing or to compliment it on its market share. Cusset, on the other hand, says that we need to get beyond blithe reenactment or crude rejection of theory, taking a more critical historicist approach:

“If theory is to be of any use nowadays, the many tricks and games implied by its cultural metamorphoses should be taken seriously: by addressing the American identity of French theory, and even by pondering the strange feedback effect of a recent return of French theory to France.”

In other words, if we are to critically reappropriate theory, if we are to make use of it in the present or future, we must first analyze its history, examine its flows through time and space, and more generally, put spatiality and temporality at the center of our theoretical consciousness. Such an analysis, for Cusset, is necessary for making theory again relevant to social struggle and transformation. One might say that Cusset is advocating a dialectical and historical – maybe even Marxist – approach to theory as a historical phenomenon and an intellectual avenue for political change.

The prevalence of rhetorics of time and space in academic texts has intrigued me for some time (“here I’ll demonstrate that x…”; “we must begin anew”; “we must go back to Freud”; “we have transcended Freud”; I hear frequent talk of intellectual “moves” on an intellectual “terrain” of “positions”). These peculiar spatiotemporal strategies and rhetorics, curious in themselves, are also perhaps revealing of the fantasy structure of academic labor, in which immaterial, abstract intellectual activity is humanized and rationalized by way of familiar schemas of place and time. I suppose it goes without saying that such strategies often serve as conduits for academic power and debate and struggle: to call something passé, say, is most certainly to denigrate it. And it may be that academic construals of time and space have some more buried ideological function, deserving of further scrutiny.

But on a less abstract level, I wonder whether a critical reappropriation of 60s radical philosophy is really the best intellectual task we could set for ourselves. I often suspect that today we lack the sense of intellectual excitement that was present once, elsewhere. Perhaps it would be better to form new theories and intellectual collectivities, rejecting aspirations for thorough mastery of the intellectual past. We needn’t consign ourselves to the endless rereadings of Marx and Adorno that define a group like Chicago’s Platypus. Should we take the path advocated by Hiro Miyazaki, in which we generate intellectual hope for ourselves by re-enacting the hope of others on a new terrain? Or is the intellectual future something that we discover by undoing the world around us rather than trying to imitate it?