ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Book Review: Dangerous Incertitude, Complexity, and Originality.

Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen. French Theory In America. New York: Routledge, 2001.


Reviewed by Dr. Eugene O’Brien
(Department of English, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland)

            The title of this collection, French Theory in America, is interesting in terms of just how the relationships between France and America have altered in recent times.  At best, this relationship can be seen as volatile.  This collection is an homage to the influence of French structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructive and psychoanalytic theory throughout American academe.  Indeed, interestingly, the very term “French Theory” is an American coinage, and it is fair to say that “theory” has had a better reception in America than in France.  Theory, has achieved popularity within sections of the academy, and the American connection has been important in that respect.

            However, since Gulf War Two, this relationship has deteriorated dramatically, due to France’s reluctance to support the Bush invasion of Iraq.  This has been evidenced by “freedom fries” replacing “French fries”, and numerous anti-French jibes in the media, at a microcosmic level, and by President Chirac continuing to remain aloof from involvement in any US/UN based initiatives in Iraq at the global level.  The question of the validity of the teaching of postcolonial theory, itself a subset of French theory, has been raised by research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanley Kurtz, to a congress sub-committee, on June 20th, 2003, as an index of the perceived dangers of theory as being anti-American.  The same can be seen after the recent death of Jacques Derrida, when obituaries on his life and work were, to say the least, underwhelming.  So, the French-American connection in terms of theory instantiates one of the loci classici of theory, the binary opposition, with its position oscillating between acceptance and rejection.  Hence the timely nature of this book.

            In her chapter “Europhilia, Europhobia”, Julia Kristeva theorizes this sense of difference between France and America.  She makes the point that France’s cultural tradition is “to build a social Europe (une Europe social), and that this is often seen as antagonistic to the American liberal model, espousing as it does the “individual singularity over the economic and the scientific”.1  The critical edge in French theory is also to the fore in Kristeva’s comments as she sees the danger of “the America I love” becoming a “fourth Rome after Byzantium and Moscow”, and proceeds to critique American liberalism (or what has come to be termed neo-liberalism) as hegemonic.  She rightly makes the point that other civilisations have “other visions of human freedom”, and these need to be heard in order to create a new global vision of freedom.2  Kristeva sees this process as leading to what she terms the “complexification” of humanity, a ringing synecdoche of the theoretical imperative, as outlined in the essays in this collection.

            Let me say from the outset that this is an excellent collection.  It takes almost a sub-genre of literary theory, the development of French theory in America, and analyzes the many different aspects of this phenomenon.  Structurally, the book is divided into two sections.  The first, entitled “Some Views from France”, brings together some seminal heavy-hitters in the world of theory: Derrida, Kristeva, Baudrillard, Genette and Deleuze.  The other contributors to this section are  Roudinesco, Lacan’s biographer, and Gaillard, visiting professor at New York University.  The second section deals with readings and rereadings of French theory in America, by a number of critics and academics, and there is a final section entitled, with obvious Derridean irony, “Supplement”.

            For Derrida, the supplement is ambiguous in that it means both an addition to an already existing plenitude, but at the same time, its necessity deconstructs any notions of prior plenitude.  In “Supplement A: Research Historians and French Theory”, Sande Cohen’s analyzes a number of trenchant attacks on French theory by Saul Friedlander, and Carlo Ginzburg.  She is particularly strong in providing a conspectus of Ginzburg’s ad hominem attacks on the work of Nietzsche and de Man: “de Man’s theory is reduced to the negative characteristics of the person, a nasty piece of work”, before going on to summarize that all of the “proof” regarding Nietzsche and de Man is entirely “allusive reductive” Freudian theory.3

            The danger of such a front-loaded book is that the initial essays will become the principal area of activity, given that these reflections are by some of the most important figures in the area of theory, though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it could detract from some excellent interventions in the second section of the book. These include Sylvère Lotringer’s piece on “Doing Theory” which makes the deconstructive point that “French theory is an American creation anyway”.4  He makes some telling points on the differentiation between theory and philosophy, noting that “hypothesizing is what the theory in French Theory is really about”, going on to see the epistemology of theory as a tentative outlook and intellectual daring of systems that are “joy rides for the mind”,5 before examining the work of Baudrillard as an exemplary text.  He sees his project as exemplary of this intellectual hypothesis as he uses simulation to describe “replication without an original”6 and goes on to trace the development of his work in terms of an oscillation between metaphysics and pataphysics (the science of imaginary solutions).

            Alison Gingeras probes the use of French theory in a Hollywood setting, tracing Baudrillardian allusions through the Matrix: “welcome to the desert of the real”,7 before going on to examine the pervasive effects of theory in the art of Thomas Hirschorn and M/M (Michael Amzalag and Matthias Augustyiniak).  Donald Theall makes some intriguing connections between the work of Derrida and McLuhan in terms of preoccupations with alphabets, logocentrism, phonocentrism and Joyce; and between Joyce, Baudrillard and McLuhan in terms of shared assumptions about language, signification, simulacra, retribalization, and rhizomatic nomadism,8 and this leads neatly into Elie During’s discussion of Gilles Deleuze, and his concept of “deterritorialization”.9  It this ongoing series of connections between theorists that would normally not be seen to have much in common that is one of the real strengths of this book, and should cause the reader to want to re-read both McLuhan and Deleuze.

            In the light of his recent death, the essay that draws one to it is Derrida’s “Deconstructions – the im-possible”.  There is an almost elegiac tone to be found here, with tracing his association with French theory in America to 1979 and a conference entitled “The law of Genre”.  He refers to “deconstructions” in the plural and goes on to describe the “open set of effects” associated with this name.10  Tracing the fads and fashions through which his own work has passed, he goes on to give an almost programmatic description of what people have seen deconstruction to be:

After having reversed a binary opposition … and having liberated the subjected and submissive term, one then proceeded to the generalization of this latter in new traits producing a different concept, for example another concept of writing such as trace, différance, gramme, text and so on.11

However, he stresses that the plurality of his title indicates that such schematic outlines can never encompass the epistemology of deconstruction(s).  He traces the use of the vocabulary of deconstruction, stressing this undecidability: “the specter is what is neither living or dead, the parergon that is neither sensible nor intelligible; neither/nor”.12  Like Kristeva, he insists on the complexification of ideas, thoughts and ideologies.  He is unwilling to pin down any of these terms to a basis either/or category; his is a work directed towards the future.

            Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that it is an index of why, to certain constituencies in the United States, it can be quite dangerous.  In the Bush-neo-liberal Weltanschauung, the use of words like “prevail”, “endure”, “good versus evil”, enforces the  seamless identification of his own political policies with the will of God.  Values are pre-given, not for negotiation, and the oppositions are cast in stone.  Clearly, for such a mindset, the ironies, complexities and nuances of French Theory in America are clearly anathema.  In Baudrillard’s chapter on “radical Incertitude”, his final sentence is in direct opposition to the neo-liberal agenda: “in any case, whether the principle of incertitude is objective, cosmic, or bound to mankind, it remains total”.13 The difference could hardly be more stark: Bush espouses certitude, simplicity, repetition; Baudrillard speaks of incertitude, complexity and originality.  The very complexity and ongoing interrogation of perspective that is seminal to theory, and which has been outlined in this book, is a binary opposite to the received certainty of the Bush election campaign rhetoric.  This explains why it seen as so dangerous by some, and so liberating by others.  Long may it continue to provoke, probe and question received ideas; and long may thoughtful and thought-provoking collections like this one be published.



1 Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen. French Theory in America. New York: Routledge, 2001:41.

2 Ibid.:45.

3 Ibid.:297.

4 Ibid.:125.

5 Ibid.:131.

6 Ibid.:135

7 Ibid.:259.

8 Ibid.:121.

9 Ibid.:169.

10 Ibid.:15.

11 Ibid.:19

12 Ibid.:21.

13 Ibid.:69.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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