Lawrence D. Kritzman, ed. The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Available from Powell's, a unionized bookstore.

[This originally appeared in NyArts Magazine, so poorly typed it was virtually unreadable; hence the reissue.]

A few years back my partner and I decided to look up the Ecole Freudienne de Paris, the group founded by the great psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan to carry on his work. We ended up as winter night fell on a silent, gray Parisian street with a series of unmarked building doors stretching into the fog. At a corner café they told us no-one knew anything, but somebody important lived next door. We found the building—it had one of those old horror-movie buzzers where you ring and the huge oak door creaks open but there's nobody there. At the top of a wooden stairwell we rang at another blank door. A woman opened, a dyed blonde in a red housecoat with gold lamé slippers. When we explained our visit she let us into a dusty dining room with piles of tapes and papers everywhere. On a large oak table a bisexual African mask lay in a cut-glass compote.

Solange Faladé came in, a blind Yoruba woman, one of the three spiritual heirs designated by Lacan. (The others were a Jew and a Muslim). Faladé and my partner began a spirited discussion on Psychoanalytic Theory. After a few minutes Mme Faladé turned in my direction and asked why I was silent. I explained that I was all too aware of the foolish interpretations of Lacan that pass for holy writ among art critics in America, and I didn't feel like adding any foolishness of my own. I added that I was particularly conscious of Lacan's theory of "revolutions," long-winded theoretical chatter whose real purpose is to bring the speaker back to her original starting point. Madame beamed: "If Monsieur Lacan heard you he'd be very happy!" I suspect that if Lacan, Derrida, Barthes were to hear the intellectual crimes that are committed in their names every day in every art journal in America they'd lose their collective croissant.

Of course some of the finer points of that collective intellectual movement known as French post-structuralism were bound to erode. Intellectual life in Paris in the 'sixties and early 'seventies was an intimate, often incestuous affair, and formalities like footnotes were as useless in a book as in a café table discussion. There were quotes and references you were just supposed to know, as has been true of French culture since the seventeenth century. Plus, figures like Barthes and Foucault were sexually closeted, and in their mental hands the old problem of living one's own subjectivity became even more allusive—at one point Barthes compared his methodology to his favored secret recreation, gay cruising. For Americans brought up on straight-talk empiricism the idea that an author quotes sous rature, that is with the proviso that whatever he says is meant as a description of a subjective perception, not its confirmation, is an impossible nuance, tossed in translation. American epigones may quote the stuff; most in practice give themselves over to what the critic Stuart Hall has called "deconstructive ventriloquism;" many don't catch (or don't care to catch) the implications, with the amazing result that often a statement used to describe a form of self-deception ends up translated into that self-deception proper.

Besides, there are radically different political backgrounds on either side. Most intellectuals and people of culture in post WWII France were in sympathy with Marxism, even as many left the Communist Party after the invasion of Hungary in 1956, or never joined it. French intellectual discourse could be as full of hidden Marxist references as a speech by George Bush is full of biblical quotes. French thinkers spoke of a "Marxist horizon," meaning a set of ethical and ideological imperatives that seemed to hover permanently at the edge of intellectual vision. The poststructuralist thinkers of France were the mirror image of a cleaning lady I once knew in Paris who explained to me that she always voted Communist, not because she understood the finer points but because the Communists were the only ones who stood up for her and her kind: whatever else, a French intellectual was expected to understand the finer points, even if he didn't stand up for them. American academics and culturati, in contrast, had risen through the vicious red-baiting of the McCarthy era. Even when posing as leftists or progressives they had none of the intimacy with Marxist thought that was taken for granted in France; they were, and still remain, terrified of being caught in the net of McCarthyism. I remember when the American intellectual haha Hal Foster used to run around quoting Lévi-Strauss about the "Robinsonade," happily oblivious to the fact that Lévi-Strauss was quoting Marx; for all I know, Foster's still doing it. Under such conditions the poststructuralist revolution in American art criticism could only take the course it has, in fact taken: hops and leaps and intellectual loop-de-loops, all leading back to that particular brand of formalism that originates with another Marxist turned right-wing, Clement Greenberg.

If the situation has changed at all over the past thirty years it's not that America's changed but that French intellectual life has come so much closer to American neo-liberalism. The political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union was paralleled in France by the rise of a neo-liberal cultural establishment dominated by a renegade Stalinist historian named François Furet this time. Whether this new group of thinkers is like those dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants that see farther than the giants themselves, or simply a bunch of dwarves—Hyperion to a Sartre—is an interesting question. As Theodor Adorno put it, "the history of philosophy consists less in the solution of its problems than in the fact that they are always being forgotten by the intellectual movements that crystallize around them." On both sides of the Atlantic there is some need to return to the sources of French thought while those sources are still live. The collective memory that gave rise to one of the great intellectual movements of the twentieth century is fast fading, and faster its repression under a new dispensation which is very much of a return to the old neo-Kantian theories—a dispensation that Althusser bitterly dismissed as "Kant minus the transcendental subject."

This is where Lawrence Kritzman comes in, a professor from Dartmouth, with a 787-page summation of French culture and French theory in the twentieth century. At first glance he doesn't seem the right man for the job: his specialty is the sixteenth-century essayist Montaigne; Kritzman himself is that insufferable species, Francophilus Americanus, the type that gets high on a madeleine but wouldn't know a banlieue if his car got torched. Worst of all, Kritzman was once caught using the English word "translation" in an interview with a French newspaper, instead of the correct French one, "traduction," and speaking of "entrées" when he meant "rubriques."

Fortunately, he knows how to delegate. This book stands head-and-shoulders above your run-of-the-mill generic Encyclopedia of This n' That, a subspecies of American academic publishing that involves grotesquely underpaid junior academics grinding out instant trivia for some packager with a ready-made market on the reference shelves of college libraries. Kritzman's brought in a stellar list of contributors, French and American: for the French the historian Roger Chartier, the psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco, the other historian Maurice Agulhon, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the bullshit artist Régis Debray, the other bullshit artist Jean Baudrillard, the Marxist Etienne Balibar (in a moving evaluation of his comrade, Althusser), the brilliant semiotician-turned-shrink Julia Kristeva and the brilliant, boring, now deceased philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Among Americans there's Jonathan Culler on Structuralism, Anthony Vidler on Architecture, Judith Butler on Hegel, the late Roger Shattuck on Humanisms, Joan Scott on Women's History.

The French, in passing, don't have an equivalent expression for "herding cats." It's impressive that Kritzman managed to keep more or less on script with such a stable of primadonnas. More or less: Kristeva does her star turn with psychoanalytic interpretations of Proust and Céline, which is all right if you're interested in Kristeva. (Her reading of Barthes is far more rigorous.) Some entries are merely an irrelevant rehash of fashionable theories from American campuses: Carrie Noland's entry on Cubism is not about Cubism at all but about what American professors have written about Cubism. Susan Suleiman's entry on the Avant-Garde barely manages to mention France at all, engrossed as it is in the usual classroom theorists: not for the first time, we see academics confusing the scholarship with the reality. This is obvious also from the skimpy bibliographies at the end of each entry, which tend toward secondary sources or interpretations, mostly in English. A few entries—very few—read like recycled dissertations, for instance Jeanine Plottel's entry on the philosopher Alain, which dismisses wholesale an original, elegant thinker, then wastes a page over a single minor work of his. And there are a few minor factual errors, sloppy editing, mostly: a book by Foucault is given two different publication dates in two different places, some names are misspelled, and one contributor fantasizes that Modern Greek is the same language as Plato's.

Then there are a couple of aging red-baiters, mostly buddies of the author, who are given free rein to rant about a culture that they have neither experienced nor understood. Michel Beaujour's entry on "Culture" is a prolonged rant about the evil effects of government support for the arts—it's not even abreast of recent conservative thought: it's as if someone had brought in Hilton Kramer to run the French Department. A number of events and personalities are simply suppressed: there is no separate entry on May '68; Georges Sorel, the social-fascist everyone loves to hate, is not mentioned in the index, nor Gramsci, nor Lucien Goldmann, though all three appear in the text, and where Goldmann does appear his name's misspelled. Brecht, whose aesthetic theories deeply influenced Barthes, is brought up as a straw-man to be knocked down in a hate-filled half-paragraph—what is it with Brecht and Americans, anyhow? The net effect is a lot of musty neo-liberal platitudes: this would not be the first time a reference is out-of-date before it's in print; or just after; or maybe by the time the next mass demonstration occurs in France, wiping out the very values Kritzman pimps.

Perhaps the best aspect of this book is the way various entries by very different contributors challenge one another's narrative; and because the entries are classified in crisscrossing, overlapping categories ("Movements and Currents", "Themes", "Intellectuals," "Dissemination") there's plenty of room for that healthy babel of voices that is French culture at its best—a café of the mind at 2:00 am on a Monday morning. The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought is a book you should seriously consider keeping by your bedside—not to give you the last word on French thought, since we know from French thought that there is no final word on anything, least of all French thought; rather, it's for those who, knowing there is no final word, want to pursue the truth over the horizon. Those who are ready to move beyond the spoon-fed boilerplate that passes for French Theory in America will love this book. The others can go to Dartmouth.


- Paul Werner

[1/24/2006; last revised 2/4/2013.]