Not New, Not French, Not Theory

French Theory is no theory. It is a well-known fact that “Theory,” as in “French Theory,” is neither a theoretical endeavor nor a theoretical manifestation of thought. “Theory” as in “French Theory” has evidently little to do with Plato’s apex of human evolution: contemplation of the ideal form as such. In the Platonic sense, theory is the ultimate abstraction. And it is quite obvious that “French Theory” is almost never purely theoretical—and most often, even, is theoretical only by deduction and conclusion. With the significant exception of Alain Badiou (a defender of Platonism and therefore of theory, but quite a latecomer in the field) there is no theorist that would be at the same time a theoretician: Michel Foucault turned the history of philosophy, thought, and social behaviors into a basis for a philosophy of its own—actually, into a philosophy of his own. Roland Barthes was primarily a literary scholar and a semiologist, using signs to read texts and interpret the text of the world. Gilles Deleuze engaged with aesthetics, cinema, the history of philosophy, sciences, literature, and very often with specific bodies of text as basis for his own research. So did Jacques Derrida, whose writings were often in the margins of others, from Marx, to Artaud, to Husserl, to Nietzsche. Félix Guattari’s work emerged from psychoanalysis, and so did his collaboration with Deleuze. Hélène Cixous is a poetess of extraordinary vision, as well as a thinker. Jean-Luc Nancy, as well as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-François Lyotard, have all very often used motives for their thinking and dealt with specific questions, issues, and moments. Julia Kristeva brings together psychoanalysis, linguistics, semiology, and literary criticism. And these are only a few striking examples, where no Platonic “Theory” is ever to be found. Quite the opposite.

Portrait of Donatien Grau. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Azzedine Alaïa.

French Theory is not French. Or rather, it does not want nor seek to be French. In fact, it most often deals with the outside: drawing from the massive influence of Marxian economics, Nietzschean philology, Freudian psychoanalysis, Husserlian phenomenology, Heideggerian metaphysics, and American post-Saussurean linguistics, the French thinkers that have been considered part of that group have always tried to deal with legacies coming from abroad (mainly the German-speaking world) and to have a point of view that would not be primarily French. They were addressing others, and not necessarily—or not exclusively—as French. Hélène Cixous’s writing is constantly infused by the contamination of many other languages; it is an impure language, whose purity only exists in its ability to weave all other idioms into its own transformed, poetic thread.

French Theory can only be understood as a twofold reflection: it is the reflection of French thinkers before these critical bodies of work coming from outside, and it is the reflection of non-French scholars (mostly American, and hence globalized) to those reflections, which were then built into bodies of works. Deductions and interrogations were turned into statements. French Theory was never French in the first place—what would have it meant for it to be French? And it certainly was not French eventually.

If French Theory is not French, and if it is no theory, if its very name is nothing but a lie and fake advertisement, perhaps we should let it all go. Let the French be French, and engage with the wide world; let their work be named otherwise (criticism?), let’s all do something else and not care about the French. And yet…

France is the only country—along with the United States—whose identity, at the very end, is primarily a project. The rises of the German nation, of the Italian nation, of the English nation, of the Spanish nation, of the Chinese nation, of the Russian nation, all have in common one thing: the “nation” defined as a community of people of the same blood (“jus sanguinis”), living on the same ground. Let us go back to the debate that took place in 1870 between Mommsen and Fustel de Coulanges: while the former held for a “Blut und Boden” conception of the nation, Fustel de Coulanges defined it rather as a spiritual community—leading to its famous definition by Ernest Renan’s as a “plebiscite that takes place every day.” It is therefore a project and projection that is reinvented permanently on the ground of public aspiration. Hence the French’s fascination for universalism: the Enlightenment, the Louvre, both Rousseau and Voltaire, Madame de Staël and Louise Michel, Sainte-Beuve and Proust, Sade and Bataille, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss. At its best, the greatness of the French project lies in an ability to think that what is human matters, in setting the stage for thinking about a conception of humankind larger than the individual, the social, or the national. It is the source of a considerable empowerment of thought—from the moment that, as Renan stated, a “plebiscite” takes place, those very grand ideas can be revised at every given moment. In that sense, the French thinkers considered to be part of French Theory were definitely part of that great lineage of French ambition. They wanted to get it right, and make it count.

Contemplation, in the Platonic sense, perhaps has not been their trademark—or at least not for most of them. What they have in common, however, is philology—this great Nietzschean concept, abstracted from ancient Greek criticism, and 19th-century German and French scholarship in ancient Greek and Roman studies. The legacy of philology, as Nietzsche defined it in 1875, is a capacity to “utilize [one’s] ant-like work to pronounce some opinion upon the value of life.” It comes from hard work, from all the material that one has gathered, and therefrom can make a limited and yet consequential statement on life. This is what every single such thinker has achieved. Furthermore, this “philology” as abstraction—even though it places an emphasis on the text that is to be read—equally moves away from it to embrace the broader spectrum of the universal. Philology is the theory of an immanent world leaning toward the possibility of its own transcendence. French Theory is theory in its philological state.

Therefore, it does not appear irrelevant to make a claim for “New French Theory.” “New French Theory:” under this heading not only falls the loosely called French “theorists,” or “thinkers” and “philosophers” who would happen to be French. “New French Theory” brings together a wide scope of scholars, thinkers, writers, philosophers—often all at the same time. They are French in the great sense of the word: the sense in which this is no identity but a perpetually challenged and imperative project. They are theoreticians in a philological sense, that is: those who have gathered so much book experience and personal knowledge that they can finally dare to speak. Some of them are barely thirty. Some a couple of years older. But they all have this outstanding ability to utilize their ant-like work to pronounce some opinion upon the value of life. They are French—their nation existing only in the spirit—they provoke theory, they offer new views in politics, art, literature, morals, life. And all these statements collected here have never, so far, been read in English. Everything here is new, published for the first time, and translated thanks to the generous support of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States. For it to truly be “New French Theory,” it requires to be read in American, to become the reflection of a reflection, and to be discovered as the manifestation of a daily plebiscite exploring who we are: every part of our identity, public or hidden, our dreams, our hopes, our statements, our secrets. Here it is.

The September Critics Page, “New French Theory,” is made possible with generous support from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.

All texts, excluding Barbara Carnevali’s, Joachim Pissarro’s and Camille de Toledo’s, were translated from the French by Pedro Rodríguez.


Donatien Grau

DONATION GRAU is a member of New College, University of Oxford. He is an editor-at-large of Purple Fashion Magazine, a contributing editor of Flash Art International, and member of the editorial boards of the French publications Commentaire and La Règle du Jeu. The co-editor of the book series “Figures” with Grasset, he is the author of half a dozen books, including Tout contre Sainte-Beuve (Grasset, 2013) and Nèron en Occident (Gallimard, 2015). He has edited, published or contributed to over a hundred publications worldwide, in philosophy, the visual arts, literature, architecture, design, ancient history, and, in particular, ancient Roman numismatics.