Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Eli Thorkelson reviews Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France

Johannes Angermuller. Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France: The Making of an Intellectual Generation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 144 pp.

Review by Eli Thorkelson

17 March 2016

In 2016, what is still at stake in what used to be called poststructuralism or, more broadly, in what was generically called theory? It is impossible to read Johannes Angermuller’s new book, Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France, without reflecting on the tension between critique and its moment of enunciation and on the temporal rift that separates analysis from its object. The author remarks that he was stimulated to “situate Theory socially and historically” by a Fredric Jameson seminar in 1995, and the book — most of which was published in French in 2013—is largely addressed to this past moment when “Theory” was a more recognizable thing in the North American humanities, before the repeated quips last decade that theory is dead. Angermuller’s agenda is multiple. He aims (1) to debunk the notion of a poststructuralist “paradigm” or “movement,” for which he substitutes the more diffuse image of an “intellectual generation.” To substantiate this claim, he wants (2) to give a Bourdieuian overview of the French intellectual field that produced “Derrida, Foucault & Co.” Finally, he hopes (3) to reflect on what “Theory” might offer to sociologists’ “social theory”—namely, a poststructuralist revision of the knowing, acting social subject.

Angermuller is at his best with the second, more sociological project. His book would be a helpful starting place for someone new to the history and sociology of French academic institutions, as it reviews much of the secondary literature on twentieth-century French higher education and intellectual culture. One should read cautiously, though, as many factual claims here demand clarification. For example, Hegel was not “as yet untranslated” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s day (p. 46); the Aesthetics, for instance, was first translated into French in 1840 by Charles Bénard. Jean-Claude Passeron was Pierre Bourdieu’s friend and collaborator, not his student (see p. 64). And the EHESS, contra Angermuller, has been granting diplomas for more than thirty years (p. 71). More broadly, although Angermuller frequently writes in the present tense, his book is not a reliable guide to post-1970s French institutions or theoretical debates. Nor is the book aware of the remarkably Eurocentric, masculinist and elitist politics of its framing of “Theory in France”—postcolonial exchange with the French academy becomes invisible, and women intellectuals like Hélène Cixous or Julia Kristeva are mentioned mainly in passing, except for a troubling paragraph on “the various personal relationships that these [French] theorists maintained among themselves,” which casts women mainly as spouses and sexual partners (p. 28).

Yet the fundamental problem is that this is too untheoretical a book to make good on its reflexive project of accounting for theory and its various forms of branding. Framed as a study in the problems raised by a name, it never thinks deeply about naming or about how categories relate to their objects (in spite of the plenitude of extant semiotic, dialectical, affective, ethnomethodological, deconstructive, and other approaches to this problem). Instead, Angermuller equivocates between two views of poststructuralism. The first is the “debunking” view underlying the book’s title. On this view, the category of poststructuralism is fundamentally a mistake because it is a foreign category ascribing a unity to a field that French readers (says Angermuller) see as differentiated. Angermuller will thus ask, “Is the phenomenon of poststructuralism not an example of a movement whose unity is an imaginary effect of its reception?” (p. 20). Or later: “the theorists who are internationally known as poststructuralists represent in the French field a much too heterogeneous group to be considered representatives of a theoretical paradigm or an intellectual movement” (p. 55). We could call this view “nativist” inasmuch as it privileges the native point of view, presuming that Parisian perceptions and social realities are veridical, while foreign perspectives are “imaginary,” a “translation effect” (p. 73) or suffering from a lack of “close scrutiny” (p. 25). But in the latter part of his book, where he discusses the foreign (largely US) reception of theory in more detail, Angermuller introduces a second, conventionally relativist view: “To read texts in new contexts does not make their interpretation less true”; “Different readers contextualize texts differently” (pp. 71, 72). In his relativist moments, Angermuller takes the more anodyne view that poststructuralism is just one of many possible contextualizations of the corpus in question.

I found these two views incompatible—or at least in need of further conceptual clarification. The difficulty, though, is that while Angermuller (I mean the implied author, not the social being) aspires to relativism, the polemical interest of his book entirely derives from its latent nativist foundations. After all, the authentically relativist reading would not be “there is no poststructuralism in France” but “there is no fact of the matter about whether there is poststructuralism in France,” since if interpretive categories like poststructuralism are fundamentally perspectival constructs, then we cannot evaluate their existence by pointing to sociological facts such as those about French intellectual life. But this book is most deeply rooted in a sociological realism, for which Bourdieuian socioanalysis (with certain modifications) lets us establish the facts on the ground and thereby adjudicate which actors’ perceptions are veridical and which erroneous. Given that Bourdieu’s sociology was originally intended as a critique of misrecognition and symbolic violence in French intellectual life, it is strange to see it invoked here as a tool for validating French native perceptions rather than for demystifying them. “Social theory after Theory helps reveal the gaps and fissures in society which can never achieve full closure,” Angermuller concludes (p. 100). Yet revealing the gaps and fissures in theory, as this book does, is somehow not enough to dereify the dead name of a previous generation’s intellectual conjuncture, nor even to account for its becoming past.