(asked by Megan, from Brisbane)

As someone who studied the humanities at university, most of our modern post-structural/post-modern theory has been influenced by French thinkers by the way of the USA. Hence, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan are seen us untouchable heroes, almost above critique. Yet from the little that I have read, the French themselves have rather different opinions of these thinkers. I understand that the French have mostly moved on from post-structuralism/post-modernism whereas we English speakers have been stuck with it and taken it to extremes that were never intended originally. Also, that Derrida is something of a figure of ridicule in his native land and that Lacan was only a very marginal figure in psychiatry, whereas he is now so revered in the English-speaking world. Can you please give some more insight into this?
Thanks Megan for such an interesting question (what a change from the usual “I met a French man, does he love me?” yes, I still get a lot of those, I just throw them away these days). The problem is that I will have a hard time to totally answer it, because I too studied the humanities, but in the US. As such, I’m not fully aware of the situation in French academia.
So, what I can say about the topic?
That indeed, they are not as important in France as they are in the English speaking Humanities, except maybe for Barthes, Baudrillard and Deleuze (whom you haven’t mentioned)… And I’m not even too sure about that.
What I’m pretty confident about is the fact that their theories haven’t been taken to the same extremes as they have in the Anglo academia, but it’s really about the way higher education work in France as opposed to the way it works in the Anglo world. To my knowledge there isn’t any “publish or perish” mentality in France and as such, graduate students and professors are not in constant need to always find something new to say, which often leads to a lot of bullshit papers in conferences and/or exploitations to some theories to extreme lengths.
In psychiatry, it is my understanding that Freud is more important than Lacan among French psychiatrists, but I don’t really know anything about the field (and I’ve never read Lacan myself).
Concerning Derrida, I admit that I am a little bit biased and I guess it’s my moment of showing off but you need to know that if I decided to go to graduate school in literature studies and not in linguistics it’s because of Derrida, that I met him in 2001 and that I worked on the last documentary made on him – wanna know my real name? It’s somewhere in the credits… icon wink Are French postmodernist thinkers as important in France as they are in the Anglophone Humanities?
So knowing all of that, I think that Derrida is definitely not as big nor as influential in France than he is in the US (and I guess Australia), but I never heard him being mentioned as a “figure of ridicule” in France. Thing is that I never really heard him ever be mentioned in France (except by one of my teachers during senior year and this is how I discovered him)…
Sorry I couldn’t answer this question better, but hopefully somebody that knows the French academia better than I do (even in France, I’m still part of the US academia) will read this and give us their take on it.
pixel Are French postmodernist thinkers as important in France as they are in the Anglophone Humanities?

15 Responses to “Are French postmodernist thinkers as important in France as they are in the Anglophone Humanities?”

  1. Lacan…really? I wouldn't say he's revered here (in the US) either. I'd go as far as to say his work is in the extreme margins. I'm aware of a small (cultish) sect who were sort of "followers" back in the day…like before I was born in 1979.

    I suppose he does pop up in some modern writing. Can't say I know of any modern practitioners who would fall into this "follower" category though - demonstrating he had some actual influence on psychotherapy.

    His work seems to merely have some marginal influence on scholarly writing (mostly paltry stuff, btw…following Lacan's tradition of poor writing built on a bunch of pseudo-scientific gobbledy gook.)

    I personally think he was a bit of a hack (just in case I was too subtle until now). The only interesting things he had to say were things Freud already said. And Freud said them better. Okay, maybe Lacan said a couple of unique things. Maybe. But not many. I certainly wouldn't call him influential on the field as a whole - by any stretch.

  2. E, remember that the question is not about what we personally think about those people ;-) but about their importance is France compared to the Angle world (scholarly world that is, of course those people are more or less unknown to the general population), and when I was in the US, Lacan was mentioned quite regularly in various papers I read, conferences I attended and such.

  3. Fair enough. ;) However, I was talking about the scholarly world (psychology/psychiatry, specifically) from my own experience. I can see how others might have heard more about Lacan than I did though. Given my feelings about his work, maybe I just stopped listening when he was mentioned. :)

  4. Thanks David and E for your really insightful comments.

    I wrote that question as someone very disillusioned with the extremes of academia, having studied literal/cultural theory up to a post-graduate level. The question was also prompted by seeing a quote in the new edition of the Oxford Guide to English Literature that said that the French had moved on beyond post-structuralism now whereas we are still stuck with those theories.

    The theorist who taught me here in Australia is now a Professor over in the UK so he is a "big name" in the field and and knows people like Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek personally. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to meet Jameson twice at Australian conferences. His lectures struck me as a mixture of the profound ("utopia can be defined as the end of factionalism") and the ridiculous ("ALL violence stems from the political right.")

    Would definitely have been interesting to meet Derrida to gain direct impressions about him, too. Interesting that you say he was rarely mentioned there since he is so revered here.

    I really don't know about the situation in the USA as I have never studied there but in Australia, I feel we have taken these thinkers to extremes.

    Interestingly, just the other day, I came across this post, allegedly written by Chomsky. It is worth reading in full but one part describes Lacan as a "charlatan:"


    He also refers to the "corrupt intellectual culture of Paris". I am sure someone here must have thoughts on such a statement!

    With regard to Derrida, there was controversy regarding one of his degrees being bestowed in England by a group of philosophers who accused him of sophistry, etc. Personally, I do find the idea of privileging written versus spoken word interesting and I am sure you are aware of the accusations of deliberate obscurantism. I think such accusations are valid against post-structural thinkers in general, including American ones such as Judith Butler. Then again, maybe I am just deeply cynical and disillusioned but I am sure you have heard of the "Sokal Hoax" and the fallout from that, plus the "Bad Writing Award" that both Butler and Jameson won at various times.

    Therefore, I guess my ultimate question is, "What comes next after post-structuralism?" How is Literature approached in France if they are not using these bodies of theory taken to such extremes in the English-speaking world? Are there new approaches of which we are not yet aware?

    Cheers and thanks once more for your time in answering my question.

  5. This is what I was looking for this morning with regard to Derrida:


    So when I referred to the "figure of ridicule in France" I was actually referring to this quote from the article that "Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule."

    Given you have obviously risen to a high level in your own studies (given your inclusion in the documentary about Derrida) I guess you would disagree with such an assessment by the English philosophers.

    Nevertheless, as mentioned before, I am more interested in knowing exactly what French critics/literary students are studying, if not these French thinkers who have made such an impact (for better or worse) in the English speaking world.

  6. E, ouch, Lacan cropped up in my thesis :/ Literature, not psychology though, and I wouldn't call my study of the Apollonius of Tyre (Pericles) story influential research :D I do remember having to have the cliff notes version of Lacan at hand to interpret wtf he was going on about though! Unfortunately you can't avoid these guys if you're studying a literary work that involves incest…
    Ah, I miss studying literature, although theory and Theory can certainly get a bit much!!

  7. "Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule."

    The problem with this sentence is who are the "many French philosophers"? Because I can't really think of any in the early 90's that would hate Derrida except maybe for the "new philosophers" who are clowns, an insult to both philosophy and France and in the end a bad joke.

  8. Not super on-topic vis-à-vis France, but I came across this article at work today and found it quite interesting: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=405956&sectioncode=26 It lists the most-cited authors in the humanities, with a strong showing from French theorists. Also mentions a book on how French thinkers came to have so much influence on American academia, which may be of interest

  9. Gwan, thanks for that. I found that book on Amazon and I am reading some of the comments/reviews there. Really helpful. Cheers.

  10. I was wondering the same during a recent move when I was packing up the heavily-French post-structuralist section of my husband's library.

    I asked a French acquaintance about the preponderance of French philosophers and while he said he was required to read a good many philosophy texts in high school I got the impression that the names Lacan, Derrida, Deman, Barthes, weren't jiving with those in his own mental list of philosphers. I had chalked it up to a high school vs. humanitites difference in texts, but this question and answer filled in a good deal of the background for me.


  11. Well, in high school, one studies the basics (Plato, Descartes and co), I'm not sure 17 year old kids can grasp 20th Century philosophers.

  12. Therein lies a difference. I don't think philosophy is taught at high school in any Australian State (each State has its own educational curriculum). Hence, one goes to university, having reached a high level at English at school and understanding basic literary devices, the concept of genre, the development of national literature, Shakespeare and film.

    Suddenly, the naive 17 or 18 year old is thrown into the university system and is exposed to post-structuralism and the various ideological frameworks that enable one to undertake feminist, Marxist and post-colonial readings of the texts. If one is lucky, an English 101 course at the first year of university will give an overview of the development theory, from Saussare's early lectures on semiotics, through New Criticism, obligatory derision of F. R. Leavis' notion of a Western Canon and then onto Barthes and then Derrida and friends. This is a very brief background overview and I understand that even this context is not provided at some universities.

    Later on, when studying Zizek, we were given a single week in which to learn some Hegel (in our own time) for background material. Some of the young people in my group had never even heard of Hegel…

    Of course, it is well known that philosophy is much more integral to French culture than it is in Australia but what I am pointing to here is perhaps part of the problem - the huge gulf that exists between what is taught in high schools and then what is taught in universities here. It is little wonder that many students, including those with talent and a genuine love of literature, drop out so quickly. I guess one approach would be to teach some philosophy in high school as you indicate happens in France. The other options would be to include some mandatory introduction to philosophy class at the university level.

    The other aspect of this is that, without a strong working knowledge of philosophy with which to begin, many students (and possibly academics) will probably misunderstand the likes of Derrida and co. Is it possible to understand these thinkers independently of the tradition which preceded them and with virtually no background in western philosophy at all? That is the reality in the Australian university system, before we even get onto the politics that means only some thinkers are (unofficially) "approved" to be cited…

  13. As for the influence of Lacan in French psychiatry; one of two official schools of psychiatry in France is L'école Lacanienne in Paris with a network all over France and especially in Latin America.
    I can't comment on his worth but he is still quite influencial in France.

  14. The problem about Derrida is that some of his works are interesting and others are just good for the garbage bin. I am a philosophy graduate from France, and these thinkers are not that popular nowadays: their heydays were mostly the 60′s and 70′s.

    • Your opinion here.
      Sure I haven’t read all Derrida, but I’ve never found anything worthless. Stuff that could be better written sure, but deserving the trash bin, no.

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