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Crosspost: Luring Fish

April 25, 2008

Having taken the time to thoroughly read two Stanley Fish Think Again posts, on French theory, I decided a summary and personal response was in order. If you’re interested, check out this USIH piece. If not, well, happy Friday anyway! – TL

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  1. I tend to dismiss Stanley Fish and most NYT-style criticism of new thought, and the book, though “in the mail” is yet unread, so it is hard for me to comment fully, but I thought that you laid out most of the obvious faults in his argument.

    Has “French Theory” transformed American culture? No. The US is perhaps the least altered (“industrialized”) society on the planet in cultural terms over the past 40 years. Most 'operational' thinking – political, economic, educational, energy, etc, is no different, in real ways, than it was in 1968. Even the arguments seem the same.

    But has “French Theory” transformed American culture? Yes. Writing is different. Academic discourse is different. Understanding is different. Questioning is different. Perhaps, to think optimistically, the possibilities are different.

    Great post (on the other site). I truly enjoyed it.


  2. Ira,

    Thanks again! Although I really want to read the Cusset book, I don't see it happening until late summer. For posts, however, book reviews and release notices get my juices flowing on certain topics. This was clearly one.

    I was getting ready to respond to your post with one answer, and then realized you answered the same question both ways.

    But for the examples you cited in the second paragraph, I felt more like you asked yourself about society ~rather than~ culture. If we're talking about the fundamentals of U.S. social structure, I would say the answer is no. So maybe your second para should've began with: “Has 'French Theory' transformed American ~society~?”

    In terms of U.S. intellectual culture, sure, French theory has changed us—at least within the academy, which is a numerically large part of U.S. intellectual culture. As you noted, the expectations for academic writing (i.e. theses, dissertations, and monographs) have certainly been affected. Massively.

    But I'm not convinced that French theory caused, for instance, the “Culture Wars.” Those began with civil rights demands in the 1960s, and continued in education with more demands to be inclusive. We shouldn't confuse the positive parts of the multiculturalism endeavor ~with~ the abstract political hopes of U.S. French theory enthusiasts. In that way, I'm with Fish in being cynical.

    – TL


  3. I can't argue with any of that. Yes, “society” as opposed to culture, and no, not the culture wars which, in my mind as I think yours, are really related to a centuries old struggle in the US between 'progress' and 'conservatism.' The progressive nature of a people building a “new nation” vs. the conservative nature of a people who often fled diversity and change to re-establish their old ways of life on a new continent.


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