Theory’s Emperor

by Kieran Healy on December 6, 2007

This talk of Theory’s Empire brings to mind a classic article by one of my teachers, Michèle Lamont. Written at what John describes below as the high tide of Theory in literary studies, “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida” tackles the question of how Derrida managed to become so important in both France and the United States. The abstract:

How can an interpretive theory gain legitimacy in two cultural markets as different as France and the United States? This study examines the intellectual, cultural, institutional and social conditions of legitimation of Jacques Derrida’s work in the two countries and develops hypotheses about the legitimation of interpretive theories. The legitimation of Derrida’s work resulted from a fit between it and highly structured cultural and institutional systems. In France, Derrida capitalized on the structure of the intellectual market by targeting his work to a large cultural public rather than to a shrinking group of academic philosophers. His work appealed to the intellectual public as a status symbol and as a novel and sophisticated way to deal with late 1960s politics. In the United States, Derrida and a group of prestigious literary critics reframed his theory and disseminated it in university departments of literature. His work was imported concurrently with the work of other French scholars with whom he shared a market. Derrida’s support is more concentrated and stronger in one discipline than the support for other French intellectuals. In America, professional institutions and journals played a central role in the diffusion of his work, while cultural media were more central in France.



Stuart 12.06.07 at 3:41 pm

How can in interpretive theory

Isn’t that supposed to be “How can an interpretive theory…”

Strange error to occur when copy and pasting a quote.


Kieran Healy 12.06.07 at 3:56 pm

Fixed. It wasn’t copied & pasted.


fred lapides 12.06.07 at 4:06 pm

A topic of some inerest but the post hardly begins to answer why this scam took off in American universities. Youngish begging academics discovered that they had to publish to get tenure and promoted but that the same stuff being said repeatedly in the same jurnals and so sought new niche to post (or paste) new “insights.” With newish theory, stuff not previously done over here, they could open new enclaves for their publications. Evolution got into play and new journals and then Net places opened to become “cutting edge” locations for the new game in town.

In the humanities, you change the game when the players become stars and rule the roost, and so you begin a new game with your rules for this new game and presto! you are ahead of the curve. Of course, though, as whatshisname noted, it lasts but 15 minutes–but the academy, slow to change, gave it a longer life before moving on to cultrual studies.


fred lapides 12.06.07 at 4:31 pm

this is useful summary of Modern and then Post-modern. gives summary and also critique


Harold 12.06.07 at 4:34 pm

It lasts but 15 minutes and destroys your discipline in the process.

As English studies became progressively un-moored from the studies of history, languages, aesthetics and rhetoric, only about 2 percent of students chose to major in English, so I am told.

But perhaps it was never a good idea in the first place.


Steve K 12.06.07 at 4:34 pm

Fred, I don’t think Deconstruction was “a new game”. There is a substantial amount of overlap between Deconstruction and New Criticism. Nor has Derrida’s influence lasted “only 15 minutes”. His influence is very much alive in the departments I take classes in. Nor would I call Deconstruction “a scam.” I find Derrida to be every bit as credible a thinker as Wittgenstein or Kripke, and honestly, a lot more important than both of them.


seth edenbaum 12.06.07 at 4:41 pm

I got another one: The Bureaucratization of Cafe Culture- French intellectuals in the US.
“Deconstruction was an answer to a disciplinary crisis,” wrote Ms. Lamont. “The legitimacy of literature departments had been consistently weakened by the increased pressure for academic research oriented toward social needs.”

Don’t blame the Euros for more than being seduced. American academic rationalism tries to turn everything into science, literary theory became the “objective” political science of poetry. Now we have the theory of literature as methodological individualism: total perversion. Keep the frame invisible.
“social needs?” No. Neoliberalism all around, including the academic defenders of theory.


Floyd 12.06.07 at 4:52 pm

With all due respect to a book I haven’t read by an author I’m not familiar with…don’t all French intellectuals (in the humanities) rise to prominence through public cultural mediums? I wasn’t aware this was a tactic, but merely the result of contemporary French culture which has a greater appetite for “Theory”–an aspect of that culture which puts America to shame, in my opinion. Contrariwise, given a public which is largely scornful of “academic” ideas (with the laughably pejorative connotations that term has taken on), how else does one rise to prominence in the States without the endorsement of ‘prestigious critics’?

Please correct my prejudice that this book already assumes Derrida’s work is discredited and merely attempts to push that opinion by setting him up as some kind of politician of ideas–a portrait which is as different as can be as anything I’ve ever read by the man or heard him say–while presenting itself as a disinterested/objective observer of a ‘passing event’ (15 minutes? hardly.) in the history of thought.


Andrew R. 12.06.07 at 5:14 pm

Well, Fred, if you’re going to blame (or credit) the drive to be new and innovative in modern language departments for the adoption of post-structuralism and its various bastard children, you’re really going to have to peg nineteenth-century Germans and the idea of the humanities research university.


aaron_m 12.06.07 at 5:19 pm

“How can an interpretive theory gain legitimacy in two cultural markets as different as France and the United States?”

Because it is really easy to do?


stet 12.06.07 at 5:34 pm

People in France is pissed off because Slavoj Zizek is so famous in the US without being French (although blatantly cutting and pasting form French stuff).


seth edenbaum 12.06.07 at 5:48 pm

“don’t all French intellectuals (in the humanities) rise to prominence through public cultural mediums?”

The assumption in most countries is that Intellectualism is an aspect of culture. Critics are seen as critical participants.
The culture of academic intellectualism in the US is based very much on a desire to sever those connections, or more often pretend they don’t exist. Individualism, autonomy, is a priori.
There’s no rational basis for it but there you go.


Colin Danby 12.06.07 at 5:51 pm

Fred (#4) with due respect to the enthusiastic grad students who assembled that web page, one can do better. For a set of introductions written for undergrads by a scholar who knows the relevant literatures in some depth, I would suggest Mary Klages’ notes here:

Floyd, from a brief inspection, Lamont’s article is less philistine than Kieran’s introduction makes it sound.


Apa 12.06.07 at 6:05 pm

Derrida and deconstruction is a form of cultural studies… The whole idea of deconstruction (and why do people always forget that Derrida’s philosophy encompasses so much more than JUST deconstruction) is to dismantle dominant discourse; hence, cultural studies– where people look at how preconcieved ideas of culture, gender, class status, or things otherwise known as logocentric thought– are wrong and need to be addressed.


JLS 12.06.07 at 6:16 pm

In my opinion Derida is more known in USA than in France.
Deleuze and Foucault maybe too, although less.


Grand Moff Texan 12.06.07 at 6:19 pm

Fred, I don’t think Deconstruction was “a new game”.

No, but it was a useful model for undermining specious dichotomous thinking by interrogating the constituent definitions. I’ve had endless fun over at another blog the last few days with an exercise I’ve long used on the classroom: demonstrating that “black” and “white” US mythologies of race are neither coherent in any biological sense, nor are they even mutually exclusive (and historically variable). There’s also a famous example of deconstruction as applied to Winne the Pooh, but I’ve lost it.

But, as Camile Paglia once wrote, she’d already run into these ideas by reading authors from the Late Bronze-Age eastern Mediterranean, so she didn’t need Derrida et al.

In fact, I’ve been looking for her quote for years.


Grand Moff Texan 12.06.07 at 6:21 pm

The culture of academic intellectualism in the US is based very much on a desire to sever those connections

The US has no culture, only shopping, so status is the most important thing. I’m sure that the performance of status is a universal concern, but I’m always amused when I meet academics who ape British manners and slang.



loren 12.06.07 at 6:46 pm

steve k: “I find Derrida to be every bit as credible a thinker as Wittgenstein or Kripke, and honestly, a lot more important than both of them.”

oh man, now I’ve got coffee everywhere.


roger 12.06.07 at 6:54 pm

Interesting article, especially from a deconstructive viewpoint. Her idea, which is simply assumed, is that one can talk of cultural ‘goods’ being transmitted in a cultural market – which is all very well, except that that metaphor carries a lot of presuppositions with it. Is there anything like market clearing in this market? How can one talk about a market, which seems to give us a model of cultural goods that is unmoored from truth values, on the one hand, and then use the dumb cliche, the “land of empiricism” to talk of the highly religious, ideological, and at best pragmatic United States? She oscillates between using field and market, as though they were interchangeable terms – while at the same time treating, non-empirically, the intellectual “market” of cultural goods in France in the early 60s, when Derrida’s work was being published in Critique, in separation from, well, the major events of that era – the end of the colonial war in Algeria, for instance. It seems to escape her notice that, uh, Derrida comes from Algeria. And it seems to escape her notice that American academia in the sixties was the locus of much discussion about a little war back then, the Vietnam war.
The interestesting thing about that article is how it caters to the prejudices of sociologists, expecially the science enviy – hence the borrowing of metaphors from economics that are incompletely thought through, but do, accumulatively, disguise the Cold war realities of the academic institutions they are supposed to illuminate. All in all, a petty poor piece of work. One would think that, using Boudieu, it would occur to her that the early prominence of Derrida is probably less explained by starting with Saussure than by starting with Levi Strauss, at that time at the peak of his renown – who was the target of Derrida’s first critique pieces, and who was portrayed, by Derrida, very much as an intellectual working in a colonialist context.

Still, the smugness of the market half model, or of phrases about the US being the land of empiricism surely appealed to the appropriate prejudices in the 80s, that golden age of Reaganism.


seth edenbaum 12.06.07 at 6:58 pm

“The US has no culture.”
grand moff texan
I looked up the reference and it’s from Star Wars. I dunno what to say.

You might put Derrida and Kripke together as late period stylists.


lemuel pitkin 12.06.07 at 7:03 pm

My favorite take on this was in a recent issue of N+1, which argued that Theory had taken the place of the literary novel. When you think of it as art rather than scholarship it all makes more sense.


seth edenbaum 12.06.07 at 7:10 pm

“Derrida is probably less explained by starting with Saussure than by starting with Levi Strauss”
One doesn’t preclude the other.

Great couple of paragraphs though.


Grand Moff Texan 12.06.07 at 7:17 pm

Having read a little of the transcript from Mitt Romney’s much-anticipated speech today, I can’t help but wonder if it was written with something like this.


Grand Moff Texan 12.06.07 at 7:18 pm

I looked up the reference and it’s from Star Wars. I dunno what to say.

What is there to say?


a 12.06.07 at 7:35 pm

“In my opinion Derida is more known in USA than in France.” I’d second this. There was an article in Le Monde, I think, a while back trying to explain why Derrida is so popular in America.


novakant 12.06.07 at 7:36 pm

Frankly, I found the linked article rather shallow. While it’s certainly interesting to analyze the sociological aspects of academic movements, to do so with only a cursory glance at the actual arguments being made and methods employed will necessarily lead to only vague and overly general conclusions:

Philosophers like to mount vigorous critiques of prominent predecessors in order to jumpstart their careers and take advantage of their prestige in the process? Philosophers keep an eye on the cultural currents and tailor their work towards them to gain relevance? Philosophers like to hang together in closely knit networks to further their careers?

Well, yeah! But that’s hardly newsworthy or surprising, nor is it specific in any way to Derrida or Deconstruction. I could name numerous individuals and movements in philosophy that have exhibited some or all of these traits and it’s hard to find outstanding figures in philosophy who exhibit none. The author keeps repeating that it’s not due to the ‘intrinsic value’ of Derrida’s thought, but rather to these seemingly secondary traits and tactics that Derrida and Deconstruction have risen to prominence – that may or may not be true, but to answer that question one would have to dig deep and accept or dismiss ‘Theory’ based on a discussion of the actual arguments and methods. That would involve a rather deep knowledge of both Deconstruction itself and the classic texts that are being subjected to its methods.

While I won’t claim either for myself and certainly not more than ten years after uni, my experience in a nutshell was this: after having initially been appalled by the perceived nonchalance of Deconstruction and the ignorance of some of its champions in the seminar room, who seemed to have skipped the step of reading the original works being deconstructed, I spent quite a while studying those until I reached a level of frustration with these texts which made me appreciate some deconstructionist readings of them, because I finally understood were these people were coming from.


Steve K 12.06.07 at 7:38 pm

Sorry about your coffee Loren, but actually the differences between Derrida and a lot analytic philosophy of language isn’t that serious. They’re both dealing w/ language as a rule governed system in which the speaking subject is decentered (this is part of the point of a causal-chain theory of reference). And I don’t think it’s an accident that Derrida has had significantly greater influence in the humanities than Kripke or Putnam or Wittgenstein. The lessons he draws from a decentered speaking subject are simply more relevant to the kind of questions academics in humanities ask.


seth edenbaum 12.06.07 at 7:39 pm

Continental philosophy is the literature of analogical rationalism.
American literary theory with exceptions is its scholastic derivative.
Scholastic in the same way that analytic philosophy and rational actor theory are scholastic, with the difference being that in the latter all the slippery rhetorical moves are in their original positions.
As roger says the paper linked above is neat and tidy. If that’s what interests you.


loren 12.06.07 at 8:06 pm

Steve, in lieu of debating whether or not Derrida is more important than Wittgenstein or Kripke (influence in humanities departments isn’t in dispute), I’ll instead share this link to a dispute about authorship that maybe a Derrida would have found amusing, in some possible world.


Steve K 12.06.07 at 9:01 pm

Loren thanks for that link; it was pretty good. Some of the more recent pieces I’ve seen about the Reference Theory of names tend to highlight its origins in Mill (and thus from Mill to Marcus to Kripke), but maybe this is an attempt to reassert the supremacy of a male genius.


JP Stormcrow 12.06.07 at 11:33 pm

15: In fact, I’ve been looking for her quote for years.

Don’t have that one, but a related fun quote from Her Profundity – turns out you don’t even have to read anything:

Hollywood Bible movies of the 50’s, like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” with their epic clash of pagan and Judeo-Christian cultures, tell more truth about art and society than the French-infatuated ideologues who have made a travesty of the best American higher education.


John Quiggin 12.07.07 at 7:31 am

gmt, I’m struck by your example. Long before anyone had heard of deconstruction, “black” and “white” (the colours not the putative racial groupings”) were the classic example of a false dichotomy … fading to grey.


zdenek v 12.07.07 at 9:32 am

“Nor would I call Deconstruction “a scam.” I find Derrida to be every bit as credible a thinker as Wittgenstein or Kripke, and honestly, a lot more important than both of them.”

Man , now I got tea over everything. You can not possibly be serious, because Derrida is not only a terrible reader of philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche ( carelessly lifting passages out of context and making up stuff ), but he consistently misunderstands their philosophical arguments.

As if this was not enough, the man also comes across as a complete bullshitter because he conceals this intellectual recklessness and weak argumentation ( and a lack of originality I might add ) with a theoretical framework.


Toadmonster 12.07.07 at 12:33 pm

“Don’t make me laugh, I’ll spew lame cliches all over my keyboard!”



bigcitylib 12.07.07 at 4:06 pm

Derrida takes skepticism and gives it a linguistic twist (nothing outside the text = we cannot KNOW beyond our own sensations), fuses that to a an interpretive strategy that derives from Nietsche but can be found earlier (in Francis Bacon, a little bit, for example), and markets the whole thing as a way to launch a revolution from your arm chair. I don’t think he’s a terrific philosopher, but if you are put off by his stylistic quirks you miss the connections to “mainstream” philosophy that DO exist in his works. For example, you can fruitfully compare Ds notion of the self to Hume’s bundle theory, Carnap’s “no ownership theory”, maybe even to Quine’s version of the self insofar as that is articulated. People forget that analytic/Continental philosophies only branched off about 100 years ago. Previously, Husserl might have read James and vice versa.

I frankly think it was his marketing of the whole product that made him famous and, I think, he was never as famous in France as he was in America. There they had multiple pomos vying for rock-star status.


perianwyr 12.07.07 at 5:34 pm

Looking at a major figure in analytic philosophy through the lens of intellectual history is going to be a pain in the ass simply based on who’s telling the story and who’s reading.


roger 12.07.07 at 6:39 pm

The idea that Derrida is somehow a minor figure in French philosophy as the french do it is pretty silly. What, you think the French philosophers look back at the sixties as the Golden age of Bouveresse and Granger? The people who come up with these objections usually have trouble coming up with one French philosopher who the French ‘flocked’ to in the sixties besides the usual crew.

It was, of course, one of the fatal methodological mistakes of the Lamont’s paper that she did not compare Derrida with any other philosopher, thus giving us no sense of the bars to entry for a philosophical career, which is the only use for her silly ‘market’ metaphor. A better way of understanding Derrida’s career, from the purely formal, Bourdeuian model she is employing would be gained by looking at the other people who were published in, say, the issues of Critique that published the first chapters of On Grammatology and seeing how they fared in the transatlantic world. But that would take work – far better to ask some friends at a dinner party to name ten french philosophers and then write it up as a survey.

The group from the sixties – Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, to some extent Althusser and Balibar, Badiou, Serres – are to French philosophy pretty much what the American philosophers of that generation – Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, Rawls, et al – are to American philosophy – a constant reference. Of course, someone like, say, Joelle Proust is going to refer to Anglosphere work, just as an American phenomenologist is going to refer to Continental philosophers. In general, though, it is just not true by the usual parameter of scholarly influence – citation – that Derrida, Foucault, et all are minor figures in France in any way. Even someone hostile to Derrida – say, Vincent Descombes – would concede as much. In fact, one of the major centers of philosophy in France at the present time, College internationale de philosophie, was pretty much founded by Derrida. It has become one of those prestige heavy places in France where the olympians go, like College de France, to which it is now affiliated.


rogerthat 12.07.07 at 8:38 pm

I’m with 26, not her best work.

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