Theory (Madness of)

From structure to rhizome: transdisciplinarity in French thought (2)

RP 167 () / Article, Dossier, From structure to rhizome: transdisciplinarity in French thought

Forty years or so after it initially rose as a rather new name for a rather new thing, theory is still an obtruse signifier, troubling and floating, requiring we go back to basics. Theory as we most often understand it today is the name given by the English-speaking intellectual community to a certain type of contemporary Continental (largely French) philosophy. It is the name both of a transdisciplinary form of conceptual enunciation within the broad field of the humanities and of a highly desirable commodity, rich in distinctive potential and symbolic capital, in the newly globalized academic marketplace of concepts. In fact the word itself is almost entirely absent from post-World War II French thought, and has been ever since, while undergoing a spectacular inflation among English-speaking humanists and the various commentators and free-minded continuers of late-twentieth-century French philosophy. Thus, how to discuss theory in the light of the latter’s legacy, if not as a paradox, a trend, and indeed a symptom? And to the extent that every trend as much as every symptom tends to have a limited life expectancy, isn’t it even too late to still be speaking about theory today, to paraphrase the opening words of Hegelian master Jean Hyppolite’s famous lecture at the 1967 Johns Hopkins conference on ‘the language of criticism and the sciences of man’, remembered as the primal scene of what was then not yet called in the USA ‘French Theory’ (his opening words were: ‘Isn’t it too late to still be speaking about Hegel today?’).

Theory is a problem, for there might be nothing specifically philosophical about today’s concept of theory, which might well be the most transdisciplinary of all notions – or most deprived of a specific disciplinary grounding. It might have become a surrogate philosophy, or what Anglo-Americans like to call postphilosophy – infatuated as many of them are with the disenchanted prefix ‘post-’ – but it remains outside of the quintessential philosophical approach, exterior to the institutional and strictly defined disciplinary discourse of philosophy. For at least four or five decades, and again mostly outside of France, literary critics, social scientists, art theorists and the various experts of minority studies have had the monopoly on the discourse of theory, freely and randomly reappropriating fragments of philosophy’s discourse to put them to work in a different political and disciplinary context, to fashion an unprecedented transdisciplinary discourse outside of the philosophical discipline, even if more permeated than ever before with scattered fragments of philosophy. And, to make things worse, with or without the ill-named ‘French Theory’, theory is much more of an English and American cultural tradition than a French or even a Continental one. The former has been obsessed, since the mid-nineteenth century, with literary theory or else with general models in law and economics, while the latter, at least the French tradition, keen on lyrical speculations and metaphysical overtones, has never liked theory, at least in the traditional sense. Illustrations are easy to find, such as this one from Marcel Proust’s Finding Time Again, at the very end of Remembrance of Things Past: ‘a work where there are theories is like an object on which one could still see the price [tag].’

In sum, there is much more theory, both as a signifier and as a type of discourse, among the users, recyclers and strategic politicizers of late-twentieth century French thought than there is in the latter itself. But, at the same time, if one envisions philosophy and its extra-philosophical users, or even English-speaking and French intellectual scenes, as all part of the same continuum of discourse – that is, in the intellectual historian’s approach to all conceptual propositions in terms of discourse – then French thought from Louis Althusser to late Jacques Derrida ought to be included in this inflation of theory as a new transdisciplinary discourse in the broader field of humanities. It ought to be fully associated, even if it is less explicit (or ostentatious) about it, with this theoretical demon which began to possess the Western intellectual body around forty or fifty years ago, as a systematic debunking of common sense, as a ‘certain convergence of the aesthetic and the …