We'll Always Have Paris

| November / December 2004

French theory is dead. Long may it live.

IT'S A BITTERSWEET TIME for those of us who, once upon a time, fell in love with "theory." Theory -- that's the brusque American shorthand term for the work of a group of mostly French philosophers and cultural critics, from Michel Foucault to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida to Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray to Jean Baudrillard. Beginning in the late 1960s, their ideas about the nature of language, the truth claims of philosophy, the ways power is exerted in society, the nature of gender and sexuality, and many more issues swarmed across the Atlantic to conquer the humanities departments in American universities.

Now theory's reign is coming to an end. As Mark Greif points out in an article in The American Prospect (Aug. 2004), humanities scholars have been watching the decline for several years. Whether it's mainly a generational shift as boomer-era theory-heads age, or is tied to the rise of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the fact is that theory's influence has faded. To me, the question of why seems less important than assessing theory's mixed legacy -- what it has given us, and what it has kept us from doing.