Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 3, 2002
Herman Rapaport The Theory Mess: Deconstruction in Eclipse New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 188 pp. Paper $17.50 (0231121350)
Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds. French Theory in America London: Routledge, 2000. 327 pp. Paper $22.95 (0415925371)

1. Theory

Something called “theory” has been a leading feature of American intellectual and academic life for some thirty years now, and it would no doubt be a great comfort if we had some strongly shared sense of what theory is, what its prominence means, and what difference it makes. Both of these books argue, correctly I believe, that we are more or less hopelessly muddled on all of these questions. Since the history of art, at least in the United States, is a relatively late arrival at the party, it has perhaps a particular interest in getting some grip on how the various conversations have taken the shape they have and in making out where they are sensible and where not, where they have real intellectual weight, and where they are merely highly developed bits of phatic communion or professional self-recognition.

My own sense is that we are, in general, not yet at a point that permits much of a separation between something one can call a “history” of theory and the apparently simpler facts of autobiography, but we can hazard at least a few very broad remarks. The thing now called “theory” started out as “structuralism,” and then, very briefly I think, became “poststructuralism” before turning into “poststructuralist theory” and then “theory” tout court. Structuralism arrived at first in discrete packets. For me, an undergraduate trying to find his way between the phenomenological claims of Mircea Eliade’s religionswissenschaft and the claims of anthropology, it appeared first in the form of Claude Lévi-Strauss, most notably in The Savage Mind (English trans. 1966); for many others, structuralism was above all the early work of Roland Barthes. Both instances carried with them what seemed an indelible and central reference to the founding work of Ferdinand de Saussure, so one early understanding of this material was either as an application of Saussurean linguistics to more complex phenomena, or as a movement from Saussure into the broader field of semiotics, sketched out but not explored by his lectures. Alternative understandings were, in principle, available. For example, it might have been thought that Lévi-Strauss and Barthes—and perhaps more explicitly Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan—were above all interested in repeating within their fields Saussure’s founding disciplinary gesture without exactly applying or generalizing his theory or method, or that these various figures were trying to reimagine the specific terms of their object within a field understood to be broadly transformed by an apparent primacy of language that Saussure rendered systematically thinkable, but that cannot itself be traced back exclusively to his work. These understandings were, however, rarely glimpsed or taken up.

These are perhaps early markers of a certain determination in the U.S. to receive this work as theory or method, a determination deeply in tune with the endemic epistemology of the 1960s. This tendency was quickly and strongly reinforced by a number of other salient features of American intellectual and academic life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These would certainly include the nearly complete, and largely continuing, failure of any philosophical reception of the French work; the particular stake, already clear in the writings of such figures as Wayne Booth, Northrop Frye, Rene Wellek, August Warren, and others, that literary study already had in the notion and prospect of theory; the various complex shifts, again already well underway, on the American left toward an identity-based cultural politics; and the massive professionalization that is perhaps the single dominant fact of American academic life of the 1970s and 1980s. If the downhill flow now appears to have been toward what Herman Rapaport witheringly calls—in tribute, I imagine, to the elementary school curriculum— “social studies,” there were, as on any real and complex terrain, all sorts of strange confluences and divergences, eddies, tributaries, seasonal streams, and, ultimately, dry gulches. Theory played out in various hands as an opposition to or a radical extension of New Criticism, or as stylistics or poetics or rhetoric or hermeneutics or their contestation. It twisted in, out, and around various forms of European Marxism, curling briefly around Jürgen Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interest (English trans. 1972), puddling up around Walter Benjamin, never quite joining up with Theodor Adorno, and passing crucially through the defiles of Fredric Jameson’s Sartrean Marxism.

This last reference is worthy of special remark: Jameson’s The Prison House of Language (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), an attack on what he perceived as the skeptical dead end of French structuralism and poststructuralism, became one of the primary American introductions to such thought and a bizarre means of its appropriation that received an even weirder sort of ratification when Foucault produced Discipline and Punish (1975, English trans.1977), his study of the Benthamite prison and its relation to the emergence of the social sciences. It is almost impossible now to sort out the effects of this strange, symptomatic conjunction: Foucault’s Nietzschean genealogical critique of the social sciences rewritten as a license for their extension across the humanities, Jameson’s misguided claim about the subject’s imprisonment discovered as the ground for its recovery through a theory of position and construction, and the Sartrean gaze that Foucault must have understood as part of his object emerging triumphant above it and as its theory. As with any strong symptom, there are forces in play here—certain arguments within American feminism and the work of the film theorists associated with the British film journal Screen cross powerfully through this conjunction—and as with any strong symptom things find ways of repeating themselves—as, for example, with Martin Jay’s much later Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), a book that, I would argue, gets its object essentially wrong and does so more or less in order to reassert the viability of a kind of history Foucault worked repeatedly to empty out.

This is the kind of perversity of reception that Rapaport rails against in a book that, as sloppily argued, written, and edited as it may be, is nonetheless often enough on or close to the mark. Rapaport’s general claim in The Theory Mess is that the costs of this muddle have been disproportionately borne by Jacques Derrida’s work, which seems fair enough. It has been blamed by what I suppose has to be called the Left for reducing everything to language, and by the Right for turning the academy over to that Left. Largely cut off by the very term, ‘theory," from his actual arguments and motives, Derrida is less decently read every day, and the range of questions intelligently or intelligibly put to his work grows ever narrower. Much of this of course can also be said of Foucault and Lacan and many of the figures all of them draw upon—Hegel and Heidegger, for example, as well as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille. Rapaport is uneasy saying these kinds of things in the region of Derrida, too touched by the thought that dissemination just is dissemination’s fate and is thus incorrigible. I suspect this is continuous with his unease in laying out actual Derridean arguments and a concomitant willingness to let much of his book read as an account of professional deformations even while he is unwilling to take up professionalism as its guiding thread and problem. Caught between a self-imposed rock and a hard place, Rapaport for the most part can only end up suspending himself between a relatively empty invocation of a Gadamerian understanding and the too-familiar and always desperate hope for “another generation.”

2. In America

Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen’s volume French Theory in America is, to a degree, the record of a colloquium held at New York University in 1997, and so is necessarily a somewhat less-authored volume than Rapaport’s. But the conference was, on the evidence, an event with an unusually tight agenda, and as a result the book has a certain unity of mood or animus, if not exactly one of argument. Like Rapaport, the volume’s editors and many of their fellow colloquium participants feel we have gotten a lot wrong, even in so simple a matter as dates. My thirty-odd years of theory become for them twenty, presumably in keeping with Lotringer’s claim that “the first book of French theory published in America, by Semiotext(e) was a book by John Cage” (126). The provocation is pure Semiotext(e)—the journal and publishing imprint Lotringer co-founded at Columbia University in 1974, which has always represented, sometimes extremely well, the wilder and more unassimilable swings of French thought, particularly as they find a kind of center somewhere between Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard. While Rapaport’s introduction includes a brief discussion of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) before turning to what is essentially a litany of individual misreadings and abuses of Derrida, the contributors to this volume are much more inclined to stay in firm contact with institutional contexts and forces, and much closer as well to what they take to be the political bone, something that will come as little surprise to those who know Cohen’s scathing Academia and the Lustre of Capital (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Here’s what Cohen and Lotringer make of their object:

“French theory” is an American invention, going back to at least the eighteenth century, and no doubt belongs to the continuity of American reception to all sorts of European imports, an ongoing process…This process turns what the French call “thought” (pensée) into what Americans call “theory” and so pertains to strange psychopolitical facts about America. It may well be that most Americans actually believe in only two modes of thought—utopianism, expressed in versions of an “American exceptionalism” and which perforce includes “apocalypticism”; and legalism, or reliance on the intellectual patterns of law. Utopianism and legalism deny philosophy and nonlegal “theory” much leeway to arbitrate disputes, or even to address criticism: could it be that criticism, of all kinds, grafted itself to theory in America as a way of slipping out from under utopia and law? (1)

There is good reason to think “French theory” is an English invention even before it is American, and certainly a part of what the French call “thought,” at least in its current influential form, has a nearby German pedigree as well. These quibbles, though, have little effect on what seems to me a fairly canny central formulation, which I am tempted to paraphrase and no doubt transform by saying that it may well be that most Americans want to believe that freedom is to be achieved in being natural, so they work to shed convention wherever they find it—only to discover that they fear nature and so reinstate convention as law, thus repeatedly rendering themselves unable to think, imagine, and take responsibility for their own actual forms of life. Large-scale assertions about things like “America” are worth whatever they are worth, but the core thought that something of the fate of French thought in the U.S. is bound up with a peculiarly American shaping of ressentiment is probably worth hanging onto—the same may be said for setting this tendency in some kind of interesting conjunction with, for example, Stanley Cavell’s ways of worrying about America’s apparent inability to admit its own philosophical threading through Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both in Cavell and in the things we call theory, it would be valuable to observe how far the central questions are already matters of action, thus beginning to feel one’s way out of the epistemologized conjunction of subject, theory, and agency that loomed so large in discussions of “theory” through the 1970s.

Here is Lotringer’s version of all this:

is why, paradoxically, the only French theories that were readily acknowledged, even avidly sought, in America were not those that could have helped people understand something about their own reality, but rather those that offered something to hold on to, the crutches of structures (Lacan’s “symbolic”), the romance of meaning (Kristeva’s “semiotic” process), or the repeatable protocol of their endless undoing (Derrida). It’s always the same blackmail: first they instill fear in you, then comes the racket of protection. Gated intellectual communities, models of thought, a prison of one’s own. (133)

These remarks are in their details far from just, but they nonetheless do, I think, the right job of pointing to a way things do indeed tie together. Too much of the reception of French thought has, finally, the same shape and consequence as the local evening news—and it has far too often the same recursive relation to our profession, its organs, and its institutions, that such news has to the gated communities in which it is watched. Lotringer’s is a smart reading of the insistence of the prison at the heart of so much of theory in America.

By and large, the contributors to French Theory in America spare nothing in their efforts to hunt down the shape of the gates built against the essentially unlimited avant-garde theory they want. So we get responses to Camille Paglia and Alan Sokal alongside merciless critiques of the historicizing impulses behind the journals Critical Inquiry and October and the disciplining work of film studies or the emergent academic Deleuze industry. Some of this offers, I think, real critique, with teeth and consequence, and some partakes of its own forms of resentment. Why should October not be October? Why should Deleuze not be read as if he were a philosopher among philosophers? Elie During cites one of the strong Deleuzian charters for such critique—"Perhaps this is the supreme act of philosophy: not so much to think THE plane of immanence as to show that it is there, unthought in every plane, and to think it in this way as the outside and inside of thought, as the non-external outside and the non-internal inside—that which cannot be thought and yet must be thought" (181)—and then does a nice job of bringing out what is risky in this, including the risk that it loses its sense outside of what remains, precisely, a philosophical praxis.

3. What Should the Art Historian Know?

It is a nice feature of French Theory in America that contemporary art has a certain presence in it. The poster for the initial colloquium featured a reproduction of Mark Tansey’s refiguring of Derrida and Paul de Man as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity at Reichenbach Falls, and there are glimpses of—or polemic shots at—such things as October; New York’s brief Baudrillardian moment; conceptualism and neoexpressionism; abject art; Documenta and the Venice Biennale. These are mostly born along by the book’s general commitment to making theory out as a form of avant-garde practice. But it is no surprise that the history of art in general is not much more of a player here than it is in Rapaport’s book.

In the U.S., theory does come late to the history of art—or the history of art comes late to theory. Early on, much of the work claiming some general consequence for the discipline came very directly out of literary study through such figures as Mieke Bal, Norman Bryson, and W. J. T. Mitchell. There was of course already important theoretical work being done elsewhere in the field—most notably in October—but its visibility and consequence evidently suffered more largely from the general marginality of the contemporary and modern in the discipline and so was not seen as addressing the discipline as such. When The Art Bulletin wanted an extended review of theory’s place in and implications for the history of art, it turned to Bal and Bryson. Their essay located itself firmly in semiotics and its extension toward the visual, just as Bryson’s early edited volume Calligram, subtitled Essays in New Art History from France (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), by and large found its readings within French literary and philosophical writing, but ignored the work of, for example, the figures associated with the journal Macula (Yve-Alain Bois, Christian Bonnefoi, Jean Clay, and Hubert Damisch), the art critics and theorists associated with Tel Quel (Marcelin Pleynet and Jean-Louis Schefer), and a generation of extraordinary French classicists. It is striking also that of the major works of poststructuralist thought, the one of arguably most direct pertinence to the history of art—Lyotard’s Discours/Figure—remains untranslated.

Well, things have to start somewhere, and the grasp of French material has naturally grown richer and more complex in the ensuing years. The semiotic impulse, both in its vector toward visual culture and in its crossing with established word-and-image work, has proven fertile enough, and any number of less directly semiotic grasps of theory have laid down interesting roots. But as a whole, the discipline has also tracked to a distressingly high degree in the wake of literary studies and the offshoots that emerged out of the consensus-theory that became its professional koine sometime in the mid-1980s—Rapaport’s “social studies,” more or less. Art history’s late arrival has had some clear costs. We are, for example, unlikely to have a sustained and direct structuralist confrontation with iconography along the lines of Lévi-Strauss’s challenge to contemporary myth interpretation, although the forthcoming translation of Hubert Damisch’s Nuages may nudge some things in this direction. But this same belatedness also presents some clear opportunities, if the field is willing to reach out for them.

The history of art is distinctly a creature of the modern university, in part because the discipline formed itself within the institutional and argumentative context of the university, and in part because of the peculiar historicity of its object of study. (There are serious ways in which we are obliged to be uncertain about the cultural and historical depth and shape of our object, about its possible essential modernity.) In this, it stands very differently from literary study toward a whole host of things—national tradition and culture, the distinction and relation of criticism and history within the discipline, the relation to philosophy beyond it—and it engages modernity and modernism much more robustly, however marginal they may currently be to the discipline’s self-understanding. Derrida’s engagement with Hegel, or Deleuze’s with Nietzsche, carry very different weight and consequence in this field, which is certainly one reason why theory in the history of art has from early on also carried a historiographic sense to which nothing in the literary appropriation of this same material answers.

Taking on the full weight of theory’s opportunities and difficulties for the history of art is not easy. It demands rethinking our curriculum, our senses of what an art historian needs to know, of how that knowledge is to be gathered, and of what it is that the art historian finally does. It demands a willingness and ability to work through particular idioms to underlying issues. It demands a full recognition that scholarship alone does not, and cannot, constitute an object or a field of inquiry. It demands a willingness to think not only about the shape of the discipline, but also about its institutional situation—to take up, for example, the question of criticism’s homelessness in the university, or to re-imagine the very shape of the borders between the history of art, studio practice, and philosophy. And it demands working on the strange, difficult, and urgent task of making room for thought in a late modern university increasingly convinced at every level that it has no greater task than purveying a certain range of commodities. If it would be comforting to imagine we knew what theory was, it would be even nicer to think our universities—our faculties—still capable of finding ways to tackle it, able to make differences that might then count.

Stephen Melville
Professor, Department of the History of Art, The Ohio State University