In thumbing through a new anthology to commemorate 100 years of the OAH—awkwardly titled, The Organization of American Historians and the Writing and Teaching of American History—I paused to read a short essay by David Hollinger, “The MVHR, the JAH, and Intellectual History: From the Margin to the Mainstream.” He argues that, though intellectual history was often farmed out to scholars in other disciplines—English, philosophy, and political science—it was slowly incorporated into the larger American historiography, at least insofar as the pages of the JAH are representative. Hollinger concludes his essay on an optimistic note, writing that intellectual history eventually (by the 1980s) found a comfortable home in the JAH, pointing to oft-cited articles authored by Daniel Rodgers, James Kloppenberg, and more lately, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Though I tend to think his optimism is misplaced—after all, a few important articles do not a “mainstream” make—Hollinger’s essay has redeeming qualities.
Hollinger divides U.S. intellectual historiography into two sets of working assumptions. On the one hand is the type perfected by Merle Curti, who studied intellectual history alongside social history, or “general ideas that had broad popular appeal.” On the other is the sort practiced by Perry Miller, who differed from Curti “in the technical detail [he] devoted to the most highly developed of philosophical, theological, and political theoretical discourses.” This latter current also distinguished itself from the former in that, not only did it mirror European intellectual history in its close attention to highly specialized intellectual discourses, it also studied how European thought helped shape American thought. Though Hollinger is respectful of Curti (and his students, such as John Higham), he clearly favors Miller’s type of intellectual history. He makes this position clear by criticizing Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001), the methodology of which he relates to Curti’s, or even more closely, to Daniel Boorstin’s and Henry Steele Commager’s. “Menand offered an unreconstructed American exceptionalist 1950s-style interpretation of the pragmatist intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Hollinger compares The Metaphysical Club unfavorably to James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory (1986), which “demonstrated commandingly that the deeply Protestant culture of post-Civil War New England was but one of several sites in the industrialized world for the simultaneous development of a historicist sensitivity to uncertainty and of a recognition of the instrumental character of concepts.” In short, Hollinger seems to think transnationalism is crucial to the study of intellectual history (though, in his work, I would argue, his subjects are more transnational than his approach).
While withholding comment on “the promise and peril” that transnational history holds for intellectual history, I am fascinated by that variant we might call “transference studies.” Daniel Rodgers wrote one of the best such books: Atlantic Crossings. Another great book in this genre is George Cotkin’s Existential America. I look forward to reading two new books situated as histories of intellectual transference: Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (which builds on her aforementioned JAH essay, “Conventional Iconoclasm: The Cultural Work of the Nietzsche Image in Twentieth-Century America.”) While daydreaming about my next research project, I sometimes think it would be a lot of fun to write “Marx in America” (has nobody written this?!)
I recently read another history of intellectual transference, François Cusset’s excellent French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (English edition translated by Jeff Fort). Cusset’s thesis is that ideas which originated in France in the 1960s and 1970s crossed the Atlantic and were reinterpreted for an American context in the 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, just as French intellectual life grew weary of “French theory”—the label pinned on the collective, so-called poststructuralist thought of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Lacan, Althusser (despite the fact that they hardly produced an undifferentiated mass of thought)—American intellectual life grew ripe for a French invasion. But, as Cussett makes abundantly clear, the American appropriation of French theory was a productive misappropriation.
In the process of some original thinking on how French theory meant something different across the Atlantic, Cussett makes a more familiar argument—familiar, at least, to readers of Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Nancy Fraser, and other Marxist critics of poststructuralism and postmodernism: French theory was recoded in the United States as “cultural studies,” while largely ignoring the market forces of culture. Its acolytes engaged in “detailing clothing styles and coded lingos as forms of rebellious expression with little or no consideration of social positions and contexts; debating sex wars and gender norms with hardly a mention of the profitable commodification of femininity as today’s ultimate existential product; praising Madonna as a postfeminist icon, or denouncing her as a traitor to feminism, but without ever mentioning her marketing tactics; and, more generally, pointing at symbolic discriminations without analyzing the culture industry as a whole, with its endless ability to absorb negativity, exploit margins, swallow and recycle criticism, and gradually shift from mass promotion to a more timely marketing of differences…” (xvi)
One of the advantages of reading a French historian of the United States is that there is much to learn from his necessarily comparative approach. For example, in his introduction, Cusset reveals a split between French and U.S. intellectual history (which helps explain why French theory made such a mark in the United States well after its influence had ebbed in France). Long settled debates in France continued to rage on American campuses, in the form of the culture wars. Thus, when physicist Alan Sokol—made famous when Social Text published his 1996 hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—carried his attack on postmodernism’s “disdain for facts and logic” to France, in the form of a book he coauthored with Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, Impostures Intellectuelles, it was greeted with some mild controversy but mostly with confusion. The French misread Sokol because they could not decipher the context from which terms such as the following arose: cultural studies, constructionism, posthumanism, multiculturalism, canon wars, deconstruction, “political correctness.” These were particularly American debates, owing to particular problems that arose from American academic life.
There’s a lot more to examine in this compelling book. For example, Cusset convincingly explains why French theory made its most lasting mark on the fields of feminist and queer theory. (Think Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.) Perhaps I’ll save that for my next post. For now, I’d like to leave you with a few questions: do you like histories of intellectual transference? Pros and cons? Which do you like? Dislike?