U.S. Intellectual History Blog

French Invasion! Transference Studies and U.S. Intellectual History


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?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t have much to say about French theory, but I love the idea of “Marx in America.” It would be a great match of a subject with an author. Do it!

    (Also, another book in this context–one that I really like–that you could have mentioned is Cynthia Eagle Russet’s Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865-1912.)

  2. Andrew,

    Great post. Thanks for the pointer to Jennifer’s book. I have it classified as a must read in the category of Rodgers’ Age of Fracture.

    As for your larger question on “histories of transference,” count me among the admirers. I need to read Atlantic Crossings, and Existential America is on my summer reading list.

    A few years ago I read Jay Corrin’s Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (2002, see here for more: http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P00749). I profited greatly from it. It’s a history of transference in that it deals with European Catholic intellectual responses (esp. from the British) to industrialization and the degradation of labor, and how American Catholic thinkers, during the 1900-1940 period, received those Old World responses (both positively and negatively). In particular it explores the philosophical-theological notion of subsidiarity (the uses and abuses of it, especially). I spent about a month studying that work, neglecting other important tasks in the meantime. And I want to read it again.

    I hold, however, to the thoughts contained in my “promise and peril” post from 2008. While I greatly admire these histories of transference, as well as transnational and comparative histories, their research and writing require a great deal of time, money, and support. Underfunding the humanities isn’t going help this line of work flourish.

    I’m going to try and write a limited transnational history of the great books idea this summer. I’ll do it knowing in advance that, in the end, it’ll be flawed—less than half the work it deserves. But I’ll lay the groundwork for a future, better work at least.

    – TL

  3. Yes to everything, especially the enormous time and energy required to do this kind of history properly. but a question: why ‘transference’? why not either ‘transfer’ or the yet more traditional ‘reception’? transference has such a Freudian overtone…maybe that’s what you wanted?

    i suppose the darwin, heidegger, nietszche, and (so far hypothetical) marx books described above are all reception histories. and this could happen with a larger body of ideas not tied to a specific name (existentialism)–but transference would be something different?

  4. You can add, also, Lawrence A. Scaff’s Max Weber in America (Princeton University Press, 2011), about two-thirds of which is devoted to Weber’s own experiences in the US and their influence on him, with the other third devoted to Weber reception in this country (I’ve just dipped into this book, so I can’t say much more about it, though it’s worth noting that Scaff is, by training, a political scientist, not an intellectual historian).

  5. “For example, Cusset convincingly explains why French theory made its most lasting mark on the fields of feminist and queer theory.”

    The words “damning with faint praise” come to mind for some reason when I read that.

  6. A trivial irony in light of Hollinger’s distinctions between two strands in US intellectual historiography: Uncertain Victory won the Merle Curti Award from the OAH.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry to be returning to this so late. Mike, I like the encouragement–maybe “Marx in America” it will be. Eric, reception studies is, as you pointed out, is the more common designation. I suppose it has a different meaning. Cusset used cultural transference to describe what he was doing, and I sort of liked the unconscious implications of it. It highlights the “mis” in misreading.

  8. I like Zack’s irony a lot, but I think you miss a bit of Hollinger’s point.

    He wasn’t saying that good intellectual history has to be transnational, although, to be fair, Menand’s book, which I love, largely ignored Europe, which Kloppenberg’s book seemed to made impossible to do.

    But I think Hollinger’s distinction is more along the lines that Kloppenberg’s book is deeply philosophical, based on and in the detailed works of hard core philosophers in America and Western Europe; it’s a history of words written in philosophical tracts. It is not what Menand’s book is, which is much more of a social history of intellectuals and their ideas as it is an exploration of philosophy. There is a lot of overlap to be sure, but I think that’s the distinction.

    Just wanted to clear that up. “Marx in America” is brilliant, and will win the Pulitzer…if not the Merle Curti. I can’t believe it hasn’t been written.

  9. Kevin, you’re right about Hollinger’s distinction being more about how to deal with ideas than where those ideas come from–I probably overstated the transnational case in order to transition into transference or reception studies. But Hollinger did make the implicit claim that in order to study philosophical discourses systematically, it is necessary to be transnational, since the communities of discourse tend to be such. Thus, Miller and Kloppenberg studied philosophy and theology and other realms of “high” ideas in an international context, whereas Curti and Menand studied the social context or biography of ideas in mostly an American context. I’m not privileging one over the other–I probably do more of the latter in my work. That will change if I do “Marx in America”!

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