Jason Goldfarb reviews Johannes Angermuller’s new book on why critical theory hasn’t theorized its own naming and categorization.
Johannes Angermuller, Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France: The Making of an Intellectual Generation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015) 144 pp.
Despite the incessant self-reflexivity of critical theory, it has curiously neglected, or perhaps rather ironically dismissed, questions of its own naming and categorization. Angermuller’s Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France seeks to put an end to this trend. Its project, as defined early on, is to situate, socially and historically, the disparities between the French and Anglo-American phenomena of Theory: in France post-structuralism does not exist as a unifying term while in the Anglo-Saxon world it is frequently invoked to categorize French thinkers (2).
In the beginning chapters, Angermuller works to discredit the concept of a stable or unified field of post-structuralism. He alerts readers to the fact that French theorist such as Althusser, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Deleuze, Foucault, Kristeva and Lacan, among others come from diverse political and institutional places (for instance, College de France is juxtaposed with the more prestigious, degree-granting, ENS). In short, as Foucault has also affirmed, there is no single unifying feature or problem that would warrant the term poststructuralism (33-39). The discrepancy, Angermuller claims, stems from American unfamiliarity with French Academic Institutions. That is, Anglo-Americans are blind to the center/periphery divide prevalent in French academic culture, and hence more willing to equate disparate thinkers under the pragmatic heading of “French thinker” (25, 55). In its place, Angermuller suggest the term “intellectual generation” defined as the “effervescence of the 1960’s and 1970’s…those who are symbolically, via the production of text, invested in a public arena and refer to particular historical events” (38).
Although this initial line of thought (insofar as it grants primary authority to the French perspective) suggests an originalist or naïve-realist approach, Angermuller moves to complicate the picture and his book suffers from none of these things. He draws from Bourdieuian field theory to emphasize the distinction between place and statement (Le sujet de l’énonciation and le sujet de l’énoncé). In so doing Angermuller refuses two pitfalls: he neither asserts the “objective” validity the French interpretation nor simply reduces poststructuralism to a result of social-cultural analysis (Americans misunderstanding the French Academic system). Instead, Angermuller makes the insightful claim that the analysis of the object is part of the object one seeks to analyze. That is, the Anglo-American “error” is not simply an error but a productive process constituting and altering the object of theory itself ( 90). The reader is, here, lead on a much more interesting line of inquiry which replaces the reductionist question “how can we account for the field that has given birth theory” with, “how theoretical text are read and associated with their context” (13, 99). This shift effectively holds open the gap between a statement and the position from which it is enunciated or, in Angermullers terms, the antagonism of the social and society (100).
There are thus several bright spots in Angermuller’s book. He provides a succinct yet detailed overview of French academic institutions (the differences between EHESS, ENS, and College de France are discussed at length), he mobilizes these examples to provide an account of the terminological discrepancy, and his critical promulgation of Bourdieuian field theory is useful for both newcomers and more experienced theoreticians alike.
Yet, although Angermuller makes an important rejection of the binaries of social or historical essentialism and opens paths for further theoretical development, these paths are intermittently left hanging for future theorists to take up the gauntlet. The reader is ultimately presented with either the relativistic claim that “different readers contextualize texts differently” or the dialectical-Band-Aid solution –the social is shaped by discursive society and discursive society is shaped by the social (72, 99). Questions of naming or how precisely categorization alters its object, which seem crucial to the task that Angermuller aptly identifies, receive less attention, and leave room for the conversation to continue.
Angermuller’s work offers illumination in a much-neglected field; it pertinently avoids simple reductivism by emphasizing a constitutive antagonism in the object of theory and society itself. Nonetheless, Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France may be most important in starting a continuation of its line of theoretical inquiry which can further develop how the “translation error” of poststructuralism affects the viewer’s relationship to the non-all, antagonistic, society.
Jason Goldfarb is a PhD student at Duke University. Most recently, he has a forthcoming article in The International Journal of Žižek Studies and works on, among other projects, Dialectical Materialism, psychoanalysis, and German philosophy.