As an alienated teenager, you read Sartre. In college, you smoked Gauloises and spouted Derrida. Later, in graduate school, nagged by self-doubt, you found relief in the giddy wanderlust of Baudrillard, the moral certitude of Bourdieu, and the unfettered optimism of Deleuze and Guattari.
French philosophers. You grew up with them. Alternately impressed and exasperated, worshipful and disparaging, you have the kind of relationship with their work that you normally reserve for human beings. You do not understand everything they write, but you feel you know them. They changed your life. In retrospect, though, you have to admit it all seems rather preposterous: You and these hopelessly abstruse Gauls--who could have guessed there would be so much chemistry between you?
Many have remarked--in this country, often with a note of envy--the widespread appeal of postwar French philosophy. Fewer have tried to account for it. One scholar who has is Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Princeton University. In a 1987 essay titled "How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida," Lamont subjected the outsize reputation enjoyed by the French theorist to cold-blooded scientific scrutiny: a thirty-three-page analysis complete with charts and graphs depicting the changing profile of deconstruction's international "diffusion" and "institutional positioning." Her conclusion: Derrida's enviable international prestige had almost nothing to do with what she called the "intrinsic value" of his ideas.
Derrida, she declared, was a brand name in classrooms on both sides of the ocean because his work incorporated "a sophisticated writing style, a distinctive theoretical framework, and a focus on questions defined as both important and concerned with an important philosophical tradition." The difference between Derrida and the dozens of potential rivals whose work these generalizations also describe could be chalked up to deconstruction's theoretical "ambiguity" and its "adaptability to any text"--traits that no doubt gave it a leg up in the marketplace of ideas. Furthermore, Lamont insisted, Derrida benefited greatly from circumstances outside his control, including, in the United States, a "disciplinary crisis" in literary criticism and, in France, an upturn in the demand for "sophisticated intellectual goods."
In short, Derrida's was not a story with grand themes. It was not about those big ideas--différance and logocentrism. The Derridean apotheosis, it appeared, was an event of a nearly meaningless nature. Derrida had simply been in the right place at the right time.
So now you feel gypped. That's to be expected: The man in whom you'd invested all those tuition dollars--not to mention years of sometimes grueling mental labor--turns out to be, genius or no genius, more or less just a lucky guy and a successful self-promoter. But there is a way to make yourself feel better. It involves reading a little book by Michel Biron and Pierre Popovic called Un livre dont vous etes l'intellectuel(Fides, 1998), which the authors hope to publish in English as How to Become a French Intellectual.Biron and Popovic, professors at the University of Quebec and the University of Montreal, respectively, describe themselves as sociologists of literature. They understand not only that the history of ideas is shot through with arbitrariness of the crudest--and cruelest--sort but that this is precisely what makes it so much fun. So cheer up. By reading Biron and Popovic's book, you'll learn the story of the postwar French philosophers and--here is the cathartic part--be able to pretend you're one too. This is intellectual history as choose-your-own-adventure story--except that the plot and the characters are real. Here is how it works: You, the reader, are the aspiring philosophewhose career--if you're lucky enough to have one--depends on how you choose to navigate a series of star-studded vignettes capturing seminal moments in the French academy over the last forty years.
HOW TO BE A FRENCH INTELLECTUAL? BIRON AND POPOVIC COUNT THE WAYS.
Take the first page. By the end of the second sentence, you must make a momentous decision: "It's 1960, you're twenty years old and you have to choose a mentor. Do you pick Raymond Picard or Roland Barthes?" Be careful, now. In this exercise, hindsight is no guarantee of safe passage. It is not necessarily an advantage to know that by 1963 Picard--renowned expert on Racine, chair of French literature at the Sorbonne, and the personification of old-school philology--would find himself pitted against Barthes--the avatar of the unabashedly ideological nouvelle critique--in a losing battle for nothing less than the future of literary studies. Say you decide to go with Barthes. The next thing you know, you're in the café frequented by the maître penseur. He's ensconced in his usual seat. You catch his eye. In a glance, he's sized you up. You approach his table, a book under your arm. Is it Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex? Sade's Justine? Pierre Loti's Aziyadé? Unbeknownst to you, its title will tell him all he needs to know about your prospects.
You go with Beauvoir. After all, she's the rage in feminist circles. But Barthes nurses a grudge against her celebrity lover Jean-Paul Sartre and holds her in low esteem. You are curtly dismissed.
Of course, all is not lost. You might try that seminar on feminism and socialism you've heard people talking about, or a sociology course with Bourdieu, or, if you're really brave, you might go into analysis with Lacan. But pick your pathology carefully! Lacan, it turns out, has a weakness for schizophrenics but finds agoraphobics deadly dull. Even if you manage to survive the tumult of 1968--by deciding to throw out Rousseau and reread Marx, by abandoning Lacan for Roman Catholicism, by joining the angry mobs at the barricades--all it takes is a little indiscretion here or there to derail your career in mid-journey. Your lecture on the origins of discourse is either a tour de force of theoretical rigor ("Heidegger's famous question, Why is there Being and not Nothing?' must henceforth replace the question that haunts every good deconstructionist: Why is there an Other and not No one?'") or a transparent fraud. A hastily executed memoir of your six months as a visiting professor at UC-Santa Barbara turns out to be either an irreparable humiliation or the ticket to a writing contract with Paris-Match and an invitation to apply for a prestigious academic post.
The point of all this trial and error, as Biron and Popovic explain in their introduction, is that no discipline, ideology, or venue--from Tel Quel to Paris-Match--is a priori incompatible with success. "The book is a game, but it's not a joke," says Biron. "The truth is we don't know why one theorist or theory succeeds at a given moment and not at another. Derrida works very well in North America. Why he is not important somewhere else is a mystery that has something to do with politics, status seeking, social mobility, and individual will. We wanted to show how the little things can influence a long career and even the big orientations of intellectual life." He chuckles mischievously and adds, "At the end of the book, you don't know why your choices worked, only that they probably wouldn't work again."