The American Politics of French Theory: Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault in Translation by Jason Demers (review)

Substance 52 (2):127-132 (2023)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:The American Politics of French Theory: Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault in Translation by Jason DemersKenneth SurinDemers, Jason. The American Politics of French Theory: Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault in Translation. University of Toronto Press, 2019. 218pp.This most welcome book gets off on the right foot by eschewing such problematic terms as “post-structuralism” or “French theory” in studying the work of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. These terms are of a strictly Anglo-Atlantic provenance, a convenient but misleading encapsulation that facilitated their journey or translation into the Anglo-Atlantic world. Instead, Demers prefers to view this transmission as an ensemble of relays between “people, groups, places, ideas, and moments in time” (3), as well as codes; metalanguages; markets for symbolic capital, a notion derived from Pierre Bourdieu; and “networks of feeling” (5n), a term the author borrowed from Raymond Williams. Demers observes, for example, that there was a relay or “mutual implication” (5) between Paris and Columbia University, which occurred in the aftermath of the events of May ’68, that recalled a somewhat earlier circuit, also leading to Paris, which involved the mid-1960s Berkeley free speech movement. To approach the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault by resorting to terms such as “post-structuralism” or “French theory” severs them from the crucial relays and circuits constituting the complex and highly mobile transpositions of their work to an American intellectual and political milieu, and vice versa, and it is clear that Demers views, quite rightly, that the political and the intellectual are inextricably bound up with each other.Demers acknowledges his debt here to the versions of assemblage theory formulated in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory and A New Philosophy of Society, and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Buttressing these texts for Demers is the work of catalytic significance undertaken by Deleuze and Guattari on assemblages/ensembles. The supervening context for these processes of transmission between France and the Anglo-American world is the global May ’68.Demers’s first chapter deals with Derrida and the notions of translation and margins in order to delineate and analyze the “contiguous [End Page 127] relationship between campus and community” (12). The difficulty Demers grasps here is that Derrida’s work on the place of philosophy, already premised on the defining notion that there is no “we” in the philosophical domain, is rooted in the French educational system, and so is deracinated, inevitably, by its movement out of France into the Anglo-Atlantic world. After seeking to account for the implications of this uprooting, Demers shows convincingly how the later Derrida moved (somewhat) away from the political evasiveness of his earlier writings. Taking Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” as his focus, Demers understands the essay as an attempt to translate the intellectual and practical work being done on the academic and political margins of the university into a properly philosophical position (“deconstruction”) with regard to the logic of margins and centers extending beyond the university. At this point Demers makes two criticisms of Derrida. First, while Derrida’s philosophy pivots on an ever-expanding democracy-to-come, the richness and intricacies of the margins – the very resources created there to disrupt the established centers – have little place in his reflections. Derrida caters to iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who serve as powerful cryptograms for his thinking, but hardly more than that. This stems from a second problem associated with Derrida’s deconstructive positions, namely, that apart from making theoretical moves acclamatory of those positioned on the margins, albeit in relation to a deconstructed and displaced center held in an endless abeyance, it also leaves the Derridean Other in a situation of debilitating indeterminacy – the infinite deferral of Derrida’s différance and the à venir purports to be redemptive, but is ultimately incapacitating. Derrida’s eschatology always trumps his politics. In fact, in his theoretical and practical “spaces,” Derrida’s cat seems to have the same discursive status as Mandela. Demers, and I suspect he may agree with...

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