22 September 2023

Prisons of Misprision

From today's reading, an auspicious juxtaposition, fresh as they come...

Louis Menand
The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

[78] The French had their own way of reading American fiction and their own understanding of what it was about. That understanding was partly an effect of translation and partly the consequence of a received idea of Americans. ... Their knowledge of the American character derived from translated novels and Hollywood movies. (But: misprision is part of transmission.)

[Maurice-Edgar] Coindreau taught at Princeton until his retirement, in 1961, but he was, quite self-consciously, a Frenchman. His own politics were reactionary. ... Despite their friendship and the success of Manhattan Transfer, Coindreau declined to translate Dos Passos's U.S.A., because he didn't like its left-wing politics. The reason he translated so many Southerners was because he identified with them as rebels against the modern liberal state.

... What interested him in American writing was the technique, not the Americana. He called the problem of translating dialect, for example, "a detail of slight importance." ... "All men of my generation in France have known in the homes of their parents and their grandparents white counterparts of Dilsey. We know how they spoke and this is the only thing that concerns us." ...



... In one respect, Larbaud and Coindreau were making a virtue of necessity. ... "Dat's de troof" says Job, the old Black man who works in Jason Compson's shop in The Sound and the Fury. Coindreau's rendering: "Ca, c'est bien vrai, dit-il." It's not the same.

This meant that French translations of American novels largely bleached out markers of race, region, and class. The effect was to classicize. ...phrases from the prefaces were parroted in the reviews, and they became the basis for the French reception of contemporary American fiction. Discounting the plot and universalizing the themes threw the focus onto the technique, which is exactly where Coindreau wanted it to be thrown.

What did the French find so modern and exciting about American literary technique? ... The French thought that Faulkner had achieved a powerful representation of lived time by radically subjectivizing the narration and by collapsing the distinction between percept and memory. ...

Faulkner and Dos Passos showed French novelists that you could organize a narrative nonlinearly and nonchronologically. ...



The other thing about American fiction that fascinated the French was what they took to be the elimination of psychology . "Hemingway never enters inside his characters," Sartre wrote. "He describes them always from the outside. The heroes of Hemingway and Caldwell never explain themselves. They act only." Sartre thought that Faulkner was his kind of phenomenologist; he showed the inside only to confirm that there is nothing there . Thought in Faulkner is simply the sum of one's intentions and character the sum of one's actions. The American novel seemed to have completely rejected what the modern French novel, and Proust's novel paradigmatically, had made its specialty: introspection and analysis.

A myth of primitivism figured in the French reception of American culture. ... When the Harvard professor Perry Miller toured European universities lecturing on American literature after the war, he reported enthusiasm wherever he went for American writing—provided it was violent. ...



The French thought that American fiction was raw and direct because that was the way Americans are. In American novels, Camus said in 1947, "[m]an is described but never explained"; the stories are universal, but "only at the level of the elementary." Sartre thought that le style américain was uncalculated and unreflective, a spontaneous outburst, and that American writers expressed themselves that way because they couldn't help it. "When Hemingway writes his short, disjointed sentences, he is only obeying his temperament," Sartre explained. "He writes what he sees . . . If Faulkner breaks the chronological order of his story, it is because he cannot do otherwise, He sees time jumping about in disordered leaps." Of course, Faulkner didn't show time jumping about in disordered leaps because he couldn't help it. He showed time that way because he had read Bergson.

French critics had an explanation for the absence of explanation in American fiction: they thought that American writers were imitating the movies. ...at the most basic level, the French thought that the influence of film could be seen in the paratactic atomization of action—the and then, and then, and then narration—of writers like Hemingway and Dos Passos. What we are presented with is a sequence of actions without commentary, like a scene in a film.

Sartre and Beauvoir's enthusiasm for American fiction went hand in hand with their enthusiasm for American popular culture generally and American movies in particular. ... They hated French films and French fiction. "[W]e loathed the whole idea of la vie intérieure," said Beauvoir.


During his time in the army, Sartre recorded in his diary a fantasy of becoming a man of unreflective action. Such a man, he wrote, would be

handsome, hesitant, obscure, slow and upright in his thoughts; [he would] not have had any acquired grace, but only a silent, spontaneous kind:
I should have liked to be him. . . [a man] who thought little, spoke little and always did the right thing.

Sartre ...was plainly taking his idea of America and the American from the movies. But it made sense for him to do this, because he was trying to analyze his way out of a culture of analysis. In a sense, he was trying to do philosophy in le style américain.

François Cusset
trans. Jeff Fort
French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, &Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States
(2008, orig. 2003)

[276] In summary, French theory did not acquire its crucial dimension of difference only through its aesthetic and political radicalism, but also through its ineluctable Frenchness—which, however clichéd this may be, is defined in the American mind-set by the values of seduction and irony. For theory too involves a certain seduction through irony. In the phrase "It's so French," repeated so often by American Francophiles—a zero degree of culturalist expression, but which is used only in reference to the French... —the quantitative adverb "so" points to an excess viewed as a flaw, an insidious form of immoderation, as if Frenchness signified a certain polite form of arrogance, a way of employing courteous verbiage or a sophisticated writing style to draw its interlocutor into doubtful paths and false conclusions, bringing us back to the primary sense of seducere in Latin. We might consider that an unstable balance has been struck, one that appears miraculous in American eyes, between formal classicism (as in Foucault's case) and extreme arguments, or between the accessibility and openness of a philosopher in person (for which Derrida was often praised) and the difficulty of the author and his works; it is this sense of balance that gave rise to the notion of a French seduction to which these authors owe much of their success in the United States. ...


...certain cultural archetypes based on typical French seduction or chatter preceded, permeated, and even helped construct, to a large extent, the idea of theory. This is also why, for the past thirty years, American universities, after their extensive use of this small group of theoretical authors, scarcely more than a dozen, have taken an interest in everything they could find that appeared related to French theory and its charms of irony, considering New Wave cinema or the Nouveau Roman as accessories to theory,...




Foucault's work is an example that stands apart. Even in comparison with Derrida, who became an icon and an institution during his lifetime, Foucault's long-term impact in the United States remains unequaled, both in terms of his books sold in translation... and in the range of fields of study he has transformed or brought into existence, as well as in the diversity of his audience:... John Rajchman's book,... and the Dreyfus and Rabinow classic study offer interpretations of Foucault of a quality that few similar projects in France have matched. There is, nevertheless, a considerable gap between the American Foucault and the French one,... The difference is primarily one of status: in the United States, Foucault represents the intellectual-oracle, whose prose unmasks biopower, furnishes weapons to contemporary struggles, and heralds the queer movement, and who is also the figure whose invigorating "philosophical laughter" provides assurance of the critical distance from his own discourses. In the American reading of Foucault, we find that the explosive pairing of "knowledge and power" occupies a much more central position than in Foucault's own perspective, and is seen as the key to his entire work, as well as the basis for an entire intellectual outlook. In the United States,
the rallying cry that was developed out of this binomial,
has served many purposes:

an impetus
a push to require
the ivory tower of academia
to carry out
its own performative duties,

a theoretical proof
universalism and rationalism
can be used
discourses of conquest,

a support
the notion
it is


(of the insane, of criminals)
produces the norm
(reason, justice)

This interpretation of Foucault , taking the aforementioned three main directions, provided his American readers with a veritable conspiracy theory, in the name of which they scoured society to uncover its aggressors and victims. American cultural studies or minority studies texts inspired by Foucault consistently focus on the notion of "unmasking" of "delegitimizing" some form of power that is "stifling" or "marginalizing" one oppressed minority group or another— an approach that stands in direct opposition to Foucault's genealogical method.

...as for turning him into the most fervent advocate for those without a voice, this role is conceivable only if we neglect the two limits of Foucault's "politics":

the difficulty
establishing a coherent notion
the subject,
of history,
or of political struggle,
power itself
"is exercised from innumerable points"
"resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power,"

the opposite criticism
of which Foucault is often the target,
according to which
steals the voice of those without a voice,
speaking on behalf
the silent residents of asylums or prisons
just for the sake of
the sparks this produces
on a written page.

We might remember that Foucault asked to be spared this "morality of bureaucrats and police" that requires philosophers "to remain the same." This gap continued to grow with the thematic focuses of the following years, centered on the "ethics of the self" and the "truth-telling" elements of his work. Foucault's renown, which began growing in 1977, reached such a peak that his successors wanted to derive a "method" of self-construction from his work, a task for which they solicited Foucault's assistance during a series of lectures he gave at New York University (to which he is said to have responded, "The last thing I want to tell you is how to live!"). Their objective was to glean the essential principles of savoir-vivre, whether of a gay, stoic, philosophical, or activist variety. In an interview with the periodical Salmagundi, Foucault was even compelled to repeat insistently, "I am wary of imposing my own views," and then "I want to avoid imposing my own scheme," and finally, "as for prescribing [a] direction . . . I prefer not to legislate such matters." Certain critics even heard in Foucault the distant strains of a patriotic interpretation: Foucault's lexicon was made to resonate with an "American Aesthetics of Liberty," the idea being that Foucault and the United States share "a tradition of ethics


that presents self-stylization as a practice of freedom," in which the self is "assumed to be a work of art" and "the desirability of normalization itself" is ceaselessly questioned—a mostly literary take on the subject amounting overall to a para-Foucauldian ode to pioneering, repressive America and its unexamined myths, one that Foucault the activist would no doubt have found distasteful.

No comments: