Friday, July 20, 2007

Hall of Mirrors


Straying a bit from the straight and narrow of politics, I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on another subject of predilection, intellectuals. This is a minor thing, but it comes up with some frequency, so I thought I'd mention it to see if anyone else finds this particular bit of Franco-American convergence as amusing as I do.

It was pure coincidence, of course, that a commentator on a guest post here about Alain Badiou remarked that Badiou is "now more studied and revered in the US than he is in France" on the same day that Le Nouvel Obs ran a piece intended to mark "the immense renown" allegedly enjoyed by Jean Baudrillard "across the Atlantic"--"far greater even the attention he attracted in France." The supposed American consecration of the French intellectual can thus be used either to raise up or to knock down. "Woe unto my benighted countrymen," says the French acolyte, "who failed to recognize the prophet in his own land." Or, conversely, the French critic dispatches the false hero to Valhalla-in-Vegas, that gimcrack simulacrum: only the gullible Amerloques could fall for such a charlatan, but here in the homeland we have his number, we've seen his type before (and, by the way, we speak his language).

The trope is a bit tired whether employed in a positive or negative sense, having been tried now on a long series of would-be culture heroes going back several decades. News flash to the offices of Le Nouvel Obs: "immense renown" in the United States requires more than mention in the pages of Sémiotext(e). (Half the testimonials to Baudrillard seem to come from people affiliated with that journal.) I know how these things work, because I'm in the Rolodexes of the journalists who write these pieces. The phone rings. "Would you agree that Derrida [Foucault, Bourdieu, ...) is more (less) revered (reviled, read, regurgitated ...) in the United States (France) than he is in France (the United States)?" Depending on which of your friends you want to make angry that day, you choose a couple of answers from column A and a couple from column B, and, presto, you've made (broken) a reputation.

It's sort of like the question of whether Rousseau caused the French Revolution. For some, the answer would require a lifetime's work and reflection. For others, it's just a matter of taking samples from the brains of dead revolutionaries and toting up the mass of Rousseauoid particles in micrograms. Basta!

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