Vichy Theorists

Clive James traces the obsessions of French theory of the 1970s and 1989s to the shame of the country’s intellectuals who collaborated with the Vichy government:

The heartening capacity of the tree of knowledge to replant itself in scorched earth does something to offset the depression induced by the spectacle of accumulated decades of bad conscience. The bad conscience was so bad that it would rather have undone its own culture than face itself. Paris, of all places, became the world’s production centre for new ways of proving that the critical intelligence can operate with no fixed connection to reality.

Nothing is real, there’s no objective truth, nothing is objectively better than anything else, all morality is oppressive and so on – these are the hallmarks of French theory. For James, these ideas are a product of a group of intellectuals who were eager to justify their collaboration with the worst of evils. We all know that this was true in the case of Paul De Man but James argues that this is a much larger phenomenon.

13 thoughts on “Vichy Theorists”

  1. So, is postmodernism itself the fruit of a diseased mind and a guilty conscience? Collaboration didn’t take place only in France and took various forms, some quite subtle.

    Loved this post.


    1. Postmodernist art reflects the spirit of its times. Like art of any period. Since it arose after the end of WWII, it’s definitely about trying to come to grips with it. The answer to the question of why there had been so much pointless destruction was often that everything was pointless. And this is the central idea of postmodern art and theory: everything is completely meaningless.


      1. // the central idea of postmodern art and theory: everything is completely meaningless.

        Has this been challenged by anything or has meaninglessness been reigning since then? Will we remain meaningless forever at ‘the end of history’?

        // French theory is basically proto-Marxism. … those frog eating idiots … decided that everyone was equal when they weren’t. The result was the destruction of natural hierarchies

        Are readers of this blog so conservative that they would be for the return of the old regime?

        Lets not forget whom ‘natural hierarchies’ viewed as inferior: women, Jews, not nobles by birth…

        OT: Rod published a post with new info about Jacob Blake.

        What stood out to me that police wouldn’t protect businesses, yet when desperate owners “put out a plea to the general public to send people to protect him”, the people who may want to help will themselves be treated as criminals since they go into a “conflict zone” and their presence is “illegal because a curfew was in effect.”

        In a way it’s worse than police simply not functioning at all.


  2. French theory is basically proto-Marxism. It all started a couple of hundred years ago when those frog eating idiots had a rebellion and decided that everyone was equal when they weren’t. The result was the destruction of natural hierarchies, Marx getting something to plagiarise, Napoleon, the soviets, and now the CCP.


  3. However, these are caricatures of “French theory,” which isn’t one thing. I think it’s more like: especially in the U.S., these things were used to distract from Marxist or other Left approaches, and to separate the study of literature from that of life. I’m also not sure I really understood them


    1. A good source on this is French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States by François Cusset.

      A big part of Cusset’s argument is that “French theory” is an entirely American invention.

      Liked by 1 person

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