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.