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La "French Theory". Sur une "invasion" française.

L’universitaire Cunthia L. Haven signe en 2018 une biographie de René Girard : Evolution of Desire : A Life of René Girard (Michigan State University Press). The Quarterly Conversation en publie un long extrait relatif à une rencontre (“The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man”) franco-américaine tenue à la Johns Hopkins du 18 au 21 octobre 1966.

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.

To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation : it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences. Let us consider what happened during this watershed autumn.

The event itself was René Girard’s inspiration. He had assumed the chair of the Romance Languages Department from Nathan Edelman the year before, and became one of the triumvirate who brought the symposium together. Another was that brilliant figure who has been somewhat overlooked in American intellectual history—the restless, quicksilver Eugenio Donato. The third, Richard Macksey, was a co-founder of the new Humanities Center. Girard, however, was the senior member of the group, and the one with international connections.

“He already had some visibility. And yet he wasn’t so senior that he had offended too many people in Paris, which was significant,” said Macksey about his colleague. “René was more aware of issues of civility than we were. He was older and more established.” Noting the heavyweight names of those who came to Baltimore, Macksey added that he thought the symposium had a big impact on his French colleague. “René, as a young person, was deeply influenced by this—although he might deny it.” (Girard was two months shy of his forty-second birthday at the symposium ; Macksey was thirty-five.)

At that historical moment, “structuralism” was the height of intellectual chic in France, and widely considered to be existentialism’s successor. Structuralism had been born in New York City nearly three decades earlier, when French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of many European scholars fleeing Nazi persecution to the United States, met another refugee scholar, the linguist Roman Jakobson, at the New School for Social Research. The interplay of the two disciplines, anthropology and linguistics, sparked a new intellectual movement. Linguistics became fashionable, and many of the symposium papers were cloaked in its vocabulary.

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