The French Programme: How Theory Came to London

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Image credit: BFI; Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen on the set of 'The Riddles of the Sphinx'

March 1973: two months after Britain joins the European Economic Community, the French historian of ideas Michel Foucault is scheduled to give a lecture in London. Foucault is one of the star attractions of the French Programme, a month-long series of lectures and screenings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Tzvetan Todorov are among the other avatars of Francophone structuralist and post-structuralist thought appearing throughout the month, described in the French newspaper Combat as “the most important French cultural event ever organised in Britain”, and one which has been almost entirely funded by the British Government, eager to foster positive cultural relations between Britain and its sister nations in the Common Market. 

But Foucault does not appear for his talk, angrily and abruptly cancelling his appearance much to the chagrin of the sold-out audience at the ICA. What was his complaint? It was to do with classification: on realising who else was taking part in the programme, Foucault dismissed the event as adapting a “Barnum’s Circus” approach to contemporary French culture, offering a loose agglomeration of theories and theorists, with little in common other than their Frenchness. Foucault felt he was being presented as a commodity within what he called the culture industry. “And he had a point,” admitted organiser Jonathan Benthall when I spoke to him in 2017. “We were rather emphasising the peculiarity and unfamiliarity of these people.”

Within this context and from a contemporary perspective, one is certainly struck by the sheer intellectual seriousness of the French Programme: within the course of a few weeks, one could experience not just Derrida and Deleuze first hand but also Marguerite Duras presenting her latest film, Nathalie Sarraute discussing her post-novae roman novels, an introduction to Roland Barthes courtesy his translator Annette Lavers and Henri Lefebvre on architecture and urbanism. The heterogeneity of the programme was fed from a wide array of intellectual sources as diverse as Marxism, psychoanalysis and literary criticism yet presented under a singular banner: one which is French, theoretical and largely unheard of in Britain at the time. While one can have a degree of sympathy for Foucault’s curt dismissal of the programme, I would argue, however, that his charges do not account for the disruptive potential of travelling theories, the power afforded to the deterritorialization of thought which is a vital component in the circulation and dissemination of French theory within a British context.

What makes this form of French theory unique to Britain? Firstly, much of the circulation of these theories and theorists occurred outside the legitimacy of the academy. For example, Julia Kristeva had already appeared at the ICA in 1972; the influential and often antagonistic works of Louis Althusser were first presented in Britain through Ben Brewster’s presentations and translations in New Left Review; while the work of Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston in Screen journal apprehended Jacques Lacan’s writings for a counter-cinema of feminist film studies, spearheaded by Mulvey’s essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975.

Secondly, just from this cursory list, we can witness how these French theorists were often being appropriated and deployed in fields very far from their original concern: while Lacan may have written on literature, he was certainly not a film theorist, least of all one engaged with feminist film practices.

Thirdly, the combination of these two after-effects of French theory in Britain allow for these theorists to be read in a manner which is contextually very different from their original audience in France, and means sites of reception for French theory such as the ICA gain an added importance: within these institutions, the presentation of theory generates a loosening from their local horizons, allowing an “enigma of fruitful divergences”, in Edward Said’s phrase, to occur between the site of origin and the site of reception. These enigmatic encounters happened largely because of the work of the “discoverers” and the institutions through which they act.

But what interest did these discoverers have in French theory? In an internal memo, available to view at the ICA archive held at Tate Britain, Benthall felt that “it was a worthwhile challenge to try and convey to the [ICA audience] something of the ferment of French cultural life today, often criticised or ignored by the British on account of alleged faddishness and verbal convolutions.” This wasn’t a singular desire: through the course of the late 1960s and 1970s, the cultural imagination of the left was re-calibrated to accommodate fresh ideas from emergent disciplines such as semiotics and psychoanalysis, and the publishing market in Britain was flooded with French theory texts, many appearing out of order with their original publication in France. The resulting décalage allowed for an intoxicating encounter between reader and French theory: the discovery of these theorists and texts in stores such as Compendium and the ICA’s own bookshop generated a further frisson through an atmospheric connection between these exciting French imports.

Between 1972 and 1978, translations of Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference, Barthes’s Mythologies, S/Z, Sade-Loyola-Fourier and Image-Music-Text, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Heath; while selections from Lacan’s Écrits and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish along the first volume of History of Sexuality all appeared in English translation for the first time. These programmes of translation and publication indicate some of the “ferment” which Benthall refers to; once this ferment crossed the channel, a sort of theoretical delirium resulted from this avalanche of translated texts appearing throughout the decade.

Of course, misunderstandings are also part of this process of theories in circulation. An early planning document for the French Programme reveals not all of the ideas in the original proposal operate within the seriousness of structuralist and post-structuralist thought — one idea, thankfully not realised, revolves around commissioning Peter Sellars and Jacques Tati to perform a skit as a comedy double-act playing a Frenchman and Englishman respectively – other initial plans include an invitation to Samuel Beckett which went unanswered, and a furious correspondence from the conceptual artist Daniel Buren who was outraged at both the ICA’s financial offer and their refusal to commission him to create a new artwork specifically for the programme. But the French Programme did leave a deeply important imprint for future events of a similar format, both in London and elsewhere. While there were concomitant cultural events celebrating Britain’s joining of the Common Market – the occasion was officially marked by “Fanfare for Europe”, an eleven-day event featuring acts as diverse as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Irish folk trailblazers Planxty,  and an exhibition of European candy at the Whitechapel Gallery in London –  the French Programme represents a form of visionary and vanguardist cultural programming, working within the surreal climate of a conservative-led government funding for diplomatic cultural endeavours.

The programme represents an attempt to seek out what is most vigorous and challenging in French intellectual life, far from an official, government-sanctioned view, and present it in constructive style to a British audience. This, in turn, left a pattern for cultural institutions to invite intellectuals from foreign countries in a manner which eschews any form of cultural nationalism: despite the government funding, the ICA was fully responsible for the programme. A year later, the ICA hosted a hugely successful German Month, curated by Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, and by the 1980s, the institute was regularly hosting the likes of Derrida, Kathy Acker, Jean-Francois Lyotard, under a massively expanded talks programme inaugurated by Lisa Appiagnensi.

And what of the wider fate of French theory? And of allowing these theorists and theories to disseminate within British culture, unencumbered by cultural, disciplinary or institutional borders? We see this symbolic power today through former government advisor Dominic Cummings’s blog post, where he scouted for new talent but warned against “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers” or Conservative MP Liz Truss warning against ideas which “have their roots in postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals.”  These bizarre criticisms indicate a key element of French theory in circulation: it has a tendency to provoke a form of sociological antagonism, one which emanates from the uses of the term.

In eliding the singularity of the work of the theorists being referred to, French theory occupies a symbolic power where it becomes a byword for a pernicious foreign influence or, worse still, a form of unfettered pretentiousness. Many of the theorists themselves – Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, in particular – become entirely unhinged from their actual work and circulate as floating signifiers, in a manner which allows them to be captured to serve an existing agenda, one which is often used as a bulwark against traditional Anglo-Saxon values of empiricism, common sense, and lucidity. And while these uses of French theory cannot be empirically linked back to any singular event, any form of paradigm is a dynamic vehicle for the circulation and dissemination of theory. I would argue that the development of the ICA’s French Programme is a paradigmatic event in that it serves not as a benign, nostalgic reminder of how-things-used-to-be but a stark reminder of the importance of progressive, vanguardist cultural programming, one which allows the transnational and the intellectually challenging to surge up beneath the limp political realities of the contemporary moment.