I spent much of last week in Toulouse, France at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies. I was there to present a synopsis of my dissertation and participate in the graduate student seminar that proceeded the conference proper. Along the way I learned a bit about the differences between American and French approaches to American Studies. Most of these stem, I suspect, from a combination of cultural difference and the size of American Studies in France. There were about 100 people at the conference and are, I was told, about 500 people who belong to the association. In contrast, the American Studies Association has several thousand members.
Not surprisingly, the most substantive difference between American Studies in France and American Studies in the United States is that French American Studies functions like something of a province of the latter. The two keynote speakers, Michael Denning and Shelly Jackson, at the conference were both American academics. When people made appeals to the authority of other scholars those scholars were primarily American. I was at one session where a paper’s author was told that if he wanted his work to be taken seriously he had to substantively engage with the work of James Kloppenberg.
In contrast, I got through the entire conference almost without hearing anyone make mention of the French academics who are the rage in America. The only time Michelle Foucault came up was during a conversation I had with a student from Yale. I did not hear any discussions of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Bourdieu. I find this somewhat shocking. I cannot imagine spending three days at an academic conference in the humanities, of whatever discipline, in the United States and not hearing at least one paper referencing one of them.
American Studies in France is also organized differently than in the United States. The French divide pretty much all topics into two large categories: literature and civilization. Literature focuses on, well, literature. Civilization seems to include everything else: religious studies, history, cultural studies, etc.
I found myself in the civilization section of graduate students. I was surprised at the difference between my presentation and the presentations of the other graduate students. I followed the narrative form, leading with an anecdote and then laying out my major claims in an exegesis of the anecdote. I concluded by suggesting the kinds of contributions I think my dissertation is going to make. All of the French students presented papers that followed the same form. They began by stating their hypothesis. They then provided a brief discussion of their methodology. This was followed by a very specific literature review: I am engaging with x and y texts, which my work improves upon in the manner of z. Following the literature review was articulation of the project’s chapter structure and a brief conclusion.
Over the next week or so I will be posting some further reflections on my trip to France. I hope to include a piece on Yale’s Working Group on Globalization and Culture, who participated in the conference as a group, and something on French anarchism. I might also summarize what I learned about contemporary social movements in France and the conflict over French labor law.