S EARLY AS THE MID-1960S, NEW IDEAS COMING FROM FRANCE began to have a major impact on the American academic scene. A small number of French departments were early adopters. At Columbia, the French Department and the Maison Française worked in tandem, playing a major role in the dissemination of these ideas and their integration into the mainstream of American academic culture. What came to be known in retrospect as “French theory” originated in the structuralism of the 1950s, which was itself an attempt to use the methods and concepts of modern linguistics across the humanities and the social sciences. Because this new enterprise was concerned first and foremost with language, departments of literature (and, in the United States, departments of French) played a pioneering role. Theory appealed to some and was resisted by others. Its claims were radical: the work of the reader was as important as the intentions of the author; literature was a site of power; and written texts were often in contradiction with their own assertions.
At Columbia, two scholars, Michael Riffaterre and Sylvère Lotringer, were important advocates of “French theory.” They had very different personalities and profiles, and were both allies and rivals. Riffaterre arrived from France in the early 1950s, completed a PhD in French at Columbia, and rose through the ranks to be appointed a University Professor in 1982. Chairing the French Department from 1974 to 1983, Riffaterre developed his own version of structuralist theory, emphasizing a strongly formalist approach and promoting the use of concepts such as agrammaticality and hypogram. In 1978 Riffaterre started the International Colloquium on Poetry and Poetics, which for over a decade met each year at the Maison Française, bringing in established theorists like Jean Ricardou, Gérard Genette, and Umberto Eco, as well as young and upcoming scholars, including Barbara Johnson, Naomi Schor, Alice Kaplan, Susan Rubin Suleiman, Nancy K. Miller, and Emily S. Apter. During those years the visiting professorship in the French Department was held in rotation by Tzvetan Todorov, Julia Kristeva, and Hans Robert Jauss (later replaced by Umberto Eco), an arrangement known informally at the time as “the troika.” These distinguished visitors gave numerous public lectures at the Maison Française.
Sylvère Lotringer, who wrote his dissertation at the École Pratique des Hautes Études under the direction of Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes, joined the Columbia faculty in 1972. His instincts were anti-institutional and countercultural. Under the banner of Semiotext(e), the journal he founded in 1974, Lotringer brought together academics, fiction writers, musicians, and visual artists for events that blurred the lines between conference and performance. Lotringer kept a relatively low profile on the Columbia campus, but was a major figure in New York’s avant-garde art scene. Under his leadership, Semiotext(e) played a pioneering and still underappreciated role in the dissemination of works by Foucault and Deleuze in the United States. In addition, it was Lotringer who invited such figures as Félix Guattari , Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray to speak at the Maison Française.
With the recruitment of Antoine Compagnon in 1985 and Maryse Condé a decade later, the French Department moved toward a reassessment of historical approaches to the study of literature and culture, and committed itself to the study of Francophone literature. By then, “French theory” had become mainstream, having permeated many fields and disciplines in the United States. In 1994 Compagnon began splitting his time between Columbia and Paris, first at the Sorbonne where he introduced the teaching of literary theory, and then at the Collège de France, where he now holds the chair in modern and contemporary literature. The conferences Compagnon organized at the Maison Française covered an extensive range of topics, from representations of the French Revolution (with artist Robert Motherwell as keynote speaker) to the French in New York during World War II, to terror and literature. Maryse Condé planned countless events at the Maison Française during her time at Columbia. A major Francophone writer herself, Condé drew fellow writers to the Maison, including Édouard Glissant, Mongo Beti, Daniel Maximin, and Assia Djebar.
Following a wave of retirements in the late 2000s, the French Department was almost entirely rebuilt under the leadership of Pierre Force. Interdisciplinary connections were emphasized in the hiring of new faculty, and programming at the Maison Française reflected an effort to explore the connections between various disciplines involved in the study of literature and culture, from philology and literary analysis, to history, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology.
Chaired from 2007 to 2012 by Phil Watts, the Department of French is currently chaired by Elisabeth Ladenson, who, with her colleagues, works with Maison Française Director Shanny Peer on lectures and conferences that tap into the creative potential of interdisciplinarity, while advancing reassessments of French and Francophone studies as a whole. Conferences in recent years have included “Thinking the Postcolonial in French,” “Transcolonial Fanon,” “The Rescue of Jews in France and Its Empire During World War II,” and a centennial celebration of Romanic Review, the department’s flagship publication. Topics addressed at recent roundtables have included the future of libraries in the digital age, “Why French Matters,” and “The Past and Future of French History.”