On the surface, these controversies might seem to have little to do with France, except that France and the US loom large for each other whenever the question of truth is brought up: whether we can know it, whether science furnishes it, and so on. American analytic philosophers tend to believe that no French thinker can say anything that is not obfuscatory. In France, meanwhile, what is generically called postmodernism is often written off, with puzzlement or frustration, as a cultural misunderstanding, as what was lost in translation when Derrida landed on American shores all those years ago and set off the mania for “French theory.” Sometimes the “French” part is dropped altogether, and wariness about grand narratives, the absolute authority of science, and such things is treated as if it were invented from scratch in American universities. Three years ago I exited at the wrong metro stop and found myself by accident at the heart of a demonstration of the euphemistically named La Manif pour tous movement, a Catholic-led campaign against same-sex marriage and, crucially for them, homoparentalité, or adoption of children by same-sex couples. The person who had the microphone at the moment I passed by was riling up the crowd with angry denunciations of Judith Butler, and of the importation of “le gender studies” from American university curricula. The crowd hissed and booed, and no one mentioned any of the towering French intellectual precursors to the names and ideas invoked.
Under ordinary circumstances, the institutions built by the old are repopulated by the young, who adjust them for new circumstances but leave them basically the same, in turn handing them over to the next generation. The possibility of successful passage through the institutions of society is what makes a person follow a normative rather than deviant life course: being a woman or a man roughly the way she or he is supposed to, partnering and reproducing in the socially standard fashion, trying to get ahead or at least get by according to prevailing ethics of education and work. In our society, this has meant (in ideal-typical middle-class terms) homeownership, an occasional vacation, sending your kids to college, and retirement. Historical continuity—the integrity of social institutions over time—works itself out on the individual level: people may feel they are making distinct, agonizing life choices, but for the most part they are living out those institutions predictably. An institution is, at the end of the day, just a pattern of social behavior repeated long enough. On the other hand, if the institutions aren’t processing enough people into the proper form—if too many can’t or won’t do family, school, work, and sex approximately the way they’ve been done before—then large-scale historical continuity can’t happen. The society can’t look tomorrow like it does today.