Deconstruction time again

[10 April 2008]

By Rob Horning

At the NYT site, Stanley Fish recently posted this essay in response to Francois Cusset’s new postmortem, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Having recently re-read 1984, the discussion had extra salience for me, as most discussions of theory eventually get around to the attempt to control thought and reality through language, as Orwell illustrated with Newspeak.

Walter Benjamin argued that “the only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Orwell in 1984 was implying the same thing. The Party obliterates the past and makes its hope inaccessible. Was deconstruction doing the same thing?

French theory is usually taken as an assault on Enlightenment thought, and therefore a threat to liberal society as we know it. Fish modifies this slightly:

what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.
The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project, believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.

This is what Fish calls the Baconian dream, the Enlightment project of an airtight scientific explanation of all observable phenomena, which replaces the need for God as an explanation. Secular folk generally take this sort of thing for granted nowadays, and we tend to have a blind faith in the benevolence of science.

Summing up the general thrust of deconstructive theory, Fish invokes this quote of Hobbes’s: “True and false are attributes of speech, not of things.” In other words, truth is manufactured in discourse and is malleable. 1984, which is preoccupied with the totalitarian implications of a Berkeleyesque idealism (wherein there is no reality outside the mind), takes the absence of a 100 percent verifiable real truth outside of human minds and runs with it. In the novel, the Party must eradicate once and for all the fantasy of independent, noncontingent truth to reduce everything to power, which they monopolize. This supplants what Fish calls the Baconian dream in providing “the final word” on nature. The Party is the final word on everything in 1984, and it utters that final word in whatever form suits them as the unknowable Real moves on. The novel makes clear that science is at the mercy of politics, and serves political ends, not objective, neutral ones.

But Fish is right to say that deconstruction, which sets out to expose the political agenda of seemingly objective practices like scentific method, is itself apolitical. As he explains,

No normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one.

But though some academics harped on social construction of gender and the canon to try to expose and unsettle established “natural” hierarchies, most others realized that the deconstruction game was a never-ending spiral that pulls down all authority if pursued to its logical conclusion. It’s not a very useful tool in and of itself, since it can be used only to make one argument—there are no given truths. But the inescapability of this conclusion led ultimately to an enhanced interest in “historicity” among academics in American English departments—in the absence of absolutes, various socially constructed phenomena (i.e. everything) could be compared and critiqued after being “situated” in a historical moment through close reading “texts” (i.e. everything). And various discourses regarding said phenomena could be surveyed and a dignified role for literature asserted—it’s constructing historical reality! You can then bypass more-tedious research and its decidedly undramatic conclusions for intuitive leaps of insight derived by sensitive readings of novels and tracing patterns of tropes. This means that you don’t have to do much more than parse the rhetoric in a text to draw historical conclusions from it and start making a transhistorical case for the “invention” of this or that ontological category. Then you can write books discovering the invention of the fact, the invention of shopping, the invention of woman, the invention of basically everything. Better yet, these categories are constantly reinvented because they have no firm universal basis.

The problem with French theory is less its assault on truth, but its assault on clear straightforward expression. Its jargon is an even more recondite Newspeak than that spoken by Enlightenment rationalists, with their zeal for coining words to categorize everything. The near-incomprehensible discourse in your average text by Lacan or Derrida became a convenient tactic for professionalizing academics to adopt in order to demonstrate that what they were doing was over their philistine critics’ heads. It also made for a useful test of graduate students’ willingness to play by the rules (will they write in this putrid style to keep enemies at bay?) and doggedly attempt to follow absurdly nuanced trains of thought, which make needless distinctions apparently designed to confuse and alienate the less learned, who can’t even begin to contextualize what is at stake in such dithering. One night with Kristeva or Spivak quickly weeds out the nonbelievers.

But deconstruction—the idea that ideology is constructed and malleable—has mainly been a boon to advertising, supplying a working model for undoing prejudices against, say, wasteful spending or frivolous identity-making. Deconstruction immediately opens the possibility of ongoing, perpetually incomplete (and perpetually profitable) reconstruction. Hence women are always “becoming” women and men, men, and so on.

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