PM Pick

Deconstruction time again

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


Keep reading... Show less
Film

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image