Stanley Fish has an editorial today, Think Again-French Theory in America, which is a great reflection and historical contextualization of deconstructionism. He builds much of the essay off the forthcoming book by Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.
The reason I like this piece by Fish is his ability to at one hand show the strengths and limits of a deconstructionist stance and on the other to show the polarization into the relativist versus absolutist “Culture Wars” in the US.
Fish provides us with a useful summary of deconstruction: “Descriptions of the world are made by us, and we, in turn, are made by the categories of description that are the content of our perception. These are not categories we choose — were they not already installed there would be nothing that could do the choosing; it would make more sense (but not perfect sense) to say that they have chosen or colonized us. Both the “I” and the world it would know are functions of language. Or in Derrida’s famous and often vilified words: There is nothing outside the text. (More accurately, there is no outside-the-text.)”
Why is this radical? Fish explains, ““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.”
And this radical approach centers on a very different sort of philosophical agenda, on the oh-so-important style of deconstructive thought that makes it such a useful yet subversive and at times enraging type of analysis: “When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise… 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.”
This is one reason why deconstructive analysis found such purchase in anthropology. It matched well with a relativist stance that began to emerge in the 1920s, and matched well with the concept of culture used in the 1960s and 1970s. As I teach today, culture is both arbitrary and naturalizing. Culture does to us exactly what deconstruction points to as a core component of our human being. We are historically contingent creatures, contributing to meaning and yet formed within it.
But such a notion is still a radical one in the United States. “Deconstruction’s technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction.”
As a faculty colleague said to me today, American culture is a problem-solving culture. What problem can be solved by the endless play of signifiers?
Yet in a different sense the Culture Wars argument was about problem-solving, revolving around the notion of what constituted progress. The traditional approach said: “The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail.” The constructivist side answered with “a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established” and a demand that we move towards a position that was “genuinely inclusive,” not written solely by those who benefited from “progress” defined by them in the first place.
It was not a happy argument. As Fish writes, “A bunch of people threatening all kinds of subversion by means that couldn’t possibly produce it, and a bunch on the other side taking them at their word and waging cultural war. Not comedy, not tragedy, more like farce, but farce with consequences. Careers made and ruined, departments torn apart, writing programs turned into sensitivity seminars, political witch hunts, public opprobrium, ignorant media attacks, the whole ball of wax. Read it and laugh or read it and weep.”
Today, however, most young scholars accept as common that science is both socially constructed and can also tell us useful things about ourselves and the world we live in. We are not free-standing objective knowers. The “I” and the world are closer together; they interact. They co-construct.
There is just one problem. All-knowing individual reason and objective laws in the world do not offer us much in the way of thinking about HOW we and the world co-construct.
In the end, Fish does not offer much of an alternative to thinking about the problem revealed by deconstructive analysis. He offers us consolation instead: “That’s a loss, but it’s not a loss of anything in particular. It doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked ‘What’s your epistemology?’ you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.”
How, then, can we understand how we go on pretty much in the same old way? Thinking about, sharing ideas about, that problem is one of the main reasons that I write this blog. Neither the rational stance nor the deconstructive stance can solve this problem. In this sense, both are corrupt.
If indeed we are made from crooked timber, and the forest of our interacting selves is equally complex, we cannot rely on assumptions that crumble under their own irreality. We need a crooked science, growing in happenstance and often misshapen ways among our own constructed fields of study.