Filed under: Deconstruction | Tags: Deconstruction, Enlightenment, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Post-Structuralism, Rationalism, Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish, as you may know, maintains a blog at the New York Times. This week, his blog takes on “French Theory in America” in a book review of Francois Cusset’s survey of deconstruction and its ilk, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.
Professor Fish is remarkably clear in his explication of he much-maligned, oft-misunderstood deconstruction. Presumably since Fish was a major player in this debate himself, he bases his discussion in the 1960s conflict between the so-called rationalist and post-structural schools:
Certainly mainstream or centrist intellectuals thought there was a lot to worry about. They agreed with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who complained that the ideas coming out of France amounted to a “rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment” even to the point of regarding “science as nothing more than a ‘narration’ or a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.”
This is not quite right; 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.
It’s a good trick. What is so often missed in attacks on deconstruction is that it is a direct response to the problems inherent to the Enlightenment project. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously addressed this issue from a Marxist standpoint in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). While Fish levies a less severe critique at the Enlightenment/Rationalist tradition (Adorno and Horkheimer believed fascism and Nazi Germany were direct descendants of the Enlightenment) he equally demonstrates its futility.
The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.
It also thinks the world. This is not say that the world apart from the devices of human conception and perception doesn’t exist “out there”; just that what we know of that world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any unmediated encounter with it in and of itself. This is what Thomas Kuhn meant in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when he said that after a paradigm shift — after one scientific vocabulary, with its attendant experimental and evidentiary apparatus, has replaced another — scientists are living in a different world; which again is not to say (what it would be silly to say) that the world has been altered by our descriptions of it; just that only through our descriptive machineries do we have access to something called the world.
As with most discussions about deconstruction, gleeful derision picks up in the comments following Professor Fish’s article immediately and doesn’t stop for 400-or-so entries. A sample of the vitriolic responses:
This is drivel about drivel — “metadrivel” as some stucturalist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist might say. Literary theory (not to be confused with literature) is more worthless and deluded than alchemy or astrology ever were. It should be banished from our educational system. Failing that, any student who takes a course in literary theory should be required to take three in mathematics, a discipline which has actually manages to cogently connect words and names with perceptions and actions.
Dr. Fish says that “If deconstruction was something that an American male icon performed, there was no reason to fear it….” But we know not only American icons performed deconstruction. One of its most infamous practitioners, Paul de Man, was a Nazi collaborator, raising the spectre that even a devil could quote the supposed holy scripture of deconstruction.
Hard to argue against charges of “metadrivel’ and Nazism, especially for a text that contains evidence of neither. I don’t personally accord with some of Fish’s views, particularly his assertion that deconstruction “doesn’t have any” political implications. Derrida himself spent the second half of his career arguing the exact opposite. In fact, if the 400+ responses, the majority of whom can scarcely keep their spittle in their mouths, are any indication, deconstruction can assert a very palpable political force.
Filed under: Literature | Tags: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Detective Fiction, Jacques Derrida, Les Gommes, Molloy, Obituary, Post-Structuralism, Pour un nouveau roman, Samuel Beckett
Alain Robbe-Grillet died last week. While his macho media posturing and depictions of sadism, pedophilia and sexual perversion render him a much more public figure (and hence, more controversial) in France, his influence on English literature in the the late-twentieth century remains emphatic and undeniable. In Pour un nouveau roman (1963), Robbe-Grillet outlined a theory of the novel (while steadfastly refusing the label) and called for a departure from the holistic realism of Balzac and Tolstoy. The novel, as we know it, is dead. This would not be a problem, Robbe-Grillet argues, except that we continue, literature continues, as if the novel were still alive:
A “good” novel…has remained the study of a passion—or of a conflict of passions, or of the absence of passion—in a given milieu. Most of our contemporary novelists of the traditional sort—those, that is, who manage to earn the approval of their readers—could insert long passages from [Madame de Lafayette's] The Princess of Clèves or [Balzac's] Père goirot into their own books without awakening the suspicions of the enormous public with whatever they turn out. (15-16)
It was not enough to tinker with the psychological threads of a novel through tired conceits like character, story and theme. Championed by the likes of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, Robbe-Grillet’s manifesto cleared the way for an interrogation of the “raw material” of language with which the writer constructs the novel:
What is so surprising about this, after all? The raw material—the French language—has undergone only very slight modifications for three hundred years; and if society has been gradually transformed, if industrial techniques have made considerable progress, our intellectual civilization has remained much the same. (16)
If we are to find out more about what it means to be human, then, we must discard these stale ways of looking at the world, of writing about it, and see in different ways.
It is no accident, then, that Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel, Les Gommes (1953), took advantage the detective fiction genre in its existentialist examination of the self. We have been trying to “detect” the “human heart” (which, Robbe-Grillet wryly observes, “as everyone knows is eternal”) but hitherto writers have only succeeded in repeating the same stories of “passion” in slightly altered duds. Detection, it turns out, is not about solving crimes based on evidence, but on signifying them. That is, detection is as much about coercing the available facts as it is about interpreting them.
Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951, English 1955) similarly employed the genre in its exploration of authorship, identity and agency. In the second half of Beckett’s novel, Moran, the private detective charged with locating Molloy, descends into a world where “evidence: and “clues” hardly function as such, and his scientific, schematic interpretation of the world violently breaks down. Moran murders a strange man that appears to him in his state of poverty and despair, and submits a “report” that shares the same opening sentence with the first half of Molloy: the section narrated by the eponymous character Moran is meant to be tracking. Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes is remarkably close to Beckett’s text: in a surreal landscape redolent with allusions to Oedipus Rex, Wallas, the police inspector of Les Gommes investigates a murder only to end up murdering the victim himself. For Robbe-Grillet, the failure of language to signify a recognizable reality echoes the failure of evidence to reveal the criminal.
The evidence gathered by the inspectors [in any detective story]–an object left at the scene of the crime, a movement captured in a photograph, a sentence overheard by a witness–seem chiefly, at first, to require an explanation, to exist only in relation to their role in a context which overpowers them. And already the theories begin to take shape: the presiding magistrate attempts to establish a logical and necessary link between things…
But the story begins to proliferate in a disturbing way: the witnesses contradict one another, the defendant offers several alibis, new evidence appears that had not been taken into account….And we keep going back to the recorded evidence: the exact position of apiece of furniture, the shape and frequency of a fingerprint, the word scribbled in a message. We have the mounting sense that nothing else is true. Though they may conceal a mystery, or betray it, these elements which make a mockery of systems have only one serious, obvious quality, which is to be there.
The same is true of the world around us. (22-3)
Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman reveals traditional detection for the illusion it is. Solving a crime based on a crime scene is nothing less than imposing a narrative upon it—colonizing it with prefabricated notions of order, interpretation and routine. We can only make use of detection with the self-awareness that it is treacherous—insidious. American writers like Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Paul Auster in City of Glass (1987) borrow Robbe-Grillet’s usage of the detection conceit for their own conception of the loss of interpretive certainty. While Robbe-Grillet’s impact on contemporary literature may be more polemical than critical, the economy and strength of his demands for the nouveau roman ensure his legacy.
*All citations are taken from: Alain Robbe-Grillet. For a New Novel [Pour un nouveau roman]. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1989.