Blind Man with a Pistol

Despising Deconstruction

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.

2 Comments so far
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That language is representational is obvious and unimportant. Derrida and his ilk have nothing of interst or importance to say. You, like Fish, are boring. Self-referencial statements and linguistic sylopsisms a la Foucault and Derrida are evidence of academia climbing into its own navel and abandoning fact and truth, turning most departments into heaps of drivel and nonsense. As a Phd student I’m sick of sophistry and garbage reframed as “intellectual integrity” at the “postmodern university”

Comment by Cynthia

I can see that you are upset about something, and “sophistry…reframed as ‘intellectual integrity'” gets my goat as much as anything; but I’m not sure whatever you’re upset about can be found in this article. It’s as if the mere mention of any of these names is enough to raise unfathomable ire in those programmed with the itch. As a “PhD student”, I might expect a more engaged reading with what is actually written down. I’m sorry you find me boring. Feel free to ignore it!

Comment by Blind Man

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