French Theory in America
The New York Times, April 6, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
The rationalist tradition hoped to extend man's reasoning powers in
order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world. The
danger to the project was that everything, even the framing of
experiments, begins with words. As an antidote Francis Bacon proposed
his famous method of induction. In this way, Bacon hopes, the "entire
work of the understanding" will be "commenced afresh" because the mind
will be guided at every step.
To this hope, French theory says
the distinctions that define the task — the "I," the world, and the
forms of description or signification that will be used to join them —
are not independent of one another in a way that would make the task
conceivable, never mind doable.
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 by discursive forms which "it" did not originate and cannot
step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short, what we
think with thinks us.
It also thinks the world. What we know of
the world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any
unmediated encounter with it. This is what Thomas Kuhn meant when he
said that after a paradigm shift scientists are living in a different
world. Only through our descriptive machineries do we have access to
something called the world.
Jacques Derrida said there is nothing
outside the text. The rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive
this deconstructive analysis intact. The progressive program it is
thought to underwrite and implement is not realizable.
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
is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word
that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that happens is that
one epistemology is replaced by another.
French theory in America
has no political implications. When a deconstructive analysis
interrogates an apparent unity and discovers 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 that can be banished or corrected.
Deconstruction's technique of always going deeper has no natural
stopping place. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing
that Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make
deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is just
another position awaiting deconstruction.
Edited by Andy Ross
Many Derridean texts begin with a questioning of the notion of beginning and
announce every few pages that the beginning is actually beginning only to go
on and disappoint those readers who were seduced into thinking that in a few
more sentences they would be in control of a consecutive argument. Derrida's
so-called obscurity is the (anti)expository equivalent of the (non)lesson
deconstruction teaches, and I sin against its spirit by trying earnestly to
Derrida's language is performative. Its own unfolding
or, rather, refusal to unfold, is its message. Derrida's style enacts the
deconstructive point that meaning is always elsewhere, a point also insisted
upon by those religious thinkers who warn us against the sin of mistaking a
historical and partial meaning for the true meaning, which always escapes
and exceeds its momentary instantiations.
undermine no truths or propositions except those propositions that make up a
general account of truth. Theories of truth count only when they are
competing with other theories of truth. The only thing that is different
when one theory of truth supplants another is that different answers will be
given to questions of epistemology.
If general theories of truth do
not produce psychological states, neither do they produce the political
tendencies that supposedly follow from those states. You can't criticize
something for being socially constructed if everything is. Deconstruction
doesn't change anything.