Jacques Derrida, father of deconstructionism
French Theory in America
By Stanley Fish
The New York Times, April 6, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co.
Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States
By Francois Cusset
University of Minnesota Press, 408 pages
Francois Cusset sets himself the tasks of explaining, first, what
all the fuss was about, second, why the specter of French theory made strong men
tremble, and third, why there was never really anything to worry about.
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
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. The vision was one of a steady progress toward a complete and accurate
account of natural processes.
Francis Bacon saw early on that the danger to the project was that everything,
even the framing of experiments, begins with words. Even precise definitions,
Bacon lamented, don't help because "the definitions themselves consist of words,
and those words beget others" and the investigator is carried ever further way
from the independent object he had set out to apprehend.
As an antidote he 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 "not left to take its own course, but guided at every step, and
the business done as if by machinery."
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
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.
Richard Rorty made the same point when he declared, "where there are no
sentences, there is no truth … the world is out there, but descriptions of the
world are not." 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.
Both the "I" and the world it would know are functions of language. Or in
Derrida's words: There is nothing outside the text.
Obviously the rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive this
deconstructive analysis intact. The progressive program it is thought to
underwrite and implement is not realizable.
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 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.
What was important about French theory in America was its political
implications, and one of Cusset's main contentions is that it doesn't have any.
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.
If "presences" are made by discursive forms that are inevitably angled and
partial, the announcement that any one of them rests on exclusions it occludes
cannot be the announcement of lack or error. No normative conclusion can
legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially
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.
Cusset drives the lesson home: "Deconstruction thus contains within itself…an
endless metatheoretical regression that can no longer be brought to a stop by
any practical decision or effective political engagement." American academics
"forced deconstruction against itself to produce a political 'supplement' and in
so doing substituted for "Derrida's patient philological deconstruction" a
The result is the story Cusset tells about the past 40 years. 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.
I can hardly wait for the movie.
By Stanley Fish
The New York Times, April 20, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
My editor thought that a column on French theory would elicit a
small number of responses. More than 600 comments later, it is clear that terms
like deconstruction and postmodernism can still produce excitement and outrage.
A number of posters found my exposition unintelligible. An equal number found
the column accessible and helpful. A third group (much smaller) complained that
the very lucidity of the exposition was a betrayal of the theory's insights.
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: "it is not so much in the 'saying' but in the 'saying'
as 'doing.'" This use of quotation marks tells us that we are not to understand
the words they surround as we usually do in everyday writing and reading, for if
it did that it would produce a new simple sense that would have to be put within
quotations marks again.
Derrida sometimes called this "writing under erasure": you receive the words but
are blocked from finding either comfort or knowledge in their conventional or
standard meanings. 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.
Deconstruction refuses to allow us to rest in the "images of presence". Instead,
it alerts us to the "trace of the unthinkable within the thinkable" and to the
impossibility of ever getting to the unthinkable itself.
Many posters thought that I got it wrong, especially when I declared that
deconstruction has no political implications. Yes, it does, retorted many
respondents, half of whom said it does something bad, while the other half said
it does something good.
The first group insists that those subjected to deconstructive arguments risk
having their most cherished beliefs taken away from them. But deconstructive
arguments undermine no truths or propositions except those propositions that
make up a general account of truth. Most people who are not philosophers don't
have an account of truth. They just believe that some things are true.
General accounts of truth fall under the category of epistemology. But an
account of how we know will have no effect on what we know. I may change
epistemologies, but that change will not change my conviction that this or that
particular thing is true. 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
Deconstructive or postmodernist arguments don't take anything away from anyone.
Neither do they have the positive effects celebrated by their champions. They do
not for example lead us to be less dogmatic. The degree to which our conviction
of a truth is firm or soft will depend on how massive and conclusive the
relevant evidence is. And if a settled question is to be reopened, it will be
because a doubt has been produced by the invalidation of a specific piece of
If general theories of truth do not produce psychological states, neither do
they produce the political tendencies that supposedly follow from those states.
Tolerance will not be mandated or even inflected by a theory of truth whatever
its content. It will be the result of a consideration of empirical causes and
But do not deconstructive arguments, by alerting us to the socially constructed
nature of any position, encourage a progressive rather than a conservative
politics? The insight that our convictions rest not on bedrock but on
historically produced and revisable assumptions can be used to challenge claims
that this or that practice is a reflection of the way things are and must be.
The lesson that we are always dealing with and living within constructions is
too general to be helpful. What is required if criticism of a settled authority
is to be effective is a demonstration that the construction on which it rests is
pernicious. Demonstrating that it is a construction will not do the job. You
can't criticize something for being socially constructed if everything is.
Deconstruction doesn't change anything.
So what was all the fuss about? Partly it was about the contingent effects of a
sexy new way of thinking that pretty much swept the field in a number of
academic disciplines. It's an old story and it had its casualties and its
Those who were able to catch the wave could say with Wordsworth,
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."
Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor
of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins
and Duke University.
AR British philosopher
Ted Honderich once said on BBC radio that Continental philosophy "was only disgraceful
by our standards."