Monday, April 07, 2008

"There Is Nothing Outside The Text "

Stanley Fish had a op-ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, Yusef, that seems relevant to us. Here are a few quotes,

It’s a great story, full of twists and turns, and now it has been told in extraordinary detail in a book to be published next month: “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States” (University of Minnesota Press). The book’s author is Francois Cusset, who 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.

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.

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, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project , believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.

To this hope, French theory (and much thought that precedes it) says “forget about it”; not because no methodological cautions could be sufficient to the task, but because 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.

Instead (and this is the killer), both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

Obviously the rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive this deconstructive analysis intact, which doesn’t mean that it must be discarded (the claim to be able to discard it from a position superior to it merely replicates it) or that it doesn’t yield results (I am writing on one of them); only that the progressive program it is thought to underwrite and implement — the program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to this way of thinking, realizable.

…what was important about French theory in America was its political implications, and one of Cusset’s main contentions — and here I completely agree with him — is that it doesn’t have any. 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.

More here:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

See Please Here

5:18 PM  
Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Warning about the above post: SPAM.

Don't go there.


5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Orla,

When you entitled this post "There is nothing outside the text" were you doing so approvingly? In other words, do you agree with that statement? Because if so, I have not understood you very well.

I enjoyed the Stanley Fish excerpt until I came to this:

"…what was important about French theory in America was its political implications, and one of Cusset’s main contentions — and here I completely agree with him — is that it doesn’t have any."

I do not think this follows from what had preceded. Of course whether it does or doesn't has dogged us almost from the beginning of our discussion - practically from your first involvement here when you posted a comment questioning Deleuzian agency.


10:33 AM  
Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Hey Yusef,

Good to hear from you.

About the title of the post: I simply lifted the well-known Derrida quote from the article, meaning there is nothing outside LANGUAGE. It was no more subtle than that.

I, too, was a bit perplexed about the statement that French theory had no political implications whatsoever.

This is still a matter I can't really get my mind around. In its generalized totality it almost becomes meaningless, and I suspect Fish enjoyed the provocation as he often does.

If you have the time there's a lively and fascinating discussion in the comments section below the article in The New York Times.

It is certainly a very worthwhile subject to pick up on, also on this blog.

Don't you think?

All the best,


12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

599 comments so far in that very good discussion over at the NY Times.


4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That discussion is good because it points up many,many problems with the apprehension of the materials purported to be discussed, not because anything anyone says there is insightful or illuminating.

I've often wondered why so many people feel entitled to call something which is difficult to understand IMPOSSIBLE to understand...To claim something which deals with a difficult matter is simply confused.

I'm an average American and so I have some clue about where these comments are coming from...What I would like to do here at EU is reawaken the sense for the problems from which French Theory derives its sense, and to the extent possible, state what French theory is doing directly in terms addressing these problems.

While reading the Alan Sokal book, I lost all respect for him and all amusement for his little stunt...He succeeded in debunking something he didn't understand and yet was not taken to task for it. He doesn't understand the problems behind what he thinks of merely as fashionable nonsense. Does he really think he is smart because he knows he will fall if he steps off his balcony? Does he really think French theorists are so stupid as to believe they will not? That the accomplishment of French Theory is to obscure such a basic reality?


10:40 AM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Derrida was part of Tel quel and although he never signed on the June 1971 manifesto which hailed Mao as their top theorist, he continued to publish in the rag.

I suppose I do see a political commitment in Derrida insofar as turning texts inside out was the literary equivalent of Mao's turning China inside out, and toppling its idols and moving the merely idle into the countryside where they died in the 80 million range having been removed from their studies and forced to work on growing rice instead of rice-paper texts.

The Cultural REvolution that Derrida implicitly signed on to is coded as "Cultural Studies," in this country.

Tel quel's top name was Kristeva, and her book about Chinese Women was more or less their biggest hit.

France was enormously enamored of Mao at the time. Simone de Beauvoir wrote a massive tome calling Mao the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity since the Marquis de Sade.

I don't know if anybody reads that book in relation to the rest of her thought, though, these days.

Maoism is considered pretty much an embarrassment since the CR killed so many millions -- including more than half of Tibetans: a bigger percentage killed than even in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

So to be honest I would say that there are political implications to Derrida's work, and to deconstruction. I saw Tel quel as the shock troops for the revolution now known as Cultural Studies.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

I was always on the other hand a big fan of the Dalai Lama, and felt that his sense of how to build a decent community was a much sharper take than that of Mao.

Unfortunately, however, he had no way to fight against a leader who felt that all power comes out of the business end of a rifle.

Still, however, I'm on the side of Tibet, and Buddhism, against the Maoists either from France or from China itself.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very interested now that both you and Orla have weighed in on the Tibetan situation.

I used to fancy myself quite knowledgeable about Tibet, though this would be nearly pure conceit now because I haven't read anything about Tibet in nearly twenty years.

I was fascinated by Tibetan CULTURE.

It didn't bother me if the Tibetan Buddhist clergy was oppressive, exploitative, and irrational. I saw it all as part of Tibetan CULTURE and therefore somehow self-justifying.

What the Tibetan clergy did or did not do did not require justification on the basis of rationality, as far as I was concerned.

The destruction of Tibet by the Maoists horrified me as the Maoists showed no respect for Tibetan CULTURE at all. It was despicable to them because it was irrational, exploitative, etc.

The Maoists were acting as rationalists, overcoming the "unreason" of the Tibetan theocracy.

Orla supports the overcoming of unreason by reason. (the overcoming of irrationality by rationality.)

However, vis a vis Tibet, Orla appears to support the Tibetans, and perhaps you do too, Kirby.

No doubt the contradiction isn't in your (if such it is,) or Orla's position but in being unable to say what is the nature of rationality...what is or is not rational.


2:52 PM  
Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Now, now, this is getting out of hand. How have we suddenly gotten entangled into a discussion about TIBET, of all places. (Yes, I know it's in the news). The point of Fish's piece in the New York Times is first of all to explain deconstruction to a newspaper audience, and second to review a French book, now translated into English five years after its publication in French.

Thirdly, he tried to revive a time in the 1980's when Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others became a big hit on American campuses.

I read Fish's essay and thought it relevant to our dialogue here on this blog and posted it.

That's it.

But I still think it's a fascinating point he raises, whether French theory had any political implications at all.

Let's discuss that - and leave Tibet to - well - the Tibetans.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please, please, please read this essay which discusses the origins and consequences of the perceptual (and altogether) straight-jacket in which we are ALL trapped, and why the usual (or any) philosophy cant make any difference---it is all mummery-talk.

11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you suppose that essay is somehow above or outside philosophy, somehow escapes what you call mummery-talk? How so?


11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Attention! See Please Here

9:02 AM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

What happened to Tibet is part and parcel of what happened to American campuses via Maoist political correctness in the 80s.

We both suffered immensely under the Maoism regime (SDS as a front organization for the Chinese who were busy supporting the overthrow of American capitalism).

American intellectuals and Tibetan intellectuals have a common foe.

3:48 PM  

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