French Theory in America

By Stanley Fish
The New York Times, April 6, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Part One

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.

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.

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.

Part Two

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 rehearse it.

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.

Deconstructive arguments 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.