Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Deconstructing Deconstruction

Prof. Stanley Fish has an excellent analysis of how French theory (particularly Foucault, whom we discuss in Punishment quite a bit) transformed American philosophical thought during the so-called "culture wars" of the 1990's.

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.

Deconstruction’s technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction.
In other words, deconstruction for deconstruction's sake is often pointless, circular and self-defeating, especially if the "goal" of deconstruction is political in nature. I'm not sure why that point was lost in the 90's, but perhaps it was deconstructed right into obscurity.

Fish's column is a must read for those of you wrestling with Foucaultian or French theory, and the book he mentions by Cusset is something I plan on picking up.

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