French Theory in America by Stanley Fish

Here’s a great piece by literary critic Stanley Fish, over at his New York Times blog “Think Again,” who offers brief history in the coming to America of French Theory (and namely deconstruction). Here’s a couple quotes I like from the post:

[In Bacon’s work] The mind will be protected from its own inclination to err and “swell,??? and the tools the mind inevitably employs, the tools of representation — words, propositions, predications, measures, symbols (including the symbols of mathematics) — will be reined in and made serviceable to and subservient to a prior realm of unmediated fact.

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.


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 (written) by discursive forms which “it??? (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.


Three centuries later, Richard Rorty made exactly 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. These are not categories we choose — were they not already installed there would be nothing that could do the choosing; it would make more sense (but not perfect sense ) to say that they have chosen or colonized us. Both the “I??? and the world it would know are functions of language. Or in Derrida’s famous and often vilified words: There is nothing outside the text. (More accurately, there is no outside-the-text.)

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.

And finally,

Criticizing something because it is socially constructed (and thus making the political turn) is what Judith Butler and Joan Scott are in danger of doing when they explain that deconstruction “is not strictly speaking a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established.??? But those “exclusionary operations??? could be held culpable only if they were out of the ordinary, if waiting around the next corner of analysis was a position that was genuinely inclusive. Deconstruction tells us (we don’t have to believe it) that there is no such position. 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.

(From French Theory in America – Stanley Fish – Think Again Via Caballo “Fish on Deconstruction“)