A couple of days ago--I'm just catching up now after dealing with a work crisis and general exhaustion--Stanley Fish blogged about the politics of French theory, or more specifically, the American politicization of Jacques Derrida. In his weekly post Fish recalls the culture wars of 1980s and '90s academia, when deconstruction and various other imported theories were at their peak of prestige and influence--as well as the peak of the furious counter-reformation of conservatives such as Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, and Roger Kimball.
I was a graduate student in literary and film studies during the peak of the culture wars. Reading Derrida and the French theorists was exciting, but our understanding of them was piecemeal. With sixty freshman comp essays to grade and two seminar papers due, who had the time or the energy to puzzle through the entirety of Writing and Difference or Ecrits? All we were looking for was some terms to describe what we saw all around us.
Deconstruction was irritatingly resistant to systemization or coherent summarization, but in its playful logic, at once anarchic and rational, seemed to be an antidote to the times. This was, after all, the post Reagan-Bush era, when the political fault lines we're now struggling to overcome were first being drawn. The conservative revolution, with its evil blend of economic ruthlessness and religious cant, fit neatly into Derrida's deconstruction of essence and margin. Derrida gave us a decorous way to say our country was run by a band of greedy, callous assholes. Republicans may have had tax breaks and Fox News on their side, but we had language itself on ours. Foucault had taught us that language was out in front of action, so history, we hoped, was on our side. The problem, of course, was that one can't know ahead of time which language practice was in the lead, and which was trailing dreamily behind. Remember when it was cool to think that rap gave voice to the voiceless?
Stanley Fish, with Miltonian scorn, says that seminar room guerillas like me were deluded from the start. He cites Francois Cusset, author of the forthcoming French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press) to claim that Derrida was innocently deconstructing Rousseau when he was seized by impatient and vengeful American academics for their "bellicose drama" (Cusset's phrase). Fish shakes his head at American academic liberals on the hunt for pernicious logocentrisms and the even more vituperative conservatives who loved to hate them. "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," Fish writes. "Not comedy, not tragedy, more like farce, but farce with consequences."
I don't suppose it matters much to point out that beginning with The Post Card Derrida himself took a decisive turn toward the political. "I have often had to insist on the fact that deconstruction is not a discursive or theoretical matter," he declares in that book, "but practico-political, and that it is always produced within what we call (rather summarily) institutional frameworks." Nor would it do much good to remind the famously stubborn Fish that he came to prominence during the era of high theory by creating a role for himself as deconstruction's dangerous supplement. But it is worth noting that the twilight of the conservative revolution, we're arguing again about centers and margins, reality and representations, ideology and praxis--all the topics we kicked around the seminar room in the 1990s.