French Theory and an Americanism

From the emerging hoopla round this book, “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States,” comes this comment:

Derrida himself (or itself) lamented the “turning into method” of his more ethereal “movement” of de-construct-ing. Americans try to get things done with things. It is much like French versus American porno—in the French version a naked man scales a 40 story building and appears, uninvited outside the window of a naked woman, who, being French, invites him in for coffee, whereupon, to the consternation of horny Americans viewing in some French hotel, the two of them proceed to talk about the meaning of life for an hour and a half (where’s the sex, the practical Americans lament!!!). In the American version, pumping rapidly reaches it unoriginal conclusion, unencumbered by feeling, sensation, reaction, subjectivity, objectivity, -tivities of any sort. Cusset and Fish, both, would have been wiser to put all this de-ing of things into a cross-cultural porno perspective. It both simplifies while bringing out the essence.

Hilarious!

I would like to know what Cusset has to say about the material reception and circulation of some of Deleuze’s ideas in the US. All the current bullshit in the comments to the Stanley Fish New York Times blog post on the topic about deconstructionism — or a group of people called ‘decons’ (what? the fools leaving comments can’t spend an extra 1.7 to 3.1 seconds writing ‘deconstructionists’?)– is a typically American way to talk about poststructuralism. Derrida? Very narrow utility and writing doesn’t inspire me into thought, but his concepts have their strengths. So do those of Deleuze and Foucault, who also happen to be in the title of the book. Deconstruction is not poststructuralism. It shits me to read critical comments from intellectually myopic Americans about some stupid grad course they took 10 years ago. Decons… Fuck. They are seemingly oblivious to Fish’s point about their conceptual-discursive tools constructing them.

5 thoughts on “French Theory and an Americanism”

  1. Heh. I missed this one when you posted it the other day.

    Fish’s column is both extremely helpful and flawed. I love the way he eschews the hyperbole for the sake of presenting a calm and utterly sensible account of the implications of deconstruction. By the same token, his critique of Butler and Scott’s line about deconstruction being a critical interrogation is premised on a surprisingly formalist and transcendentalist conception of deconstruction.

    It’s true that deconstruction just “happens”, that it’s always happening and already happening, and that it happens in (relation to) any image of presence, including the image of presence that underpins “critiques” of “positions” in the name of a more “inclusive position”. But Fish forgets that for deconstruction, context is everything (even if context is also always divided, and never fully determining or delimitable). Deconstruction isn’t indiscriminate, for the simple reason that context matters — context shapes possibilities, forms of thought and action, etc., just as Fish has already stated — and context varies (historically, geographically, institutionally, etc.), which is precisely why context matters. If context was invariable, it would be insignificant.

    Because context matters, deconstruction can never be the purely formalist, transcendental exercise Fish wants it to be. Contexts are riven by force; they are riven by (among other things) what F. would call power relations, which institute “positions” which are granted or grant themselves the image of presence. Deconstruction happens in relation to those images of presence (which are the only present images of presence). In other words, deconstruction happens in relation to what is thinkable and what is possible, which is to say what is currently or contextually thinkable and possible. What deconstruction “produces”, moreover, is not an image of presence, but a trace of the unthinkable within the thinkable. Thus deconstruction is not purely disinterested, since it necessarily (understood both in the logical and the ethical senses of necessity) operates in the name of the unthinkable, the impossible.

    It’s not entirely ironic that Fish recognises this without recognising it — having a go at Americans for not liking the impossible, but failing to affirm it in his own account.

    But it’s not all bad: Fish’s narrative of deconstruction has given me an idea for a horror movie. French Nanotech scientists invent microscopic (or, rather, nanoscopic) machines that are capable of searching out anything human-made and eating away at its foundations, at the very atomic structure of its molecules. The French scientists attempt to experiment with these machines in highly controlled and secured situations, but — because these things can undermine anything instituted by humans — they break through the constraints and escape into the world. The machines are then accidentally imported into the US [Scene: a French airport, where a sizeable group of American publishing execs are readying themselves to board a plane back to LA], where they begin to wreak havoc. Indiscriminate as they are, the begin to destroy everything, starting with books, breaking them down into an entirely useless kind of mush. From there the machines start disseminating into broader fields, attacking the buildings of all the major public institutions, then traffic control systems, iPods, clothing, public relations firms, and anything else synthetic. Finally, the machines start to deconstruct our very minds, eating away at the brain cells and turning them into the same undifferentiated waste they have transformed everything else into. The world becomes a wasteland, and the people become vegetative, completely unmotivated and incapable even of turning this way or that for lack of ability to believe in the consequences of either way.

    I think it’s a winner — a truly terrifying scenario. The only problem is that I can’t think of an ending…

  2. “Contexts are riven by force; they are riven by (among other things) what F. would call power relations, which institute “positions” which are granted or grant themselves the image of presence. Deconstruction happens in relation to those images of presence (which are the only present images of presence).”

    Interesting. So ‘contexts’ as above are similar to what F. (circa archeology period) calls “fields of positivity” for truth distributed throughout the archive, and the distribution of which can be mapped through a pursuit of ‘statements’. Such “fields of positivity” indeed are the conditions of possibility within a particular historico-discursive juncture.

    Furthermore, the ‘happening’ of this “field of positivity” (an expression of what I believe to be F.’s much forgotten neo-Kantian influence) seems to me to be roughly equivalent to Deleuze’s event to the extent that the paradoxes of sense (and events) D. isolates in _The Logic of Sense_ fit the way you are describing the ‘happening’ of context (infinite regress, etc).

    The never-ending spiral of what F. described as the ‘unthought’ of thought (or what you potentialise as the unthinkable of the thinkable) was theorised by Butler through the body as a moebius strip. In a lecture, D. described it as the irrationality underpinning all rational systems, the delirium of capitalism, etc. The circularity of the moebius strip metaphor I think misses the iterative potential of difference that, in their respective ways, Derrida and Deleuze emphasise, and which Butler in part captures with arguments regarding the performativity of gender.

  3. “So ‘contexts’ as above are similar to what F. (circa archeology period) calls “fields of positivity” for truth distributed throughout the archive, and the distribution of which can be mapped through a pursuit of ’statements’. Such “fields of positivity” indeed are the conditions of possibility within a particular historico-discursive juncture.”

    That’s certainly how I understand them. My Derrida is very much a Foucauldian Derrida. I don’t think they’re identical, of course, but the line of difference is so much finer than the “Foucault is materialist; Derrida is idealist” types would have. (FWIW, I think that line has largely to do with the varying extent to which each affirms or accounts for what Caputo calls “obligation” in his fabulous book, Against Ethics.)

    So, I don’t buy into the accounts of D. that see him as “textualist” in the sense that that term ordinarily evokes. And I think far too many people miss the “positivism” of F. (which I think, obviously, can be found in D. too). Or, at least, they don’t appreciate the implications — which, I guess, is one of Fish’s points. But the latter’s formalist description of deconstruction ends up resting on the image of an “outside-context” or “non-context”, which is to say a “field of non-positivity”.

    I’m not so up with Deleuze, as you know. I am predisposed, however, not to think that he’s an idiot or that he’s easily identified and negated. Most of my Deleuze is actually from D&G, but I’ve read snatches of D&G-G from here or there. What I’ve read makes good sense, and is comparable to my readings of F. and Derrida. I’ve got a few points of concern — though only minor concerns insofar as they amount to potential weaknesses in the system that is derivable from those fragments. Then again, systematising D. is precisely the wrong thing to do with D. (and the same goes for Derrida, and probably Foucault, though to a lesser extent), since the will to systematise is one of Deleuze’s target (and Derrida’s and Foucault’s).

    I’m always interested in reading solid accounts of the points of comparison and difference between D. and D. The problem, I guess, is that it’s often hard to do that without doing the systematisation, since there are few points of contact between them otherwise. Their respective work on Nietzsche is the obvious exception here…

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