Fish Spins Derrida (in his grave)

Stanley Fish uses the occasion of an upcoming book by Francois Cusset to restate his old line that deconstruction, properly understood, has no political implications. He writes that, after deconstruction has done its work on some scientific or literary text,”[t]he world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.” He continues:

This is not the conclusion that would be reached either by French theory’s detractors or by those American academics who embraced it. For both what was important about French theory in America was its political implications, and one of Cusset’s main contentions — and here I completely agree with him — is that it doesn’t have any.

I appreciate the skepticism Fish wants to direct toward some of Derrida’s American acolytes, and I have no doubt that Derrida has been grossly misused in American humanities departments (I have seen in done many times), but, at the same time, I ain’t buying what Fish is selling.

At the end of this passage, he slyly makes a normative assertion look like a description, using “is” when he really means “should be.” There’s some irony in Fish trying to decide this argument by suggesting that deconstruction, contrary to deconstruction, should be (much less is) in control of its implications. Fish, who often spritzes a pragmatist gloss onto his writings, ought to appreciate the need to assess deconstruction at least in part by what its implications turn out to be.

But even apart from the impossibility of the argument as Fish wants to make it, there’s a simpler sort of genealogical argument that works against him, which is that deconstruction belongs to a philosophical tradition that, at its roots, is about, broadly speaking, delegitimizing received understandings and, more narrowly speaking, driven by a certain disgust with Europe’s ascendant bourgeoisie and a desire to épater it. (That Fish is a conspicuously bourgeois postmodernist has its charm, and is consistent in its own way. I will admit this.) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s weirdly, narrowly dogmatic to insist that it isn’t political. Just because Being and Time ends in a trance of rapt passivity, that doesn’t mean it has no political implications.

I should wait until Cusset’s book comes out before I say much more, but I will note that Derrida himself had to face up to the criticism, from Marxist and feminist academics, that deconstruction was so skeptical and relativistic as to be apolitical. From a Marxist standpoint, deconstruction is certainly problematic, with its regress of deferrals of meaning that continues, well after the the socialist discussion group has broken up, onto infinity. And Derrida himself had an answer to this criticism. He said, fairly late in the game, that deconstruction “is justice.” By this he meant that deconstruction represents a spirit of tireless critical vigilance against all claims to final possession of the truth of absolute justice, which is to say that it is committed to the task of delegitimizing received understandings. Whether you want to join Derrida in aggrandizing Derrida by saying that this practice “is justice” (I would like everyone to agree that my writings “are awesomeness”) it’s hard to deny that, understood in this way, it has political implications.