U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stanley Fish on deconstruction

Anyone see Stanley Fish’s post on deconstruction in his blog on the New York Times site? I was pretty impressed with it: a straightforward and accessible account that recognizes the insights of the school while simultaneously taking issue with both the right-wing hysteria over its political implications and the triumphalist leftist claim that Enlightenment is at the root of all misery.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for posting on this. I haven’t read the NYT piece, but I wasn’t aware that non-paying readers could access anything by Fish at the NYT site. …More to follow.

    – TL

  2. Actually, the “Times Select” program was so unpopular that they cancelled it. Everything on the site is available for free, but some things require registration.

    I’ve been registered for years, and don’t get any extra spam or anything. I’m willing to vouch for it–definitely worth signing up for.

  3. Mike,

    After a week of calling up the site and not having enough time to read it, I finally absorbed Fish’s post.

    I agree with him on the academic versus political uses of deconstruction. For the former, it’s a useful tool in demonstrating social construction. I disagree with Fish, however, in that it only shows what was normal at the time of construction. If one can find counter examples in time to contrast, then you might prove that the social construction of the historian’s topic of exploration was anamolous. You might be able to show a historical process of exclusion.

    But on on present political uses, I agree completely. When we undermine the meaning of words as tools, then we can’t use words as weapons of change. Then our politics sinks only into the logic of power or control. It’s a politically self-destructive philosophy.

    I’ll stop here. Explorations of deconstruction and poststructuralism always get messy. This is precisely because of what was mentioned in Fish’s piece (or the book): the popularity each during the culture wars.

    – TL

  4. Fish’s comments are interesting and smart, as always. It’s a short journalistic piece, of course, but he doesn’t explore, whether with sympathy or empathy, just why self-described cultural conservatives often were and remain so threatened by deconstructionism. Were they as off-point as the cultural radicals who imagined deconstruction as the stuff of apocalyptic political radicalism and tenure-worthy professionally-validated neo-formalist publication all at once? Hmm.

    As Fish well knows, to critique everyday conceptual binaries (where there are always “naturalized” major and minor terms) and “what comes naturally” is often to critique common-sense understandings of “natural” categories of morals, aesthetics, economics, metaphysics, theology, and so forth. One can be a genius deconstructor of aesthetic ideology in canonical European literature, like say Paul de Man, and not be a great economic or political radical, but one can imagine de Man’s as indeed being terribly threatening to certain versions of cultural conservatism which are used by anti-intellectual ideologues to underwrite certain polemics on behalf of economic and political conservatism and so forth.

    In other words, Fish sometimes presents his arguments as those of a world-weary, seen-it-all, hard-headed realist who can look beyond the mere academic professing of criticism and history, but in fact his journalism might offer a sense of how deconstruction does make the foundations wobble, if slowly and at length and all but invisibly. Cannot we sense in Derrida’s work the long shadow of Nietzsche, surely a cultural radical? These influences can be celebrated (as I would) or condemned, but they are hardly small beer.

    Since we are here mostly to talk about intellectual history, and often to trade reading suggestions, allow me to recommend a text from the golden age of when some intellectual historians read works by Derrida and de Man, among others, for tips on new methodological avenues: Dominick LaCapra’s classic chapter “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts” from his collection RETHINKING INTELLECTUAL HISTORY: TEXTS, CONTEXTS, LANGUAGE (Cornell UP, 1983).

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