This past April, Stanley Fish, the postmodernist English professor with a knack for parlaying whatever current well-compensated teaching job he holds into an even better compensated teaching job somewhere else (he’s now a “distinguished professor” at Florida International University after stints—necessarily somewhat brief—at the University of California-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois-Chicago) devoted one of his blog-posts at the New York Times to a rave review of a book yet unpublished in America, “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co.Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States,” by the French intellectual historian Francois Cusset.
The review was less about Cusset’s book than about Fish himself and Fish’s own ideas about the postmodernism: the notion, promulgated by the ur-postmodernist and Fish idol Jacques Derrida, and now the reigning orthodoxy in college literature departments across the country, that essentially there’s no such thing as reality, and there’s also no such thing as a “you” or “me” with sufficient rational ability to know anything about that reality. All we have are “texts” or “narratives” that may purport to tell us what is real (example: a scientific article) but are actually no more than self-referential expressions of ideology (such as belief in scientific progress). Fish wrote: “All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked ‘What’s your epistemology?’ you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before.”
Fish continued: “When a deconstructive analysis interrogates an apparent unity — a poem, a manifesto, a sermon, a procedure, an agenda — and discovers, as it always will, that its surface coherence is achieved by the suppression of questions it must not ask if it is to maintain the fiction of its self-identity, the result is not the discovery of an anomaly, of a deviance from a norm that can be banished or corrected; for no structure built by man (which means no structure) could be otherwise.”
Fish’s April 8 blog-post, with its meanderings into such technical philosophical terms as “epistemology,’ drew 619 comments (unusual for an exposition of academic arcana), several from readers with philosophical training who accused the English professor of confusing epistemology (how we know) with metaphysics (what is real) and semantics (how language expresses notions of reality) and otherwise knowing little about actual philosophy as practiced in university philosophy departments. The “Sokal Hoax,” the famous parody-article declaring the laws of physics to be a mere “social constructions,” that New York University physics professor Alan Sokal managed to get published in the Fish-inspired Duke journal Social Text in 1996, came in for a derisive airing at Fish’s expense. Fish responded with a second post, on April 20 that tried to defend postmodernism against Sokal’s ridicule, pointing out that there’s a difference between propositions that can be known from experience (such as the law of gravity) and those that depend on a “theory of truth.” Many of the 280 comments on this latest piece accused Fish of even more philosophical befuddlement (for example, if something can be known experientially, doesn’t that mean it can be known, after all?).
Now, months after Fish’s columns, Cusset’s book, published in France in 2003, is finally available in English translation from the University of Minnesota Press, and as reviewer Scott McLemee points out in Book Forum, it’s a book worth reading and a worthy historical companion to Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, the masterly 2005 “deconstruction,” as it were, of postmodern jargon and esoterica by Daphne Patai and Wilfrido Corral. Cusset argues that the godfathers of deconstructionism, Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and others, were (and still are) regarded as at best marginal figures in the intellectual life of their native France, and their abstruse and often incomprehensible speculations about the nature of language and reality were not particularly political. Many of the leading postmodern figures were at odds with each other; social theorist Jean Baudrillard quarreled with Foucault’s sado-masochistic rewriting of Western history, and the Freudian-throwback psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan drew the wrath of feminist-theorist Luce Irigaray over Lacan’s obsession with “the phallus” and “castration complexes.”
Then, during the 1970s, postmodernistm reached America, where its practitioners were celebrities and dragooned into the service of identity politics, “postcolonialism” (the Edward Said-inspired idea that Third World societies have been warped and damaged by Western powers, and “new historicism” (the idea that works of literature are essentially expressions of “anxiety” about social and economic conditions). This was partly due to the efforts of the postmodernists themselves, who were infatuated with American hippie counterculture (beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a favorite of Deleuze). In 1975, Deleuze, Foucault, and fellow theorists Felix Guattari and Jean-Francois Lyotard were invited to New York for a conference titled “Schizo-Culture” at Columbia Teachers College. The four bunked at the rock star-favored Chelsea Hotel and got to meet Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, as well as a plethora of U.S. intellectual radicals. Deleuze and Guattari traveled on to the West Coast, where they were introduced to Lawrence Felinghetti, Patti Smith, and, in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood, some Black Panthers with whom they compared “their respective experiences of ‘active defense’ and ‘local resistance,” Cusset writes.
The theories of the postmoderns, now U.S. celebrities, as well as their often-unreadable prose styles, transfixed bookish American academics who liked to think of themselves as radical activists. Cusset writes hilariously of American feminists’ embrace of the ideas of Foucault, a notorious woman-hater, of the proliferation of identity-fixated “studies” (black studies, Chicano studies, “disability studies,” “subaltern studies,” and, of course, “cultural studies” (the analysis, or, as postmodernists would say, “interrogation,” of comic books and TV), and the postmodernist takeover, not only of college literature departments (where Fish and other disciples of Derrida and Foucault became superstars), but of recently conservative scholarly organizations such as the Modern Language Association, which began featuring panels at its annual convention on such topics as “The Sodomite Tourist” and “Coming out as an Obese Woman.”
There is much to exasperate the reader in Cusset’s book. He downplays, for example, the radical politics of the French postmoderns themselves, most of whom were Marxists, Maoists, or 1968-era leftists at various points during their careers. A chapter titled “The Ideological Backlash” ridicules in tired and tiresome fashion Ronald Reagan, Allan Bloom, assorted “neoconservatives,” the tough-on-crime policies of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the entire Bush administration, and other predictable targets of bien-pensant European snobbishness. Clearly something of a leftist himself, Cusset regrets above all that American professors, by immersing themselves in the impenetrable rhetoric of postmodern theory, have isolated themselves from public life, where they might have played a role, as Cusset sees it, in marshaling the oppressed victims of capitalism and consumerism to a meaningful revolution. For this we can be thankful. Me, I’m with Camille Paglia (another American backlasher of whom Cusset clearly disapproves), who wrote: “Let’s dump the French in Boston Harbor and let them swim home.”