Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"French theory" in the news

Yesterday, two friends raised the topic of deconstruction. The first was a non-linguist who's reading Susan Jacoby's new American Age of Unreason, a book about all strains of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism afflicting our culture (see here). I haven't read it yet, but he reports that "it's all the fault of linguistics". Jacoby argues, he says, that linguists gave Derrida, Lacan, Foucault their key boost. It wasn't our fault. Trust me. They didn't actually understand what we were doing.

Then at the end of the day, somebody emailed about Stanley Fish's latest NYT blog post on "French theory" in America. Here too, linguistics gets invoked, touched on in the obvious sense of how language encodes things and with a reference to Cartesianism, but really it's about flash not substance. Why did deconstruction get so popular?
Partly it was about the contingent effects of a sexy new way of thinking that pretty much swept the field in a number of academic disciplines, something that had happened even more dramatically and quickly in the late ’50s and early ’60s when Noam Chomsky’s “Transformational Grammar” made walking ghosts out of previously celebrated academics in a matter of months.
Sigh. Does this exemplify the kind of mindset Jacoby is talking about? Either way, a key moment in linguistic theory is reduced to some kind of reality TV shtick. The structuralists were wrong about a lot, for sure, but there's no joy for us in their destruction. The real progress in our field isn't made in cage matches, but in labs and working groups.


Anonymous said...

Raymond Tallis wrote a good piece on Derrida's misunderstanding of Saussure. It is titled "The Linguistic Unconscious - Saussure and the Post-Saussureans" and is available in either "From Enemies of Hope" or the anthology "Theory's Empire". I recommend it to any of your readers who might be interested in this subject.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, thanks, that's great. I'll try to read that and various readers of this blog no doubt will too. I read a little similar stuff long ago but haven't dug out references.