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Back in 1984 or so, Jacques Derrida came to UCLA to deliver a lecture to the English and Comparative Literature departments. He was the top figure in the humanities at that time, more prominent than Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Richard Rorty, or Paul de Man, each of whom had their votaries. (Foucault overtook Derrida in the late ’80s, especially as gender theory spread.) I can’t remember the topic of the talk; being not long out of undergraduate school I didn’t know enough about the influences on deconstruction to follow Derrida’s allusive style. Derrida was famous, too, for two-hour presentations spoken in plodding cadences (his English wasn’t that great) that pleased only the votaries in the room, of whom there were usually very many.

But at some point in the Q&A discussion following the lecture, he made a clear and simple point that couldn’t be misunderstood. A young English professor in the department (a former student of Edward Said’s at Columbia who knew his theory but had a decided political edge) rose to ask Derrida why he didn’t address political discourses as much as deconstruction seemed to warrant. If the goal of deconstruction was to lay bare implicit assumptions and binary oppositions that enabled the text to operate, where better to apply it than to ideological texts that presume to be politically neutral? 

That’s how I took his question, though it was cloaked in a bunch of assertions about embedded ideology and whatnot, designed mostly to show that the junior prof was a smart guy, a very smart guy. A fellow graduate student translated the question into even simpler terms when we met afterward: “Hey, Derrida, why don’t you ever talk about Marx?”

Derrida did, in fact, write a little book about Marx years later, but in the early ’80s the questioner was correct. And Derrida didn’t dispute him—at least, not on the issue of whether he had ever taken on explicitly political texts. But he did deny an implication in the question. The implication was that deconstruction had a decided bend to the left, and Derrida didn’t agree. The assistant professor assumed that deconstruction offered powerful tools of critique that aligned with political analyses by Marx-inspired thinkers. He didn’t name any of them, but the suggestion was overt and it tallied with other things the prof had said elsewhere. The real question to Derrida, then, was “Why are you holding back?”

This is the challenge Derrida refused. He would not allow that deconstruction had a leftist trajectory. These were his words, the only specific ones I recall from the discussion: “There can be a deconstruction of the left and a deconstruction of the right.” To pin deconstruction down to one political direction would be to engage in precisely the kind of reduction or teleology that deconstruction resists. It would no longer be radical.

I wasn’t surprised by that. It went along with everything I had read by Derrida up until that time: the essays on Heidegger, Levi-Strauss, and Freud, and Of Grammatology. To make critical theory political, to give it a real-world policy plan, was to miscontrue it. Derrida, de Man, and their many American followers regarded it as a dumbing-down maneuver. Derrida talked about the instability of meaning (not the absence of meaning), de Man talked about critical aporias, Stanley Fish identified the inevitable subjective arbitrariness of interpretation, and everyone was engaged in “decentering.” Those waverings didn’t lend themselves to social change. You couldn’t make a politics out of deconstruction unless you introduced goals and ends and “bases and superstructures” that deconstructionists always insisted be themselves interrogated.

This is why politically-inclined temperaments in the 1980s were impatient with theory. Derrida mostly addressed a standard Western canon, Plato to Heidegger, and he appeared more interested in disclosing a glitch in the logic of the sign than in bringing about a more just society. His first-generation followers agreed. The Derrideans at Yale, Johns Hopkins, SUNY-Buffalo, UC-Irvine, and other centers of theory would have regarded the enlistment of theory into a political agenda to be a vulgarization. They wouldn’t object to the ends themselves, but they would eschew theory as the means.

Yes, there were feminists and Marxists here and there in the ’70s and early ’80s, and some of them did indeed incorporate theory into reform pathways, but at that time they didn’t influence those more interested in metaphor and textuality than patriarchy and exploitation. The moral indignation of today’s intersectionality critics would have been out of place in a department meeting or a conference panel (most of the time). Several political critics labeled the theorists mandarins and conservatives precisely because they didn’t get political in their work, but the theorists thought that what the leftists judged a dodge was really a matter of maintaining philosophical rigor. In his 1986 Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association, “The Triumph of Theory,” J. Hillis Miller didn’t show any concern for off-campus politics.

The first-generation theorists lost, of course. De Man was discredited by the discovery of his wartime writings, Harold Bloom was accused of sexism by feminist critics (his theory of poetic influence was male-oriented), and Derrida himself turned to political issues later on. Also, after twenty years of recondite literary theory that drew upon super abstract concepts such as Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference and Hegel’s dialectical logic, the disciplines were ready for matters more concrete: sexual identity, colonial power, ecocriticism. What was lost in conceptual exactitude was gained in a sense of mission. Things changed quickly. A deconstructive reading of Sir Philip Sidney might intrigue an audience in 1980. In 1990, people would fall asleep. Identity issues were now the thing. I was spending my time then working through Charles Sanders Peirce and William James while writing a book on pragmatism, not realizing until later how irrelevant it was to my own field. 

And this kind of investigation was too difficult as well. When scholar-critics involved social issues in their labor, they had a solid moral base on which to build their interpretations, while the theorists of old were stuck on the slippery ice of Continental skepticism. Racism, sexism, etc. didn’t need much clarification, and they certainly provided academics automatic justification for their work, while the endless qualifications and circular dialectics of theory didn’t seem to justify anything. Political commitments allowed you to bypass them. Instead of being hyper-self-conscious, critics could be hyper-assertive. They knew exactly what racism is and means; they didn’t have to struggle with what Heidegger means. It took me about a month of reading and rereading the introduction to The Phenomenology of Spirit to get the basic sense of how A is A and A is not-A. Meanwhile, a single session with any of the founding works of intersectionality was enough to get the idea. High Theory put you off-balance; political theory set you back down. High Theory threw you into the rapids of Western thought—Socrates on appearances, Descartes on the cogito, Rousseau on purity, Nietzsche on truth. Political theory set you in the concrete of late-twentieth-century social mores. 

What a timesaver it was for young academics looking to publish quickly and impress colleagues. Something is missing, however: the feeling of speculative adventure, the exploratory and tentative grasp of meaning. That’s what you felt in Derrida’s prose. Here's an example from Grammatology:

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it.

This was exciting to those of us who began graduate school before political correctness set in. It made interpretation into a high-stakes game. You had to be wary to do it well, to focus acutely on the phenomena in front of you and keep your eyes on what lay behind you if you were to avoid the pitfalls of naive understanding. How you understood that Keats poem really made a difference. The very idea that you can or cannot determine precisely what the last lines of “Grecian Urn” mean had implications that extended beyond the classroom and into the meaning of life. 

It was an anxious practice, yes. No moral certainties here, and no guilt and indignation and social monitoring that we see today in the humanities. It was a more skeptical time, but a happier time, and I am sorry that young Americans in college don’t get to experience the hazardous joys of theory that they did before.

Photo by David Fulmer via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.

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