Monday, November 26, 2007

Derrida, Global Warming, and Naomi Wolf

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, d takes whack at Naomi Wolf:

Here she is in medias absurdum:

"In the Reagan era, when the Iran-contra scandal showed a disregard for the rule of law, college students were preoccupied with the fashionable theories of post-structuralism and deconstructionism, critical language and psychoanalytic theories developed by French philosophers Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida that were often applied to the political world, with disastrous consequences. These theories were often presented to students as an argument that the state -- even in the United States -- is only a network of power structures. This also helped confine to the attic of unfashionable ideas the notion that the state could be a platform for freedom; so much for the fusty old Rights of Man."

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me how Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis were actually "applied" to American politics during the 1980s. Moreover, I'm curious to know how Wolf arrives the idea that these theories are to blame for persuading anyone that the state is merely an instrument of power or an on-shore holding corporation for late capitalism. Until the sun rises on that day, I'm going to assume that people who follow this line of argument either (a) haven't ever read Grapes of Wrath or (b) are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to cheap-shot the French and the English Department in the same breath.

I've tried to explain this to skeptical friends and colleagues over the years, but -- pass the smelling salts -- it was completely possible during the 1980s to receive an English degree without reading a single word of Continental literary theory. No, really. Aside from the point that there's nothing inherently corrosive about any of the intellectual tendencies Wolf mentions, the fact remains that with the exception of about a dozen or so students enrolled at elite universities, almost no one gave a gingersnap about Of Grammatology during the 1980s. If Wolf wants to understand why young people are supposedly feeling "depressed, cynical and powerless," I can't imagine why she'd include the reading list for the Yale English Department's senior seminar.
Gotta say, I think d missed the target on this one. Explain how Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis were actually "applied" to American politics during the 1980s? Easy. Two words...political correctness.

When post-structuralist thought leaked out of the philosophy departments and into the academy more generally, it got twisted and in one of the intellectual left's big interests at the time -- how to incorporate the experiences of oppressed groups into the national narrative -- the intricacies and complexities got stripped away leaving a naive doctrine that continues to have effects on our discourse. The interesting work in women's studies, African-American studies, and queer studies got dumbed down and the result was a charge against offensive speech, the very hallmark of the left in that period. (I wrote on exactly this question this a year or so ago over at Butterflies and Wheels if you want the long version.)

PC was the bastard stepchild of postmodern, post-structuralist, Derridian tide. No, the folks behind PC and speech codes were not well versed in it. No, you won't find a naive epistemological relativism in it (although there were some pieces in Social Text at the time...). But it was the one place in the 80s where the left had a big effect on the political climate and that is where it originated.

These days with right-wing fundamentalists pushing intelligent design and oil companies and their political puppets denying global warming, it's easy to forget that in the 80s and 90s, the science war was not being fought across the political divide. The attacks on science were coming from those on the left who had explicit desires to align their positions with precisely with Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis. It was the need to push back against global warming deniers and intelligent designers -- something the humanistic left was unable to do -- that forced the pro-science left back into a place of prominence.

While the story Wolf tells is, of course, oversimplified, I don't think she was wrong with this point.