I have just finished teaching the French Department’s introductory “theory” course this quarter. It began with the usual suspects, from Saussure and Lévi-Strauss through Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan to Kristeva and Irigaray, but the last two weeks were a bit different. One was an introduction to postcolonial theory, with the kind assistance of my colleague Françoise Lionnet; the other was an introduction to René Girard. Rereading Girard is always an enlightening experience; I expect to say more about this in a future column. Here, I shall concentrate on what all these discourses have in common: the critique or deconstruction of the “Subject.”
Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, Irigaray may differ in many ways, but their discourses have a common plot: that of undermining the pretensions of the “Subject”–self-contained, self-present, self-important, white, male, patriarchal, phallogocentric, solar, Western, father, author, creator, master. Girard too deconstructs the human subject by revealing it to be founded on the justificatory myths of emissary violence. As for postcolonial theory, it combines a neo-Marxist attack on the Western Subject with a tentative model of global dialogue that redefines subjectivity as reciprocity rather than resented domination. Rather than criticize postcolonialism’s victimary tendency, it is better to encourage the dialogic bent that distinguishes it from the elite discourses of the European left and makes it more open to generative thinking.
There is a resentfulness about “theory”‘s critique of the Subject even in its most abstract moments that betrays its political origin. Whether at its most subtle in Derrida or its most delirious in Deleuze-Guattari‘s Anti-Oedipe, the critique reflects the same frustrated agenda. All these writers, from the hyperdogmatic Althusser to the décontracté Baudrillard, are reacting to the failure of socialist utopia that is the defining truth (as the Holocaust is the founding event) of postmodernity. The insistent critique of the tyranny of the Subject hides the fact, obvious in any clear depiction of political and economic realities, that the market system is the least, not the most, centralized of exchange systems, the one that generates the most widely diffused resentment precisely because it is the one least adapted to the focusing of all love and hate on a central sacred figure. The verbal abuse directed at an abstraction reflects “theory”‘s frustrated lack of a real villain. In its victimary forthrightness, postcolonial thought comes closer to revealing this than the rhetorical contortions of the “theorists.”
The more abstract the argument, the more the political message becomes insidious and allusive, but this message is always the same. Foucault’s hallucinatory vision of the market-system in the guise of Bentham’s panopticon says it all: capitalist modernity is a prison more confining than all the tyrannies of the past. This is not a thesis that can withstand open examination, but it is a powerful channeler of resentment. It explains better than any purely intellectual argument why the great names of “French theory” are who they are–and why Girard’s is not among them. Theory is the deferral of the truth that, whatever its flaws, the market system is the only viable modern social order. It expresses the frustration of a critique of capitalism that has no alternative to provide. I am pleased to note that postcolonial theory has taken to reproaching Foucault for the passivity with which he constructs his model of “power” as everywhere and nowhere, located in no center that can be attacked. (I am not sure what center the postcolonialists should be attacking, but their critique is valid nonetheless.) All these deconstructions that remain “in the margin” of the system they denounce are, in their very abstruseness, expressions of the failure of socialist revolution to overthrow the phallic father once and for all. This is true even of Althusser, whose Stalinist dogmatism coexists with the evacuation of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic. To be “interpellated” by Althusser’s “ideology” is the same as to be “spoken” by a Foucauldian “discourse”: there is no opening to viable political action in either case.
This is not to say that “French theory,” as some on the Right would like to think, is mere empty ratiocination. Just as the frustrated romantic utopianism of 1848 gave rise to the last great outpouring of literary creation in the postromantic and early modernist periods, so the prolongation of this frustration after World War II inspired a newly profound understanding of the anthropological underpinnings of the individual human Subject, who never really exists except in interaction with a human community. The deconstruction of the individual subject is an avowal of the mutually mediated nature of human desire. To claim that no central Subject is the supreme Author-Creator of the Work of Art or the self-present originator of the discourse by which we classify human reality is to take the first steps in the direction of the mimetic theory of desire and of Generative Anthropology, which has never concealed its debt to the Derridean notion of différance/deferral. Dispensing with the concealment of failed political hopes behind the resentful rhetoric, Girard’s deconstruction reveals the hidden underpinnings not of the spurious construction of the logocentric father but of the necessary constitution of the human in general. There is no undercurrent of resentment in Girard’s text–save on the immediate level, toward his “theoretical” rivals. His anthropology contains no “bad guy” that we love and hate and cannot do without; the violence he reveals as our own cannot be denounced as that of some ill-defined Other. It is ours, and yet we are able to comprehend it and, in part, overcome it by means of the anthropological understanding expressed in Christianity–as well as, I would add, in the generally ignored and disdained historical follow-up to Christianity, the market system in its mature, “consumerist” phase.
The great anthropological intuition of deconstruction is that the supplément and différance that “Rousseau” or “Saussure” as spokesmen for Western metaphysics attempt to ignore must be brought to light within metaphysics itself. But Derrida is too prudent to accept the existence of a premetaphysical form of thought such as Heidegger, the originator of deconstruction, finds in the pre-Socratics. In recent years, Derrida has ventured into the domain of religious thought, but he remains tone-deaf to religion because he conceives its discourse as indistinguishable from that of metaphysics. Metaphysics operates by declarative logic, whereas religious discourse is founded on ostensive revelation. The examination of the discourse of revelation leads not to an endlessly regressive series of discourses, but to the concrete experience of the origin of language.
By revealing the human and not merely conceptual violence that subtends the metaphysical world of “presence,” Girard allows us to reconstruct the origin that deconstruction forever defers. The deconstruction of metaphysics is not an end in itself; it has value only in the service of an anthropology, or to put it still more concretely, of an ethic. To understand the origin of culture and of language itself as an ethical phenomenon is a huge step beyond denouncing the constitutive illusion of a historically bound family of discourses. Originary thinking explains and comprehends deconstruction, whereas deconstruction can only try to explain away originary thinking as a futile attempt to explain the inexplicable. The Gospels tell us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; similarly, différance was made for humanity, not humanity for différance. To abandon one’s commitment to the human in reaction to the failure of a political dream is truly, in the hoariest cliché of Marxist rhetoric, to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
As the foregoing makes clear, I am not dismayed by the decline of “theory” in favor of the less subtle thinking of cultural studies and postcolonial theory. These modes are, in the very assertiveness of their victimary politics, healthy developments that lead us out of a labyrinth of metaphysical abstraction into a landscape where real anthropological thinking becomes possible. Surely, one might object, the denunciation of “the West,” like the feminist attack on “the patriarchy,” is a project of the same ilk as the deconstruction of “the Subject.” But the openness of its political agenda revives the historical dialectic that had been stifled by the veiled and contorted language with which deconstruction and related discourses hide the inavowable demise of their own agenda. Third-world countries, after all, have real problems that demand real solutions; they cannot nourish themselves à la Foucault on the bittersweet opiate of failed socialism. Bringing the focus of “theory” back to human reality can only have a healthy long-term effect.
The end of “theory” is the beginning of wisdom, which is to say, of ethics. Whatever the current readings of the ideological ticker tape, the most humanly useful anthropology will win out in the end. We all have a stake in hoping that the victory goes to the most inclusive and generous theory, for if we remain attached to the discourses of resentment, our fragile humankind is unlikely to be around for the start of the fourth millennium.