ESSAY IN REVIEW
Love and Hatred of "French Theory" in America
Sylvère Lotringer & Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, New York: Semiotext(e), 2001.
Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds., French Theory in America, New York/London: Routledge, 2001.
1. Those of us who were either in the U.S. academy as professors or as graduate students in the early 1980s were weaned on the milk of post-existentialist, French thought. For reasons that had little or nothing to with the individual thinkers behind the different theories, two camps formed all on their own. Or perhaps more accurately, according to the academic interests of the people involved. Those whose interests were primarily literary were attracted to, studied, and wrote on Barthes, Derrida, Jabes, de Man, etc. Much of what we think of as being "French theory" today is the result of the kind of literary criticism that was carried out in prestigious universities like Yale during the 1980s. Academicians and graduate students who were interested in Continental political philosophy found in Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, the necessary keys they needed to critique contemporary, American capitalist society. Some of us attempted to bring these two strains of French thought together, either from the literary or from the political end. And there were good reasons for such attempts, even if at times the actual results were less than satisfactory.
2. All of "French theory" starting with Lévi-Strauss (structural anthropology), Barthes (semiotics), Foucault (history), Derrida (deconstruction) and ending with Deleuze & Guattari (philosophy/psychoanalysis), to cite but a few examples, were coming out of linguistics and philosophy. Saussure, Benveniste, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. In New York the place to frequent to get the latest books in translation by Derrida or Baudrillard was St. Mark's Bookshop. The experience of standing in the middle of a book store that carried all of the latest literary and philosophical imports from France, was dizzying. Not only did one want to read the latest from the big names, one also wanted to read the latest commentaries, hot off the press. Outside St. Mark's Bookshop were the Sex Pistols punks that cultural critics like Dick Hebdige (1979) were writing about. Post-modernity was in the air one breathed inside and outside the book stores, the bars, and the clubs of the East Village. Desire was as much inscribed on the pages of the books as on the tattooed bodies of the "modern primitives." Even MTV went "postmodern". And then one day, all of a sudden, it all disappeared. The 1980s had ended: Starbucks had taken over the local cafes, the media companies had bought each other out in a power frenzy, and Amazon.com appeared on our computer screens one day, so that we no longer had to frequent book stores like St. Marks in order to browse through the latest titles from France. And then, along with all that there was the academic backlash against anything that had come out of France: culminating in Alan Sokal's article in Social Text in the Spring of 1996.
3. Certainly there were things to criticize in what came to be known as postmodern French theory. There were people who were churning out deconstructive readings of just about everything under the sun, and doing it quite badly: building careers, amassing publications for tenure, and saying nothing. And the same could be said of all the Deleuzean articles that made it to the pages of so many publications. Yet few would deny today the importance of contemporary French thought on American letters. Up until what some have called the "French invasion" of academia, American literary criticism was at a stand still, and Continental philosophy was merely what was left of the exhausted, no longer relevant post-war philosophy of phenomenology and existentialism. What French Theory in America and Hatred of Capitalism do is to show us in an eloquent manner what French thought has contributed, and continues to contribute, to academia and the art world.
3. The aim of this article, then, is to look at these two very different titles, co-edited by Sylvère Lotringer, one of the major contributors to French thought in this country, and to show what it is that brings these two books together. To that end, I have borrowed Deleuze's concept of a "series" from The Logic of Sense as my theoretical base.
First Series of Series of History
They came from another planet, and so did we. Our presence here was a presence 'elsewhere', and this house was simply a house that was not the house that we had left behind.
—Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos (1978)
4. Deleuze's clearest definition of what is a "series" is found in an example he gives from Borges' short story "The Garden of Forking Paths" in Ficciones. Here Deleuze posits that the concept of "series" is related to the concept of incompossible worlds. "The incompossible worlds become the variants of the same story" (Deleuze,1990: 114).
Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang makes up his mind to kill him. Naturally there are various possible outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, both can be saved, both can die and son on and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's work, all possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations. (Borges,1962: 98)
5. We are no longer faced with an individuated world constituted by means of already fixed singularities, organized into convergent series, or are we faced with determined individuals which express this world...There is thus a ‘vague Adam,’ that is a vagabond, a nomad, an Adam = x common to several worlds, just as there is a Sextus = x or a Fang = x. In the end, there is something = x common to all worlds. All objects = x are ‘persons’ and are defined by predicates of individuals determined within a world which carry out the description of these individuals” (Deleuze, 1990:114-15). A series, then, is incompossible; much like Derrida’s “im-possible” (Derrida, 2001: 13-31) it is an opening of possibilities, of connections, of disconnections, of conjunctions, disjunctions (like Borges’ forking paths), disjunctive conjunctions, and conjunctive disjunctions. Another writer mentioned by Deleuze in this context, is Gombrowicz, whose concept of a series is perfectly illustrative of Deleuze’s own idea:
Katasia advanced from the sideboard to clear the table and her deformed gliding, darting mouth approached the mouth opposite me...One mouth "came into relationship" with the other, like one star with another...Those two mouths together, the gliding, darting horror of the one in conjunction with the pure gentle, half closing and half opening the other...I succumbed to a kind of quivering astonishment at the fact that two mouths that had nothing in common could nevertheless have something in common... (Gombrowicz, 1978: 24)
6.This very witty passage represents one of a multiplicity of serial relationships in Gombrowicz's novel, Cosmos . "Witold Gomrbowicz established a signifying series of hanged animals (what do they signify?), and a signified series of feminine mouths (what is signifying them?); each series develops a system of signs, sometimes by excess, sometimes by default, and communicates by means of a strange interfering objects and by means of the esoteric words pronounced by Leon" (Deleuze, 1990: 39). All of which brings us to the subject at hand-i.e., the serial relation between French Theory (2001) and Hatred (2001) within the folds of a history, which is not linear so much as it is incompossible; forking into multiple paths.
7. Along one such line of bifurcation was Sylvere Lotringer, the editor of Semiotext(e)—a magazine first then the publisher of many of the books that came to be recognized as representative of postmodern "French theory". What is ironic about the term, and hence my reason for initially placing it within quotes, is that as Lotringer points out "French theory" was an American invention. In fact "theory" by itself is a invention. Lotringer's Deleuze ideogram at the outset of his essay, illustrates the point. "There is no idea in general, it's always an idea in something," says Deleuze. "Ideas are some kind of potential already engaged in a domain" (quoted in Lotringer, 2001: 125). And Lotringer writes:
I knew about French theory before arriving in America in the late 1960s. It wasn't called that, in fact didn't yet exist as a distinct phenomenon, but it really is through America that I discovered theory, or rather realized its full potential...French theory is an American creation anyway. The French themselves never conceived it as such, although French philosophers obviously had something to do with it. In France, French theory was considered philosophy, or psychoanalysis or semiotics, or anthropology, in short any manner of thinking (pensée) but never referred to as theory. (Lotringer, 2001: 125)
8. However, regardless of its trapping, French theory, has had a powerful influence on American thought for more than twenty-five years. French theory galvanized the European side of American philosophy in a way that not even the Frankfurt school had been able to accomplish after the war. Philosophers like Habermas (who was always more popular with analytic than with continental philosophers), and Marcuse, were still far too connected to traditional Kantian, Hegelian, and Marxist philosophy, to achieve the level of popularity that thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard, came to enjoy in this country—even if at times, for all the wrong reasons. Explicit in the philosophy of the Frankfurt school was a 19th century Hegelian faith in Reason. No such faith exists, or existed from the outset, in French theory. In fact, one can easily interpret French theory as a response to the despotism of Reason, and the fascistic social, economic, and psychic structures—micro and macro—to which it gave birth. Hence, the American-French series of the questioning of reason.
9. Claire Parnet says in Dialogues (with Deleuze) that perhaps one of the reasons why Americans never really developed a cultural institution of philosophy is because they never felt a need for it—for philosophical systems. For Americans "philosophical" thought found its way into literature instead, literature being a much more rhizomal and less arborescent form of thinking (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 30). Compare Rimbaud's "drunken" voyage to Whitman's walk through "leaves of grass", and it becomes a question of the relation between surface and depth. In the end Rimbaud had to escape to the desert, to reach an exterior that had been there for the American poet all along (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983b: 41, 42). "Theory already existed in America, but in a more pragmatic form"(Lotringer, 2001: 126). The first Semiotext(e) book of French theory was actually a book of interviews with John Cage.
French philosopher-musicologist Daniel Charles made with Cage a series of interviews in English which were published in France in 1976 with the humorous title Pour les oiseaux (For The Birds). But Charles lost the original tapes and I had the book retranslated from the French. This strange hybrid, a stranger in its own language, perfectly embodied the paradox of theory in America: the first book of French theory, of the kind of theory I liked, was American. (Lotringer, 2001: 126)
10. In 1974 Lotringer along with a group of friends from Columbia University started the magazine, Semiotext(e). The magazine was cutting edge: unlike anything else being published in academia. From the very beginning it was not the kind of publication that most academic "radicals" (of the kind referred to as "Aunt Hattie radicals" by Camille Paglia) would have endorsed, or ever read, for that matter. In fact, the Semiotext(e) Polysexuality issue alone, would have sent many self-styled leftist radicals running for cover under their beds. Then in 1983 Semiotext(e) launched its Foreign Agents Series of books. Published in a small, pocket-size, thin format, black like leather, these books called out "Steal that theory!"
The idea was to make "theory" less formidable, something that could be read like "how to" books, how to think with your own mind, philosophy for the boudoir, short in words but intensely focused; how to eroticize thinking, make it a pleasure of the senses. (Lotringer, 2001: 128)
11. But obviously, the importance of the Foreign Agents Series went beyond the popularity of its non-threatening, sexy format. Foreign Agents single-handedly introduced the most important French thinkers to America, and in the process changed the way many of us did philosophy, cultural studies, and literary theory afterwards. Certainly most of the theorists initially introduced by Semiotext(e)'s Foreign Agents, did in a short time, if they had not already done so, found publication in the American university presses. Paul Virilio, however, was introduced to America by Semiotext(e), and rightly or wrongly, remains at least for this writer, an "original" Semiotext(e) author. All these thinkers, regardless of their respective positions within American academia have had an impact, precisely because a great deal of what they have written and formulated, has perhaps more to do with the American social, political, and economic landscape than it does with French society. The "outsiders" (who were in fact more "insiders" than us) offered us a critique of our own society, and when we read them we saw our faces (those social constructs) reflected in their pages. Virilio, for instance, understood early on, and before anyone else, the importance of speed in the articulation of politics: in relation to the military specifically, and in relation to every day life generally. That speed made space relatively irrelevant, might seem obvious, but it is only so with respect to the study geopolitics after Virilio.
The maneuver that once consisted in giving up ground to gain Time loses its meaning: at present, gaining Time is exclusively a matter of vectors. Territory has lost its significance in favor of the projectile. In fact, the strategic value of the non-place of speed has definitely supplanted that of place, and the question of possession of Time has revived that of territorial appropriation. With the supersonic vector (airplane, rocket, airwaves), penetration and destruction become one. The violence of speed has become the location and the law, the world's destiny and its destination. (Virilio,1983b: 133, 150)
12. Speed is as American as Walt Disney. From the speed and efficiency of Henry Ford's assembly line, modeled on Taylorean theories of industrial productivity to the speed of supersonic jets, to the hyper-speed of telecommunications and Internet communications, speed as an important social dimension of life is an American creation.
13. If Virilio made us look at the way in which speed functions politically in our society, then Baudrillard made us aware of the way simulacra over-determines the "real" within the Socious. The success of Baudrillard's Simulations can be attributed to the fact that a Frenchman had written a book about us, about everything that American society had become, and has become. From the Hollywood of the Code to contemporary American television, to advertising, to computer simulation, little is left, and perhaps nothing, that is not of the order of simulacra. "The simulacra is never that which conceals truth—it is the truth that conceals that there is none." And yet, like much of French theory, statements such as these, have often been either misread, read superficially, or not understood at all. It was Baudrillard's observation that suburban Los Angeles was no more real than Disneyland that, I believe, hit the mark for so many people.
...Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omni-presence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and simulation. The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false; it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in inverse the fiction of the real. (Baudrillard, 1983b: 25)
14. There is an element of humor in Baudrillard's passage. It is the humor of recognizing one's condition reflected in it—a kind of uncomfortable, nervous humor. In effect, one has to insist that it is indeed humor and not irony: because Baudrillard's statement negates the morality of irony. It is stated without resentment and without judgment. It is not a "critique" but an observation. Always in critique lies the tacit belief in "some" truth, albeit not absolute. But if simulation is all there is, then critique becomes irrelevant. To prove Baudrillard correct, some years ago a community was established in the outskirts of Orlando, modeled on the principles and "philosophy" of the Disney corporation. This community given the Disneyesque name of Celebration, required of its citizens that their houses, their lawns, their families, and their values correspond with and endorse the Disney "philosophy of life." "...[A] showcase town of 20,000 residents, designed as a corrective to sprawl-broke ground in Osceola County to the south of the theme parks in 1994...Celebration came to being as a neotraditional town, the product, among other things, of market research that showed how much prospective home buyers would be prepared to pay for recreating the past while preserving their modernity" (Ross, 1999: 5, 22).
15. It is here where Baudrillard's "cynicism" begins and also where it ends. That is to say, where the "real" of America takes over only to illustrate the simulacrum that pervades the American landscape."Disney's world is not totalitarian," writes Benjamin R. Barber, "it only a simulation, a kind of totalitarian-land" (1997: 14). As Baudrillard might well put it, it is not that the Brady Bunch family was a television family modeled on "real" families, but rather that the American family of the 1970s modeled itself on the Brady family all across suburban America. And if the American family finally came to admit to the "truth" of its own dysfunctionality, so much the better. For that there was the 1990s sit-com Love and Marriage, and more recently MTVs The Osbornes : "not a fictional but a real dysfunctional, non-traditional family." With the order of simulacra there are constantly flows...flows of desire, flows of money, flows of signs, etc. Gone is the Referent of Plato's cave. There was never anything else but shadows, concludes Baudrillard—shadows of shadows at most.
16. As long as capital continues to flow capitalism is alive and well anywhere on the planet. For there is nothing that can get in the way of capitalism. Wherever capital encounters a line of resistance, its immediate response is to absorb the resistance axiomatically, and not through opposition. The traditional family is dysfunctional? Not a problem. We will inject the dysfunctional family (as though a functional family ever existed) into the norm. Even S&M has been categorized as normative, sexual behavior by DSM IV. The genius of Deleuze and Guattari was to recognize and bring to the fore the axiomatic nature of advanced capitalism. Contemporary, traditional Marxism had failed to articulate an updated critique of capital. Under traditional Marxist theory, capital as an offshoot of alienated labor and of the controlled means of production, remained a static economic entity.
Instead of opposing Marx, Deleuze and Guattari looked anew at the nature of capital itself, updating Marxist analysis to the limitless movement of capital in its advanced form. They went beyond Marx, while holding him by the hand, becoming more Marxian than him, but on their own terms. Marx expected capital to reach its limit and trigger a general crisis that would open the way to socialism. What Deleuze and Guattari hypothesized instead is that capital is always beside itself, going beyond its own borders, its end being not the production, but the production of itself through them. The first aim of capitalist production is to ensure its own circulation. (Lotringer, 2001: 130-131)
17. This is was the basic analysis in Anti-Oedipus and of the Foreign Agents titles: On The Line and Nomadology (from A Thousand Plateaus ). They were insightful critiques of American capitalism, and maybe a bit too much for Americans too handle. The first time I ever heard of Deleuze and Guattari was in 1983, and at the time almost everyone that I spoke to about their work, told me that Anti-Oedipus was an incomprehensible text. And so, of course, I wanted to read this incomprehensible book that wasn't philosophy, that wasn't literature, that wasn't psychology, etc., and more importantly that wasn't readable. The upshot of it is that I read it, and in fact, it was quite the opposite of everything people said it was and wasn't. It's possible that their conclusions, as Lotringer has suggested, hit too close to home, and people recoiled.
It may be that their analysis was too radical to be acceptable to the "radicals" themselves, too close in any case to the actual workings of American society...Who would want to be told in so many words that they're mere conduits of capital, self-important zombies confusing workaholism with freedom and entertainment with life? The closer one gets to embodying the perfect form of capital, coping with the flows, embracing corporate nomadism and the values of the global marketplace, carried away at "broadband" speed toward a gaping future, the more imperative it becomes to re-create every where islands of identity, of meaning, of neurosis, of security, in an ocean of cynicism and meaninglessness. And this is why, paradoxically, the only French theories that were readily acknowledged, even avidly sought, in America were not those that could have helped people understand something about their own reality...(Lotringer, 2001: 133)
18. If as Lyotard and Lotringer point out, Deleuze and Guattari were more Marxist than Marx in their understanding of advanced capitalism, then maybe something similar may be said of their analysis of America, and of their Americanism-i.e., that they were more American than most Americans. And just as traditional Marxists were resistant to their post-structuralist Marxian critique, American intellectuals were equally resistant to their analysis of America. In a way, no other French thinkers have been more deserving—and I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but also with a tinge of seriousness—of a dual citizenship than Deleuze and Guattari. They were as much "American" as they were "French". They embodied a becoming-American in the very process of doing French theory. They were and remain the de Tocqueville of our time.
19. The influence of French theory in the United States was felt in the academy, but also in the arts, and in the major cities of America. But particularly in New York City, and more specifically so, in the artistic and social life of the East Village in the 1980s.
20. The late 1970s. It was the age of disco, it was the age of punk. It was the age of Evelyn Champagne King's "Shame" and it was the age of the Sex Pistols' angry "Anarchy in the UK".
[Shame] was perfect for that time and place, evoking emotion without knowing...Cause shame was what we always felt, me and my girlfriends,for expecting sex to breed complicity. (Kraus, 2001: 342)
21. Just as shame, emotional survival (e.g.,"I Will Survive"), and vanilla sexuality were essential ingredients in disco music, anger and rage against the politics of middle class neurosis (as in disco), was at the core of the punk movement. Chris Kraus, who has been the editor of Semimotext(e)'s Native Agents Series since 1986, and has published the writings of Kathy Acker, Cookie Muller, Eileen Myles, David Rattray and others, succinctly captures in a just few pages the zeitgeist of the late 1970s, early 1980s East Village scene, in her essay "The Exegesis" (from her book , I Love Dick ).
22. The late 1970s was a time of transition in America. And disco culture reflected, if nothing else a certain angst with respect to the end of an era. After the 1960s struggles against the Vietnam war, racism, gender inequality, and governmental corruption (e.g. Watergate), American culture sought to return to what it conceived of as a golden age of innocence: when Afro-Americans were oppressed without the worry of street protests, women knew their place in the familial hierarchy, and Fred and Ginger danced on shiny surfaces cleaned by others. And so the white suits, wide ties, and vests returned only to "bring back"what no longer existed, and never would exist again. Certainly, Deleuze and Guattari were already telling us that the comfortably, familiar mommy-daddy-and me psychic structure was a repressive one: reinforcing all kinds of hierarchical relationships within the Socious. But for most of us, Deleuze and Guattari were still on the way. Writing about her relationship with writer Dick Hebdige, Kraus describes the day she realized that her sexual relationship with Dick was over:
...Dick glanced brusquely at his watch and turned to look at someone else across the room... I came back devastated by the weekend, begging Sylvere to give me some advice. Even though his theoretical side is fascinated by how this correspondence, love affair, has sexualized and changed me all his other sides are angry and confused. So can I blame him when he responded like a cut-rate therapist? "You'll never learn!" he said. "You keep looking for rejection! It's the same problem that you've always had with men!" But I believe this problem's bigger and more cultural. (Kraus, 2001: 343-344)
23. Indeed. That is what Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, and even Baudrillard helped us to see—that the personal was never anything else but the political. Kraus, who had once worked as a topless dancer, understood this—like others she was searching for answers to questions, albeit provisionally, regarding her social, intellectual, and sexual identity.
The Serious Young Woman looked everywhere for sex but when she got it it became an exercise in disintegration. What was the motivation of these men? Was it hatred she evoked? Was it some kind of challenge, trying to make the Serious Young Woman femme? (Kraus, 2001: 349)
24. And how about Kraus' "Sylvere", the famous, post-structuralist, Columbia University, anarchical theorist? Very theoretical, a Deleuzean anarchist, and even so...a little jealous? Hence, his other sides that were "angry and confused"? Perhaps. And why not "confused"? Confusion is only a stage, a point, in a time of transition. It occurs neither at the beginning nor at the end of a process, but rather always in the middle—at the point of greatest intensity. Even Deleuze and Guattari heed their warnings for times of transition:
...there are bodies without organs that are empty, hardened envelopes because their organic components have been eliminated too quickly and forcefully, as in an overdose...How can desire thwart all that, all while confronting these dangers on its own plane of immanence and consistency? There is no general recipe. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983b: 108)
25. The East Village of the early 1980s was certainly no light beacon in a troubled sea. Like the Pink Panther each painted the world in his or her own color. From the bed or S&M chamber to East Village salon, the question remained: how to navigate through the traps of identity and subjectivity. Kraus' apt description of an East Village party is perfectly illustrative of these thorny issues:
Sylvere and I drove down from Thurman. I dropped him off outside the loft, parked the car and arrived at Joseph's door at the same moment as another woman, also entering alone. Each of us gave our names to Joseph's doorman. Each of us had names that weren't there. "Check Lotringer," I said. "Sylvere." And sure enough, I was Sylvere Lotringer's "Plus On"and she was someone else's. Riding up the elevator, checking makeup, collars, hair, she whispered, "The last thing you want to feel before walking into one of these things is that you're not invited," and we smiled and wished each other luck and parted at the coat check. (Kraus, 2001: 350)
26.The despotic signified, the Derridean critique of phallocentrism, and Deleuze's and Guattari's bodies without organs often "met" at East Village parties: raising questions concerning gender and social identity without providing answers. And rightly so.
We are finished with all globalizing concepts...What is interesting about concepts like "desire," "machine" or "arrangement" is that they are variables, and as variables they permit a maximum number of variables. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983b: 108)
27. While Lotringer et al were doing theory , Kraus and others were trying to figure out the theory from the outside , from their own lives and habits. How to escape along a line a flight? How to escape without hitting a wall, without becoming hardened body without organs, without the famous American crack-up? How to ride the flows?
In all the books about the 19 th century New England Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller they tell this story about her and the English critic George Carlyle. When she was 45 she ran way to join the Italian liberal revolution of 1853 and fell in love with Garibaldi. "I accept the universe," Margaret Fuller wrote in a letter postmarked out of Italy. "Well she'd better," Carlyle replied. She was drifting further and further on a raft into the Caspian Sea. (Kraus, 2001: 354)
28. Was Carlyle's "Well she'd better"said out of resentment, confusion, and anger? The day she wrote this letter to Dick, Kraus took off for New York, and signed the letter: Love, Chris. Kraus loved Dick.
Second Series of Language
A short sharp look or a light clasp of his hand will stir him into awareness, and he will blink
in rapture at the brilliance of The Book...The Book...Somewhere in the dawn of childhood,
at the first break of life, the horizon had brightened with its gentle glow. My excitement abated,
then passed, but the image of The Book continued to burn in my memory with a bright flame.
Leaning over the book, my face glowing like a rainbow, I burned in quiet ecstasy.
—Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1977)
29. Of all the thinkers associated with French theory, no other philosopher has been as controversial as the elusive—and for that very reason so much admired and equally disliked, if not hated—Jacques Derrida. Often thought of as the founder of deconstruction (a term which has entered common parlance), Derrida has at times been praised for injecting the energy of post-modernity into literary criticism: for deconstructing the straightjacket of subjectivity in criticism, and for placing language at the center of all studies in the humanities, from literature to anthropology, and from psychoanalysis to religion.
30. On the other side, his detractors—and there have been many—have accused him of destroying the humanities in this country; in fact, of taking the "human" out of the humanities: by reducing everything in the world to texts and signifiers, and erasing the subjectivity of the individual. He has been charged with reducing the world to language, to the relativity of linguistic signs—in essence, of making the world "meaningless," and as such, of promoting nihilism. Sande Cohen quotes Carlo Ginzburg calling Derrida's type of criticism "trash" and accusing him of "cheap nihilism," the product of childish or "silly narcissism" (FTA 295).
Deconstruction is said to operate such that it "tears" a text apart, "tears" a synecdoche for "radical," "extremist" and "violent." (Cohen, 2001: 294)
31. It was against such a background that Derrida wrote and presented his essay, "Deconstructions: The Im-possible". Invited by Tom Bishop to speak at New York University on the topic of French theory in America over the last twenty years, Derrida begins his essay with an acknowledgment of his gratitude towards NYU.
Autumn for me is the season of the gracious hospitality of NYU, which always welcomes me "in the fall" and always welcomes a visitor immersed in his own gratitude. (Derrida, 2001: 13)
32. Looking at the poster by Mark Tansey for the NYU conference, Derrida reads that the conference will deal with French theory in America—the theory that "massively penetrated the American university and the art world" (2001: 13).
33. I am writing this essay in a library situated 600 meters above the multi-colored fields of Tuscany, where the word "penetrated" resonates with so very much that has nothing to do with French theory, and yet with everything that has to do with the American reception of "French theory". But it is not simply that "French theory" penetrated American academia—it " massively penetrated" it, reads the poster. A massive penetration has occurred! And one can't help but to think of penetration when put in such terms, as nothing other than sexual. Now, in order to penetrate, force is needed, and force as Virilio points out, is a byproduct of speed. One penetrates with speed. A bullet thrown by hand at someone will not penetrate the other's body, a bullet projected by a mechanical devise such as gun or a cannon, will. It is the speed with which the bullet is projected which will make the penetration possible. Moreover, a "massive penetration" also connotes force and mass. "...[A]s Napoloean said, 'Force is what separates mass from power,'" Virilio reminds us (1983a: 31). So what does it mean to say that American academia was "massively penetrated" by "French theory"? Was it, to put it in the language of sexual deviance, a "gang bang"? American academia was ganged banged by French theorists? Here we are on shaky grounds, because we have to ask the politically incorrect question: if American academia was ganged banged by "French theory", was it by force, was it rape, or was it consensual? After all, penetration in most instances (Andrea Dworkins' conclusion notwithstanding) is consensual-to the degree, of course, that consensual is con-sensual, that a certain sense is shared, agreed to, by two or more people.
Ten years of penetration, before twenty years of penetration, that is a long time. It is long for a pleasure or for suffering, of for suffering at the edge of pleasure, or the opposite, and yet it is indispensable. (Derrida 2001: 15).
34. There is also the issue of what the corporate world and media has come to call "market penetration"-a form of economic domination over a certain sector of a market. Was this what Tansey's poster was alluding to—French theory's market penetration. As Sande Cohen says in his article "Research Historians and French Theory", the humanities have become as market driven as anything else in the culture, in response to the overall competition of the academic market (2001: 290).
35. Derrida et al have commanded salaries comparable to the salaries of celebrities in other fields. Had "French theory" achieved "market penetration"? Was this the cause of resentment, the cause of the 1990s backlash against French theory? "The foreigners are taking our jobs, supplanting our ideas, our theories with theirs!" "Ha, there is the dangerous supplement!"
36. But again, I am writing this in Tuscany, where the word "penetrated" has other connotations for me, in a language that is not mine. It is easy to think of penne as the short but sharp, pointy pasta; not to be confused with pene (penis), though one may be tempted to make the connection. Hence, the joke of the American tourist in Italy who asks the waiter for pene instead of penne , failing (perhaps) to pronounce the second n . If one is said to be pene-trated, the consensuality or lack there of may lead to either a sense of pleasure or a sense of shame ( pena ). The kind of shame that Kraus writes about in her essay, "The Exegesis"—the shame of having been pene-trated, of feeling that one played a passive role in the act, that one was indeed the object of a penetration—pene-trated, the way one is "fucked". "What you do to me is shame," are the words to Evelyn Champagne King's song (Kraus, 2001: 342). However, there is yet another sense in which one can be penetrated. And that is through writing, through language, through a style, a stylus, a pen, una penna (Derrida,1978: 37, 41). Perhaps this is the source of the shame (la pena) felt by Derrida's detractors: of being penetrated by French writing and style (penna). The shame of being written on.
37. This "penetration," however, likened to the cultural penetration and domination of a colonial power over its subjects, for many had at last come to an end. The empire of signs had fallen! If the Fall had always been the season which Derrida associated with his yearly return to America, it was also the season he associated with the "gracious hospitality of NYU", which welcomed him "in the fall" (Derrida, 2001: 13). And welcomed him this time, on the invitation of Bishop, to talk about "the Fall" and "the fall" of deconstruction: Derrida's own fall from grace in American academia. But Derrida did not come to NYU to sheepishly declare the death of deconstruction (Derrida, 2001: 14).
38. "Deconstruction in the singular," he said, does not exist" (Derrida, 2001: 15). If "deconstruction" and "French theory" have died, it had died a death without end, for when it "comes to the end of deconstruction, to the end of French theory," he told his audience, "the fall lasts, it repeats itself, it keeps insisting, it keeps multiplying" (Derrida, 2001: 16-17). Anticipating the disappointment of those who had come to hear his repentive eulogy for deconstruction, he said:
I fear that I will disappoint those who in reading the title may have come mouth watering, to see someone contritely admit to the failure of a whole project, a whole lifetime, and confess with a tear in his eye: "Contrary to what I had thought or tried to make others think, I must recognize that deconstruction is impossible. Please forgive me, that was a faux pas." I just asked for a grand pardon, and now I must beg your pardon for not begging pardon. (Derrida, 2001: 17-18)
39. But begging pardon would have made little sense, since for Derrida it was never a question of doing DECONSTRUCTION (as it was mechanically practiced in America), but of engaging in a certain kind of nomadic, fluid, migratory thinking. It was never the object of deconstructions to seek penetration , or colonization.
For deconstructions migrate, hence the plurality, from philosophy to literary theory, architecture, etc. (Derrida, 2001: 19-20)
40. The singularity of deconstruction, as a despotic signifier, of Reason and Truth, "as a commodity, as merchandise" (2001:20) contributes to the myth of its market penetration in academia. Derrida, the French thinker, not the "deconstructionist", "yet another American invention" (2001: 20), never claimed, however, that it was a system, a grid easily applicable to all kinds of texts. To speak of the truth of deconstruction, then, is "im-possible" (Derrida, 2001: 22). Deconstructions, "if there be such a thing" is a Socratic recognition of the im-possibility of the logos to provide us with absolute knowledge. Derrida relates it to Nietzsche's "perhaps":
There is no theory on this topic. It cannot give rise to theoretical proof, to a philosophical act of the cognitive sort, but only to testimonies that imply a kind of act of faith, indeed an act of "perhaps". Perhaps. Nietzsche says, and I quote him in Politics of Friendship, that the philosophers of the future will be the thinkers of the "dangerous perhaps." (Derrida, 2001: 28)
41. This Socratic-Nietzschean "perhaps" is what has led his infuriated detractors to accuse Derrida of "cheap nihilism." America made deconstruction "possible" by deterritorializing it, and then some sectors of academia, when they saw the im-possibility of deconstruction, quickly territorialized it by making it a system, and a sexy French commodity "in the marketplace of ideas". In the end, DECONSTRUCTION was turned into an event with its facile, formulaic "readings." Erroneously interpreted as being about Language, deconstructions-as Derrida, envisaged it, was always about languages :
...deconstruction has always been defined precisely in its irreducible plurality-"Deconstructions: The Im-possible"-as more than language. I recall having said one day that if, God forbid, I had to provide a minimal definition of deconstruction, it would be "more than a language"; that is, several languages, more than one language, more than language. (Derrida, 2001: 28-29).
42. Why not admit then to the pleasure of penna-tration, to the worthiness (as in vale la pena/penna ) of writing, of Derrida's style(s) and éperons. Haven't we, through the languages of deconstructions, been multiplied; and don't we need this now more than ever, in this post-9/11 world of American imperialist "certainties"? Isn't "flip flopping" the best response to the fundamentalism of Bush's "axis of evil"?
Why? Why not?
43. For all of Derrida's "elusiveness," "slipperiness," and "silly" language games, there is in Derrida a religious thread that to runs through most of his writings. His essays on Jabes, Levinas, and a variety of religious subjects (e.g. Acts of Religion) are demonstrative of a close affinity to religion—always respectful of the Judaic tradition which informs his own personal background, and particularly, of the Judaic mysticism of the Kabbalah. For the Kabbalah is actually a series of "books." And the Jew, as Jabes reminds us, "is a book in God" (1990: 80). So much, then, for Derrida's nihilism.
44. But when we come to Baudrillard, language—with the with the missing copula— is empty. It no longer refers to anything in the world, outside of itself. The world present itself as or like (a favorite word among American teenagers who have grown up on television and Internet simulations), and language is merely one of its presentations. To speak of a referent-albeit the most unstable of referents-is to put back into place a dialectic, which for all practical purposes is bankrupt. "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?" asks Nietzsche in The Gay Science (1974: #125, 181). In the face of a horizon-less world, of a world without the real, "what good is theory?" asks Baudrillard in turn (2001: 129), without concern for an answer. So what if the cardinal points have disappeared, and there is no longer up or no longer down. So what?
If the world is hardly compatible with the concept of the real which we impose upon it, the function of theory is certainly not to reconcile, but on the contrary, to seduce, to wrest things from their condition, to force them into an over-existence which is incompatible with the real. (Baudrillard, 2001: 129)
45. One of the factors that makes Baudrillard's theory stand out from among that of other theorists, is that his is not based on the concept of critique , and doubtlessly, intentionally so. To critique a movement, a text, a genre, is to believe in a truth—even if minimally—waiting to be unveiled (e.g, a critique of political economy, a critique of the novel). Critique by its focus and function is an instrument and a remnant of the Enlightenment. The next question Baudrillard puts to us then is the following: If we are to have theory at all, what should the function of theory be (if not to critique)? To which he responds: To become one with its subject .
To speak about excess and sacrifice, it must become excessive, and sacrificial. It must become simulation if it speaks about simulation, and deploy the same strategy as its object. If it speaks about seduction, theory must become seducer and deploy the same stratagems. If it no longer aspires to a discourse of truth, theory must assume the form of a world from which truth has withdrawn. And thus it becomes its very object. (Baudrillard, 2001: 129)
46. "Simulations was not about simulating, it was its own simulation as theory," writes Lotringer. "Besides this epigraph attributed to the Ecclesiastes, whose authenticity no one thought to question—'The simulacrum is true'—happened to be Baudrillard's own. He had just made it up himself, and yet it was truer than truth, being a simulation. It was true as simulation of theory by itself, even" (2001: 147-148). To speak of the im-possible, theory itself must be im-possible. And here is one "possible" point of juncture between Derrida's "deconstructions" and Baudrillard's "theory" of simulation. The dream of capturing the "real," of having the final answer, or simply an answer, becomes the dream, like all dreams, of what is given and not given (the gift), of what is there and not there. Perhaps.
Once again, what is the point of saying that the world is ecstatic, that it is ironic, that the world is objective?It is those things, that's that. What is the point of saying that it is not? It is so anyway. What is the point of not saying it at all? (Baudrillard, 2001: 130)
47. Why theory? Why not theory? What is the point of saying that understanding the world is possible, or that changing the world is impossible? Or vice-versa. Derrida would perhaps respond: One says it because it is im-possible. Both Derrida and Baudrillard express the world not with the "is" which guarantees a relation to the "real," but with the "as" of appearance, with the "phenomenological als ". The difference between these two very distinct thinkers (and hence their occasional similarities) lie in Derrida's faith in the ontology of language, and in Baudrillard's a-radical faithlessness. "With regard to the 'perhaps'...there exists a theological vein...that defines God not as being...but defines God as 'before' and outside of being, without being...God is the perhaps" (Derrida, 2001: 31). It is hard to imagine such language in Baudrillard's discourse. Or even any ideological, political interpretation such as that of Deleuze and Guattari's. One can imagine, however, Baudrillard writing something like this: "On the sixth day of creation God said 'let there be light' and there was light, and then he turned and gazed upon the firmament and said, 'let there be simulation,'and there was simulation" [Genesis 3:13]; written, as simulation, and not as parody. "All theory can do is to defy the world to be more: more objective, more ironic, more seductive, more real or unreal. What else? It has meaning only in terms of this exorcism,"concludes Baudrillard (2001:130). His response to the world is reminiscent of Belacqua's answer to Dante in limbo. When asked by Dante why he doesn't just say the requisite prayers that will release him from limbo, Belacqua responds: "What's the use of climbing?" And Baudrillard writes:
Let us be Stoics: if the world is fatal, let us be more fatal. If it is indifferent, let us be more indifferent. We must conquer the world and seduce it through an indifference that is at least equal to the world's. (2001: 130)
48. From Belacqua's response...to Bartleby's to... Baudrillard's stoic response is but a tiny little step. Do theory? Do criticism? Do an analysis? "I would prefer not," says Baudrillard, taking the indifference of the world to its ultimate conclusion, into a nihilism, emptied of Pandora's hope. A nihilism without return.
The enunciation of the fatal is also fatal, or it is nothing at all. In this sense it is a discourse where truth is withdrawn (just as one pulls a chair out from under a person about to sit down). (Baudrillard, 2001: 130-131)
49. Baudrillard pulled the chair out from under us long ago: while seducing us in the process so that we would not lament. We ended up laughing at our fall, and at everything "really" false all around us. I am reminded of an American television commercial of the late 1980s which advertised, "genuine faux pearls." A French word in between two English words to give it that extra cachet -a French word that negates the first English word in the phrase, in a process of simulation. Simulated pearls in every sense of the word. Inclusively, if the pearls were "real". Baudrillard, would have enjoyed this commercial. Or perhaps not.
Third Series of the Spoken of: Politic
"NOT IN OUR NAME!"
—A slogan against the American invasion of Iraq
50. "Anti-Oedipus ...is a book of ethics," wrote Foucault in the preface to the American edition (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983a: xiii). Ethics is what comes after Nietzsche's death of God, and Foucault's "death of man." Ethics, in other words, is what comes with the end of morality, with the end in the belief in the transcendental categories of good and evil.
...establishing ways of existing or styles of life isn't just an aesthetic matter, it's what's Foucault called ethics, as opposed to morality. The difference is that morality presents us with a set of constraining rules of a special sort, one that judge actions and intentions and considering them in relation to transcendental values (this is good, that's bad...); ethics is a set of optional rules that assess what we do, what we say, in relation to the ways of existing involved. (Deleuze, 1995: 100)
51. Yet Deleuze's and Guattari's book is clearly a critique of advanced capitalism, and as a critique it is a work which points to a multiplicity of directions in terms of living what Foucault called in the preface, a non-fascist way of life (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983a: xiii). As stated earlier, Deleuze and Guattari part ways from traditional Marxism (e.g., the class struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat...) while remaining true-in their analysis of (advanced) capital formations-to the overall Marxian ethics of liberation. One point of difference is the moral versus ethical underpinning of the two Marxian projects. References to alienated labor and the oppressed proletariat are wholly absent in Anti-Oedipus . This is not to say, of course, that Deleuze and Guattari feel nothing for the oppressed, but rather that they see the oppressed worker as a product of capital itself. All claims of capitalism's exploitations are nonsensical in light of its clinical and amoral nature. If, as Lyotard says, capitalism is "cynical" (2001:232), it is only so from the perspective of a morality imposed upon it from outside. "So forget about bad politics, the politics of bad conscience, the processions of bedecked and bannered wisdom of a simulated piety: capitalism will never croak from bad conscience, it will not die of lack or of a failure to render unto the exploited what is owe them. If it disappears, it will by excess, because its energies unceasingly displace its limits" (Lyotard, 2001:237)
52. The old model like Kafka's "Harrow" is just that, "the old model". The object of capitalism is no longer to inscribe, to oppress, but to axiomaticize. It is the axiom, not the code which first deterritorializes and then territorializes the flows: when exchange is in danger of exceeding its relatively lax, but nevertheless needfully managed, limits.
"Who is alienated?" Yet no one is or can be robbed...one no longer knows who is alienated or who does the alienating? Who steals? Certainly not the finance capitalist as the representative of the great instantaneous creative flow, which is not even a possession and has no purchasing power. Who is robbed? Certainly not the worker who is not even bought, since the reflux or salary distribution creates the purchasing power, instead of presupposing it. Who would be capable of stealing? Certainly not the industrial capitalist as the representative of the afflux, of profit, since "profits do not flow in the reflux, but side by side with, deviating from rather than penalizing the flow that creates incomes." How much flexibility there is in the axiomatic of capitalism, always ready to widen its own limits so as to add a new axiom to a previously saturated system. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983a: 238)
53. To speak of workers, of the class struggle is, if nothing else, irrelevant. The blue collar worker, the low wage earner, who works in a factory and lives in a trailer home, has nothing to gripe about. He has been given shares of stocks in the company, and made part owner of the factory for which he works. The success of "his" factory is his success, as capital, quite literally, flows through his body. The question for Deleuze and Guattari, then becomes, how will the worker make use of a line of flight, when at last the day comes that he or she desires to escape, to step out of the capitalist flow, to ride his own line outside.
Desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it. (Deleuze and Guattari,1983a: 26)
54. They speak of machines, not of individuals, and not of subjects with reducible identities. Deleuze and Guattari will not speak of, speak for, represent the plight of the oppressed. What is significant is not the transcendentalism of personhood ( "I am such and such..." ) but the events that enfold us.
When you invoke something transcendent you arrest movement, introducing interpretations instead of experimenting...Unity is precisely what's missing from multiplicity, just as the subject's what missing from events ("it's raining"). (Deleuze, 1995: 146)
55. And in a conversation of 1986 with Parnet, on his concept of events, Deleuze made the point, that a great deal of language, of the statements we make about the world , have more to do with events than with subjects: "One can't assume that a life, or a work of art is individuated as a subject; quite the reverse...Language is a huge 'there is' in the third person-as opposed to a particular person..." (Deleuze,1995: 115). Think of the work of Robbe-Grillet where an emotion like "jealousy" is an event ( there is jealousy ). And "French theory," too, is an event; while capitalism is the Event of all events.
Capitalism deculturalizes peoples, dehistoricizes their inscriptions, repeats them anywhere at all as long as they are marketable, recognizes no code marked by the libido but only exchange value: you can produce and consume everything, exchange, work, or inscribe anything you want if it comes through, if it flows, if it is metamorphosizable. (Lyotard, 2001: 240)
56. An event which resists the axiomatic of exchange is capitalism's only limit. The event "French theory" was/is marketable, even if it has to be territorialized a bit-made profitable. As Sande Cohen has pointed out, it was objected to and resisted only to the extent that some saw it as cutting into an already established market, and taking some of the business away. This is reminiscent of Macy's protestations and attempt to close down the street vendors who sold their wares on the street, outside the department store. It was never anything but a question of market share.
57. Deleuze's and Guattari's concept of the axiomatic workings of capital, coincide, if not directly, at least transversally , with Foucault's notion of discursive practices . Through his work on The History of Sexuality Foucault came to articulate a social theory of sexuality (not sex) for which the central focus, was not the usual category of "repression," but instead, the treatment, study, and discourses produced by the medical, religious, and familial institutions in order to control it. Foucault never claimed that there was no repression. What he did say was that the control of sexuality was accomplished through the discourses produced on the subject by the various powerful institutions, that had a vested interest in maintaining the socio-political status quo(Foucault, 1980: 12). For instance, 19 th century medical establishment responded to childhood masturbation by creating discourses which would regulate, and guarantee the perpetuation of traditional hierarchical arrangements between children and adults (Foucault 1988: 113).
58. The capitalist machine functions, one by creating "subjects" of institutional discourse (certainly not repressing them), and two by axiomaticizing the actions, beliefs, values of events (not oppressing them). Foucault's discursive practices, the spoken of, is also the spoken of "French theory" in America.
The real problem with French theory is that it is not even clear how its unity (or "principle of dispersion," as Foucault would say) should be described. (During, 2001: 163-164)
59. In a number of interviews, Deleuze, even when not prompted, took it on himself to defend Foucault against what he called malicious "misunderstandings". "Misunderstandings are often reactions of malicious stupidity," (Deleuze, 1995: 90) he said, and repeated several times. Elie During in his essay, "Blackboxing in Theory: Deleuze versus Deleuze," attempts to set the record straight, to qualify, to correct some of the misunderstandings concerning Deleuze, the man and his work:
The important point is that it is all too easy for commentators to rely on certain Deleuzian refrains-theory is a toolbox, concepts are bricks-in order to justify their own free treatment of Deleuze. Yet those who would like to free Deleuze from the fixity of any closed system run another risk, that of freezing Deleuzean concepts into a series of order words. (2001: 170, 171)
60. Deleuze, says During, was a classical philosopher, as much as he was a creative and politically radical thinker. During believes that we are in fact doing Deleuze a disservice when we fail to take this aspect of his thought into consideration. Deleuze we are reminded wrote on Leibniz, Kant, Hume, and Nietzsche, and saw himself as a philosopher-as a creator of concepts.
Even when he seems to be speaking in a more personal tone, the degree to which Deleuze is fed by the history of philosophy, its stock of conceptual moves and rhetorical techniques, should not be underestimated. (During, 2001: 175)
61. And then in a move that even negates Deleuze's "own" claims concerning his project, During writes: "For all his claims about overturning state philosophy and its categories, Deleuze remains a classicist (2001:175). Later During writes that even Deleuze's schizonalytic interpretations of the philosophers he studies were "made possible by Deleuze's precise knowledge of the traditional themes and problems that make up the history of philosophy"(2001: 175). Now, this is not to be taken as an attack on Deleuze; for Deleuze himself transformed the philosophers and philosophies that he wrote about. He connected with them intensely, and never tired of speaking of his connection with them as such. "The key thing, as Nietzsche said, is that thinkers are always, so to speak, shooting arrows into the air, and other thinkers pick them up and shoot them in another direction. That's what happened with Foucault. Whatever he takes up he thoroughly transforms. He's always creating," said Deleuze in Negotiations (1995:118), with reference to Foucault, but clearly speaking of himself as well.. "Deleuze himself was not a Deleuzian," declares During at the end of his essay (2001:184). Correct, we are tempted to say. Deleuze...Guattari...Foucault....is an event. "There is Deleuze". "There is Guattari". "There is Foucault". "There is French theory". Machines. Events
Fourth Series of Reactive and Active Forces
Why must the preying lion still become a child?The child is innocence and forgetfulness,
a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion...
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1961)
62. Deleuze distinguishes between what he calls an event and what journalism understands by "event". For the media, he says, it means a certain occurrence having the artificiality of a beginning, middle, and end, in which no one actively participates, but everyone passively observes. The Sokal affair of 1996 was such a "media event". "It became a story that the media and academia relished telling again and again" (During, 2001: 309). The impact of the scandal hit harder on the other side of the Atlantic than it did here. Perhaps this was so because anti-intellectualism is much rarer in France than it is in America. America has a tradition of it that goes back to the beginning of the republic. Not to mention that a mere five years before we had experienced an attack on the academic left by Alan Bloom and his right wing supporters. Thus when the Sokal scandal hit the front pages of The New York Times , it was all familiar territory to many of us. The backlash against post-modern French theory was already being felt in the academic world. Sokal's hoax only reinforced the beliefs and antipathy towards French theory in and outside the academy. Here is an example from the National Review, of the popular "misunderstanding" of French theory:
For about 25 years, the movement of which Social Text is a part has been the power in the academy. Known in the humanities as deconstruction or post-structuralism, it resolves the problem of the relation of knower to known by placing the known object at the mercy of the powerful knower. A poem means what the critic says it means. The author disappears. In the mind of the knower everything is a "text." Hence the title of Social Text. (Anonymous, 1996: 18)
63. I cite the above passage because it puts into perspective the comic simple-mindedness of a lot of the criticism level against post-modern theory by its critics in the popular (leftist and rightist) press. The article above, entitled "True Lies" is less than a page in length and unsigned. These were the kinds of generalizations that a growing sector of academicians agreed with. In the Sokal hoax they saw the mortal blow to their much despised French theory.
64. Sokal's article in Social Text peppered with familiar concepts from post-structuralist thought made "false" connections between ideas in quantum theory and concepts in deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and what he called "post-modernist epistemology". Then in the May/June issue of Lingua Franca , Sokal admitted that his paper "Transforming the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" published in Social Text was a sham, a parody of post-modernist discourse, and that the editors of Social Text had been duped by their own unquestioned commitment to the nonsensical discourse of post-structuralist thought. He did it he said to expose the "decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities"(Sokal,1996b: 62). Or to be more precise, in post-modern thought.
I structured the article around the silliest quotes about mathematics and physics from the most prominent academics, and I invented an argument praising them and linking them together," he said. All this was very easy to carry off because my argument wasn't obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic. (Sokal quoted in Scott, 1996: 1)
65. And this from an "unabashed Old Leftist" (Sokal,1996c: 93). A leftist attack on a leftist publication. How could the media not have a field day with it! The debates that followed the hoax filled the academic right with glee. "Despite his confessions about being an 'unabashed Leftist, "many adversaries of the left who would like to see the humanities purged of the "postmodernist rot" have taken sides with him" (During, 2001: 313)
66. Here is an example from the New Criterion:
Members of both camps showed up at New York University's Meyer Hall on Wednesday evening, October 30, to witness panel discussion-hosted by NYU's journalism department-entitled "After the Media Event: Politics, Culture & Social Text Affair": Among the participants were Alan Sokal himself and Andrew Ross, one of the editors of Social Text and by far the most glamorous "cultural studies" professor in the entire universe. Not surprisingly, the auditorium was filled to overflowing. In academic terms, this was a Big Deal (Eichman,1996: 77)
67. And then a bit later the author of the same article writes of Stanley Aronowitz: "Aronowitz is not a thin man" (1996:79), and of course, not being "a thin man" everything he said was "incomprehensible". It is fortunate that post-modern theory never had defenders of such logical and academic "rigor." However, Mr. Sokal did come to enjoy the support of academic luminaries such as Barbara Ehrenreich, and analytic philosopher, Thomas Nagel.
68. In a review of Sokal's and Bricmont's book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Philosopher's Abuse of Science, Nagel siding with the authors wrote: "Physics continues to develop, of course; but these two theories [Einsteinian 'relativity' and Heisenbergian 'indeterminacy'] have taken us to a conception of the real character of the world that can be grasped only through mathematical formulations and not even roughly by the ordinary imagination" (1998:38). The denial of an external reality based on the theory of relativity is nonsense, says Sokal: "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment"(1996b: 62). The problem is not with the laws of physics, but with the fact that no post-modern thinker ever claimed (1) that there was no external reality, and (2) that what he or she was doing was "science."
The authors he quotes and criticizes for abusing scientific jargon (Lacan, Deleuze, or Baudrillard) are in fact not interested in scientific theories as such, nor in their capacity to describe "reality," but in the concepts they provide, and their possible reappropriation for other purposes. (During, 2001: 313).
69. The turn of the century episteme gave rise to Einstein's theory of relativity, to Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle", to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language games, in the same way it did to James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and to the music of Schonberg. The epistemic model was such that it produced the kind of science and art that is closest to us today. Nagel's and Sokal's intellectual separatism, and by extension, puritanism, fails to take into account that the knowledge produced at any time in history is a product of a very complex material matrix, irreducible to some transcendent abstraction of thought. It is wishful thinking of the worst kind to posit the sudden appearance of Newton and Einstein: out of the Truth of Objective Reality-or in Hegelian terms, out of the evolution of Absolute Reason. Science, no different than the arts and humanities, offers us models, images, and metaphors of the world, and there is no reason why the layman should not make use of these models in his or her dealings with the world, without having to become a nuclear physicist to do so. Particle physics has always borrowed concepts and metaphors from both the humanities as well as everyday language ("quarks." "flavors," "left-handed spins," etc). Heisenberg, who both Sokal and Nagel claim has been misused, wrote a series of books paralleling problems in physics with problems of epistemology in philosophy.
70. Science, according to Nagel, however, is an apolitical and pure discipline, unlike the socially contaminating, ideological Marxist philosophy (1996: 38). Yet, what in science is not a product of ideology? It was the economic model of competition that blurred the lines between technology and science this century, it was the economic model that led to the "space race" of the 1960s, it is the capitalist model of "conquest" that is used to support the funding of scientific research in astronomy and genetics. We will conquer space, triumph over all kinds of diseases in the war against cancer, heart attack and AIDS, and we will dominate"nature" to the point where we can create hybrid beings, fruits, and vegetables...thanks to government funded DNA research. So why not make use of scientific models and metaphors? As we said earlier, post-modern philosophers never claimed they were doing science. Which raises the question-what was the actual point of the Sokal hoax? Was it to say that post-modern philosophers were using scientific terminology incorrectly? Was that the point? "The debate was confused at best, but it clearly revolved around a few hotly debated issues: the function of science studies, the strategies of epistemic relativism, the use of scientific metaphors in cultural studies, the standards of legitimate scholarship, the future of the American left, Franco-American intellectual relations, to name but a few. Yet the story of hoax is itself far from simple. For one thing it is difficult to see what this hoax demonstrates" (During, 2001: 309-310). Was it an attack on Social Text? Sokal says not. Was it an attack on post-modern theory in general, or on the "French masters' entire works, or just the parts where they are drawing on scientific imagary?" (During, 1996: 313). Perhaps what the Sokal hoax proved, more than anything else, is precisely what academicians like Nagel, and Sokal himself set out to disprove-i.e., that politics do in effect determine the kind of art and knowledge produced in a given society. And in the meantime post-modern French theory continues to die.
John Cage and Hélène Cixous
71. One of the most important "midwives" of French theory in this country was Semiotext(e). And the first Semiotext(e) book of French theory was a book of interviews with John Cage, entitled For the Birds. Or as Lotringer has put it "the first book of French theory, of the kind of theory I liked, was American" (2001: 126). No doubt the reactive forces of ressentiment have always been there with respect to French theory, but then so have the more creative, active forces. Deleuze reminds us that these two forces co-exist in the struggle for domination. The utilitarian reactive forces, attempt to dominate the creative drive of the will to power whenever possible (Deleuze, 1983: 61). If it can deviate the active forces from doing what they do best, and engage them in a concern that is not theirs—as was the case with the Sokal hoax, which took away so much time from doing philosophy in order to answer the charges—so much the better. It is the way active forces are into turned reactive forces. "When reactive force separates active force from what it can do, the latter also become reactive. Actives forces become reactive " (Deleuze, 1983: 65).
72. It was by positing a fixed model of reality, if for no other reason, than to connect us to our social paranoia, that Sokal set out to "debunk" what he labeled the post-modern denial of external reality. What, no external reality? Who says that, the postmodernist? Out with the post-modernists!
73. "Logical and reasonable people believe...." Mayor Giuliani used to say. "If you don't believe in the laws of physics, go ahead, try challenging them: jump out of my apartment window," said Sokal. This would prove, that yes, external reality does in fact exist. To which we have John Cage's reply:
You say the real: the real, the world as it is. But it isn't, it becomes. It moves, it changes! It doesn't wait for us in order to change...It is more mobile than you imagine. You begin to approach this mobility when you say: as it "presents itself": signifying that it's not there, as is an object. The world, the real, this is no object. It's a process. (2001: 164-165)
74. Cage might well have been describing the interaction of subatomic particles. But Cage's ideas do not come from physics; they come out of his interaction with the world, and out of his own creative experience.
We used to seek out logical experiences; nothing mattered more than stability. Today, beside stability, we allow for instability. We have come to desire the experience of what is. But this "what is" is neither stable nor unchanging. At any rate, we understand better that we bring the logic with us. (Cage, 2001:165)
75. How we situate ourselves in the world, where we come from, where we are headed along a certain line of flight, and what we connect with is what matters. And the connections tend to be serial and conjunctive, rather than disjunctive or exclusionary ( or B, not -A). For instance, it is not a question of having to choose between science or art, or between one nation or another. Why fall in such dialectical traps, when instead of the transcendent, exclusionary "or" there is the option of the immanent and multiple "and"? Hélène Cixous says that she never felt that she had to choose between being Algerian and being French:
...[T]he tobacco shop bazaar that my grandfather opened on the corner formed by two streets of the Place d'Armes was called Two Worlds. There is no mistake about it. My life has always been in the angle of the angle, angled, on the corner between two worlds. (2001: 122)
76. Cixous is a nomad, and a nomadology in the Deleuzean sense is the opposite of history. Some people feel a longing for the old land, but the "old land"-the nostos of our nostalgia, never existed. Cixous journeys back and forth, and finds her intensities, as Deleuze would say, in the middle, as Derrida would say, in differance.
What is more, I have never managed to arrive in France. I have traveled with visas borrowed from Montaigne or Stendhal. I did not exchange one country for another. I did not lose Algeria: I did not replace her. If I had arrived somewhere, if I had become someone, if I had taken the name of a country, she would have slipped in the past. I did not have the need for a country, I had already entered the borderless country of texts...The impossibility of an identification and any settling down is my historical luck...I have in common with J. Derrida a freed language, that does not become fixed. (Cixous, 2001: 122-123)
I I I I I I
77. What Lotringer, Cohen, and Kraus have managed to do in these two anthologies is exceptional. They have provided us with two (and more) borderless (albeit contextual) countries of thought. Together and separately (like plateaus) they connect up with the intensities of theory and art, and with the intensity of living the theory and the art. One early review of the books likened them to memorials of an age gone by. But they are not this at all. Neither French Theory in America nor Hatred of Capitalism are history books; if one has to call them anything at all, they are nomadologies...moving...moving forward. In the words of Cixous, "they are not the kinds books that settle down." If the French journey to America is through the East Village, the American journey to France is through Paris; and the lines between Paris and the East Village are multiple. They are the lines of a map, which in contradistinction to a tracing, may be entered from a multiplicity of directions. The model for these two anthologies is the cross pollination of bees: a little poetry and a little theory here, some interviews there...zigzagging...criss-crossing along. "I like books that slip away, the escapees" says Cixous (2001: 123). So does this reader. And that is precisely what is so significant and "likable" about these books.
Rolando Pérez is the author of On An(archy) and Schizoanalysis (Autonomedia, 1990); The Divine Duty of Servants (based on the artwork of Bruno Schulz; Cool Grove, 1999); The Electric Comedy (a post-modern version of Dante’s Divine Comedy; Cool Grove, 2000); a number of plays; and various articles on such writers as Milan Kundera, Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Severo Sarduy, Octavio Paz, and Alejandra Pizarnik. He has written on Latino Literature as “minor literature”, and his creative work will appear in the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Email: email@example.com
Anonymous (1996), "True Lies," National Review, 48, 1. September 17, 1996: 18.
Barber, Benjamin R. (1997), "A Dissenting View : Living Inside The Book Of Disney," FORUM, Summer 1997: 14-15.
Baudrillard, Jean (1983a), In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities-Or the End of the Social, and Other Essays, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e)).
___________ (1983b), Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. (New York: Semiotext(e)).
___________(2001) "Why Theory?" in Sylvère Lotringer & Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (New Y: Semiotext(e)): 129-131.
Borges, Jorge Luis (1962), "The Garden of Forking Paths," Ficciones, translated and edited, with an Introduction by Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press).
Cage, John (2001), "For the Birds," translated by Daniel Moshenberg in Sylvère Lotringer and Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (New York: Semiotext(e)):161-171.
Cixous, Hélène (2001), "The Writing, Always the Writing," interviewed by Rosalind C. Morris, translated by Keith Cohen and Eric Nowitz in Sylvère Lotringer and Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (New York: Semiotext(e)): 121-124.
Cohen, Sande (2001),"Research Historians and French Theory" in Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds., French Theory in America. (New York/ London: Routledge): 289-301.
Deleuze, Gilles (1983), Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson. (New York.: Columbia University Press).
___________ (1990), The Logic of Sense, translated by Mark Lester and Charles Stivale; Constantin V. Boundas, ed (New York: Columbia University Press).
___________ (1994), Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton. (New York: Columbia University Press).
___________ (1995), Negotiations: 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin. (New York: Columbia University Press).
___________ and Guattari, Felix (1983a), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane; preface by Michel Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
___________ and Guattari, Felix (1983b), On The Line, translated by John Johnston. (New York: Semiotext(e)).
____________and Guattari, Felix (1987), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi; foreword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
___________ and Parnet, Claire (1987), Dialogues, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press).
Derrida, Jacques (2001), "Deconstructions: The Im-Possible," translated by Michael Taormina in Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds., French Theory in America (New York/London: Routledge): 13-31.
___________ (2002), Acts of Religion , Gil Anidjar, ed; introduction by Gil Anidjar (New York/London: Routledge)
___________ (1978), Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche , translated by Barbara Harlow; introduction by Stefano Agosti; drawings by Francois Loubrieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
During, Elie (2001), "Blackboxing in Theory: Deleuze versus Deleuze" and "Sokal's New Clothes (Intermezzo)" in Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds., French Theory in America (New York/London: Routledge): 163-189; 309-314.
Eichman, Erick (1996), "The End of the Affair," New Criterion, 15, 4, December 1996: 77-80.
Foucault, Michel (1980), History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books).
___________ (1988), "Power and Sex," translated by David J. Parent in Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture (Interviews and other writings 1977-1984), translated by Alan Sheridan et al (New York/London: Routledge).
Gombrowicz, Witold (1978) Cosmos & Pornografia, translated by Eric Mosbacher and Alastair Hamilton (New York: Grove Press).
Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen).
Jabes, Edmond (1990), The Book of Resemblances, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press).
Kraus, Chris (2001),"The Exegesis" in Sylvère Lotringer & Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (New York: Semiotext(e)): 341-354.
Lotringer, Sylvère (2001), "Doing Theory" in Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, eds., French Theory in America (New York/London: Routledge): 125-162.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (2001), "Energumen Capitalism" in Sylvère Lotringer & Chris Kraus, eds., Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (New York: Semiotext(e)): 229-241.
Nagel, Thomas (1998), "The Sleep of Reason," New Republic, 219, 15. October 12, 1998: 32-38.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1961), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books).
___________(1974), The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage).
Ross, Andrew (1999), The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town (New York: Ballantine Books).
Schulz, Bruno (1977), Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, translated by Celina Winiewska (New York: Walker & Company).
Scott, Janny (1996),"Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly," The New York Times, May 18, 1996. Section 1; Page 1; Column 2.
Sokal, Alan (1996a), "Transforming the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Social Text, 46/47, Spring/Summer 1996: 217-252.
___________ (1996b), "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies," Lingua Franca, 6, 4, May/June 1996: 62-64.
___________ (1996c), "Transgressing The Boundaries: An Afterword," Dissent , 43, 4, Fall 1996: 93-99.
___________ (1998d) and Bricmont, Jean, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Philosopher's Abuse of Science (London: Picador).
Virilio, Paul (1983a), Pure War, translated by Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e)).
___________ (1983b), Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology, translated by Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e)).
© borderlands ejournal 2005