Adam Shatz: Welcome to the LRB podcast. My name is Adam Shatz, and I’m here with Michael Wood. The occasion for this conversation is the publication of the eighth volume in the LRB collection series of little books.
The title’s from a piece by Michael about Roland Barthes, ‘The Meaninglessness of Meaning’. It’s a collection of writing from the London Review of Books about the theory wars. This anthology features pieces by Michael and others, including Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Terry Eagleton, Richard Rorty, Lorna Sage, and John Sturrock.
Michael, it’s great to have you here.
Michael Wood: Good to be here.
AS: Michael is one of our great literary critics and film critics. He’s a professor at Princeton University. I think that Michael has established almost a model for writing about theory. So often writing about theory is as abstruse and opaque as the theory itself. And Michael has written about Barthes and others with fluency and elegance and a real sense of playfulness. And so it'’s a real pleasure and an honour to be here with you, Michael. So, Michael, you came up in a way in the age of theory, or at a moment when new criticism was transitioning into the age of theory. Am I right about that?
MW: Absolutely. Yeah. Actually, it’s interesting we should be talking about it now because I’m just writing a piece about Frank Kermode’s book, The Sense of an Ending, which appeared in 1967. And really, in his way, he sort of jumps straight into the theory wars, or was a little ahead of the theory wars. Kermode himself at University College afterwards invited Roland Barthes and many others, there was a centre of theory at University College in the seventies. So that was something happening.
But what struck people, and I’m trying to remember this time, was the sense of extraordinary complacency in England and in America before theory happened. It seemed as if the new criticism and its sort of rival, a kind of cultural criticism represented by Lionel Trilling, say, where you look to literature for the shape of culture, the direction of culture, the meaning of history and so on. And then there was the close reading of the new criticism. But the idea, I think, was that this would go on forever, it would never stop, and there were no other questions to be asked. So it was a kind of deadly moment in a way. When theory arrived initially it was just another name for curiosity.
AS: So theory really shattered the complacency of a certain kind of Anglo-American literary criticism at the time.
MW: Yes. It did what it could to shatter it. Actually, the complacency was pretty solid and took a lot of shattering! Some people were never shattered, they just went on doing the same old stuff, you know? But I think younger people, graduate students, certainly got excited about it. They suddenly thought, oh, you can ask questions about literature, you don’t have to just sit there counting images.
AS: This resistance to theory that you describe was also reflected to some degree in the pages of the London Review of Books after its founding in the late 1970s. In fact the first piece in this volume ‘The Meaninglessness of Meaning’, by Bridget Brophy, is a rather irritable essay on a book that Colin MacCabe, later known as a film theorist and as a contributor to screen and biographer of Godard, wrote about James Joyce. And she writes, ‘Mr MacCabe's book resembles the proceedings of a water beetle. He skeeters across the surface of a great many questions, bumps excitedly into a theory and then before examining it shoots off to the next.’
MW: That’s pretty funny.
AS: And actually one of the appealing aspects of this collection is that it gives you a very vivid sense of the London Review of Books’s relationship to theory, which has been a very dynamic one. It began with a certain amount of hostility and reflexive scepticism, and then evolved into something much more appreciative, without however relinquishing a certain degree of scepticism.
MW: I think that’s right, Adam, and I think the scepticism was always warranted. And I think in some sense theory had a kind of victory that was a little bit too easy, because it meant you could do it or not. And then you just joined the team, and if you joined the team you just spoke to the people in the same church. So there was a sense of enclosure, and I think a lot of people who were interested in theory loved the idea of being obscure. I had a student at Columbia at one point, a very clever guy who’d been a movie editor, he’d worked on The Exorcist, and he was writing an MA thesis about Joseph Conrad, and he wrote eighty or ninety pages full of every bit of jargon he could plant. And I read it and I said to him, do you understand this? And he said, no, I don’t, but I thought you had to write like that. So I suggested he should write something that he and I could understand, and then we could take it from there!
AS: It’s interesting that we even speak of something called ‘theory’ to begin with. And usually by theory, we mean French theory. Because there’s really no such thing as theory, much less French theory, in France. French theory is something that’s really invented, arguably, in the United States in the 1970s. That’s when theory really comes into being as a category.
The French historian François Cusset wrote a very entertaining book about the adventures of French theory in America. And he argues, essentially, that French theory is an American invention, because so many of these theorists, as we know, weren’t all that welcome in France. They were outsiders, they were dissidents. Derrida never got the job that he was looking for in France, for example.
MW: That’s a very good point, Adam. For a long time theory was really just French. So it was a kind of catching up with everything French. It was Barthes, it was Derrida, it was Lacan, it was Lévi-Strauss. Everything important about it was in France. That would be intellectual life generally, not particularly theoretical, not more theoretical than anything else. In America it became theory. And then of course there were other waves of discovery, the Frankfurt school, Benjamin, the Russian formalists. But they came after, so they came in waves. They were actually earlier in time in their work than the French theorists. The French theorists were mainly in the 1960s, and the wave was in the 1970s. And then the others came in.
And there was another time, there was another interesting meaning of theory which I think was more available, more present in England than the States. It meant everything we’re not doing. That is if the traditional criticism was not doing feminism or not doing Marxism and not doing psychoanalysis, then all of those things became theory. Anything that questioned that complacency I was describing before. Anything that dares you to ask difficult questions was thought to be – actually was – a kind of theory.
AS: Now theory, the kind that we’re describing, had its first significant impact in universities in the States and in the United Kingdom in literature departments. But the writers that we’re invoking, Barthes and Foucault and Derrida and Deleuze and others, weren't literary critics, some were philosophers, some were historians. And of course arguably the first theorist was an ethnographer, Claude Lévi-Strauss.
MW: It’s a very interesting point, Adam, and I don’t think that – let’s call it a bias or a partiality or partial view – I don’t think that was ever quite corrected. I think people who got into theory ... or let's say apart from someone like Richard Rorty, and to some extent, John Searle, there was no encounter between that French material in literature departments and philosophy.
It would have been terrific if it had really happened, if there’d been a real dialogue between philosophers, because essentially Anglo-American philosophy wasn’t continental, and didn’t like to think about Heidegger or anything like that, so there was a dialogue that never quite took place. There were exceptions – occasionally people like Stuart Hampshire would say something that engaged with it, but the exclusivity, so to speak, of theory being in English departments meant that no trained philosophers were taking note of it, and there was a lot of amateurishness, I think, about theory in English for that reason.
AS: And that divide between continental philosophy and analytic philosophy remains. I don’t think it was ever really bridged except in the work of a handful of philosophers.
AS: Let’s talk a little bit about how theory emerges, because it seems to me that to some extent we could speak of French theory at least as a revolt against Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m thinking, for example, of the essay that Claude Lévi-Strauss published, that was reprinted in The Savage Mind, about Sartre’s concept of history. That detonated the revolution against Sartre’s historicism, and Sartre remained for many the god – or the father – who had to be slain.
MW: Yes. That is really key. That long quarrel between Lévi-Strauss and Sartre was extremely interesting and had many facets. But one of the really interesting things about it – to speak a little bit too simply about it, Sartre and existentialism were all about individuals, about individual gestures, actions, responsibility, and so on. And it’s rather interesting that he didn’t really address the system, which is surprising for an old communist like Sartre, but it was about the individual, about making sense of the world for the individual. And what Lévi-Strauss was really about, and everything he’d got both from Saussure and from his ethnographical studies and so on, was a sense that the system is there before we are. Language is a system. Kinship is a system. Traffic signs are a system. Everything is a system and we have to think about the system. And I think that move is very interesting because I think Sartre felt it was irresponsible. It was sort of exonerating the individual and Lévi-Strauss thought Sartre was not understanding the way things actually work.
AS: There’s definitely a kind of anti-anthropocentric thrust to Lévi-Strauss’s critique of Sartre, which is later echoed in some of Foucault’s work. Foucault writes about individuals being the effects of discursive systems or of capillary power or of disciplinary power. The individual in effect is more symptom than cause. I still retain some sympathy for Sartre. And I think that he would probably argue that we choose, and in choosing, we choose for others as well, but the choices we make are conditioned by the choices that other individuals make. So freedom is never absolute. I don’t think that he ever believed in a kind of sovereign individual who makes decisions in absolute freedom. That was to some extent a caricature of Sartre’s work, but maybe a necessary caricature to create the conditions for the next intellectual revolution.
MW: I think you’re absolutely right. It was a caricature, and quite unfair to Sartre in many ways. But I think the thing that matters most was that it was not so much what Sartre was saying, that he had his say, so to speak. But the next moment when people discovered that we don’t understand where we are because we don’t understand the language that we’re talking, or that language is there before we are, that we don’t invent what we say. We borrow the words from a system.
AS: And we don’t so much ... it’s not that we speak, in a sense we’re spoken through.
MW: Heidegger said things like that. Heidegger said “die Sprache spricht’, language speaks. But I think the important thing about it is not how true it is – there are a lot of limitations to that idea, I think, and also many liabilities, which is what Sartre was interested in. I think the thing to get hold of is the sheer excitement of discovering that sense that there is a system here, there’s a language here or grammar here. We didn’t know that before. That sudden sense of, oh my Lord, I just crossed the street at the traffic light. And it’s not just that I chose to cross the street, it’s that there’s a whole civic language of permissions and non-permissions and habits and things. And this is a language, this can be studied like a language. That was the big deal. There was a conference in I think 1967 at Johns Hopkins where all the French theorists showed up. (It was later published as a book called The Structuralist Controversy, I think.) But actually it was already the beginning to deconstruction. I mean, I think Barthes was there, Derrida was there, Lacan was there. And there was a wonderful moment in the book. A man – I think it was Georges Poulet, a French critic of an earlier generation – said before he asked his question, “I’ve been struck by this conference. At this conference everybody talks about language all the time.’ And that was the one thing we never talked about! And I think that sense of not just language itself, but the sense that you think, I think I’ll go to the movies. You think about directors, and then somebody writes a book called The Language of Cinema. And wherever you’d look there was a language. Essentially this goes back to Lévi-Strauss and to Saussure, the notion that you could study that there is a structure or a grammar beneath the surface. And Lévi-Strauss would say things like the antecedents of structures would be like Marx and Freud, because they don’t believe in the surface. They believe in what’s just under the depth. Just underneath the surface, like in geology, which is another model. Geology, psychoanalysis and Marxism all believed there was a structure, but it’s a structure you can’t see from the surface. So you can’t tell what kind of rocks are there if you’re looking at the glass.
AS: Which I think became known as a kind of depth narrative, and this was something that the structuralists, but even more so the post-structuralists critiqued, and Barthes of course is an exemplar of this. He began to celebrate in a very sensuous manner the surfaces of the text. And in fact the title of your piece I think is very suggestive, the Meaninglessness of Meaning. It sounds like a rather flippant title, but in fact it gets at something that is central to Barthes’s thinking, which is this discomfort with meaning. He described meaning at some point, I think, as sticky. Heavy, sticky. He didn’t like it. What was that about?
MW: He says at one point – it’s a phrase I’ve always liked – I’ve always wanted to be exempt from meaning the way one is exempt from military service. It’s required – you can’t actually get out of military service if that’s the law of your country.
You could be some kind of protestor, you could be a conscientious objector, but he doesn’t want to be a conscientious objector. He wants a certain kind of exemption from meaning, or at least a rest from meaning. I think that is, in a way, a kind of French illness or a French worry. It’s a natural thing to say, I think if you’re French, that meaning is rather regimented, it’s official, there’s a standard version of it. I’m not sure that any English speaker ever quite feels that about meaning. Could do about other things I think, but not about meaning.
AS: I wonder if in Barthes’s case it also has something to do with the circumstances of his life. He was raised by his mother to whom he had this ferociously close relationship. His father had died in the war. He was a very sickly child. He spent a lot of his youth in a sanatorium. He was also gay. But because of this profound attachment to his mother, he never really had anything like a separate relationship with a lover. There were lovers, of course, but he always came home to mama late in the evening.
Now, of course, Barthes writes this famous piece, which becomes notorious and I think is misinterpreted, on the death of the author. I think that Barthes wrote that to free the text from the tyranny of an author’s intentions to deliberate it to other kinds of interpretations, even, if you will, other meanings. But I wonder if it makes sense to think about some of these thinkers in relationship to their own stories. Each of these thinkers is a very distinctive writer with a distinctive historical and psychological profile. Think of Derrida, for example, who is an Algerian Jew, who has this famous phrase about ‘this language that I speak doesn’t belong to me’, because French is not the language that his ancestors spoke. It was a colonial imposition.
MW: Yes. In a certain sense there’s a continuity from Sartre here I think, that Sartre and actually the surrealists before Sartre represented a kind of ongoing resistance, if you like, to the French establishment, a very powerful cultural establishment that had its way in all kinds of ways and was always worth resisting. And I think structuralism and then deconstruction picked up that sort of resistance. But I think in a way you do need to start in some slightly outsider-ish sort of place to feel comfortable doing that or feel authenticated in a way to do that. And I think that’s true of all of these figures. There was a very powerful establishment and the establishment made fun of them, mocked them, resisted them. Rather similar in a way to the way the critical establishment in English, Brigid Brophy mode, resisted theory. Except that in America especially, theory was rather conservative in a way. It often looked like the new criticism in disguise. And not very political. I think that wasn’t true in England. I think in England on the whole theory had a political edge always, and in the States too, someone like Edward Said had a kind of political edge, but a lot of the time it was very text-based and esoteric and closed off. And I think a lot of people took refuge in America, took refuge in theory in a way you couldn’t do in France, I think. That dialogue or that quarrel with a certain kind of establishment was always going on.
AS: I want to return in a moment to Edward Said, who was, I know, a very close friend of yours, and his contribution to theory, which takes it to a different place. But before that, I wanted to talk about theory as writing. Because there is, I think, a widespread misunderstanding in the Anglosphere that theory was necessarily difficult or self-consciously recondite, that it lacked literary grace and so on. Whereas if you read some of the signature works of French theory, what you find is a group of writers who are looking for new modes of expression. Not all of them are successful, of course, but this is intellectual work which slides into a kind of literature or paraliterature when you think of Barthes, who was writing works of theory that were almost like novels. Of course, he never wrote his novel, but if you read Empire of Signs or Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, or his remarkable work on photography, the Camera Lucida, these are works of literature. And so for that matter is some of Derrida’s work, his engagement with Genet, for example, who was a very close friend of his. These were writers.
MW: There was a weird collusion, I think, in the English speaking world between the proponents of theory and the enemies. They both agreed that it had to be esoteric and difficult and non literary, so I think the hostility was very conscious.
It was often based on what was thought to be the quality of the writing. So that Judith Butler would win the annual prize for the worst sentence ever written, all this sort of stuff. So there was a kind of conservative resistance to anything that wasn’t just plain spoken. It was just anything you couldn’t understand immediately wasn’t worth saying. I think that’s just a kind of philistinism. But the people who were translating theory and the people who were doing theory often thought they had to sound like Heidegger at his most obscure in order to be serious. And that seems kind of crazy. It was not true about Derrida. It wasn’t true about Barthes, or any of those people who were actually rather good writers, I think, quite eloquent, and Judith Butler was a good writer too. I think sometimes you have to take risks with words, and there’s a wonderful phrase of Barthes’s I always liked, I saw it as a kind of motto to keep yourself sane in the middle of the theory wars: “between jargon and platitudes you have to prefer jargon.”
AS: Which actually you quote in your essay in this volume.
MW: Yes, but I do like that. I’ve sat at department meetings many times muttering that phrase to myself!
AS: Now, French theory emerges in the early 1960s. And although it eventually comes to include some remarkable female practitioners as well, like the Bulgarian Julia Kristeva and Lucy Irigaray and others, Helene Cixous of course, at the very beginning it’s mostly a phenomenon of white European men. However, what I want to underscore here and what strikes me as really interesting is that at its very inception with Claude Lévi-Strauss it is a critique of Eurocentrism. It’s almost like the European mind at its limits. Would you agree with that?
MW: Yes. The other figure who was very important in those days was Frantz Fanon, who was not a European male. The person who introduced him into France was Sartre. Sartre was the one who wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth.
The Wretched of the Earth is often paired with the Lévi-Strauss work Tristes Topiques. The idea of other cultures, other minds, other ways of thinking were already there, I think, and structuralism itself, the essays, the Structural Anthropology book is in 1955, I think. So structuralism was beginning in the late fifties and took off in the sixties and by the late sixties deconstructionists decided – you’re right about that, that question, what you say about death – deconstructionists decided, and this again very simplified, but Derrida and the deconstructionists felt that structuralism was terrific in its way, but it was too simple and too sure it had got it right. It knew what the structure was. There wasn’t enough uncertainty in structuralism and what deconstruction needed was if you put men versus women and said they’re opposites, that you need to now complicate this by saying they’re the same, or you need to say that some men are more different from other men than they're different from women. So you had to take a binary and to deconstruct it was to find the complications and then destabilise them.
AS: Exactly. Because Lévi-Strauss had argued that binary thinking was at the root of human thinking and Derrida very much explodes that. The critique of ethnocentrism, of course, begins with Lévi-Strauss with his remarkable memoir Tristes Topiques, but it becomes ever more radicalised in Derrida with his essay on white mythologies, for example, or in Foucault’s work, which is very much a critique of Western liberalism. And then of course you have Deleuze and Guattari who are arguing that Freudianism has been this system of political and intellectual domination, that the family itself, the Western family is an apparatus of repression.
MW: It’s very interesting. All of that in a way announces the current resistance to any kind of normativity, right? That if something is a norm, you probably don’t think of it as a norm. And I think that the constant idea of protest or resistance is to think if you think something is a norm, think again, think about why it’s a norm. It seems to make sense to think this is what life is like, but actually, who are you excluding?
AS: And I think in that regard, what may seem at first glance like a kind of groupuscule on the rue with Althusser and Barthes and all these other French thinkers actually helps to generate an intellectual revolution, whose repercussions are still being felt today. And the critique of normativity in the questioning of white and European supremacy, in the rethinking of human sexuality, in the questioning of the asymmetries of power between the Western world and developing world ... French theory helps to contribute to that intellectual and political revolution.
MW: I think that’s absolutely right. The academic history here is slightly misleading because the academic history in England and in America was a kind of minority interest in theory, never becomes a majority interest, but it becomes significant and everyone has to pay attention to it, whether they want to pay attention to it. And then sometime maybe late in the 1990s particularly in the wake of people returning to history with the new storage system and things like this, and the idea of going back to biography, there’s a sense that theory’s over, and then people start writing books called After Theory and this kind of stuff. And of course it was over in that sense that its professional life, its academic life was over, had been retired, so to speak, but there’s so much work not done. So many questions, so many good things about theory that had not even arisen because they’re too busy fighting the wrong sort of wars. And then as you say, there’s stuff that wasn’t understood that’s still with us and still helping us. There’s a lot of stuff to be done still, I think, with people like Derrida, Lévi-Strauss. Going back to them, we will find stuff that’s very relevant to us now, I think.
AS: You’ve had a particularly close relationship as a writer to Roland Barthes. What is it about Barthes’s work that you're so passionate about? You write about him beautifully, but I would love to hear it in your own words.
MW: There’s something about his restless curiosity, and a willingness to mock himself a little, to be not too serious about things. Like any French writer of any quality there are always epigrams and things. So at a certain point, you love the epigrams ... for example, in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes there’s a wonderful phrase where he says ’at night, the adjectives come back.' Which is as good as it gets! So whenever I read it now I always find there’s something so interesting going on. It’s a little more complicated than you thought, and it’s keeping things open. And he was always finding things to think about. The book on photography is amazing, I think. Wrong-headed in all kinds of ways, wrong about photography, but then it’s not really about photography. It’s really about his mother!
AS: It’s wrong-headed in some ways perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the distinction between the studium and the punctum when he’s talking about the photograph is ultimately not that interesting. It’s not the concepts in Barthes that are necessarily so arresting. I remember a few years ago I was writing a piece about Roland Barthes and about his life and rediscovering his work. And the thing that struck me was how disarming his writing is, especially his late writing, and there’s a shyness and a tenderness in it. And you feel there’s an intimacy to his writing and it lends itself to a different kind of reading than someone like Foucault, for example, who rarely reveals anything of himself. Although I think he’s very present in his writing.
MW: I think what you said about tenderness is very nice, and shyness. That’s part of what I think one likes about him – he’s very intelligent, he’s got all kinds of things to say, but he’s never preaching to you or there’s no sense of a sermon, even at some points he seems almost too unpolitical, like he didn’t do anything in 1968, he was busy hiding away, not supporting the students.
AS: He was probably the most bourgeois French theorist!
MW: But there’s something about that quality of not pontificating, saying the sort of things that other people pontificate about, but not pontificating. When he writes about his mother, he says she didn’t have any opinions. And there’s something about that. I think he means dogmatic opinions, sententious opinions.
AS: He called that ‘doxa’, I think.
MW: Doxa. And he didn’t have any opinions. It’s true of him and Derrida..?. He didn’t have any opinions either. Every opinion you have is something to be examined and moved on from.
AS: One of the later discoveries in French theory I think was Gilles Deleuze, who Foucault described as probably the most important philosopher of that era. Why do you think it took so long for people to see the significance of Deleuze’s writing?
MW: I don’t really know. It’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Because it certainly happened, because he was interested in everything. He wrote about Proust, he wrote about Bergson, he wrote two wonderful volumes about the cinema, and then you’ve got the great stuff with Guattari. I don’t know why that was, maybe the stage was full of people there already. I don’t know. I remember I was at Columbia, though, I remember when the name started to appear, but it was quite late in the day. Very interesting. L’Anti-Oedipe was the book that really made him famous, and so maybe his other work was thought to be too academic, not different enough from the mainstream. I don’t know. It certainly is different, very powerful stuff, and he has a lot of followers now. He’s the French philosopher who’s still probably one of the most influential in current memory among younger people.
AS: We were talking earlier about the critique of Western reason, the critique of Eurocentrism in Lévi-Strauss and Derrida and Foucault. And I just thought that we should talk a little bit about the way in which theory goes from being a movement of predominantly white European thinkers, mostly although not all of them male, to being a very diverse movement of writers from various parts of the world, often from places like India and Africa and Latin America. Theory eventually widens into a kind of post-colonial or post-occidental critique with many different global iterations.
MW: I think what happened there was that certain people like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha came from the world of theory, and for that matter Edward Said was a purely literary theory man, a Conrad and literary theory man before he wrote Orientalism. It was a kind of education in a way for all of those people, an education in thinking, and it’s where the interesting thinking was going on. And then they moved on to other things. But there were other currents, of course, there were Indian intellectuals. In India there was an interest in sociology, there was an interest in ways of thinking about the world. And there were people interested in Gramsci, which is where they got the notion of the Subaltern story, that comes from Gramsci. And that was interesting because – I think this must have been a reaction within the theory world – because a lot of it, particularly the work that was especially involved with deconstruction often took on not just a non-political but a kind of anti-political hue. We were just busy making life complicated, and I think even someone like Edward Said got fed up with that!
And he felt that Derrida was some kind of quietist, not active enough and so on. And I think a lot of people felt that.
AS: Which actually turned out not to be true, because in the latter phase of his career Derrida was actually quite eloquent on a number of political issues from Czechoslovakia, apartheid, Israel-Palestine. But to come back to Edward Said, as you mentioned, he became a bit frustrated by what he saw as the limitations of French theory, which hed written about brilliantly in his book Beginnings. And so he decides that Foucault needs to be supplemented by Gramsci. And thats Orientalism. Orientalism is a work that integrates Foucault and Gramsci. What do you think was missing for Edward Said in the French theory that had obviously electrified him when he was a young scholar?
MW: Yeah. Its interesting. What he thought was missing Foucault I don’t think was missing Foucault. I think it was implied in Foucault and you could find it there if you thought about it hard enough. There was something quite conservative about Edward’s theory, and at some point he didnt want to just speak in platitudes and plain speech, but he wanted people to connect to some real world. He had his days. The days when he was writing Beginnings he was giving lectures about Lacan, and in America at that time he was one of the few people who were explaining all these difficult people to the rest of us, you know? And that was very powerful stuff. But I think the moment he moved into the Gramsci world, there had to be some kind of political connection fairly immediately. I would have thought Foucault really had that connection, but I think Edward knew that too. But for the writing, I think he didnt have it.
AS: I suspect, and I may be wrong, Michael, and I very much wonder what you think about this, but I suspect that one of Edwards reasons for placing a little daylight between himself and Foucault is that he didn't have such a pejorative view of humanism or of the idea of the human subject. And I think he worried that the critique of the human subject in Foucault could be injurious to radical political thinking. The radical political imagination that he found in Gramsci, a celebration of mass struggle and not just a kind of fetishisation of particular movements, prisoners, gays, etc. I think he felt that Gramsci’s radical humanism was more congenial to what he wanted to do. What do you think of that?
MW: I think that makes a lot of sense. I think Edward and other people felt this about Foucault, which was that he had a view of the system, and also Foucault was thought to be a pessimist, a man who actually thought the world was impossible, that he sounds as if he thought there was nothing to be done except complain about power, and I think that’s wrong. I think the idea was not to complain, but to do something about it, and I think that’s clearly implied in the work. But I think a lot of historians who owe a lot to Foucault in the end think he does have opinions, unlike Barthes, and they think the opinions are wrong. But there’s no point in reverse celebration of the infinite range of political power and just small attacks on it.
AS: Well, I think this is where you have to juxtapose the pessimistic or even cynical accents in Foucault’s work with the record of Foucault as a public figure, because if Foucault had been so cynical about the possibility of change in society, why would he have devoted so much energy to struggles against repression and prisons or the many demonstrations that he went on? One of the oddities of Foucault’s career is that he emerges as the paradigmatic anti-Sartrean and the critic of the universal intellectual. And yet it’s Foucault who’s constantly on the barricades!
MW: Yes, it’s true. I think it’s a question of, in a way, how to read. I think if you read literally you could read him as a kind of a brilliant prophet of despair, nothing to be done, but he can’t think that. And I don’t think you have to read it that way. You could read that the situation is despairing if we don’t do something about it. But he’s not telling us what to do. Hes telling us how bad things are.
AS: In some ways I think the most pessimistic of the French theorists is probably Lacan. I think his understanding of human subjectivity is profoundly dispiriting.
MW: It is. It is dispiriting. If you wanted to rescue Lacan from the accusation of pure despair and pessimism, you’d have to think about all the epigrams and remarks and think of the kind of play you could get out of them. But certainly there’s no message of any kind of optimism.
AS: One of the things that happened, and I think we’re still seeing the aftershocks of it to some extent, is that the resistance to theory took the form of saying theory is relativistic, theory doesn’t believe in truth. And of course in recent years we’ve been treated to various articles suggesting that the far right has embraced ‘postmodernism’. And that theory is somehow responsible for Trumpism. It strikes me as an intellectually utterly fatuous argument, because I do think that Foucault and Derrida, even as they critiqued what Foucault called truth regimes, actually did believe to some extent in speaking truth to power.
MW: They did. I think Derrida and Foucault certainly believed that truth was difficult, and that anybody who thought it was easy or thought they already had it should think again. But that’s quite different from claiming there is no truth, or not believing in truth. De Man I think sometimes wrote as if he knew there was no truth. He was very subtle, and you can still read his work with great pleasure and you can learn a lot from it. So whatever he was like, the work is very impressive.
But he was often a little bit dogmatic about his own doubts, so to speak. Many of his followers actually speak in that way, where doubt actually becomes a form of security. You actually know that nothing is true. It’s very naive and very dogmatic – to not be sure that anything is true is quite different from knowing that nothing is true.
AS: Which I think is also a reminder that theory was never one thing. It had many faces. My first introduction to it came through two figures who could hardly have been more different. One was Rosalind Krauss, a professor of mine when I was an undergraduate, with whom I studied modernism and whose approach to theory was exceptionally rigorous and systems oriented. And brilliant, but also quite orthodox. And then later in the afternoon I would learn about French theory from Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of Semiotexte, who was a friend of Paul Virilio and Deleuze and Guattari, and whose idea of theory was utter anarchistic subversion. It was the negation of everything I’d been taught that morning!
MW: Sylvère was the person from whom I first heard about Deleuze and Guattari. He was at Columbia when I was there, and from him I first heard about L’Anti-Oedipe and other matters. Wonderful guy
AS: He brought them to Columbia.
MW: So yeah, that is very interesting. And it’s interesting too to think of theory as having these many different ranges. I think of my friend and colleague Hal Foster at Princeton, who made some remark about people, they don’t do theory like they used to. And for some reason Colm Toibin and I made up a poem on the subject, which was published in the LRB, about the regret. It's a double dactyl poem.
AS: You said something earlier that I think was rather striking about truth being difficult. And it occurs to me that the best kind of theoretical writing stages the drama of that struggle. And that what unfortunately happened when theory was institutionalised, especially in American literature departments, is that theory goes from being this questioning mode of thinking, always in pursuit in this kind of intellectual struggle, to being applied as the kind of dogma that Roland Barthes would have resisted. And I do think this is one of the reasons that Edward Said became so frustrated with the reign of theory, that suddenly it was just a set of received truths.
MW: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. Because it’s easy to make it, you know, and that’s one of the reasons why I think the lack of real philosophical input and literary people being allowed to get away with stuff on their own with no correction was quite damaging. I remember being at a dissertation defence at Columbia sometime in the seventies when a young person had got hold of the idea of being against the essences, and there were no essences and so on, and this is all completely wrong. And the philosopher in the room at that time said, you mean that things don’t just fit their labels exactly, like jam jars or whatever it is. And the student said, yes, that’s what I mean. And the philosopher said, well, nobody’s thought that since Plato! This would happen again and again. You can think of many examples where the apparent sophistication of theory turns out to be a form of naiveté. Even that’s better than sheer complacency! But it can be improved on.
AS: Yes. And in fact I remember in the 1980s a number of books began to appear, essentially arguing that the discoveries of French theory had been made many years earlier by the Frankfurt school, that the French were simply late to some of the ideas that German and exiled German Jewish thinkers had been exploring for years. But the French didn't have access to books like Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.
MW: That’s true. And I think that reverse order is very interesting. It took a long time to find out that we were learning in reverse order of many of those people. We learned about the French, Barthes and Derrida and Foucault before we learned about Benjamin, and then we learned about Benjamin before we learned about Jakobson and so we found a way back through. There’s like a reverse trail.
AS: Michael, tell me before we close, I wanted to ask you, is theory being read today in the university? Because I have the sense that its moment to some extent has passed and that people are less interested in it now.
MW: There are two answers, I think, Adam. One is that much theory has been absorbed, and so it is present everywhere, but no longer identifies as a separate entity. So some theory has been taken on board. So for example, without theory there would be no new historicism. It’s not an anti-theory movement, it’s something that tries to take theory back into history, but they had to be with Foucault before they left him. So that’s one answer. And the other answer I think is that it’s not being looked at now as much as it should be. Sporadically you find people discovering things and going back to things. But I think that there’s not quite enough academic interest in what used to be theory. So that partially it’s had its day, and it won by seeping into things, and partly there’s a lot of stuff left to be discovered and thought through again, particularly all these major writers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss. There’s a lot in there that I think we absorbed too quickly and then we paraphrased it and we use the paraphrase instead of going back to the real thing.
AS: I think going back to the real thing is really important, whether or not we put quotations around ‘real’. And I think that yet another reason why their work – and here I’m thinking especially of Foucault – is so important is that they addressed a question that many of us are thinking about today. And that is the question of confinement. Foucault is someone who’s writing about prisons and clinics and hospitals, and also just the experience of the kind of traps that we get ourselves into, whether it's the traps imposed by discursive systems or racism or gender prejudice. These are things that were central to the thinking of a lot of French theorists. How do we free ourselves? Is it even possible to free ourselves?
MW: Roland Barthes’s a good example of this question of continuing the questions and keeping rethinking questions like confinement. There’s a good example, if you think of him in his early work, like many people, like Sartre, for that matter, or Brecht, he was an exposer of ideologies and mythologies. You discovered the illusory truth that people have ...
AS: You’re thinking of his book Writing Degree Zero.
MW: I’m thinking of Mythologies.
AS:Mythologies, of course. Yes.
MW: Yeah. He would say, what’s the myth? Some myths are very comic and very funny or some of them rather deep, but they’re all to do with illusions that we’ve taken to be true and are living with as if they were true. And he calls them mythologies. But later he clearly understood that you can’t actually get rid of a mythology by telling people it’s a myth. You can only get rid of it by replacing it with a better myth. And if you’d like me to go back to the question of the truth, you could replace a myth that was false by a myth that had a lower quantity of falsity in it.
AS: And then later on you’d need a different one.
MW: And then you’d need a different one. And each time there would be a gain in truth, I think, but you wouldn't simply arrive at some simple thing called the truth and it would all be over. You just have to keep working.
AS: The myth of Sisyphus, in a way.
MW: Yes, it is, in a way!
AS: Michael, thank you so much for joining me to talk about theory. Your essay in this new volume, ‘The Meaninglessness of Meaning’, which gave it its title on Roland Barthes is a delight. And it’s been such a pleasure talking to you, and thank you everyone for joining us on the LRB podcast.
MW: Thanks, Adam, a real pleasure.