Return of the real

A.D. Nuttall

  • Uncritical Theory: Post-Modernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War by Christopher Norris
    Lawrence and Wishart, 218 pp, £9.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 85315 752 9

The idea has got around – among ‘advanced’ thinkers of various political persuasions – that realist epistemologies are a thing of the past, that truth values in criticism have now been discredited (or shown up as just a figment of bourgeois ideology); that history and politics are textual ( = fictive) phenomena on a par with poems, novels, or whatever other ‘kinds of writing’ you care to name; and that henceforth the only ‘discourse’ that counts is one that cheerfully acknowledges all this, along with such assumed faits accomplis as the ‘deconstruction’ of the humanist subject as a locus of ethical choices, conflicts and responsibilities.

Show these words to any student of literature in any British university and I am willing to bet that you get, in some form or other, the response: ‘This is some frightened mental dinosaur of the Old Guard, droning on against Deconstruction; these people really can’t adjust, can they?’ In fact, they are the words of Christopher Norris, the leading British Deconstructionist, who knows his Derrida, has worked, so to speak, at the coal-face of the subject, and is therefore in rather a good position to make judgments.

The passage quoted is in no way untypical of the book. Throughout, Norris is squarely in favour of rationality, of the lodging and testing of truth-claims, of the erasure of those ‘queasy’ (his word) inverted commas now obligatory whenever the word reality is used. He is against ‘inverted ontologies, placing rhetoric above reason, fiction above fact’, against the current ‘mixture of Nietzschean and Heideggerian irrationalism ‘which has arisen from “fashionable” late-1960s rhetoric’, against the idea that ‘knowledge is always and everywhere a function of the epistemic will to power.’ It looks just like a case of mid-life reaction-to-the-reactionary. After all, the world has seen such things before; remember Robert Frost’s ‘I never dared be radical when young/For fear it would make me conservative when old.’ In fact, however, it is nothing of the sort. Norris is a passionately engaged radical critic of the Anglo-American Establishment. It is precisely because he is not content to fool around, playing one rhetoric against another, but rather wishes to fight lies with facts, that he defends reason.

Nor should we suppose that this political enterprise involves a break with Deconstruction. Norris argues in this book, as he has argued before, that Richard Rorty’s formalist reading of Derrida as a dissolver of truth and objectivity is wrong: Deconstruction may expose particular areas of aporia or vertiginous bewilderment in the logic of interpretation and explanation as these things are practised in the world, but Derrida has made it clear (especially in the 1989 ‘Afterword’ to Limited inc. but also in Grammatology) that he repudiates the charge that he scorns truth and belongs to the ‘anything goes’ school. Norris draws a sharp distinction between critical Deconstruction and Post-Modernist theory: the former is intently cognitive, the latter relativist or even nihilist in tendency. The villains in this book are Jean Baudrillard, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, closely followed, as we shall see, by Presidents Reagan and Bush, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The heroes are – well, Derrida, of course, but above all Noam Chomsky, here exalted especially because of his sturdily rationalist opposition to Foucault, in an exchange on Dutch Television in the early Seventies about the location of political power.

It may be that the contrast between Derridean Deconstruction and Post-Modernist theory is less firm than Norris believes, or hopes. It is true that Derrida in a recent question-and-answer session held in Oxford maintained, if my information is correct, that Deconstruction was emphatically not dissolution but analysis, and this fits well with Norris’s own contention, in a recent lecture in the same city, that Derrida is really an unusually meticulous exegete of other people’s philosophies, mistrusting simplifying summaries, attentive to footnotes, afterthoughts, qualifications. One’s reaction to the news is twofold: first, to say, ‘Excellent! Now we can all co-operate in the indefinitely complex but exciting task of explicating real works of literature and philosophy, in striving to understand a real world,’ and, secondly, to say: ‘Was that really all? Did we imagine the abolition of a terminal guarantor of knowledge, of epistemological foundations, with the consequent sovereignty of aporia? Did we imagine the ludic Derrida?’

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