Derrida's trace, "neither perceptible nor imperceptible," the "re-marked place of a mark," pure taking-place, is therefore truly something like the experience of an intelligible matter. The experimentum linguae that is at issue in grammatological terminology does not (as a common misunderstanding insists) authorize an interpretative practice directed toward the infinite deconstruction of a text.… Rather, it marks the decisive event of matter, and in doing so it opens onto an ethics.
Language always occurs in the present because it makes the present, because it's active.—Kathy Acker, Bodies of Work (4)
Well After the End
When Walter Benn Michaels argued in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004) that the social and political usefulness of poststructuralism had finally expired completely, he was in plentiful company. Terry Eagleton had likewise pronounced in 2003 that "the golden age of cultural theory is long past" (1). Even Jacques Derrida, Frank Kermode, Toril Moi, and Christopher Norris considered theory's aftermath in the collection of interviews life.after.theory (2003). And earlier than that, studies like Thomas Docherty's monograph After Theory: Post Modernism / Post Marxism (1990) and Wendell Harris's edited collection Beyond Poststructuralism: The Speculations of Theory and the Experience of reading (1996), among others, addressed in various contexts theory's alleged decline. The "high theory" of poststructuralism had long since run its course by the time Michaels announced its dissolution into the "end of history." And as its foundational authors passed away or slipped out of the public limelight, the rhetorics and critiques of post-9/11 nationalism overwrote the political cachet of poststructuralism's legacies in the public consciousness of the United States. Further, a new set of European and American philosophers began or completed their rise to ascendancy in the literary-theoretical wings of the U. S. academy—Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière, and Slavoj Žižek, to name a few—in the decades immediately preceding and following the fin de millennium. Whether or not one agrees with the theorists of post-theory about poststructuralism's death in the institutions of American literary criticism, we some time ago passed into a new era in the history of continental thought's reception in American academe.
But what is it about poststructuralist analysis that strikes today's philosophers and literary theorists as incommensurate to the task of living and thinking in a twenty-first-century global landscape? One suggestion, to return to Michaels's condemnation, is that poststructuralist theory has no room for ethical praxis. If poststructuralism (albeit caricatured poststructuralism) tells us that everything is text and that all texts are dependent on readers for meaning, then theory undercuts the grounds for ethical behavior by reducing meaning and belief to the isolated particularity of individual subjects. At the so-called "end of history"—which is to say in the age of fully globalized economic systems and floating exchange rates—Michaels tells us, "the fantasy of the senseless (writing without meaning) has taken its place alongside the fantasy of Empire (politics without believing)" (182). In this account, what has diminished is the political efficacy of espousing skepticism about meaning and belief. In other words, globalization has diluted the political potency of skepticism about normative statements and causal narrative. And that skepticism, Michaels would tell us, is shared by theorists of multicultural identity politics, by literary critics steeped in Paul de Man, by authors of metafiction and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, by queer theorists, by feminists, by anyone, in fact, who interrogates how dominant cultural narratives construct and maintain social reality. Skepticism, Michaels suggests, cannot do ethics, cannot do politics, and cannot read the world, let alone make it a better place. Yet it has been blindly institutionalized as a "fantasy of the senseless" in something like a fully late capital—or in the really late postmodernism of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000). Michaels's argument, reductive as it may be, is also seductive because it recognizes the political limitations of certain modes of reading (vis-à-vis both word and world), as...