- The Shape of the Signifier or, The Ontology of Argument
Agamben, Butler, Deleuze, de Man, Derrida, Fukuyama, Hardt, Negri, Rorty, and Zizek. If you’ve ever considered endorsing any of these thinkers’ views, you might want to read Walter Benn Michaels’ latest challenge to contemporary theory and criticism, The Shape of the Signifier (Princeton, 2004). For those unfamiliar with Michaels’ writings, he is the one who (with Steven Knapp) wrote the “Against Theory” (1982) essay that argued — against the prevailing common wisdom of the day — that texts can only mean what the authors intend them to mean.1 This was followed by his equally compelling The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1988) and, most recently, Our America (1995). The Shape of the Signifier (hereafter Shape ) is a return to the theoretical point of “Against Theory” that ties it into the larger historical and theoretical claim in Our America: a claim against the politics of identity/difference or, as Michaels describes it, “against the idea that the things you do and the beliefs you hold can be justified by a description of who you are.” ( Shape 10).
Shape is yet another of Michaels ‘against’ arguments and, like his colleague and friend Stanley Fish, we might say that Michaels has made a career of making ‘against’ claims; he is a “dismantler” ( Shape , 17) which, he is quick to point out, is different from deconstruction. In fact, Shape is an attempt to do away with deconstruction as a theoretical and political project once and for all and the crystalline logic replete with “if/then” clauses is Michaels’ strongest tool in his dismantling endeavors.2
But before we get into the formal argument of the book, a few words about its range. Michaels has the unique ability to generalize a specific line of thought into a cultural phenomenon so that his engagements with either Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series or Brett Easton Ellis’ Glamorama are as relevant and punctual as his engagements with the ‘A to Z’ Pantheon of critical theorists listed above. Thus, the kinds of problems he sees emerging in the past thirty years in contemporary academic theory are the same kinds of problems emerging in late twentieth century post-apocalyptic science fiction writing. And this is not simply a coincidence: science fiction writing, in the end, is what contemporary political theory has become: 3 “a vision of the future inhabited by people with different bodies rather than different beliefs.” ( Shape , 171).
Such a vision — of different identities rather than different beliefs — is the crux of Michaels polemical point. What Fukuyama and Huntington got right, and what thinkers from Agamben to Zizek share, is a commitment to a world where identity replaces ideology. This deleterious shift, Michaels argues, is what it means to be post-structural. As Fukuyama argued in the infamous “End of History” piece, what ended with 1989 was not so much a political system, but an ideal of social organization. Extending this claim Michaels argues that what ends with the end of history is not simply an ideal of social organization, but the possibility of disagreement itself. This is the promise of our “post-political” era not simply announced by Fukuyama but theorized by post-structural theorists. With the substitution of identity for ideology, there is nothing left over which to argue. We no longer disagree about ideas; we simply see things differently.
Put thusly, the dispute seems trite. But it isn’t, as Michaels’ engagement with contemporary theory evinces. The book begins with a discussion of Susan Howe’s The Birth Mark and the claim that the materiality of a book matters to its meaning. Howe is merely a straw person to get at the real target of Shape ’s introduction, de Man’s deconstruction and his “material vision”4 approach to reading texts. De Man’s literary criticism and its emphasis on polysemy, like Derrida’s ‘marks’ (another target), is committed to the experience of the text rather than its meaning; and this implies a commitment to the subject position of the reader rather than to the interpretation of the text. Thus, Michaels asserts, “readers for whom the same text can...