- After Reading After Poststructuralism
After reading the title of Colin Davis’s After Poststructuralism, my initial reaction is to ask whether the shark hasn’t been jumped once too often on a book written in the “post-theory” genre. Since at least the early 1990s, critical theorists have referred to the death of Theory, which seems invariably to prompt further theoretical reflection on what methodological norms in reading literature academically might come next. (The hackneyed idea that cultural studies eclipsed deconstruction as the predominant theoretical method comes to mind.) But the freshness of perspective Davis gives the subject recommends the book.
To begin with, the first two chapters helpfully detail three academic controversies surrounding French theory—the ways its enemies have gone “after” it, so to speak, and taken it to task. Davis helps the inexperienced reader, or even a reader who just needs a short refresher course, by situating the topic in a polemical fashion. We instantly know what is at stake—namely, whether poststructuralism offers a legitimate methodology of reading, or whether as its attackers claim it is fashionable but ultimately fraudulent academic discourse. Of these three controversies, the 1965 dispute between Raymond Picard and Roland Barthes over how to read Racine is the most interesting because of its relative unfamiliarity. Most readers interested in theory are probably more familiar with the Alan Sokal affair of 1996 and with Jürgen Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987), Davis’s other two examples. What I find particularly fascinating about the Picard-Barthes conflict is the way in which Picard’s indictment of Barthes and of, generally, what he called la nouvelle critique so eerily foreshadows the same complaints made by more recent critics of theory: its jargon is mere obfuscation, its interpretations are unverifiable, and it uses examples out of context (16–18). What is interesting is the date of this attack, coming as it does even before poststructuralism proper really got going. So from its very inception, these charges have dogged it. It’s like the experience of a young person today reading a Flannery O’Connor story written in the 1950s and coming to the realization that perhaps the “good old days” never really were.
The Picard-Barthes controversy sets up a pattern of fierce traditionalist opposition to Theory that finds a recent echo in the Sokal affair. But if Picard spoke with the authority of a scholarly point of view, Sokal, as a physicist, attacks from the outside. Davis treats the Sokal affair with a humorous touch. It turns out that Sokal’s attempt to play gotcha with postmodernism by planting a “fake” academic article in the journal Social Text imbricates him all the deeper in the very social phenomenon he rails against.
One sign of this postmodernism is the burgeoning controversy around Sokal’s original Social Text article and the later Impostures intellectuelles. Rather than putting an end to the babble of “fashionable nonsense,” Sokal and Bricmont found themselves increasingly engulfed in a media Babel, as the meaning and significance of their work were wrested from them . . . .But each new act of containment produces new misunderstandings and a renewed need to assert the meaning of the inaugural event in the controversy. The text cannot be trusted to speak for itself, it requires supplements and commentaries which fragment it at the very moment they endeavor to shore up its unity.(28–29)
For Davis, the Sokal affair becomes the postmodern controversy par excellence: the more Sokal struggles to assert the real meaning of events, the deeper he is pulled into a moral quicksand.
The meat of the book is four chapters that take an in-depth look at four French theorists: Jean-François Lyotard, Emmanuel Levinas, Louis Althusser, and Julia Kristeva. One of the unexpected qualities of the book is that it doesn’t focus directly on what are arguably the big names of poststructuralism: Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Deleuze. (Davis does bring in a discussion of Foucault and Derrida in one of his framing chapters on Habermas, and the conclusion’s meditation on the spectrality...