My plan to resurge, triumphant, back into blogging after my thesis was over has, um, hit a few snags. Like my abysmal lagging in all my other classes. If they were children, I’d be charged with criminal neglect.
Nevertheless, some events simply can’t go unblogged. Today’s NYT article by Stanley Fish, French Theory In America, is one of those events. I may come back and re-post a longer, more thorough version of my thoughts later on this week, but for now, here are some observations, copied and slightly edited from an email conversation with a friend of mine, Henry Seton (’06).
It makes me sad that this is one of the only slivers of theoretical debate that reaches popular media. Yeah, I agree that he’s being unfair. According to him, demonstrating that something is socially constructed is meaningless as a critique, since everything is socially constructed. But when you’re talking about something like gender roles, which derive much of their strength, entrenchment, and as you say, sacrosanctity from arguments that they are ‘natural,’ biologically fixed, inevitable, and largely immune to cultural/historical influence, then of COURSE it’s an important critical step to expose their cultural contingency!
After establishing that, like you said, it’s up to you how to proceed. You can make arguments for social change based on ethics, morals, harms, progress, even (gasp) logic. And the same deconstructive process, as a tool, applies to something like, say, liberal autonomy, medical discourse, rhetoric on education, and all kinds of areas where there’s some foundational assumption of a ‘natural’ or time-tested truth that’s in fact subject to historical and cultural circumstances (though not necessarily completely determined by them, and not worthless as a result of them). Urgh.
So yeah, I think he showed that the emperor has no clothes, only the emperor is some caricature of Judith Butler that lives in his mind.
Welcome to the professional version of the typical swill used to malign us Women, Gender, and Sexuality majors here at school. Fish clearly has an excellent grasp on the theories and firsthand experience with their politicized deployment in an academic institutional context. But in trying to brand them as a bugbear of U.S. public intellectual discourse, he coughs up this diluted, pat, and, ironically, relativist argument. He’s picked an easy (because so widely mistrusted) target, and though his insights sound dandy, they sidestep a real discussion about how people have used, and continue to use, deconstructionist analysis in the service of political progress and social change.