Theorist abases herself in dust and ashes….

Oh boy! Our conversation partner named Hi strikes again! And so, as a result, I have a terrible confession to make. And you poor scientists, no wonder you tend to think you ought to hate us lit theorists….

So I go over on Hi’s link to read Bruno Latour’s mea culpa issued in about 2003 (it looks like) and I am stunned at the words Latour is now “taking back.” Well, he should take them back! I cannot believe he ever said them in the first place. Science’s findings have no objective reality and are purely “socially constructed”!? Good grief….

I have to tell you that I have taught the history of literary theory for 25 years and I have studied French and Continental Saussurean structuralism and post structuralism for 28 years and yet I never knew exactly what our American scientists were referring to when they conveyed to me their scorn for “social constructionism.”

However, I am not alone in my lofty aristocratic theoretical ivory tower and my pure theoretical blue-bloodedness. I have been so deeply engaged with the four decades of Continental structuralist thought, which shifts into post-structuralism during the career of Roland Barthes and is so intellectually dynamic in the thought-work of Derrida and in Lacan and their compatriots Julia Kristeva and Helene Cicioux and Luce Irigaray (the fire-brand of the group but a wildly amazing theorist) and how all of this intersects with the phenomenological lines of thought running from Husserl through Heidegger and back to the first group (and now add Levinas) — this entire great generation of French theorists now passing off the scene (and often crudely imitated in the US because of the lack of structuralist foundations in our intellectual tradition) — well that’s a run-on sentence!

But I was so engaged with all of this that I failed somehow to focus on this upstart group over in the American social sciences who were actually doing something called social constructionism! They weren’t at my university, and they weren’t in my reading of theory. But I am appalled that I was so unaware!

I apologize and abase myself in dust and ashes! No wonder Hi thinks I am intellectual dishonest in painting my own theoretical movement as “a breath of fresh air,” which he insists it was/is not.

However, if you take a look at two very useful guides, Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism and David Macey’s Penguin Guide to Critical Theory, just for an example, you will read about poststructuralist and postmodern theorists for a long time without encountering this social sciences movement, which I guess is American, although Bruno Latour is French and was working out of the French philosopher of science Baudrillard (and I have encountered both of their names but not studied them).

Clearly, we need to have some big clarifications made here, as to what I am defending and what goes waay beyond the pale. Remember, I was very disappointed to find Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense misinterpreting (in my honest and appreciably informed opinion) some of the best and most difficult theoretical minds — Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva — and travestying them and conveying false impressions of them to American scientists.

But I am in no way defending this American movement of social constructionism, which appears to have some of its roots in John Searle and the Anglo-American analytic tradition, which is very different in style of thought from my own theorists. (I do not find most analytic philosophers “breaths of fresh air” — I’m sorry! I don’t hate them; they sometimes do very interesting things; they just aren’t my style of thinkers. Besides, doncha know, “some of my best friends are analytic philosophers”! )

So in the days to come I will do a post or two setting out the various threads of what we so confusingly call postmodernism. Right now, though, I want to say that I am comfortable only in talking about and advocating for the rigorous thought of the poststructuralists! (The French folks I named above.)

Also, there is always the huge question of the cultural context, in determining what is and is not “a breath of fresh air,” and no one is a better theorist for that than Derrida, by the way…. (His work is set in the context of the strong and stable totalizing claims of the French Enlightenment, and would not be liberating in a less stable environment. You could do some Lorentz transformations on it, though.)

This contextualism is part of what poststructuralism teaches us. Never forget that poststructuralist thought is always first of all structuralist and Saussurean, except sometimes in the U.S., when it can become a parody of itself as a result, I’m afraid. (See my “Very Poor Postmodern Thought” post and my son’s couple of very poor postmodern courses at university! He also had some superlative theoretical courses.)

In Saussurean thought, any x takes its meaning from the y’s and z’s (and actually, from the other x’s, as in f(x), x = x, we find three different x’s) with which it is most often and most strongly contrasted, in terms of the operative functional and formal relationships.

Accordingly, there can be a strong contrast in our perception of things only where there is a great deal of identity, as with “black” and “white” being strong contrasts only by being identically “elements on a single spectrum of colors” and furthermore by each being located at an extreme end of the spectrum. (Things take their identity from their positions in a system, not their physical constitution.)

Or in politics, shifting to a somewhat different semiotic structure in play, Republicans and Democrates (because we have a binary, two-party system) necessarily make the strongest contrast with one another precisely because they are so alike, in the potent center of the political spectrum. So it can certainly be the case that in one sense “there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them,” viewed in a wider political spectrum of possibilities, and yet those very differences can still make all the difference in the world. (Can you tell that I was tempted to vote for Ralph Nader in the Al Gore/George W. race in 2000? I shudder to think of it, though it didn’t matter in the end…) Also, in the same way as with black and white, the two extreme ends of the political spectrum are frightening alike….

In Saussure, with respect to human sign-systems, a “relationship” is always inherently constituted out of a structure of “identity” and “contrast.” This is so different from our Anglo-American intellectual tradition, which is oriented toward knowing physical objects scientifically and mathematically within the Cartesian paradigm, that it take quite a bit of getting used to. (I would say about five years of constant thought and work in the semiotic disciplines, in my case….)

But remember that the formal-kinds-of-things in view here are quite distinct: science studying physical structures and theory studying perceptual, semiotic structures of human perception. Maybe this would help us formulate some of the differences between the various disciplines in the liberal arts, at some point?

If some of you are interested, I found a wonderfully clear and informative site that takes you briefly through Saussure’s theory of signs. I found it after Paul told me to prove I was not “a crazy person” by being a bit more clear and explicit! And then when he came back and re-entered the conversation and proved not to be a “crank” himself, I decided to post this link for his benefit, and that of others. So click here.

But I gotta tell you that I myself could never explain Saussure this clearly and distinctly (that’s Descartes’ imperative for “ideas,” by the way, that an “idea” is true by being “clear and distinct”!) — because if I were teaching it, I would be pacing around and drawing all over the blackboard about how each of the clear distinctions turns out to be constituted reciprocally and mutually out of all the dynamical relationships of identity and difference and how we can only make progress in formalizing this stuff by keeping that constantly in mind…. (If I were to put more of my lit theory course on line we’d get into this.)

Okay, I have my work cut out for me, learning about social constructionism, and I think I’ll use another post on Kevin Hart to separate out some various threads of “postmodernism” for us all . I also have another “Wily Socrates” post and something else brewing up on Saussure.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Gavin’s latest thoughts on the wonderful “ink-and-paper book” analogy, in which he raises the toughest questions of all. (Note the original description of my weblog at the top of this page….) Are we really ready for these questions yet? I get tired just thinking about it, right now. But I will re-enter that discussion eventually. What about the rest of you?

Gavin is in a way getting us back to the old “gnomes with shovels” discussion (which I partially side-stepped with my “immanence and transcendence”) and all the questions about the soul, about which I have said nothing, and yet I still get mild flack coming at me about this topic, from both sides simultaneously, from my soul-oriented poet friends and from anti-soul physical scientists. (I don’t mean to say all poets are soul-oriented or all physical scientists are anti-soul. I know personally that neither is the case.) That old “gnomes with shovels” discussion lapsed too soon, and maybe it should be renewed….

Is the concept of the soul a “supernatural” concept? Yes, in Cartesian terms. No, in Greek formalist terms. Eeek! I’m quaking in my boots, just mentioning these topics. It shows how much trust we’ve built up in our conversations here, that we are broaching these controversies at all.

So if you are new to the conversation, be sure to be thoughtful and respectful of everyone’s diverse backgrounds and views — remember that I won’t mind using my delete button, which I have never needed to do, hurray! (Saucy is okay. Blunt is okay. If you visit many blogsites, you know exactly what’s not okay, unfortunately…)