Extract: Theorybabble

Koi (1932), Kurt Schwitters, Tate

Extract from The Humanities, the Social Sciences and the University: A Study in Knowledge Production, [Routledge, forthcoming]

The history of Theorybabble is now well-known to everyone and is an often-told story that need not preoccupy us unduly. It arose in the hothouse atmosphere of the avant gardist intellectual circles of the Paris of the 1960s and 70s. But it only really flourished in the American elite universities of the 1980s and 90s. Since then, it has become much more widespread, though not in Paris itself, where it has more or less petered out.

We have already touched on its origins by reference to Barthes, the thinker who first introduced it into literary criticism. In America this was taken up and furthered by Derrida in the form of Deconstruction, a literary-philosophical movement that originated in the Comparative Literature department at Yale. We shall also go on to touch briefly on Foucault, but shall deal with his theories much more thoroughly in the next chapter, by reference to history and the social sciences where his work more properly belongs. The third major figure, Francois Lyotard, will also be briefly discussed, particularly in relation to his definition of post-Modernism.

Theorybabble in its Deconstructivist and other forms has had a particularly deleterious influence on literary criticism. This is because it disregards and discounts the most fundamental feature of literary works – their uniqueness and originality. Criticism at its best is the elucidation of these specific characteristics of usually great literary works. The critic is an interpreter of a pre-existing work, and therefore the servant of the text. For criticism to be successful and illuminating of the work, the critic must place himself or herself in a subordinate position in relation to the work and its author. And this, as we have seen, Barthes rules out by claiming that the critics’ écriture is a form of creative writing that parallels and equals the author’s writing. By placing himself or herself on the same level as the author, the Barthian critic cannot elicit from the work what it uniquely has to offer and makes it different from every other work. The critic’s own écriture will always be the same no matter what works it deals with, whereas the works themselves are inherently different. These differences are a function of the uniqueness of each one, which is what proper criticism aims to bring out and elucidate.

Every significant work is unique in the sense that no two such works carry an identical meaning – if they did, they would be merely variants of the one work – and that meaning, specific to each true work, is itself some kind of truth that cannot be generalised from one work to another. Criticism is always, therefore, ultimately specific and devoid of generalisations. Nevertheless, the truth of a work is not internal to itself, as if it were its own hermetic secret, but refers itself outside the work to some aspect of reality, usually the human condition of life and death within a specific historical culture. This is the reason that this truth is accessible to critics and can be shared with all others who inhabit or have entry to that culture or can come to imaginatively appreciate it.

It is these presuppositions of criticism that Barthian criticism and every other Theorybabble disregard and discount. It considers the text to be a mere pretext for expounding its own terms and ideas, a mere blank screen for projecting its own image. The work as pre-text becomes literally the text prior to the critical text which becomes the real text, taking the place of the original text. Some even considered it as the superior text, as when Stanley Fish took his friend Geoffrey Hartman to be “the Wordsworth of our time”, and as such capable of taking the place of Wordsworth himself. Thus, the work itself becomes like a mirror in which the critic sees only a reflection of the variation of French Theory held up to it. This is the reason that all the so-called “readings” of different works sound so very much alike. The technique of “reading against the grain” really means imposing on quite other works the same critical terms and forcing them by a kind of “interpretative violence”, which is really a violation, onto the work itself.

Not only is it impossible to interpret single works in this way, it makes it also impossible to compare different works to each other or to make a critical assessment of a given body of works. To do so calls for comparative studies and the exercise of evaluative judgement. Valuation is precisely what so-called reading carried out in terms of French Theory is designed to avoid, so as to by-pass the need for critical judgement. Judgement has to be exercised not only in respect of valuation but also in respect of analysis and interpretation, which together are the triad of essential functions of criticism (Redner, 2007, chap. 5). These functions must be validated, as far as possible cooperatively through debate and the reaching of agreement among reputable critics, which is the closest criticism can come to objectivity. This notion of critical consensus in art is very different from that in science, but it, too, is a matter of exercising a rational procedure for the negotiation of differences and disagreements. This process does not require agreement in everything, just minimal agreement to disagree and carry on the debate, rather than ending in mutual incomprehension and bafflement, usually the prelude for coming to blows.

French Theory avoids such issues of judgement and validation in criticism by applying the blanket term “reading” and rejecting any reference to “truth”, “validity”, “rationality” or even “reference” itself. In principle this should make any kind of discourse impossible, but in practice it has proved no bar to the incessant production of “readings” couched in the appropriate Theory jargon. All the celebrated masters of French Theory have agitated vociferously against these elementary conditions of discourse, which are basic to the formation of the smallest unit of discourse – the sentence itself.

In what follows we shall seek to show that without reference to “truth”, “validity”, “rationality” and “reference” it is not possible to account for the formation of meaningful sentences as assertions or propositions capable of being validated as true or false. The explanation as to why this is so belongs to the science of logic, for which the masters of French Theory have no regard whatever, preferring to remain in the sphere of linguistics and semiotics, that is, the theory of signs which are pre-logical and so prior to the formation of sentences. With the sentence we enter another dimension of meaning, one higher than that of the sign; and with discourse or argumentation a still further level of logic is reached. All this was already initially spelled out by Aristotle and every major logician since, such as Frege or Russell, has built on these Aristotelian foundations. But the maîtres penseur have apparently not read any Aristotle.

But at least one linguist they should have consulted, for he lived literally next door, had read Aristotle and was aware that linguistics stops short of logic, and that was Emile Benveniste whose major work was published in 1966, prior to most of those of French Theory (Benveniste, 1971). Merquior takes full note of Benveniste’s work and spells out its consequences for criticism:

For, as Benveniste saw, in linguistic analysis, as soon as we get to the level of the sentence, we enter the realm of what lies outside language. Sentence meaning implies reference to the discourse situation. Logically speaking, this peculiarity should have forbidden from the very start every attempt to provide:

  1. A ‘linguistics of literariness’ based on the phonological model of finite units and a few rules of exclusion and combination;
  2. An ET-phobic [Extra-Textuality] theory of literature, since the full account of literature requires a semiotics of discourse (and hence of reference), and not just a semiotics of language.
Merquior, 1986, p. 180

Unfortunately, Merquior has inadvertently slipped up in his terminology for there cannot be such a thing as a “semiotics of discourse” but only a logic of discourse. Semiotics is a science that can account for signs and codes, but falls far short of being able to deal with discourse which requires sentences and arguments. However, Benveniste was aware of this, for he carefully distinguished between levels of linguistic analysis. Barthes, however, was not, as Geoffrey Strickland, whom Merquior quotes, shows:

In his well-known essay “Analyse de structure des récits” (Communications, 1966), Barthes contends that “the same formal organization (sic) most probably governs all semiotic systems, whatever their substance and dimensions”. This was written in the teeth of Benveniste’s ‘levels’ essay, to which Barthes actually refers to justify the – thoroughly opposite – view just quoted.

Merquior, 1986, p. 181 (See also Strickland, 1983)

It was Barthes more than anyone else who began this process of depriving literary language, or any other for that matter, of any “truth”, “validity”, “rationality” or “reference”, basing himself on a Mallarméan poetics of a purely objectless, contentless and “pure” language, a view which he sought to back up by reference to formalistic theories of linguistics and semiotics, as Merquior demonstrates. For such a view of a pure language there can be no truth, or validity, or rationality or reference. Hence, all the critic can do is to accompany the author’s written text with an “écriture” which is a parallel text that doubles the original one, a kind of tautological reinscription of the original literary language into the language of criticism. According to Merquior, Barthes is the originator of the games that French Theory exponents have continued to play ever since:

Indeed, if the history of the nouvelle critique may be told largely in terms of the eclipse of meaning and the loss of reference, this is, to a great extent, Barthes’ fault. Nobody else, not even Jakobson, encouraged so many to believe that “meaning is nothing but the possibility of transcoding” regardless of any reference to something beyond (though not exactly outside) language and the languages of culture; no one was this reckless in offering groundless suggestions that “generative” models could be drawn for literature as well as language; no other critic was so prodigal in giving his blessing to the misfired endeavour of narratology to establish an algebra of story-telling which was oblivious to the major differences between narratives in their degree of artistry and their moral scope or moral depth.

Merquior, 1986, p. 175

But no matter how right and thorough Merquior is in denouncing Barthes and his ilk in French Theory, he has still not gone far enough. He is still somewhat chary of the idea that there is a reality outside language or culture for that matter, for he qualifies his view of reference when he states that meaning is not independent of “any reference to something beyond (though not necessarily outside) language and the languages of culture”. But this is precisely what meaning is if it is taken in Frege’s terminology as “reference” in opposition to “sense”, that is, as Bedeuting, in contrast to Sinn. The sense (Sinn) of the sentence “the cat is on the mat” can be understood without knowing whether it is true or false, namely, whether its reference (Bedeuting) to a specific cat or mat on the specific occasion of utterance in fact holds good or fails to do so. To establish its truth or falsity one actually needs to go and look and possibly to stroke the animal to make sure that it is not an illusion. This going and looking and stroking are surely outside language, and so basic as to be outside even the “languages of culture” that Merquior refers to (though it is far from clear what that may mean or whether culture can be embraced within any kind of language) (Redner, 2020, chap. 3).  There are such things as the practical realities of human life and the environment which exist prior to any language and on which both language and culture depend. For without such ordinary actions as going and looking and stroking it would be impossible to establish the truth or falsehood of any sentence, as of any discourse or any science. This is precisely what empirical verification or falsification means, for that is simply the methodical exercise of going and looking and stroking called experimentation.

Derrida’s portentous proclamation “il n’ ya pas hors text” must be shown up for the pretentious nonsense it really is, unless, per impossibile, one were to hold that the whole world is a text, as some kind of “book of Nature”. Only on this assumption, that everything in the world is treated as text, does this begin to make some sense. This is, indeed, the position into which Barthes and his disciples, such as Umberto Eco, as well as the more extreme of the semioticians fell. Thus, on this view battles are texts, and gymnastic exercises are texts, and markets are texts, and all other performances and activities are also texts. Thus, even going and looking and stroking can also be taken as text. Hence, there is nothing outside some text or other. This is a useful view for proponents of extreme semiosis for it means that everything can be and needs to be given a “reading” and that the semiotic empire can extend as far “as readings” can be given – imperium sine fine – but what is at stake is the academic empire, of course.

But it is not only the cabbalistically-minded Derrida who is prone to such denials of truth and rationality, the much more sober-minded Foucault falls into such postures as well. His anti-empiricist formalism gets the better of him when he abjures all reference to truth in his account of scientific discourse:

To analyse a discursive formation is to weigh the “value” of statements, a value that is not defined by their truth, that is not gauged by a secret context, but which characterizes their place, their capacity for articulation and exchange, their possibility of transformation, not only in the economy of discourse, but more generally in the administration of scarce resources.

Foucault, 1972, p. 120

Foucault takes the expression “economy of discourse” in a quite literal sense, for he has evidently assimilated statements to money in his “economy of discourse”. Money, of course, does not have to be true or false, or even grammatical or ungrammatical. Its meaning lies solely in its practical utility as a medium of exchange. To “weigh the ‘value’ of statements” only makes sense if statements are treated as bullion whose value is, indeed, determined by weight. The rest of the extract takes further this “economic” model of discourse and leads to obvious absurdities. The capacity of statements for “articulation and exchange” makes sense for money but scarcely so for statements. Their apparent “possibility for transformation… in the administration of scarce resources” makes no sense whatever for it yokes together a term that applies to language and not to money (“articulation”) with one that applies to money and not to language (“exchange”). What kind of exchange relations can statements enter into? He compounds this confusion of categories, of logic with economics, when he goes on to apply to statements an apparent “possibility of transformation… in the administration of scarce resources.” This way of putting it gives the game away completely for there is no such thing as “scarce resources” in statements or language in general. Language does not lack for statements; we can make up as many as we like ad infinitum without language becoming any the poorer for it. In short, the economistic and productive model does not apply to language or to logic and Foucault resorts to it only to omit logic altogether so as to deny truth and rationality.

It is not much better with Foucault’s later denial of truth and logic by a resort to power. Truth is interpreted as a “will to truth” and this in turn is taken as a species of the “will to power”. Foucault follows Nietzsche and take literally Bacon’s assertion that “truth is power”, transforming a pragmatic adage, like, Franklin’s “time is money”, into an identity. But to identify truth with power in any form whatever is to deny the autonomy of logic as providing norms of validity that do not translate into any other terms, whether this be power or production or utility or anything else. It is the first step in the direction of a general irrationalism into which Nietzsche fell and Foucault at times in his very variegated career was to stumble into as well. For there is no consistency in Foucault’s development. What is true of his earlier Nietzschean phase does not necessarily hold for his later “liberal” period when he came closer to Habermas’ rationalistic Enlightenment philosophy.

However, the chief expositor of irrationalist mysticism masquerading as philosophy was not Foucault but Derrida. His Deconstruction is a tissue of pretences and deceptions in which it is difficult to tell what are jokes and puns and what are sober statements. Sobriety is not a virtue that Derrida or his followers espouse, they are far more fascinated by the intoxication of his prose. It is a style of writing that Derrida learned from Lacan. Lacan developed it not to interpret dreams, as Freud might have done, but to write in a dream-like way, utilizing the metaphoric and metonymic resources of dream-language. To this so-called “language” Lacan applied the Saussurean principles of linguistics on the dubious assumption that “the unconscious is structured like a language”.

Derrida took over this assumption but inverted it to “language is structured like the unconscious”. Thus, whatever Lacan referred to in his interpretation of the unconscious, Derrida applied to his interpretation of language. Lacan took over from Saussure the opposition of signifier to signified in the analysis of the sign, but totally against Saussure he went on to make the signified a function of the signifier, as Merquior explains:

The Lacanian “law of the Signifier” stems from the alleged “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier” [Lacan, Écrits, p. 154]. But this is to assert the primacy of the signifier in a spirit utterly foreign to Saussure’s sober polarity: with Lacan the signified goes overboard and the polarity is destroyed. Thus, ultimately the unconscious is no language – it is just one of the faces of the linguistic coin, obscurely endowed with a dense, dim margin of symbolic meaning. No wonder that Lacan was so keen on the poetics and ontology of absence – on Mallarmé and Heidegger.

Foucault, 1972, p. 180

Derrida followed Lacan in all this to the letter, but it was the letter as opposed to the spirit, namely, signifiers with no signifieds. As opposed to the Saussurean view according to which language is made up of signs combining signifiers with signifieds, according to Derrida language is a matter of signs in which only the signifiers are present, the signifieds have somehow been elided through the doctrine that there is no reference. And these signs that constitute Saussurean langue never enter into any Saussurean parole. It is, as Hamlet states, all “words, words, words” with no meaning or matter and not addressed to anybody for any purpose.

Derrida, like Lacan, was also very taken with Mallarmé and Heidegger and their ideas of absence, for it is presence that he shunned. Presence somehow stood in for the metaphysics that he attacked, yet continued to practice in the negative mode, with all the ambiguities of present- absence and absent-presence. Thus, in place of Heidegger’s all-inclusive Being, Derrida placed all his faith on Différance (a deliberate misspelling of différence) as a non-comparative abstraction or figure which he could trope as he liked. It became a kind of Deus Absconditus in his pseudo theology. Under this one figure, or really a multi-textual pun, he could bring together all his favourite thinkers who affirmed one kind of difference or another, namely, Nietzsche, Saussure, Freud, Heidegger and Levinas. Robert Bernasconi reports on a lecture he gave right at the start of his illustrious career which confirms this:

The lecture “La différance” was delivered to the Société Française de philosophie in 1968. In a summary provided on that occasion, Derrida records how the nonword or nonscript différance assembles “the juncture of what has been most decisively inscribed in the thought of what we conveniently call our ‘epoch’.” He names in this regard five thinkers and certain ideas associated with them: “the difference of forces in Nietzsche, Saussure’s principle of semiological difference, differing as the possibility of facilitative impression and delayed effect in Freud, difference in the irreducibility of the trace of the other in Levinas, and the ontic-ontological difference in Heidegger”.

Bernasconi, 2001, p. 431

If the magic word “différance” can assemble all that, then one can only cry out in jubilation “vive la différance” as the old joke has it. But really it is all a play on words (misspelled or not), a play with words. The fundamental and irreconcilable differences between Nietzsche, Saussure, Freud, Levinas and Heidegger still remain where they always were – irreconcilable.

Derrida loves to coin such magic words, just as children do, words that work for him like abracadabra to open all doors of thought. Another such is “trace”, which according to Bernasconi would do just as well as “différance” in collating his favourite thinkers: “The trace provides the focus of Derrida’s discussion of Saussure, Freud and Heidegger at least as much as the notion of différance does” (Bernasconi, 2001, p. 431). A third such is “writing”, or as he came to call it “archi-écriture”, which obviously owes something to Barthes as well as to Cabbalistic mysticism. On this basis he sets up the spurious binary opposition of writing to language and makes the false claim that ever since Plato language has been “privileged” over writing whereas the inverse ought to be the case, since writing is in some mystical way prior to language. As he puts it, “in all senses of the word, writing would comprehend language” (Derrida, 2016, p. 7). Presumably children write before they speak or cave-men wrote before they spoke, for otherwise it is difficult to see what “privileging” means in this context.

Setting up such spurious binary oppositions, and claiming that throughout history the one has been in some peculiar sense “privileged” over the other, and then overturning the presumed dominance of the one over the other as an insurrectionary gesture of “liberation” – all this has been Derrida’s great signature accomplishment. Thus, one of his disciples, Barbara Johnson, puts it as follows:

Speech is seen as immediacy, presence, life, and identity, whereas writing is seen as deferment, absence, death and difference. Speech is primary; writing secondary. Derrida calls this privileging of speech as self-present meaning “logocentrism”.

Johnson, 2004, p. 343

Thus, the overcoming of “logocentrism” is seen as striking a blow against the shackles of logic and rationality that Western philosophy has imposed on minds since the very start of metaphysics. But in truth, to associate speech with one set of highly loaded terms and writing with the opposite set is nothing but the exercise of free verbal association. Setting up binary dualities, claiming that the one side is “privileged” over the other, and then inverting them, is the stock verbal game that Derrida plays. But it is no more than that for it carries no further weight.

Derrida carries out numerous such exercises with other sets of terms. The male-female polarity is one of his favourites. Here he has endeared himself to the Feminists by attacking Lacan who placed so much weight on the phallus as the primary signifier and followed Freud in defining femininity as the absence of a phallus. Derrida attacks this as “phallocentrism” which also implies “logocentrism” and the Radical Feminists have taken it as the basis of their attack on patriarchy or male domination throughout the ages. Hence, it seems to them that if they can only deconstruct phallocentrism then women will be liberated from an age-old slavery. If only it were as easy as that, but playing with magic words will hardly change realities; for this much more practical solutions are required. In a similar way, by denouncing “ethnocentrism” Derrida has sought through deconstructivist means to place himself at the head of the so-called anti-colonialist struggle against a presumed Western domination of the Other. But here, too, the magic of words will change nothing, irrespective of what does or does not need changing.

Even though none of this has any significance in the world of real politics, it does matter in the world of academic politics. The followers of Derrida have been able to capture many of the special interest studies through takeover tactics which are well known outside academia but have never been practiced inside it. They have done so by inserting the language of deconstruction into the much less sophisticated moral and political discourses that previously prevailed. They seem to be offering a new type of philosophical profundity that no other discourse can match. It is certainly not possible to argue against them from any other point of view, so they can easily discomfit their critics. However, whether this will be of any benefit to the causes these special interest studies were set up to serve in the first place is to be doubted.

The betrayal of criticism that Theorybabble has perpetrated is not the only one of its kind, there have been others as well, though it is by far the most extreme. Many humanistic disciplines and some social sciences have been attacked by Theorybabble. History has not been spared, though the damage to it has been better contained than elsewhere. How this has worked itself out we shall see in the next chapter.


Benveniste, É. (1971) Problems in general linguistics. Coral Gables, FL: Univ. of Miami Press.

Bernasconi, R. (2001) ‘The Trace of Levinas in Derrida’, in M. McQuillan (ed.) Deconstruction: a reader. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, J. (2016) Of Grammatology. Translated by G.C. Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Johnson, B. (2004) ‘Writing’, in J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (eds) Literary theory: an anthology. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell.

Merquior, J.G. (1986) From Prague to Paris: a critique of structuralist and post-structuralist thought. London: Verso.

Redner, H. (2007) Aesthetic life: the past and present of artistic cultures. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

Redner, H. (2020) Quintessence of dust: the science of matter and the philosophy of mind. Leiden: Brill Rodopi.

Strickland, G. (1983) Structuralism or criticism?: thoughts on how we read. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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