Sunday, September 23, 2012

Norris: What's Wrong With Postmodernism? (1990)

This book is like a time machine, effectively taking you back into the middle of the vitriolic debate about "postmodernism" that raged the decade before and after its publication.

Its author, Christopher Norris, is a no-nonsense, British literary critic with a somewhat odd set of allegiances: He admires Jacques Derrida, but hates Richard Rorty; respects Paul de Man but has no patience with Jean Baudrillard; and, more broadly, he is all for deconstruction, but completely antagonistic to most of its American practitioners.

I've read two and a half chapter, and I think I'll move on to some other books in the pile now. But let me just give a couple of quotes from chapter 4, the one about the Searle/Derrida exchange.

First, Norris notes that Derrida is methodologically more in line with Austin's spirit than are his contemporaries in analytical philosophy. Taking distinctions like performative/declaritive or illocutionary/perlocutionary to the extremes to see how much weight they can take is exactly what he was all about:
For if there is one thing that Austin should have taught them – so Derrida implies – is is the need to press these cardinal distinctions as far as they will go, but also to keep and open mind when dealing with instances, anecdotes, off-beat usages, anomalous cases, and so forth which might seem to 'play Old Harry' (Austin's own phrase) with all such tidy categorical schemes. (p. 146)
OK, a second comment which is kind of nicely put: Derrida's point, he says, is to draw attention to
problematic factors in language (catchphrases, slippages between 'literal' and 'figural' sense, sublimated metaphors mistaken for determinate concepts) whose effect […] is to complicate the passage from what the text manifestly means to say to what it actually says when read with an eye to its latent of covert signifying structures. (p. 151)
I think a different way of looking at the same phenomenon is this: When you're trying make your text produce something that it can't really produce (e.g., eternal truths), your rhetoric is going to be leaky somewhere. This does mean that we can't see what you "mean to say," but it does mean that you will always in the process have said something which, strictly speaking, is complete bogus.

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