The schools of thought that have dominated literary theory for the last half-century are dying. But they still have their adherents. Consider this widely referenced essay in The Chronicle Review. Here François Cusset writes a defence of what he calls “French theory” (which is not a term I like but at least seems to have recognition). Right near the end, he says something that sums up everything that is wrong with French theory:
Where interpretation is obvious, where it is not a question, power reigns supreme; where it is wavering, flickering, opening its uncertainty to unpredictable uses, empowerment of the powerless may be finally possible.
This has been the guiding principle of poststructuralism, postmodernism, or whatever label you might care to apply to the field. Unfortunately, it is wrong. And not just wrong, it is diametrically wrong. That is to say, it is the absolute inverse of the truth. And even more than that, it is damagingly wrong. That is, the celebration of doubt is actively harmful to human wellbeing.*
Contra Cusset, it is where interpretation is obvious that power is at its weakest. Conversely, when there is a multitude of interpretations, that is when power comes to the fore. This is why powerful groups, from tobacco companies to White House hawks, do their level best to create doubt and indecision. They spin evidence and doctor reports and magnify uncertainty because it is with doubt that their power, whether it be financial or political, has the greatest traction.
This is one of the things that the Social/Text crowd never understood. If you undermine all notions of truth, if you claim every belief no matter how well supported by evidence is just another narrative of no greater intrinsic value than any other, well then you end up in a world where evidence and reason have no power of their own; all that matters is the ability to manipulate opinion. And if the only beliefs of any consequence are those created by social norms, then beliefs will naturally converge on those fostered by the powerful. Let’s face it, if truth is meaningless and all that matters is marketing, then no matter how truthful their claims, small people will never be able to challenge industries with billions of dollars available to protect their interests or media firms with huge market penetration or global churches with millennial experience in creating belief.
Encouraging people to believe there is only contingent truth that arises out of social construction is, in fact, playing exactly into the hands of the powerful. The tobacco industry’s 1969 “doubt is our product” memo ought to be compulsory reading in any French theory course. What eventually penetrated the tobacco industry’s defences was not “opening uncertainty to unpredictable uses” but the exact opposite: the steady accumulation of evidence until there was no doubt. While there was still doubt, the tobacco industry could rely on the support of tobacco farmers dependent on it for income and states dependent on it for taxation and economic turnover.
And while the battles over tobacco and Iraq’s WMD capacity are more or less over, at least in regards to general acceptance of truthfulness, many other battles are being waged right now. There are the creationists pushing “intelligent design” into schools and textbooks; there are global warming deniers (and I’m not talking about the occasional thoughtful objector but the commentariat) who put out lists of signed-up “scientific objectors” the majority of whom turn out to have no scientific background at all let alone any expertise in climate science; there are HIV denialists who want to sell their patented concoctions instead of demonstrated therapies; there are anti-vaccine activists; there are homeopaths flogging inactive malaria prophylaxis, there are anti-GM food activists who conspired with the Zambian government’s use of starvation as a political weapon against refugees. While it is impossible to say how much French theory directly contributed to any of these disasters, the fact remains that in every case the evidence has been against the offending powers, doubt is their weapon, and the powerless suffer the consequences.
The clusters of “French theory” that have dominated the humanities may be dying, but they can’t die soon enough for me.
* I am not talking about denying real doubt or pretending knowledge is complete; to assume too great a certainty is its own type of error; what I am bemoaning is the celebration of doubt and contrarianism regardless of the evidence.