Sunday, 3 December 2000

From "The Shape of the Signifier"

By Walter Benn Michaels.

Unlike, however, those writers who responded to deconstruction and other developments in the literary theory of the seventies and eighties by worrying about how - in the face of what seemed to them a destructive skepticism - we might still achieve knowledge about the meaning of texts and, unlike also those writers who responded to the multiculturalism of the nineties by worrying about how - in the face of what seemed to them a destructive particularism - we might achieve political unity, I have not been interested in the supposedly catastrophic epistemological and political consequences of deconstruction and multiculturalism. More specifically, I have not been interested in the possibilities of agreement, interpretive or political, much less in strategies for achieving it. My interest has been rather in the conditions of disagreement, in what we have to think to think of ourselves as disagreeing. With respect to literary theory, I have argued that to identify the text with the shape of the signifier is to make disagreement about its meaning impossible; that is - turning the point around - if we disagree about the meaning of a text we are already committed to identifying that text by an appeal to the intentions of its author. And, with respect to political theory, I have argued similarly that the primacy of identity makes disagreement impossible and the possibility of disagreement makes identity irrelevant. So, although the theoretical commitment to the materiality of the signifier may look very different from the theoretical commitment to the primacy of the subject, they are, in fact, the same commitment - anti-intentionalism and identitarianism are the same project.

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