Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory
Over the last two decades, contemporary French philosophy has exercised a powerful influence on intellectual life, across both Europe and America. Post-structuralist strategies and concepts have played an important role in many forms of social, cultural and aesthetic analysis, particularly on the Left. Despite the widespread reception, however, there has still been comparatively little analysis of the basic philosophical assumptions of post-structuralism, or of the compatibility of many of its central tenets with the progressive political orientations with which it is frequently associated.
In this book, Peter Dews seeks to remedy this situation by setting post-structuralist thought in relation to another, more explicitly critical, tradition in the philosophical analysis of modernity – that of the Frankfurt School, from Adorno to Habermas. Logics of Disintegration will be of interest to readers across a wide range of disciplines, from literary criticism to social theory, which have felt the impact of post-structuralism – and to anyone who wishes to reach a balanced assessment of one of the most influential intellectual currents of our time.
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To reduce any significant work to summary, to package thought in gelcaps, to address the broadest, deepest issues affecting our history and future… It might be considered dangerous by some, to publicly decry the work of another. On Daniel Miller’s account, those responsible for the reissue of Dews’ work on post-structuralism faced the moral choice of re-publishing the irrelevant works of established academics or “going out and finding the theorists of the future”. As a bookseller, I was happy to see the reissue. Access to affordable materials, in my book, is essential to expanding the “reach of philosophy into the everyday”. Though Miller of the NewHumanist.org.uk seems more disturbed by the profit-driven efforts of Verso publishing than the intellectual efforts of the authors in Verso’s “Radical Thinkers” series, he does present a cursory attempt to characterize Peter Dews as one of these “brand name” academic stars.
Dews approaches his work with rigorous enthusiasm, a kind way of suggesting that the uninitiated may require years of effort to penetrate the significance and relevance of the work. It is likely impossible to do justice to such a dense assessment of equally rigorous tomes with an attempt at introduction. This attempt is rendered with the hope of dispelling the dismissive spirit indicative of Miller’s impatient account and continuing the conversation along potentially novel lines.
The seven essays embodied in Logics of Disintegration, circling thematically around the central figures Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard and Foucault, are bookended with an introduction and conclusion. Both are attempts to give context and structure to the relatively disjointed interior discussions. This is not a seamless argument building chapter-by-chapter, one premise upon another. Rather, Dews attempts to support his position by choosing significant figures as representative of the movement. From this representative body he determines the dominant or most significant elements and circles his subsequent analysis. Thus, he sees Post-Structuralism less as a coherent intellectual movement than “as a cohesive set of attitudes” (xviii).
He locates his discussion between the thought of a resurgent Kantianism in 1980’s France and that of a somewhat more effective group of English-speaking cultural and literary critics. The former amounts to serious, yet elementary and simple, declarations of “the autonomy of textual meaning” and fails to engage in the “intense self-questioning of philosophy” which is the mark of a truly mature critical discipline. The latter, whose lack of philosophical attention to the movement’s origins and consequences, fails to grasp the “ultimate passivity, or even the politically disastrous implications” of a movement which is actually bound to certain “unquestioned assumptions” (xvii).
Thus, we can anticipate in Dews a rather conventional critical method; he attempts to identify the foundational assumptions of post-structuralism then tease out the inconsistencies that come from relying on them. For Dews, the whole mosaic pattern of post-structuralism rests on the assumption “that the concept of the subject implies an immobile, self-identical, and constitutive centre of experience” (xvi).
His discussion of Lyotard and Foucault amounts to “a work whose aim is to explore the nature of an earlier, supposedly ‘post-philosophical’ phase” of their development. A full explication and analysis of Deleuze is excluded for the sake of focusing on “only one version of the direct Nietzscheanism which reached the peak of its influence during the 1970’s”. Dews indicates that Lyotard’s development from this earlier period to his later emphasis on postmodernism provides an adequate example for discerning the “difficulties of the philosophy of desire” (xix).
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