Colin Davis (2004) After Poststructuralism: Reading, Stories and Theory.

London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31609-X.

Reading Remains

Iain Morland

‘”My death, is it possible?” asked the late philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Aporias‘, reported the web log Low Culture (2004); ‘As one wag put it yesterday upon hearing of Derrida’s death, “I guess that answers THAT question” ‘.

This misreading of Jacques Derrida’s question illustrates a common scepticism towards poststructuralism. As Colin Davis had noted some months before Derrida’s death in After Poststructuralism: Reading, Stories and Theory, poststructuralism’s investigations are frequently misread as frothy ‘theory’ rather than serious ‘philosophy’. Whereas philosophy can address perennial questions that transcend individual lives, poststructuralist theory is frequently perceived to be ephemeral and self-absorbed.

Hence, although Derrida’s (1993) question in Aporias is philosophical insofar as it interrogates the limits of philosophical thought by querying the horizon of subjectivity, the misreading of the question by Low Culture‘s wag dooms it to fallacy. Likewise, when Britain’s Daily Telegraph (2003) published an obituary of Maurice Blanchot (whose work partly inspired Aporias), the newspaper jibed that ‘Blanchot, who often wrote about the impossibility of death, died on February 20’. The implication is that the speculations of Blanchot and Derrida are not proper, enduring philosophy; they are poststructuralist whimsy that mortality will undo. Theory may have tried to kill off–or at least to ‘decentre’–the subject, but the death of the subject will close down theory once and for all.

Davis, conversely, argues that poststructuralist theory remains, and remains relevant. Taking Immanuel Kant’s four ‘fundamental questions of philosophy’ as his starting point, Davis argues that poststructuralist theory is a ‘continuing reflection on the major issues identified by Kant’, namely: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? And, what is the human being? (4-5). Justifying this point of departure, Davis reminds us that even those theorists who have been castigated for their purportedly amoral anti-humanism and alleged disregard for philosophical rigor–such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard and, I’d add, Derrida–have frequently engaged explicitly with the Kantian legacy (6).

Consequently, Kant’s terms–knowledge, ethics, hope and identity–‘are still to be used, even if they also require to be re-thought and displaced’, Davis asserts (6). In his central chapters titled ‘After knowledge: Lyotard and the postmodern condition’, ‘After ethics: Levinas without stories’, ‘After hope: Althusser on reading and self-reading’, and ‘After identity: Kristeva’s life stories’, After Poststructuralism provides a critical exposition of how poststructuralism has rethought–and indeed often displaced–Kant’s ideas, by mapping his terms onto relevant work by four French theorists.

The chapters are excellently structured and clearly focused. Davis’ project is neither to show Kant to be redundant, nor to reveal deficiencies in poststructuralism’s engagement with its philosophical heritage. On the contrary, it is the relation between these two stories that Davis takes as his subject. Put another way, he seeks to understand and thereby to ameliorate the often problematic relationship between intellectual history and contemporary theory.

In fact, ‘At its simplest’, Davis concedes near the book’s end, ‘my point has been that these thinkers [Lyotard, Levinas, Althusser and Kristeva] have important things to say about important matters, and we shouldn’t foreclose discussion by declaring their work to be “dead”‘ (174). Significantly in the context of the recent ‘ethical turn’ in literary theory, Davis explains how the strikingly moral tone of such foreclosure is itself effected by critics’ readings and misreadings of each others’ works (173).[1]

For example, the opening chapter, ‘Impostures of French theory’ instigates a series of stimulating juxtapositions by comparing the dispute over the nature of criticism between Raymond Picard and Roland Barthes in the 1960s with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s attack on postmodern thought in the 1990s. Davis argues that in both instances, the refusal to read seriously French theory ‘appears as both an intellectual and a moral undertaking’ (10; see also 18-20, 24). One sees the same phenomenon in the wilfully uninformed dismissal of deconstruction in venues such as the New York Times (2004) obituary of Derrida, to which I shall return below.

It is not simply the misreading of others’ texts that is at stake; Davis is also interested in the otherness of a theorist’s own text. This otherness is caused by the difficulty of reading one’s examples. Commenting on the unruliness of the stories told by Emmanuel Levinas and Kant in order to exemplify their theories, Davis makes the exciting suggestion that ‘the relation between notion and example might be comparable to that between self and Other, where the latter is an unanticipated, unassimilable putting-into-question of the former’ (95). This reflects his central thesis that ‘Stories have played an important role’ in the often ambivalent claims made by poststructuralism, ‘because they both promote and impede the anticipation of intelligibility’ (177).

Honouring such ambivalence, Davis’ account of pertinent work by Lyotard refuses to oversimplify the difficulties of reconciling Lyotard’s varying definitions of postmodernity and the postmodern (65-8). This multiplicity is diagnosed by Davis–in agreement with Geoffrey Bennington–as itself symptomatic of postmodernity (71; 76). In other words, Lyotard’s uncertainty over the possibility of producing an authoritative ‘report on knowledge’ in postmodern times signals the postmodernity of his own critical condition. Moreover, Davis shows how theorists such as Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, who appear to stand in opposition to Lyotard, display a parallel inability to define the postmodern (68-71). This is a fine illustration of the surprising ‘entanglement of opposing discourses’ (20) uncovered by Davis in debates about the utility and ethics of French theory.

Davis consistently provides high-calibre critical expositions of the theorists and texts under consideration. For instance, his succinct account in the second chapter (‘Enlightenment/poststructuralism’) of differing conceptions of Enlightenment (45-9), and of the contentious relation between Kant’s philosophy and postmodernism, is most informative (57-63). Likewise, his explanation and deconstruction of the Levinasian distinction between the Saying and the Said (although a little swift) is erudite and important (99-100).

There are many valuable formulations, such as Davis’ contention that for Julia Kristeva, ‘identity is a fiction and fiction is the place where the drama of identity can be played out’ (149). Of Sokal’s bogus critique of science, which was intended to expose poststructuralism as ‘intellectual imposture’ upon its publication in a leading critical theory journal, Davis observes with verve that ‘the only unambiguous case of imposture in this whole affair was the article initially submitted to Social Text, in which Sokal masqueraded as holding views which he in fact did not hold’ (27).

However, the book is a little too short to do justice to the scope of its subject. I felt this particularly keenly in Davis’ use of examples. Davis’ discussion of a parable from Kant (about the morality of lying) doesn’t quite seem to bear the weight of his argument (88). Likewise, Davis’ critique of Levinas, employed to illustrate the suggestively phrased contention that the philosopher ‘remains uncomfortable with the idea that a text may be a site of otherness’ ends up sounding prosaic when summarised by Davis as demonstrating that Levinas ‘remains locked within his own perspective’ and ‘finds only the reflection and confirmation of himself’ in poetic literature (89-93). Ironically, the very fact that After Poststructuralism is well-structured means that its examples could have been elaborated by Davis at greater length without detracting from his overall thesis.

More detail would also have been beneficial in unpacking the terminology of ‘performativity’ and ‘performance’. Despite useful examples from Austin’s speech act theory (158-9), the distinction between a performance and a performative is not adequately explored by Davis. On several occasions, the terms slide into each other (74, 76-7, 156). This seems to be a missed opportunity to analyse the importance of performativity and performance in 1990s debates about the political utility of poststructuralist theory, which followed Judith Butler’s (1989) discussion of the subversive potential of drag performance in Gender Trouble. Nevertheless, Davis is a perceptive critic of Derrida’s discussion of Austin in Limited Inc (159-61).

It is also a disappointment that Davis does not approach more directly and daringly the question of what precisely constitutes a narrative or story. This key issue is not clarified. Throughout, Davis contends that reading is ‘a deeply problematic activity’ (7), prone to misfiring, and his well-selected examples make the problems and entanglements of reading clear. However, the examples are less useful in exemplifying how reading does (sometimes!) happen successfully–for example, in Davis’ own reading of poststructuralism’s controversies. He criticises (in my view, correctly) thinkers such as Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero for an overly simplistic view of storytelling, and of intersubjective narrative communication; but he does not develop an alternative conception of storytelling beyond demonstrating its inevitable complications (136).

In a similar fashion, Davis notes but does not really explain the ‘narrative element’ and ‘power of narrative’ in Jürgen Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (41). Although it is apparent from Davis’ analysis that Habermas’ argument is teleological (culminating in the philosopher’s own account of communicative reason), it seems to me that teleology would be essential to the advancement of any argument. Davis calls Habermas’ approach a ‘strong reading’ (42), but he does not explicate this; it would have been interesting for him to expand on this contention through the use of narratology.

In a sense, then, Davis’ claim to trace ‘some of the ways in which theory gestures towards the possibility of heightened understanding even as it becomes entangled in the difficulties of achieving it’ (177) describes an ambivalence inherent in not merely his book’s subject matter, but also, unexpectedly, in his methodology.

Probably because of this reluctance to grapple with the meaning of narrative, the role of stories fades a little during the final chapter, titled ‘Spectres of theory’. The chapter explores a selection of contemporary conceptions of theory’s demise, death, or uncanny persistence–as a good, bad or ambivalent phenomenon. Davis adopts an informed middle line, concluding that theory is ‘haunted, and driven, by the inevitability of its failure and the necessity of carrying on’ (177).

But the ‘afterlife’ of theory is rather briskly discussed. Unfortunately, the discrepancy between the book’s subject and its length means that it does not offer the reformulation of the poststructuralist project that it seems to promise. I should have liked to see Davis return in ‘Spectres of theory’ to the psychoanalytic notion of Nachträglichkeit (retroactive signification, or ‘afterwardsness’), which he mentions in a discussion of Louis Althusser’s bizarre autobiography (119). In fact, it is precisely the ‘afterwardsness’ of Davis’ own work, rereadable with fresh relevance after the cynical responses to Derrida’s death on 8 October 2004, which makes his book so interesting.

Davis’ observation that often ‘the hysterical or anxious denunciations of French thought are based on little or no knowledge of primary texts, and they dumbly replicate more or less gross misreadings seasoned with a hint of xenophobia’ (1) has become especially pertinent after the death of Derrida. The New York Times obituary described deconstruction as one more of the ‘fashionable, slippery philosophies that . . . emerged from France. . . undermining many of the traditional standards of classical education’ (in Weber & Reinhard, 2004). Foreshadowing responses by many leading scholars to the NYT obituary, Davis’ After Poststructuralism is a convincing rebuttal of allegations that poststructuralism is simply slippery ‘fashionable nonsense’, to borrow Sokal and Bricmont’s terms (23).[2]

As Davis argues, building on Althusser’s shift from seeking a meaning to history to grasping meaning in history, hopefulness arises from contingency, not from brutal stoicism in the face of the Other’s predestined meanings (127-8). I would suggest that the ensuing possibility of continual rereading is exactly what ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ have in common, and that it is through rereading that ethical dialogue and appraisal become possible.[3] Davis is right that different stories remain to be told–about Kant, and about the poststructuralists discussed in After Poststructuralism, and about Derrida too. Put differently, the questions of poststructuralism indeed remain to be thought, contrary to the foreclosure (‘I guess that answers THAT question’) sought by Low Culture‘s wag.

Davis writes with consistent cogency and confidence about an impressively wide range of critics and disciplines. His style is lucid, but for those unfamiliar with the scope of critical theory, After Poststructuralism is not a beginner’s guide; some of the combinations of theorists–for example the manoeuvres between Althusser, Freud and Marx (109-10), and Kristeva, Klein, Lacan and Žižek (141-2)–are likely to be difficult for junior undergraduates. The book would work well as a thematic introduction to some key contemporary debates in critical theory for advanced undergraduate students, and for postgraduates. But I recommend it principally, and with confidence, to scholars researching poststructuralism in the contexts of cultural studies, continental philosophy and the history of ideas, and French studies. It will be of especial value to all those interested in the ‘ethical turn’ taken by recent literary and cultural theory.


1 On the ethical turn, see Garber et al. (2000).

2 A selection of letters sent to the NYT may be read online at Remembering Jacques Derrida (2004).

3 See also Elam (2000) on this point in relation to reading ‘the literary’.


Butler, J. (1989) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Daily Telegraph (2003) Obituary: Maurice Blanchot. 11 March.

Derrida, J. (1993) Aporias: Dying–Awaiting (one another at) the ‘Limits of Truth’.Trans. T. Dutoit. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Elam, D. (2000) Why Read? Culture Machine vol. 2.

Garber, M. et al. (eds) (2000) The Turn to Ethics. London and New York: Routledge.

Low Culture (2004) Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004. 10 October.

The New York Times (2004) Obituary: Jacques Derrida. 10 October.

Remembering Jacques Derrida (2004) Letters to The New York Times in response to obituary for Jacques Derrida.

Weber, S. & Reinhard, K. (2004) Letter to the New York Times editors. 13 October.

Iain Morland is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, on the relationship between intersexuality, narrative, and ethics. His publications include Queer Theory (edited with Annabelle Willox; Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and ‘Reading’s Reason’ (diacritics 31: 2).