A few months back, I wrote a long post about why I don't "do theory" anymore. In it, I identified what initially drew me to theory-doing:
There's something about modernist literature which lends itself to and/or is consonant with continental philosophy. Joyce, Proust, Woolf, &c. attract people who study Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, &c.
That's what I said. What followed that statement, however, had little to do with it. I tied my intellectual development to my progress to and through graduate school, moving from one charismatic professor to another, adopting and discarding perspective after perspective until I became who I am. As CR pointed out, my development seemed "a bit overdetermined." At the time, I wanted to reply that the overdetermination was a function of the narrative, or that I would consider charismatic those with whom I was already inclined to agree. Both responses seemed inadequate. The first because you can always blame the narrator for his narrative, which he could have, but chose not to, narrate differently; the second, because I adopted and discarded with proselytical glee.
I think I have an answer now:
In a conversation elsewhere about the relation of thinkers to their adjectives, I mentioned a crack Derrida made about feeling "insufficiently Derridean." Possessive pronouns aside, his legacy would not be his, nor would it relate to the body of his thought. Neither would it belong to other philosophers. It would be the property of English professors; so much so, he mused, that the adjective "Derridean" didn't even refer to him. It was an abbreviation for "The Yale Derrideans" (Paul De Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman). I remember thinking the obvious question—"What does the 'Derridean' in 'The Yale Derrideans' refer to?"—and being struck by the profundity of the obvious answer:
Not the man, his words, his thought, or anything he could control, but the tradition he inspired. As traditions are wont to evolve, that means his name could be attached to thought which bore little resemblance to his own. (Which is why he could be "insufficiently Derridean" in the first place.) While there are many possible referents for "Derridean," the only viable one is "what people who describe their work as 'Derridean' do." The connection is incidental, not inherent. Certainly not essential.
"Derridean" means what it means because Derrida was embraced by English departments in the United States at a particular historical moment. In retrospect, you can muster a convincing explanation for how it came to mean what it means. But only in retrospect. And only for "Derridean." You can't generalize from its adoption how, for example, English departments in the States at a different historical moment adjectivized a different thinker.
I didn't think this at the time. Back then, I banged my head bloody against walls of theoretical necessity:
There (bang!) must (bang!) be (bang!) some (bang!) essential (bang!) connection (bang!) between (bang!) thinkers (bang!) and (bang!) their (bang!) adjectives (bang!).
Head pounding, hair blowzy, I decided to drop the issue and do some investigating. How had "Derridean" come to mean something other than "closely associated with the thought of Derrida"? The answer, as everyone else knew but I'd yet to learn, was the New Criticism. Derrida influenced a professoriate trained to value certain methods and concepts over others. When an English professor picked up Of Grammatology, she would read:
To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exhanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language. This moment of doubling commentary should no doubt have its place in a critical reading. To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened a reading. (158)
That "respectful doubling of commentary" bears an uncanny resemblance to the mode of "close reading" she'd been doing since her undergraduate days. Her ignorance of structuralist theory, however, would render sections of that passage opaque. Her commitment to radical politics would encourage her to disregard all talk of "indispensable guardrails." She might not even have read that far, since the entire profession had orgiastically authorized critical production to develop in every direction and say almost everything. Why?
Because the structuralist tradition to which Derrida refers lacked the political implications of the tradition to which American readers applied Derrida: New Criticism. Unlike structuralism, which sounded and aspired to be scientific, the New Criticism was born of an agrarian, anti-scientific sentiment. It blossomed into the pedagogical tool of a white male elite and was reviled. When an American critic heard talk of "indispensible guardrails," he would think it the equivalent of William Faulkner's advice for the Civil Rights Movement: "Go slow." Like Thurgood Marshall is reputed to have said:
"They don't mean go slow. They mean don't go."
Deconstruction, then, allowed them to keep the professional tools they've long cultivated while unburdening them of the politics associated with New Criticism. This, then, is the school of thought "Derridean" would come to describe. Not the man, not his words, not his thought, but a particular amalgam of close-reading techniques and hostility to New Critical politics.
Derrida may have written Of Grammatology in an environment in which New Critical politics had no purchase, but the American scholars who gave his name purchase did. This realization constituted perhaps the greatest leap in my intellectual development. Words stopped relating to concepts and started commingling with the history of the acceptance and dissemination of those concepts.
Theory began to matter less.
The history of theory began to matter more.
All of which is only to say, in response to CR's comment of months back, that I had prepped the fields for the crops my string of advisors would plant there. Intellectually speaking, I had already begun moving in an historicist direction. Perhaps the best way to say it is that I've been influenced by those scholars I'd prepared myself to be influenced by.
(I should add that I want to thank CR for presenting me the opportunity to think through this. As every reader of Freud knows, introspection is fun. Useful too, I think. More to me than you, probably. I should get back to writing funny things, shouldn't I? In my mind, Woody Allen's fans from Stardust Memories rove in bands, lamenting my fall from grace.)