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HKRB Interviews: Catherine Belsey

In the latest HKRB Interviews in critical theory and philosophy, renowned Derridean Catherine Belsey discusses the possibility of re-activating Derrida in the face of today’s political crises, discussing deconstruction’s potential to fight against injustice and force us to take responsibility, as well as its resistance to ‘identity politics.’

Catherine Belsey is one of the most influential literary critics writing today. She was chair of the renowned Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff and Professor of English at Swansea University. She is credited for her significant role in bringing Derridean theory and deconstruction into close contact with literary studies. Her book Critical Practice, first published in 1980, was a groundbreaking publication which still impacts literary studies today. Her new book, Criticism, revisits some of these ideas and asks readers to consider the role of criticism in all aspects of literature, life and politics.

Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016), 162pp.

Alfie Bown: Your latest book, Criticism, is a manual for how we might approach the world as critics – literary or otherwise. It’s written for a more popular or undergraduate reader, as well as for the academic or theorist, whereas some of your other work is based in a complex history of French theory. I’d like to cover both here, first asking about the new book and literary studies, before asking about Derrida and his potential importance today. You start the book by saying that we are all critics, whenever we ask each other opinions about anything or consider our own opinions of things. You suggest that ‘what do you think?’ might be a better question than ‘what do you think of it?’ or ‘what do you think about it?’ Can you say something about this rationale?

Catherine Belsey: I open the book with the conventional question designed to solicit an act of criticism, ‘what do you think of it?’ Put like that, the question prompts a value judgment. To ask ‘What do you think of Othello, or Middlemarch, or Hitchcock’s Rebecca?’ is to invite as assessment (‘Did you like it?’, ‘How good is it?’). For many people, that is what criticism is.

Unfortunately, for many decades English departments saw ‘what do you think of it?’ as the key question, to be answered on behalf of the young by a syllabus designed to inculcate good taste. This was in general the taste of the previous generation, or those members of it who had the authority to design the curriculum.

Such departments were in practice more interested in molding replies than in provoking thought. The exams were there to check how far the correct answers had been internalized. But reading groups and informal discussions are generally more open, even if they too have inherited the habit of putting evaluation first. In my experience, the responses to the question ‘what do you think of it?’ may provoke a lively debate, but whether they do much to illuminate the work I’m not sure. I have myself sat through painful gatherings that generated much heat but less light, among them dinners after the show, when disagreements about its merits led mainly to indigestion.

I wanted to go beyond evaluation to reflect on broader, less convulsive issues. ‘What does it seem to say?’ ‘How is it put together?’ ‘How does it relate to other works like it?’ ‘Is there more than one way to read it?’ As a means of summarizing where that might lead, I proposed replacing my opening question with ‘what do you think about it?’ or, better still, ‘what does the work prompt you to think?’ That might help to focus attention on what in it is provocative, or unexpected, or unresolved. It might even lead us to revisit what seemed settled at first reading.

AB: Your chapter on the creation of literary and cultural criticism as a discipline is fantastic, and I wonder if you could just give a taster of it for our readers, many of whom may be coming later to a discipline that seems to have always been established. Many Hong Kong universities are interested in the difference and relationship between English and Cultural Studies, so perhaps you could just say a little about how your book discusses the relationship?

CB: English as it featured in education was in the first instance the teaching of literacy. To the extent that Victorian children encountered any form of fiction, including poetry, it was designed to expand their vocabulary and help them write their own compositions. It was not until the twentieth century that books began to be seen as a source of pleasure – or that anything like criticism featured in the curriculum.

Pleasure was not thought suitable for inclusion in higher education, but teachers of literacy were needed and eventually, from the 1850s on, the universities responded by establishing degrees in English. A strong Anglo-Saxon and medieval component was there to stiffen the sinews.

It went almost without saying that the books on the syllabus should do the children good. They were chosen by the authorities on the basis that they provided models of style, while inculcating a proper piety. Value judgments, in other words, depended on morality, as well as good writing. University departments taught future teachers to select good books.

So when in the 1950s such radical critics as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart began to take a serious interest in popular culture, the discipline of English recoiled in dismay from the inclusion of anything so vulgar – or so modern. Since English kept aloof, a separate discipline of cultural studies was born. English dealt with what was old and carefully chosen; cultural studies was inclusive but mainly contemporary.

My own view is that this division of the cultural field is little short of perverse. The line is not so easily drawn: Shakespeare and Dickens were popular culture in their day. Besides, an astute reader can learn a lot about a culture from a sophisticated analysis of its popular genres. It’s partly for that reason that I remain opposed to making value judgments the primary object of the critical exercise. We can do better.

And I’m pleased to say that we are doing better these days. New Historicism in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. Although its proponents did not entirely manage to shed the habit of windy rhetoric about great art, they did embrace as objects of knowledge every kind of text that could shed light on the difference of the past. We now read such popular forms as Gothic novels in English departments without feeling we’re slumming. It’s a start.

AB: To move towards Derrida, my favorite part of the book was a move you make in the section on ‘The Role of Theory’. You use Derrida to make a point about the interpretation of literature, even specifically about Paradise Lost, but then move quickly to suggest how this might impact on the social and political world. ‘When the signifier matches the world,’ you argue, we can get moon-landings and lifesaving vaccines. Where the signifier does not match the world, we can get ‘astrology, homophobia, the death camps and public beheadings.’ Can you say a little about this theory of the relationship between the world and signifier and explain this argument for our readers?

CB: I’ll try, although in the space of an interview, I’ll have to ask them to take a lot on trust. After the Second World War, French theory began to take seriously the power of language to create our world pictures. Instead of learning language in order to name what existed, we learned what was believed to exist from the native tongue we internalized. Signifiers – words, phrases, images, mathematical systems – imposed differences on whatever was out there, in the process instilling assumptions and shaping attitudes. These assumptions and attitudes, in other words, are not grounded in the world but acquired from the signifier. The wide variety of native languages and the untranslatability of certain signifiers explained why cultures differed in their convictions about what was true. No one language could be guaranteed to reveal the world as it was. We can never be certain that the language we learn matches the world that pre-exists it.

In practice some world pictures are more dangerous than others. What’s more, some are just made up, at least in the sense that no evidence for them stands analysis. Astrology is probably harmless; fundamentalism is not, because it issues in action (preventing abortions, killing black people, practicing female genital mutilation, beheading infidels). The signifier sometimes matches the world, or new medicines wouldn’t work – although you notice that they are tested empirically and extensively before they’re licensed for safe use. Even the language of science can’t be confident that it’s transparent or self-certifying.

That truth is hard to be sure of is not a license to make new things up, however. Made-up stories, fake news and misinformation are just that. Although truth is difficult to be sure of, falsehood can be shown to be false. As we’ve known since Karl Popper, evidence can’t prove a fact, but it can refute a lie. Science relies on hypotheses, not facts. Each hypothesis stands until – and only until ­– it’s disproved.

If on the one hand the signifier can match the world, it is equally possible on the other for the signifier to generate world pictures without any serious attempt to test them against the way things are. If we derive our understanding of what exists from the language we learn, we are vulnerable to cleverly formulated delusions. The vocabulary of Nazism inculcated hatred – for the Jews, modern art, gipsies, homosexuals, people of color. In that case, the signifier had its effect because people found it credible, or in tune with their interests, and recirculated it. Equally, holocaust denial and climate change denial take hold because they sound plausible or suit certain interests. Fake news catches on; misinformation goes viral. Slogans can capture the emotions, and in no time they pass for true.

That we are vulnerable to untruths doesn’t mean we’re helpless, however. Harmful delusions should be resisted wherever they arise.

AB: If its okay, I’d like to finish with what might be a big question. In our HKRB Interviews series, we have covered Deleuze, Lacan, postcolonialism and queer theory. I’d like to take advantage of my first chance to have a Derridean on the series. It seems to me that while Lacan and Deleuze are prominent in more and more discussions of contemporary society and politics, Derrida has not been seized upon so much in this regard in recent years. My feeling is that this is nothing to do with Derrida and everything to do with trends in scholarship. I’d be interested to consider why and how Derrida could be re-activated today.

In Critical Practice you wrote about the more political Derrida of the latter part of his career and discussed this in relation to the ideas of the ‘trace’ and of ‘differance’ developed from Of Grammatology onwards. You wrote that by ‘insisting on the difference within identity, deconstruction also calls into question identity politics.’ This term – ‘identity politics’ – is now, 35 years later, prominent in the discourse of the Left, and it occurs to me that Derrida could be of use in discussions of it. You also wrote that deconstruction combats all forms of nationalism and totalitarianism and that for Derrida it was ‘the only way […] to take responsibility and to make decisions’. Again this seems to be of huge political significance today. Really my question is whether you think Derrida can help the crises that we face at the moment, and whether you can perhaps suggest how?

CB: I do, although I’m not confident that Donald Trump’s supporters will be reading Of Grammatology any time soon. I think, though, that Derrida can help us see what’s going on — and what (not) to do about it.

In the first place, deconstruction opposes all certainties. Nazis, fundamentalists, the Ku Klux Klan are all certain that what they believe is true. They are convinced they know what’s wrong and what needs to be done to remedy it. That makes them dangerous.

Conversely, the idea I’ve just offered you that the signifier leads a life of its own, and doesn’t depend on accuracy to flourish, implies that we can never be certain we possess the truth. Uncertainty is a lot less threatening than conviction. Have you ever heard of anyone killing people in the name of uncertainty? But it’s not paralyzing. On the contrary, the fact that there is no one, sure, true answer urges us to choose a path, consciously and deliberately. Choosing between options doesn’t guarantee we’re right but it is a way to take conscious responsibility for our beliefs and actions.

And in the second place, identity is not only uncertain; it’s never singular. No individual is only gay, or black, or Asian, or Muslim. We are all also children, of parents, some of us parents ourselves, or siblings, citizens of a state, rich, poor, well-fed or hungry, free marketeers or socialists … The notion of identity collapses all this complexity into one, reduces difference to opposition.

And identity politics is equally reductive. This is obvious when it comes from the right, when what is valorized is Aryan identity, or whiteness or heterosexuality. The resulting politics is crude, simplistic, brutal, divisive. It cannot be progressive to mimic this with an identity politics of the left, which is just as divisive, just as oppositional.

Am I then saying that Black Lives don’t Matter or that LGBTQ people are not entitled to respect? Of course not. But the point is not identity; it’s injustice. It is unjust to single out groups for mistreatment. It is unjust to penalize people for their difference, unless that difference can be shown to cause harm. Justice is as utopian as truth; it might be hard to recognize, let alone secure. In the same way as you don’t have to know the truth to tell a lie, you don’t have to define justice to know a wrong when you see one. Injustice is everywhere, and everywhere apparent — except to those who are already certain of the truth, or who rejoice in the privileged identity they fondly believe is theirs.

Of course like-minded groups want to get together – to march, campaign, plan. The people most likely to care about injustice are those who suffer under it. But the target is always the injustice, not the identities of others. It’s injustice we should resist, and if there are different views on exactly what is unjust, let’s have the debate.

And at the end of that tirade (I blame your question!), thank you, Alfie, for this very provocative interview. You’ve made me think – especially about what matters.


The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean, Agon Hamza, Frank Ruda and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Joan Copjec and Rosi Braidotti.

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