Within the circles influenced by and sympathetic to postmodernism there has of late been discussion as to how long an engagement with traditional criteria of truth and value can be deferred.footnote1 It has been suggested that the eclecticism and relativist logic of postmodernism is inherently self-stultifying—or at least incompatible with a defence of these modes of cognition as some form of political and cultural enlightenment. Hence their advocates are delivered into a condition of theoretical paralysis: they can neither argue for the ‘truth’ or knowledge status of the forms of argument they have employed to expose the mistakes and self-delusions of foundationalist metaphysics, nor lay claim to any emancipatory values in liberating a left politics from the disquieting assimilations of identity concealed within its collectivist and humanist ‘grand narrative’.

This ‘impasse’, it should be said, does not necessarily afflict deconstructive strategies in themselves (except in the sense that it can always be asked of their practitioners what motivates them other than an impulse to get us to think aright about texts, or at any rate to perceive what the text itself is blind to). For to pursue the path of Derridean différance is, strictly speaking, to pre-empt the appeal to the ‘identities’ whose alleged occlusion by orthodox liberal or socialist discourse has been invoked in justification of the Anglo-American use of deconstructive methods.footnote2 Thus it might be argued that Derridean theory, in openly acknowledging its self-subverting quality (that it can rely only on what it theorizes as non-reliable), is neither self-subverting nor non-self-subverting—though I think it must also be the condition of so arguing that it can lead itself neither to this politics, nor to that, neither to value commitments nor to their disowning.

Some of my argument in what follows does bear on the general question of the acceptability of the Derridean position/non-position, though in so far as it does I present this precisely as a question of ‘which way to jump’; in other words, I present it as a problem of the mutually exclusive character of opposing modes of cognition and not as a problem of the internal consistency of either. But what I shall be mainly addressing here are certain issues concerning value and subjectivity that arise in virtue of the attempt to have it both ways—to have, as it were, a foot both in and out of deconstruction. They are issues that present themselves, and that have recently become, a focus of postmodernist self-criticism, as a result of the various ways in which postmodernist ideas have been yoked into the service of a leftwing politics or defended as emancipatory insights. (And these ideas, I should add, are by no means of exclusively Derridean origin, but often in fact owe more to theorists of whom Derrida has been critical, such as Foucault, or to the scepticism about progress and the ironic self-positionings recommended by thinkers like Jean-François Lyotard and Richard Rorty).footnote3

One, rather shorthand, way of talking about these issues has been in terms of a postmodernist ‘suppression’ of values, and its refusal to employ an associated vocabulary (in aesthetics—of ‘judgement’, ‘artistic worth’, ‘intrinsic merit’, etc.; in ethics—of ‘rights’, ‘freedom’, ‘duty’, etc.; and in epistemology—of ‘truth’, ‘verification’, ‘objectivity’, etc). But in fact this is a somewhat misleading shorthand, since postmodernist argument has invited us not so much to suppress this vocabulary but to construe it as directing us to nothing beyond or outside its own discourse. According to this position, there are no transcendent, extra-discursive qualities or experiences to which we can appeal as the grounds for the talk of values and the discriminations it offers, since these refer us only to what discourse itself constructs. The dispute, in short, has to do with how far we retain or sever a discursive–nondiscursive dialectic: how far the ‘text’ or ‘discourse’ of values is what it is in virtue of how the ‘world’ is; how far we read the world to be as it is only in virtue of the discourse or text. This means that if the symptoms of a return of the ‘repressed’ of value are now disturbing the psychic composure of certain postmodernist modes of reflection, then this is not to do with the repression of a vocabulary but rather with the repression or evasion of the realist commitments that may be essential to sustaining any consistent defence of broadly left-wing political values.

If this, then, is the controversy or point of tension at issue, it seems appropriate to begin by saying something about where I stand in regard to it, and I shall do this—for strategic purposes that should become clearer as I proceed—by invoking a caricature of the dispute. The caricature presents us on the one side with the dogged metaphysicians, a fierce and burly crew, stalwartly defending various bedrocks and foundations by means of an assortment of trusty but clankingly mechanical concepts such as ‘class’, ‘materialism’, ‘humanism’, ‘literary merit’, ‘transcendence’ and so forth. Obsolete as these weapons are, they have the one distinct advantage that in all the dust thrown up by their being flailed around, their wielders do not realize how seldom they connect with their opponents. On the other side stands the opposition, the feline ironists and revellers in relativism, dancing lightheartedly upon the waters of différance, deflecting all foundationalist blows with an adroitly directed ludic laser beam. Masters of situationist strategy, they sidestep the heavy military engagement by refusing to do anything but play.

Now, if I were allowed only the mirror of this caricature in which to find a reflection of my own position, I would be feeling pretty schizoid, but I suppose in the end I would have to recognize something minimally less distorting of my own features in the grotesque metaphysical Cerberus than in the ironical Cheshire grin. In other words, if forced to align myself in terms of this caricature, I am ready to do so, provided that in exchange everything further I have to say be received as typical of the growlings of the monstrous metaphysicians.

First, then, a few growlings about the equivocal feelings that our postmodern times can induce—an equivocation which at its most extreme could be compared to that of the third-century Chinese poet, Chuang Chou, who tells us that one night he dreamt he was a butterfly, but on awakening did not know whether he had dreamt he was a butterfly or whether he was not now a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. For at times it can seem as if we stand at the interface of two incommensurable modes of thinking, each of which, we know, should we yield to it, has the capacity to constitute itself as reality and the other as its dream or myth. Each, in other words, seems possessed of such a drug-like power to reorchestrate our mental outlook that we hesitate to lend ourselves as guinea pigs to either of its thought experiments.