First there's the cover of the book, Theory's Empire. The letters that make up the words 'theory's empire' are distributed over a bunch of cards: one letter, one card. The word theory's is stacked on top of the word empire. And so it's very unstable. Not a house of cards, but just as easily knocked over. So this empire is weak and easily disturbed.
Is this the best graphic? Wouldn't a mound of sand have worked better? Below that is the subtitle: An Anthology of Dissent. Despite the weakness of the empire, it needs to be dissented from. But isn't there a disconnect between the supposed weakness and the need for dissent?
The odd relation between book and topic is continued via that famous comic about postmodernism and breakfast theory. You can see the original cartoon here. Three boxes of cereal are given the following names: "Post Modern Toasties: Like everything you've had before, all mixed up," "Deconstruction Breakfast Food Product. Contents: Sugar, Fat, Verbiage," and "Foucault Flakes: It's French, it must be good." Captions read: "More than just a cereal, it's a commentary on the nature of cerealness, cerealism, and the theory of cerealativity. Free decoding ring inside," and "Finally, a breakfast commodity so complex that you need a theoretical apparatus to digest it."
This cartoon is the book's first essay. Or rather, it is the condition, the mental 'category,' the prolegomena for all future criticisms of theory. How does that cartoon work, and what relation does it have to the rest of the text? Eating breakfast is a simple activity. One of the things people do if they eat cereal for breakfast is read something found on the back or the side of the cereal box, just to pass the time while the spoon goes up and down from bowl to mouth. It's a thoughtless activity characterized by unthinking routine. It is also quintissentially American. Only Americans eat breakfast like this. Heidegger writes:
Being-in-the-world and thus the world as well must be the subject of our analytic in the horizon of average everydayness as the nearest kind of being of Da-sein. We shall pursue everyday being-in-the-world. With it as a phenomenal support, something like the world must come into view.
The closest world of everyday Da-sein is the surrounding world. Our investigation will follow the path from this existential character of average being-in-the-world to the idea of worldliness as such. (Being and Time, Section 14)
Eating cereal for breakfast is an American piece of 'everydayness,' one of the kinds of being of Da-sein that is 'nearest'; a piece of Americana. It is easily linked in the mind to domesticity and family and the power relations involved in them.
The cartoon gets whatever amusing energy it has from the clash between unthinking, everyday, and specifically American habit and the importunate demands of theory in general. The Americanness of the cartoon is heavily emphasized by the 'territorialization' of the complaint in France, as we saw with the "It's French, it must be good" quip on the cover of Foucault Flakes. There is nothing more American than the suspicion, distrust, and envy with which 'France' is viewed. It is the anti-America. Thomas Friedman, remember, urged that France be removed from the United Nations Security Council for its opposition to the Iraq war. French fries were renamed Freedom Fries so that the word 'French' would not have to be associated with a particular kind of food enjoyed widely in America. (One estimate I've read is that Americans eat 3.5 million metric tons of french fries every year. That's 28 pounds of fries per person.) One of the many ways Republicans tried to smear John Kerry in the last election was by pointing out that he spoke French. Kerry was at a rally and there was a Haitian guy in the audience. Kerry spoke some French to him. Immediately he was jumped on by everyone for speaking French. See here for an example.
The cartoon, then, draws from and promotes unthinking habitual activity, along with the background assumptions and power relations that benefit so much from being hidden in the form of unthinking habit, to make fun of reflection. It ties this to a crude nationalist, nativist, visceral hatred of France. (Discussion of cereal and globalization is provided by Homi Bhabha. See brief article here. Bhabha is dismissed as an 'epigone' on p. 6 of the Introduction.)
But isn't it just a cartoon? No. Not when it's the first essay of a 725 page book.
The cartoon is already an 'Introduction," and so we have to take the chapter titled 'Introduction' with a grain of salt on that score. Perhaps there the crude nativism is reined in? This quotation from Vincent Descombes appears on p. 3:
In the writings of American cultural critics, the word "theory" is used as an absolute noun. One does not need to specify what this theory is the theory of, nor how it relates to observation. This reflects a peculiarity of French usage in the 1960s (in particular in avant-garde journals of the time). Moreover, there are great resemblances between the older French usage and American usage today.
There's only one thing worse than things French and France. And that's those nameless avant-garde journals. They shouldn't even be called French journals. They should be renamed Freedom journals, and they should stop being avant-garde, which itself is a French term. The shots against France are repeated on p. 6: "The sheer mass of this self-perpetuating glut has had the result that scholars skeptical of particular theorists (whether the latter are French maîtres à penser or their younger epigones such as Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler) . . . have been largely dismissed as politically conservative . . . " Leave aside that there's no citation to anyone dismissing as politically conservative this or that scholar for being skeptical of particular theorists. The important thing is to work in the word 'French.' To it is added another term of contempt: 'epigones.' An 'epigone' is one of the names you give to someone who reads and uses a thinker you don't like. If you do like the thinker someone uses, then you use a more neutral term, like 'student.'
On page 7, we get an 'indeed.'
Indeed, what is particularly noticeable in our authors' writings is the general lack of ad hominem attacks, even when confronting some of the more preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories. They concentrate not on personality -- as central an issue as Theory's stars have made this in cultivating their public personae -- but instead on logic, reason, and evidence, concepts without which it is impossible to have any sort of fruitful intellectual exchange.
This commitment to "logic, reason, and evidence" -- how do the authors think it stacks up against the cartoon? Let's say there's a Nazi journal (at least it won't be French) that has a big cartoon on one of its first pages of a caricatured Jew. But then an article inside the journal tells its readers that they will be persuaded, using nothing but logic, reason, and evidence, concerning the harmful effects of international Jewry. How seriously would we take this appeal to 'reason'?