Stanford University

News Service


Back to page 1

Deconstruction retains an aura of subversiveness and infamy even today. This is compounded by its reputation for being abstruse ­ an acquired taste of the cigarette-and-espresso cognoscenti. And yet the aim of deconstruction is fairly straightforward: to challenge underlying beliefs. The French philosopher-cum-literary theorist Jacques Derrida coined the term, a combination of "destruction" and "construction," and did the most to develop the theory, which also owes a lot to the philosophical work of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Derrida argued that Western history was based on a language of binary oppositions ­ good versus evil, straight versus gay, rational versus irrational ­ which, if scrutinized, turn out not to be opposites at all but elements of a continuum that have been hierarchized somewhat arbitrarily, often on the basis of entrenched cultural beliefs.

The theory's most lasting effect has been to take a sledgehammer to the marble bust of truth with a capital "T," leaving it in shards. But post-structuralism also has been used to broadly critique the notion of identity in literary and cultural studies.

"Broadly speaking, postmodernist scholars in the United States who have been influenced by post-structuralist theory have undermined conventional understandings of identity by discounting the possibility of objective knowledge," Moya writes in Learning from Experience. "Instead of asking how we know who we are, post-structuralist­inspired critics are inclined to suggest that we cannot know; rather than investigating the nature of the self, they are likely to suggest that it has no nature."

This creates a dilemma for people who believe their experience can tell them something pertinent and valuable about who they are. It certainly troubled Moya, who, in graduate school, found she had a bone to pick with the feminist historian Joan Scott. In her essay "Experience," Scott "effectively delegitimizes experience as an authoritative source for knowledge," according to Moya.

"That made me angry," she explained over coffee last winter at the Stanford Bookstore. "Angry" is not an emotion easily associated with the literary scholar, who is 40 but looks at least 10 years younger. Poised and polite, she has curly, dark-brown hair, and her wide mouth turns easily into a toothy smile or a slight frown of concentration.

"How can I go through all of that for someone to tell me that I can't draw on my experience as the base of what I have learned?" she said. "Like, you just wrote a book in which you deconstructed race, and that's all very nice. But if I'm a black man and I walk into Macy's, they're following me around. So Reclaiming Identity was really a kind of reaction to that kind of trend in literary theory: to say, 'There's something real about what is happening here; it's not entirely arbitrary. And we have to acknowledge that if we're going to really get out of this trap.'"

* * *

During her first year at Cornell, Moya took a course with Satya Mohanty, a professor of English who was then developing a literary theory called postpositivist realism that could serve as a riposte to what he felt was the rampant constructivism in literature departments across the United States. (Constructivism is the theory that objectivity and truth are simply social conventions that change over time.)

Postpositivist realism, which may sound like another postmodernist weasel-word, in fact takes its cue largely from American pragmatism, a philosophy put into motion around the turn of the 20th century by Charles Peirce and William James and later refined by John Dewey and, most recently (and somewhat controversially), Richard Rorty, a Stanford professor of comparative literature. Pragmatism, at its root, is interested in the practical function of knowledge; for pragmatists, ideas are tools for living, not ingredients for doctrines, as influential idealists such as Karl Marx believed. In other words, pragmatists believe the meanings of ideas and things stem from their observable consequences.

Similarly, postpositivist realists attempt to make objective observations "as a goal of inquiry which includes the possibility of error, self-correction and improvement," Mohanty writes in his book Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (1997). "On this view, objectivity is a social achievement rather than an impossible dream of purity and transcendence; it is based on our evolving understanding of the sources and causes of various kinds of errors."

The theory is "postpositivist" because, while it does not reject truth or objectivity wholesale (as postmodernism does), it does not accept the naively empiricist or positivist notion that unmediated knowledge is possible. Instead, postpositive realists "endorse a conception of objectivity as an ideal of inquiry rather than as a condition of absolute and achieved certainty," Moya writes in Reclaiming Identity. They are willing to admit that the quest for knowledge is going to include errors but do not "shy away from making truth claims," which they acknowledge will be "open to revision on the basis of new or relevant information."

Mohanty was Moya's dissertation adviser, and he remembers his former student as possessing what he described as a rare "intellectual integrity."

"She doesn't write about things because they would be professionally advantageous," he explained during a telephone interview from his home in Ithaca. "She does it because the subjects jibe with her personal and social values. She doesn't do things because they are popular; she does them because they're right."

Neither Moya nor Mohanty are shy about claiming postpositivist realism as a tool for progressive politics. Like American pragmatism, the theory is tightly bound to ­ even predicated on ­ the realities of the world.

After arriving at Stanford in 1996, Moya spearheaded a book project, a collection of essays by scholars who shared some basic assumptions about experience and identity, which she co-edited with Hames-García. After Reclaiming Identity was published in 2000, Moya, Hames-García, Linda Martín Alcoff ­ a professor of philosophy, political science and women's studies at Syracuse University ­ and Mohanty met in Ithaca, where they hatched a plan for a series of conferences based around the theme of the book.

"The Future of Minority Studies: Redefining Identity Politics" was the result. Over the course of 2001, dozens of scholars participated in the five conferences and symposia held at Stanford, Cornell and SUNY-Binghamton, as well as a panel at the Modern Language Association's annual convention.

(Another "The Future of Minority Studies" conference, scheduled for Oct. 18-19 at the University of Michigan, is being organized by Tobin Siebers, director of the Program in Comparative Literature at the university.)

* * *

It has been a big year for Moya. In April, she was named director of the Undergraduate Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and chair of the program's major. She will succeed history Professor Albert Camarillo, who recently was appointed the Miriam and Peter Haas Professor in Public Service, at the start of the 2002-03 academic year. Camarillo gave Moya a ringing endorsement.

"Since coming to Stanford, Paula has been one of the most active colleagues with the center in a variety of ways," he said. "She's able to get along with a huge diversity of people. She's well liked by students and by colleagues, and is clearly going to play a big role at Stanford as a senior faculty member."

Not only did Moya earn tenure in January, but she surmounted another major obstacle faced by many young Stanford professors: She bought a home ­ in her case, a campus townhouse ­ in February with her husband of four years, Tim Young, a Menlo Park lawyer. They live there with Moya's two daughters, Halina Victoria Martinez, 19, and Eva María Lourdes Martinez, 17.

On a somewhat overcast day toward the end of March, the couple held a house-warming party, which buzzed with the conversation of faculty members and graduate students standing in small groups in the living room and dining room. Moya moved easily among them, greeting newcomers, smiling and nodding. Colleagues have commented on her knack for making people feel comfortable. Her guard never seems to be up, and conversations with her feel unusually ­ and refreshingly ­ personal.

"She's not afraid to be human," said Alyce Boster, the English Department office manager who served as the staff person for the search committee that brought Moya to Stanford. "With Paula, you always feel as though you're a special friend."


By John Sanford

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints