“il n’y a pas de hors-texte”: deconstruction and economics

skidmore college | november 1, 2004

yahya m. madra


How could this infamous formula be relevant for economics?  To begin with, to my understanding, this formula does not imply that there is no reality outside the text.  Rather, at one level, it claims that there is no beyond of the text, that the text can never come to an end, that it is extendable forever.  If we accept, along with Derrida, that meaning is always differentially and contextually produced, that there is no stable referent (outside of its textual articulation) to which we can anchor our discourse, then the signifier “economics” will cease to refer to a unified discourse with a single and stable referent, the economy.  In this presentation, I will briefly elaborate on this thesis.


I want to emphasize three distinct implications of this thesis.  First, the argument has never been that there is no economy.  Rather, the argument is that what counts as the object of economic knowledge, the economy, is dependent upon the particular theory that we deploy.  In other words, the referent is first and foremost produced within particular discourses.  This brings me to the second point: to claim that referent is produced within discourse does not mean that it does not have material effects.  By informing economic policy, institutional design, as well as the popular understandings of how economy functions, different particular economic discourses struggle with one another in their attempt to shape the reality.  And finally, to claim that meaning is a purely contextual phenomenon is the most thorough-going recognition of the material effectivity of social circumstances over the meaning of a text.  In this manner, a text is always prone to be re-signified, re-interpreted under new political, economic, and institutional contexts. 


To recapitulate, by problematizing and complicating the way think the relation between text and context, Derrida made it possible for us to see that the co-existence of different and sometimes conflictual economic discourses (neoclassical, Keynesian, institutional or Marxist) is not a mere accident.  In other words, if economists disagree, it is not because they fail to represent accurately the reality of the economy but because they conceptualize the economy in different ways.  Without doubt ideological differences may go a long way in explaining why there are different economic discourses, but we should be careful not to use the term ideology as a pejorative term, as the other of science.  Because all scientific discourses are predicated upon an ideological commitment, because the distinction between what is scientific and what is ideological itself is an ideological distinction, their relation also needs to be rethought.


So much for economics as an ongoing and heterogeneous text.  What about the economy?  If our knowledge of the economy is not reflective but performative of the economy, is economy outside or inside the text?  Or better, is economy a text?  In my opinion it would be very productive to think of economy as a complex and layered text.  We can begin with the concept of price.  What is price system if not a system of signification, a relational and overdetermined system of meaning?  What about the data that we collect in order to use in our regression analysis?  Today, it is through statistical data that we define economic problems and their solutions.  One of the most important contributions of feminist economists to confront the way the GDP is calculated (without counting the hours and hours worth of household labor).  What about contracts? We, economists, are very interested in contracts without which exchange cannot happen, but then we spend very little time actually reading them.  Even within the highly mathematical field of game theory and experimental economics, some poststructuralist economists have begun to think through the necessity of contextualization of meaning to understand the bargaining processes and their undecideable outcomes.  In conclusion, introduction of the procedures of deconstruction into economics does not mean that we should reduce the economy into a text.  Rather, it is an invitation to recognize its inevitably textual nature and to follow through the implications of this recognition.