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At a private reception the next day, I approached Derrida to press him on his comments, for his intervention at Laclau’s lecture had, as far as I could tell, nothing to do with Gramsci. As I cited studies and quoted passages to support my point, Derrida looked up at me with quizzical eyes and a faint, perhaps condescending, smile. I was aware that my questions violated academic politesse, since to press the philosopher on issues about which he seemed ill-informed was impertinent. The underlying “joke” (which I also got, although I pretended not to) meant knowing that what Gramsci actually wrote, or why, hardly mattered — at least here.
Now, 30 years down the road, it is surprisingly hard to remember why Derrida’s “deconstruction” — a theory of reading with the unlikely catchphrase “the metaphysics of presence” — swept all before it in English departments of the American heartland, prompted Newsweek to warn of its dramatic and destructive power, and moved prominent scholars like Ruth Marcus to denounce its “semi-intelligible attacks” on reason and truth. For decades the movement’s adages appeared as one-liners at Modern Language Association cash bars: “literary language undoes its own premises,” philosophy is the “self-subversion of hierarchical oppositions.” After all the high-powered careers, the junkets to Bellagio, the National Endowment for the Humanities cash, the Paul de Man scandal, and the hagiographies, its revolution has begun to seem less a bone of contention than the profession’s longest-running one-line joke.
To this day, deconstruction remains a style of thought more complained about than understood, less outrageous than deliberately elusive. Until the very end, its high-profile proponents contemptuously elected not to define it, insisting instead on its undefinability, which naturally led the unpersuaded (summoning a favorite movement term) to judge deconstruction an escomatage (a “dodge” or “conjuring trick”). After the revolution had become rote, critics — no longer forced to bite their tongues — pointed to Derrida’s wordplay (“aigle” for “Hegel” for instance; or “hantologie” for “ontology”), and noted that punning is the lowest form of humor. Could it be, some of us in the discipline began to wonder, that Derrida was the Herbert Spencer of our era — a towering edifice in his time and a vacant epigone of Heidegger outside it?
The power of Gregory Jones-Katz’s extraordinarily well-researched Deconstruction: An American Institution (University of Chicago Press, 2021), apart from dodging the extremes of obeisance and dismissal, is not to have adopted deconstruction’s aversion toward situating the movement in its time and place. He capably walks his reader through the fine-grained details of seminal texts, but also wisely moves beyond them, perhaps implying that the school’s interest for us today lies less in its stable of familiar themes than in its improbable success. What made deconstruction soar when its philosophical points of departure, the genealogy of its methods, the clash between French and American intellectual culture, and the incompatible positions of its principal spokespersons were so poorly understood? The legacy of deconstruction seems to present us with two alternatives: It is either a story of a radical turn toward a reason freed from binary oppositions (man/woman, truth/falsity), or it is a conversion story with indecipherability its sacred sine qua non.
In tackling this dilemma, Jones-Katz gives us plausible scenarios but leaves important ones unmentioned. Told as a story of ideas, deconstruction began with two unrelated moves. First, Derrida seized upon Husserl’s emphasis on the materiality of language, but also on Husserl’s timidity in reducing the sign to a mere representation, thereby diminishing its ontological force (writing, for Derrida, has material autonomy). Second, Paul de Man redirected the formalists’ emphasis on literary figures like irony, metonymy, and allegory to what he (confusingly) called “rhetoric,” which meant not the art of persuasion but the genetic, impersonal principle that literary texts dwell in contradiction and are thus impervious to resolution.
Told as a story of institutions, deconstruction took shape as the gathering of strong personalities who had the ears of their deans, and who nurtured these seeds into a program, a curriculum, and finally, a crusade. The power center featured Derrida, de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and later, Barbara Johnson, and moved back and forth between Yale and Johns Hopkins, Cornell and (later) UC-Irvine, and its members saw themselves as the rescuers of a beleaguered literary studies which at the end of the postwar boom in the 1960s and 1970s was being pressured to defend its relevance and define its purpose. The profession was producing more Ph.D.s than jobs, and legislators were beginning to question the cost of higher education. At the same time, students honed to a sharp point by the civil-rights and feminist movements, as well as by opposition to the Vietnam War, demanded more than the aesthetic contemplation of a canon sealed off from the contagion of everyday life.
As deconstruction developed over the 1980s and 1990s, its politics became harder and harder to read. For one thing, it was the brainchild of wildly different kinds of scholars: a literary romanticist and Nietzschean (de Man), a phenomenological philosopher (Derrida), a sociohistorical critic with Auerbachian beginnings (Hartman), an influence theorist (Harold Bloom), a critic of authorial consciousness (Miller), and feminists with affiliations ranging from new historicism and Lacanian psychoanalysis to Marxism (Johnson, Margaret Homans, Mary Poovey, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and others). Unfortunately, Jones-Katz has nothing to say about the incoherence of this ensemble. Still, the jumble is the first sign that deconstruction, influential and enduring though it might be, is not what it seems.
What its critics overlooked is that deconstruction triumphed in part by giving its readers less to think about.
Jones-Katz rightly observes, for example, that deconstruction sought to “make criticism ‘relevant’ to social needs.” But then what could be more embarrassing in an era of trickle-down economics than a theory whose authority depended on an Ivy League seal of approval? The unseemly deference paid by the underfunded academic second-string toward New Haven theories packaged for the provinces was only matched by the indignant, but always eager, coverage of deconstructive antics in the mainstream press, ever alert to the goings-on at institutions with the smell of money (the outrageous professional perks, the cushy gigs, the Guggenheim Fellowships, the NEH and Ford Foundation largess, the island homes off the coast of Maine).
Deconstruction’s “renovation” of the humanities seemed equally at odds with its unmistakably religious undertones. Michel Foucault had already pointed out that “giving writing a primal status” and claiming “writing as absence” (two of Derrida’s signature moves) simply repeated the transcendental terms of “the religious principle.” (This is one reason Derrida remains influential among theologians.) Others took up this charge, wondering what an obsessive textualism based on the invisibility of all intention was if not Gnosticism. On the surface, deconstruction posed as a densely semantic investigation conducted with ruthless precision. And yet, all the while, it seemed to be playing a double game, winking at its readers by counting on them to recognize its Jesuitical, rabbinical, or Sufistic relationship to “the Book.”
Nominally a redoubt for “vanguard critics,” deconstruction in some quarters had the feel of an antiquarian rerun, part of that Gallic preciosity that Harry Levin dubbed “the Alexandrianism of our time” — a return, in other words, to the obscure and ornamental writing of the last centuries before the Christian era; or perhaps to the exegetes of first-century Alexandria, among them Philo, who set out to prove that contradiction was the normal mode of all expression, and who proposed to undo the rational forms of Greek thought.
Although few could hear the point during “theory” fever, some observed that deconstruction’s attack on “logocentrism” created problems for liberatory politics. Barbara Harlow (one of Derrida’s early translators) observed that Western philosophy had, in fact, always given tendentious priority to the written word, to scripture, and the law — not speech as Derrida contended. And what are Plato’s dialogues if not dissimulated speech skillfully managed in Socrates’s favor within the controlled ironies of writing? The technology of print in imperial Europe was the very brag of its civilization. How to escape, then, deconstruction’s implicit premise that peripheral traditions of storytelling, song, and word-of-mouth (what Ishmael Reed, after Booker T. Washington, called the “grapevine telegraph”) are illusory or naïve? “Texts” for many cultures are oral, bodily, tonal, and rhythmic. They depend on communal gathering — in short, on a metaphysics of presence.
At the same time, we need more theory than Jones-Katz provides to unpack deconstruction as theory. Ostensibly, we are exploring the ontology of language, but as the methodological incompatibility of its ensemble of practitioners implies, its real cohesion is not epistemological but ethical. The term “deconstruction” referred not to a set of philosophical concepts but to a desire, which was also a prescription, that there be (as Miller put it) no “center,” no “head referent,” no “innermost core.” In a post-radical era busy turning radicals into professionals, deconstruction — with a great deal of philosophical noise — fell back on America’s familiar modernist response to the partisans of all causes: There are no answers, no origins, no past, no perpetrators.
The move was deliberate. As Jones-Katz tells the story, de Man’s teaching and mentorship were programmatic. Even an ally like Hartman reflected after his death: “In the space war of the theorists, he became the Yoda figure,” recruiting acolytes sent out into the profession to replicate his teachings. As Bloom complained, “You clone, my dear. I dislike what you do as a teacher, because your students are as alike as two peas in a pod.” With its Continental armature, deconstruction had the upper hand. Its adversaries were typically cast as uncharitable or clueless journalists, old-time empiricists, stale New Critics, or the Old World professoriate, handily dislodged (René Wellek, in particular, was a fall guy of this type).
Studiously avoided by its defenders was any mention of deconstruction’s formidable rivals and challengers: the literary sociology of Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu; the materialist feminisms of Sylvia Wynter, Nancy Fraser, and Gayle Rubin; the more trenchant and capacious literary essays by Theodor Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and Ernst Bloch; and the analytic philosopher John R. Searle, who deconstructed deconstruction with its own tools in The New York Review of Books to devastating and comic effect. Had deconstruction been more often forced to face the likes of Adorno’s demolition of Heidegger’s “jargon of authenticity,” it might have seemed more vulnerable.
As a body of propositions, it was never hard to probe deconstruction’s weaknesses. Texts undid themselves, it claimed, whereas it was really the deconstructive text that did — and intentionally so. Denouncing something so amorphous and pretentious as “Western metaphysics” partook of the same reductions the school wanted to expose in other paradigms. What could be more damning than pointing out that deconstruction, against its own tenets, opposed opposition? This ultimate performative contradiction lay in claiming that semantic plenitude resists interpretation in the very act of writing that stood as proof of an effort to persuade. What its critics overlooked is that deconstruction triumphed in part by giving its readers less to think about. Its weaknesses gave it strength because running and dodging was its professed mode, so that pointing out its contradictions was a little like getting in its groove.
In this way, its politics seemed perfect for an American setting of plausible deniability. Feminism can apply deconstruction to “male metaphysics” and “gendered and sexed hierarchical oppositions” without having to reckon with the fact that in deconstruction “metaphysics” means the illusory belief that signifiers have worldly referents and “hierarchy” the taking of a stand, any stand. For Derrida, taking a position is itself “hierarchical.” The grievances of women can be addressed in deconstruction only at the cost of effacing all contestation. Deconstruction’s doctrine of interpretive “play” turns meaning over to a joyous, Nietzschean affirmation, which boils down to the claim that, like the Reagan administration’s perverse reading of the SALT II treaty, anything goes.
In the end, deconstruction seems most American in giving repressive tolerance philosophical dignity. In a country where one can speak against the national nightmare so long as one is not heard, the only mainstream dissidence that probes the angry pulse of America’s fascist heart is found in stand-up comedy or fiction, where irony offers the safety of escape. As in the Monty Python sketch, the diligent truth-tellers of the alternative press are just so many “Ernest Scribblers.” Deconstruction won credence for the “left” by enlisting the European philosophical right; and was widely welcomed by the liberal center of academe because in attacking oppressive credos it was undermining credibility itself.