Culler and Deconstruction

Gerald Graff

  • The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction by Jonathan Culler
    Routledge, 256 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0757 4

If you teach or study literature in a university, the chances are you’ve spent at least some of your time recently arguing with colleagues about the uses and abuses of literary theory. Not only do structuralism, deconstruction and their offshoots draw the biggest audiences at professional conferences, but the quarrel over them has aroused the curiosity of mass journals like Newsweek. Amidst this swirl of publicity and controversy, Jonathan Culler has managed to remain calm long enough to write a reasoned defence of deconstruction, one from which both scholars and general readers will be able to learn a good deal. Culler is fairly termed an apologist for the post-structuralist critical modes typified by the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, yet he writes without the supercilious tone of the former or the soporific word-play of the latter. Nor does Culler indulge in cheap vilification of opponents, suggesting that unwillingness to buy the whole post-structuralist bill of goods is a symptom of psychic repression or a police mentality. Even more refreshing, Culler doesn’t obscure the steps of his argument – and there is one, though this is a book of separate essays – by resorting to slogan-like clichés or great fogs of verbiage. Unlike critics who claim to take risks in their work while writing so evasively as to be protected from any criticism, Culler takes genuine risks in presenting deconstructionist insights as arguments rather than as dithyrambic assertions. He is thereby open, not only to the counter-arguments of opponents, but to the dismissal of allies, who will be able to accuse him of vulgarising the mysteries.

This last charge is easy to level at anybody who ventures to define deconstruction, the thing being so protean, so taken up itself with the equivocal nature of ‘representation’, that almost any attempt to represent it will by definition be a misrepresentation. Depending on which deconstructionist text one reads, deconstruction may be seen as a philosophical system, a critique of systems, an analysis of the conditions of system-making, a method, a critique of method, a mode of reading, a mode of literature in its own right, or as all or none of these things. Nor are the consequences of deconstruction very clear. Derrida writes that he is not ‘junking’ traditional metaphysical concepts but trying to ‘transform’ them, ‘to turn them against their presuppositions’. But when one asks to what end and from what standpoint the concepts are to be transformed, it’s hard to pin Derrida down to anything more than vaguely apocalyptic sentiments. Nevertheless, certain general tendencies of deconstruction can be summarised. Against the traditional view that philosophy and literature are founded in the nature of things or the spirit of man, deconstruction borrows from structuralism the argument that these disciplines, and ‘man himself’, are, in Culler’s words, ‘a product of discursive forces’. Deconstruction amends structuralism, however, by adding that these discursive forces are not fully under our control and cannot be fully charted by any science of language (hence the term ‘post-structuralism’, often used synonymously with ‘deconstruction’). ‘Skeptical of the possibility of mastering meaning within a comprehensive system or discipline,’ Culler writes, deconstruction ‘investigates what the most powerful and interesting texts have to tell us about signification and shows how they undo the logics of signification on which they rely’. Specifically, what these texts betray, under the scrutiny of the deconstructor, is the quixotic nature of trying to represent in language the ‘presence’ of the self and the world. Representation tries to pass itself off as a token of that presence, but the fact that we need a substitute only dramatises the inadequacy of the representation. The language we use to express ourselves and the world is finally what prevents our ever succeeding.

To prove his point, the deconstructor frequently exploits the element of figuration which, he claims, underlies even the most abstract language, but which is seen most obviously in literature. Thus, in a chapter on the apostrophe, one of several set-pieces of practical deconstruction, Culler maintains that this rhetorical figure simultaneously asserts the power of language to bend the world to human desires and concedes that the power rests on language alone. An apostrophe such as Blake’s ‘O rose, thou art sick’ figuratively closes the gap between the post-Enlightenment poet and the natural object he addresses. Yet ‘it figures this reconciliation as an act of will, as something to be accomplished poetically in the act of apostrophising; and apostrophic poems display in various ways awareness of the difficulties of what they purport to seek.’ In its self-undoing nature, however, the apostrophe is merely typical of all tropes and figures, and all language, for the deconstructor.

In another piece of sustained deconstruction, Culler examines some statements from M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp in order to argue that Abrams, one of the principal critics of deconstruction, has himself unwittingly practised deconstructive strategies on romantic literary theory. Abrams had pointed out that Coleridge introduced his favorite analogy for poetry, the growing plant, in order to avoid mechanical determinism, yet if we follow the logic of the figure, we see that one form of determinism has merely been substituted for another. Furthermore, according to Culler, Abrams’s book as a whole enforces a different thesis from the one Abrams intended. Whereas Abrams presents the romantics as abandoning the mirror (mimesis) for the lamp (self-expression) as the model of poetic activity, his material keeps suggesting that they did not succeed in getting rid of mirror-images. They illustrated what appears to be a kind of deconstructionist law: that in cases of figurative opposition, ‘the repressed term always inhabits its opposite.’ Culler’s proof of this in part rests on the point that ‘the logic of the figures themselves’ undoes the opposition: ‘a mirror is no use without light, and there is no point in illuminating a scene unless something will register or reflect what is there.’ In short, ‘a language come alive... is a language unable to control its own tropology.’

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[*] LRB, Vol. 3, No 3.