The Deconstruction Gang

S.L. Goldberg

In reviewing a book on literary theory recently, a noted American structuralist, Jonathan Culler, drew a stern line between the sort of assumptions about literature that might do for ordinary ‘readers’ and those that are currently giving ‘vitality’, as he put it, to ‘literary studies’. The point is well taken; and it also casts a certain light on the present book, Deconstruction and Criticism, as well as on the general condition (and conditions) of American academic ‘vitality’.

What makes ‘literary studies’ alive there, as Dr Culler reminds us, is the rejection of the simple ‘reader’s’ assumptions in favour of more rigorous, more objective concerns: for example, with ‘the problems of the status of the text and textual patterns, the relevance and accessibility of authorial intentions, the relationship of a work to other texts, their conventions, and the tacit assumptions of a society’. Clearly, these are important theoretical problems, and nothing called ‘literary studies’ could avoid them. But it is also clear that any ‘study’ that takes these as its only ‘vital’ issues is not likely to take much account of whatever draws and holds mere ‘readers’ of literature, or the connections between that and other kinds of vitality. As far as ‘literary studies’ are concerned, there is nothing interesting about the mere ‘reader’. He only reads books, after all, not ‘texts’, and he often skips what doesn’t engage him. Nor is he under any compulsion to find something to say about it – much less something academically impressive. He probably thinks, if he thinks at all, that a book is written by an author; he probably reflects, if he reflects at all, more about the substance of a book, its meaning for him, than about the immense ‘problematic’ of anybody trying to read anything at all. As likely as not, he will even imagine that one of his main problems with literature is how to use some critical judgment – in working out how seriously to take this or that book, for instance, or this or that part of one, or perhaps just in deciding what books he ought to read, or go on reading, or reread. In short, he doesn’t get into ‘literary studies’ by sheer definition. Or, to put it another way, the social, cultural, institutional and professional conditions that largely shape ‘literary studies’ these days tend to produce an absence, a blind-spot, at the very centre of those studies. They make it very easy for the individual ‘reader’, along with the book that he reads and maybe cares about, to get deconstructed right out of existence.

Although the strong theoretical bent of American ‘literary studies’ is much admired nowadays, not least by its proponents, it is worth noticing that there are bad reasons for it as well as good ones. The cultural and (more especially) the professional conditions of the business exert a constant pressure on its practitioners to turn particular insights about particular literary works instantly into universal generalisations about all literary works. To make a mark in ‘literary studies’ you must have a line, or rapidly develop a line from making a mark. Very little of the theorising ever stops to test itself against the evidence of actual practice, or seek out there the boundaries of its own validity. Indeed, against what practice could it test itself? Where literary practices, assumptions and modes of discourse are not grounded in the traditions of a society, where any such consensus has to be searched for or created; it seems only natural, to seek it in the universality of abstractions, and to think of valid critical practice merely in the future tense, as it were, as the eventual application of valid critical theory.

A good deal of the theorising, in fact, seems to be generated from some pretty dubious but unquestioned assumptions about the world – ideas that must seem so natural within an American context that they are simply taken as universal truths. One is the belief that a mere ‘reader’ can become a genuine, ‘competent’ reader only by academic training – an assumption that naturally boosts the learned, and leads to an immense (and lucrative) fuss about the knowledge and skills with which the reader has to be equipped: though to judge from the results, these generally amount to little more than platitudes or myths about the past, pompous and free-wheeling terminologies, complicated techniques for discovering the obvious or the trivial, and a general inability to tell a hawk of wisdom from a handsaw of knowingness.

A second assumption is that modern society and modern man are not just different from the past, but absolutely unique: in nature, historical situation, problems, attitudes, anguish and art, as well as in the need for a new post – ‘humanist’ kind of literary criticism. This, too, is a proposition that might understandably seem more like a truism in America (or Germany or Paris perhaps) than it is likely to in England. Another is a sort of animal faith in moral relativism, though it usually calls itself ‘pluralism’: a strong if incoherent belief that nowadays literary criticism can and should eschew judgments of moral or human value, since modern thought and modern art have shown moral rationality to be an empty illusion and such judgments nothing but subjective or ideological and therefore arbitrary prejudices, nothing but the coercive threats of privilege to every individual’s right to enjoy a creed, ‘life-style’ and value-system of his own. A fourth assumption is bound up with the other three: that, in the modern world, the explication or interpretation of ‘texts’ is the central business and most pressing problem of literary criticism (as of all the ‘human sciences’), and that reasoning out a truly scientific methodology, a systematic set of ‘approaches’ (capable, ideally, of being taught as an academic expertise), is the obvious and most appropriate solution.

Such assumptions as these operate even at the most sophisticated levels of ‘literary studies’ in America, and they silently mould the very conception of what literary theorising is properly about, what ‘criticism’ consists in, how its practice properly relates to theory. True, they also prompt an interest in many areas of thought, a concern with some important questions about language, literature and criticism, an admirable intellectual openness, breadth and adventurous curiosity. Yet all too often this genuinely philosophic interest goes with an amazing philosophical gullibility – an inability to distinguish assertions or speculations, especially if they are systematic and pretentious, from demonstrated truth. The result is an over-eager willingness to take some elaborated body of speculative theory as a body of established knowledge, and therefore as a validating basis for literary theory, and therefore as a programmatic rationale for critical (and pedagogical) practice. The peristaltic movement through the academic mind of psychoanalysis, Marxism, semiotics, iconology, phenomenology, existentialism, McLuhanism, stylistics, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, and so on, together with the jargon each of these generates, and their noisy competition for academic prestige and power, can make American ‘literary studies’ seem at once deeply intellectual and highly professional, exciting, ‘vital’, especially beside the contemptibly ‘humanist’, ‘empirical’, tradition-based, ‘reader’-directed attitudes that still prevail (more or less) in England and whose own vitality, unfortunately, has so rarely been explained or defended by philosophic self-reflection that it can easily seem to go by default.

For all its abundance, however, American literary theorising can also strike the sceptical outsider as remarkably provincial – ‘devoured’, to use Arnold’s phrase, by crochets and fancies as if these were central and universal truths. It is not simply that ‘certain ideas’ are ‘allowed to become fixed ideas, to prevail too absolutely’, though a great deal of the theorising does seem to be imprisoned within its national cultural assumptions, for ever addressing itself to other American theorising. Its bondage goes deeper. For even when it does consider the world outside those assumptions, it remains imprisoned within its very abstractness – its inability really to notice and absorb anything not already abstract, cerebral, theoretic. Its characteristic modes and habits make it very prone to deconstruct out of existence everything not capable of conceptual intellection and generalisation – everything in literary critical practice, and, more important, in literature itself. As a ‘form of life’, such theorising tends to unrealise, not be fully alive to, all unrationalisable particularities, all that is individual, specific, concrete, sensuous, in the world and in human observation, feeling, sensibility, valuation, action, social relations, traditions and loyalties, language itself. The theorising mind is aware of such things, no doubt, but it tends to regard them as merely gratuitous or arbitrary, contingencies outside the sort of rules and predictability it seeks. It never acknowledges them whole-heartedly or directs itself to celebrating their actuality and (more especially) their value. Even at best, it seems able to accord their importance only notional rather than real assent.

This applies even to the recent movement in American ‘literary studies’ which takes deconstruction as the very theme and method of criticism precisely because it mistrusts all conceptual structures of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ and therefore seeks to deconstruct them. Regarding every system of positive ‘truth’ as an attempt to ignore or to dominate the autonomous freedom of literary texts – indeed of language itself – it sets out to show how every text at some point or other eludes the grasp of any system and of any individual consciousness (even the author’s) that tries to determine, or even to be, what the text really signifies. It certainly looks a promising enterprise – until it actually gets going.

Much of it derives from French structuralism, but it is mainly an American movement, its chief proponents being those represented in the book under review: all of them professional stars (or, in the case of Professor Derrida, a strong influence and occasional presence) in some of the literature departments at Yale. The book offers, not an argued defence of their line – though Professor Hillis Miller does occasionally fall into something like argument between one fundamental assertion and the next – but rather five individual exhibitions of it in action.

The exhibitions are not really open to the ordinary ‘reader’, however. The book is in the ‘literary studies’ business, and if it addresses itself to anyone, it is to other stars in the business, for it is mostly written in an advanced interstellar version of its characteristic Grand Allusive Sesquipedalian style (more conveniently referred to by its initials). If the authors think of the ordinary ‘reader’ at all, they clearly aim to be tigers of wrath rather than horses of instruction. (It is not for nothing that the blurb tells him that they are called the ‘hermeneutical Mafia’.) Even the literary texts they take here – various works by John Ashbery, Shelley, Wordsworth and Maurice Blanchot – get so thoroughly devoured that they lose any intrinsic interest they might have had for him (which isn’t much); and while he probably won’t understand most of the book if he does attempt to read it, he will find it made pretty plain to him by innuendo if not by argument that what he calls ‘reading’ is really misreading, in fact ‘weak’ misreading, and that he had better watch his step if he ever tries that sort of thing at Yale.

Nor will he find it easy to discover just what he is supposed to do instead. For one thing, the authors naturally assume that everybody knows what ‘deconstruction’ is already; similarly with ‘criticism’. For another, they also: assume that both the validity and the necessity of deconstruction, the intellectual obligation to practise it, are also unanswerably established, though of course elsewhere: probably in the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Saussure, the structuralists, and Professor Derrida himself – all of which can naturally be taken as read. And to cap it all, it emerges, from Professor Hartman’s (discreetly constructive) preface that the authors are not entirely at one, that Professor Bloom and he, for example, are probably not deconstructionist mafiosi at all. And it is true that the former does mention one or two difficulties about a view of literature that seems unable to distinguish any particular work from any other, though he does so very briefly and tactfully, before getting on with his own version of inter-textuality; while Hartman evidently wants to suggest (it is hard to be sure, given his style) that there is no necessary connection between regarding deconstruction as the proper theme of criticism, as he does, and the philosophic bases for the view: something, as he modestly says, that ‘may be useful’ for further reflection.

Among everything else, therefore, the book presents us with the need to distinguish very carefully between such not entirely deconstructionist views as Professor Bloom’s, say –

I follow Fletcher both in my notion of the topoi of ‘crossings’ as images of voice, and in my account of the final revisionary ratio of apophrades or reversed belatedness, which is akin to the classical trope of metalepsis or transumption and to the Freudian ‘negation’ (Verneinung) with its dialectical interplay of the defenses, projection and introjection. I will re-expound and freshly develop these Fletcherian ideas in the reading of Ashbery that follows –

and the more strictly deconstructionist approach of, say, Professor de Man dealing with Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’:

Figuration is the element in language that allows for the reiteration of meaning by substitution; the process is at least twofold and this plurality is naturally illustrated by optical icons of specularity. But the particular seduction of the figure is not necessarily that it creates an illusion of sensory pleasure, but that it creates an illusion of meaning... By taking this step beyond the traditional conceptions of figuration as modes of representation, as polarities of subject and object, of part and whole, of necessity and chance or of sun and eye, the way is prepared for the subsequent undoing and erasure of the figure. But the extension, which coincides with the passage from tropological models such as metaphor, synecdoche, metalepsis or prosopopoeia (in which a phenomenal element, spatial or temporal, is necessarily involved) to tropes such as grammar and syntax (which function on the level of the letter without the intervention of an iconic factor) is not by itself capable of erasing, the figure or, in the representational code of the text, of drowning the shape or trampling out thought. Another intervention, another aspect of language has to come into play.

Threatened with such ‘aporias of signification and performance’ as this (to borrow a phrase of Professor de Man’s), the mere ‘reader’ would obviously be well advised to heed the call of nature, and run. For anybody unfortunate enough to get caught, pinned against a garage wall in darkest New Haven, and confronted with imminent deconstruction, I suppose the only choice is to try talking one’s way out with a simple-minded deconstructionist confession – something roughly along the following lines perhaps.

There is (one might begin) an irreducible gap between reality and language, and between a text and an interpretation of it. No linguistic structure can be a literal, straight transcription of reality; all of the crucial dichotomies on which language depends in trying to achieve this break down under analysis. Trusting to them is only a superstition with which the whole of Western culture has tried to support a particular metaphysical construction of the world – one that should therefore be exposed and ‘displaced’. (It might help to mutter words like ‘absence’, ‘presence’ and ‘logocentric’ at this point.) We must understand that any linguistic structure is always an inscription, a linguistic object, a ‘signifier, a text, which is infinitely capable of being placed and read in different contexts, being given different functions and significations. The full meaning of a signifier is necessarily indeterminate: that, indeed, is its very point.

The power of a text to signify cannot, therefore, be tied down and enclosed within some particular intent of its ‘author’, whether conscious or unconscious, nor within the particular ‘historical context’ of its appearance – even if these were themselves determinable independently of any interpretations of the text (and of other texts). In relation to reality (whatever interpretation we give that word), every text, no matter how literal it seems, is necessarily figural – it is a signifier that apparently seeks to be read truly and definitively, yet of its very nature always eluding any such reading. As an object in its own right, as it were, it always says something other than it is taken to mean, or rather, means something other than it is taken to say.

It follows that, in the full and absolute sense, reading is impossible. All that the text can be given is, strictly, a particular signification, however complex it may be – a ‘mis-reading’, which is ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ depending on how much signification it includes and on its recognition that it cannot be more than a misreading.

Now comes a tricky bit: every reading must also be itself a text. (The reasons why this is so are very mysterious.) This means that the original text is thus read by another, both by a third, and so on ad infinitum, each one signifying and reading in the same way as the rest. (This, it seems, is why interpretative criticism can be just as creative a form of discourse as poetry: which will be news, of course, only to those who don’t know it already.) Moreover, a text only exists within the sphere of language, signifiers, readings and other texts: the condition of textuality is that of inter-textuality. So although texts may seem to be about reality, they are really about other texts.

Thus any reading that purports to be the true meaning of a text can support this claim only by turning the text into a dead-letter, so to speak, and by asserting (illegitimately) a privileged position for its own language. Every system of positive truth makes this sort of claim: viz., to determine, delimit and so control the signifying power of all texts, even of language itself; and of course it is always wrong. Its conceptual structure must (i.e. should) therefore be deconstructed – de-validated, de-legitimatised – by exposing how it denies or glosses over both the linguistic status of texts and the autonomy of language, the structure and powers of which pre-exist any text and any reading, and generate the very forms in which thought and meanings come into existence. It is not authors who write texts, but rather language itself. Texts discourse on each other, for ever and ever, the whole universe of language and inter-textuality, the whole universe of the ‘human sciences’, continually expanding, like the universe of the ‘physical sciences’, into the void. Conceptions like ‘the author’, ‘authorial intentions’, ‘history’, ‘man’, ‘reality’, the ‘self’ (even the reader’s ‘self’), are no more than mental constructs, generated by the structures of language and yet inevitably deconstructed by them. All that can be said is that, since language itself constructs and deconstructs signifiers and significations, the only true signification of a text, what its figural language must ultimately figure, the only content of a really ‘strong’ misreading, is therefore the text’s status as a text, existing in that inter-textual sphere expanding into the abyss which it for ever signifies. Probably the highest fate to which we readers can aspire is to know all this and so rise, as it were, above the realm of all possible readings, either into a strong Heideggerian strain, as some of the deconstructionists prefer, or into the Nietzschean ‘strength’ and ‘joy’ preferred by others. The whole appeal is almost irresistible, of course; get ‘literary studies’ right, and your strength will be as the strength of ten.

If this is what deconstruction is about (and the five-star exhibition of it in the present book does seem to be – i.e. can be misread as – up to something of the sort), it has one pleasing consequence: a true übermensch of misreading would not, on deconstructionist principles, be much bothered whether he understood the book or not. Even with his back to a garage wall, the textual Superman would easily uphold ‘the law’, as Professor Hilis Miller puts it, ‘that language is not an instrument or tool in man’s hands, a submissive means of thinking... [but rather it) thinks man and his “world,” including poems, if he will allow it to do so.’ Superman would certainly allow it to do so. In his joy, he would simply laugh at any (as it were) ‘intentions’ that the (as it were) ‘authors’ of this text may have had in (as it were) ‘mind’; and in his strength, he would sweep aside their aporias, deconstruct these paper tigers, knock them back into the inter-textual status they came from, and stride away into the abyss. He wouldn’t even care whether language will regularly ‘think’ the text of a bank-cheque into the (as it were) ‘pockets’ of the (as it were) ‘authors’ for their allowing it to ‘think’ their essays and lectures.

As this may suggest, however, there does seem to be a certain discrepancy between deconstruction as a general theory and deconstruction as applied to particular works – especially particular works of literature. Whatever plausibility it has as the one is not necessarily transferred to the other: in fact, its status as a theory about all writing seems to be one of the main things that undermines its value as applied to particular writings. As a general theory, it no doubt has a point or two. In drawing attention to the figurativeness (or fictionally) of language, for example, it does warn against taking any story about the world – however ‘literal’ or philosophically rational or scientifically precise or religiously inspired it claims to be – as a straight, naked transcription of reality. Needless to say, this applies to poetry as well; and given the tendency of ‘readers’ (even of academically-trained readers) to want some direct, naked ‘truth’ or ‘wisdom’ or ‘vision’ from poems, the warning is not unnecessary. Of course this in itself proves very little about the philosophical bases of deconstruction. Just how valid they are – whether some stories about the world aren’t better than others, for example, or how its own discourse manages to escape the general curse, or why its account of language isn’t at bottom a claim to some privileged status for that, or how (or how far) its account could be tested anyway – these are problems for more philosophical analysis.

The deconstructionists also have a general point or two to make about literature which again amount to warnings or reminders, though there seems no reason why they could not be made in comprehensible English, without the GAS style and self-regarding academic machismo. They are right, for example, to underline the need for critics to take account of the self-referential elements in (many) classic texts, or of a text’s implicit (if not explicit) recognition that its language and/or formal structures are ‘conventional’, figurative. This element is certainly important in the poetry – mainly Romantic and later – that the deconstructionist naturally makes for, since it can best illustrate his theories, but is by no means confined to that. On the other hand, neither is it the only element in such poems. A second reminder is rather more important: that interpreters and reinterpreters of classic texts (Shakespeare, say) need to recognise and interpret in the text itself how and, more especially, with what effect it allows other possible readings of it – not just of individual words and details, but of the whole thing; and this not because all complex works are likely to be ambiguous, or were perhaps created to be ambiguous, but because of the way language itself functions even in the most ‘mimetic’ of literary works.

More important still is a third warning. Interpreting a classic text as is often done, simply in biographical or historical or formal or rhetorical terms (though the deconstructionist does seem partial to a rhetorical term or two himself), can not only mislead the interpreter into supposing that such a reading is, in principle at least, truly objective and definitive. Worse than that, it leads him to ignore something that helps make a text not of an age but for all time: namely, its inexhaustible power to mean something new to its readers. It is this that any reading needs to absorb and organise itself around; giving it a gracious nod in passing isn’t enough.

That having been said, however, certain problems do remain, and all of them centre on applying deconstruction to particular works How far for instance, does a avoid what we might call the fallacy of misplaced interest? A man may well be convinced that geneties say, is the most basic science in the world and DNA the most important Discovery in genetics: but must he therefore believe that the most interesting thing about his wile is her DNA? (It may be of course) Similarly with deconstruction. Even it its theoretical claims are all true, why must this be the most interesting thing about any and every poem, as the deconstructionists obviously suppose, of even an interesting feature of it at all? I his would only follow on one assumption: that every particular poem, every particular reading every particular reader, and every particular world and history that language has happened to ‘think’ for anybody, is no more than an instance of the one great general truth and therefore interesting only as that.

Perhaps all theoretical movements and ‘approaches’ to literature tend to a similar reduction of the particular and a similar misplacement of interest; but a structuralist approach, with its impulse to ‘evict’ individual persons, along with every human and moral category requiring some substantive conception of persons, in favour of impersonal rational systems, is especially prone to them. This is why deconstruction is also open to the sort of objections recently levelled by Gerald Graff, in his vigorous polemical book. Literature Against ltself, against the whole post-Kantian separation of art, reality, and moral reason, which infected the old New Criticism in America and which the deconstructionists are only taking a stage lurther.

One way of putting the basic objection is that deconstructive criticism, like a great deal of other literary theorising, seems unable to explain why it is that some texts, but not all make men want to read and reread them, through age after again some cases; what it is about these works, but not others, that seems to call to readers (even mere ‘readers’), drawing and holding them, producing in them a desire, a felt need even, to understand what they are reading. Any interpretation of a text surely has io seek, recognise and interpret that; and the relevant qualities consist in more than mere ambiguity or openness to interpretation, and lot precisely the reason the deconstructionist is so insistent about: that these are characteristic of all inscriptions, all texts. Traditionally, in fact, critics have even gone so far as to regard the ability to perceive the relevant qualities accurately in texts, and convincingly to explain their particular power and extent in specific cases, as the very heart of their business. And why is it not?

A remark of Professor Hartman’s in his preface to Deconstruction and Criticism suggests a particular reason why wholesale deconstruction might seem a more likely critical programme to American eyes than to English ones. It offers, he says, ‘a new rigour when it comes to the discipline of close reading’. If we can stop ourselves from deconstructing the word ‘rigour’ here (as we did earlier with Professor de Man’s remark about ‘the particular seduction’ of Shelley’s ‘figure’), we should notice the point about ‘close reading’. Something not generally recognised about this ‘discipline’, which began taking hold in academic departments of literature on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1940s, is that its American version has long since degenerated into a kind of depersonalised verbal game Probably nothing separates the ordinary English trained ‘close-reader’ and the ordinary American one so much as then basic assumptions about those famous ‘words on-the-page’.

The English one, for whom Shakespeare is a central and ever-present literary fact, assumes that words have been chosen, or are at least not fortuitous; and that (understood by the ‘competent’ reader) they therefore manifest a person generally but of course not necessarily the historical author, but in any case a particular mode of human being, a particular way of being humanly alive in, alive to, the world. All the subtleties of tone, accent, intonation, rhythm, emphasis, gesture, and (most important) all the marks distinguishing a real from a merely notional awareness of the world, are for him essential elements both of the meaning and of the wider significance of the text. He makes, that is, some of the assumptions about imaginative writing that Professor Derrida wants to deny about any and every kind of writing, though he doesn’t make all of them. This means that tor him what counts as the real substance of the text is not its cliches, its mere platitudes, its dead conventional wood, its empty notional intentions, or its vague gestures at a meaning. A work that consisted only of these, he might say manifests some sort of human being, no doubt, but not one interestingly alive. For him most of the works discussed in Deconstruction and Criticism are likely to be so insubstantial or vague or dull as to be incapable of supporting all that laborious and high-flown interpretation He would find it astonishing that, only after 35 pages devoted to one of Wordsworth’s woollier poems, should Professor Hartman get round to wondering ‘where the life of such a poem is’ because, as he puts it, ‘it is both a minor poem and a considerable text’’.

The assumptions of the ordinary American-trained ‘close-reader’ are likely to be much closer to those of the deconstructionist: in fact, he is often uncomprehending or contemptuous of the English assumptions. For him, as for the deconstructionist, what counts as the real substance of the text is simply every word of it, and every word counts as much as any other. They all lie on the same plane, as it were, in relation to reality, on the one hand, and to the meaning of the text, on the other. What the text means is whatever meanings its readers can come up with for each and every word of it; whatever these may be, the text means that too. The result is a subtle, radically uncritical, form of intentionalism. For him, the words are gratuitous and free-floating, forming themselves into ‘patterns’, ‘themes’, ‘fictions’, verbal structures that are thoroughly ‘objective’ in being essentially unattached to any person, author or reader. The reader gives significations to the words – the author does not create these for him to find. The words in themselves, therefore, can be adequately analysed and discussed formalistically.

Another way of putting the difference between the two kinds of assumption might be to say that the English ‘close-reader’ tends to read texts in those human and moral categories that require some conception of individual persons. He usually does this in terms of the modes and logic of belief, in which the specifically personal necessarily mediates the impersonal. The American ‘close-reader’, on the other hand, tends to read them without such ‘subjective’ categories as far as possible, and where it isn’t possible, then in terms of the modes and logic of statement or declaration, in which the personal tad the impersonal have a different content and stand in a different relationship. In effect, the American ‘close-reader’ naturally tends to the same conclusion as deconstruction seems to: that the central fact, the ideal text, in English literature is Finnegans Wake.

In each case, ‘criticism’ assumes a rather different position in relation both to the text and to the reader, and has a rather different procedure and point, especially in its judgmental aspects. In fact, the exhibition of that fact is probably the most valuable thing that Deconstruction and Criticism offers any reader – ‘close’, ‘competent’, or mere.