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.

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