Talk about doing

Frank Kermode

  • Against Deconstruction by John Ellis
    Princeton, 168 pp, £13.70, February 1989, ISBN 0 691 06754 6
  • The New Historicism by H. Aram Veeser
    Routledge, 318 pp, £30.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 415 90070 0
  • Rethinking Historicism: Critical Essays in Romantic History by Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, Jerome McGann and Paul Hamilton
    Blackwell, 149 pp, £22.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 631 16591 6
  • Towards a Literature of Knowledge by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 138 pp, £16.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 19 811740 X
  • The Stoic in Love: Selected Essays on Literature and Ideas by A.D. Nuttall
    Harvester, 209 pp, £25.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0614 0

Anyone presuming to review works of modern literary theory must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose. The great ones began it, and aspiring theorists usually carry their heads grotesquely to one side in emulation of these models. What begins as servile mimicry soon becomes a pathological condition. It is a relief that two of the present five books may be pronounced orthopaedically sound.

Opinions differ as to whether Deconstruction will take over the academy, or be ‘co-opted’ by it, so dwindling into a slicker version of the old New Criticism. Some think or hope that it will simply fade away. The intemperateness of its propagandists seems to be increasing; large claims are made for its beneficially cathartic effect on the institutions which house it, and this could be construed as a sign of desperation. On the other hand, some assaults on Deconstruction, by eminent but not very well-informed elders, have provided the defenders with a good deal of scornful merriment as well as some useful ammunition. On the side of the elders it can be said that it isn’t altogether easy to find out what Deconstruction really is: its practitioners automatically object to any and all descriptions of it, and invariably claim that all adverse criticism depends on the very presuppositions that have already been terminally deconstructed.

The virtue of John Ellis’s book is that he insists on putting his questions in pre-deconstructive terms, refusing to believe that they can be dismissed as inapposite. For, as he remarks more than once, the importance of a new way of thinking can only be estimated by what intelligent people regard as intelligent discussion of it, not by brusque refusals of such discussion on the ground that it does not accept in advance the rules the inventors of the important new way of thinking have laid down. One can only ask legitimate questions by becoming an insider, and then the questions become irrelevant. Sceptics have to understand that they can say nothing to the point without ceasing to be sceptical.

Ellis thinks there is something very odd about accompanying announcements of a major intellectual development with a ban on attempts to state what it is, or to evaluate it. All he asks for is a serious dialogue between the parties, such as we have not yet had. In the end, the obstinate refusal of such a dialogue makes him angry, but for a while he keeps cool and contents himself with ‘examining the logic of the central issues and arguments’ in a mannerly prose which clearly marks him as an outsider. His book is worthy of the serious response it asks for, but all he really expects is the rejoinder that logical analysis is inappropriate; Deconstruction is not a theory but a ‘project’, and has a different ‘logic’. Ellis wants to know what this alternative logic is. But to answer him the defenders would have to use his old logic, which allows for alternatives such as either/or and true or false, as the new one does not. He points out that among themselves the deconstructors are ready enough to say that X’s position is wrong, or that Y has absurdly misunderstood something: so that there are circumstances in which rational argument creeps back – Derrida notoriously accused John Searle of misunderstanding him even when what he was saying was perfectly clear. Ellis therefore boldy assumes the right to judge some of Derrida’s main arguments, and accordingly takes on the Grammatology.

Before long he is vigorously denouncing the treatment of Saussure in that book (very central to Derrida’s ‘project’) as based on the palpable error of representing Saussure as ethnocentric, and holding him responsible for perpetuating a general failure to notice the priority of writing over language, a failure related to the dominance of the ‘metaphysics of presence’. Ellis is willing to question this cardinal doctrine and ask in what sense writing is prior to speech – even though that question is now assumed to be so naive and ignorant that people have long been ashamed to ask it, and Derrida’s expositors have usually passed over the topic in silence. Ellis thinks the whole argument depends on a piece of legerdemain, intended to conceal the fact that what is really being talked about is the much more familiar problem of the relation of words to things, of signs to referents. The wrong view of this is what Derrida calls ‘logocentrist’, but his refutation of it looks less sensational if you reflect, as Ellis does, that it is now rarely held, having been exposed in other terms by other philosophers, notably Wittgenstein. But ‘the resistance to any awareness of other critiques of logocentrism means that all criticism of the deconstructive critique must be regarded as a return to logocentrism.’

Why is nobody willing to say exactly what this word means? Because, say its users, ‘a demand for clarity begs the question at issue.’ Ellis disagrees, and offers this old-style definition: it is ‘the illusion that the meaning of a word has its origin in the structure of reality itself and hence makes the truth about that structure seem directly present to the mind’. But this position was familiar long before Deconstruction came in with its mystifying demands for demystification. What is now obscurely attacked is a view generally agreed to be naive and uninformed, especially by readers of Wittgenstein, Sapir, Whorf and others. And according to Ellis, Derrida has done little more than add to the existing consensus a kind of gratuitously revolutionary fervour – a ‘rhetorical absolutism’.

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