Deconstruction: A Critique

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Hence, meanings can be adequately understood only with reference to the specific contrasts and differences they display with other, related meanings. Logocentrism encourages us to treat linguistic signs as distinct from and inessential to the phenomena they represent, rather than as inextricably bound up with them. Article Media. Info Print Print. Table Of Contents. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. Introduction Deconstruction in philosophy Deconstruction in literary studies Deconstruction in the social sciences and the arts Influence and criticism.

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Internet Encycopedia of Philosophy - Deconstruction. John Hollander, for example, his friend in the English department, whom Bloom describes as ''the best talker I have ever known,'' is a poet, a scholar, a critic. As for the others, Bloom says, there are too many ideologues. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration. But he gives it a thought or two.

He mentions a certain ''fierce neo-Marxist'' in the English department and a certain ''fierce Lacanian,'' or a follower of Jacques Lacan, the late French neo-Freudian post-structuralist whose theory of literary creation, to vulgarize it only slightly, portrays writers as deluded animals through whom universal images and compulsions get put into words. Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ''punk ideologies,'' of ''vicious feminism,'' of new modes of ''stifling doctrine'' and of new Stalinisms.

In a Nutshell

He describes one young member of the English department as ''an out-and-out Marxist agitator'' and ''a horse's ass,'' and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. They have their colleagues terrified. One wonders if he has gone over to the neoconservative camp.

But, no. Not Bloom. The neoconservatives call Bloom a wild man, he says. He calls them ''fourth-rate reactionaries. There will be no simple map from Harold Bloom. Yet, listening to him, one can almost see the ghostly jungle canopy hanging over his sun-less face. One can almost hear the kaawhoop-whoop whoop of hermeneutic hoopoes. One senior professor of English - tracked into his gothic nest of books, gray stone and dirty panes of leaded glass as typical a habitat of Yale's tropicritics as one will find outside a certain pizza parlor called the Naples - is asked why people keep talking about texts.

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The consequence of this devaluation of the present is that time becomes objectified through a reversal taking place. It is this still-metaphysical "remembering back" to Being which Derrida wishes to eliminate in his deconstruction of any transcendental signified. Meaning is not to be discovered in the text. Dialogism as described by Bakhtin can create new interpretive interests and representations intertextually and interdisciplinary of meaning as the writers write in awareness of dialogue with readers and anticipate their responses Tull Garrison, J. Instead of uncovering the hidden meaning in the text, deconstruction seeks to show how the text disseminates.

Why not essays, novels, odes and so on? Why always text? It is a question uttered from the deepest ignorance, and the professor responds patiently. But theory isn't his specialty, he warns in advance, and he doesn't want to discuss the word text unless he can do it off the record.

Table of contents

This collection of essays examines a wide range of topics relating to deconstruction, which emerged in France as a reaction to structuralism but has found its. Deconstruction: A Critique (): Rajnath: Books.

Derrida has been a catalyst, he says. Things really bubble when Derrida appears. To understand a critical catalyst you need more than impressions. You have to go back to the books. But once in the stacks, one is caught in the web of text. There is Matthew Arnold, who once wrote that ''the world is forwarded by having its attention fixed on the best things. Critical thought has been rudely shaken since Matthew Arnold.

It has had to deal with modernists and quantum physics and genocide.

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It has, occasionally, as Arnold expected it would, viewed literature as if literature would replace religion. Up and down, criticism's academic priests grew more important as Latin and Greek vanished from the basic curriculum and the status of English rose; they grew insecure as science and the social sciences gained power; they grew proud again as philosophy, anthropology and other specialties began to converge on the study of language itself - but this is moving ahead of the story.

Early in this century, and into the 's and 30's, a typical academic specialist in English literature viewed his materials historically, as a matter of periods and as a reflection of civilization. Authors and their biographies were extremely important. So was the development of literary styles and themes -''influence'' in the conventional sense.

Many scholars and students of literature who think and work along these lines are still at it, at Yale and elsewhere. But the old approach had disadvantages. The scholarly side of things could get exceedingly historical, or methodical, or quaint. Some students of literature wanted more art, more timelessness. The old critical methods could also get vague, limp, dilettantish. Eliot over all, straddling the Atlantic. They focused on individual texts, particularly short poems, and they read very closely, elucidating elements such as irony and paradox. They tried to put all that earlier vague literary chitchat aside, and figure out how imagery, surprise and appropriate language actually functioned in creating meaning and pleasure. They were thus practical and hard-headed about literature, but with a strongly idealistic streak; like Coleridge, they believed that certain great works were ''organic'' and worth revering and essentially unapproachable.

One of Yale's old New Critics who were, in America anyway, a predominantly Southern and conservative group called poems ''verbal icons. It's easy to imagine in retrospect how such ideas might eventually have grown stale. A short poem can be pretty confining. The stress on organic perfection could become deadening, mechanical, frustrating - or just false. Were the lives and times of authors irrelevant? Did individual psychology play no part in the greatest art?

During the 's, Romantic poets such as Shelley and Romantic critics such as Harold Bloom came in like typhoons, and the New Critics faded. In came the structuralists and the declaration by the late French critic Roland Barthes of the death of the author. In came feminism. This period of experimentation and upheaval is still in progress, but it has tossed up a few trends, such as deconstruction, that are more popular than others.

First Johns Hopkins University, then Paul de Man, a revered critic at Yale, began taking deconstruction very seriously. Derrida's extreme skepticism about language and his apparent philosophic rigor appealed to literary people who felt in need of a theory. De Man began deconstructing literary texts, watching their conventional meanings fall to bits.

As Miller has written, the closer one looked at images and words, the more their meanings ''oscillated. Dozens of books and several periodicals have since been published on deconstruction, and not a few of them focus on Yale. For better or worse, deconstruction has become widely institutionalized. Derrida has lectured at the University of Virginia on the deconstruction of the Declaration of Independence, and the stuff is spreading like kudzu.

For one thing, the field is strewn with hard words and notions, and deconstructors haven't always been conscientious about keeping the path clear. They also delight in wordplay, which can make their ideas even more complicated. Several of the tropicritics, allegedly so free-spirited, are forever writing about what ''we'' feel when ''we'' read Rilke, as if their sensibilities were attuned to the pulse of the age. The reader's irritation may lead to more thoughtful doubts. It's often said, for instance, that the radical skepticism of Derrida and his friends about what words ''mean'' is far too impatient with the multiple, practical functions of language.

Moreover, the writings of the deconstructors themselves obviously ''mean'' certain things. From the political left, growing bands of literary critics have been castigating deconstruction at Yale as an empty, elitist, bourgeois game.

The Critique of Ideology and the Place of Deconstruction

A notable recent example is the British Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, whose ''Literary Theory: An Introduction'' has become something of a campus best seller. Eagleton who has a fairly straightforward agenda in what he writes: as a Marxist, he would have literature change society says the deconstructionists' obsession with the self-immolation of texts is sheer escapism. Plenty of academic deconstructionists, Eagleton adds, who have been furthering the deconstructive work of earlier academic deconstructors are engaged in nothing more than ''a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition.

As for the political right, it's probably safe to say that deconstruction drives neoconservatives mad. At a neoconservative academic conference last spring, for instance, Peter Shaw, a professor of English, roused his audience at New York University to lusty approval when he warned that deconstruction and other post-structuralist excesses were demolishing traditional values and meanings.

Shaw also compared the new intellectuals' personal style to the ''moralistic,'' ''intimidating'' and ''elitist'' tactics of the New Left during the 's. He sounded as if deconstruction were a kind of nerve gas designed to complement the conventional megatonnage of Marxist-Leninists. He and other writers have used neoconservative journals such as Commentary and The New Criterion to spread the alarm.

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Rene Wellek, a distinguished intellectual historian and critical theorist who retired some years ago from Yale, is one prestigious name that has joined in the attack from the right. He has written that J. Hillis Miller's typically Derridean reference to nihilism as ''an inalienable alien presence within occidental metaphysics, both in poems and in the criticism of poems'' is a boast of Miller's own ''allegiance to nihilism. He has written in another essay that ''the blurring of the distinction between poetry and critical prose, the rejection of the very ideal of correct interpretation in favor of misreading, the denial to all literature of any reference to reality are all symptoms of a profound malaise.

At least a few other detractors of deconstruction tend to see professors of English as frustrated poets and novel-ists. One of them is Vicki Hearne, a Yale poet and teacher who has been described by her colleague John Hollander as ''an animal trainer who reads Wittgenstein. Criticism, in theory, might be as great a game as poetry or philosophy.

Vicki Hearne is an oddity at Yale. She has no doctorate and no plans to get one, but a couple of years ago some senior people in the English department liked her poetry and considered her smart, and they offered her a job as an assistant professor ''only the Yale English department could get away with something like that,'' she says. Vicki Hearne really is an animal trainer; she trains dogs and horses, and she writes what she calls ''a weekly metaphysical animal column'' for The Los Angeles Times. She used to live in the high desert of southern California, and it was a shock moving to New Haven.

There are too many trees, she says. It is all too green, too lush. She can't think. Hartman - sometime poet, prolific essayist and one of the original Non-Manifesto Five - and let him answer these potshots. It isn't easy getting to Hartman. The comparative-literature department where he can be found has its offices in the tower of Bingham Hall.

Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction

But the elevator to that tower is generally locked. To lure someone from upstairs to come down to unlock the elevator, one must first find the emergency telephone, which is bolted to the outer wall of the entrance next door to Bingham's main entrance, and dial the department's number. Unfortunately, comp lit has only two phone lines and they're both busy. A man with a package to deliver arrives, waits, curses and departs. At length, a woman appears in the doorway and says she ''had a feeling'' there might be someone downstairs.

She escorts Hartman's visitor through a gothic hallway furnished with nothing but a case of empty beer bottles. Does Derridean D-Con knock out roaches? I assume there's a security problem. Hartman's office is a low-Romantic chaos of books. Hartman is famous for his erudition. Patricia Meyer Spacks, the chairman of the English department, remarks later. There are so many books that there is no place to put a tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee. He nods to various political objections to deconstruction, concedes that the French are apt to toss their critical coconuts too playfully, and he speaks of the Bible and some Jewish themes, a growing interest of his.

He responds softly, rationally. He makes Les Critiques des Tropiques sound almost ordinary. This is especially interesting because deconstruction originally seemed such a hard, strange, tooth-breaking sort of nut. Might it, after all, have a humanistic core? Left and Right: He feels obliged, now that he is in his 50's, to involve himself in public matters, but he wants to do politics his own way.

Conservatives ''fundamentalists and foundationists,'' he calls them suffer from ''the anxiety of frontiers'' when dealing with thinkers such as Derrida and the late Michel Foucault, a French structuralist historian. The radical new skepticism, and impatience with the ethnocentricity of conventional history and literary criticism - these trends look like nihilism and revolution to a lot of American intellectuals. This is natural, he explains, but overdrawn. Certain Continental thinkers refuse to be labeled ''humanists'' because the word smacks of complacency and habitual middle-class categories of thought.

No big deal. Conservatives imagine, he says, that there is one bedrock truth beneath a text, but there is more. Schools, he adds, should not deaden texts by insisting on one proper interpretation. Think of Shakespeare. Think of the commentators on the Bible. They had to amend the text and pass it on with certain questions. And you become aware that a text is a constructed thing.

Students are drawn to such ideas not because of any special doctrine but because the new ideas are interesting, Hartman says. Naturally, some teachers have objected. As for charges from the left that deconstructors are elitists, he sighs. He recalls having been attacked by one ignorant fellow when he attempted to add the Bible to a group of select literary texts.

The Bible was a racist, sexist document, the fellow said. But even less benighted lefties tend to like their literature clothed in determined meanings. Coconuts: Yes, some ''bad jokes'' are being tossed about, he admits. Some of the wilder new criticism is ''variable in quality. Why do deconstructors behave this way? And that can be a bad habit. But he seems otherwise as he sits in front of his office window with his red sweater on and his white beard fluffy against the light.

Derrida might go too far, he says, but who else, he asks, smiling, would have thought of doing a book like Derrida's ''Glas,'' which is printed in two parallel columns of quotations: one from Hegel, the other from the literate French criminal Genet. One has to admit, he says, that Derrida is ''a fascinating episode in the history of criticism. Religion: Hartman's interest in commentary has led him to the Hebrew Bible, the text that has attracted more commentary than any other. He has also urged biblical literature on students from a sense of ''intellectual equity'' - pagan and Christian writers Homer, Milton, and so on are well represented.

Hartman as a young man fled his birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany, because his family was Jewish; he has since helped start Yale's Program in Judaic Studies. What is it that Hartman resembles? An owl! The light behind him has cast his face in shadow and surrounded it with the pale fire of his hair and beard. He looks like a snowy owl. It is only later, uncannily, that comes across Hartman's essay ''Centaur: On the Psychology of the Critic,'' in which he spends little time on centaurs - an image for the philosopher-critic - but much time on owls.

Remember the boy in Wordsworth's ''Prelude'' who ''blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,'' and how the real owls hal-looed back? Remember Thoreau's owls, in which Thoreau rejoiced because their ''idiotic and maniacal hooting'' was so ''admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods. Hartman does.

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Now Hartman is running late. There is so much more to talk about, he says as he hurries through the building's beery lobby and onto the icy quad. Consider, he says, the deep suspicion that many English and American scholars harbor toward practically anything Continental. But there is no time. There is truth in what he says about cultural nationalism. As Prof. Martin Price -a learned Yale scholar-critic of 18th-century English literature and the modern novel - says over lunch, ''My gut feeling is not to trust anyone who has read Heidegger. Hillis Miller, the closest -personally and professionally - to Derrida among the Yale critics.

The charge makes him angry.