Saturday, 24 February 2007

American Deconstruction

The most adequate ground for Jacques Derrida’s new theory of language and interpretation was found not in France, but in America, where the school of New Criticism had already prepared the public for the method of close reading, and the influence of Husserlian and Heideggerean phenomenology was notably powerful. What differentiated American deconstruction from the Derridean one was that the U.S. critics turned directly from phenomenology to the deconstructive theory, skipping the structuralist phase, because structuralism and deconstruction arrived in America about the same time, in the late sixties, when some turned to the former (Jonathan Culler, Robert Scholes), and others espoused the latter trend.

The first generation of deconstructors was connected with Johns Hopkins and later with Yale University, and it included Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Joseph Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, and others, many of them linked in a way or another with phenomenological criticism. Later they were joined by a younger generation, among whom Barbara Johnson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were the most prominent names, and the movement spread quickly to other centers and universities, so that it spanned almost the whole critical stage, though it met with strong counterattacks from the traditional camp. Four of the initial deconstructive critics published a programmatic statement in 1979, Deconstruction and Criticism, [1] which comprised essays by Bloom, de Man, Hartman, Miller, and also Derrida. The “Yale School” deconstructors attached a pedagogical function to Derrida’s thought, turning toward the domain of literary criticism proper, with its specific uses of language and rhetoric. In the first phase, up to about 1972, the deconstructive theory was completed and perfected, while in the late seventies and early eighties their doctrine spread around and became an acknowledged institution in literary studies. Later on, though the school ceased to exist as such, its methods and principles disseminated to other related fields, and influenced the development of most critical approaches and movements, such as feminism, post-Marxism, psychoanalysis, cultural, sociological and anthropological studies.

The critics who are usually labeled under the name “deconstructors” were not quite so close to one another in all respects: in the preface that Geoffrey Hartman wrote to Deconstruction and Criticism, he introduced a caveat, explaining that there were two distinct groups among them. The first one was made up of the more radical authors, whom he described as “boa-deconstructors, merciless and consequent”: de Man and Miller (apart from Derrida, of course) belonged to this category; secondly there were the milder group of “barely deconstructionists”, such as Bloom and Hartman himself, who even reproved some parts of the doctrine, and for whom “the ethos of literature /was/ not dissociable from its pathos” which the other ones regarded as purged by the literary use of language (ix).

The career of PAUL DE MAN (1919-1983) was, unlike his temperament, far from sedate, even in its post-mortem stage. Born in Belgium, he wrote book reviews and music articles in his youth, and in 1948 emigrated to the U. S. A., where he made a name as a scholar and critic devoted to Romantic writers; after 1970 he became the leading figure of American deconstruction and one of the founders of the Yale school. The publication, after his death, of his articles that had come out during World War II in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir aroused an immense scandal, as a few of them revealed his anti-Semitic propensities (moderate as they were) in those obscure times.

Coming from the field of phenomenological criticism and concerned, in his first American phase, mostly with the notion of being, de Man turned in the early seventies to a systematic reflection on the problematic co-existence of meaning and rhetoric, a preoccupation that reached its most complex expression in Allegories of Reading (1979). Now the underlying idea of his writing was that textual reflection determined the evolution of history, rather than the other way round: meaning was decisively a function of the linguistic, particularly rhetorical structures. De Man did not deny the referential nature of language, but rendered problematic the nature of the referent.

His concern with the function and the scope of rhetorical devices was obvious beginning with a 1973 paper dealing with Nietzsche’s theory of rhetoric, in which de Man insisted that the German philosopher had dwelled more on the function of tropes and figures than on other techniques of persuasion. Nietzsche had found out that eloquence meant figurality in language, that the trope was not an aberrant element, but the linguistic paradigm par excellence. Language was essentially rhetorical; for him rhetoric was nothing but

an extension of the devices embedded in language at the clear light of reason. No such thing as an unrhetorical, “natural” language exists that could be used as a point of reference: language is itself the result of purely rhetorical tricks and devices.

Because language is not meant to convey an episteme (truth), but a doxa (opinion), “there is no such thing as a proper meaning that can be communicated only in certain particular cases”, stated Nietzsche. [2]Tropes could not be taken out of or introduced into language when one willed, for they were its truest nature. The authority of language lay not in its adequation to “an extralinguistic referent or meaning”, but rather in “the intralinguistic resources of figures” (105).

Hence de Man concluded that “the paradigmatic structure of language is rhetorical rather than representational or expressive of a referential, proper meaning” (106).

Allegory is, according to him, the most general version of metaphor (73). The relationship between the proper meaning (called by de Man allegoreme) and the literal meaning (allegoresis) is not one of non-coincidence only, but of a deeper kind, expressing semantic dissonance, which accounts for the didactic effectiveness of allegory (74). De Man insists that the resulting meaning in an allegory diverges from and even forecloses the initial meaning. There is always a confrontation between one reading and another, as they undo each other to the very end: the allegory of reading (by which he means the self-awareness of the text as a system of rhetorical figures) “narrates the impossibility of reading”, he contends (77).

Truth is therefore subverted by rhetoricity, and “vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration” are opened (10), for reference is always contaminated by the rhetoric of the text. Just as Derrida was particularly interested in those places where the text undermined its presuppositions, de Man looked for the clashes between the text and its own rhetoric, for the moments of unreadability or undecidability. These are moments of aporia or semantic impasse, which are yet always open to new unsayings and undoings, as the repression of one meaning is never complete. This is therefore a property of the literary text: it “simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode”; this kind of writing is “the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruction”, says de Man (17). He shifted the stress to literary language, for Derrida was concerned with language and epistemology in general.

In other words a specific feature of literary language is the possibility of misreading or mfisinterpretation: a literary text cannot refuse misreading, because literature is essentially figurative. Actually any interpretation is misinterpretation, and insight cannot exist without blindness, as de Man paradoxically argued in the book with an oxymoronic title, Blindness and Insight (1971). Some misreadings are good, some are bad: a good one always gives birth to another text, which, in its turn, produces other texts, and so on.

Applying his theory of misreading to texts of criticism, he dwelled on the contradictions between the theoretical statements of such authors as Georg Lukác, Maurice Blanchot, George Poulet, Jacques Derrida, and the actual results of their interpretations. These critics seemed not only to be “unaware of this discrepancy”, but also to “thrive on it and owe their best insights to the assumptions these insights disprove/d/”, [3]which is not the result of some individual aberrations, but a characteristic of “literary” (i.e. critical) language in general. Therefore the act of reading appeared to de Man as “an endless process in which truth and falsehood /were/ inextricably intertwined”. For instance, the metaphors of death and rebirth could no longer define modernity, because they became insufficient, considering “the elusive enigmas that literary texts turn/ed/ out to be” (ix).

The critical text as such is nothing but a narrative of the reading experience, and as a narrative, loaded with figures and tropes, it is necessarily allegorical. Tropes always interfere between the critical text and its referent. Critical language is not unrhetorical, therefore there is no real difference between it and literary language proper.

In conclusion de Man’s deconstructive theory of meaning and rhetoric was meant to create a new kind of criticism, in which the rhetorical figure had the same de-stabilizing function as Derrida’s concept of différance. He was not interested in “play” as such, like Derrida, but in the undermining of linguistic meaning by means of tropes; thus he was accused by the Derridean supporters of limiting the latter’s wide-ranging theory to literary language. Yet, others regarded his practice as an extension of the Derridean doctrine of linguistic self-subversion.

De Man’s work gained an enormous prestige on the American critical stage and until his death the reading strategies proposed by him met with no serious challenge. However, his influence on related domains, such as feminism, psychoanalysis, and others can hardly be compared to the impact Derrida’s thought has had up to now.

The closest ally of Paul de Man among American deconstructive critics was undoubtedly JOSEPH HILLIS MILLER (1928-), who became the spokesman of the Yale School, and attempted to turn down the accusations of interpretive nihilism or of contempt for social and political issues, raised against deconstruction by the traditionalist scholars and by some sociological or feminist critics. Miller began his career as a phenomenologist, his analyses drawing on George Poulet’s methodology, and his studies on Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy are still models of identification with the writer’s subjectivity and insight into the relationship between the imagining mind and its objects. Later, with the publication of the polemical essay “Tradition and Difference”, he abandoned the tradition of presence, of modernist humanistic scholarship, and turned to a deconstructive approach to literary texts. The gate to deconstruction in Miller’s case was language, or rather words themselves, which are illusorily present but end up by being drowned into an abyss of difference.

Difference is the real origin of all similarities and repetitions. Affirming resemblance means affirming an initial difference at the lexical and textual level. A favorite method with Miller was tracing back the meaning of a word up to its remote etymology, and in this way destabilizing its fixed, “real” meaning and disseminating it into a never-ending maze of senses. This is what he meant by using the phrase mise en abyme, borrowed from heraldry via André Gide, which suggests the infinity of dissemination, of semantic play, as one can see in a painting within a painting.

The two traditions he referred to in the essay mentioned above are opposed and irreconcilable, and the critic has to opt for one of them and follow it through. Miller definitely espoused the “tradition” of difference, and he included in his theory and practice elements from both Derrida and de Man, by emphasizing the inner workings of difference and of rhetoricity.

Deconstruction is not a method of analysis, Miller argued, but it is inherent in the very nature of the text, which is never not deconstructed or not deconstructible: the critic only plays the role of one who brings this process to the surface. Similarly, metaphysics has always borne in itself a shadow, which is now called the destruction of metaphysics, but which actually comes from within, with a disruptive force.

In his renowned essay, “THE CRITIC AS HOST”, published in the joint manifesto Deconstruction and Criticism, J. Hillis Miller discussed this movement in his typically metaphorical, florid style, replete with learned references and etymological sleight of hand. Starting from an assertion in a book by M. H. Abrams according to which the deconstructive reading is “plainly and simply parasitical” (Abrams’s words) on “the obvious or univocal reading” (Wayne Booth’s words), Miller questions and then reverses the established parasite-host relationship when this pair of terms is applied to the citation and the text including it. Then he briefly dismisses the traditionalists’ argument that deconstructive principles render impossible any history which relies on written texts. Deconstruction, which might look to them like “parasitical ivy” clinging on the oak tree of the “obvious or univocal reading” and struggling to kill it, may in point of fact not be that enemy: the real, dangerous alien, argues Miller, could be the concept of univocal reading itself, “so close that it cannot be seen as strange”.[4]

Miller demonstrates luxuriantly that if the words whose prefix is “para” are “one branch of the labyrinth in ‘per’”, then that branch itself is a “miniature labyrinth”: “para” hides in itself a double antithesis, because it means at once

proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and exteriority, .... equivalent in status and also secondary or subsidiary, submissive, as of guest to host, slave to master. A thing in “para”, moreover, is not only simultaneously on both sides of the boundary line between inside and out. It is also the boundary itself, the screen which is a permeable membrane connecting inside and outside (219).

Hillis Miller complicates the usual deconstructive pattern of analysis, based on the play between two terms struggling for prominence, by adding other layers of binary oppositions, in a movement toward mise en abyme: because there is no parasite without a host, both being “fellow guests beside the food”, sharing it, because, on the other hand, the host is himself the food (as in the phrase “he is eating me out of house and home”), even in a Eucharistic sense (from the Latin hostia - sacrifice, victim), and because, finally, the host is both eater and eaten, this concept contains within itself “the double antithetical relation of host and guest, guest in the bifold sense of friendly presence and alien invader” (220). And Miller demonstrates this multiple differentiation and union of meaning by tracing both “host” and “guest” to their common etymologically root, ghos-ti (stranger, guest, host), and then following the lexical evolutions of the root in various linguistic ramifications. His version of deconstructive analysis is like a huge tree whose branches cover an infinity of contradictory meanings, spreading archeologically toward the abyss of linguistic history.

A frightening form of the parasite as an oxymoronic “invading host” is the virus, which transforms the host into a series of multitudinous proliferations of itself. It does not eat, but reproduces and finally destroys, so it is situated at the border between life and death. Hillis Miller mentions that deconstructive criticism itself has been compared to a virus which has invaded the host of an “innocently metaphysical text” with an “obvious or univocal meaning”, and maybe has forced it to reproduce the virus’s own message of aporia and différance (222). Yet, Miller argues, it could well be the other way round - perhaps it is the metaphysical virus that has been passed from generation to generation in Western culture to inhabit all languages and texts. And the argument continues with deconstructive questions growing from one another up to the putative notion that perhaps the very analogy with viruses is only an analogy, a figure of speech, which “need not be taken seriously” (223).

Anyhow, says Miller, to speak of the deconstructive reading as parasitical on the univocal interpretation means to enter into “the strange logic of the parasite”, that is “to make the univocal equivocal in spite of itself” (224). Rather, the two kinds of reading are both fellow guests and parasites, organized like a sort of chain without beginning or end. They are pre-conditioned by each other and are mutually indispensable. And so is the poem, in Miller’s view, both a gift, food, host-victim, and a parasite on earlier poems. “If the poem is food and poison for the critics, it must in its turn have eaten” (225).

The same type of complex relationship can, of course, be identified between the logocentrism of Western metaphysics and the so-called nihilism of deconstruction, both being host and parasite to the other one. This leads Miller to the conclusion that deconstruction has been with us for a long time, always repeated in a way or another since Plato himself - like “a parasite always already within its host” (229).

We can never get rid of this fratricide battle, because the deconstructive procedure cannot escape from the language of the cited fragments: there is no other language and in the language of criticism we find the same blind alleys as in the works analyzed. “The most heroic effort to escape from the prisonhouse of language only builds the walls higher” (230). The single hope is that in this way that fröhliche Wissenschaft mentioned by Nietzsche can be reached - interpretation as joyful wisdom, joy in the midst of suffering.

J. Hillis Miller’s essay is one of the most effervescent arguments in favor of the complex deconstructive concepts and procedures, putting to work spectacular associations between etymology, philosophy, criticism, psychoanalysis and the fine arts in order to erect an earnest “apology for deconstruction”, replete with questionings and paradoxes. His own discourse throws light on the “borderland” between metaphysics and nihilism, just as “quattrocento painting makes the Tuscan air visible in its invisibility” (231).

In his texts on deconstruction Miller espoused the theory of misreading, introduced by Paul de Man, and insisted that a critical analysis could never reach the original meaning of the text. The poem itself (as he demonstrated in the discussion of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life) is full of “parasitical presences - echoes, allusions, guests, ghosts of previous texts” (Critic as Host 225). It is, yet, another member of the Yale School, HAROLD BLOOM, who has investigated the process of poetic and critical misreading in all its complexity, as a source of imaginative power.

Bloom is not a deconstructive critic in the proper sense of the word. His theory combines Freudian insights, cabbalistic mysticism and the theory of rhetorical tropes in a unique type of psychopoetics. However, his insistence on the import of misreading in the creative process, and on the impossibility of finding out a basic, objective meaning, links his theory to the deconstructive idea of semantic instability and indeterminacy.

The theoretical basis of his enterprise is laid in the tetralogy he published in the 1970s (The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism, and Poetry and Repression), while in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate he turned his critical principles to practice. The theory of poetry Bloom propounded was based on a concept of poetic influence which was not synonymous with “sonship” (the latter idea is another product of the Enlightenment, of Cartesian reductionism): influence is viewed by him as a struggle carried on by ephebes (Stevens’s term for young poets) to go beyond their predecessors, an Oedipal effort to create a new space for themselves. This happens because, since Milton, poets have always been obsessed by their belatedness and therefore have attempted to compensate for it by the contestation and the misprision of earlier writers’ works. Identification with them would not have been possible, because identity means slavery and barrenness, whereas difference results in freedom and creation. Thus strong poets cannot exist without their predecessors, while on the other hand, as in the Freudian “family romance”, they use misprision to discontinue the tradition and patterns set forth by their spiritual Fathers.

Influence means revisionism, deformation, fear and defiance: Poetic influence - when it involves two strong, authentic poets - always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.[5]

This is what Milton’s Satan did, when he made out the norms prescribed by God and chose to disobey and defy them in order to assert his own strength.

Harold Bloom was mainly concerned with the poets’ misinterpretation of their predecessors, rather than with the misprision of poetic texts by critics. Thus in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” he detected an intense struggle with Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality ...”, and similarly, in Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, replete with the poetic load in “Song of Myself”, Bloom found out an anxious fight with and misreading of the Whitmanesque tradition.

Generally speaking, misprision may be classified in three stages, namely the young poet’s misreading of his precursor, the misinterpretation of the poetic work by critics, and finally, the misprision by the poet of his own texts. The degree of misprision differs if we compare the poet and the critic because the former is more radical in his taking over the predecessor’s text.

Starting from the tropes and images used by the poet and from his unconscious “psychic defenses”, Bloom charted the map of influence by devising an original system of six processes (or ratios) of revision. Thus clinamen is the swerve that the ephebe operates from his Poetic Father, putting the latter’s vision into disarray; the second stage of progressive mastery is tessera, that is completion of and antithesis to the predecessor’s “truncated” work, in other words the reuniting of its broken fragments. Kenosis, the following stage, means discontinuity through an “undoing” and “isolating” repetition, which empties out the older poet’s force. By turning against the Sublime espoused by the precursor, the young poet undergoes daemonization, “a Counter-Sublime” which comes to emphasize “the precursor’s relative weakness” (100). Askesis, or purgation and solipsism, is the struggle itself, the “match-to-the-death with the dead” (122), and the last stage, aprophades, or the return of the dead, represents the moment when the strong precursor comes back as the own ephebe of the ephebe.

The influential power exercised by the precursor is not usually admitted by the “latecoming” poet; yet, the originality of literary works is called in question by Bloom, because no text can aspire to sheer independence. Although he did not insist particularly on critical misprision, he acknowledged it and contended that it mingled with the poetic misreading, and thus the difference between the two types of texts became harder to define.

Acknowledging the dissemination of meaning through his idiosyncratic system of misreadings, Harold Bloom tried however to limit the scope of undecidability and to restitute meaning or heal the “wounded rhetoricity”, [6]after de Man had exposed rhetoric’s deconstructive effects. In his theoretical construction, meaning is not altogether locked in an impasse, it can still be glimpsed through the fragile, unsteady forms of intertextuality.

American deconstruction in its second phase was dominated by the mergers between the theoretical findings of Derrida and de Man on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the other movements which came to the foreground (or were already there) in the so-called post-structuralist age, such as feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, post-colonial studies, and others. Among the critics of this second generation, one of the most prominent names is that of BARBARA JOHNSON, the author of seminal studies in which the concept of difference is highlighted and is linked, especially in A World of Difference (1987), with the widely-debated notions of race, gender and canon. With her later works and with Gayatri Spivak’s ones, deconstruction acquires poignant political implications, which were generally missing in the texts of the first generation authors.

One outstanding idea in her first major book, The Critical Difference (1980), was that differences exist not only between the terms of binary oppositions, such as man/ woman, innocence/ guilt, and so forth, but also within each of these terms. Yet these internal differences are usually concealed in order to preserve the purity of the privileged concept. The undecidability of meaning results for the reader of a deconstructive text in a state of paralysis, of being “suspended” between opposed notions, of inability to take any political action. Commenting on Melville’s Billy Bud, she remarks:

As a political allegory, /it/ is thus much more than a study of good and evil, justice and injustice. It is a dramatization of the twisted relations between knowing and doing, speaking and killing, reading and judging, which make political understanding and action so problematic.[7]

One of Johnson’s most spectacular pieces of differential interpretation, based on a multi-leveled structure of text upon text upon text, and so on, is “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida”, which questions the nature of the frame and interpretive reading. The textual triptych she addresses is made up of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter”, Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of it in “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”, and Jacques Derrida’s interpretation of Lacan’s interpretation of Poe’s story, in “The Purveyor of Truth” (Le Facteur de la Vérité). As all the three pieces seem to deal in a way or another with the act of interpretation, the reader is finally placed in a “vertiginously insecure position”, says Johnson.[8]

In his reading of the primary story, Lacan found out three essential moments, which structure three glances, borne by three subjects, in their turn incarnated each time by a different character. The intersubjective modulus is based on a repetitive pattern, on the repetition automatism which Freud mentioned in his study on the pleasure principle. In Poe’s story the letter (whose meaning is never revealed) does not function as a unit of meaning, but as a signifier (that thing which produces certain effects), Lacan argues. Thus the story is read by him as an allegory of the signifier, in which there is an insistence on the signifying chain (the stolen letter): the signifier determines the symbolic position of the subject in each stage.

Derrida, in his turn, denies not the validity of Lacan’s allegorical interpretation as such, but its presuppositions and its method: there is a closure of the text in Lacan’s reading, because he assigned it an unequivocal meaning, liable to be discovered by psychoanalytic analysis, whose truth would be absolute. This unequivocal meaning is reached by Lacan, according to Derrida, by restoring the signifier and psychoanalysis generally speaking in a new metaphysics. The phallus, which is the prime signifier in Lacan’s theory, is not mentioned as such in “Seminar ...”, but Derrida infers from Lacan’s text that he equates the letter with the Queen’s missing phallus: the letter symbolically castrates each of its successive owners and finally it comes back to her. Through his phallogocentrism, argues Derrida, Lacan has closed the text of the story, refusing its access to play and dissemination. “In contrast to Lacan’s Seminar, then, Derrida’s text would seem to be setting itself up as a Disseminar”, quips Barbara Johnson (232).

However, if Lacan attempted to close and frame Poe’s story, so did Derrida unwittingly, she argues; the letter, as a signifier, is not a thing inaccessible to dismemberment, as Derrida believed, but a difference, the “nongeneralizable locus of a differential relationship” (239). Moreover, the very contradiction between Lacan’s and Derrida’s positions cannot be pinpointed or decided, because there is always some irreducible otherness that cannot be placed. Johnson extends Derrida’s tenets beyond the point he himself reached, when she writes:

Not that the letter’s meaning is subjective rather than objective, but that the letter is precisely that which subverts the polarity subjective/ objective, that which makes subjectivity into something whose position in a structure is situated by the passage through it of an object. The letter’s destination is thus wherever it is read ... Its destination is not a place, decided a priori by the sender, because the receiver is the sender, ... whoever receives the letter, including nobody. When Derrida says that a letter can miss its destination and be disseminated, he reads ‘destination’ as a place that pre-exists the letter’s movement.

But if, as Lacan shows, the

letter’s destination is not its literal addressee, not even whoever possesses it, but whoever is possessed by it, then the very disagreement over the meaning of ‘reaching the destination’ is an illustration of the non-objective nature of that ‘destination’ (241).

The Master of deconstruction is deconstructed himself by a disciple who demonstrates that even play, dissemination and undecidability can be overturned and called in question. All the cited readings of Poe’s story, “in their very incompatibility”, repeat the purloined letter in the way in which it “reads” the act of reading. Johnson’s final statement is a radical formulation of ultimate doubt and questioning:

Far from giving us the Seminar’s final truth, these last words, and Derrida’s readings of them, can only enact the impossibility of any ultimate analytical metalanguage, the eternal oscillation /emphases mine/ between unequivocal undecidability and ambiguous certainty (242).

However, in the late 1980s Barbara Johnson did not follow this radical path leading to epistemological nihilism, but engaged in a dialogue between deconstruction and feminism, even attacking the former from feminist positions, as when she remarked that “the Yale School has always been a Male School”.[9]

Why is deconstruction primordially an American phenomenon? This is a hard question, but anyhow Derrida himself acknowledged that peculiarity, though he noticed otherwise neither he nor de Man was American. The answer may imply a political factor, related to the role of the university and academy in general in that country. It is a tautology to say “deconstruction in America”, contended Derrida, because deconstruction is America: not only is it a critical method, but it has institutional, political, technological implications, which derive from the university being in America the high point of the principle of reason. In his commentary on that argument put forward by Derrida, J. Hillis Miller adds also that the computer revolution is taking place in America, and nowhere else, and deconstruction has a special relation to that phenomenon. Unfortunately he does not elaborate further on that.[10]

Deconstruction has been, undoubtedly, the most extreme form that the contemporary crisis in criticism and the philosophy of language has assumed. Relying on the fragile ground of difference, emphasizing the rift between word and meaning, or sign and referent, insisting on the undecidability of linguistic structures and on the prominent role of play in the signifying process, it seems to undermine the possible connections between it and other schools of thought. Nonetheless its impact has been far from negligible in all contemporary orientations, and sometimes desperate attempts have been made to reconcile it with doctrines and movements situated as far as can be from deconstructive principles.

The first question we have to answer here is whether deconstruction and post-structuralism are synonymous terms, as they sometimes appear to be used. Actually all contemporary orientations and approaches that have appeared or have been somehow renewed in the last three decades are post-structuralist from a merely chronological view point, but that criterion is insufficient and leads to serious confusion. However, this is the sense in which the term post-structuralism is used by most critics.

Secondly if we regard these movements as a mere riposte to the extreme textualism and ahistoricism of structuralist thought we would be right in ranking neo-Marxism, feminism, the New Historicism, post-colonial and cultural studies, partially even Foucault’s and Lacan’s theories as post-structuralist orientations, but we would have to exclude what is in a way the most radical movement of all, that is deconstruction.

I would rather side with that acceptation of the term “post-structuralism” which stresses on its departure from the belief in the stability of the sign and its structure (a belief characteristic of structuralist thought), subsequently on the revolutionary concept of the always already unstable relationship between the signifier and the signified, and finally on the resulting aporias of language and text. As Robert Young puts it,

/p/ost-structuralism ... involves a shift from meaning to staging, from the signified to the signifier. It may be seen from this how the premises of post-structuralism disallow any denominative, unified, or ‘proper’ definition of itself.

Broadly, however, it involves a critique of metaphysics (of the concepts of causality, of identity, of the subject, and of truth), of the theory of the sign ... In brief, it may be said that post- structuralism fractures the serene unity of the stable sign and the unified subject.[11]

Truly, Young includes here also Foucault’s and Lacan’s theories, but it can be argued that these undermine the stability of the sign, of truth, and of the subject only up to a certain extent, which is beyond the scope of this study to define, and they stop short of reaching the radical consistency of Derrida’s thought, which hardly ever departs from the theoretical presupposition of linguistic undecidability. As it was defined by Young, the self-untying condition of post-structuralism, whose very premises disallow the possibility of defining itself, remains yet a topic worth debating as a typical aporia of contemporary thought.

The difficulty of circumscribing this broad movement in literary and cultural criticism has made some commentators (Jonathan Culler among them) suggest discarding the term altogether; Philip Lewis, for instance, has proposed “post-structuralism” be replaced by “critical structuralism”: [12]the degree of ambiguity of this denomination is indeed, less troublesome.

The encounter between deconstructive thought and other contemporary orientations has sometimes turned into real rapprochement (as is the case of feminism and psychoanalysis) or has actually been a mere mutual acknowledgment or tolerance, because, for instance, between DECONSTRUCTION AND MARXISM the rift is too wide: it concerns the very issue of totalization, which is essentially under the deconstructors’ attack. A thin common ground has been found, however, by authors like G. Spivak, who has combined the two approaches with the issues of feminism and post-colonialism, in the analysis of gender and race hierarchies. The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson also talks indirectly about such a possible connection, when he asserts in The Political Unconscious that

the ideal of an immanent analysis of the text, of a dismantling or deconstruction of its parts and a description of its functioning and malfunctioning, amounts less to a wholesale nullification of all interpretive activity than to a demand for the construction of some new and more adequate, immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model, which it will be the task of the following pages to propose.[13]

He does not refer only to Derrida’s tenets, but also to those of Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard and others; anyhow, Jameson attempts to throw a bridge between his favorite approach to text, the Marxist one, and the “antiinterpretive positions” of the above mentioned authors. However, such attempts have never been entirely successful, and the relationship between deconstructive thought and Marxist theory has remained extremely problematic. In point of fact, if some Marxists have made sparse use of deconstructive concepts, deconstructors proper have hardly ever referred to Marxist issues, to political and social history.

Much more fruitful has been the cohabitation between DECONSTRUCTION AND FEMINISM, although the latter shares some targets, methods and attitudes with Marxism. The American author Diane Elam has attempted, in a book dedicated to this relation and punningly subtitled Ms. en abyme, to answer the question, “how do feminism and deconstruction go together?”, by underlining what they do have in common. Elam admits that there is little convergence in their relationship, because feminism is mainly a political project, whereas deconstruction appears to be closer to philosophy and literary studies; yet, she argues, they “share a parallel divergence from politics and philosophy”. Feminism shifts the stress in the political domain, concerning itself with the opposition between the public and the private; besides, its activism is doubled by a critique of the history of representation. Deconstruction rethinks the opposition between philosophical reflection and political action, and is concerned not only with the philosophical tradition, but also with the performative effects of the analytical discourse (thus it differs from ideology critique). Elam concludes that “these double displacements undo the map of intellectual and social space inherited from the Enlightenment”, a thing which has a crucial significance today. [14] Though these interface elements mentioned by Diane Elam may seem insufficient ground for a real cooperation between the two movements, the truth is that in the writings of such authors as Johnson, Spivak, and so on, the deconstructive and feminist principles or methods have often been put to work together.

Turning now to the main issue of feminism it is worth noting that the attack against the long-established hierarchy male-female, based on ancient phallogocentric views, was overturned by feminist practitioners not without a risk: a new hierarchy was menacing to appear, a kind of hysterocentrism, which was to repeat the patterns and fallacies of the previous one. As Derrida put it, “to close oneself in feminism is to reproduce the very thing one is struggling against”,[15] although he admitted the necessity of the movement.

The main author writing at the boundary between the two orientations was Barbara Johnson, who introduced the notion of gender as a prominent issue in her 1987 book, A World of Difference: its overall aim was to “transfer the analysis of difference ... out of the realm of linguistic universality or deconstructive allegory and into contexts in which difference is very much at issue in the ‘real world’” (emphasis mine). [16]Now, Johnson confesses, she has realized that her reading strategy, which in her previous book emphasized mainly the repression of differences within entities, was wrong. Her discussion of difference was taking place “entirely within the sameness of the white male Euro-American literary, philosophical, psychoanalytical, and critical canon”. She denies her previous focus (and implicitly loses some of her originality and poignancy), because now she knows that talking about the repression of differences within each sex does not explain in any way “the historical exclusion of women from the canon”. She adds that Derrida can sometimes see himself as philosophically positioned as a woman, but politically he is not positioned as such, because this is not something “entirely voluntary” (2).

Johnson’s essay, “Gender Theory and the Yale School”, is an attempt to demonstrate how her former colleagues at Yale have avoided or circumvented the issue of gender, mostly in an unwitting manner. For instance, G. Hartman overlooked the incestuous desire in a Wordsworth poem, Hillis Miller, in “The Critic as Host”, proposed the image of the interpretive virus as “cancerous feminity”, [17]which may be “less a fear of takeover by women than an extreme version of the desire to deny difference” (Gender Theory 105). H. Bloom’s schema of revision processes depends on a linear patriarchal filiation, and his essay “The Breaking of Form” is “a strong misreading of the question of sexual difference” (105), because it blatantly misunderstands the encounter between male and female in Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: in Johnson’s view it is impossible to know after reading the poem whether it is the story of a knight enthralled by a witch or of a woman seduced and abandoned by a male hysteric. “The fine balance of that undecidability depends on the ‘as’” in the line “She looked at me as she did love”, Johnson contends (108). As for the close relation between gender and language, de Man’s essay “The Epistemology of Metaphor” supplies to Johnson significant clues: she concludes that it is hard to say whether rhetoric determines the gender difference or vice-versa, and the place of the philosopher is always within, not without the symmetrical structures of gender and language. Johnson admits that, ironically, she herself, as a dutiful “daughter of the Yale School”, seemed to have excluded women in her book The Critical Difference. Yet, she adds, the book was actually haunted by the question of sexual difference, and she draws the conclusion that within the context of “the subtly male pseudo-genderlessness of language”, in order to resist “the naturalness of female effacement”, to be a woman writing may not be sufficient; besides, the task of rethinking the problematic of gender difference is far from being an easy one (112). In another pun on the name of the critical school to which she belonged, Johnson joked on the would-be “danger” that the Yale School might become one day a “Jael School”, [18]owing to the new religion of woman’s liberation which according to Bloom’s prophecy would break the Western literary tradition some day (105).

In spite of such plays on words, one has a feeling, when reading Barbara Johnson’s later essays pervaded by feminist concerns, that there is a bit of discomfort and a slight impasse in her discourse, once imbued with brilliant linguistic freeplay, an awkwardness caused by the undeniable incompatibility between the “obvious and univocal” meanings purported by feminism and, on the other hand, the infinite freedom which the unmingled deconstructive principles afforded her in critical texts devoted to pure, freeplaying hermeneutics, such as for instance “The Frame of Reference”.

There are, however, feminist texts which bring into focus the very undecidability of feminity, for instance Shoshana Felman’s study “Rereading Feminity”, [19]where the author detects in a Balzac story a subversion of feminity, in that feminine nature does not appear anymore as the opposite of masculinity, but something which undermines even the opposition between male and female. In this way the reification and totalization which underlie the difference between genders are dismantled.

On the contrary, for Marxist-feminist deconstructor Gayatri Spivak what appears useful in the deconstructive project is just the concept of phallocentrism as a component of logocentric thought, the ideological expression of a historical system which has marginalized women, particularly those who were also socially and racially underprivileged. Spivak attacks the deconstructors’ tendency to reduce all reality to the text, and instead, pleads for the emphasis on the text’s access to the “outside” world of social history.

The relationship between DECONSTRUCTION AND PSYCHOANALYSIS has been more complex and intimate, if we take into account Jacques Derrida’s own acknowledgment of Freud’s influence on his thought. Considering, for instance, the deconstructive concept of undecidability, it appears to be much akin to Freud’s view of the unconscious, which, unlike the conscious part of the human mind, can easily tolerate or at least remain insensitive to everything that represents a contradiction. As Derrida remarked in an interview,

the “undecidable”, which is not contradiction in the Hegelian form of contradiction, situates, in a rigorously Freudian sense, the unconscious of philosophical contradiction, the unconscious which ignores contradiction to the extent that contradiction belongs to the logic of speech, discourse, consciousness, presence, truth, etc. (Positions 101, n. 13)

In “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, [20] Derrida mentioned some other arguments which pleaded for the kinship between the two schools, such as the idea of “the historical repression and suppression of writing since Plato” (196), and “the symptomatic form” of the return of the repressed element (197) in contradictory, distorted shapes. However, in the same text he warned that, in spite of all these appearances, the deconstruction of logocentrism was not a mere psychoanalysis of philosophy.

Anyhow, in spite of this remark, it is not easy to disengage his critique of Western thought from its roots in the Freudian theory of the unconscious, as the analyst Alan Bass has demonstrated in an article which discusses the arguments and the counter-arguments regarding the relations between the two fields.[21]

Derrida’s encounter with Lacan has been less smooth, as our above account of the multiple interpretations of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” has shown. The ties between the deconstructive and the psychoanalytical approaches extended later on to include, among other contributions, Harold Bloom’s “psychopoetics” and some feminists’ studies. In the latter group Shoshana Felman’s texts deserve special mention, for they bring into the foreground the similarity and kinship between sexuality and language, both of them having an undecidable nature, underlain by complex contradictions.[22]

Despite the fact that numerous thinkers of all persuasions have borrowed bits and pieces from the deconstructive theory and have used them to erect their own systems of interpretation, THE CONTESTATION OF DECONSTRUCTION has been steady, thorough and widespread, coming both from the traditionalist camp, and from other directions (often called “post-structuralist”), which are radical in their own way.

Thus the philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused Derrida of being just another latter-day sophist who served Nietzsche’s irrationalist project, the Harvard professor W. Jackson Bate saw deconstruction as the suicidal terminus of the declining evolution of literary studies, while M. H. Abrams labeled Derrida as a “Zen Master”, exercising in “ultimate futility”.[23]

The characterization of the deconstructive thought as anti-humanistic (or, rather, a-humanistic, I would say) is supported by Derrida’s own definition of this new kind of interpretation which emphasizes play and passes “beyond man and humanism”, the name of man being synonymous with that being who “has dreamed of full presence”, of “the reassuring foundation”, and so forth (Structure 122). It is no wonder that some should have seen in deconstruction a kind of mere wordplay, or, in R. Girard’s formulation, “verbal acrobatics, that ultimately prove to be sterile”; [24]yet Derrida would insist that it is precisely freeplay and the dissemination of meaning that constitute the essence of language (this view is opposed by the interpretation of language as a centered structure).

Other commentators, like Gerald Graff, have insisted that the deconstructors merely took up the New Critical notion of ambiguity and extended it into “undecidability” (a concept which, we must admit, has a more thorough philosophical foundation).

The radical leftist thinkers have instead emphasized other aspects of the deconstructive movement, which are related to their concerns about the political implications of various contemporary ideologies and their impact on the corresponding institutional structures. Thus Foucault and his followers were annoyed by the extreme textualism of Derrida, [25]de Man and others, which resulted in an ahistorical and apolitical trend of thought, and in a total lack of efficiency on the political level. There seemed to be no chance that deconstruction would change in any way the institutional forms in the current society. In the field of literary studies, the deconstructors of the first generation focused on the same group of classical texts that had been discussed and interpreted by the New Critics and other traditional authors, so they did not disturb the long-established canon and proved to be remarkably elitist and conservative (some were even influenced by orthodox religious doctrines). Later on their methods became institutionalized and were accepted by the literary establishment, which for radical critics was synonymous with intellectual demise.

Yet, the most serious objection of all, one related to the question arising in the mind of anyone who reads the discourse of deconstruction, is its self-undoing nature, the fact that it unties not only other texts (the logocentric ones), but also its own structures of thought, if we admit with the hard and pure deconstructors that meaning is always already deferred and disseminated, or that rhetoric, which is never missing in any kind of language, subverts the truth we are seeking. [26] This paradox of deconstruction has been likened to the Cretan Liar story, which calls in question the veracity of its own ambiguity: “A man says he is lying. Is what he says true or false?”

Christopher Norris, commenting on the contradiction between the deconstructors’ epistemological skepticism and their pretense to be read thoroughly and properly with the help of the same language they describe as leading to undecidability, has compared their case to what Habermas called “the transcendental tu quoque”. [27] However, this rhetoric of negation which is deconstruction cannot be so easily dismantled, right because it employs so complex and cautious strategies and the text it analyzes becomes so significant through the close reading to which it is subjected. As Norris puts it,

deconstruction neither denies nor really affects the commonsense view that language exists to communicate meaning. It suspends that view for its own specific purpose of seeing what happens when the writs of convention no longer run. (128)

This performance of the extreme freedom of language boldly admits its own paradoxes and contradictions, of which Derrida was never unaware; deconstruction is negation which belies itself:

The secret, as secret, separates and already institutes a negativity; it is a negation that denies itself. It de-negates itself. This denegation does not happen to it by accident; it is essential and originary.[28]

Anyhow, deconstruction does not (and could not) deny the ontological truth, the existential reality per se, of which presumption sometimes it is accused: the targets of its questioning are language, interpretation, the epistemological truth of “Western metaphysics”, in brief the old patterns of evidentiality which are nowadays in a state of crisis, as presence has come to be skeptically thought of as just a matter of representation. Moreover there is also the opinion of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who maintains that deconstruction should not even be considered together with the philosophical schools that seek for communicable truth with the help of rational dialogue. Instead, it belongs to another tradition, best expressed by Nietzsche’s work, which uses language (writing) as a fighting ground where paradox and style are used to call in question any idea of ultimate truth.[29]

Despite the shock that it caused with its advent about three decades ago on the stages of philosophy, literary and historical studies, one thing is certain, namely that deconstruction has to be lucidly reckoned with by everyone involved today in any of these fields, for reading and accepting language at face value, without an awareness of the abyss underlying it, may involve running a great risk - that of turning analysis into paralysis and hermeneutical self-complacency.

[1] Published by The Seabury Press (A Continuum Book) in New York, and by Routledge & Kegan Paul in London. Hereafter quotation pages are indicated parenthetically in the text.

[2] As quoted (and translated) by de Man, in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 105. Next quotation pages from de Man’s Allegories ... will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

[3] Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Second Edition, Revised (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. First edition: 1971), ix. Quotations cited parenthetically in the text.

[4] J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host”, in Bloom, e.a., Deconstruction and Criticism, 218. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[5] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 30. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[6] Harold Bloom, “The Breaking of Form”, in Bloom, e.a., Deconstruction and Criticism, 16.

[7] Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 108.

[8] B. Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida”, in Robert Young (ed.), Untying the Text ..., 227. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[9] B. Johnson, “Gender Theory and the Yale School”, in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer (eds.), Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 101. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[10] Cf. Barbara Johnson, Louis Mackey, and J. Hillis Miller, “Marxism and Deconstruction: Symposium”, in R. C. Davis and R. Schleifer, Rhetoric and Form ..., 87.

[11] Robert Young, “Post-Structuralism: An Introduction”, in R. Young (ed.), Untying the Text ..., 8.

[12] Cf. Philip Lewis, “The Post-Structuralist Condition”, in Diacritics, 12 (Spring 1982), 2-24.

[13] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), 23.

[14] Diane Elam, Feminism and Deconstruction: Ms. en Abyme (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 1-2.

[15] James Creech, Peggy Kamuf, and Jane Todd, “Deconstruction in America: An Interview with Jacques Derrida”, in Critical Exchange, 17 (Winter 1985), 30.

[16] B. Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 2. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[17] The notion of the deconstructive parasite reminded Hillis Miller of Hardy’s poem The Ivy-Wife, and the interpretive virus appeared to him as “The Ivy-Wife with a vengeance” (Critic as Host 222).

[18] Jael, a female personage from Judges 4, allures the chief of the enemy army into her tent and when he falls asleep she disposes of him by driving a tent peg through his head and fastening it to the ground.

[19] In Yale French Studies, Special Issue on “Feminist Readings: French Texts/ American Contexts”, no. 62 (1981).

[20] An essay published in J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978). The quotation pages refer to that edition.

[21] Alan Bass, “The Double Game: An Introduction”, in Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (eds.), Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature ( Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

[22] “Sexuality is rhetoric, since it essentially consists of ambiguity: it is the co-existence of dynamically antagonistic meanings”, Shoshana Felman states in “Turning the Screw of Interpretation”, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. by S. Felman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 112. Cf. the commentary on her contribution, in Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties (Columbia University Press, 1988), 298.

[23] To W. J. Bate the contemporary interest in literary theory was reminiscent of Milton’s verse in “Lycidas”: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,/ But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,/ Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread”. For more information, see V. B. Leitch, 304-305.

[24] René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 63. The cause of this condition is, according to Girard, the fact that in much of contemporary thought the anthropological basis is missing.

[25] As it often happens with radical thinkers, later on Derrida reviewed and mitigated his bent on textualizing the world. In his 1985 interview with James Creech and others (see Note 114), he stated that “when it is said about the deconstructive perspective that there is nothing outside the text, then I say to myself: If deconstruction really consisted in saying that everything happens in books, it wouldn’t deserve five minutes of anybody’s attention” (15).

[26] M. H. Abrams attacked this fundamental contradiction directly, in “How To Do Things with Texts” (Partisan Review, XLIV, 1978, 566-88), where he wrote that the deconstructors expected their own works to be interpreted in the proper way, while they denied this possibility outright for any other texts.

[27] From Caesar’s words addressed to onrushing Brutus, Tu quoque, mi fili? Cf. Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), 127.

[28] Quoted from “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” (1989), in Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (eds.), Derrida and Negative Theology (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), 7.

[29] Cf. C. Norris’s commentary on Richard Rorty’s essay “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing “ (1978), in Deconstruction ..., 128.