no, this isn’t about deconstruction

Everyone’s got their wishlist, and mine, like yours, starts with an effective vaccine for COVID–19 and peace and justice in the world. But after than mine probably diverges from yours: I want an end to essays and articles about literary and cultural theory written by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Like this one by Elizabeth Powers:

These dogmas go by various names (among others, “postmodernism,” “multiculturalism”), but I will gather them under the term “deconstruction,” as it best encapsulates what is at their core. It consists of critiquing the writings of past authors, especially male ones, “deconstructing” them, which means exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel. This French cultural product, which began to occupy a prominent place in American university literature departments in the 1970s, has had the effect, over several student generations, of bringing literature departments, especially those of foreign languages, to extinction. Why? It is in the DNA of adolescents, even of those who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, to deconstruct, to tear apart the assumptions of their forebears. When professors stopped talking about Milton’s prose and began pointing out his treatment of his daughters, students got the point immediately. Why would 18-year-olds hang around to confirm what they knew only a year or two earlier, anyway: that anyone born before their own birth year doesn’t have a clue?

In the immortal words of Bob Marley, I got so much things to say.

I will try to set aside my small annoyances — If students think anyone older than them is clueless, why would they listen to Derrida? Don’t literature classes read texts other than novels? — and focus on the bigger problem.

All the strategies of reading Powers despises — “exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel” [sigh] — are not examples of deconstruction, they are repudiations of deconstruction.

Several generations of students, and their professors too, have learned what literary theory is about primarily from one book: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, now in its third edition (the first was published in 1983). I think almost everyone in my profession, including me, has assigned it at one time or another. A 2001 article in Times Higher Education says that at that point it had sold 750,000 copies, so surely it’s well over a million at this point.

Here’s Eagleton’s wittily polemical summation of deconstruction:

Anglo-American deconstruction largely ignores this real sphere of struggle, and continues to churn out its closed critical texts. Such texts are closed precisely because they are empty: there is little to be done with them beyond admiring the relentlessness with which all positive particles of textual meaning have been dissolved away. Such dissolution is an imperative in the academic game of deconstruction: for you can be sure that if your own critical account of someone else’s critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of ‘positive’ meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.

There are several things to be learned from this passage:

  1. Deconstruction is fundamentally an inquiry into language and meaning, and in that sense continues the “close reading” model that traditionalists in our time tend to like, especially when it’s exemplified by the American New Critics rather than foreigners. It’s essentially formalist, even if it’s concerned with the dissolution of form rather than formal coherence.
  2. It is therefore politically quietist.
  3. Eagleton, as a Marxist, deplores this.

I think literary scholars were already tiring of deconstruction at this point — it seemed to offer a rather limited repertoire of critical gestures, and they had begun to feel rather foolish hunting around for some text that hadn’t been deconstructed yet in order to perform that repertoire on it — but Eagleton hammered some big nails into deconstruction’s coffin. And he did so by arguing that deconstruction “ignores this real sphere of struggle” — the struggle for social justice.

I don’t want to overstress this point. There were influential critics — Robert Scholes most notable among them in his 1985 book Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English — who tried to redescribe deconstruction as a tool in the toolbox of the politically motivated professor. Scholes’s book is important because it explicitly describes the task of the teacher as liberating students from texts that have power over them, and giving those students the power to dominate texts. But in general the rise of theories of power — above all those articulated by Michel Foucault — meant an end to the dominance of theories of language. Deconstruction was not the beginning of our current regime of critique, it was the end of the previous regime.