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A Dictionary for Deconstructors

Innovations in language are always interesting metaphorically. When the words used for familiar things change, or new words are introduced, they are usually not composed of nonsense syllables, but borrowed or adapted from stock. Assuming new roles, they drag their old meanings along behind them like flickering shadows. To the outside observer this seems especially true of the language of the contemporary school of literary criticism that now prefers to describe itself simply and rather magisterially as “theory” but is still popularly referred to as post-structuralism or deconstruction.1

Many of the terms current in the field, like its ideas, originated in France, and their translation into English sometimes subtly alters the shadow-meaning. The earliest neologisms of the movement, Saussure’s signifiant and signifié, became “signifier” and “signified,” now employed to distinguish words (signifiers) from their meanings (signifieds), and point out the arbitrariness of the terms we choose The use of these particular terms (rather than, say, word and thing) underlined the seriousness of the process and its claim on our attention. Since in English “to signify” can also mean “to portend” it was also suggested that words predicted coming events—as indeed they did in this case.

With deconstruction we move into another and more complex realm of implication. The most common use of the terms construction and deconstruction in English is in the building trades, and their borrowing by literary theorists for a new type of criticism cannot help but have certain overtones to the outsider. First, it suggests that the creation and interpretation of literature are not organic but mechanical processes; that the author of a piece of writing or “text” (see below) is not an inspired, intuitive artist or interpreter, but merely a workman who cobbles existing materials (words) into more or less conventional structures.

The term deconstruction implies that the text has been put together like a building or a piece of machinery, and that it is in need of being taken apart, not so much in order to repair it as to demonstrate underlying inadequacies, false assumptions, and inherent contradictions. This process can be repeated many times and by many literary hard hats; it is expected that each deconstruction will reveal additional flaws, and expose the illusions or bad faith of the builder.

The preference for the term deconstruction rather than criticism is also interesting etymologically. Criticism and critic derive from the Greek kritikos, “skillful in judging, decisive.”2 Deconstruction (Latin construere, “to pile up, build”), on the other hand, has no overtones of skill or wisdom; it merely suggests demolition of an existing building. In popular usage criticism suggests censure but not change. If we criticize someone or something we may condemn them but we do not carry out the sentence ourselves. The contemporary theorist, by implication, is both judge and executioner. When he/she is finished with a text it will have been totally dismantled, if not reduced to a pile of rubble.

Central to the new language of post-structuralism, and rich in association, is the word text, which now appears even in the discourse of critics who fear and detest the new theories. The notion of using a single word to designate every sort of written message was innovative and practical; what gives a neutral observer pause is the term (or, if you prefer, “signifier”) chosen. In the past critics spoke of stories, tales, novels, and poems: words that etymologically evoke a world of human lives and human creation. Story derives from the Greek historia (“narrative history”), tale from the Old Norse tala (“talk, tale, number”) and the Danish taal (“speech”). Novel comes from the Latin novus (“new”), and poem from the Greek poiein (“make, create”).

Before deconstruction a “text” in common parlance was one of two things: a school textbook, or “a short passage from the scriptures, especially one quoted…as the subject of an exposition or sermon.” The expansion of the term to include all written works inevitably suggests to the uninitiated observer that literature is not intended to entertain but to instruct; a text is something we study under the direction of an authority. (The discussion by Roland Barthes of “the pleasures of the text” may at first suggest an attempt to restore enjoyment [jouissance] to reading. But in practice this enjoyment seems to be both dependent on critical interpretation and directly related to a disregard of the author’s intentions; it is a kind of guided rape.)

Etymologically the word text derives from the Latin texere, (“to weave”) and textus (“a web; texture”). The suggestion is of something made by a spider or a human weaver for practical use. Appropriately, the texts studied by deconstructionist critics are approached without interest in their particular authors, as if they were the work of either an ignorant artisan or an anonymous arachnid. (And if you read the papers written by some practitioners of this school, you will often get the impression that they are flies struggling in the sticky verbal strands of theoretical discourse.)

A text is also expected to be difficult of access. When we study Shakespeare, physics, or the Bible, we are not supposed to be able to understand what we read without the help of a teacher or preacher. Redefining poems and novels and stories as “texts” removes them from occasions of private appreciation and sets an interpreter between them and us. It elevates the works, but at the same time diminishes them. In church and classroom the “text” is often only the jumping-off point for a sermon or lecture which may range far afield. So it has been with the texts of deconstruction, which more often than not give rise to amazingly intricate and far-fetched discourses. At times it seems that the briefer the text the more elaborate will be the critical structure built upon it. Contemporary critics often, like medieval churchmen, seem to prefer to stand between the text and the reader, blocking direct access and substituting their own commentaries or “meta-texts” for the Gospel. The tendency of some modern theorists to “read” the whole world as a text expands the area of the layman’s presumed ignorance; Leonard Michaels has perceptively compared this notion to the medieval idea of the world as God’s book.

Many people have pointed out the practical advantages of the term text, which embraces every sort of written document from an advertising slogan to a verse epic. The implication of this apparently generous and inclusive term, however, is that all texts are equal: the difference between the advertising slogan and the epic is only one of social context rather than of value or meaning.

In practice, texts are only equal until some of them are privileged. This term, most often used in a negative sense, has also passed into common academic—and even nonacademic—discourse. Outside the university, though, it is still commonly associated with matters of social class, and for literary critics to adopt the term suggests that there is still rank among documents. But it is not popularity or traditional acclaim (economic success or aristocratic lineage, so to speak) that now determines the value of a text; it is the decision of the critic.

At first this might suggest that critics, like royal personages, assign rank and title to selected members of the mob of texts suing for their favors. This is true only to a certain extent. The contemporary critic, like many sovereigns, tends to keep the highest honors for his own practice. Today it is critical theory that is truly “privileged.” As Jonathan Culler puts it in his lucid and thoughtful, if at times terrifying, survey of current trends in the field, Framing the Sign, “formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature,…now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism.” Paul de Man has even suggested that critical or philosophical or linguistic texts are fully as “literary” as poems and novels, which may account for the fact that many articles and books in the field seem, to an author, intended not so much to supplement as to compete with the works they claim to discuss.

In some university courses today students read mainly critical theory, and class discussions revolve around such second-level texts. The fact that these texts too are subject to deconstruction, and their deconstructions to further deconstruction, has produced an exhausting series of commentaries on commentaries which recall nothing so much as the productions of medieval scholasticism. To the unconverted this mass of words resembles the infinitely retreating and dimming reflections in opposing mirrors.

While texts are “privileged,” characters and concepts within them are more apt to be spoken of as “valorized,” i.e., valued highly. The term is almost always used in a negative, debunking way, to expose the hidden assumptions of a given text. But because many of us learned the word valorize (“to fix the price or value of a commodity”) before we read literary theory, the old meaning haunts the new usage, with its implication that what writers are doing in presenting any character or idea as admirable is equivalent to price-fixing. Echoes from the word valor also hint that there is something illegitimate in attributing “boldness or firmness;…courage or bravery” to anyone or anything, since a reputation for these qualities must usually be won rather than assigned.

More recent developments in post-structuralist criticism, and more recent verbal inventions, are too many and various for me to even attempt to cover. A thorough investigation, though, might look at the metaphoric suggestions of Derrida’s difference and différance, and the daunting vocabulary of classical and rhetorical terms such as trope and agon adopted by writers like Paul de Man and Harold Bloom, which suggest that literature is a form of political oratory, and that to write is essentially to pose or deceive.

Attention should also be paid to the emerging language of feminist criticism which, for example, sometimes speaks of women’s writing as fluant (“flowing”) suggesting that it may be wet and transitory. Equally interesting is the vocabulary of the New Historicists, who tend to use the term subversion in the place of deconstruction, calling up a Conradian world of plots and counterplots, revolution and ruin. Several recent writers, both feminist and historicist, have been accused of “recuperating” (reviving) Marxist vocabularies and works—by association implying that these terms and works were seriously ill, or perhaps even that literature itself is an illness.

To the common reader all these new vocabularies are daunting. Perhaps that is one of the aims of their inventors and users: many new intellectual disciplines, like elementary-school cliques, tend to adopt as fast as possible their own special version of pig Latin in order to build morale and confuse outsiders. Among these confused outsiders, unfortunately, is often the author of a literary work. Earlier schools of literary criticism have been either friendly and easily accessible, or if anything too intrusive—prying into writers’ personal lives and their psychological and economic motivations. “Theory,” by contrast, excludes authors from consideration.

Before the present time it is unlikely that many authors of poetry or fiction or drama ever sat down to create a “text.” But I suspect that some writers today are doing just that. They are deliberately producing work that is intended to be taken apart and studied rather than read and enjoyed. Some of these productions have been original and interesting; but most of them are depressing and suggest that their authors seem to be trying in vain to run around the end of the new school of literary criticism and score some points for their own words. Even if what they say won’t be taken seriously as a poem or story, or a statement of values, the hope is that it will qualify as criticism.

I am afraid these writers are in for a disappointment. Critics have never taken kindly to attempts to usurp their functions; and though the new theorists may claim that their own work is literature, they are unlikely to concede that any collection of words put together by an author, including the present one, could be taken seriously as criticism.

  1. 1

    Deconstructionists themselves have noted that words come bearing their traces, though (as far as I can discover) without reference to the implications of their own language.

  2. 2

    All definitions are from the OED and Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.

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