Signs of the Times is a study of the critical practice known as deconstruction, and of the career of deconstruction’s leading proponent in America, Paul de Man, who died in 1983 but who achieved posthumous notoriety when, in 1987, articles he had written as a young man for two Belgian newspapers controlled by the Nazis were discovered. The book’s author, David Lehman, is a literary journalist and poet who has a doctorate in English from Columbia.
Although the verb “to deconstruct” has entered the vocabulary as a fashionable synonym for “to take apart” or “to unmask,” deconstruction is still a method of criticism whose provenance and purpose are likely to be somewhat obscure to the general reader. And although the discovery of de Man’s wartime writings, 180 articles altogether, mostly on literature, but clearly collaborationist in tendency, set off a small avalanche of commentary, opinion about the connection between those early articles and de Man’s mature criticism remains unsettled. Was an attraction to deconstruction natural in someone who, like de Man, had once expressed an attraction to fascism? Or did de Man’s embrace of deconstruction represent a kind of tacit repudiation of his youthful beliefs?
An account of deconstruction and the de Man affair by someone who has had academic training but who writes for a general audience is therefore extremely welcome; and it is disappointing to have to report that much of Lehman’s discussion of deconstruction is uninformed and unreliable, and that his analysis of de Man’s career, though well-reported, is made tendentious by an unsuppressed animus against de Man and de Man’s defenders.
That Lehman has a strong distaste for deconstruction and a low opinion of de Man is clear almost from the first page of his book. He thinks both are pernicious frauds—he refers to deconstruction as a “con game” and calls de Man “a scoundrel”—and he does not pretend to a more detached view of the matter. This is honest, and it reflects a genuine distress: Signs of the Times is not an indiscriminate attack on academic thought from political motives, as I believe other recent books on the university, such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s llliberal Education, essentially are. Whether Lehman, who received his Ph.D. in 1978, had once intended to have a career as a professor of literature or not, he represents many people in his generation who, either because the vicious job market of the 1970s and early 1980s cut their academic careers short, or because they dislike what they see as the narrow professionalism of contemporary academic criticism, feel increasingly estranged from the university.
But useful analysis requires the care that comes from a little detachment. Lehman does not achieve detachment, and his book is damaged by failings that it shares with many assaults on the university by people who are outside it: it does not distinguish among different tendencies in contemporary academic thought; it does not understand the purpose of theoretical inquiry; and it lacks historical perspective.
Some critics of the university may worry that tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner—that to enter too deeply into the world of the contemporary academic will mean getting caught up in rationalizations about what professors do and distracted by discriminations among different schools of criticism, and that this will obscure the important point, which is that the main line of academic literary criticism seems somehow to have gone careering off the track. I don’t know whether Lehman felt this concern or not; but if he did, he ought not to have let it interfere with his duty to examine the situation a little more dispassionately. I doubt that a more discriminating analysis would have led him to reach a less severe judgment.
Deconstruction is the name for a view about language and a method for handling texts that derive from the work of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose most influential writing appeared in France in the 1960s. It is, despite its celebrated obscurity, essentially a demystifying theory. The briefest way to describe it, I think, is to say that deconstruction accepts the premise, common to structuralist theories of language and culture, that meaning is a function of the relation among representations—in other words, that consciousness is a structure of pictures, or “texts,” of the world, and that these pictures have value and significance for us by virtue of their place in that structure, rather than by virtue of being representations of something outside consciousness (textual “signifiers” that point to extra-textual “signifieds”). But deconstruction destabilizes this model by rejecting the idea that the structure can have a center—since that would entail the existence of one part which, unlike every other part, is not a function of relation. It yanks, in effect, the gyroscope out of the system, and thus opens up a vista of endless semantic indeterminacy, of inverted hierarchies of value, and of what deconstructionists call the “free play” of signifiers.
Although Derrida did not have literature specifically in mind when he formulated them, these ideas became associated in this country with professors of literature such as de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and a small number of others in the 1970s. Strict deconstructionists (contrary to the impression Lehman seeks to give us) have always been a minority party among academic critics. I have taught on university faculties for eleven years, and I have had only one colleague, a former student of de Man’s from Yale, who was a deconstructionist.
Interest in deconstruction was greatest among graduate students and professors of literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Derrida’s work began appearing in English translation. Of Grammatology was published here in 1976, nine years after it had appeared in France; Writing and Difference, a collection of essays first published in 1967, came out here in 1978; and Margins of Philosophy, another collection, originally published in 1972, was translated in 1982. In 1979, Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection of essays by professors at Yale, and de Man’s Allegories of Reading were published. Hartman’s Saving the Text came out in 1981, and Richard Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism, which contains influential essays on Derrida and deconstruction, in 1982. Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction also appeared in 1982, and an expanded edition of de Man’s 1971 book, Blindness and Insight, was published in 1983.
Not all the attention deconstruction received inside the academy was positive. It was attacked, almost immediately, from two directions. From one side, traditional critical theorists—M.H. Abrams was one of the earliest and most prominent—objected to deconstruction’s insistence on maintaining a radical skepticism about meaning, its apparent dismissal of the possibility of arriving at a shared interpretation of a piece of writing. And philosophers—notably John Searle, in a 1977 article in the journal Glyph and in a review of Culler’s book in The New York Review—argued that Derrida had misrepresented the history of the philosophy of language, and that the premises of deconstruction did not stand up to logical examination. From another, less traditional, side, Marxist and other politically minded literary critics, such as Frank Lentricchia in Criticism and Social Change (1983), complained that deconstruction amounted to a kind of nihilism, a weary despair about the efficacy of political action, and that it was therefore an undesirable basis for criticism.
By the mid-1980s, Derridean deconstruction had had its academic day. Its place at the center of theoretical activity in literature departments was supplanted first by feminist criticism, which generated fresh interest in another French theorist of the 1960s, Jacques Lacan, and then by the current obsession with ideological criticism, which is indebted to the work of two other (to adapt a vulgar phrase) dead white Frenchmen, Michel Foucault and (though he is less frequently cited) Louis Althusser. Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault are sometimes loosely classified as “poststructuralist” writers; but they were, in their day in France long ago, ideological antagonists, and the differences among them are not trivial to the people who study and make use of their theories.
At the same time, deconstruction has not been simply discarded or discredited; and although he insists on using “deconstruction” as a blanket term for all the theoretical tendencies of which he disapproves, Lehman is not entirely wrong when he claims that “the edicts of deconstruction—merged, to whatever extent, with the ideologies of Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, and feminism—remain the prevailing suppositions of the lit-crit establishment.” The claim takes too narrow a view of the “literary critical establishment” (a phrase that is a journalistic convenience rather than the name for anything real), and too broad a view of what deconstruction, as a critical practice, actually entails (deconstruction is not, as Lehman keeps complaining, a “leveling impulse” that would “obliterate the differences between Roger Rabbit and Henry James”). But it is true that many notions that originate in, or owe their popularity to, Derrida’s work—notions reflected in terms like “difference,” “dissemination,” “logocentrism,” and “the metaphysics of presence”—have gotten folded in, as it were, to much of mainstream academic discourse.
Lehman does not, unfortunately, give a very helpful account of what those terms mean and how they are currently used in academic criticism. A large proportion of his analysis is in the form of mockery. Small World, for example, David Lodge’s satirical novel about the academic life, is cited on five different occasions, as though it counted as either genuine evidence of what professors think or genuine criticism of what professors do. There are several parodies of deconstruction, including one created by Lehman himself (of the Gettysburg Address); a number of mots and jokes about deconstruction are retold (“We sent them Jerry Lewis, so they retaliated by sending us deconstruction and Jacques Derrida”); and there are too many sentences that begin like this one: “It is possible that the comedian Ernie Kovacs hit upon the perfect comment on deconstruction when, in an episode of his television show….” Lehman’s view is further clouded by an irritation with things—conference hopping, department politics, intellectual trendiness, the overproduction of specialized books, the facile parroting of professional jargon by students—which are endemic to the contemporary academic world generally, and for which deconstruction is not responsible.
Many of Lehman’s difficulties with deconstruction are a consequence of an inability to see the point of theoretical inquiry, and this inability is worth examining, I think, because it is common among nonacademic critics of academic writing. “One of Derrida’s prize explicators has gone to some length to deconstruct causality,” Lehman complains at one point, “—as if the laws of cause and effect could be undone in the course of a word game.” He is referring to Culler’s On Deconstruction, which includes a “deconstruction” of the belief that causes (a pinprick is his example) precede effects (the sensation of pain). Culler’s rather facile demonstration was philosophically demolished by Searle in his review of the book; what offends Lehman, though, is simply the idea of setting out to question something so obvious to common sense as “the laws of cause and effect.”
But questioning the law of cause and effect is not simply a deconstructionist prank. David Hume devoted a large part of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding to demonstrating that there is nothing real about cause and effect—that the belief that things like pins “cause” things like pain is simply a “mental habit” which we have no grounds for regarding as a universal law. Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in part to explain why Hume had drawn the wrong conclusions, and John Stuart Mill wrote his System of Logic and An Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton in part to refute Kant. The sort of philosophical nominalism that is characteristic of deconstruction, in other words—the refusal to credit any attempt to describe as “real” or “natural” what is only a “mental habit”—is neither new nor unrespectable. This doesn’t mean that deconstruction’s claims deserve our assent; but it is not a point against those claims that they seem a scandal to common sense.
So when Lehman objects that theories like deconstruction are skeptical of, or represent an assault on, “our fundamental cultural assumptions,” he is surely missing the point. If the purpose of thinking theoretically were simply to ratify what everybody already took for granted, it is hard to see why we should bother to do it. “Our fundamental cultural assumptions” are precisely what we want to examine when we undertake theoretical inquiry, since the mere fact that many people hold those assumptions is no warrant for their validity, or even for their cogency. “Certitude,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, “is not the test of certainty.”
Insofar as deconstruction and allied forms of inquiry undertake—by questioning the common-sense distinction between words and things, or the autonomy of the self, or even the belief that “the open society” is genuinely an open one—to try to see to the bottom of the culture, to keep us, as it were, on our philosophical toes, they are only doing what any decent theory ought to do. Much of what Lehman finds obnoxious in contemporary critical theory is simply inherent in the nature of theorizing, and has parallels in writings that he almost certainly does not consider offensive. “Surely no previous form of literary analysis paid so much attention to grammar and rhetoric,” he complains, for instance, about deconstruction; but Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime, which is one of the greatest pieces of literary analysis we have, is exclusively concerned with grammar and rhetoric. “Work implies good literature, text embraces all—a leveling impulse that does away with the value judgments that used to distinguish critical activity,” Lehman writes disapprovingly in a discussion of the post-structuralist concept of “textuality”; but Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957, explicitly condemns the goal of arriving at value judgments in criticism, and introduces a theory intended to embrace all, not just “good,” literature. (And Frye is a Christian humanist.)
The problem isn’t that all these literature professors are busily “decoding” and “unmasking” and “debunking” “our fundamental cultural assumptions.” The problem has to do with what they believe their investigations have established; and here Lehman is on much firmer ground in his attack on deconstruction, and he has some strong points to make. “Deconstruction,” he observes, “is curiously and needlessly absolutist; it suggests that an absolute ground for truth is indispensable and that in its absence, no moral judgments can be made.” No serious deconstructionist would put it quite this way, I think, but Lehman has his finger on an important tendency in contemporary critical theory—the tendency to conclude that one speck ruins the whole fruit, that a blurry distinction must be a false distinction. Because no interpretation is free of political implications, this way of reasoning seems to run, all interpretation must be political; because our beliefs are only our own creations, they must always be meanly self-serving; because language is not entirely transparent, it is never transparent enough.
The tendency shows up in Derrida’s writing as a continual vacillation between two positions. On the one hand, Derrida argues that although language is incurably indeterminate and self-canceling, and although Western culture is (supposedly) constructed on a false idealization of language and is therefore a tissue of insupportable metaphysics, we have no choice but to continue to use language and to work within the metaphysical assumptions of our culture. “There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics,” Derrida has said. “We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history.”1 And elsewhere he insists that any science of language will continue to be limited by “the classical notion of science, whose projects, concepts, and norms are fundamentally and systematically tied to metaphysics.”2 The lesson of deconstruction “is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use.”3
On the other hand, there is a subtle and persistent suggestion in Derrida’s work that because grounds we are supposed to have believed absolute are faulty, because it is what he calls “logocentric,” Western culture is oppressive, and must somehow be overcome. “One can say with total security that there is nothing fortuitous about the fact that the critique of [Western] ethnocentrism…should be systematically and historically contemporaneous with the destruction of the history of metaphysics,” 4 he argued in 1966; recently, he has spoken of the “connection between…the placing of man in a hierarchical position over woman, politically, sociologically, philosophically, and ontologically as well,…and logocentrism…. I think it’s the same experience, the same history.”5 And thus he speaks of passing “beyond man and humanism,”6 “the necessity for a ‘change of terrain,’ “7 and “the overturning of the hierarchy speech/ writing, and the entire system attached to it.”8 And thus he has proposed new terms of analysis, such as “différance” (an amalgam of “difference” and “deferral”), which, he tells us, is “neither a word nor a concept”9—just as deconstruction, as he also claims, is neither a method nor a theory. This way of talking seems a clear invitation to regard deconstructionist terms and procedures as a way of getting at what language is really doing, and of exposing the incoherence (and the pernicious consequences of that incoherence) of what everyone else, still mired in the metaphysics of concepts and theories, is trying to say.
Derrida is usually extremely coy about all this; some of the difficulty of his prose is the result of a continuous hedging of the claims it seems to be making. But Derrida’s American followers have not been so coy: they seem to be convinced that deconstruction is, if not quite a politics, at least the prolegomenon to a politics. They appear to believe that once we have debunked the metaphysical underpinnings of Western culture, we will be on our way to a better world. “The millennium would come,” Hillis Miller has written, “if all men and women became good readers in de Man’s sense”10—and there is certainly no blunter way to put it than that.
De Man himself, at the beginning of his career as a deconstructionist, seemed indifferent to this sort of boast: “Things happen,” he once wrote, in a passage often singled out by his politically minded antagonists, “…in linguistic terms.”11 But he eventually came (did he sense, as he had once before, a change in the way the wind was blowing?) to move toward the millenarian view as well. “Deconstruction,” he asserted near the end of his life, is “more than any other mode of inquiry…a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations.”12 When the wartime writings were discovered after his death, this claim became the centerpiece of the argument of de Man’s defenders. Whether he had really been a fascist once or not, those defenders maintained, de Man’s later, deconstructionist work was a repudiation of fascism—because deconstruction is a method for identifying the errors of totalitarian discourse.
The claim was repeated widely. Derrida, in one of his essays on de Man’s wartime journalism, reminded his readers that deconstruction has “always represented…the at least necessary condition for identifying and combating the totalitarian risk.”13 In his writings for Nazi-controlled papers, de Man “had been trapped,” explained Hartman, “by an effect of language, an ideological verbiage that blinded critical reflection…. [His later] critique of every tendency to totalize literature or language, to see unity where there is no unity, looks like a belated, but still powerful, act of conscience.” 14 And Miller: “Far from being ‘authoritarian,’ ‘deconstruction’ functions in manifold ways to free us from totalizing and totalitarian thinking.”15
Lehman believes that there is a connection between de Man’s attraction to the fascist ideology that informs the articles he wrote in the early 1940s for the collaborationist newspapers Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land and the deconstructionist theory he adopted many years later as a professor of literature in America. I don’t think he manages to prove this connection in his book. But Lehman also believes that the deconstructionists’ response to the discovery of de Man’s wartime writings exposed the fatuity of their claims about deconstruction’s prowess as a method of criticism. “What de Man wrote in Le Soir,” he says, “had the effect of exploding the myth of the man and modifying our understanding of his writings. But what was said in his defense broadened the focus considerably. Deconstruction itself, as a method of reading and as an intellectual movement, now stood in the camera’s eye.” And here I think he is right.
Lehman makes his argument mostly by pointing out the absurdity of some of the things deconstructionists said in de Man’s defense. He certainly had plenty to choose from. Miller, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, accused journalists (including Lehman, who had written about the de Man affair in Newsweek) of using the discovery of the wartime articles as an excuse for a malicious campaign against critical theory—a campaign which, he said, repeats “the well-known totalitarian procedures it pretends to deplore.”16 And Derrida, in Critical Inquiry, warned that “to judge, to condemn the work or the man on the basis of what was a brief episode…is to reproduce the exterminating gesture which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself against sooner with the necessary vigilance.”17 (One hundred and eighty articles seems a substantial output for a “brief episode.”)
In another essay, Derrida accused his critics of wishing de Man “not to be dead so they could put him to death.”18 Shoshana Felman, who had been a colleague of de Man’s at Yale, argued that the silence de Man had maintained in later life about his wartime activities constituted “an ongoing active transformation of the act of bearing witness“19 to the Holocaust. And Richard Rand, of the University of Alabama, accused Jon Wiener, who had written an article critical of de Man in The Nation, of anti-Semitism, on the grounds that “Paul de Man and his deconstruction [are] somehow overwhelmingly Jewish”20—which may be the most astonishing thing anyone has written about the affair.
There were more problems with the deconstructionist response to the discovery of de Man’s wartime writings than outrageousness and hyperbole, though. There was also a serious confusion about the very ability to identify and expose totalitarian mystification that deconstruction’s defenders were claiming for their theory. What are the errors that the young de Man embraced and that deconstruction is supposed to help us expose? Miller named two: “ideas about the specificity of national character…and…about the individual organic development of the literature of each country according to intrinsic laws of its own” (that is, cultural nationalism); and “ideas about the power of literature to express directly transcendent truth”21 (what de Man and other contemporary theorists call “aesthetic ideology”). Hartman, in an article in The New Republic, blamed de Man’s acceptance of fascism on the same two misconceptions.
But in an essay by Rodolphe Gasché in Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism, a collection of essays, mostly by academics, on the de Man case, published in 1989, de Man’s cultural nationalism is adduced not as fascistic, but as the opposite. “De Man’s emphasis [in his wartime writings] on the irreducible specificity of the Flemish genius,” Gasché argued, “…seems to promote a plurality of independent nationalities that cohabit in one transnational unit—’Europe’—and in which none imposes its will on the others.” 22 And he went on—it is, in fact, the major point of his article—to demonstrate that this respect for particularity is precisely the admirable intellectual trait that links de Man’s collaborationist articles with his later literary criticism.
What Miller and Hartman had named as totalitarian vice, in other words, Gasché (who is a theorist of deconstruction) identified as antitotalitarian virtue. And the picture becomes even less clear when we read in another essay in Responses, by S. Heidi Krueger, who teaches at the New School for Social Research, that as she reads the wartime work, de Man didn’t believe in cultural nationalism at all, but was, through the “strategic” use of quotation, subtly subverting the official Nazi line on this matter.23
The second error Miller identified in totalitarian writing is “aesthetic ideology”—the belief that literature develops organically, and has its own access to truth. De Man did insist continually, in his wartime articles, that literature is exempt from political judgments or tests because it observes only its own internal laws of development. This seems precisely the sort of belief about literature that deconstruction is designed, as Miller asserted it is, to explode.
And yet Derrida brought forward de Man’s insistence on keeping literature pure and separate from politics as specifically exculpatory evidence, since it subverts, according to Derrida, the fascist program. “If literature remains neutral in de Man’s eyes or at least independent of morality and politics,” Derrida argued, “it is not neutral, it is even an offensive and courageous gesture to recall this axiom and to resist the moralizing orthodoxy at a moment of great repression.”24 For Miller and Hartman, that is, de Man’s youthful separation of literature from politics, his respect for literature’s formal integrity, was an error which his later work labored to correct; for Derrida, it was evidence of de Man’s resistance to repression.
That there are, as well, a host of interpretative disagreements in the deconstructionist responses to the wartime journalism is in part only the usual consequence of different readers trying to make sense of the same texts; but some of the disagreements still seem significant. To consider only the example of the most notorious of the articles, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” which appeared in Le Soir in 1941: the article, like much of de Man’s collaborationist writing, does not actively promote Nazi doctrine so much as it undertakes to demonstrate how intelligent and cultured Europeans might countenance Nazism’s barbarities with equanimity. It argues that “vulgar anti-Semitism” is mistaken when it blames what is wrong with contemporary literature on the influence of Jewish writers: “It would be an unflattering estimation of Western writers to reduce them to being simple imitators of a Jewish culture that is foreign to them.” In fact, de Man continues, the Jewish influence is negligible; so that even if “the Jewish problem” were solved by the creation of “a Jewish colony isolated from Europe,” those interested in “the literary life of the West,” would not have reason for concern, since literature “would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its great evolutionary laws [ses Grandes lois évolutives].”25
Miller, in commenting on this article, emphasized that de Man “unequivocally condemns what he calls ‘vulgar anti-Semitism’ “26 (though there is nothing like the word “condemn” in what de Man wrote; he was simply adopting the “superior” view that the influence of the Jews had been exaggerated). Hartman, on the other hand, maintained that the essay is anti-Semitic—that “de Man’s formulations…show all the marks, and the dangerous implications, of identifying Jews as an alien and unhealthy presence in Western civilization.”27 Derrida argued that “to condemn ‘vulgar anti-Semitism,’ especially if one makes no mention of the other kind, is to condemn anti-Semitism itself inasmuch as it is vulgar, always and essentially vulgar.”28 And Timothy Bahti, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote that the article “may be anti-Semitic—and, simultaneously, may not be anti-Semitic.”29
Deconstruction does not seem, in short, to have been the slightest help to its practitioners and defenders when they addressed themselves to de Man’s wartime texts. His defenders could not agree about what counted as ideologically good or bad; they could not even agree about what de Man was actually saying in his collaborationist writings. They found themselves in the position of all honest critics: confronted with an object—the newly discovered whole of Paul de Man’s career—for which they could find no analogy in their experience, they struggled to make ethical sense of it with whatever combination of beliefs, methods, intuitions, and ingenuity they could muster. By and large, it seems to me, the vaunted machinery of deconstructionist critical theory just got in their way.
The situation in which these deconstructionists found themselves is illustrative of the situation of academic criticism generally. For the deconstructionists were faced with two tasks at once: they had to interpret and judge de Man’s wartime texts, and they had to defend the sufficiency of deconstruction as a critical practice. And this put their criticism—their reading and evaluation of what de Man had written—in the service of their theory. Their understanding of particular texts had to substantiate the claims they were making for deconstruction as a method of reading texts; and this helps to account, I think, for the feeling Lehman has that much of the time the deconstructionists seemed to be willfully distorting the meaning of what de Man actually wrote. The problem is not peculiar to deconstruction (though deconstruction, being so poorly designed to help us form ethical judgments, may have proved peculiarly inadequate); it is a problem under which academic literary criticism has always labored.
Lehman argues that in the 1970s, “the American lit-crit profession slowly but steadily shed its tweedy English image in favor of foppish French fashions. The result in time was a transformation of the very nature of literary studies…. Theory would reign where practical criticism once held sway.” This is historically inaccurate. When literary criticism—as opposed to philology, literary history, and textual scholarship—became one of the principal activities of literature departments (a development that is less than fifty years old), it brought theory along with it.
The New Criticism, the first widely successful school of academic criticism, was a method of reading that was founded, quite explicitly, on a theory of literature—a theory which books like René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949) and Cleanth Brooks and William Wimsatt’s Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957) were written to promote. When Frye wrote Anatomy of Criticism, he charged the New Criticism with being not a true theory at all, but a covert way of imposing taste preferences; and he proposed a structuralist theory that was, he claimed, genuinely scientific. And deconstruction made its entrance, as we have seen, by attacking structuralism (specifically, the structuralist semiotics of such writers as Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette, whose style of criticism became popular in the academy in the 1960s and early 1970s) as insufficiently rigorous, and by making a fresh theoretical claim of its own about literature.
That claim, contrary to what Lehman believes, was not that literature is the victim of a false idealization of language, but that literature is the one mode of writing which already shares deconstruction’s knowledge about the false idealization of language. Thus de Man, in the first chapter of Allegories of Reading, explained that although the final lines of Yeats’s poem “Among School Children”—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—had always been read as a rhetorical question, and therefore as a classic statement of the fusion of form and content achieved in art (a notion common to both New Critical and structuralist conceptions of literature), there is no grammatical reason why the line cannot be read to mean: “Please tell me, how can I know the dancer from the dance?” And if this was so, it was therefore possible to understand the whole poem as a complaint about the mystifying character of literary language rather than as a symbolist manifesto. This did not mean, as de Man quickly made clear, that literature was debunked; it meant that a fresh theoretical discovery about the nature of literature had been made: “A literary text [is one which] simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode,” de Man proposed. “…Poetic writing is the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruction.”30 And Hartman, writing on de Man’s wartime writings in one of his essays years later, echoed the claim: “deconstruction is…a defense of literature.”31
Academic critics have therefore always tended to produce readings to fit the premises of the theoretical and methodological dispensation under whose aegis they set out. There is a broad sense, of course, in which every critic, no matter how determined to be open-minded, gets results that satisfy his or her preconceptions. But in the academy this tendency is, in effect, institutionalized. For the modern research university was, designed to produce not appreciations or evaluations or interesting interpretations, but “knowledge”; and criticism can claim to be productive of knowledge when it serves to illustrate the validity of a particular theoretical model or investigatory method. A professor working on Lacanian theory today expects to “apply” Lacan to works of literature in order either to show that what Lacanian theory says we will find there is indeed there, or to interpret those works as allegories of Lacanian theory. Since the deconstructionists believed they had discovered something about the nature of literature, it was natural for them to produce criticism that proved the value of their discovery—just as it had been natural for Cleanth Brooks, in The Well Wrought Urn (1947), to show that because irony and ambiguity are among the properties of genuine poetry, irony and ambiguity can be found in “Tears, Idle Tears.”
There is a sense, however, in which Lehman is right when he names the emergence of deconstruction as a turning point in the history of academic criticism. In 1950, the year the Modern Language Association first included “criticism” in its constitutional statement of purpose, there was little difference between the sort of criticism written by people who were not professors and the sort written by people who were. Academic literary critics in the 1950s, and even into the 1960s, were frequently literary journalists as well as scholars, general essayists as well as professors, poets as well as theorists. Robert Penn Warren, Richard Blackmur, Allen Tate among the New Critics, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, F. W. Dupee among the cultural critics—writers who had a broad conception of their business, and who didn’t restrict their work to literary analysis—were typical of the critical schools they represented, not outsiders. People who had never written doctoral dissertations had appointments in university literature departments, and a great deal of academic criticism reflected ideas about literature developed outside the academy—in the case of the New Critics, for instance, by T. S. Eliot, who had little interest in the academic study of literature; in the case of cultural critics like Trilling, by the political and philosophical debates of the anti-Communist left.
In the 1970s, this disciplinary looseness, this sense of participation in a wider culture, began to disappear, and today there is almost no real intercourse between academic criticism and the culture at large (except in the negative sense exemplified by books like Kimball’s and D’Souza’s). Academic criticism has become almost entirely professionalized: not literature, but what professors do with literature has become the subject of literary study—even, to a considerable extent, for undergraduates. No doubt the beguilements of French poststructuralist theory helped speed along this trend in the 1970s and 1980s; but I think that the principal cause was the terrible shrinkage, during the same period, of the job market for humanities Ph.D.s, and the fanatical careerism (and forced overproduction of professional publications) that shrinkage incited. It became virtually impossible to establish a serious academic career as a writer with general interests, or as a literary critic without a theoretical portfolio, and students whose interests did not fit the predominant mold went into other lines of work. Novelists and poets were accommodated, at many institutions, by being housed in programs separated from literature departments, where they taught a subject called “creative writing.” The Modern Language Association’s image of the literature professor became, nearly everywhere, the defining image.
The consequence is that the academic interpretation and evaluation of literature have become almost completely predictable, driven by a set of theoretical and ideological assumptions that decide the results of critical inquiry in advance. This is no longer criticism; it is self-fulfilling prophecy, born of the belief (illustrated by the deconstructionist handling of the de Man case) that critical theory is a kind of magic bullet, which targets the important issues and does the job of interpretation for you. Very little variety or independence of mind is possible in these circumstances; and the recent emergence, in some places, of a grim and reductive political orthodoxy has squeezed the sense of personality, the sense of soul, out of academic criticism even further.
The idea that each critical undertaking is a new try with doubtful equipment, that each object criticism addresses is a different object, and that the purpose of criticism is to say something about literature that will seem new and interesting and, in the end, true to other people, not just to other specialists—an idea that has never been very welcome in the knowledge bureaucracy of the research university—is almost gone from literature departments. Although I think his complaint is ineptly made, I believe that Lehman is right in feeling that academic literary study has lost its way.
November 21, 1991
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“Implications” (interview with Henri Ronse), in Positions, Alan Bass, translator (University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 13. ↩
“Discussion,” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), p. 271. ↩
Writing and Difference, p. 282. ↩
In Raoul Mortley, French Philosophers in Conversation: Derrida, Levinas, Schneider, Serres, Irigaray, LeDoeuff (Routledge, 1991), p. 104. ↩
Writing and Difference, p. 292. ↩
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“Positions” (interview with JeanLouis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta), in Positions, p. 42. ↩
“Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, p. 3; Derrida makes the same claim for the rest of his vocabulary in Positions, pp. 39–47. ↩
The Ethics of Reading (Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 58. ↩
The Resistance to Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 101. ↩
The Resistance to Theory, p. 11. ↩
Mémoires: for Paul de Man, revised edition (Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 242. ↩
“Blindness and Insight,” The New Republic, March 7, 1988, p. 31. ↩
“An Open Letter to Professor Jon Wiener,” in Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism, Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, editors (University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 339. ↩
“NB,” The Times Literary Supplement, June 17–23, 1988, p. 676. ↩
“Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War,” translated by Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14 (Spring 1988), p. 651. ↩
“Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments,” translated by Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15 (Summer 1989), p. 861. ↩
“Paul de Man’s Silence,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15 (Summer 1989), p. 722. Italics in original. ↩
“Rigor Vitae,” in Responses, p. 354. ↩
“NB,” p. 685. ↩
“Edges of Understanding,” in Responses, p. 214. ↩
“Opting to Know: On the Wartime Journalism of Paul de Man,” in Responses, pp. 301–302. ↩
Mémoires: for Paul de Man, p. 191. ↩
“Les Juifs dans la Littérature actuelle,” Le Soir, March 4, 1941; reprinted in de Man, Wartime Journalism, 1939 to 1943, Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan, editors (University of Nebraska Press, 1988), p. 45 (my translation). ↩
“An Open Letter to Professor Jon Wiener,” Responses, p. 335. ↩
“Blindness and Insight,” p. 26. ↩
Mémoires: for Paul de Man, p. 206. ↩
“Telephonic Crossroads: The Reversal and Double Cross,” in Responses, p. 5. Italics in original. ↩
Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (Yale University Press, 1979), p. 17. ↩
“Blindness and Insight,” p. 29. ↩