David Lehman on the Orwellian Element in Deconstruction


Signs of the Times by David Lehman, Poseidon Press, 1993.

(pp. 76-86)

Of the various metaphors in currency for deconstruction, surely the most disturbing is "critical terrorism." The deconstructionists have done little to discourage the use of this handle, and it may be that they like it, relishing the tough-hombre image that the phrase conveys. The admittedly hyperbolic analogy between deconstructionists and terrorists appears to be based on several considerations besides the casual fact that both are features of the contemporary Zeitgeist. Both are, by temperament or by instinct, extremist. Deconstructionists have a reputation for ruthlessness and intransigence in pursuit of their agenda, when serving on faculty hiring committees and the like. The nearest thing in fiction to the deconstructive personality is the anarchistic professor in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.- a man of "pedantic fanaticism," who always carries a bomb with him and hopes to invent a "perfect detonator." Conrad's professor wants to destroy "public faith in legality." Critical terrorists-including but not limited to those associated with Critical Legal Studies-use different methods to reach the same end. They would like to blow unmetaphorically, of course-the legitimacy of institutions and traditions, canons of taste and judgment, and received values of any kind. And like terrorists, deconstructionists steel themselves to toss their bombs without regard for the comfort of bystanders-in this case, the authors and readers of literature.

Ironists may say that the danger is overrated-that the only people truly terrorized by deconstruction are other professors. Michel Foucault once described Jacques Derrida's prose style as an effort at "obscurantist terrorism." The idea is that the style is so obscure that it's hard to know what the author is trying to say, and this allows the savant to heap contempt on his critics by saying they have failed to understand him. There is no denying that the obfuscating jargon of deconstruction has proved useful for intimidating befuddled departmental foes. But to conclude that deconstruction is harmless except in the limited sphere of academic politics and debate is to overlook a simple but important consideration: that ideas, even specious ideas, have consequences, for good or ill, and that the academic arena is not ipso facto an insignificant one. Perhaps we should question the ease with which we habitually link the words harmless and academic-as if to say that the fictional Professor Zapp is right and there is no point in looking to academic discourse for something serious and substantial.

The ideas that deconstructionists articulate-with fervor if not necessarily with seriousness in the old-fashioned sense-do provide grounds for the terrorist analogy. There is, for one thing, the relentlessly nihilistic drive of deconstruction. It asks how we can know anything and answers that we can't-nothing can be known. And there is its real or metaphorical affinity with the projects of

destruction and demolition, decentering and demystifying; Robert Alter wryly notes the critical theorist's affection for the de- prefix "with its presumably salutary suggestion of taking things apart." It may be argued that any act of analytical intelligence entails taking something apart. Perhaps. But deconstruction ups the ante. If we are to take the deconstructionists at their word, the task of taking texts apart is part and parcel of a more ambitious and more threatening endeavor: the dismantling of "the metaphysics of presence"-or what you and I would call Western thought.

As a critical methodology, deconstruction places its emphasis on tearing down a concept or a clause-on "putting it in question" or "problematizing" it, to use the approved jargon-without proposing anything new to take its place. Deconstruction's "thrust," writes the critic Sven Birkerts, "is to demolish the deeply-rooted conceptions of the Enlightenment, presumably so that the culture can evolve in new directions. Deconstruction itself offers no signposts for this evolution, only a method of taking things apart. In this, Deconstructionists are like members of a terrorist sect." Equally "terrorizing" is the deconstructive shift of attention from the content of a person's ideas to his or her hidden motives; you don't read a book, or even have a dialogue with it. You interrogate it. A book subjected to deconstruction is a structure waiting to be dismantled; an idea subjected to deconstruction is an idea whose legitimacy is cast in doubt, terminally. Thus Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, in their survey of "The Philosophies of '68" in France, describe the workings of "the deconstructive will" with its underlying assumption that "all conscious discourse is really just a symptom that hides a deeper social or individual unconscious." If one follows this line, 49 it will be less important to pay attention to what someone says than to determine who he is, in order to know what he is really saying. One can imagine what strange idea of intellectual debate flows from this presupposition. The content of speech will be replaced by the person speaking and the determination of 'where he's coming from.' Once the "real motives," unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable by the speaker, have been uncovered, the genealogy then threatens to legitimize a disturbing brand of intellectual terrorism." Ferry and Renaut assert with some wonderment that such systematic practices managed to reduce French philosophy "to the point that it became blind to what can be called only its own idiocy."

One of the curious things about the resistance to deconstruction in the United States is that it unites critics from both ends of the political spectrum. Leftists, who regard literature and criticism as potential agents for social change, contend that the purer forms of deconstruction promote quiescence, not activism. What troubles them about deconstruction is not its putatively terroristic agenda but its penchant for heading off any discussion at the impasse. On this view, deconstruction leads not to action but to paralysis. It seems to entail a recoil from the world of material reality; it denies the relevance of history and biography. To the precise extent that deconstruction "brackets off" the social world-insisting that matters of life and death are to be regarded as linguistic predicaments-the tendency can be seen as conservative, ratifying the existing social order and discouraging political action. Deconstruction is regarded askance, moreover, as an elitist phenomenon. The deconstructors of "hegemony" are observed to be working toward their own hegemony, scorning their rivals as retrograde, reactionary, or even anti-intellectual. One Marxist critic discerned the trappings of a "hermeneutical mafia" at Yale. Presumably the dons of deconstruction go about their business by making people offers they cannot understand.

None of this brings any comfort to literary traditionalists, cultural conservatives, or others who disavow a left-wing political agenda. Such critics detect in deconstruction a radical enough impulse: the impulse to undermine institutions and ideas by asserting that they undermine themselves. Many observers think they detect the procedures and principles of deconstruction in the programmatic assault now in progress against the venerable idea of the canon-the notion that there exists a body of acknowledged masterworks with which the educated reader should become familiar. Allan Bloom is hardly alone in associating the techniques of deconstruction with the tendency to turn the great books into canon-fodder. The poet and critic Daniel Hoffman says he is moved to defend the novels of William Faulkner against "the rage to deconstruct canonical works, sweeping through academe like a self-replicating virus in a computerized information system. Nor is the fallout limited to the teaching of literature. InWorks and Lives, Clifford Geertz cites "deconstructive attacks on canonical works" as evidence of the "pervasive nervousness" at hand in the study of anthropology. Geertz chose his words carefully. If the impact of deconstruction on a field of knowledge may be likened to that of a nervous breakdown, that seems rather the point of the exercise.

There is, in the practice as well as the theory of deconstruction, an urge to tear down boundaries-the boundaries, for example, separating one academic discipline from another. The application of deconstructive strategies to disciplines remote from literary criticism is not an accidental fact. For theorists weaned on the ideas and methods of Jacques Derrida, anything from a comic strip to the Pledge of Allegiance qualifies as a text, and any text is fair game for a deconstructive analysis. It is, Derrideans maintain, a vulgar error to observe a distinction between a literary text and any other kind-or between the text and the world. The world is a text and may be read, or deconstructed, as such. It becomes possible, thanks to this logic, to widen the scope of critical inquiry. That is far from a bad thing and not altogether a new thing. There is every reason to keep bringing intelligence to bear on science fiction and detective novels, Hollywood movies, and even

TV commercials, which at the very least tell us things about ourselves that we ought to know, though knowing them might make us wince. A seminar devoted to "the deconstruction of everyday life"-in which the objects under scrutiny are designer jeans, radio jingles, tabloid journalism, campaign slogans, and contemporary supermarket design-becomes a real possibility and may well have its uses, sociological if not aesthetic. One deconstructionist may study tourism, the significance of souvenirs, the tourist's anxiety to avoid appearing like a tourist, and so forth; a colleague may devote himself to the semiotic analysis of cigarette smoking.

In chapter five of this book, I chart out some broad parallels between postmodemism in art and poststructuralism in academic thought. Yet I strongly resist the idea that approval of the former implies assent to the latter. One is in fact better able to appreciate what is valuable in contemporary literature or painting or music without reference to Derrida's theories. Moreover, all the happy talk about cross-disciplinary seminars on tourism may make deconstruction sound more cheerful and innocuous than it is. For the real effect of deconstruction has not been to widen inquiry but to narrow it. Not content with the perfectly sensible idea that much besides high literature is worthy of scrutiny, deconstructionists would obliterate the differences between Roger Rabbit and Henry James. The function of criticism isreduced to description and analysis; the task of evaluating works of

art is left undone. Abandoned is one of criticism's foremost responsibilities: the making and revising of critical discriminations. The determination of a canon, a syllabus, a reading list of any kind, is stripped of all but political considerations, with results that are nothing if not arrogant. For most educated persons it would be difficult to dismiss the masterworks of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoi-but not for the deconstructionist, who omits mentioning names but packages them all together as he patronizes a "conception of 'greatness' that, even in the 1980s, yields a corpus of works written by white males prior to 1920."

The characteristic assumptions of deconstruction-its profoundly antihumanist drift-have a nightmarish side. What happens if you deconstruct history? What happens if you accept the deconstructive dogma that, as Paul de Man put it, the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions"? What happens when you deconstruct the subject, the self, the human protagonist? Tzvetan Todorov, a commanding figure among French structuralists, has grave doubts about the poststructuralist agenda. In an arresting phrase, Todorov writes that "it is not possible, without inconsistency, to defend human rights with one hand and deconstruct the idea of humanity with the other." Deconstruct humanity-reduce the autonomous self to the status of a fiction-and you are left with an entity no more responsible for its actions than a puppet manipulated by an unseen master. Gone is the existential hero, wearing a beret and trenchcoat, who would act upon his destiny; the deconstructed man, taking his place, wanders unprotected into a hard-hat zone where lethal beams have been known to fall. Humanity deconstructed.- the phrase conjures up the fate of Winston Smith, George Orwell's hero in 1984, who is made to understand, on penalty of torture, that the name of the game is power and that power consists in tearing human minds apart and reassembling them to suit the rulers' specifications.

Orwell coined the word doublethink in 1984. The word, he explained, denotes the labyrinthine processes with which the mind may be made "to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it." That is not, as it happens, a bad description of the deliberately contra-dictory logic of deconstruction. There are times when deconstruction is precisely described as a form of voodoo literary criticism-it's seldom easy to tell where the nuances leave off and the double-talk begins. Barbara Johnson, one of deconstruction's more cogent advocates, demonstrates the logic in her book A World of Difference. See if you can follow: "Instead of a simple 'either/or' structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither 'either/or,' 'both/and' nor even 'neither/nor,' while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either. The very word deconstruction is meant to undermine the either/or logic of the opposition 'construction/destruction.' Deconstruction is both, it is neither, and it reveals the way in which both construction and destruction are themselves not what they appear to be." Using deconstructive logic you can undermine the ground rules that make debate possible-by "proving," for example, that what your adversary says is not what it appears to be. Not merely do you contest the premises or dispute the conclusions of your opponent's argument; you reject your opponent altogether as either a dupe or a mouthpiece for a set of "hidden articulations." If this is not exactly a terrorist tactic, it comes close. No wonder that clashes between deconstructionists and their critics sometimes resemble the exchanges between Alice and the inhabitants of looking-glass land-it's as though the debaters were playing with two different sets of rules. Each seems convinced that the other is being willfully obtuse, and there are bonus points to be earned for the most acid-tongued expression of contempt.

As doublethink is to logic in 1984, so Newspeak is to language and here again there is a parallel in deconstructive practice with its punning neologisms that mean contradictory things at once. "The key word here is blackwhite, " Orwell writes in 1984. "Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary." For those who equate deconstruction with critical terrorism, such passages from 1984 sound a stern admonition about the dangers of yielding to a system of thought that aspires to turn the word and the world upside down.

Even those who characterize deconstruction in relatively unthreatening terms-as, say, imperial nakedness or exhibitionistic paronomasia-will concur that in one area at least it has had a lethal effect. Opponents of deconstruction and related theories can't help dwelling on what these theories have done to language, in the name of a heightened awareness of the way language works. "The plagues of Egypt couldn't equal all the references to Freud and Jung and Marx and myths and existentialism and neo-Calvinism and Aristotle and St. Thomas that you'll sometimes see in one commonplace article," wrote Randall Jarrell back in "The Age of Criticism." One would like to send a postcard to heaven: Dear Mr. Jarrell, you ain't seen nothing yet. In the present age of theory, the names may have changed (though Freud and Marx remain on most lists) but the name-dropping tendency has gone to a new extreme. There may not be so many footnotes- critical theorists have a relaxed attitude toward the traditional procedures of scholarship. But even a commonplace article will yield a bonanza of diacritical marks: quotation marks around words held suspect, hyphens to break a word into its components, parentheses to expand a word like an accordion. This is writing that tries hard to be daring, playful, and experimental, but frequently succumbs to pure preciosity. Consider the desperate cleverness of the titles that professors give to the papers they deliver at academic conferences. You might come across the theme of "Class(room) Consciousness: Tradition and the Production of Cultural Literacy": a wave of the wand and, presto, Marx's analysis of class conflict extends to sophomores and juniors. Or you might-at the same MLA convention-take in a session on "S(e)izing Power: Gender, Representation, and Body Scale," where the parenthesis is meant to make the point that the slender body is one more unjustly "privileged" notion.

A professor with a flair for showmanship once amused his MLA audience by offering, for a fee, to convert any attempt at a critical essay into a publishable paper. It was hard to say whether the speaker was in jest; his project sounded eminently practical. So long as an essay makes the right noises-and these may be inserted by the hired manuscript-doctor-the content seems almost beside the point. A set of recurring code words needs to be sprinkled liberally over the prose, like ketchup over French fries. The first sentence should feature hegem-

ony; the second itinerary; the thirdforegrounding; the fourth, privilege used as a verb (for example, "the retrograde critic privileges the author"). There should be plenty of de- or dis- prefixes, beginning with Reconstruction and dismantling, and as many -ize suffixes, such as problematize, valorize, contextualize, totalize. A good way to begin your discourse (you must always call it that) is with a nod toward Derrida, an allusion to de Man, and a determination to call into question some binary opposition or other. You are going to deconstruct the dichotomy of your choice: male andfemale, nature and culture, center andperiphery, speech and writing, presence and absence. The reckless may opt for truth and opinion; the really reckless, for truth and propaganda; the semlotically-trained analyst of TV commercials may stick with slender and fat. Your task is to dismantle hierarchies and you do this by showing that the first term in any such set is implicitly-and unjustly-endorsed ("privileged") in Western philosophy. You don't call it Western philosophy, of course; you refer knowingly to "the metaphysics of presence." It would probably be a good idea to mention "the prisonhouse of language," too. You must remind your readers periodically that no escape from language is possible. Language has humanity in thrall; textuality is all.

Deconstruction is supposed to train us to see the hidden subtext in any piece of writing, no matter how straightforward it appears to be. Dwell on deconstruction's favorite jargon words, and you arrive at a subtext that is nothing if not oppositional. To be subversive is a plus. What is marginal to an experience may be more significant than what is customarily held to be central Itinerary- as when a speaker, analyzing "AIDS discourse, 9 1 refers to our culture's "anal itinerary"suggests we are all tourists in our scripted lives. Any hierarchy is unjustly repressive. Privilege with its connotations of ill-gotten gains registers the deconstructive bias against the making of value judgments. The critic's role is not to evaluate works of literature but to see through them; to privilege art is a temptation that contemporary critics are perfectly able to resist. Alison Lurie provides a helpful gloss on privilege: "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." Traditional values are suspect because they are the instruments of a hegemony, a means through which the holders of power reaffirm their power. Text, too, seems strategically chosen. It is, for one thing, a great leveler, since it

serves equally well to describe the label on a soup can and an ode by John Keats-and reinforces the notion that these various "texts" are equal in importance. Moreover, text suggests textile, allowing for a metaphorical association of reading and unraveling. Finally, where work (short for work ofart) carries a favorable overtone, text has a forbidding sound, smacking of schoolbooks and sermons. The reader is likely to associate text with textbook; to call Anna Karenina a text is thus immediately to label it an object of study rather than an aesthetic experience. As for the adversarial force of Reconstruction itself, consider the image of a pile of rubble. Lurie says it best: "If someone came over to your house and said he was there to deconstruct it, you'd want to have him arrested."

It is easy to parody the jingle-jangle jargon of deconstruction, though rarely has it been done with the verve of the pseudonymous "Cosmo Dewlap" in the underground literary magazine Exquisite Corpse:

Attacking the abyss of contemporary icriture like an avenging, post-modern Clough, Braithwaite-Godolphin fearlessly deconstructs the "poem" with such terrifying finality that it will no longer be honest (in the phenomenological sense) to attempt to write "poems" at all without arousing the contempt of the entire litero-cum-academico community. Having absorbed, in one swallow as it were, the devastating implications of the writings of Saussure, Benjamin, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Husserl, Foucault, and Jong, Braithwaite-Godolphin revels without apology in the slippages of meaning, indeed the total lack of meaning (in the old-fashioned sense) of words, phrases, even "poems" as a whole, undercutting the now-discredited falseness of the worn-out, shamelessly ideological English "grammar" for the jouissance and hard-won freedom of the bad-ass cowboy poet.

They're all here-the voguish phrases, the French fashions, the ironic quotation marks, the big words, the parade of names, and the unexamined assumption that to "deconstruct" works of art "with such terrifying finality" is the right thing to do.

What is saddest about the prevalence of this debased idiom is thatthe people who use it are the professionally appointed curators of our literature. "One has long been inured to such grossness in the use of the mother tongue by scholars in other disciplines," the scholar and poet Donald Davie has written. "What makes one weep is that such use of English is now not just tolerated but considered normal in the disciplines supposedly devoted to literature, that is to say, to language as a medium of art." Davie offers this example-"chosen, I assure you, virtually at random" of the kind of "debased and yet pretentious Esperanto or dog-Latin" he deplores:

We see in this rehearsal of "Foucault" that contemporary criticism cherishes the displacement both of dialectics by diacritics and of totalized organic representations of history by comprehensive graphs of affiliated disciplines in the episteme.

"Reading such jaw-breaking propositions," Davie writes, we find ourselves echoing Ben Jonson when he objected to one of his contemporaries that he 'writ no language.'