David Lehman's Deconstructive Decalogue


by: David Lehman in Signs of the Times, Poseidon Press, 1992.

The time has come to debunk the debunkers and demystify deconstruction-and to ask what difference it makes. With its aporias and its binary oppositions, deconstruction is coated so heavily in jargon that one feels positively goaded to define the theory as a set of straightforward propositions. I propose the following group of ten. I do so with some trepidation, though I am cheered by the knowledge that genuine deconstructionists won't risk contradicting me-if, that is, they really do play by their own rules. For surely the proponents of Derrida, glorifying the reader's empowerment to bend texts to his will, must expect their own texts to be treated no differently from anyone else's. Or is that too optimistic an assumption? Is exercising the free-play of signifiers recommended only for dealing with other people's writing, and never for the sacred texts of deconstruction? If so, the deconstructionists will directly refute the idea that all interpretations are misinterpretations, that none should be "Privileged," that the author's intentions are irrelevant, and that meanings are "undecidable" and texts unknowable.

My ten candidates for a deconstructive decalogue:



-Between the signifier and the signifiedfalls the shadow. Deconstruction begins by tearing things asunder, or depicting them as tom. The word is severed from its meaning; the linguistic intention is separated from the linguistic event. This notion, if taken to heart, would introduce either differance or terror into all writing and all speech. It turns out that we are skating at the edge of a steep and slippery precipice whenever we talk, write, or think. J. Alfred Prufrock in T. S. Eliot's poem states the theme: "It is impossible to say just what I mean." Yet, as another Eliot character says, "I've gotta use words when I talk to you." Words are all that we have; everything is mediated by language.



-Writing precedes speech. This is one of the most fundamental of the hierarchical reversals that Derrida proposes. By arguing that writing is prior to speech, Derrida isn't pressing the patently false claim that the invention of writing historically preceded the ability of human beings to communicate through spoken language. Rather, Derrida's point is that speech is as devoid of "presence" as is writing and that it would be incorrect to imagine that the things we say or write exist in some prior form in our minds. Speech is not the materialization of thought. On the contrary, speech behaves like writing inasmuch as we are equally alienated from our words in either case. "Writing in general covers the entire field of linguistic signs," as Derrida puts it in Of Grammatology.

From the point of view of strict logic, there may be less to this

celebrated instance of the deconstructive method than meets the eye. There is logically no reason to say that speech is a form of writing if you simultaneously maintain, as Derrida does, a distinction between speech and writing. It would be more accurate simply to observe that speech and writing are both aspects of a larger entity, language. A professor who did his graduate work at Yale has this domestic analogy for what Derrida is doing here. It is as if, instead of saying "cats and dogs are household pets," Derrida were to insist that "cats are always already dogs" by expanding the definition of "dogs" until it becomes coextensive with that of "household pets."

Given Derrida's conspiratorial view of Western philosophy, his reversal of the speech/writing hierarchy is meant to have major implications. In one of his essays, Derrida observes that the word harmakon in Greek means both "poison" and "cure" and that Plato in the Phaedrus uses the word to describe writing. This etymological conceit, abetted by some heavy textual free-play, permits Derrida to expose what he sees as the perennial ambivalence toward writing in Western philosophy. According to Derrida, speech has always been "privileged" over writing-that is, philosophers since Plato are supposed to have distrusted the written word and placed their confidence in speech. Written words, says Socrates in the Phaedrus, "seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put into writing, the drifts all over the place, getting into composition, whatever it may be,

the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong."

It seems questionable to assume that this speech by Socrates puts Plato on record as "privileging" speech over writing. For after all, Socrates is a character in the Phaedrus and doesn't always speak for the author; in writing the dialogue, Plato may be said to have negated the gesture made by Socrates in the speech. Derrida himself has played on this irony. Nevertheless, in seeking to undo the real or alleged hierarchy of speech and writing, Derrida acts as if what is at stake is somehow a "liberation." It is as though the championing of writing over speech were a moral imperative. "The history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been ... the debasement of writing, and its repression outside 'full' speech," Derrida writes in Of Grammatology.

This "debasement," this "repression," is nothing other than the old nemesis, logocentrism. It remains a mild irony that the deconstructionists, for all their advocacy of writing over speech, favor the oral presentation as the ideal medium and the academic conference as the ideal forum for the exposition of their ideas.



-Words speak us. J. Hillis Miller laid down "the law that language is not an instrument or tool in man's hands, a submissive means of thinking. Language rather thinks man and his 'world,' including poems, if he will allow it to do so." Language does the talking for us. We're not in control of our words, but they control us. (A Marxist revision of this deconstructive dogma is that language speaks through us at the service of some repressive ideology or other.) What makes this one of the most radical of deconstructionist principles is that it blithely waves away the possibility of free will; for if language manipulates us, how can we assign responsibility for the statements we make? if writers, even great writers, are continually betrayed by their words, what does this say about the rest of the population? The implication is that we are merely passive conductors of language; the implication challenges the autonomy of the speaker. But then this, too, is a deconstructionist goal: to undermine the self as a concept or entity or, in proper Newspeak, to confront the Self with the Excluded Other and thereby to deconstruct it.



-All the world's a text. This is the principle of "wall-to-wall textuality." Everything is a text or may be considered as such; what's more, at no fixed point does the text leave off and something called reality begin. The rise of text as the noun of choice dates back to an influential essay by Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text" (1971). The change in vocabulary, as Barthes makes clear, means a change in the ground rules of literary criticism. Work implies good literature, text embraces all-a leveling impulse that does away with the value judgments that used to distinguish critical activity. Rather than evaluate the works of a given author, the properly enlightened critic plays with authorless texts. For the shift in terminology also signals a shift of authority. Work implies an author and text helps eliminate that umwanted personage. "The author is reputed the father and owner of

his work," Barthes writes. "As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father." Works are objects of "consumption" devoured by passive readers; texts are "polysemous," having plural meanings, and reading is an act of "practical collaboration."

Roland Barthes affirmed what he called "the pleasure of the " He used the word jouissance to indicate the erotic dimension of reading; the appropriate response to a book is to read it like a playful lover rather than like a uxorious husband, with liberty rather than with fidelity. Jacques Derrida raised the importance of the text to a metaphysical quandary, a difficulty standing in the way of our knowing anything with certainty. "There is nothing outside the text" -'il n'y a pas de hors-texte" he declared in Of Grammatalogy. It is a philosophical position that effectively dissolves all borders. It makes little sense to observe the distinction between truth and fiction, for example; both are subsumed under the heading of "textuality." Texts don't speak about the world but about other texts. There is, where meaning once was thought to reside, only an infinity of mirrors.

The concept of textuality is a good example of how deconstruction reflects and builds on the crucial assumptions of our cultural Zeitgeist. You find the concept endowed with a similar significance in the field of anthropology. "Doing ethnography," Clifford Geertz argued in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), "is like trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of) a manuscript-foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior." Anthropological writings are interpretations in search of meaning rather than investigations in search of scientific laws. It follows that they are fictions, "something made," "something fashioned." But for Geertz the knowledge of the ineluctable textuality of all experience and all evidence doesn't lead to a deconstructive dead end. Geertz recognizes the threat to "the objective status of anthropological knowledge" but maintains that "the threat is hollow. The claim to attention of an ethnographic account does not rest on its author's ability to capture primitive facts in faraway places and carry them home like a mask or a carving, but on the degree to which he is able to clarify what goes on in such places, to reduce the puzzlement-what manner of men are these?-to which unfamiliar acts emerging out of unknown backgrounds naturally give rise. In the years since Geertz wrote these words, radical anthropologists have seized on the threat that he calls hollow as if it were the one indubitable fact that makes all others suspect.



-The author is dead. "Popular wisdom warns us that we frequently substitute the wish for the deed," writes the novelist and critic William Gass, "and when, in 1968, Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, he was actually calling for it. Nor did Roland Barthes himself sign up for suicide, but wrote his way into the College of France where he performed voltes-faces for an admiring audience." Barthes tolled the bell in his essay "The Death of the Author," naming that as the precondition for the wished-for "birth of the reader." For Barthes the demise of the author successfully completes a rebellion against authority. The elimination of "the Author-God" frustrates any attempt to"decipher" the text, and that, wrote Barthes, is a good thing. The text is to be "disentangled," not deciphered," and this "liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases-reason, science, law." There is something awry, William Gass notes, in the metaphorical linkage of authors and gods-an odd leap of logic that makes us balk at the assumption that the literary half of the analogy is as "liberating" as Barthes would have us believe. Gass explains:

"The idea of the death of the author does not match the idea of the death of god as perfectly as the current members of this faith may suppose, because we know-as they knowthat there are authors; and we know-as they know-there are no gods. The death of the author is not an ordinary demise, nor is it simply the departure of belief, like an exotic visitor from the East, from the minds of the masses. The two expressions are metaphors which are the reverse of one another. The death of god represents not only the realization that gods have never existed, but the contention that such a belief is no longer even irrationally possible: that neither reason nor the taste and temper of the times can condone it. The belief lingers on, of course, but it does so like astrology or a faith in a flat earth-in worse case than

a neurotic symptom, no longer even a la mode. The death of the author, on the other hand, signifies a decline in authority, in theological power, as if Zeus were stripped of his thunderbolts and swans, perhaps residing on Olympus Still, but now living in a camper and cooking with propane. He is, but he is no longer a god."



The "death of god" is the denial of a metaphysical belief, the "death of the author" is a denial of a material, historical, verifiable fact. The comparison between the author and God is a flawed one but is strategically employed to glorify the reader-critic's willful disobedience. Gass shrewdly suggests that the real point of convergence between the death of the author and the death of God lies somewhere beyond the two concepts-in the wished-for "death of the father." Undoubtedly this is the gesture that the word phallogocentrism is meant to perform.

While Barthes calls for the overthrow of the author as a way to replicate in literary terms the death of God, Michel Foucault sets out to demonstrate that the author never existed in the first place. According to Foucault, to identify a text by its author's name is, relatively speaking, a modem convention. "There was a time when the texts we today call 'literary9 (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author." Foucault recommends that we regard the author not "as a genius" but as "an ideological product." He predicts that "the author-function will disappear" and that texts will then be able to "develop in the anonymity of a murmurs It need hardly be said that neither Barthes nor Foucault removed his name from the title pages of the books in which they pronounce their requiescat in pace for the author.

Deconstruction completes the assault. For Jacques Derrida, quotation marks make the point that "it would be frivolous to think that "Descartes", 'Leibniz,' "Rousseau", 'Hegel,' etc., are names of authors." What are they, then? Merely textual entities, fictive beings devoid of authority. Peter Mullen's parodic poem, "Deconstruction," is quite exact:

D'ya wanna know the creed'a

Jacques Derrida?
Dere ain't no reada
Dere ain't no wrider
Eider.


If the author is dead, and has been dead "always already," the author's life is irrelevant: deconstruction is a profoundly antibiographical theory. To note the boom in biography as a publishing category and as a literary enterprise is to note one more sign of the breach between the academic scene and the culture at large.



-Presence is absent. The deconstructive unmasking of "the metaphysics of presence" has a plainly antitheological charge. Where existentialism regarded "the death of god" as a starting point for a philosophy of moral action, deconstruction 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. Apply this logic to the Ten Commandments, and you find that they deconstruct themselves. The argument goes like this: For the Ten Commandments to have any real moral force, you need to credit the authority of God. The various imperatives, the thou shalt and thou shalt not clauses, make no sense without the prior assertion of a God in whom these cornmandments originate. Therefore the Ten Commandments begin with an affirmation rather than a command: "I am the Lord thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The voice of God-God's presence-precedes his commandments; it's the is that makes ought possible. "If God is dead, everything is permitted," wrote Dostoevski in The Brothers Karamazov. The deconstructive world-view is closer in spirit to Nietzsche's way of saying it: "Nothing is true; everything is permitted."



-History is bunk. Henry Ford summed up the orthodox deconstructive position with admirable succinctness. History is one casualty of the dissolution of philosophical boundaries. Since there is no history outside of texts, and texts are unstable in their meaning, history is rendered undecidable-as undecidable as literature. In effect, history exists within bracket marks. A programmatic skepticism toward all truth-claims promotes the view of history as either irrelevant

to the study- of a given text or as itself a scripted text, with no more substance than a movie. The double danger of such a view is that it would paralyze the will to act upon our destiny while at the same time it implies the possibility that the "texts" of our lives can be revised, erased, or interpreted out of existence.

For a fictional treatment of the wars-as-texts theme, turn to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), a masterpiece in the "alternative history" subgenre of science fiction. The novel is based on the premise that the Germans and the Japanese won the Second World War. The victors between them occupy the United States-the Japanese control the West Coast, the Germans the East-except for a slender nonaligned region in the mountain states. In a remote castle in this unoccupied zone lives a man named Abendsen, the author of a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Though banned by the Nazis, The Grasshopper enjoys a lively underground existence. It is a most subversive novel-its premise is that Germany and Japan lost the war. Juliana, Dick's heroine, undertakes a pilgrimage to Abendsen's high castle and, after various crises and close calls, reaches her destination. She finds that the Abendsen house is not a castle at all but "a single-story stucco house with many shrubs and a good deal of garden made up mostly of climbing roses." The climactic revelation comes next. When Juliana and Abendsen meet, both are startled to learn that his book "is true." Despite all appearances to the contrary, Germany and Japan did lose the war.

The fragility of historical truth is a great theme for the novelist to explore, whether in the form of a prophetic warning or a paranoid fantasia. But when it is taught as serious doctrine-when the assault on empirical facts" is made sober-faced, as though the knowledge were somehow liberating, as though it weren't standard totalitarian practice to substitute interpretation for fact in the rewriting of history-the deconstruction of truth is not so benign a phenomenon.



-Goodbye to aesthetics. Art is suspect because works of art are ideological constructions-as are governments, wars, and revolutions. Art has been corrupted by technology. Fascism can be understood as a triumph of the aesthetic ideology: the Nazis mesmerized the masses with images and illusions, the construction of a myth. Here the key text is Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). "The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life," Benjamin wrote. War itself could be treated as if it were an aesthetic spectacle. Fascism expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology." Published in 1936, before the Nazis' state-sponsored violence ran its full course, Benjamin's analysis leaves out the more extreme forms of coercion of the fascist state-a state in which, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, the unacknowledged legislators of the world are the secret police. But while Benjamin's is a limited view of fascism, that hasn't stopped deconstructionists from harping on the dangers of "aesthetic ideology." The deconstructionist suspicion of art is thus put on a quasi-political footing.

Some theorists make the argument that art underwrites the authority of the powers that be. The view that regards the work of art as an autonomous entity is seen as a "bourgeois fiction" designed to mask the ways in which art is used to inculcate a dominant cultural ideology. For the so-called cultural materialists, who put deconstructive tactics at the service of Marxist objectives, art is a species of production, of interest as an object of study to the extent that it presents a microcosm of the economic structure of capitalism. The moral experience of a work of art, the ideas it expresses, the feelings it educates, are an obvious casualty of such critical programs.





-Language, not knowledge, is power. Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass was an early forerunner of deconstruction. Words, he says, don't mean what you think they mean. Everything depends on who does the defining. In Humpty's own example, glory can mean "a nice knock-down argument." It follows that language is a mediator of power, not a repository of beliefs. For Humpty, words mean what he wants them to mean. "The question is" says Alice, " whether you can make words mean so many different things" "The question is" Humpty replies, "which is to be master-that's all." Like Humpty, the deconstructionists are preoccupied with power-they are inordinately fond of using words such as power and institutions and avoiding words such as greatness and genius and wisdom. Humpty even has a comment, or so it seems, on the prose style of deconstructionist critics. "Impenetrability!" he exclaims. Alice asks what he means. "I meant by 'Impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject."

-What you see is never what you get. You expect a text to represent the world, but the text is self-referential. You persist in regarding words as means toward an end, but you cannot escape the endlessly labyrinthine coils of discourse. Words point only to other words, to traces and differences, never to the real thing. The truth is what is absent, concealed, "marginalized," excluded, invisible. The late novelist Walker Percy defined a deconstructionist as an academic who claims that texts have no referents, but who leaves a message on his wife's telephone answering machine requesting a pepperoni pizza for supper. The message is a text, writes Percy, and the pizza is a referent. To extend the metaphor, it could be specified that the telephone answering machine in question has a self-erasing tape. The deconstructive critic should not be surprised if the pizza fails to materialize.

And that brings us to the Marxist/Freudian axis. In a Marxist model of knowledge, the superstructure-the tangible products of culture-camouflages and reinforces the hidden reality of class warfare. In a Freudian model, the manifest content of a dream is a cover or disguise for its latent meaning. In a deconstructive model, the text that is the world is similarly a camouflage. Like the Marxist's superstructure and the Freudian's manifest content, it is something to be seen through. The difference is that here, in contrast to the Marxist or Freudian schemes, there is no ultimate meaning to which one can penetrate. There is only the constant deferral of meaning, the infinite play of signification, and finally, the equilibrist's wire across the linguistic abyss.

From Chapter 4, "To the Linguistic Abyss", in David Lehman's outstanding study/history of deconstruction, Signs of the Times, Poseidon Press, 1992.