The Disturbing Element in Deconstruction

by David Lehman, from Signs of the Times, (Poseidon Press, 1992)

Pp. 132-133

While it is not the only critical theory in vogue, deconstruction has left its mark on most of the others and done more than the rest to give the age of theory its characteristic "metalanguage." Deconstruction has a pragmatic value, offering the graduate student a certifiably new yet officially sanctioned way to approach familiar texts. It also has an apocalyptic dimension-it announces that the time is right for the destruction of metaphysics, that the end of the word is at hand. It is a fitting philosophy for a time when the written word is itself under assault-a time when the computer screen threatens to render the printed page obsolete and when, what's more, the spoken and written utterances of public figures meet with unprecedented skepticism and disbelief on the part of the intellectual population. Deconstruction is, in sum, a sign of our times, and nowhere more so than in the relentlessly skeptical gaze it turns on the signs that make up our language and our world.

Whether you opt for "nihilistic" or some less-inflammatory adjective, it is easy to see why hard-core deconstruction disturbs so many teachers and writers. The impulse of deconstruction is profoundly inimical to art (which it subordinates to theory), to biography and history (whose relevance it denies), to conventional methods of critical analysis (which it considers retrograde), and to any philosophy of action (since existential choices are always transmuted into irresolvable linguistic predicaments). Nor is deconstruction content to be merely one theory among many; the zeal of its disciples, and the rarity with which adherents deprogram themselves, indicate as much. Deconstruction has seduced some fine minds. It has also quickened pulses, awakened anxieties, and aroused ferocious conflicts that continue to get fought out in academic conferences, in the deliberations of hiring committees, and in the literary supplements of newspapers and magazines. The institutional ramifications of deconstruction are not to be underestimated."