9 minute read

Literary Criticism - Deconstruction And Beyond

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterary Criticism - The New Criticism, Deconstruction And Beyond, Bibliography

Deconstruction and Beyond

It would be difficult to overstate the implications of (1) the recession of the subject of the humanities, (2) the emphasis on systematicity and process, and (3) the flattening out of the literary object in a vast sea of textual properties and equalities; in the aftermath of structuralism, between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, "literary criticism" would become one of a number of critical foci that joined a textualized universe wholly explicable by a generous term called "theory." Texts of philosophy, history, anthropology, and psychoanalytic practice, among other writings deemed to have powerful explanatory value, mixed and mingled in the corridors of criticism with uncustomary abandon, "guests," as it were, of the English department and the departments of comparative literature and modern languages. Bridges between these allied disciplines were supplied by a widespread importation of the writings of continental thinkers, particularly the French contingent. Of prime importance to these developments were the philosophy and methodology of deconstruction, articulated through a critique of modern philosophy by Jacques Derrida, in his De la Grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology), a work that was enormously influential to the development of theory in the poststructuralist period.

Deconstruction casts its gaze at the dominant trend lines of metaphysical philosophies that posit the centrality of the logos (the word) and the presence of speech/voice; through a "double gesture," as Jonathan Culler explains it, the deconstructionist project seeks to reverse the classical oppositions of philosophical writings at the same time that it exploits or uses them. By way of such reversals, deconstruction effects a displacement of the philosophical system. Deconstruction is carried out primarily as paradoxical procedure because it undermines "the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies" (1982, p. 86). One might think of deconstruction, then, as "the story of reading" writing (1982, p. 35), insofar as it ultimately holds that writing is a "writingin-general," an "archi-écriture," or a "protowriting which is the condition of both speech and writing in the narrow sense" (1982, p. 102). It seems that the key displacement executed by deconstruction is that of the "origin," or "beginnings"; as origin recedes, "transcendence" follows in its wake. If the "origin" of the "word" is taken as leading figures of thought to be displaced in the classical schemata, then a universe of oppositions opens up, splitting off positives and negatives, truth and falsity, presence and absence, good and bad, superior and inferior. The negatives can be lined up under one rubric and the positives under another, or the degraded class of objects over and against the transcending ones. By contending that these punctualities are the result of the manipulations of language, or the effects of the play of signification, rather than the hallmarks of truth, deconstruction posits différance (a French neologism) as the condition of meaning—an interminable interpretation and analysis, or in Culler's words, an "act of differing which produces differences" (p. 97). Différance, as a paronomastic device, contains deferral (or cancellation of closure), as well as difference, in the sense of differing from. From Sausserian linguistics, the deconstructionalist reinforces the notion that meaning works by signification, but the latter is driven not by the meeting of opposites, but by the annulment of the latter. In other words, we can only account for the bombardment of differing elements. For example, a "tree," the sign vehicle, is a "tree" because something else is "not-tree," and so on, ad infinitum.

Interestingly, some of the best examples of the play of difference are presented in the "Sense-Certainty" segment of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1807), and in the vertiginous exceptions of Plato's Parmenides. The "now" that Hegel turns over, for instance, is not something under the thumb and pinpointed, since it is a continuity that "grows" into the present, ever passing into the "not-now," both the future and the has-been (p. 152). That simple "now," according to Hegel, is "therefore not something immediate, but something mediated." It might appear that this tedious activity of discrimination would sustain only esoteric appeal, but in truth, it seems convertible into a powerful heuristic tool or "speculative instrument," insofar as it also calls into question the entire repertoire of the mundane, of the domination and dogma of "common sense," "reality," "what we all know and believe," and the limitless orthodoxy of "what is"—"that which everywhere, that which always, that which by all." Furthermore, if truth no longer has a guarantor in an undivided origin, then we are doomed to, or liberated from, essences—or the gold buried beneath the dross, as the philosopher Louis Althusser would have it—to the entanglements of existence.

The contemporary women's movement or the critique of knowledge undertaken by the black studies project, and de-construction, are not customarily spoken of in the same breath, but if the latter is thought of as the inscription of an attitude toward the symbolic enterprise, then it might be seen as the perfect context for a radically altered humanities academy. If origin is questionable, then it follows that canons will be, as well, and once canons are toppled, then an entire ensemble of hierarchical operations (one gender over another, one dominant race and its "others") might be rendered moribund, or at least brought down to size.

The curricular objects of women's studies and African American, Marxist, and postcolonial critiques are the newest epistemologies of the humanities academy, both enabled by poststructuralist methodologies and going well beyond them. The repertory of critical inquiries on sexuality, the New Historicism, and a range of cultural studies constitute the most exciting developments in a field generally known in the opening years of the twenty-first century simply as "theory." From Chicago to China, one of the languages that speaks across the cultures is that of "theory," now a global language of scholars in the humanities.


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1979.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Selected and translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

——. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. Preface by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. "The Reading of Modern Poetry." In American Poetry and Prose, edited by Norman Foerster. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

——. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

——. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950. Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

——. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

——. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Drake, William, ed. The First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915–1945. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. 2nd ed. London: Chatto and Windus, 1947.

——. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York: New Directions, 1974.

Feldstein, Richard, and Judith Roof, eds. Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

——. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Guha, Ranajit, ed. A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986–1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J. B. Baillie. 2nd ed. London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Keller. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

Jakobson, Roman, and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. 2nd rev. ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.

——. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kester-Shelton, Pamela, ed. Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

Lemon, Lee T., and Marion J. Reis, trans. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Macksey, Richard, and Eugenio Donato, eds. The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Napier, Winston, ed. African-American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Nicholson, Linda J., ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Richards, I. A. Speculative Instruments. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Spillers, Hortense J. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Wall, Cheryl A. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Briar Patch." In his I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Hortense J. Spillers

Additional topics