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Literary Criticism

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.


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Hortense J. Spillers

Additional topics

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