Friday, January 30, 2009

DECONSTRUCTION AND CRITICISM by Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller (the gang's all here!)

J. Hillis Miller, who comes alphabetically last among the authors of this collection, is responsible for its best essay. "The Critic as Host" is very good, probably the best single deconstructive essay I've ever read and a great intro to the school--a much better intro than Derrida's "Differance" from Margins of Philosophy. It's also a little contagious, as any strong critical work must be (as Bloom's influence theories are and Frye's structural ones aren't, for me). Reading Miller, it's easy to slip into deconstructive mania, seeing a wilderness of oppositions crying out to be set in ultimate oscillation over an abyss of meaning(lessness). I think the best introductions to deconstruction in practice are probably Derrida's "Force and Signification" and "Structure, Sign and Play...," De Man's essays on Derrida and Rilke, and this piece by Miller. It's a very impressive essay, not to mention troubling (but in a salutary way). Help! All of these words are implying their dark deconstructive doppelgangers!...

While reading Miller, I thought that one possible deconstructive strategy for Harold Bloom's theory of influence might begin by relating Bloom's 'influence' to 'influenza' and bring in the idea that texts create their precursors, even rewrite them, in a way analogous to the passage of a cold virus around a family, infecting each family member in turn and then re-infecting the now-recovered initial infectee. But this, on further reflection, really is Bloom's theory of influence, not its deconstruction. Bloomian influence theory is most vulnerable on another score (and now Jacques Derrida knocks down a door in my mind to remind me that 'score' also signifies [under erasure, bien sur] a mark made by a sharp tool, like a writing stylus... Oh, go back to your coffin, Jacques!). Bloom's theory is vulnerable due to the hermetically sealed textual universe it posits, his expulsion of the world from the text. The barbarians of historicism have already burst Bloom's gates, so this exclusion is obviously untenable. But a deconstructive reading of The Anxiety of Influence would try to show that the very rhetorical moves by which Bloom expels the world from his text also function to let the world in, like a screendoor that is simultaneously 'closed' (the frame) and 'open' (the window). The next movement would then probably be the deconstruction of this open/closed polarity by the interrogation of the figures used to express it...and then everything will end the way these readings always do: with the reader and writer gazing upon a wondrous aporia that bears a disconcerting resemblance to Paul de Man's fuzzy Belgian navel.

(In the Foreward to the second edition of Blindness and Insight [a book I recommend highly, by the way], de Man writes: "I am not given to retrospective self-examination and mercifully forget what I have written with the same alacrity I forget bad movies--although, as with bad movies, certain scenes or phrases return at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience." I'm not going to take the easy and obvious route, responding to this statement by saying that de Man's distaste for self-examination may be grounded in the fact that every time he looked in the mirror he saw a fascist collaborator staring back at him. No, I'm not going to say that. David Lehman has already said it all in what is surely the only book on deconstruction to which the adjective 'thrilling' might be unblushingly applied, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. Now that the furor is long past and de Man's youthful Nazi collaboration is old news, I think we might more fruitfully focus on the last part of the passage. Although de Man, master rhetorician that he is, tries to undercut the impact of those last six words with an analogy to superficial products of popular culture ['bad movies'], the impact remains--indeed, in an irony de Man would certainly appreciate, the impact is increased by his transparent attempt to undermine it. There is surely nothing in Blindness and Insight that would "haunt" Paul de Man "like a guilty conscience." He must be referring to some other writings, perhaps even those articles he wrote during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in the fascist newspaper Le Soir. But even if this supposition is accurate, this passage should probably not be understood as a kind of veiled confession. I think it's closer to self-pity: the old collaborator whining about all that he has suffered. Interpreted this way, it may be the most despicable thing the man ever wrote.)

Impressed as I am by Miller's "Critic as Host," I can also readily see the text and its author as ripe for parody. Miller enjoys flaunting his Yale-ish authority and proclaiming dubious critical 'laws'; he's like Moses of Yale, the lawgiver of deconstruction. Even his image for the ultimate promise of deconstruction is Mosaic: the successfully deconstructive critic will be granted only a glimpse of a Promised Land 'beyond metaphysics.' I see Hillis the Lawgiver with a long, white Hestonian beard standing on the outskirts of New Haven ca.1979 holding two blank stone tablets that he insists are inscribed with the secrets of a world beyond metaphysics. The New Havenites slide by on grease.

And it seems to me now (the strength of Miller's deconstructive virus having kept the thought at bay for several hours) that Derridean and de Manian and Millerian deconstruction might themselves be deconstructed along the same lines as Bloomian influence theory, by showing how the rhetoric by which it establishes and enlarges its textual domain also provides an opening to the extratextual, the beyond-language or hors-texte that all good Derrideans deny the way Christian Fundamentalists deny Darwinian evolution. Such a reading, on the other hand, might serve to confirm rather than deny the efficacy of deconstruction... I suspect that this circle seems inescapable only because deconstructionists can't think their way out of it. You can't deconstruct your way out of deconstruction. It's a closed system--or better, it's a technique that can only confirm itself. (Is this true?) Trying to deconstruct your way out of deconstruction is like trying to swim your way out of an aquarium. Both are closed systems, so some other method of escape is required. Fish must jump to escape from an aquarium; critics looking for an Archimedes point from which to overturn deconstruction should probably investigate its material basis.

When deconstruction is historicized, it can be seen as an 'academic' concern, in all the worst senses of that adjective: divorced from the world in which most people live; confined to institutes; protected by an elite; encoded in specialized jargon; and, for all these reasons, potentially reactionary despite its pretense of radicalism. (I hasten to add that the first charge of this indictment--divorce from 'reality'--is not necessarily a bad thing.) In short, deconstruction is one of the academic faces of corporate technocratic capitalism, and all the criticisms leveled at technocrats in John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards can be leveled at the deconstructionists (whom Saul mentions only in passing and seems not to understand). Deconstructionists can deconstruct each of these criticisms, but they cannot refute them, because the criticisms have a basis in a material, historical reality (corporate capitalism in its academic manifestation, the modern university) rather than a purely linguistic one. Deconstruction flies in the superstructure, so an authentically radical critique--a critique as radical as the decontructionists think they are--must show that even their wildest deconstructive flights remain tethered to the good old vulgar Marxist ground, 'based' in the realities of American capitalism in its current corporate phase.


Michael Ducey said...

All the peculiarities of Derrida's work come from his dissociated epistemology.
Derrida gets the language for his epistemology from Husserl. Everybody agreed on the starting point, that phenomenology starts with a "principle of principles" that "primordial presence to intuition is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris."

This means that "the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present. The present alone is and ever will be. Being is presence or the modification of presence. The relation with the presence of the present as the ultimate form of being and of ideality is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc." [Speech and Phenomena, 53-54.]

However, Husserl's choice of the words "present" and "presence" to indicate the ground of all knowledge has some very unfortunate consequences. That choice sets up a confusion between two completely different meanings of the word "presence."

One meaning is "phenomenological presence". This refers to the immediate access to being in the original act of knowledge. It does not refer to time at all. So, phenomenological presence might be better expressed by calling it presence-to-being. That would save it from being confused with the other meaning of "presence", what we should call "temporal presence", that is, the occurrence of an event at a particular moment in time.

Derrida also mentions that this living presence is "the now". This reinforces the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time. It is also unfortunate that Derrida has to use the word "form" in the phrase "the universal form of all experience". What he wants to refer to is the "universal basis of all experience", which is not a form. It is an act. But this word-slippage is also quite telling, and one of the many clues in Derrida's work that he is confusing the order of abstract concepts and the order of actual reality.

Once having departed from actual reality, Derrida's whole work becomes surreal. One cornerstone mistake is his claim that iterability is an a priori condition of the origin of knowledge, whereas in fact iterability is an a posteriori result of the original act of knowledge. Once you get the traditional realistic assertion that insight is an act that can be repeated over and over, all of Derrida's objections collapse.

I have discussed these issues at length in my article "Dealing With Derrida", which you can find on the Radical Academy web site.

Although running down Derrida's mistakes in his text is difficult, once you get the key point that he was dissociated, the whole pattern of his out-of-body thinking makes sense. Dissociation is the result of trauma, and we find it in many corners of social thinking, presumably among people who have been traumatized. There are many sources of insight into dissociation. I recommend Trauma and the Body by Pat Ogden et al. as a start.

BRIAN OARD said...

Very interesting post (and much more focused than my desultory thoughts). I think you've inadvertently pinpointed the reason for my own attraction to some of Derrida's work in your sentence: "Once having departed from actual reality, Derrida's whole work becomes surreal." Derrida is, I think, neither a phenomenologist nor a hermeneuticist but an artist--a deeply frustrated artist trapped inside the discourse of philosophy and desperately trying to break free of it, to free himself. His work is thus, at its best, more personal than even he probably ever realized. And more Romantic. I realize that it's among the hoariest of 'saving' strategies to take a philosopher or scientist whose work has been convincingly criticized and shift the plane of discourse by calling him an 'artist' (cf. some of the lamer Freudian apologists), but in Derrida's case I think we do see a late Surrealist trapped inside the body and language of a philosophy professor.

Also, I wonder whether Derrida is simply misunderstanding Husserl or creatively misreading him (and the entire Western philosophical tradition) a la the strategies of misreading outlined in Harold Bloom's work of the 1970s (Anxiety of Influence, etc.) Derrida does seem to be a case study in Bloomian theory.