Deconstruction: An American Tale
Sep 30, 2016
10 Min read time
Lampooned as a dangerous import from Paris, deconstruction is in fact a distinctively American phenomenon.
Image: Paolo Barzman / Flickr
The year of the United States Bicentennial found French philosopher Jacques Derrida feeling rather intimidated. The University of Virginia—founded by Thomas Jefferson—had invited him to compare America’s Declaration of Independence to France’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. The philosophe balked. Rather than analyze the two foundational texts, he chose instead to speak solely on the Declaration. Though Jefferson was its principal author, Derrida observed, the document’s “signer” was “the ‘good people’”—the American nation—who used the text to “declare themselves free and independent.” Yet, because there was no “signer . . . before the text of the Declaration which itself remains the producer and guarantor of its own signature,” it remained undecidable whether “the ‘good people’” existed before or rather came into being with the Declaration. This document, Derrida argued, showed how the American people both proclaimed and constructed their identity.
With this one claim Derrida assimilated one of America’s founding texts into his philosophical project, locating the deconstructive stance and style of reading—ironic, reflexive, demanding, prescient, undermining dualisms and foundational truths—at the heart of the nation. If that were the case, could it really be true, as so many academics on the Left and the Right during the 1970s and ’80s claimed, that deconstruction was a destructive import from Paris’s Rive Gauche, one that threatened literature, history, perhaps even truth, justice, and the American way to boot?
Though the specter of the European theorist persists, deconstruction was largely an indigenous creation.
Viewing deconstruction as a foreign mode of interpretation obscures the fertile soil in which it took root and flourished in the Untied States. Central to the story of deconstruction, but often neglected, are the various American contexts that cultivated and disseminated deconstructive undertakings. Even though the image—to some, the bogeyman—of the European theorist persists, the truth is that deconstructive literary theory was largely an indigenous creation. This change of perspective throws new light on the scapegoating of French Theory for the decline of the humanities. As it turns out, what began as a rarified method of reading literature practiced in seminar rooms and lecture halls has permeated many arenas of American life, including quite a few far beyond the academy.
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If one had to pinpoint ground zero for the eruption of deconstruction onto the American stage, it would have to be Yale, where a group of literary critics, theorists, and philosophers of literature—Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller—executed deconstructive readings with great élan and to great intellectual and pedagogical effect during the ’70s and early ’80s. Barbara Johnson, a graduate student and then professor of French and comparative literature during this period, explained in a 1987 interview that Yale’s comparative literature department played a key role not so much in domesticating as in generating deconstructive practices in America, and it did so on distinctly American terms. By promoting a pluralism that undermined a national canon and aimed to increase the prospect of communication across cultures—quintessential mid- to late-twentieth century Cold War American values—the discipline of comparative literature itself nurtured deconstructive stances, both at Yale and elsewhere. The first deconstructive courses in U.S. departments of literature were offered in Yale’s comparative literature department, for example, beginning with a class on Nietzsche taught by de Man in 1971. By the early ’80s, several generations of American academics venerated de Man’s work, while their European counterparts were just beginning to discover him.
Yale’s institutional history and its relation to contemporary American politics and social life helped to disseminate deconstructive thinking throughout the United States. Until the mid-seventies, Yale had boasted several prominent New Critics, including the movement’s most recognizable figures: Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, and Robert Penn Warren. Their work, popular in American literature departments and high school English classes following World War II, stressed “close reading,” viewing works of literature as self-contained, self-referential aesthetic objects. The upheavals of the sixties, however, produced a younger generation of literary critics with a longing for an interpretive theory that emphasized the political and social dimensions of literature, as well as differences and divisions within it—precisely those aspects of prose and poetry that the New Critics fused into an autonomous and unified whole. By subverting the New Critical way of reading, the Yale Group—who in their distinctive ways considered great poetry not a harmony realized via paradoxes, ironies, and ambiguities but a dissonance achieved by way of contradictions, inconsistencies, and uncertainties—tilled propitious soil in the American academy.
What began as a rarified method of reading literature has permeated many arenas of American life.
A younger generation of American literary critics saw deconstructive writers mirroring the politics of the time. As Johnson observed, while “there’s no political program . . . I think there’s a political attitude, which is to examine authority in language.” Such political power in language came issuing forth from the Nixon White House, the television news anchor, the professoriate. There was also the political valence of the literary figures, topics, and themes celebrated by Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Paul de Man. Through the ’60s and into the early ’70s, Yale School members played a large role in revising the reputation of Romantic poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth and William Blake, whom modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot had portrayed as puerile and politically unsophisticated. In deft deconstructive hands, however, the Romantics become masters of the unsettling paradox, the poignant irony, and the disturbing ambiguity of democratic and individualist commitments. All told, the potent mix of institutional, political, and intellectual contexts at Yale in the seventies amplified the zeal among younger critics for the deconstructive enterprise.
Cultivated at Yale, deconstruction began to ramify to other departments and locales. Consider the influential 1976 debate, “The Limits of Pluralism,” that took place at the first session of the Modern Language Association’s Division on Philosophical Approaches to Literature. This panel signaled a shift in the orientation of American literary criticism toward more self-consciously philosophical methodologies and marked the wider attention given across America to questions about the constraints of identity and meaning. In the turbulent early ’70s, pluralist discourse experienced a resurgence, driven in part by the enduring Civil Rights struggle and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which brought a steady influx of Asian and Latino immigrants to America. The abstract philosophical concerns at “The Limits of Pluralism” about the limits of textual meaning echoed larger political and social concerns about the parameters of pluralism. The MLA session also helped build deconstructive inroads into American English literature departments. Far from what some saw as the anti-pluralism and radical skepticism (and implied Anti-Americanism) of Miller’s style of reading, many English professors felt Miller offered teachers a vision for how to fulfill their pedagogical duty. As odd as it may seem to some readers today, American teachers of literature, as early as 1976, considered deconstruction as an affirmative rather than a negative interpretive practice.
While deconstructive criticism began to jump from departments of comparative literature to departments of English literature by the mid ’70s, the work of Derrida, who trained as a philosopher in the continental phenomenological tradition at France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, remained largely ignored (at best) or vilified (at worst) throughout North American departments of philosophy. There are several reasons for the poor reception. The first translated works of or about Derrida portrayed his claims as the latest example of a long line of French solipsism, relativism, and nihilism. Other portrayals failed to transpose the French intellectual contexts of Derrida’s work into the literary critical scene in the United States. In still other accounts, Derrida’s deconstruction was portrayed as an enemy of the analytic philosophical tradition dominant in Anglo-American departments of philosophy since the ’50s. Gaining prominence in part due to Cold War fears of the politicization of knowledge, this tradition modeled philosophical thinking on the sciences, valorizing its socially and historically disengaged conception of truth, language, and method. The perceived division between analytic and continental philosophical traditions in the American academy was further exacerbated by a string of broadsides in high-profile publications against deconstruction. While the authors of these publications may have intended to protect the purity of philosophy and core goals of the humanities more broadly, such textual assaults, launched from both the Left and the Right, obscured the exciting, innovative, and increasingly diverse deconstructive work pursed in the United States.
In fact, deconstructive undertakings began to appear with more frequency and more variety during the eighties in disciplines and fields across the humanities and social sciences. Derrida himself recognized, in a 1979 interview, that “deconstruction” was being applied in ways that he could not have predicted nor had any intention of controlling. The word was making unexpected leaps, creeping into almost every nook and cranny of the American academy and beyond. All the while, the deconstructive endeavors of the Yale School continued to ferment in departments of literature, and did so via teaching, publications, and lectures. To give just a few examples: Barbara Johnson helped make Derrida’s work accessible to Anglophone readers and cemented Mary Shelley’s place in the Romantic literary canon. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (a student of Miller at Yale) penned groundbreaking deconstructive work that helped create the field of queer studies. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (another student of de Man) applied deconstructive interpretive tactics to diverse theoretical engagements and textual analyses in feminism, Marxism, and postcolonialism. Others developed deconstruction’s concerns by questioning the binary oppositions that structure society and enforce power relations. Joan Wallach Scott’s rejection of traditional gender categories, for instance, helped launch the field of gender history, and Judith Butler (who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale) extended that work to shape a generation of scholarship and activism. By the late ’80s, deconstructive reading had moved from literature to history and society at large.
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If Reagan’s America can be said to have consolidated and reinforced traditional values in the public sphere, a ’90s America instead advanced diversity and difference, and deconstructive techniques rapidly spread in this environment. Take artistic life, for example. In 1988, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City offered a “deconstructivist architecture” exhibition. Though only a minority of the architects included, such as Peter Eisenman, directly engaged Derrida’s work, what united them, MoMA’s exhibition pamphlet explained, was their use of “twisted volumes, warped planes, and clashed lines” to “intentionally violate the cubes and right angles of modernism. Despite their radical appearance the projects . . . are essentially traditional forms that have been subverted or displaced.”
We talk now of deconstructing not just texts and philosophical systems, but recipes and men’s wear.
Today, deconstructive habits of mind within the academy are largely considered not so much controversial as passé. Still, there remains the question of how and why the deconstructive tradition became such a formidable pattern of thought in the United States. To answer that question, Americans might—in an ironic twist—consider the February 2014 protests in France against the legalization of same-sex marriage. Those protestors objected to the equality advanced by the new grade school pedagogy ostensibly inspired by American gender theory, above all that of deconstructionist Judith Butler. “La théorie du genre,” according to French protestors, originated on the other side of the Atlantic. We might also consider why, as Fredric Jameson noted in 2015, Americans tend to believe the “good tidings” of theory—including deconstruction—were brought from Europe, while Chinese literary scholars, say, consider theory an American invention. These perceptions of the origin and flow of ideas should give pause to those who consider deconstruction essentially French.
Though it began as an academic theory, deconstruction has come to pervade even popular culture in English—a remarkable accomplishment if one is accustomed to hearing about the social irrelevance of the humanities. We talk now of deconstructing not just texts and philosophical systems, gender binaries or sites of political power, but recipes and men’s wear. Even if we no longer hear distant echoes of Derrida or de Man in these formulations, the ubiquity of the word in our cultural vocabulary points to a distinctively American phenomenon. With the academic culture wars largely behind us, it is time to soberly deconstruct conventional wisdom about the history of deconstruction.
September 30, 2016
10 Min read time