[Paleopsych] New Republic: The Death of the Author

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The Death of the Author

    The Death of the Author
    by Richard Wolin
    Only at TNR Online
    Post date: 10.13.04

    A nyone who tries to account for Jacques Derrida's success in North
    America is faced with a paradox. During the early 1980s, when his
    fortunes began to ebb precipitously in France--articles on his
    philosophy had slowed to a trickle of two or three per annum--in the
    United States deconstruction became something of an academic cottage
    industry. Translations of his books, conferences devoted to his
    thought, as well as endless commentaries trying to explicate the
    obscurities of "so-called deconstruction" proliferated.

    The irony is that American academics--most of whom were clustered in
    comparative literature departments--attempting to ride the crest of
    the Parisian theoretical avant-garde were "always already" (to employ
    a pet Derrideanism) behind the times. For, by the mid-'70s, Derrida's
    exotic brand of "post-structuralism"--which had proclaimed that the
    ends of metaphysical "closure" pursued by first-generation, hard core
    structuralists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Michel
    Foucault, could never be achieved--had become a dead letter.

    Nineteen sixty-seven was Derrida's breakthrough year. He published
    three successful books and, for a brief, shining moment, became the
    toast of the Left Bank. Structuralism had become intellectually
    hegemonic. The claims of Derridean "différance"--viz., that all claims
    to determinate meaning were self-undermining--appeared revolutionary
    and refreshing. Yet, already by the following year, his hermetic,
    "negative semiotics"--a semiotics of "absence" rather than
    "presence"--had become an object of satirical derision. In
    Structuralist Mornings, the novelist Clément Rosset subjected
    deconstructionist pretense (specifically, the Derridean habitude of
    writing sous rature or crossing out words) to biting parody: "I write
    a first sentence, but in fact I should not have written it, excuse me,
    I will erase everything and I'll start over again; I write a second
    sentence, but after thinking about it, I should not have written that
    one either."

    In France, the Derridean gambit foundered quite soon. Like the
    structuralists, Derrida prided himself on his discursive
    "illisibilité," or "unreadability." But after the breakthrough of the
    May '68 revolt, when structuralist platitudes concerning the "end of
    history" and the "end of man" were refuted on the streets of the Latin
    Quarter, "unintelligibility" had become a distinct liability. In the
    eyes of the May generation, Derrida was associated with the
    structuralist old guard. Deconstruction was perceived, not unjustly,
    as part and parcel of an elitist, self-enclosed, mandarin academic
    idiom. In the eyes of his critics, Derrida was never able to live down
    his famous bon mot, "There is nothing outside the text." The exclusive
    emphasis on "textuality" in his work, combined with the studied
    indifference to the political exterior or "outside," constituted a
    final nail in deconstruction's coffin.

    Toward the late '80s, deconstruction also underwent a major crisis in
    North America. In the eyes of his acolytes, the Master's frequent
    proclamations concerning the "death of the subject" seemed to malign
    and belittle the idea of human agency itself--and, thus, the prospect
    of progressive political change. If all meaning were, as Derrida
    claimed, indeterminate, if moral and epistemological questions were
    ultimately "undecidable," what was the point of political commitment?
    When all was said and done, wasn't deconstruction merely an elaborate
    and convoluted prescription for political quietism?

    In 1987 the Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger scandals
    broke--coincidently, within months of each another. In a stroke,
    deconstruction's key North American benefactor (de Man) and its
    leading philosophical inspiration (Heidegger) were exposed for their
    compromising associations with Nazism. Derrida did nothing to enhance
    deconstruction's credibility when he claimed: 1) that Heidegger had
    become a Nazi due to a surfeit of "metaphysical humanism" and 2) de
    Man's 1941 newspaper articles endorsing the deportation of Europe's
    Jews were actually the work of a closet résistant. Could it be that
    the claims and suspicions of deconstruction's vigorous detractors were
    true after all?

    But the ultimate paradox besetting deconstruction lies elsewhere. It
    hinges on the fact that a methodology that promoted itself as
    "critical"--as the exemplar of political and textual
    criticism--quickly degenerated into a variant of run-of-the-mill
    academic corporatism. Each time deconstruction was exposed to
    criticism, the Derridean faithful predictably circled the wagons.
    Deconstruction had become a new Scripture or Holy Writ. And in the
    eyes of true believers, its progenitor could do no wrong. Anyone who
    dared to criticize the credo was branded as a heathen or non-believer.
    Deconstruction had its moment in the intellectual limelight. But,
    appropriately, that moment was fleeting.

    [4]Richard Wolin is the author of The Seduction of Unreason: The
    Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzche to Postmodernism
    (Princeton University Press).


    4. http://www.tnr.com/showBio.mhtml?pid=432

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