[Paleopsych] New Republic: The Death of the Author
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The Death of the Author
THE APPROPRIATE DECLINE OF DECONSTRUCTIONISM.
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
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.
Richard Wolin is the author of The Seduction of Unreason: The
Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzche to Postmodernism
(Princeton University Press).
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