7 jun. 2011

Bullshit Fields (12)

Deconstruction.

(Ok, that's not even a field, since it's more of a theory. I even like Derrida, so I have to phrase this rather delicately. Most critiques of deconstruction are also bullshit, so I have to make sure I don't repeat those errors.)

The idea that deconstruction provides a "rigorous" method of looking at a literary text is pure bullshit.

My reasoning is that most American critics who tried to use the theory simply did not have the philosophical and linguistic chops to understand and evaluate it. They used an argument for authority, often filtered through a popularization such as that of Jonathan Culler. Blended with Fishian reader-response, anything goes criticism, it became the opposite of Derrida.

Because of a strongly anti-empiricist bent in French rationalist thought, deconstruction also became self-validating, unfalsifiable, like psychoanalysis. You couldn't question its validity without seeming naive and untheoretical. Nobody wanted to resemble the old-school skeptics, who didn't like it because it emphasized the instability of meaning in a literary text.

Of course, literary meaning is unstable. We can prove this empirically by looking that the history of the reception of texts. Somehow, though literary critics forgot this when Derrida and de Man came along.

9 comentarios:

Professor Zero dijo...

Yes. Well decon sticks in my craw the way marxian does in yours, for the same reason - how things were in graduate school.

The other faux rigorous theory or method is postcolonial, I think. I hate it when people say Bhabha is "rigorous." ;-)

Jonathan dijo...

Bhabha as rigorous is hilarious. I remember when he confused Sarah Vaughan with Aretha Franklin.

John dijo...

I don't get Derrida's fetishization of "rigor" -- it always sounds macho.

My amateur understanding of the deconstructionist bag is that the instability of denotative intent wasn't the big new thing, but the revelation of metaphysical assumptions, even in allegedly anti-metaphysical texts (such as Heidegger), was more the main prize. That, and the revelation of textual self-contradiction.

And because my understanding is so amateur, I usually get embarrassed, when people use "deconstruct" as a synonym for "analyze."

As Dinah Washington almost said, What a differance a Derrida makes.

This is John, possibly logged in under the name of my beloved spouse. But what's in a signature?

Professor Zero dijo...

;-)

Unfalsifiable, like psychoanalysis - or perhaps moreso? I actually think cheap deconstruction and bad therapy are quite similar: just keep saying that what you think you know or read can't be, and keep on displacing meaning and so on.

If I am not mistaken, what most people learned from deconstruction is actually in stylistics, philology, various studies of metaphor much predating Derrida, etc. Hm, and so now I'm in the mood to restudy all of this, had better finish some things up so I can.

My capcha word is culler j.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Derrida's mode of argumentation is quite similar to Gödel's theory in mathematics: show that the powerful system you're looking at generates statements whose truth value cannot be determined from within the system.

Thomas dijo...

This suggests a general theory of bullshit fields: once a field comes to be organized around "the theory", or, especially, simply the theorIST) it degenerates into bullshit.

The alternative is to organize a field around the facts or problems that one or several theories puts in perspective.

John dijo...

Andrew, this formulation, "show that the powerful system you're looking at generates statements whose truth value cannot be determined from within the system" -- this, and showing the internal contradictions within texts, and showing the instability of meaning -- these make me shrug. Not that they're not important insights, but that they seem inherent in language and consciousness, and one doesn't need Derrida to realize them.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Thomas, you're right on target: when the theory takes over the from the object (and especially when the theory does that), then something ain't right.

Andrew Shields dijo...

John: "one doesn't need Derrida to realize them": my aha moment along these lines came while reading an essay by John Needham in the PN Review that later appeared in his excellent book "The Departure Lounge." He was reading some sort of theoretical interpretation of Wordsworth and he concluded that one didn't need the theory to read the poem that way. "You're right!" I thought.

One of the essays in the book has a wonderful discussion of hearing John Zorn in Shanghai. Highly recommended.

*

Another deconstruction story: when I was in grad school (well before I read that Needham essay), my Dad once asked me to tell him something about Derrida, whom he had read about somewhere. Seeing as my Dad is a mathematician, I asked him what the response of mathematicians to Gödel's theorem was. He said that they responded to it as they would to any excellent theorem: it closed off certain avenues of discussion and opened up others. Nothing earth-shaking actually. And I wondered why the humanities people were so upset about Derrida.

(My Dad later told me that the real earth-shaking work was done by Paul Cohen, a Stanford prof whose son was once our gardener; Cohen did the work that generalized Gödel's theorem in all sorts of spectacular ways.)