To start out, I admit that I completed my training in Englanglit before Deconstruction was developed and accepted as a form of literary criticism; also, as an undergraduate M. H. Abrams was my god (although Frank Kermode was my go-to literary critic); and finally, as Deconstruction grew in popularity, Abrams was possibly its greatest detractor. In 1973 M. H. Abrams wrote a scathing essay that might have derailed the Deconstruction express if Jacques Derrida hadn’t been so cute (Abrams, M. H. “The Deconstructive Angel.” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (spring 1977): 425-38).
I don’t have a copy of that essay but I do have my well-worn copy of A Glossary of Literary Terms, edited for years by Abrams. Here is what the entry on Deconstruction says:
Deconstruction, as applied in criticism of literature, designates a theory and practice of reading which questions and claims to “subvert” or “undermine” the assumption that the system of language provides grounds that are adequate to establish boundaries, the coherence or unity, and the determinate meanings of a literary text. Typically, a reconstructive reading sets out to show that conflicting forces within the text itself serve to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meanings into an indefinite array of incompatible and undecidable possibilities.
Got that? But as Jacques Derrida developed his philosophy and theories concerning the logocentric world, it became easy for later proponents, especially Paul de Man in the United States, to co-opt the ideas, do a little tuning and reconfiguring, and develop a new form of literary criticism called Deconstruction. As I understand it, the American Deconstructionists expanding on the idea of the close reading of literature, which was one of the central concepts of New Criticism, and suggested the reading wasn’t close enough. The Glossary gives a good comparison between the two versions of a close reading:
New-critical explications of texts had undertaken to show that a great literary work, in the tight internal relations of its figurative and paradoxical meanings, constitutes a freestanding, bounded, and organic entity of multiplex yet determinate meanings. On the contrariety, a radically deconstructive close reading undertakes to show that a literary text lacks a “totalized” boundary that makes it an entity, much less an organic unity; also that the text, by play of internal counter-forces, disseminates into an indefinite range of self-conflicting significations.
Paul de Man suggested that the final outcome of a deconstructive reading is an aporia of “vertiginous possibilities.”
The idea that a text has no meaning, or rather that it has so many meanings that it is impossible to decide on a single meaning, seems to me a logical outcome of postmodernism. If you combine lack of meaning with close reading you get another ten or twenty years of quasi-original doctorate theses before it all begins to run together and the quest for a new theory of litcrit begins.
But be warned: the evil offspring of this theory is the idea that everyone’s personal interpretation or opinion is equally valid.
One thought on “An aporia of vertiginous possibilities”
I agree with the aims of postmodern criticism, at least as I understand them: I think it’s important to know where information comes from, who funds it, and who conditions the expectations of those who receive it. We need to realize the ease with which objectivity can be compromised in scientific or historical research. I think we should be aware of the systemic ways dissenting voices can be marginalized.
But I don’t believe truth is merely a function of power. The notion that the entire Enlightenment program is just another obsolete metanarrative is just begging us to legitimize every crank theory or pseudoscientific numbnuttery. And for ideas that are supposedly so important, they’re communicated in a way guaranteed only to appeal to academics. So much of postmodern theory seems like either dramatic overstatements of the obvious or obscure word sonatas. Derrida, in particular, was a very poor writer.