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Deconstruction  

2009-09-12 00:29:34|  分类: 后结构理论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

Reading and Misreading Deconstruction

 

In his essay “The Discipline of Deconstruction,” Jeffrey T. Nealon endeavors to defend Derrida’s deconstruction, distinguishing it from various misunderstandings by  American critics—though Nealon himself seems to be a practitioner of misreading here, and suspiciously, on purpose.

 At the very beginning of this essay, Nealon declares that after a “short, happy life in American literature departments” (1266), deconstruction has already died, which is approved by many critics. Two sets of explanation are offered here: the suicide theory and the murder theory. The suicide theory claims that apart from its inevitable fall into self-cancellation, deconstruction turns out to be nothing more than another version of New Criticism in trying to surpass it, the sole difference being “New Critics hunt for themes and ironies” (1267), while deconstructionists “hunt for self-canceling binary oppositions”(1267). The murder theory believes that deconstruction, in its attempt to speak free from ideology  as Romanticists do, is murdered by new historicists. According to Nealon, the “simple textual self-cancellation” and the “reactionary and nihilistic textual undecidability” of deconstruction lead to “the generous political despair … to passive acceptance” (1267); to impair this defect, new-historicists call for “rehistoricizing and re-contextualizing” (1266). Thus deconstruction is murdered at their hands.

 The above accusations of deconstruction are not justified, however, Nealon later claims, for the reason that deconstructive literary theory is not a legitimate representation of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. Derrida’s deconstruction, Nealon argues, includes two steps; it is a double gesture, a double writing. The overturning, i.e. the neutralization, of the classical opposition is merely the first step. If deconstruction stops here, it would no doubt fall into the “meaningless self-cancellation” and “deadlocked aporia of meaning” (1269) as mentioned above. The second step of deconstructive double writing is “a general displacement of the system” (1269), a “wholesale displacement of the systematics of binary opposition and the reinsciption of opposition within a larger field – a ‘textual’ field that can account for nonpresence as other than the lack of presence” (1269), and it is only in this step that deconstruction disturbs the field of oppositions. In other words, deconstruction does not simply mean the reversal of the binary oppositions, putting the originally unprivileged term in the privileged place; rather, it is a blurring of the borderline between binary oppositions, because the self in each term inevitably contains the “otherness” (1274) in itself. In this sense, the neutralization step by no means declares the end, but rather the beginning; it only puts an end to the traditional totalizing way of reading, the customary hunt for a definite meaning and a mastery over the text. Reading does not end here, Derrida suggests; rather, it is an ever-moving motion open to endless possibilities of interpretation.

 While deconstructive criticism, in Nealon’s opinion, suffers inadequacy because “Derrida’s thought has been grossly misrepresented by its American disciples” and “there has never been a properly deconstructive criticism in America” (1267). In order to “commodify” deconstruction, to make it a “discipline” and easily applied in literary criticism, critics simplify deconstruction into “how-to books” (1269). Nealon then quotes from Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction and Christopher Norris’s Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, among others, to show how the two major deconstructionists have failed to notice the second step, limiting deconstruction merely to neutralization. We have to say here that Nealon does not do justice to Culler and Norris.

Soon after the publication of  “The Discipline of Deconstruction,” Culler writes to the editor of PMLA to protest that the chapter of his book from which Nealon quotes is not talking about deconstruction at all. In fact, Culler does fully appreciate Derrida’s double writing. Just a few pages after Nealon’s quotation in On Deconstruction, Culler writes: “This [to reverse the hierarchy] is an essential step, but only a step. Deconstruction must, Derrida continues, ‘through a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system…’” (Culler 85-6). If Nealon has read this book, it is almost impossible for him not to notice this passage. Here we can’t help wondering whether Nealon misunderstands Culler or he just carefully selects, or even garbles some quotations for the sake of his own argument. He can hardly escape the suspicion of deliberately neglecting the crucial pages in Culler. So Culler does not do him wrong to accuse him as one of the “young critics to distort their precursors to gain a hearing” (“Forum” 534).

 But still, there might be a difference in their interpretation of Derrida’s double writing. In his rebuttal, Culler describes this disagreement as “whether the operations of reversal and displacement are always separable, … or whether, in some cases, an effective inversion is not already a displacement and reinscription” (“Forum” 534), the latter being Culler’s suggestion.

 Nealon finds the misunderstanding of Derrida’s notion of “undecidability” as the cause of American deconstructionists’ failure to notice the second step. In Nealon’s argument, deconstructive critics, out of a deeply-rooted inclination to gain a mastery over the text, find “undecidability” or “unreadability” as the final conclusion--the definite meaning from the totalizing way of reading, thus “making undecidability quite decidable” (1270). Undecidability is the end of the totalizing way of reading as well as the beginning of a new way of reading: a reading open to all possibilities and interpretations, a reading that is always set in motion. Undecidability starts from the neutralization of the binary opposition and puts an end to the totalizing way of reading; its significance lies in the shift of the focus towards the second step of the double gesture, while neutralization, as we discussed earlier, denotes the first step of deconstruction. However, Nealon himself sometimes confuses these two concepts. For example, when introducing Derrida’s double writing and arguing that American deconstructionists have neglected the second gesture, Nealon says: “Rather, this deadlock, this undecidability, this unreadability, is only the first gesture in a double reading, the “overturning gesture” that points to the untenability of the “classical oppositions” (1269). Here Nealon mixes “undecidability” or “unreadability” with “deadlock.”  “Undecidability” mentioned here is considered “neutralization.” Another obvious confusion can be discerned in the following sentence: “For Derrida, undecidability—the neutralization of oppositions within a generalizing system—entails a distinctly ethical imperative to rethink decision carefully and complexly” (1271). With the application of the dash to introduce the explanatory element, the confusion of the two concepts here is so evident that it may hardly pass unnoticed.

And Nealon’s confusion does not stop here. In his essay, Norris seems to us someone who has watered down Derrida’s work. Nealon quotes from Norris’ Deconstruction: Theory and Practice and judges it as characterizing “a turn to the irreducible richness of metaphoric or figurative language (against the univocality of literal language, against philosophy) as the thrust of Derrida’s work”(1274). However, this cannot be taken readily as Norris’ full range of understanding. In another book of his, Derrida (1987), Norris presents us with an attitude quite the opposite to Nealon’s inadequate summary here. This can be evidently seen in the opening chapter titled “Philosophy/Literature.” Through an observation of Derrida’s essay on Valéry in his Margins of Philosophy, Norris demonstrates that he fully appreciates what Derrida terms as “a double gesture.” While Valéry intends to view philosophy as “a particular branch of literature” and emphasizes “the pervasiveness of figural language in philosophy,” Derrida refuses to simply reverse the binary opposition by reducing philosophy as the unprivileged. “For this is nothing more than a notional gesture, a reversal that leaves the opposition still very much in place without beginning to shift the conceptual ground wherein its foundations are securely laid”(Norris 24). 

Some critics of Derrida view deconstruction “as literature’s revenge upon philosophy” (Norris 23). This, too, is Nealon’s accusation upon Norris. But obviously Norris sees beyond this. He notes: “there can be no doubt that Derrida is turning philosophy’s conceptual resources back against a premature move to annul them in the name of a thoroughgoing ‘literary’ formalism”(25). Valéry’s insight that literature, or figurative language, has its power always penetrated into philosophy, that “philosophic concepts … are often found to rest on buried or forgotten metaphors” (Norris 22-3) certainly serves to blur the philosophy/literature opposition. This is to “explore their mutual crossings and involvements” (Norris 24) so as to “displace” or to “reinscribe,” in line with Derrida’s argument that philosophy, in return, also has its deep influence upon literature. There are  “various ‘philosophemes’, or ways of thinking which by now have impressed themselves so deeply on our language [in literature] that we take them as commonsense truths and forget their specific (philosophical) prehistory”(Norris 26). In other words, just like philosophers, who unconsciously keep applying the dead metaphors to the language used in their writings, poets and novelists can’t help, also unconsciously, relying on “philosophemes” which are just as essential to philosophy as metaphor is to literature. In this sense, there is no point at all if we simply stop at reversing the traditional binary opposition: the new privilege is just as inadequate. Writing, Derrida believes, is intertextual. This notion, after the de-grounding of the binary opposition, is the ground of his reinscription/displacement step.

 

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. “Forum: The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 108. 3. (1993): 533-540.

---. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London and Henley: Routledge&Kegan Paul, 1983.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 107.5 (1992): 1266-1279.

Norris, Christophor. Derrida. London: Fontana Press, 1987.

 

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