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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Lois Tyson's Misreading of Deconstruction and Deconstructive Criticism  

2014-11-01 10:20:21|  分类: +文论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Lois Tyson's Misreading of Deconstruction and Deconstructive Criticism

Zaixin Zhang and Feng Zhang

Department of English

Beijing Foreign Studies University

Lois Tyson’s book on literary theory, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1999, 2006), has been lauded by teachers of theory and literary criticism. For Milissa Toise, the book is “particularly accessible and readable for both teachers and students” (86). Ann Ciasullo says that Tyson, in her excellent book “is able to craft eleven unique readings of the novel, all from different theoretical perspectives” (101). This truly “user-friendly guide” is everything these two critics have said. Her summary of the theories is concise, and the readings of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have given students and teachers a very good example to show how a literary work can be read from multiple perspectives and offered numerous insights about the novel, especially when she applies psychoanalysis, Marxism, and feminism.

Tyson is at her best with traditional theories, but she could have done a better job with poststructuralism; that way, the book would have added beauty to its charm. Unfortunately, Tyson has misread deconstruction, so her deconstructive interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” are problematic.

Double writing in deconstruction

In Dissemination, Derrida stresses the importance of going beyond a mere reversal in deconstruction: “Deconstruction involves an indispensable phase of reversal. To remain content with reversal is of course to operate within the immanence of the system to be destroyed… It would be, for not having seized the means to intervene, to confirm the established equilibrium” (6, qtd. in Nealon 1270)

In Margins of Philosophy, Jacques Derrida states that

deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of non-discursive forces. (329, qtd. in Culler, Deconstruction 85-86, Nealon 1269).

Derrida maintains in the same passage that “an opposition of metaphysical concepts (for example, speech/writing, presence/absence, etc.) is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination” and that “deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated” (329). One example he gives for this displacement is about the classical concept of writing in the binary opposition of speech/writing. Instead of passing from speech to writing, reducing speech to writing, or elevating the status of writing to that of speech, leaving speech subordinated, he liberates writing from its former relation to speech and cancels out the binary differences between them.[1] Moreover, in “Living On: Border Lines” Derrida reminds us that the text cannot replace the world outside it, turning reality into a mere textuality: “… it was never our wish to extend the reassuring notion of the text to a whole extra-textual realm and to transform the world into a library by doing away with all boundaries, all framework, all sharp edges…” (84, qtd. in Leitch 119).

Displacement in deconstructive criticism guarantees undecidability. As Vincent B. Leitch asserts, “deconstruction practices two interpretations of interpretation. It aims to decipher the stable truths of a work, employing conventional passive tactics of reading; and it seeks to question and subvert such truths in an active production of enigmatic undecidables” (175-76). This two-step procedure is similar to what Jonathan Culler says about double writing, where the first interpretation (Step 1) is “identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise” (Deconstruction 86). But the second interpretation (Step 2) produces a displacement in double writing by blurring the difference between the two terms in a binary opposition, so that if either term “can occupy the position of origin, then origin is no longer originary; it loses its metaphysical privilege. A nonoriginary origin is a ‘concept’ that cannot be comprehended by the former system and thus disrupts it” (88).

In other words, displacement would demonstrate that for the first term in a binary opposition to function as the self, “it must have the qualities that supposedly belong to its opposite,” the second term, the other (95). In short, displacement is not a reversal, nor a replacement. A displaced term in a binary opposition is as originary (or as secondary) as the other; no term takes the privileged position (formerly assigned to the first term) any more, with the two terms interacting with and residing in each other, rather than the formerly debased term switching positions with or replacing the privileged one.

In short, double writing in deconstruction is not a reversal of the subordinated term (the other) to the privileged one (the self) in a binary opposition. Nor is it a reduction to a monism, “passing from one concept to another,” or using one term to replace the other in the same binary. Jeffrey T. Nealon argues that for Derrida, to fail to reach the level of displacement “would be simply ‘to confirm the established equilibrium.’ This limitation is the unfortunate legacy of deconstructive literary criticism in America” (1270).[2]

We would argue that this “unfortunate legacy” (ignoring displacement in deconstructive double writing) applies to Tyson’s misreading of deconstructive criticism, for reversal is one of the misunderstandings in her theorization of deconstruction, and another is reducing language as discursive forces to “a ground of being” as a “lingual-centric” monism to constitute the world, without interaction with the “field of nondiscursive forces.”

Tyson on deconstruction: Revealing the text’s undecidability and/or the complex operations of ideology

“There are generally two main purposes in deconstructing a literary text,” according to Tyson, “and we may see either or both at work in any given deconstructive reading: (1) to reveal the text’s undecidability and/or (2) to reveal the complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is constructed” (259). Tyson further shows that undecidability can be accomplished by the following procedure:

(1) note all the various interpretations—of characters, events, images, and so on—the text seems to offer; (2) show the ways in which these interpretations conflict with one another; (3) show how these conflicts produce still more interpretations, which produce still more conflicts, which produce still more interpretations; and (4) use steps 1, 2, and 3 to argue for the text’s undecidability. (259)

Such an extensive complicated application of undecidability, for Tyson, becomes an almost impossible proposition for literary criticism and conflicts with the notion of undecidability or displacement discussed above. In the two-step procedure of deconstruction, the second step is one of displacement, blurring the difference between the two terms in a binary and thus producing an undecidable, where both terms of the binary can be originary (or secondary). But the two-step procedures in Tyson do not yield any undecidables, with Step 1 misidentifying binary oppositions and/or Step 2 replacing one term for the other in a binary opposition, or reversing the two terms (rather than displacing them), or expanding or narrowing down the meaning of a term in a given binary opposition for deconstruction.

Let’s see how Tyson equates displacement with replacement. The following is what she says about the two-step procedure of deconstruction (displacement in Step 2), despite the fact that she does not intend to apply undecidability in her critical interpretations.

Tyson succinctly defines Step 1 in deconstruction as identifying the binary logic guided by the ideology reflected in a given text: “…by finding the binary oppositions at work in a cultural production (such as a novel, a film, a conversation, a classroom, or a courtroom trial), and by identifying which member of the opposition is privileged, one can discover something about the ideology promoted by that production” (254). Tyson’s explanation of Step 2 (about displacement) is also concise and to the point: “In order to discover the limitations of the ideology one thus has uncovered, Derrida observed, one must examine the ways in which the two members of the opposition are not completely opposite, the ways in which they overlap or share some things in common” (254).

But when she elaborates on how the two terms in a binary opposition overlap with each other (displace each other, in other words), her understanding about Step 2, contrary to displacement or undecidability, is actually one of replacement. Her example to show this point is the binary opposition between objective and subjective.

“To deconstruct this binary opposition and learn something about the limitations of the ideology it supports, let’s consider the ways in which the objective and the subjective are not really opposites” (255). Then she asks, when trying to be objective, “can one totally escape one’s own viewpoints, feelings, and biases? Surely, to claim that one has done so is to claim the impossible. Isn’t objectivity, then, really a lie we tell ourselves and others about our subjectivity? Isn’t objectivity, therefore, subjectivity in disguise?” (255). This is actually a replacement of the second term for the first one, turning the binary opposition into a subjective monism, similar to Tyson’s view about language “creating” our experience in the world, rather than representing it (257), to be discussed in Section 4.

Transcendental signified in Derrida, ground of being in Tyson

Transcendental signified defined by Derrida

In Writing and Difference (279-80), Derrida defines the transcendental signified or center as residing both inside the structure it is supposed to govern and outside it:  “Classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it.” But the center, for Derrida “was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play.” This is the moment “when language invaded the universal problematic,” Derrida maintains, “the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse..., a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.”

Ground of being as a transcendental signified in Tyson

Tyson (256) uses the logocentric tradition in Western philosophy as an example to define a transcendental signified or what she calls “a ground of being”: “it places at the center (centric) of its understanding of the world a concept (logos) that organizes and explains the world for us while remaining outside of the world it organizes and explains.” To my surprise, she defines language or discourse as one of the grounds of being (which, according to Tyson, is also a decentering play of signification as dynamic becoming), another transcendental signified, while she appropriately regards deconstruction as a decentering project. “For deconstruction, then, language is the ground of being, but that ground is not out of play: it is itself as dynamic, evolving, problematical, and ideologically saturated as the worldviews it produces. For this reason, there is no center to our understanding of existence.” She further explains that with language as a ground of being, there is only discourse in which we view our experience of the world, and we may find “an infinite number of vantage points from which to view it, and each of these vantage points has a language of its own, which deconstruction calls its discourse.” [3]

However, the language or discourse that decenters Western philosophy in her understanding is ultimately another ground of being or another transcendental signified, which generates another centric position. She compares this decentering project to the Copernican decentering of the earth: “In other words, Derrida decentered Western philosophy just as Copernicus decentered the earth in the 1600s by asserting that the universe does not revolve around it.” Hers is still a “logocentric” understanding of the term “decentering” as in Copernicus’ scientific pursuit, which of course subverted the earlier ground of being that had assigned centric status to the earth, but more importantly the new ground of being relocated the sun as the new center in the discourse of physics. This is obviously not what Derridean decentering is about, a decentering that has disrupted the logocentric tradition in its binary centric/peripheral logic.

Tyson’s structuralist understanding of deconstruction

Given the misconception of Derridean decentering as a logocentric relocation of a new center in Tyson, we can understand why her discussion about language as a ground of being echoes what she says about language in structuralism. In structuralist belief, Tyson tells us, “… it is through language that we learn to conceive and perceive the world the way we do… In other words, our language mediates our experience of our world and ourselves: it determines what we see when we look around us and when we look at ourselves” (214). This structuralist notion of language remains the same in her theorization of a poststructuralist theory such as deconstruction. “There is no getting beyond language, beyond the play of signifiers, because we exist—we think, we see, we feel—within the language into which we were born… That is, language mediates our experience of ourselves and the world” (253). Even though we know that anything ideological is not necessarily deconstructive, yet Tyson emphasizes the ideological element in deconstruction, as if ideological is equated with deconstructive, when she states that “for deconstruction, language is wholly ideological” (253). One example she uses to illustrate the point is the word slut in contrast with the word stud, where she has done a perfect job in demonstrating the patriarchal ideology behind their uses (as she has done so earlier in her Feminist Criticism chapter). But once she talks about language being ideological, she seems to have lost sight of the big picture here—it should be a point about deconstruction. In what way is this example indicating the deconstructive argument that “There is no getting beyond language, beyond the play of signifiers”? The connotations of the words slut and stud are clear in this male-chauvinist ideology, without the slightest hint of a free play of signification. The ideologically implied meaning of the words is clear in the sense that the signifiers clearly refer to their signifieds, revealing and perpetuating “the cultural belief that sexual relations with multiple partners should be a source of shame for women and a source of pride for men” (253), which in turn implies that slut or stud has a stable meaning in phallic language and culture.

       The next two examples Tyson uses to illustrate how language is ideological in deconstruction equally reveal her confusion about the theory.

       The first of the two is one about “the rhythm method of birth control in a technologically underdeveloped country many years ago,” where “each woman in the program was given an abacuslike device, consisting of red and white beads arranged to represent her fertility cycle” to avoid pregnancies. But after several months, the pregnancy rate among the women had not changed at all, because “women who wanted to have sex on red?bead days would simply push the beads over until a white one appeared: they assumed the beads were a kind of magic.” This example indicates, Tyson argues, that “clients and social workers thought they understood each other’s language, but they didn’t because they didn’t understand the ideologies of which each other’s language was composed” (253-54).

    But what Tyson has not explained is the ways in which the example illustrates her point about how language being ideological deconstructs itself in that misunderstanding about the birth control method, although it may show how a different ideology gets in the way of correctly conceiving the functions of the red/white beads. Such an example is not deconstructive, because in the clients’ misunderstanding (red beads having magical powers), the signifiers (red and white beads) mismatched their corresponding signifieds (ovulating days and safe days respectively). That means the signifiers should have referred to their signifieds correctly, thus reinforcing the referential function of language. Once their misunderstanding was cleared up, linguistic referentiality of the logocentric tradition could be restored. No undecidability; no deconstruction.

The next example proves only the language-centered or lingual-centric conception/perception of the world, rather than a deconstructive point Tyson wants to demonstrate, the point that “for deconstruction, language is wholly ideological” (253). First, she posits that in deconstruction “language is no longer seen as a product of our experience (first we see an enormous hole in the ground; then we call it the Grand Canyon) but rather as the conceptual framework that creates our experience” (257). Similar to a subjective monism with which she has replaced the binary opposition between objective and subjective earlier, here is another one that has taken out the formerly privileged term (our experience of which language is seen as a product) from the binary; thus, language has truly become another ground of being, another transcendental signified, having pushed the “nondiscursive forces” overboard, so to speak.

Her particular example about the early Spanish explorers’ miscalculation or misperception of the depth of the Grand Canyon “illustrates how conception (what we think) precedes perception (what we experience through our senses) and how our expectations, beliefs, and values—all of which are carried by language—determine the way we experience our world” (257). A miscalculated vision is not necessarily undecidable or indeterminate. The Spanish explorers’ (mis)conception/perception here (signifier) misjudged the depth of the Canyon (signified), which could otherwise be corrected. Contrary to Tyson’s intention for its use, the example implies that there is indeed a (correct) one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified, for misconception or misperception to deviate from. So this is still a confirmation for a stable binary opposition.

Tyson’s deconstructive reading of “Mending Wall”

Identifying an ideological framework and understanding its limitations form the two-step deconstructive procedure for Tyson to use in her interpretations of literary works, and the first one (in the chapter on deconstruction) is her reading of Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (260-61). In so doing, she maintains, “a deconstructive critic looks for meanings in the text that conflict with its main theme, focusing on self-contradictions of which the text seems unaware.” Note that Step 2 here does not show any sign of displacement, and it is ambiguous in its analysis, looking for “meanings in the text that conflict with its main theme” or textual “self-contradictions.” Inconsistencies, for example, which in no way would be undecidables could be found in a given text. Irony or growth in character in terms of attitude change can also be construed as “self-contradictions,” as indicated in Tyson’s next application of the theory, to her main literary text, The Great Gatsby, which we will come back to in the next section.

       There is a temporal structure in the poem, which is vitally important to our understanding of what Tyson calls conformity and nonconformity. Nature and human activity want the wall down. The wall has been “worn down” by years of erosion in nature (shown in the signs of nature in the present) and by human activity (hunting). A temporal element constitutes the binary logic of the poem: the present (the new or nonconformity) is privileged over the past (the old or conformity). Even at the moment of “spring mending-time” in the present, as the recent past, the speaker is a conformist.

    “We have to use a spell to make them balance.” We cannot read the “spell” line here literally. The speaker does not want us to do so, for he sounds playful in the next two lines, “‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’/We wear our fingers rough with handling them.” Together, these three lines emphasize how difficult it is to keep the wall up, implying that they should give up an almost impossible task, if not for any other reason.

      Then, the speaker says this about his neighbor, “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. /My apple trees will never get across /And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” Only at this moment (in the present) does the speaker have a rude awakening about the need to take the wall down. Reason overshadows tradition.

       When the speaker says “I could say ‘Elves’ to him, /But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather /He said it for himself,” there ought to be two “elves” here. One of them is “the mischief in me” to want the wall down. The speaker implies that because of springtime (hope for new think), he hopes to see the other “elf” in his neighbor too, just as “Spring is the mischief in me” (“I could say ‘Elves’ to him”). But he does not want to speak for him (“But it’s not elves exactly” [I couldn’t say it’s elves exactly]) but hopes the neighbor sees it himself (“I’d rather/He said it for himself.”). That’s why he says “If I could put a notion in his head” to reason with him so that he can see the “elf” in himself.

As it turns out, the last lines indicate that it is hopeless for the speaker to wish to see the other “mischievous elf” in the neighbor (“an old-stone savage armed”), much less for the neighbor to see it for himself, because he does not want to listen to reason and decides to stay a conformist (“He will not go behind his father’s saying”).

The binary opposition of nonconformity (present, new) and conformity (past, old) stays inviolate from beginning to end, which means the poem, we would argue, cannot be deconstructed. But Tyson (262-64) goes through (correctly) the two-step procedure in deconstruction by setting up a wrong binary opposition in Step 1 in order to deconstruct it in Step 2: nature vs. tradition (263). First, nature vs. tradition is not a logical pairing of a binary opposition, because “tradition” is only a branch of “culture,” which can be logically paired with “nature” in deconstruction (as in nature supplemented by culture). Actually, both nonconformity and conformity, discussed as a binary in Tyson, ought to be paired within the category of culture. Second, hunting and elves (in the sports and literary/mythic traditions as part of culture) cannot be logically grouped in the “nature” category, as Tyson has incorrectly aligned them together in support of nature. And “nature” in her understanding is ambiguous, for it does not distinguish between past and present, which turns out to be the binary opposition running through the whole poem, a binary that goes with the ideology of nonconformity advocated by the poem.

Even if hunting and elves, as Tyson has argued, could be grouped together with nature to speak against tradition, each one of them had to have the (ambivalent and perhaps unconscious) wish to keep the wall up and want it down at the same time, to show displacement in the binary opposition of nature vs. tradition. That is, as a symbol  of tradition (and wall mending as a symbol of conformity), the wall has both “natural” positive qualities as well as “traditional” negative ones embedded in it, so that the speaker (or his neighbor) has an ambivalent attitude toward it, thus, forming an undecidable in either way of looking at it. But by all counts, Tyson’s reading, regrettably, cannot be characterized by such undecidability.

Tyson’s deconstruction of The Great Gatsby

In the beginning of her reading of Fitzgerald’s novel, Tyson says this about Nick the narrator: “Toward the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), narrator Nick Caraway, thoroughly disillusioned by his experience in the East, reminisces about his youth in Wisconsin” (267). Then she comes to her point about Step 1 of the two-step deconstructive procedure (identifying the working binary opposition reflecting the ideology the text supports): “Such nostalgia for the past emerges in various ways throughout the novel and lends emotional force to what I will argue is the text’s most pervasive and overt ideological project: the condemnation of American decadence in the 1920s, which replaced forever the wholesome innocence of a simpler time” (267).

The ambiguous, general past here (including various aspects of life, both innocent and corrupt) has been used to replace an individual’s desirable youthful past marked by romance and innocence (idealized by Gatsby, Daisy, as well as Nick the narrator here), and is set up as the target in Step 1 for Step 2 deconstruction. We need to unpack the generality and ambiguity of the term: Tyson has changed its definition by switching from one shade of meaning of the word to another, from a specific idealized past to a generalized past.

Now comes Tyson’s argument about the novel: “As we shall see, however, this belief in an idealized past corrupted by the decadence of the present is, in The Great Gatsby, an unstable ideological project” (267). Note that it would be accurate if by “an idealized past,” it meant one’s romantic and youthful past (or any other desirable chapter of one’s past), as Nick being quoted as saying about it. But as you will see, this limited meaning of the term has been expanded to a far more wide-ranging meaning of it, encompassing both desirable and undesirable aspects of the past. Such a generalized notion of the past is not idealized by the narrator nor by any other characters, but by Tyson only, for the purpose of identifying a series of binary oppositions as targets in Step 1 for Step 2 deconstruction.

The main part of the “deconstructive” reading of the novel focuses on “the text’s own ambivalence toward the binary oppositions on which that project rests - past/present, innocence/decadence, and West/East” (Tyson 267). The reading shows only the ambivalence of each general term (in the cases of the past and West) to be deconstructed. That is, the generalized past includes Gatsby’s fake family history and fraudulent educational background or Dan Cody’s criminal past (both in the West), for example, which wouldn’t be idealized by any of the characters in the first place. But these undesirable pasts have been generalized as contaminating seeds buried in the notion of the idealized past; that is, the idealized past has been set up as one of the targets in Step 1 but transformed into a generalized one in Step 2 for deconstruction. In short, the idealized past as an example of ambivalence makes sense only in its generalized term covering both idealized and corrupted pasts. In so doing, Tyson has shifted the definitions from limited specific idealized pasts in Step 1 to a corruption-blind generalized past, which could feed other-than idealized material as evidence for ambivalence in Step 2 to deconstruct the privileged term of the (idealized/generalized) past vs. present binary opposition.

A similar case is in the West/East binary identification, where the generalized West also drags into it the corrupted Midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit, which in Step 1 wouldn’t otherwise be idealized in the first place, but which are used as evidence for ambivalence toward the West. See the passage from Tyson below.

… the opposition between West and East in The Great Gatsby isn’t entirely a matter of geography. For example, Chicago and Detroit are in the Midwest, yet the novel indicates that they share the decadence of New York. Neither is the opposition between West and East entirely that between countryside and city, for Nick’s innocent youth, as well as the girlhoods of Daisy and Jordan, were passed in Midwestern cities. The real distinction between West and East in the novel is the distinction between pristine nature—the “real snow” of Nick’s Wisconsin and the “old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors”—and the corrupting effects of civilization. (275)

We see the unbalanced categories for binary identification again: pristine nature vs. the corrupted part of culture, rather than the balanced binary of nature (good) vs. culture (corrupted). Tyson cannot support this identification of the binary between nature and culture (the individual innocent youthful pasts in the Midwestern cities cannot be regarded as nature, for example). So, she has selected part of culture, a narrowed-down notion of it, for a deconstructive reading. In short, a binary opposition between nature and culture cannot be identified in the novel, without changing layers of meaning associated with culture by reducing the general term to its limited (negative) aspects, because the positive aspects of culture would otherwise undermine the claim about it (as undesirable) as opposed to nature (as desirable).

Tyson’s discussion about West/East is also problematic.

… regardless of the geography involved, the word West invokes, for Americans, untouched, uncorrupted nature. The word East, in contrast, is associated with old, corrupt societies. Therefore, the “old island” Nick refers to, though it is New York’s Long Island, is associated with the word West not only because it is west of the European civilization that colonized it, but because when the Dutch sailors first arrived there, it was pristine. (275)

So the binary opposition is not West vs. East (you can find “West” in the old East because it is west of European civilization). Then, why has Tyson identified such a West/East binary opposition to begin with? The old East is privileged because Tyson regards it as pristine nature (as opposed to “the corrupting effects of civilization”), and as “west of the European civilization that colonized it.” Here, Tyson must have equated “the European civilization that colonized it” with “the corrupting effects of civilization” to argue for the old East as West (as pristine nature) to solve the inherent problem with the geographical West/East binary she has set up in Step 1. But her notion about such “corrupting effects of civilization” cannot be justified, because for Nick, in Tyson’s quote above, the old island “flowered once for Dutch sailors,” colonizers who brought European civilization to the island, which welcomed them with “her smiles in bloom” (to use Tagore’s metaphor).

       Another problem with her deconstructive reading is her analysis of another problem with the novel: the concept of innocence in the opposition of innocence and decadence. “The concept of innocence, because it includes the concepts of inexperience and ignorance, has built into it, so to speak, a vulnerability to decadence that is almost sure to result in a fall. Thus, it is not unreasonable to say that innocence leads to decadence; in fact, it creates decadence where before there was none.” (274). One of the characters in the novel she uses as an example is George Wilson, whose “innocence is portrayed not as a positive quality in its own right but as an absence of qualities of any kind… Thus, in a novel that mourns the loss of innocence, innocence is portrayed as ignorance, as the absence of qualities, as a kind of nothingness” (274-75). What Tyson is doing here is shifting between innocence and ignorance, between the positive and negative aspects of “innocence.” When she says “innocence leads to decadence” she uses the misleading ambiguous term innocence to mean ignorance that leads to decadence, not innocence. And “the loss of innocence” the novel mourns is the positive meaning of the term innocence, while “innocence” being “portrayed as ignorance” and as “nothingness” is the negative meaning of the same term. This is another example that indicates how Tyson’s reading shifts between two shades of meaning of a given term.

To sum up, Tyson’s “deconstruction” of the novel rests on misidentifications of a series of binary oppositions (past/present, West/East, innocence/ignorance). Once the misidentified binary oppositions have been set up as conventional targets in Step 1, Step 2 of the “deconstructive” procedure sometimes shifts between two shades of meaning of the same ambiguous term, and other times it generalizes or narrows down a term in a given binary opposition.

If we put to the test the dominant binary opposition as one between the main characters’ innocent youthful past ways of life and their decadent adulthood present life styles (depending on where to draw the line between past and present in one’s life), then we can see whether or not the novel can be deconstructed. But we need to keep in mind that not every literary work can be deconstructed.

Works Cited

Ciasullo, Ann. Review on Approaches to Teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by Jackson R. Bryer, Nancy P. VanArsdale. Rocky Mountain Review 64.1 (2010): 101-04.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

---, et al. “Forum: The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 108.3 (1993): 533-40.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1981.

---. “Living On: Border Lines.” Trans. James Hulbert. Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom, Paul De Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. New York: Seabury Press, 1979. 75-176.

---. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1982.

---. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1978.

Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “The Discipline of Deconstruction.” PMLA 107.5 (1992): 1266-79.

Toise, Melissa. “Approaches to Reading with Multiple Lenses of Interpretation.” The English Journal 96.5 (2007): 85-90.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.



[1] Speech and writing have something in common; that is, speech is already supplemented by writing: “Writing can be added to speech only if speech is not a self-sufficient, natural plenitude, only if there is already in speech a lack or absence that enables writing to supplement it” (Culler, Deconstruction 103). In this sense, both speech and writing have something lacking in themselves; both need each other as the supplementary other; thus both are secondary, with the primary speech as the privileged self sharing the feature of secondariness that supposedly belongs to writing, the subordinated other. This discussion about speech and writing demonstrates a displacement of the two terms in the binary opposition.

[2] Jonathan Culler, in his response to Nealon’s essay in the PMLA Forum, argues that “we might disagree about whether the operations of reversal and displacement are always separable” and that Nealon “would have to abandon a discourse claiming that earlier commentators have simply ignored the operation of displacement” (Forum” 534). Culler argues that Nealon has misread his commentary book on deconstruction.

[3] Tyson must have read what Leitch says about “ground of existence,” for her “ground of being” fits the definition of his: “Since language serves as ground of existence, the world emerges as infinite Text. Everything gets textualized. All contexts, whether political, economic, social, psychological, historical, or theological, become intertexts; that is, outside influences and forces undergo textualization” (Leitch 122). But Tyson has misunderstood the Derridean notion of “text” and “textualization” referred to here by Leitch. As a comment on a quote from Derrida’s “Living On: Border Lines” (one we quoted earlier), Leitch reminds us that Derrida “never wished to stretch the old notion of the ‘text’ to the whole world; nor did he wish to transform the extratextual realm into writing by erasing all borders” (120).

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