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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Lois Tyson's Misreading of Deconstruction & Poststructuralist Cultural Criticism  

2014-05-22 11:10:39|  分类: +文论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Deconstruction and Poststructuralist Cultural Criticism:

Lois Tyson’s Misreading

John Zaixin Zhang

Department of English

Beijing Foreign Studies University

(Lecture Notes)

Lois Tyson’s book on literary theory, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 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 novel 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, she has misread deconstruction and other poststructuralist theories (such as new historicism, queer theory, and postcolonialism), so her readings of the novel from those theoretical perspectives are problematic.

1. Double writing in deconstruction

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. (qted. in Culler 85-6, Nealon 1269).

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” (qted. in Nealon 1270)

For Derrida, if deconstruction is limited to reversal, “it leaves the field of oppositions undisrupted, a field that he emphasizes is made up of both discursive and nondiscursive forces.” And 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” (Nealon 1270).[1]

I 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, without interaction with the “field of nondiscursive forces.” And Tyson also misreads postructuralist cultural theories such as new historicism, queer theory, and postcolonialism in her applications of them. 

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” (175-6). 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” (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.

2. 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 undecible, 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.

I’ll discuss the other misreadings in other sections, but right now 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 undecidablity, 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.

3. 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.”

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.

4. 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” (253-4).

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.

5.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 Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (260-1). 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 I will come back to in the next section. 

Here is Frost’s poem in its entirety, with my in-text comments in brackets.

Mending Wall

                Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

                That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

                And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

                And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

                The work of hunters is another thing:

                I have come after them and made repair

                Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

                But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

                To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

       [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). The binary logic in the poem is that the present (the new or nonconformity) is privileged over the past (the old or conformity). Not nature vs. tradition as Tyson argues in Step 1 of her two-step deconstructive procedure.]

                No one has seen them made or heard them made,

                But at spring mending-time we find them there.

                I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

                And on a day we meet to walk the line

                And set the wall between us once again.

       [Even at this point in the present (“at spring mending-time” as the recent past), the speaker is a conformist.]

                We keep the wall between us as we go.

                To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

                And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

                We have to use a spell to make them balance:

                “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

               We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

       [We cannot read the “spell” line literally. The speaker does not want us to do so, for he sounds playful in the next line “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” Together with the next  two lines, the “spell” line emphasizes 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.]

                Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,

                One on a side. It comes to little more:

                There where it is we do not need the wall:

                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.

                He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

       [Right at this moment (in the present), the speaker has a rude awakening about the need to keep the wall up. Reason overshadows tradition.]

                Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

       [Spring: hope for new life, so it is “the mischief in me” to rebel against the traditional. New vs. old.]

                If I could put a notion in his head:

                “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

                Where there are cows?

                But here there are no cows. [Reason against tradition]

                Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

                What I was walling in or walling out,

                And to whom I was like to give offense. [In the past]

                Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

                That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,

                But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

                He said it for himself. I see him there,

       [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.]

                Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

                In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

                He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

                Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

                He will not go behind his father’s saying,

                And he likes having thought of it so well

                He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

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 in 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, I would argue, cannot be deconstructed.

But Tyson (262-4) 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 is 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 along 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.

6. Tyson’s deconstruction of The Great Gatsby: Ambiguous uses of the terms past, West, and innocence

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 Carraway, 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” (274-5). 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.

7. Tyson’s misconceptions in poststructualist cultural criticism

(1) The limitations and hidden operations of ideology as deconstruction in a Marxist approach: A contradiction to undecidability

An attempt for a poststructuralist cultural critique on The Great Gatsby, as Tyson later clarifies it, she tries a deconstructive/Marxist approach to the novel. “First, it showed the ways in which the text offers a powerful critique of capitalist ideology; then it showed the ways in which that critique is undermined by the text’s own fascination with the capitalist world it condemns” (266). Although it is not perfectly clear how this Marxist critique of capitalist ideology can be deconstructed when it is subverted by the text’s own fascination with capitalism, Tyson argues “the second component of this reading is a deconstruction of the first because it draws on elements in the novel to show the limitations of the text’s own anticapitalist ideology” (266). “The limitations of the text’s own anticapitalist ideology” may not be deconstructive, because they may be revealed in a form of irony or character growth, where meanings for the opposite of what one says (as irony) and for one’s changed views evolved from an opposite earlier opinion (as in character growth) are both definite and stable, not ambivalent or undecidable.

For example, the anticapitalist ideological project of the novel, Tyson posits, is “flawed, from a Marxist perspective, by Nick’s romanticization of Gatsby,” for “it is clear from the beginning that the narrator is charmed by him” (76) in Chapter 1. Later, in Chapter 4 (about 60 pages later) knowing Gatsby’s criminal connections, Nick offers his defense for his hero, which “focuses on Gatsby’s generosity…, thereby sidestepping the fact that “his cocktails and his flowers” weren’t rightfully his at all: they were purchased with funds obtained from his criminal activities” (76)

About these “limitations” of the novel’s own anticapitalist ideology, two possibilities can be used to explain them, but neither of them is undecidable (an irony or a reversal) although it may look contradictory to the critique of the capitalist ideology, as Tyson has argued.

The first possibility may be a (dramatic) irony about Gatsby’s glorious surface masking a core of criminal activities (if Nick does not change his attitude toward Gatsby even at the end). Still a critique of the capitalist ideology concealing corruption and decadence, it means that Nick has been dazzled by Gatsby’s wealth and romantic personality and blinded by ideology to the ugly truth about the American dream, into which Tyson has gained a powerful insight in this Marxist approach to the novel.

The second may be growth in character, if in the end Nick has indeed changed his opinion about Gatsby’s seemingly romantic or glorious way of life (because of his realization of the latter’s criminal activities and/or tragic death). This is but a reversal of what he believed in the beginning.

(2) Inconsistency in Tyson’s new historicist approach to discourse

One of the key concepts in new historicism is that “the writing of history is a matter of interpretations, not facts” (Tyson 290), and in new historical criticism, “the focus is on how the literary text itself functions as a historical discourse interacting with other historical discourses.” But in traditional historical criticism, “history—the historical situation represented in the text, the population portrayed, the author’s life and times—is an objective reality that can be known and against which the subjective literary work is interpreted or measured” (294). In this discussion, Tyson has distinguished between new historicism and its traditional counterpart—because in new historicism history is not objective fact anymore, it is subject to interpretation. And Tyson has rendered a very good new historicist reading of The Great Gatsby, which “reflects the discourse of the self?made man circulating in so many of the texts that both shaped and were shaped by American culture during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth” (306).

Having interacted with an array of other (social) discourses in their constructions of the culture or history of the self-made man, the novel suddenly becomes a discourse “permeated by the desire to escape history, to transcend the historical realities of time, place, and human limitation” (306)—history, in Tyson’s finally comments, becomes objective reality again, against which she measures “the subjective literary work” to spot “one its central contradictions.” But this central contraction that Tyson has identified reveals her own contradiction in the new historicist reading of the novel. It can be argued that having subjected history to a matter of interpretations with her new historicist approach, Tyson has finally come to salvage history from ruin by restoring the lost objective status to it. Moreover, this assumption about objective fact also finds its way in her analysis of “some of the moral failings of self?made millionaires” as one “aspect of historical reality” absent from the texts that extolled their virtues (308). In short, Tyson’s analysis here seems to imply that while circulation between different fields is evident, discourse, whether literary or otherwise, should be faithful to historical reality, a notion that would not be entertained in a new historicist reading of a text.

(3) Confusion about sexuality and gender in Tyson’s queer criticism

One of the simplified examples in Tyson on queer criticism is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She intends to use it to show that one way to read queer texts is to “reveal the problematic quality of their representations of sexual categories, in other words, to show the various ways in which the categories homosexual and heterosexual break down, overlap, or do not adequately represent the dynamic range of human sexuality” (336). But Faulkner’s short story is nothing about what Tyson promises to discuss, nothing but a point about the gender traits of Emily, the title character of the story. Tyson starts out to say that “the characterization of Emily exceeds the opposition between homosexual and heterosexual. In terms of their biological sex, Homer and Emily are a heterosexual couple: he’s a man; she’s a woman.” However, Tyson ends up commenting on the heroine’s gender: “the text constructs Emily’s gender as a vacillation between the feminine and the masculine” (337).

Judith Butler has liberated gender and sexuality from the body and used the term gender (gender under erasure, being defined anew, from a poststructuralist point of view) to represent gendered sex, both sexuality (straight and/or nonstraight) and gender (masculine and/or feminine): “It would make no sense,” she argues, “to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category” (11). Since sex (sexual desire) is already gendered or socially constructed (the way gender is socially constructed), there is no need for her to differentiate between sexuality (sexual behavior in line with sexual desire) and gender (social roles for the sexes). That is why her gender performativity theory may be misunderstood as the traditional notion of gender (before it is put under erasure). And this may be one of the reasons why Tyson has misunderstood this poststructuralist concept of gender. Instead of analyzing the woman’s sexuality, Tyson has studied the roles of both genders that Emily plays in her relationships with men. In other words, Tyson has examined only her gender roles fluctuating between masculinity and femininity, but the heroin’s (hetero)sexuality in her study remains constant. Still, despite the one-component analysis, Tyson makes a two-component concluding statement: The story is “a queer text that reveals the limits of traditional definitions of gender and sexuality” (337).

(4) Colonialist psychology as racism, classism, and/or sexism

For Tyson, “colonialist psychology depends heavily on racism and classism, two very successful forms of othering” and on sexism, which overlaps with racism. “Indeed, it is the practice of multiple forms of othering that distinguishes colonialist psychology” (434). A problem arises when she uses classism and/or sexism to show colonialist psychology in The Great Gatsby, although these multiple forms of othering constitute such a psychology. For example, Tyson considers classism a colonial issue. She looks at Gatsby as a colonial subject, because he “lacks the proper bloodline, class origin, upbringing, and education for Daisy’s set.” So, “Gatsby is unhomed: he feels he belongs nowhere because he is caught between two antagonist cultures, that into which he was born and that to which he aspires” (439). But a colonial subject has to be related to racism; classism alone is another issue, for it is logically unsound to assume that simply because both racism and classism share the characteristic of othering, then it means that one form of psychology is the other.

Moreover, Tyson’s reading of Gatsby’s mimicry fails to do justice to Homi Bhabha’s poststructuralist theory. Still using classist terminology, Tyson describes Gatsby’s mimicry as follows: “his elaborate attempt to imitate the dress, speech, behavior, and lifestyle of the culturally privileged. For example, Gatsby fabricated an upper?class family and invented a past that includes an Oxford education” (439). But in his discussion about mimicry, Bhabha maintains that “the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely ‘rupture’ the [colonial] discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a ‘partial presence’” (86). So, mimicry has become a counter-discourse to return the gaze to the colonizer: “The look of surveillance returns as the displacing gaze of the disciplined, where the observer becomes the observed and ‘partial’ representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence” (89). In other words, mimicry in postcolonial theory is not merely copying “the life style of the culturally privileged” as Tyson sees it, but subverts the colonial identity stereotype about the colonizer vs. the colonized, or the white self vs. the black other, as the “partial presence” of white “wholeness” in the black other has displaced the traditional binary opposition in colonial discourse.

8. An example of deconstructive displacement (undecidability)

In one passage from a new historicist essay by Brook Thomas on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, she cites Marlow describing the Africans as follows:

We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free… They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of the noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage - who can tell? - but truth - truth stripped of its cloak of time.

"The horror of the story is not that the Africans are a deviant form of humanity, but that the monster is also within the Europeans who consider themselves superior…," argues Thomas. "On the one hand, the African continent is a shackled and conquered monster. One the other, it is the European conquerors who are conquered, as their ruthless and violent imperialism unleashes their latent savagery, making them more monstrous than those they profess to civilize" (245).

Step 1

White self vs. African other

Civilized vs. monstrous

Superior vs. inferior

Conqueror (free) vs. the conquered (shackled)

Step 2

Ruthless and violent self and free and passionate other

A remote kinship of the White self and the African other

The (White) mind encompasses “all the past” (primitive man as in the African other) “as well as all the future” (civilized man as in the White self)

No transformation from self to other or the other way around

Self is never free from the “contamination” of other, a self already “supplemented” by other.

The dichotomy of White self and African other displaced or blurred, and thus deconstructed

“For presence to function as it is said to, it must have the qualities that supposedly belong to its opposite, absence. – displacement of presence and absence” (Culler 95).

Deconstruction in new historicism or postcolonialism disrupts racial identity, to locate partial presence/absence in each term of the racial binary opposition – poststructuralist cultural criticism.

For other examples of deconstructive criticism, see reality and writing both as secondary in Zhang (1991) and blurred inside and outside in Zhang (2007).

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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): 101-4.

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. 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.

Thomas, Brook. “Preserving and Keeping Order by Killing Time in Heart of Darkness” Ross C. Murfin, ed. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, 237-55.

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.

Zhang, John Zaixin. “Free Play in Samuel Richardson's Pamela.” PLL: Papers on Language and Literature 27.3 (1991): 307-319.

---, “‘Postmodern’ Space in the Heart of Beijing: From the National Theater to the Palace Museum.” 122.1 PMLA (2007): 256-63.


[1] 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).
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