Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

Synopsis

This book examines the affinity between "theory" and "deconstruction" that developed in the American academy in the 1970s by way of the "Yale Critics": Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, sometimes joined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
With this semi-fictional collective, theory became a media event, first in the academy and then in the wider print media, in and through its phantasmatic link with deconstruction and with "Yale." The important role played by aesthetic humanism in American pedagogical discourse provides a context for understanding theory as an aesthetic scandal, and an examination of the ways in which de Man's work challenges aesthetic pieties helps us understand why, by the 1980s, he above all had come to personify "theory."
Combining a broad account of the "Yale Critics" phenomenon with a series of careful re-examinations of the event of theory, Redfield traces the threat posed by language's unreliability and inhumanity in chapters on lyric, on Hartman's representation of the Wordsworthian imagination, on Bloom's early theory of influence in the 1970s together with his later media reinvention as the genius of the Western Canon, and on John Guillory's influential attempt to interpret de Manian theory as a symptom of literature's increasing marginality. A final chapter examines Mark Tansey's paintings "Derrida Queries de Man" and "Constructing the Grand Canyon", works that offer subtle, complex reflections on the peculiar event of theory as-deconstruction in America.

Excerpt

This book is about the event of “theory” in the American academy. The term theory—jostled, for reasons to be discussed, by quotation marks that form part of the term itself—refers here primarily to a certain kind of reflection on language and literature that garnered the tag “deconstruction” in the 1970s, and in distorted form became a minor mass-media topic in the 1980s. Both as a media event and, in more complex ways, as an academic one, “theory” was understood to be epitomized by “deconstruction”; and “deconstruction” was in turn understood to be epitomized by the writings, the proper names, and the ambivalently twinned personae of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. The reductive force of that dreamlike process of condensation and personification contributes to its historico-cultural and theoretical interest and forms part of what a study of “theory” needs to explain.

This book attempts the double task of respecting the conceptual power of Derrida’s and de Man’s texts on the one hand and situating the impact of those texts within an institutional and cultural context on the other. I have had to assume some acquaintance with this archive, but have tried to make the discussion accessible to readers of good will whose study of deconstructive theory has been limited. My focus on the primary texts is strategic, in any case. The guiding question here bears on how they were received. Though I am not offering a sociological account of the “theory” phenomenon—and this for essential reasons—my opening chapter will be thinking about “theory” in relation to three broad institutional frames: the structure of the American university, the tradition of public debate about the role of the humanities in the university, and the intersection of theoretical argument with romantic studies in professional academic criticism in the United States. The relevance of that last item becomes clearer if one accepts this book’s postulate that a study of “theory” (a study, that is, of the mediatization of theory-as-deconstruction, which, as I note more than once in what . . .

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