Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Nothing but Text on the Mind

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Nothing but Text on the Mind

Article excerpt

Rachel Bowlby traces how a school of literary thought and its major figures hit the big time

Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield

Fordham University Press

272pp, £68.00 and £20.99

ISBN 9780823268665 and 8672

Published 2 November 2015

Once upon a time, there was something called theory. It migrated across the Channel from France into Britain, but also seemed to have a second point of origin in New Haven, Connecticut. Seen from the American side of the Atlantic, the "Yale School" of deconstruction is the subject of Marc Redfield's gripping and intricately woven study: part cultural and institutional history, part exegesis and critique of key writers' work - and part reflection on the impossibility of smoothly bringing together those two frames of analysis.

He is fascinated by the way in which a particular kind of literary criticism somehow became what he calls a minor media myth. Mass-market magazines ran occasional features about a phenomenon that they presented as threatening the integrity of the (perennially threatened) academic humanities. When the Nazi-sympathising wartime journalism of prime Yale critic Paul de Man came to light in the late 1980s, theory - or deconstruction - could appear as a natural development of, or else a covert apology for, an ineffaceable and original tendency.

Redfield is less interested in this standout sensation, much documented already, than he is in the peculiar history whereby a specialist form of academic writing acquired a certain public prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. He highlights the complex connection between, on the one hand, the media fascination with human (or inhuman) personalities - the "larger than life" Harold Bloom and the coldly "cerebral" de Man - and, on the other, de Man's sustained analysis of the error, but also the inevitability, of authorial personification.

The book has separate chapters on the writings of four of the major figures who were part of that nebulous (and stellar) Yale school: Bloom, de Man, Geoffrey Hartman and J. …

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