Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

Introduction
The Strange Case of “Theory”

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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