Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

1. Theory, Deconstruction,
and the Yale Critics

In the opening sentences of an early essay, “Force and Signification” (1963), Jacques Derrida imagines a figurative future beachscape strewn with signs:

If it recedes one day, leaving behind its works and signs on the shores of our
civilization, the structuralist invasion might become a question for the historian
of ideas, or perhaps even an object. But the historian would be deceived if he
came to this pass: by the very act of considering the structuralist invasion as an
object he would forget its meaning and forget that what is at stake, first of all,
is an adventure of vision, a conversion of the way of putting questions to any
object posed before us, to historical objects—his own—in particular. And,
unexpectedly among these, the literary object.1

The spent “structuralist invasion” lingers on as works and signs (oeuvres et signes); the historian of ideas objectifies this event, so as to know it as a subject knows an object. He thereby forgets the meaning of an invasion that has already invaded him and thought past him—past the Cartesian paradigm of the knowing subject and its world picture. The works and signs are traces of an act that questions how best to question “historical objects”; and as soon as the historian sets out to know such an act as one more such object, he mistakes what it is.

Though Derrida does not say so explicitly, that predicament turns out to motivate the appearance of the “literary object” in the last sentence quoted above. The literary object does not appear on the beach—the flotsam is rather the wrecked record of the structuralist invasion’s “unexpected” effort to read (among other objects) the literary object—yet it shadows these membra disjecta. For Derrida’s essay, a respectful but sharp critique of Jean Rousset’s literary-critical study Forme et signification (1962), will find that the structuralist critic, like the beachcombing historian, erroneously converts an act into an object. “The force of the work, the force of genius, the force, too,

-19-

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