Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

4. Literature, Incorporated
Harold Bloom, Theory, and the Canon

At the beginning of this book, we focused on the “Yale Critics” in an effort to come to grips with the phantasmatic dimension of the institutional and discursive development called “theory” in the American academy and media. In this chapter and the next, I offer case studies of the two most polarizing and dramatically contrastable members of the Yale quadrumvirate, Harold Bloom and Paul de Man. The case of Harold Bloom is unique in the annals of theory, and for that matter in the history of the modern academy. For a few years he occupied a prominent position in the American theory maelstrom as the intimate, internecine opponent of de Man and Derrida; then, during the mid-1980s, he lost professional visibility in the academy while acceding to the seemingly quite different role that he has played ever since in the national media: that of the antitheoretical, antiprofessional champion of the Western Canon, whose nearly superhuman powers of reading and retention allow him to embody (and underwrite and market) the literary tradition for a postliterate age. This Bloom, the “Yiddisher Doctor Johnson” whose books on Shakespeare, genius and the canon show up in airports, and whose Chelsea House volumes fill yards of shelf space, is at least as remarkable a figure as the theoretician of influence whose gnomic texts for awhile spurred critical discussion in journals like Diacritics. Bloom’s voyage from one end to the other of the discursive galaxy of theory makes his story seem to divide in two, like a conversion narrative; but instead of seeing these two phases or roles as fundamentally opposed, I propose to tease out their affinities. We thereby stand to obtain a richer sense of Bloom’s career—of the characteristics of mind and text that allowed this theorist of influence to become the mass-mediated mediator of the canon—while gaining another perspective from which to think about the mediatization of “theory.” For the production of Bloom as the representative of the canon in the American media intriguingly mirrors the production of de Man as the representative of

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