Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

6. Querying, Quarrying
Mark Tansey’s Paintings of Theory’s Grand Canyon

Any book that sets out to analyze the phenomenon of “theory” as “deconstruction in America,” as I have here, never gets far from the question of the university’s role in the cultural life of later twentieth-century America. Theory was produced although not exclusively consumed in the academy; this situation was enabled, I have suggested, by certain institutional and discursive features characterizing the U.S. experiment in mass higher education and its cultural context. Over the last few decades, therefore, the nickname “theory” has had to refer both to a host of discursive transformations in professional academic practices that possess a substantial degree of professional autonomy, and to a wider cultural and media event. The relationship between these entwined developments is complex. Theory exacerbated the already considerable distance between the professionalized humanities and nonacademic highbrow American literary culture; yet, even as it contributed to the further splintering of the public sphere, theory underwent surprisingly broad and energetic mass distribution, over the course of which it also tended to be narrowed down to a lurid core. Throughout this book I have stressed how inseparable the mediatization of theory has been from the scandal of “deconstruction,” a scandal that culminated in the national broadcasting (and then, a quarter-century later, in 2014, the remarkable rebroadcasting) of the “de Man affair.” And since I believe, and have done my best to demonstrate, that the texts and approaches we conventionally refer to as “deconstructive” have decisive analytic power, I have proposed that we understand the totemic role of de Man and Derrida—and, briefly, of that peculiar ensemble of “Yale Critics”—as the precipitate of a deep cultural anxiety about “language” in the broadest sense (mediation, figuration, deracination, iterability). The conflagration that resulted still gives off heat sporadically, decades later.

When one’s focus is on journalistic “affairs,” it is hard not to think of

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