The Promise and Practice of Deconstruction

By Neal, Aubrey | Canadian Journal of History, April 1995 | Go to article overview

The Promise and Practice of Deconstruction


Neal, Aubrey, Canadian Journal of History


The current debate over deconstruction continues to burn and it does not appear that the argument will be put to rest any time soon. David Lehman (1991) speaks for a number of pundits like Ellis (1989), and Crews (1986), who regard deconstruction as the academic boondoggle of the century.(1) Lehman quips, 'If you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or a Marxist or a feminist"(2) and quotes Frederick Crews:

The sense that everything has been done turns to panic as opportunities

for appointment and promotion disappear. Such a climate is

ideally suited to nurturing a mania for theories(3).

In more erudite language, Christopher Norris (1989) accuses Lyotard (1984) of reducing knowledge to the, "purely performative terms ... of discursive interventions whose only claim to "truth" is their pragmatic yield in securing this or that short-term benefit."(4) From these perspectives, deconstruction is a postmodernist text technology for bourgeois radarpersons of the postindustrial fin de siecle.

Critics like the minority of 204 Regents of Cambridge University who voted against awarding an honourary doctorate to Jacques Derrida in May, 1992 fear that, 'the major preoccupation and effect of his voluminous work has been to deny and to dissolve those standards of evidence and argument on which all academic disciplines are based." E.D. Hirsch (1976) denounced decadent literary scholarship"(6) two years before Derrida's major work began appearing in English. Hirsch has been supported by his younger colleague, Michael Fischer (1985).(7) Elliot (1992), Himmelfarb (1984 and 1989), and Wakefield (1990) take similar positions.(8) The emotionalism, jargon, and the negative attitude Ormiston (1991) calls the "knell of the age of the professor"(9) -- all this and more understandably put off a whole cohort of fair-minded readers.

Errors of enthusiasm and errors of understandable suspicion have degraded the debate from both sides, but there is only one major error which I wish to address in this essay. Both pro and con tend to mistake deconstruction for a scholarly method. It is not. Deconstruction is a criticism of traditional scholarly method; not a substitute for it. In this essay, I want to look at the history of the origins of the debate in order to show the methodological problem in the social sciences which deconstructionists believe they have perceived. In the course of outlining the intellectual context in which deconstruction arose, I want to blaze an historiographical trail through the literature that will be useful to anyone who is interested in the history of the debate.

The conservative opponents of deconstruction are not only journalists like Lehman and suspicious traditionalists like Crews, Ellis, and Himmelfarb. An interdisciplinary tribunal of critical leftists like Eagleton (1983), Felperin (1985 and 1989), Jameson (1991), Lentricchia (1983), Norris (1988, 1989, 1990), Palmer (1990), Samuel (1991 and 1992) and Woodiwiss (1990) also challenge deconstruction on the grounds that it undermines many of the basic methodological tenets of the arts and humanities disciplines.(10) Palmer and Eagleton take the approach that "when structuralism gave way to poststructuralism, the way was thus unconsciously prepared for the reification of discourse."(11) Fredric Jameson agrees. "'Culture' has become a product in its own right ... Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process."(12) For these critics, deconstruction means a loss of critical contact with the real historical world of politics, status rivalry, economics, and class conflict.

Samuel (1991) concedes that deconstruction "has given a new lease of life to the study of 'rulership' allowing ... some of history's newest concerns -- body-language, homophobia, sexual politics, charisma and magic ... to take center stage";(13) but "the semiotic appetite for protocols and codes . …

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