Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff's "Say Yes."

By Kelly, Colm J. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1999 | Go to article overview

Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff's "Say Yes."


Kelly, Colm J., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Deconstruction in literary studies is now frequently understood to be a type of formalism in contrast to approaches such as new historicism and cultural studies, which give renewed emphases to the various contexts of literary works. At the same time, these latter approaches have absorbed or been touched by deconstructive themes, so that they seem to share a certain tone and terminology with deconstruction. In sociology and social theory, deconstruction never had the direct influence which it once exerted in literary studies, but here too apparently deconstructive elements can be found in various forms of social constructionism. Conversely, however, defenders of deconstruction themselves argue that the charges of formalism are mistaken, and they in turn find fault with contextualist and constructionist uses of deconstruction.

"Say Yes," a short story by American writer Tobias Wolff, acclaimed for his work in the realist mode, provides a basis for examining these competing claims about deconstruction and contextualism. The story, barely five pages long, begins with an apparently simple question posed by a wife to a husband, and it rapidly raises important issues of gender politics, while at the same time "deconstructing" the very contextualist reading which it invites.

In the following essay I will claim that deconstruction is not a formalism, and that it cannot be assimilated to contextualist-sociological approaches either. Focusing on several possible readings of Wolff's story, my purpose is to demonstrate that no reading of a text or theorization of an object of study, whether literary, sociological, or interdisciplinary, can capture the object or the phenomenon as a singular event, and that the impossibility of this capture must mark and shape one's work. To make my case, I will first outline the differences between a deconstructive approach and a contextualist-sociological approach, and defend the former, by re-examining the debate between Derrida and Foucault concerning Derrida's alleged textualism. Then, I will attempt to sketch out a deconstructive understanding of the relationship that competing theories and disciplines have to each other and to the phenomenon they study. Finally, I will develop a detailed deconstructive reading of Wolff s story, setting it off against three possible readings derived from current sociological theory, in order to show how the story "deconstructs" the competing theories which attempt to explain it.

Perhaps the most economical way of addressing the stakes involved in the conflict between deconstructive and broadly sociological responses to a literary fiction would be to recall the debate which ensued after Derrida's [in]famous statement in his 1976 Of Grammatology that "there is nothing outside the text" (168). Critics of Derrida and deconstruction have read his statement literally to mean that there are only texts, and that there is no external historical and social reality which needs to be considered, especially, so the criticism goes, when we are considering philosophical texts. This is the gist of the hostile conclusion of Foucault's response to Derrida, when he accuses the latter of "the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces" (27). In reviewing this exchange, Edward Said concluded that Foucault and Derrida had two different positions on textuality, stating a dear preference for the Foucauldian approach, where the text is placed in relation to its context, which is no longer naively to be considered an extra-linguistic reality but is said to be thoroughly discursive. Something like this version of the difference between the two positions has become canonical in the majority of debates about deconstruction, and not surprisingly has led most people working in the social sciences who are interested in these questions to prefer the broadly Foucauldian approach.

This canonical version of the differences between Foucault and Derrida, however, is a serious misrepresentation of what is at stake in Derrida's work. …

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