Rethinking Deconstruction in America

By Jones-Katz, Gregory | International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Deconstruction in America


Jones-Katz, Gregory, International Journal on Humanistic Ideology


The standard account of deconstruction in America describes the domestication of French philosopher Jacques Derrida' s philosophy in the late 1970s by a group of literary critics at Yale University.1 Known as the Yale School, this group included Paul de Man, Derrida' s most prominent friend in intellectual life. While Derrida developed deconstruction, a strategy of interpretation that exposes and then subverts the oppositions of Occidental thought, de Man staged his deconstructions via literature. De Man argued that, regardless of social context, a text deconstructs, as it contains contradictions or irreconcilable meanings. Deconstruction alarmed many scholars, who argued that deconstruction rejected reality in favor of an exclusive focus on the language of a text. Deconstruction therefore repudiated the tenets that grounded historical scholarship.

Paul de Man, considered most responsible for transforming Derrida' s philosophy into a method for reading literature, died in 1983 at the height of his power and prestige. There followed lavish outpourings from some of the most famous academics in America.2 De Man's legacy was to be complex, however. In 1987, it was discovered that de Man wrote almost two hundred pro-Nazi articles for collaborationist newspapers during the German occupation of his native Belgium. The revelation ignited The de Man Affair, a debate over de Man's thirty-five years of silence and the relationship between his early and later writings. After the discovery, many considered deconstruction finished. Today, deconstruction is viewed largely as a relic of the "culture wars."3

The Reception of Deconstruction in America

The popular story of deconstruction in the United States narrates the transformation of Derrida' s philosophy into a technique of close reading by a quartet of literary critics at Yale University during the 1970s. Despite having little in common, the group was known as the Yale School and included Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man. Casual remarks about their ideas first appeared in the early 1970s. By 1975, one critic denounced the "hermeneutical mafia" of Yale; organized debates on deconstruction began the following year.4

Polemics from the Left and the Right blended the members of the Yale School together, charging them with collectively dismissing reality because of their exclusive attention to the language of the text. In other words, deconstructive criticism was anti-historical, only concerned with the internal logic of literature. For example, in his influential article of 1977, American literary critic Meyer H. Abrams defended "traditional historians of Western culture" against "deconstructionist principles", which, if taken seriously, guaranteed that "any history which relies on written texts becomes an impossibility."5

Notwithstanding the tone of polemics, Deconstruction and Criticism, a 1979 collection of essays by the Yale critics, introduced deconstruction as a tool for literary study to the English-speaking world.6 De Man's prominence grew. The 1979 publication of Allegories of Reading established his position as the leading figure of deconstruction in America.7 By the early 1980s, his book Blindness and Insight (1971) had acquired iconic status.8 Not Derrida' s, but de Man's students came to hold prestigious positions in literature departments in the American university system.

The most significant attack against deconstruction in the name of history came in 1980 from literary critic Frank Lentricchia, who organized his history of modern criticism around the thesis of a "repeated and often extremely subtle denial of history by a variety of contemporary theorists."9 Lentriccha considered de Man the logical conclusion of the tradition of rejecting the past for the study of literature.10 De Man, Lentriccha asserted, possessed a "critical intention to place literary discourse in a realm where it can have no responsibility to historical life. …

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