Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Deconstruction, as American as apple pie

If one had to pinpoint ground zero for the eruption of deconstruction onto the American stage, it would have to be Yale, where a group of literary critics, theorists, and philosophers of literature—Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller—executed deconstructive readings with great élan and to great intellectual and pedagogical effect during the ’70s and early ’80s. Barbara Johnson, a graduate student and then professor of French and comparative literature during this period, explained in a 1987 interview that Yale’s comparative literature department played a key role not so much in domesticating as in generating deconstructive practices in America, and it did so on distinctly American terms. By promoting a pluralism that undermined a national canon and aimed to increase the prospect of communication across cultures—quintessential mid- to late-twentieth century Cold War American values—the discipline of comparative literature itself nurtured deconstructive stances, both at Yale and elsewhere. The first deconstructive courses in U.S. departments of literature were offered in Yale’s comparative literature department, for example, beginning with a class on Nietzsche taught by de Man in 1971. By the early ’80s, several generations of American academics venerated de Man’s work, while their European counterparts were just beginning to discover him.

Yale’s institutional history and its relation to contemporary American politics and social life helped to disseminate deconstructive thinking throughout the United States. Until the mid-seventies, Yale had boasted several prominent New Critics, including the movement’s most recognizable figures: Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, and Robert Penn Warren. Their work, popular in American literature departments and high school English classes following World War II, stressed “close reading,” viewing works of literature as self-contained, self-referential aesthetic objects. The upheavals of the sixties, however, produced a younger generation of literary critics with a longing for an interpretive theory that emphasized the political and social dimensions of literature, as well as differences and divisions within it—precisely those aspects of prose and poetry that the New Critics fused into an autonomous and unified whole. By subverting the New Critical way of reading, the Yale Group—who in their distinctive ways considered great poetry not a harmony realized via paradoxes, ironies, and ambiguities but a dissonance achieved by way of contradictions, inconsistencies, and uncertainties—tilled propitious soil in the American academy.

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