Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Demise of Deconstruction

Sometime back in 1969 or 1970 I was auditing a graduate seminar taught by J. Hillis Miller, who was still at Johns Hopkins. Somehow the Modern Language Association (the primary professional organization for academic literary critics in the USA) came up and Miller was less than enthusiastic about it, offering some dismissive remarks about the “meet market” aspect of the annual convention. At this time Hopkins was in the vanguard of work in critical theory – you may recall it hosted the (in)famous structuralism conference in 1966 – and Miller’s attitude was natural.

A decade-and-a-half later, 1986, Miller was giving the annual Presidential Address at the MLA convention: “The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of the Material Base.” His theme was the eclipse of deconstruction in favor of a turn toward “toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions, the social context.” I don’t recall whether or not I attended the convention that year – I would have been job hunting – but I didn’t hear the address. I did read it though when it was published in PMLA in 1987.

I was a bit surprised to hear the deconstruction was waning, not so much because it seemed a bit soon, but because it seemed to be all over the place. But if it was on the way out, that was fine by me. I wrote a letter to PMLA in which I offered a generational-succession account of deconstruction’s demise and the letter was published. I reproduce it below: On J. Hillis Miller’s MLA Presidential Address 1986. PMLA. Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57. As for Miller, he has long since reconciled himself to the discipline’s accommodation of other interests while noting that the term “deconstruction” has become somewhat degraded in popular usage (see my various posts on Miller).

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To the Editor:

I was fascinated by J. Hillis Miller’s “Presidential Address 1986. The Triumph of theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of the Material Base” (102 [1987]: 281-91). Miller suggests that “the resistance to theory” is one factor in the “almost universal turn away from theory in the sense of an orientation toward language as such” (283). I want to suggest another factor, one rooted in the very nature of the process by which ideas spread from their originators to others.

Let us consider deconstruction. Much of its rhetorical force comes from its immediate intellectual tension with the Western metaphysics it criticizes. First-generation deconstructionists, such as Miller, reached intellectual maturity fully within Western metaphysics. For Miller and his peers, deconstruction is thus something they arrived at after other philosophical commitments, such as phenomenology, fell apart. For these critics deconstruction has the strength and necessity that comes from the struggle they endured to create it.

The situation is quite different for those of us who first encountered deconstruction in graduate, or undergraduate, school. For us deconstruction has been just one intellectual option among others. When we learned deconstruction we of course learned of the crisis in Western metaphysics. For them, the crisis has been and is an immediate fact of their intellectual experience. For us, our knowledge of the crisis is, in Platonic fashion, but a copy of the original crisis.

Thus deconstruction can never be as compelling to us as it is to its originators. Our intellectual world is, by virtue of their effort, significantly different from theirs. Within this difference, many of us see deconstruction primarily as a great leveler. The distinction between the world and its representations retreats behind an infinite repression of signs. All texts become vessels for containing contradictions in Western metaphysics. Just as all cats appear gray in the dark, so all texts appear the same under deconstruction.

In short, to those young enough to be removed from the immediate crisis, the boring sameness of deconstruction’s results can easily become more compelling than its logical rigor or its sense of intellectual urgency. The social process of creating and disseminating knowledge moves inevitably toward routinization. Ideas that taxed the full powers of the best thinkers of one generation become the routine intellectual property of ordinary thinkers in succeeding generations. Deconstruction is so tied to the passing moment of its intellectual necessity that its forces weakens as its accomplishments become routine. That, as much as resistence to theory, is why younger critics have turned from language-centered theory, such as deconstruction.

I am not entirely happy with this situation. I think that we really are in trouble, that we need to establish new intellectual frameworks. But I am not at all sure that deconstruction has succeeded in doing much more than turning our deep intellectual problems into a rhetorical device called “the crisis in Western metaphysics.” The move “toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions, the social context” may well be theoretically naïve; it may even spring, in part, from “the resistance to theory.” But I don’t think that deconstruction’s repeated encapsulation of intellectual crisis is rich enough to overcome that resistance.

William Benzon
Troy, New York

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