Louis Menand's New Yorker essay on the notorious 20th-cent. lit. scholar Paul de Man is, like most of Menand's articles, something I read before anything else (except the cartoons). But I found it both fascinating and disappointing. He seems to blame the vociferous critics of the Yale School and post-structural theory (deconstruction, et al.) - like Allan Bloom, of Closing of the American Mind fame - for the decline of academic humanities & literature studies. As if "theory" gave the whole thing a bad name. Well, it did, to some extent. But Menand portrays the theories of Derrida, de Man, & their cohort as a sort of "deconstruction lite". Here's one of Menand's characterizing paragraphs :
"Deconstruction is difficult to explain in a manner consistent with
deconstruction. That’s what accounts for the notorious wordplay and
circularity in Derrida’s prose. (Derrida’s essay in “Deconstruction and
Criticism,” for example, has a hundred-page footnote.) We could say that
deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get
beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin
by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves
effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating
apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle
of the ocean with a shovel made of water."
In this design, deconstruction is just a subtle and critical new way to approach literature, a "good read" in its own right. Derrida & friends are seen as deep readers and defenders of literature & the humanities. By the same token, Menand separates de Man's scholarly work from de Man "de man" (a criminal scoundrel, by all evidence). But this doesn't bother me so much as does his simplistic characterization of post-structuralism/deconstruction.
Derrida doesn't strike me as the open-minded reader portrayed here. Deconstruction depends on a systematic and neo-Nietzschean dismantling of rationality itself (branded as "logocentrism"). Derrida is an anti-Plato : his supposed "free play" of signifiers depends on a very rigid ruling-out of logic itself. Verbal circularity and the de-humanization of "language" is a necessary boundary rule within which his games take place.
What is behind Menand's affinity for this trend? Perhaps it has something to do with his own devotion to the American philosophy of Pragmatism (following William James and John Dewey). There is an element of relativism inherent in Pragmatism. Nothing is really "true" except in the context of its praxis, its application. Context in this sense trumps universality. But it seems to me that without universality, truth itself loses its meaning. This is not to say that either truth or universality are ever simple givens - not requiring critical context, analysis, interpretation and judgement. But if there is no universality, there is no means of judgement or measurement whatsoever. Maybe post-structuralism and Pragmatism are joined at the hip (or by the hip, or for the theoretically hip).