On demand : Menand on de Man

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).


Andrew Shields said...

Deconstruction identifies binary oppositions at the heart of any given system (philosophical, anthropological, linguistic, literary, artistic). As part of that process, it also draws out how the system depends on constructing its binaries as hierarchies, in which one side of the binary is seen as "good" in one way or another, while the other side is seen as "bad."

The key step is actually the next one: show how dependent the system is on the exclusion of that "bad" side of the binary.

Once you begin to see these how the binary logic works and how you can "deconstruct" it, the actual process of deconstruction gets kind of boring. So what if you've found another system that works this way?

And de Man took Derrida's work and added a dodgy moment to it: he takes contrasts and pretends they are "hierarchicalized" binary oppositions, when they are not. His attempt to read "rhetorical questions" like "what's the difference?" this way involves a particularly obvious shift from contrast to opposition.

Henry Gould said...

Thanks, Andrew - interesting + (positive).