The Idea of the Future of Deconstruction – Paul Grimstad

In the 1980s and ’90s, North American university literature departments underwent a broad methodological transition from a dominant deconstruction or ‘high theory’ to various modalities of ‘cultural studies’.1 However, in many versions of this transition, the radical epistemological (and thus political) implications of deconstructive thought remained unaddressed, deliberately effaced or simply forgotten, forming what Herman Rapaport has recently called a ‘failed encounter’missed interlocution [and] a willful failure to understand’ (Rapaport, 2001: 4-5). That is to say, for all the urgent realignment, there was very little engagement with the specificity of deconstruction as a philosophical project.

Part of what I want to examine here is how such ‘failed encounters’ play themselves out. In looking at two very different examples of the American reception of deconstruction — Gerald Graff’s early accusations of ‘non-sense,’ and the appropriative theoretical collages of Homi Bhabha — I want to show how these influential appraisals (the first a suspicious warning; the second an ecstatic adoption, and both to some degree engaging with the term ‘textuality’ in misleading ways) have contributed to the reification of ‘deconstruction’ into the sound-bites that much of the cultural studies of the ’80s and ’90s sought ‘simultaneously [to] incorporate and replace’. For while Jacques Derrida has, with remarkable consistency,2 continued to renew the stakes of the deconstructive project in what amount to a series of performatively regenerative motifs (‘différance’, ‘arche-trace’, ‘re-mark’, ‘iteration’, ‘pharmakon’, ‘supplement’, ‘hymen’, ‘(par)ergon’, ‘signature’, ‘invention’, ‘archive’, ‘event’, ‘gift’, ‘secret’, ‘spectrality’, ‘animal’, ‘hospitality’, ‘pardon’, and so on), their reception in the American academy has for the most part boiled down to a few handy slogans: ‘there is nothing outside the text’, (a misleadingly decontextualized translation of il n’y a pas de hors-texte), and the rote reversal of this or that hierarchically inscribed ‘binary opposition’. In addition to examining how these bumper-sticker versions of deconstruction have come to account for the whole of deconstructive philosophy, I will also try to show how many critiques of deconstruction tend to disclose their ‘missed interlocution’ with its philosophical content in symptomatic occlusions of certain of the key claims marking Derrida’s now-canonical opening line in American academia.3 This occurs specifically, I will argue, as the occultation of a certain epistemo-political inflection of the ‘historical’ in deconstruction, or what Derrida has called heritage.4

Accordingly, I would like to arrive at an understanding of cultural studies, not in polemical opposition to deconstruction, but rather as a potential site where deconstructive thinking might be set to work, and specifically around the terms ‘history’ and ‘politics.’ In examining two very different types of ‘failed encounter’ with deconstruction I hope to, first, show exactly how key features of deconstructive philosophy tend to get obscured in impatiently polemical dismissals and over-hasty applications alike and, second, argue that it is only a ‘deconstruction’ understood with its most radical epistemological implications fully intact that can productively open onto new modes of historical and political analysis. I will attempt to outline such an analysis — one that would be in harmony with Stuart Hall’s injunction to move from ‘the clean air of textuality and theory to the something nasty down below’5 — in my concluding section, by looking at some recent, politically inflected elaborations of deconstructive thought.

Literature Against Itself, ‘Non-Sense,’ Errance and Responsibility

In his 1979 cautionary survey Literature Against Itself, Gerald Graff built anti-deconstruction arguments from an already well-worn shorthand which claimed that the only possible outcome of deconstructive thought was the nihilism of an abyssal hall of textual mirrors. Rightly pointing out the terminological confusion installed after the 1966 conference in Baltimore, telling us that ‘the position of structuralism and poststructuralism [on] the postmodern spectrum of attitudes is equivocal’ (1979: 61), Graff summarizes this ‘position’ as follows:

There is, then, no such thing as a ‘real’ object outside language, no ‘nature’ or ‘real life’ outside the literary text, no real text behind the critical interpretation, and no real persons or institutions behind the multiplicity of messages human beings produce. Everything is swallowed up in an infinite regress of textuality. (1979: 61)

Although Graff engaged Derridean questions in a less superstitious manner ten years later,6 there is perhaps no better example of a ‘willful failure to understand’ than this summation from Literature Against Itself.7 Graff’s rhetoric bears all the marks of a resistance: the scandalous ‘no such things,’ the sense of the snuffing out of ‘reality’ in favor of some ominous machinery of signifiers, and the apocalyptic ‘swallowing’ of ‘everything’ by a devouring ‘textuality’.8 Add to such hyperbole Graff’s further claim that an interrogation of a metaphysical tradition which paradoxically relies on the resources of that very tradition in order to bring about its interior dismantling is ‘non-sense’: ‘Nothing is conceivable without [metaphysical notions] ‘ if language is incorrigibly a naàmacr;ve realist, how can we profess to challenge this realism without talking nonsense? (1979: 193)’.

Before showing how such dismissive characterizations set the stage for the sound-bite ‘deconstruction’ that much of ‘cultural studies’ will seek either to challenge or assimilate, let us first look at how this very real (and for deconstruction necessary) paradox is addressed in Derrida’s contribution to that Franco-American intellectual coup of 1966, ‘Structure Sign and Play’:

The quality and fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which [a] relation to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought [avec laquelle est pensé ce rapport à l’histoire de la metaphysique et aux concepts hérités]. Here it is a question both of a critical relation to the language of the social sciences and a critical responsibility of the discourse itself. It is the question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself [empruntant à un heritage les resources nécessaire à la dé-construction de cet heritage lui-màordf;me] [it is a] problem of economy and strategy. (1979: 202)

And, a few years later, in ‘Différance’:

to prepare, beyond our logos, for a différance so violent that it can be interpellated neither as the epochality of Being nor as ontological difference, is not in any way to dispense with the passage through Being, or to ‘criticize’, or ‘contest’, or misconstrue its incessant necessity. On the contrary, we must stay within the difficulty of [a] passage, and repeat it in the rigorous reading of metaphysics, wherever metaphysics normalizes western discourse’ (1982: 24)

What Graff has labeled ‘non-sense’, Derrida stresses to be the ‘staying’ [séjourner] within the ‘difficulty of [a] passage’, a ‘responsibility’ toward the ‘inheritance’ of metaphysical concepts, an ‘economic’ ‘borrowing’ from that heritage, and a ‘strategic’ re-deployment of its terms. The polemical reduction of a rich philosophical complexity to the easy prey of the sound-bite (as an apocalyptic version of ‘there is nothing outside the text’) has barred access to the content of Derrida’s philosophical project, rendering his arguments unrecognizable. Here, then, is a key effect of a ‘missed interlocution’ with deconstruction in the early stages of its North American reception: a plea for critical vigilance toward a metaphysical ‘heritage’ (that vast repository of concepts, rhetorical strategies, speculative hypotheses, arguments etc.) that would seek to borrow ‘the recourses necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself’, becomes the site of a panic (‘non-sense!’), in which Derrida’s project is both misleadingly preserved and mangled beyond recognition.

At another moment in Literature Against Itself, Graff refers to Derridean thought as a ‘relativistic philosophy [that] has eroded the concept of error’ (1979:62). Here, though, his accusations get uncannily to the point of deconstructive ‘strategy’ as it is elaborated in ‘Différance’:In the delineation of différance everything is strategic and adventurous. Strategic because no transcendent truth present outside the field of writing can govern theologically the totality of the field. Adventurous because this strategy is not a simple strategy in the sense that strategy orients tactics according to a final goal, a telos or theme of domination, a mastery and ultimate reappropriation of the development of the field [it is rather] a strategy without finality, what might be called blind tactics [tactique aveugle], or empirical wandering [errance empirique]. (1982: 22) Far from being ‘eroded’, the ‘concept of error’ is necessary to a deconstructive ‘strategy’ where ’empirical wandering’ (errance empirique) phonetically links notions of wandering (errance) and ‘error’ (erreur). Such a wandering empiricism — and here specifically the significatory drift or errance of the pun between its two semantic poles, neither of which could ever finally be ‘correct’ (let alone fit neatly into the dimensions of ‘relativistic philosophy’) — is perhaps what Newton Garver referred to when he said that Derrida ‘seemed at times to embrace ‘ a radical empiricism’ (Derrida, 1973: xxviii); that is, an ’empiricism’ that would include and make accommodations for ‘error’.9 Thus ‘error’ appears re-marked in Derridean philosophy as part of a linguistic strategy for working through the conceptual impasses of an inherited metaphysical tradition (héritage; ‘history’). By following the drift of productive mis-readings (errance; ‘errors’), one begins the labor of inventively inheriting the past.10

Far from offering a mere ‘relativism’, what Derrida gives us, in early texts such as ‘Structure Sign and Play’ and ‘Différance’, is a description of the way in which the labor of readerly invention begins to re-draw the epistemological topography and open up new coordinates of sense, new ways of engaging with and re-programming one’s conceptual heritage, and thus of fashioning new openings onto the future. Such an adventure of openings ‘without finality’ begins with the act of close reading, and so is a matter of improvisatory strategies that exceed the policing grids of pre-set hermeneutic programs. Such reading must thus also be a matter of manifesting a ‘responsibility’ to an unknown, unknowable (non-‘sense’-ical) future. Here, then, ‘close reading’ would not simply collapse into the vertigo of an abyssal reflexivity (the sound-bite version of, most obviously, de Man’s Allegories of Reading and often the unspoken basis for the various ‘textualisms’ that a ‘politically responsible’ cultural studies would be designed to remedy), but rather produce the moment ‘when a text removes [a reliable] ground [and thus] exposes us to the difficulty of language [leaving] us to our own [ethico-political] responsibilities’ (Keanan, 1997: 4).11 It is this deconstruction — with all of its epistemo-political rigor intact — that is often lost in impatient transitions to an allegedly more concrete, historical or politically committed cultural studies.

‘Signs Taken For Wonders’, Young’s Paradox and Theoretical Collage

Where Graff read the face of deconstruction as menacingly ‘relativistic’, Homi Bhabha appeals to deconstructive ideas in order to show how ‘fantasies of menace’ work between colonizers and their fetishized others. Bhabha’s work marks a general attempt to wed some of the theoretical inroads made by Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan (that triumvirate of high ‘poststructuralist’12 theory) to a more explicitly political agenda. This involves a borrowing from Foucault a discursive theory of power as ‘knowledge production’,13 and linking such a theory of power to a model of (a more properly Derridean) ‘textuality’ that becomes, in Bhabha’s hands, a skeleton key for talking about nation, geography, colonialization and identity. Rather than leading to Graff’s textualist apocalypse, ‘textuality’, in Bhabha’s work, becomes a way of talking about politico-cultural dynamics.

In his 1985 essay ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Bhabha attempts to theorize the way colonial (Foucauldian; ‘discursive’) power installs the parameters within which it enacts its (textual) ‘truth’, and the irreducible resistances that split off along such installations. He conceptualizes this split as a ‘double’ movement, in which the disposal of authority contained in the letter of the English book (an attempted arrestation of metonymic displacement in the arbitrary ‘origin’ of the book as the source of a ‘bestowal’), occurs in conjunction with the formation of an appropriately receptive ‘disposition’ in the colonized receptacle of that textual power (Bhabha, 1985: 151). If ‘the exercise of colonialist authority ‘ requires the production of differentiations, individuations, identity effects through which discriminatory practices can map out subject populations’ (Bhabha, 1985:153), and if this ‘mapping’ is ‘produced through a strategy of disavowal [where] the reference of discrimination is always to a process of splitting as the condition of subjection’ (Bhabha, 1985:153), then the potential for resistance occurs at the site where ‘the trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different-a mutation, a hybrid’ (Bhabha, 1985:153). Here we get a composite deconstructive logic,14 articulated over a Foucauldian backdrop, further compounded to include a teleo-grammatical metonymy of desire borrowed from Lacan. This theoretical apparatus is put to work in the re-assigning of readerly agency to colonial subjects, where the metonymic plane of Entstellung (the axes of distortion driving the Freudian dream work) is placed on a continuum with the iterative movement of difference as repetition, which the colonial subject exploits for her own transgressive re-marking of the arbitrarily installed truth of English textuality.

In this pastiche of theoretical registers, each component of which is itself extremely demanding and complex on its own, we encounter a kind of terminological critical mass, where the argumentative or logical contexts from which these ideas appear begin to fade from view, leaving us only with the bristling density of Bhabha’s own ambitious theoretical ‘hybrids’. Robert Young has analyzed the effects of this recombinant, on-the-fly style of thinking, (which he has accurately named a ‘restless seriality’), particularly with reference to the notion of ‘history’ in Bhabha’s work:

Bhabha’s claims to describe the conditions of colonial discourse ‘ seem always offered as static concepts, curiously anthropomorphized so that they possess their own desire, with no reference to the historical provenance of the theoretical material from which such concepts are drawn’. On each occasion Bhabha seems to imply through this timeless characterization that the concept in question constitutes the condition of colonial discourse itself and would hold good for all historical periods and contexts — so it comes as something of a surprise when it is subsequently replaced by the next one, as, for example, when psychoanalysis suddenly disappears in favor of Bakhtinian hybridization, only itself to disappear entirely in the next article as psychoanalysis returns’. Inevitably, of course, different conceptualizations produce different emphases — but the absence of any articulation between them remains troubling. (1990:146)

One might add Foucauldian ‘power’, and Derridean ‘dissemination’ to the repertoire of Bhabha’s borrowed devices. Young finds a telling paradox at work here, where the attributing of a feeling of ‘timelessness’ to ‘colonial discourse’ mirrors the decontextualizing isolation of select features from multiple theorists, but where obsessive shifts in explanatory register (from Lacan to Foucault to Derrida) create disorienting ‘surprises’ that would trouble the stability of the ‘static concept’. Put differently, in the effort to expose the arbitrariness of the ‘origin’ of English power in a metonymically unstable English textuality, Bhabha has at the same time symptomatically sundered the surface dazzle of borrowed theoretical lexia from the conceptual matrices in which their particular strategics appear, reducing these historically inscribed concepts to floating blurbs.

Specifically in relation to deconstruction, Young’s paradox results in the obscuring of the larger historico-philosophical stakes in which différance must take place. Where Graff’s ‘non-sense’ had foreclosed a strategic engagement with ‘heritage‘, Bhabha’s detached theoretical figures, arranged in the ‘timeless’ immanent space of a methodological collage, effaces the scene of ‘inheritance’ (philosophical; argumentative; historical) in which these concepts function and take shape. Young does entertain the possibility that all of this is ‘a considered strategy whereby Bhabha rejects a consistent metalanguage, refusing to let his terms reify into static concepts’ (1990: 146), but if this were the case, then the ‘strategy’ of keeping one’s argumentative terms in perpetual metonymy (so that in enacting the destabilizing repetition of textual ‘power’ they never have time to ‘reify’) would at the same time shut down precisely that deconstructive strategy of engaging critically and inventively with the anteriority of a conceptual inheritance.15 This problematic detachment of certain of the deconstructive inventions (double movement, trace, dissemination, iteration), would then have exactly the opposite effect of preventing the ‘reification’ of theoretical terms, since in severing them from the matrix of a philosophical inheritance (heritage), one inadvertently elevates them into the frozen ‘timelessness’ of a collage. What we are left with in ‘Signs Taken For Wonders,’16 then, is the methodological outline of a ‘deconstruction’ shorn of its epistemological provenance; a ‘deconstruction’ detached and ‘applicable’, and therefore (and problematically for Bhabha) an institutionally coercive, manageable, and complacent ‘deconstruction’. This would then be one example of that diffuse ‘expansion through combination and proliferation’ whereby a certain truncated deconstruction (but also psychoanalysis, genealogy, dialogism, Marxism, etc.) elides into a ‘cultural studies’ that becomes a ‘broad academic front under which almost any research goes’ (Leitch: 2003: 5).

Deconstruction, Cultural Studies, and ‘Language that changes much more than language’

In examining these two ‘missed interlocutions’, I have tried to show how deconstruction gets truncated into sound-bites according to different logics (the one condemning; the other appropriative). At the same time, I have tried to demonstrate how a more ‘historically concrete’ or ‘politically explicit’ alternative to a ‘textualist’ deconstruction is both symptomatically constructed as the failure to engage seriously with a Derridean notion of heritage, and/or zealously taken on, but as part of a ‘collage’ which contains a reified and unmediated version of deconstruction. The larger stakes of the analysis have been to point out that such distorted versions of deconstruction are what usually end up getting either critiqued or inherited by an increasingly diffuse and methodologically syncretic cultural studies.

The resulting difficulty of responsibly interfacing deconstruction and cultural studies has been addressed in Gary Hall’s Culture in Bits, where it is argued that ‘politics’ is the vexed term around which a (two-way) process of sound-biting arises between deconstruction and cultural studies:

When it comes to the question of politics I’m afraid cultural studies has been guilty of a certain amount of complacency and lack of rigour. Still, is there not a danger of fixing cultural studies into a rather totalizing and homogeneous stereotype? ‘no matter how theoretically sophisticated they may be, is there not also a risk of such readings of the openness of and ambiguities of literature or philosophy — even the literary or philosophical discourses that lie at the heart of cultural studies — merely confirming the distorted (mis)conceptions many people in cultural studies already have of deconstruction, not least that it is of only limited relevance to their (overtly politically committed) work? In order to displace cultural studies’ mistaken perception of deconstruction as a primarily ‘theoretical’ or ‘textual’ discourse, is an analysis somewhat ‘closer to home’ not also needed; one that is perhaps a little harder for cultural studies practitioners to dismiss? (Hall, 2002: 67)

For Hall, the term ‘politics’ marks a polarizing effect whereby deconstruction and cultural studies reify one another into mutually incompatible discourses, as they seem to move further apart the more each tries to deal with the term. In order to attempt to lay the groundwork for a merger between deconstruction and cultural studies that would responsibly engage both discourses, [Gary] Hall, in Culture in Bits, stages a ‘deconstructive encounter with cultural studies’. He does this through invoking Stuart Hall’s now-canonical ‘Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies’ (and its rich critical reception) in order to examine the problem of cultural studies’ North American institutionalization, which is seen to displace a purer ‘Birmingham moment’ – an assumption which is itself critically examined in Culture in Bits.

My own concluding remarks here might be thought of as a slightly different version of such an ‘encounter’ (an encounter I agree is both vital and necessary for the future of deconstruction and cultural studies), where Stuart Hall’s plea for a move from ‘”the clean air of textuality and theory to the something nasty down below” — by which he means the “worldliness” of cultural studies, its “political” aspect’ ([Gary] Hall, 2002: 68), would be carried out in acts of critical analysis that would seek to intervene into and alter the linguistic archives that program ‘history’, or even ‘culture’ itself. In what follows, I will try to show how such an analysis would preserve the complexity of deconstructive thought, work with a rigorous conception of the ‘political’, and fulfill cultural studies’ request that one deal with that ‘something nasty down below’.

In his study of the relation between Ralph Emerson’s linguistic innovations and the socio-cultural atmosphere of the Antebellum United States,17 Eduardo Cadava offers a compelling description of the way ‘language’ dovetails with ‘history’ and ‘politics’:

[Emerson’s language generates meaning] not by the accumulation of multiple associations around a strongly held center, but through the mobilization of terms from one shifting context to another. This mobilization names an engagement with changing historical and political relations ‘ wherein language not only works to alter and set in motion the shifting domains of history and politics but wherein the political and the historical leave their traces in language ‘ . [I]f Emerson’s language works to change language, it does so in order to change much more than language ‘. [T]hat language actively conditions the possibility of what we call history or politics requires that we begin to account for how language works historically to establish reference and meaning. This approach would, at the same time, need to remain open to a future whose unpredictability could transform the regimes of meaning previously thought to condition its past'(1997: 21)

Here, ‘history and politics’ are argued to be the effect of prior linguistic events (which have ‘set in motion’ existing ‘regimes of meaning’), and preserved as ‘traces’ in the raw material of language itself. A critical ‘account’ of how ‘language works historically’ — how it ‘actively conditions the possibility of what we call history or politics’ — is thus also, for Cadava, a turn toward a future whose monstrous ‘unpredictability’ provokes a rhetorical ‘transformation’ of established referential protocols. An inherited language, in this scenario, becomes a malleable switchboard for designing semio-historical ‘regimes’ to come.

Tom Cohen has mapped a similar relation, through a radical inflection of the term ‘materiality’, where this term would designate, ‘not ‘ a master referent but [a] domain of inscription ‘ where perception, memory, hermeneutic accommodations and accords, aesthetic ideologies and “experience” are archivally programmed’ (Cohen, 2003: n.251). Like Cadava’s description of a critical strategy which, in attempting to ‘change language, does so in order to change much more than language’, Cohen’s notion of ‘materiality’ finds in the very moves of close reading an opening onto history. For Cohen, ‘history’ names the linguistic archives that mnemonically program and constitute the horizon, not only of ‘reference and meaning’, but also of ‘perception’, ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ (‘more than language’ indeed!). He thus outlines in his work a critical practice in which ‘the terms necessary for any mnemotechnic intervention in the historical [would be] examined, put in play, [and] performatively tested’ (Cohen, 2001b: viii). ‘Performativity’ plays a crucial role here, where the tropological systems that condition the comprehension and articulation of ‘historical’ and ‘political’ domains are themselves thought to be the result of prior events of (performative) positing. A tension is thus made legible between the system of tropes through which ‘history’ and ‘politics’ (but also ‘perception’, ‘experience’, and ‘culture’) become intelligible and expressible, and the anterior performativity that is this system’s condition of possibility.18

For both Cadava and Cohen, the inscriptive force of an anterior performativity programs the field of reference within which the language use of the ‘present’ must take place. However, both of these deconstructive thinkers argue that an access or opening onto those anterior pre-settings remains a possibility for a close reading attuned to traces of the performative’s ongoing translation into ‘history’. This ‘access’ is envisioned as a pragmatic, interventionist re-engineering of the relation between a performative language and the inherited archival schemas that hermeneutically legislate ‘reference’; a practice that (like Emerson’s) would work to ‘change language [but] in order to change much more than language’. In seeking to bring about the semantic disinvestiture (and potential re-filling) of the grids across which ‘reference’ happens, such a critical practice would be an attempt to alter and re-inscribe the linguistico-historical field itself. A ‘re-inscription’ of this sort would open onto new, alternate ‘histories’ whose trajectories had remained virtual within the figural index of inherited tropological systems. Such a re-engineering of the strata out of which ‘history’, ‘politics’ and ‘culture’ appear would, it seems to me, be one way to heed Stuart Hall’s injunction that ‘cultural studies’ get at the gritty materiality of that ‘something nasty down below’, though this would occur (paradoxically enough) in the ‘clean air’ of deconstructive close reading.

The performative intervention of a critical language that would seek to ‘change much more than language’ (by pragmatically re-spinning terms like ‘language’, ‘reading’, ‘reference’, ‘history’, ‘politics’, ‘culture’, ‘perception’, ‘experience’, ‘materiality’, ‘inscription’) is of course another way of describing a ‘strategic economy’ of borrowing from a linguistic heritage (or ‘archival history’) in order to simultaneously suspend and re-mark its systematicity from within. In the politicizing of the re-inscriptive capacity of the trace, which involves the emptying of networks of tropes of their mimetic commitments to reified (and subsequently policed) reference grids, we are thus again precisely at that moment ‘when a text removes [a reliable] ground [and thus] exposes us to the difficulty of language [leaving] us to our own [ethico-political] responsibilities’ (Keenan, 1997: 4). A performative intervention into ‘historical’ and ‘political’ domains thus also involves the ethical decision making required of a situation in which schemas of reference have been so dissolved, so scrambled and shaken, that the critical reader/writer confronts language as something radically open, future-oriented and disorientingly new. Indeed, it is such an interminable ‘making-new’ that both constitutes ‘deconstructive strategy’ (as an adventure of openings ‘without finality’), and renders it ‘new,’ expanding its chain of ongoing performative encounters into the future. Here, specifically, this takes the shape of an encounter with the domains of history and politics, and an attentiveness to Stuart Hall’s hopes for socially engaged ‘cultural studies’.


1 Vincent Leitch offers a lucid description of this transition in his recent book Theory Matters:

By the middle or late 1980s, various unified fronts of literary social critics, feminists, postcolonial theorists, historians of culture, scholars of popular culture, rhetoricians, left poststructuralists ‘ began promoting cultural studies, many extending models developed during the 1970s in the United Kingdom’s celebrated center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham ‘ . [W]hat you had in U.S. university departments of literary studies through the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s was an ascendant cultural studies, increasingly capacious and broadly defined, simultaneously incorporating and displacing a once-dominant literary poststructuralism. (Leitch, 2003: 4)

This ‘simultaneous incorporation and displacement’ of ‘poststructuralism’ by ‘cultural studies’ is largely responsible, Leitch argues, for the current ‘disorganized’ state of literary theory in America (a scenario which Leitch, unlike Herman Rappaport, does not see as a crisis) (Leitch, 2003: vii). I will have more to say on the reification of the term ‘poststructuralism’ at a later point in this essay, but in the context of Leitch’s description I take this term to stand for the dominant deconstructive or ‘high’ theory that cultural studies incorporated and/or replaced.

2 A ‘consistency’ that has never, as Samuel Weber has commented, settled into anything like a methodological ‘predictability’, since Derrida has been, ‘able’to resist the kind of “entropy” which is the other side of a certain “consistency”‘ (Weber, 1997: 177).

3 What I am calling Derrida’s ‘opening line’ in America was delivered at the 1966 Baltimore conference ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’ (see Macksey and Donato, 1970), where an American academic scene underwent the distinguished contortion of having simultaneously to digest an intricate French structuralism already in full bloom, and Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, which itself offered both the definitive assessment of that by then orthodox structuralism, and its immediate disarticulation.

4 I call this ‘occultation’ because in the rush to find something scandalous in the ‘anti-humanism’ of structuralism, and its de-centered Derridean aftermath (not to mention the work of Louis Althusser and the earlier Michel Foucault), many detractors mistake French thought of 1960s as at best a detached and perversely apolitical formalism and at worst a dangerously wayward relativism, when in fact it was in many ways a direct response to historical factors — namely, the labor of reading a metaphysical inheritance stretching back to Plato (or at least to Marx and Freud) and critically transforming its conceptual networks from within. On the vexed issue of ‘humanism’ in the texts of deconstruction, Robert Young writes:

To criticize humanism in this context (France in the 1960s) does not mean that you do not like human beings and have no ethics — the gist of certain attacks on ‘anti-humanism’ — but rather the reverse. It questions the use of the human as an explanatory category that purports to provide a rational understanding of ‘man’ — an assumed universal predicated on the exclusion and marginalization of his Others, such as ‘woman’ or ‘the native’. (Young, 1990:122, my emphasis).

My further point is that it is this feature of deconstruction’s reception (its being repeatedly mistaken for a ‘nihilistic’ anti-humanism) that often gets symptomatically re-inscribed in certain of the moves into ‘cultural studies’.

5 See Hall (1993: 100).

6 In the afterward to the English translation of Derrida’s playful response to speech act theorist John Searle, Limited Inc.

7 In his most recent book Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff again deals with the example of deconstruction, but this time in order to contrast the specialized terminology of academic prose with the journalist’s reliance upon the ‘sound bite’. Graff writes:

The most striking example of this rule (of the misunderstanding of the ‘avant-garde academic’ by the impatient journalist) is the popular misunderstanding of deconstruction, an ironic outcome, since the problem of the sound bite — or the relationship between a text and its self-characterization — is one that deconstruction sheds considerable light on. One of the most widely ridiculed deconstructionist theories is that in an important sense texts are ‘unreadable’, as the late Paul de Man frequently argued. Such theories seemingly confirmed the charge of detractors like Dinesh D’Souza, David Lehman, and John M. Ellis that, as D’Souza put it, ‘Deconstructionists hold that all literature is empty of meaning’ — that words can mean anything we want them to mean. I myself thought de Man’s thesis self-evidently preposterous when I first encountered it in the mid-seventies and I said so in print. (2001: 151).

8 Resistance to the radical displacement of the term ‘text’ in Derridean philosophy (that is, the re-inscription of the term ‘beyond the book’), was also at the center of a mini-debate over Derrida’s short piece on the word apartheid (Le Dernier Mot du Racisme) that took place in the pages of Critical Inquiry in 1986, where (a slightly annoyed) Derrida responded to his critics:

It is in the interest of one side and the other [that is, ‘those who represent militantism and a progressivist commitment as well as ‘ neoconservatives’] to represent deconstruction as a turning inward and an enclosure by the limits of language, whereas in fact deconstruction begins by deconstructing logocentrism, the linguistics of the word, and this very enclosure itself. On one side or the other, people [also] get impatient when they see that deconstructive practices are also and first of all political and institutional practices. They get impatient when they see that these practices are perhaps more radical and certainly less stereotyped than others, less easy to decipher, less in keeping with well-used models whose wear and tear ends up by letting one see the abstraction, the conventionalism, the academism, and everything that separates ‘ words and history. On one side and the other ‘ there is an interest in believing, in pretending to believe, or simply in making others believe that the ‘text’ which concerns ‘deconstructionists” can be found neatly in its place on some library shelves. That being the case, in order to act ‘ in the area of real politics, in history ‘ these poor ‘deconstructionists’ should go ‘beyond the text’, into the field, to the front! [But] the text which various deconstructions are speaking of today is not at all the paper or the paperback with which you would like to identify it. If there is nothing ‘beyond the text’ in this new sense, then that leaves room for the most open kinds of political (but not just political) practice and pragmatics. It even makes it more necessary than ever. (Derrida, 1986: 168-69).

9 It is worth pointing out that in one of the key performances of ‘Yale-style’ deconstruction — Paul de Man’s close reading of Harry Zohn’s translation of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Die Aufgabe des àoelig;bersetzer’ — it is this figure of errance which appears both as the illusory ‘wandering’ of an ‘original’ text in relation to a presumed reine Sprache, and the metonymic chain of errors that chip away at Benjamin’s idiosyncratic German as it gets fragmented into French and English (De Man, 1986: 92).

10 Hence the crucial importance of pun and neologism in all of Derrida’s work.

11 Concerning the kind of ‘political responsibility’ at work in the De Manian version of deconstruction, Christopher Norris has written:

De Man’s texts quite explicitly ask to be read in this ‘political’ mode. They insist that the field of rhetorical tensions is always ‘ a space where the politics of reading is inevitably brought into play’The ‘burden’ of politics, as de Man conceives it, is a negative labor (like that of deconstruction) relentlessly trained on its own liability to error and delusion ‘. If the political unconscious is structured like a language, then the politics of reading is both more error-prone and more radically unsettling than criticism (Marxist and otherwise) can allow. (Norris, 1985: 44-45).

Put slightly differently, to be radically ‘unsettled’ is in some way also to made radically ‘responsible’.

12 ‘Poststructuralism’ is in many ways the ultimate ‘sound bite’, standing in for a vast intellectual topography encompassing everything from Derrida’s close readings of the history of Western metaphysics, to Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through the prism of Kojève and Saussure, to Foucault’s Nietzschean archaeologies, to Althusser’s re-thinking of the epistemological problematic proper to Marx’s Capital. Indeed, the term is diffuse to the point of uselessness. Timothy Clark has recently described the word as having ‘barely ever existed’: ‘the idea that “poststructuralism” was an intellectual movement is a self-perpetuating fabrication of journalistic introductions to literary theory, too lazy to look at the diverse set of primary texts’ (Clark, 2002: 144). Of course I am not claiming that Bhabha is guilty of ‘not looking at the primary texts’, but rather, first, that the particular configuration of theoretical borrowings in his work correspond exactly to a field of diverse texts often sound bitten — in the journalistic press and the academy alike — as ‘poststructuralism’, and second, that the on-the-fly style of his borrowing from this diverse collection of texts tends to aid in the reification of these various thinkers into so many ‘applicable’ methodologies.

13 ‘Discursive’ power is one where

‘subject peoples appear through the production of knowledges in terms of which surveillance is exercised ‘ by the production of knowledges of colonizer and colonized which are stereotypical but antithetically evaluated. The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction. (Bhabha, 1994: 198)

14 ‘Composite’ because collapsed into Bhabha’s description are many different instances of Derridean thought collaged together into theoretical shorthand. To take one example, the ‘double’ movement by which an installed discursive power is metonymically split into forms of ‘resistance’ (the ‘less than one and double’ or ‘double vision’ which Bhabha compresses into the term ‘hybridity’) is a modified version of a Derridean gesture at work across many of his early texts, invoked there in relation to a strategic responsibility toward a metaphysical heritage: ‘We must elaborate a strategy of the textual work which at every instant borrows an old word from philosophy in order to immediately demarcate it. This is what I was alluding to ‘ in speaking of a double gesture or double stratification’ (Derrida, 1981b: 59); ‘One must then, in a single gesture, but doubled, read and write’ (Derrida, 1981a: 4); ‘Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the [metaphysical] system’ (Derrida, 1982: 329). All of this is intimately connected to the strategy (examined more closely above) of ‘explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself’ (Derrida,1978: 282). I am not suggesting that a strategy of ‘double movement,’ fashioned in relation to reading, inheriting and displacing the index of concepts and speculations that comprise ‘Western metaphysics’ cannot be projected onto the field of colonizers and their colonized (for this is indeed a fascinating and valuable theoretical project, as evidenced in much of Bhabha’s work, and in the rigor of Edward’s Said’s early engagements with Derrida and Foucault, and Gayatri Spivak’s never-anything-less-than-brilliant deconstructive Marxism), but rather that the effects of the rhetorical and methodological abbreviations Bhabha performs in his style of borrowing from Derrida (and others) contributes to a sound-bite conception of deconstruction (as a form of ‘willful obscurantism’. for instance) that a refreshingly ‘plain-spoken’ ‘cultural studies’ might seek to remedy.

15 Just as Foucault, in a very different way, elaborates through vast historical erudition the genealogies from which categories of thought and analysis emerge, say, from the Renaissance to Modernity (see Foucault, 1966).

16 Of course not all of Bhabha’s work is the same, and I am no doubt to some degree ‘reifying’ this extremely complex, varied and powerfully inventive body of work. For my purposes here, I simply want to illustrate how a certain appropriation of deconstruction (into that complexly hybrid discourse called ‘theory’) tends to efface the larger philosophical stakes of the deconstructive project.

17 Specifically, the way Emerson’s recurring figures of climate and the weather transformatively intersect with Antebellum discourses surrounding slavery and the Civil War.

18 Cohen calls this, borrowing one of de Man’s later specialized terms, ‘inscription’. In his introduction to the collection of de Man’s late essays Aesthetic Ideology, Andrzej Warminski describes the ‘inscriptive’ strata of tropological systems as ‘factors and functions of language that resist the phenomenalization made possible ‘ by tropes and their system but that nevertheless lie at the bottom of all tropological systems as their material condition of possibility’ (de Man, 1996: 11). In the recent piece ‘Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink 2 (“within such limits”)’, Derrida frames this tension (between the non-programmable, instituting force of the performative and the predicative calculations of networks of reference), as a task of thinking the ‘event’ together with the ‘machine’, borrowing (and iteratively ‘re-marking’) terms from the chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the ‘excuse’ in de Man’s Allegories of Reading (Cohen, 2001: 277-360). This piece was first given as a presentation in 1998 at the University of California-Davis, at a conference entitled, Culture and Materiality: A Post-Millenarian Conference — à propos of Paul de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology — to consider trajectories for ‘”materialist’ thought in the afterlife of theory, cultural studies, and Marxist critique’ (the extravagance of this title is made into something of a running joke in ‘Typewriter Ribbon’). I must here acknowledge Avital Ronell’s exemplary rigor and lucidity in her seminar on ‘Typewriter Ribbon’, co-taught with Jacques Derrida, at New York University in the Autumn of 2000. My discussion of ‘materiality’ has benefited greatly from numerous conversations and e-mails with Tom Cohen. Much of my elaboration here stems from discussions first taken up with Jacques, Avital, and Tom.


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