Peter V. Zima (2002) Deconstruction and Critical Theory. Trans. Rainer Emig.

London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 082645934X.

‘Most gifts are accompanied by good intentions’

Alexander Cooke

The debate within literary theory regarding the status and validity of a ‘textual approach’ proposed by Jacques Derrida has raged since it was introduced to, and elaborated upon, by the School of French studies at Yale University. Characterised as ‘deconstruction’ or ‘deconstructionism’ by its practitioners, its critics and, more frequently, by the shallow journalistic commentary it has provoked, this theory of understanding has more often been reduced to an empty slogan than submitted to a scrutiny that demonstrates any thoughtful consideration of the power of its ideas.

The translation of Peter V. Zima’s Die Dekonstruktion: Einführung und Kritik (1994) by Rainer Emig threatens to do much the same thing. Yet it is not immediately clear where this threat comes from. In the opening pages of his book[1]  Zima attempts to distance his approach to ‘Deconstruction’ [Dekonstruktion] from its portrayal by the ‘media’ (vii), from its ‘commercialized form’ (vi), but Deconstruction and Critical Theory consistently maintains the capitalisation of the German noun ‘Dekonstruktion‘.[2]  Where The Philosophy of Modern Literary Theory (Zima, 1999), a text written by Zima in English, renders the concept ‘deconstruction’ without any capitalisation, the danger of dealing with a mere stereotype is eminently manifest in Emig’s translation.

Emig’s decision to transform a philosophical concept into a proper name characterises a confusion of intention in Zima’s text that cannot simply be confined to the will of the translator. It is precisely on the matter of having ‘good intentions,’ of letting the Other speak for itself (viii), that Zima ultimately contrasts his position with the ‘school’ of ‘Deconstruction’. Yet underlying almost all of the critical points made against Derrida and the ‘school’ of ‘Deconstruction’ is a mauvaise foi that not only reduces the portrayal of Derrida’s critical approach to a cartoon, but contradicts the wishes of Zima’s own text.

The overarching intention of Zima’s Deconstruction and Critical Theory is to demonstrate the advantages of a ‘dialogical’ literary theory — a confrontation between the Critical Theory of Adorno and Horkheimer and the ‘textual approach’ of the so-called Deconstructionists, including Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman and Jacques Derrida (vii). Moreover, Zima attempts to demonstrate that Critical Theory and Deconstruction share ‘similar problems that neither has been able to solve to date’ (viii). By the end of the Preface, Zima’s intention is perfectly clear, or so it would seem: ‘Deconstruction and Critical Theory share a concern to perceive the Other in its alterity and not to incorporate it. For this reason alone they must reject every form of monologue’ (viii).

The opening of a dialogue that respects the Other is a project to be applauded, especially in the case of a text touted to be for students who, presumably, will be coming to the area covered by Zima with little knowledge of Deconstruction or Critical Theory. The possibilities for a dialogue between the fundamental philosophical position of Derrida’s work and the accounts of reification and concrete praxis are fecund, and an adequate exploration of this relation is begging to be conducted. With the necessary but problematic good intentions that Zima suggests he is showing towards Deconstruction, it would appear that such a task will be completed in Deconstruction and Critical Theory. But Zima’s attempt is a failure for a single important reason.

In order to show the limitations of Deconstruction and Critical Theory, one need not demonstrate why Derrida’s theory is correct and why Zima’s is not. It is, rather, necessary to show how Zima has failed to open the possibility of dialogue between ‘competing’ literary theories. To do this, we need to demonstrate the extent to which Zima has misread and consequently misrepresented Derrida’s so-called ‘Deconstructionism’. While it may be claimed – playing on the apparent Nietzschean nihilism of Deconstruction and its ‘endless deferral of meaning’ (45) – that it is no longer possible to organise readings according to right and wrong, adequate or inadequate, true or false, this does not justify putting words into someone else’s mouth. For, despite the virtues of highlighting the influence of certain historical figures on Deconstruction, there is no justification for Zima’s suggestion that Derrida has wholeheartedly adopted, for example, a Nietzschean conception of truth (22). Zima cites the conception of truth as illusion from Nietzsche’s 1873 ‘On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense’ [Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne] (19). He even acknowledges that this conception comes from Nietzsche’s ‘early work’ (21), and, by implication, not the Nietzschean definition of truth par excellence. Yet Zima only provides textual evidence of the relation of this conception of truth to de Man’s Allegories of Reading (19). He then simply asserts that ‘[Nietzsche] seems the most important precursor of Derrida, de Man, Hillis Miller and Hartman’ (19), finally to have achieved the conflation he desires: ‘the Nietzsche of the Deconstructionists’ (20).

Moreover, it is another thing again to enact a criticism of one thinker on the basis of the criticism of another. Only because of suggestions that, for example, ‘it will appear that Derrida refers to Nietzsche when he replaces the metaphysical concepts of Being and Truth by play‘ (21), can Zima later assert that ‘what is at stake for Derrida — as for Nietzsche — is the undermining of Â… oppositions, their dissolution’ (41). Whether Zima’s argument actually holds against Derrida as well as Nietzsche becomes less and less clear. But Zima’s intentions could not be mistaken: the argument is directed against Derrida and him alone: ‘in this context, however, the question crops up whether Derrida does not contribute to the revival of the metaphysical tradition when he introduces new value-ridden and hierarchical oppositions such as parole/écriture orlogocentrism/Deconstruction‘ (41). Even a passing familiarity with the ‘deconstruction’ in Derrida’s work reveals that ‘dissolution’ and ‘play’ are not privileged as new metaphysical concepts.

Deconstruction and Critical Theory consists of seven chapters, including material on Deleuze and feminism that cannot be found in the German original. The first chapter attempts to relate Deconstruction to Kant, Hegel, Schlegel, the Young Hegelians (including Stirner, Feuerbach and Vischer), Nietzsche and, finally, Heidegger. Zima emphasises that he is not trying to reduce or limit Derrida’s thought to other historical figures (11); nor is he trying to find historically prior forms of Deconstruction. Yet, equivocal statements that appear throughout the text lead to confusion if not outright suspicion. For example, having stated that the ‘Romanticism of the Schlegels is not “Deconstruction avant la lettre“‘ (11), this remark is qualified: ‘nonetheless, the Romantic critique of rationalism and Hegelian dialectics contains elements which recur in Derrida and his American followers’ (11). The constant attempt to relate Derrida to the history of thought reduces Derrida’s own work, whether intentionally or not, to past figures, while losing the very elements of Derrida’s thought which are new, challenging and thought-provoking — in short, those very elements that produce a demand for such a book as Zima’s to be written in the first place. This kind of reduction — the reduction of relation, and thus the reduction of dialogue to an oppressive monologue — was seen above in relation to Nietzsche. It recurs throughout Zima’s text as a strategy that prevents a priori Derrida’s thought from speaking for itself.

This silent homogenisation occurs not only with Derrida. Despite also having a post at Marburg, Heidegger is reduced to the ‘Freiburg philosopher’ (25) and, despite the distance Heidegger draws between himself and Sartre in his ‘Letter on Humanism’ to Jean Beaufret (Heidegger, 1999), Zima considers him to be wholeheartedly concerned with ‘existential philosophy’ (24). On the basis of this positioning, Zima can uncritically follow Adorno’s arguments from The Jargon of Authenticity in suggesting that ‘Heidegger succumbs to a mystification later criticized by Adorno’ (24). The violence of this homogenisation becomes manifest when one considers that those for whom this text is written – namely, students not versed in the history of philosophy – can do nothing but presume the good intentions of the author.

The second chapter presents a more philosophically oriented exploration of Derrida’s work, taking heed of his debates with Austin and Searle. While Zima clearly and succinctly explicates the arguments concerning the status of constative and performative speech acts (47), he nevertheless fails to step into that territory which is peculiarly Derridean. In doing so, the very point of miscommunication which fuelled the debate in the first place continues to be mystified or ignored. As with Ellis’ Against Deconstruction (Ellis, 1989), which is cited further on in Deconstruction and Critical Theory, Zima fails to realise that Deconstruction is not simply about reversing hierarchies. Derrida’s Points . . ., a text to which Zima frequently refers, states it clearly: it is ‘the reversal (that) reproduces and confirms through inversion what it has struggled against’ (Derrida, 1995: 84). This quotation should be considered alongside the following statement by Zima: ‘Derrida hardly succeeds in deconstructing the metaphysical hierarchy of main and marginal, central and peripheral elements. He merely reverses it’ (47). It is noteworthy that immediately proceeding this claim, Zima attempts another reduction, this time to that very thinker of dialogue to whom he constantly appeals: ‘This reversal might have a carnivalesque and critical effect in the Bakhtinian sense, yet it does not destroy the hierarchical order. Like most revolutions it merely produces a new one’ (47).

Throughout the second chapter, as with the sections of other chapters where he attempts to consider the heart of Derrida’s philosophy, Zima constantly fails to understand and/or appreciate Deconstruction as something more than a fashionable way of talking about old ideas. This occurs even after having presented a quotation in his own text that reveals the originality of Derrida’s thought in a nutshell. Zima cites The Post-Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond: ‘YHWH simultaneously demands and forbids, in his deconstructive gesture, that one understands his proper name within language; he mandates and crosses out the translation, he dooms us to impossible and necessary translation’ (qtd in Zima, 2002: 18). ‘Demands’ and ‘forbids,’ ‘mandates’ and ‘crosses out,’ ‘impossible’ and ‘necessary’ — three manifestations of the key words in Derrida’s thought which appear in a remarkably clear quotation. Yet when Zima suggests that Derrida ‘merely reverses’ hierarchies (47), this ‘mere’ is another sign of the reduction of Derrida’s thought to something which it manifestly is not. Zima fails to connect the notion of ‘necessity’ and ‘impossibility’ with the notion of translation that appears in the same quotation, let alone to appreciate the role it plays for constitution in general (cf. 74).[3]  Thus, when Zima accuses Derrida of falling back on oppositions such as parole/écriture,présence du sens/différance and logocentrism/Deconstruction (52), he does it by failing to recognise that Deconstruction neither dismisses nor simply reverses the hierarchies he employs. Derrida would absolutely agree with Zima that ‘Deconstruction as a theory could neither be represented nor criticized’ if it lacked a ‘stable semantic taxonomy’ (52).

This is not to suggest that Derrida’s conflation of necessity with impossibility necessarily constitutes the ground of thought in general. In critiquing Zima’s reading of Derrida, it is less a question of examining the truth of the arguments of Deconstruction than of examining the manners in which Derrida’s philosophy is consistently overlooked, ignored, or put to the side. The misrepresentations against which Derrida’s arguments have constantly had to battle for nearly half a century — often not helped by Derrida’s own practice of dialogue[4]  — have made it incredibly difficult for a proper debate or dialogue to emerge between Deconstruction and any other ‘school of thought’. The call for a dialogue between Deconstruction and Critical Theory, then, would surely have to take heed of this fact if this call was to be taken seriously.

Throughout the second chapter, Zima continues to challenge the apparent philosophical presuppositions of Derrida’s argument. These arguments are too detailed and concerted to go into in the current context. It must be said, in praise of Zima, that several criticisms are raised against Derrida which invite critical discussion. As well as his forceful explication of the iterability/iterativity opposition (42-53), Zima is at his best in his criticism of the ‘aporetics of the gift’ that Derrida finds in Baudelaire’s Le Fausse monnaie (65-71). Yet in most if not all of the places in which he makes his case, Zima shies away from a critique on universal grounds. For example, ‘most gifts are accompanied by good intentions’ (68, my emphasis) and ‘[Derrida] tends to transform’ (71, my emphasis). Even when defending the French philosopher, Zima cannot bring himself to say anything more than ‘Derrida is probably right’ (49, my emphasis).

The chapter concludes with a call for ‘translation theory’ to engage with the arguments of Deconstruction. Unfortunately, the suggestion that ‘a more thorough engagement with Benjamin’s and Derrida’s linguistic theories of the “untranslatable remainder” would be desirable’ (76) is overshadowed by the claim, immediately following, that ‘Derrida and de Man’s global assessment of translation as aporia, however, appears as a Deconstructionist extremism which contributes to a better understanding of their own concepts of language and text, but not to an advance in translation studies’ (76). As has already been seen, this ‘extremism’ is not to be found in Deconstruction itself but in Zima’s unsatisfactory account of it. For Zima, ‘the question is precisely when and why the translator is confronted with the problem of untranslatability’ (46). But where the possibility is presented of developing a sophisticated and sensitive account of the act of translation, which is to say, of every act of reading, Zima quickly closes it off with misguided name-calling.

Chapters three through to six engage with the Yale school of Deconstruction, including the ‘critic’ Harold Bloom. Throughout these chapters, Zima’s encounter is not only coloured by his treatment of Derrida who is described as having provided the original theoretical ground for the approach to literature by each respective Yale scholar, but Zima’s misreadings remain apparent without any need to consider the texts to which he refers. The conflation of ‘aporia’ with the exclusion of ‘all forms of truth content’ (101) in his reading of Paul de Man simply shows his misunderstanding of the role that aporia plays in philosophising, whether Platonic or Derridean. While a vice for Plato (see Plato, 1997: 415c), ‘aporia’ certainly does not refer to the ‘dissolution of meaning’ (101), nor is it like ‘undecidability’, which, as Zima oddly suggests in the concluding pages of his book, is ‘an aspect of exchangeability, of indifference: the two meanings outbalance each other, are “of equal value,” and we do not know which is valid’ (205).

Whether possible or not, aporia relates to a demand for resolution. Undecidability is nothing like indifference, as though one could ever remain pacified by the inability to choose. Again, as it turns out, de Man’s understanding of aporia is intended to be played off against Adorno, the thinker to whose views Zima most vocally subscribes: ‘in contrast to de Man, whose aporia destroys the concepts of meaning and truth by extreme ambivalence, Adorno conceives ambivalence dialectically, as the unity of opposites, and not as a loss of meaning’ (101). As with Paul de Man, Zima’s reading of J. Hillis Miller makes the same criticism, namely, that ‘their neglect of the crucial question concerning the construction of objects in the context of a metalanguage prevents the Deconstructionists from recognizing the historical character of literature and from reflecting on the historicity and contingency of their own discourses’ (115).

Zima begins the sixth chapter by acknowledging the irreducibility of the thought of Harold Bloom to the ‘Yale Deconstructionists’ (151) on the basis of the recognition by the former of ‘psychological’ and ‘sociological questions’ (152). Bloom’s ability to deal with these questions, it must be said, relies on an Oedipalised approach to the progression of literary history — one of many structures submitted to harsh scrutiny by French contemporaries of Derrida, including Deleuze and Guattari, to name just two (Deleuze & Guattari, 1977). Despite the comparatively greater emphasis given to Bloom’s own ideas in relation to de Man, Miller and Hartman, he is still criticised by Zima for his suppression of the possibility of dialogue: ‘what must be denied is its potential of dialogue with respect to theories of literature and its ability to connect with present discussions in the social sciences’ (163-4). By the end of the chapter, Zima has reduced the ‘distance’ between the Deconstructionists and Bloom: ‘in the context of Bloom’s work scientificity counts for nothing. . . . This verdict is also applicable to the theories of the Deconstructionists’ (164).

Zima’s final chapter opens by emphasising the ‘heterogeneity of Deconstruction — Derrida’s, de Man’s, Hillis Miller’s, Hartman’s’ (167), only to proceed to annul their differences in a successive series of reductions. ‘Derrida’s, de Man’s and Miller’s critical arguments ‘show us how the text evades the grasp of conceptual thinking’ (168). In the space of a paragraph, these heterogeneous figures are reduced again to the label ‘Deconstruction,’ or, at best, to ‘Derrida and his followers’ (168). The violence of Zima’s presentation again becomes manifest in the apparent tentativeness to enact his reductive account of Deconstruction: the Deconstructionists ‘seem to observe’ and ‘tend to overlook’ (168).5This false wariness of reductive generalisations is followed by perhaps the most obvious example of his reduction of relation, and reduction of dialogue, to an oppressive monologue. Zima asserts that ‘they contribute, without intending it, to the consolidation of absolutist and monological tendencies in philosophy’ (168).

Given his record so far, one can be no less than skeptical of everything Zima puts forward in the subsequent contextualisation of Deconstruction among its ‘critics.’ In the final chapter, Zima compares and contrasts Deconstruction with Bourdieu, analytic philosophy, Marxism, the Frankfurt school and feminism. Propositions such as ‘Derrida, de Man and Hartman frequently sacrifice formal (propositional) logic in favour of a rhetoric of subjective association . . . and an essayism located beyond right and wrong’ (177) indicate more than anywhere else in his text, not only a sheer lack of understanding of Deconstruction, but a lack of respect for its status as a mode of thought. Finally, things could not get much worse, when, in comparing Deconstruction’s conception of truth with that of analytic philosophy, Derrida’s definition of truth is simply not put forward. What may as well be a simple assertion is hidden behind a quotation from analytic philosopher Samuel C. Wheeler’s Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy, which itself rarely, if ever, quotes from Derrida’s own texts (Wheeler, 2000: 7): ‘”Derrida . . . holds that . . .”‘ (177). Again, we are asked for nothing less than to trust in the good intentions of the author.

The concluding sentence of Deconstruction and Critical Theory makes a call for a ‘renewal of Critical Theory that turns against both ideology and post-modern indifference’ (206). By ‘post-modern indifference’, Zima means Deconstruction which, for him, supports a ‘dangerous merger of universal tolerance (radical pluralism) with indifference as exchangeability of values’ (205). It suffices to refer to Derrida’s discussions on the ‘gift’ (see Derrida, 1991), which can be found in texts which Zima consults (65-71), texts which precisely challenge a notion of exchangeability. The absence of any good intention accompanying this book makes it unclear whether Zima has fulfilled or failed the task he set out to perform. While the sentences which close the ‘Preface’ to Deconstruction and Critical Theory clearly enough set forth the project of the text, it is the concluding sentence which reveals the real telos of Zima’s book. The author has demonstrated a willingness to employ the approach of Critical Theory, itself poorly elucidated, to ride roughshod over another theory in the guise of making ‘possible a dialogue between two different yet related theories’ (viii).

From the outset, debates surrounding Deconstruction or deconstruction have been plagued by misreadings that have set back immensely important possibilities. Between Critical Theory and Deconstruction is a shared demand to consider the relation between a theoretical approach that is adequately critical of itself while also being able to account for the manifestation of other forms, whether theoretical, institutional, practical or otherwise. But without a context in which the possibility of authentic dialogue can emerge — this context must be governed by the aporetic demand for good intentions — every theory will be left to fend for itself. Given the marked absence of good intention in Zima’s text, it is hard to see why a Critical Theory such as that put forward in Deconstruction and Critical Theory, having ‘turned against’ everything else, has not turned against itself in a similarly vicious manner.


1 Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers refer to Zima, 2002.

2 At least once, Emig even capitalises the adjective. Thus, the German ‘dekonstruktivistiche Tradition‘ (Zima, 1994, 121) becomes ‘Deconstructive tradition’ (104).

3 On page 39, Zima confuses the terms ‘necessary and impossible’ with a ‘Nietzschean conception of extreme ambivalence.’

4 In addition to the debate with Austin and Searle cited by Zima, one might also refer to the falling out between Derrida and Foucault, as well as a more recent debate with phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion. Victory could be claimed in the former case simply because, after Foucault’s early death in 1984, Derrida was the last man standing (see Derrida, 1978 and 1994; Foucault, 1979). In the latter case, Derrida largely dominates the discussion at Villanova University on the basis of a greater competence with the English language (see Kearney, 1999).

5 Words like ‘seems,’ ‘perhaps’ and ‘might’ proliferate throughout Zima’s text, often in propositions which precede a statement making a claim to necessity. For example, Zima moves from ‘most gifts are accompanied by good intentions’ to ‘and therefore possess no aporetic, but at most a polyfunctional character’ (68).


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—- (1987) The Post Card: >From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—- (1991) Donner le temps. Paris: Galilée.

—- (1994) ‘To Do Justice to Freud: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis.’ Trans. P.–A. Brault and M. Nass. Critical Inquiry 20 (2).

—- (1995) Points . . . . Trans. P. Kamuf et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ellis, J. M. (1989) Against Deconstruction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, M. (1979) ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire.’ Trans. G. Bennington. Oxford Literary Review4.

Heidegger, M. (1999) ‘Letter on Humanism,’ in M. Heidegger, Basic Writings (ed.), D. F. Krell. New York and London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1999) ‘On the Gift: A Discussion between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion,’ in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (eds.), J. D. Caputo and M. J. Scanlon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1979) ‘On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense,’ in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Trans. D. Breazeale. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Plato (1997) ‘Cratylus,’ in Plato: Complete Works, (ed.), J. M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Wheeler, S. C. (2000) Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Zima, P. V. (1994) Die Dekonstruktion: Einführung und Kritik. Tübingen: Francke.

—- (1999) The Philosophy of Modern Literary Theory. New Jersey: Athlone Press.

—- (2002) Deconstruction and Critical Theory. Trans. R. Emig. London and New York: Continuum.

Alexander Cooke is currently studying for a PhD in contemporary European phenomenology at Monash University, Australia.