Guide to Week 9: Tuesday
After we review Tyson's overview of Deconstruction's theoretical assumptions, terms of art, and methods, we will review Tyson's demonstration of Deconstruction on Frost's "Mending Wall" (260-65). Especially pay attention to her two examples of the kinds of questions Deconstructionist critics ask of literature (265). They will give you the context in which you are likely to find "Decon" a successful interpretive strategy.
Deconstruction gives you something to do with much of the data that would not fit into the neat binary oppositions of Structuralism. Deconstruction began as Jacques Derrida's personal philosophical/linguistic campaign to overturn the reigning interpretive doctrines of the 1960s and '70s by attacking their most fundamental assumptions. Tyson's summary of his positions lacks much of the frustrating effect of reading Derrida's prose, itself, because he was so adamant about using linguistic play to make readers' minds experience the points he was trying to make by means of puns or deliberate misuses of words (solecisms). The only one of those usages which has survived into the mainstream of critical discourse is "différance," the portmanteau-word which combined the French verbs "to differ [in meaning]" and "to defer [meaning]" in order to name the process by which the slippage of the signified under the signifier eternally delayed the emergence of any single "true" meaning from language. All that survives, and all we are processing when we use language to communicate, are the "trace" meanings of words flight from us.
Derrida's style provoked one of the most profound schisms in literary analysis, one which persists to this day. How much deliberate obscurity and newly minted jargon should readers be expected to tolerate from any one article or book, or from any one author? One side says authors should use ordinary, publicly available vocabulary rather than inventing new terms, and authors never should intentionally obscure their meaning. The other side says that writing within the "normal" scholarly vocabulary requires surrender to the political System which is embedded in that vocabulary, whereas the critic who coins new words and breaks the orderly flow of syntactic clarity can thereby liberate meanings the System cannot allow. Derridian sympathizers typically employ a playful, punning style, and they deliberately disrupt their typography, especially in titles, typically disrupting key words to shake punning, playful new meanings from them by using parentheses (e.g., "The Heming(way): Inarticulate Utterances and Grunts Against the Patriarchy in In Our Time") and virgules or "slashes" (e.g., "'A Very Shor/t Story': Certainty and Deception in Hemingway"). How much liberty do you want to see in your sources' invention of new words, playful use of obscurity, and typographical hijinks? How much do you want for your own prose?
Deconstruction is a serious joke played on the dominant ideologies' attempt to control textual meaning. If you doubt that deep structures using binary oppositions with privileged terms guide our interpretation of texts, why not watch a short cartoon that provides proof that Genre theory (Frye), Narratology (Greimas, Todorov & Genette), and Structuralist Poetics (Culler) really work: Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). For further proof that Structuralism explains how our brains are programmed to "play reality," including literature as a part of reality read the third AI Koan, "Minsky enlightens Sussman." Then, think about what binary structuring rules enable you to play tic-tac-toe, and what you would do with the semiotic sign below if you did not (like Sussman's AI system) know the rules of the game before you encountered it.