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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2000
Even though the book was written very nearly 20 years ago, Culler's 'On Deconstruction' remains a good, solid grounding in post-structural theory. But it's no beginner's guide; Culler assumes the reader brings a fair amount of knowledge to the table regarding the topic -- a familiarity with general post/structuralist concepts, plus a good sense of Barthes, Derrida, de Man, and Kristeva.
Culler's style is clear and straightforward -- no easy task considering the complexity of his topic. And although Culler calls 'On Deconstruction' a sequel to his 'Structuralist Poetics', 'On Deconstruction' can certainly be read on its own -- or before one tackles 'Structural Poetics'.
Culler begins with an emphasis on readers and how readers read, moves to feminist issues ("is it possible to 'read as a woman?' What does this mean? And why would we do this?), and finally moves to elucidate (primarily) Derrida's then-project of 'deconstruction' and its philosophical implications.
Culler's book strikes me as one of those essential backgrounders -- in order to move past the book one must read it, understand it, and then understand its implications for how critical thought has changed since it was written. No easy task. But this book -- paired with 'Structuralist Poetics' -- certainly make this a managable task.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2001
Jonathan Culler's 'On Deconstruction' is a remarkably lucid analysis of the theory and practice of deconstruction. Not only does Culler introduce the whole concept of deconstruction step by step for beginners, but also analyzes the most complex aspects of Derrida and De Mann's work for the more knowledgeable reader. This in fact, is the beauty of the work. The reader's journey into the murky field of deconstruction begins with an analysis of reading. Focussing on the reader-response theories of Stanley Fish, Culler illustrates how reader's have been seen to take a more active role in the production of meaning in texts in recent years. The role of the reader has gained importance also in the world of feminist criticism. Culler attempts to analyze what exactly it means to 'read as a woman'. So far, so good, even for the beginner. A reader with virtually no knowledge of deconstruction can begin to develop an idea of what the theory is actually based on, reading strategies and the production of meaning. The final two sections, which deal with deconstruction itself are more difficult to grasp without a background in literary theory and terminology. Culler addresses topics such as 'graft', 'traditional hierachies of thought', and the now notorious 'differance'. Yet still, his analysis is clear, thorough and comprehensible. His final section, giving examples of deconstructionist criticism, is interesting in the way that it shows the complexity of the topic. Few of the works he cites have anything in common with each-other, and the meaning extracted from various works proves to be both thought-provoking and original. Isn't this, after all, the whole aim of deconstruction. Fornovices in the world of post-modernist literary theory, this book is still extremely useful (especially if read more than once). Those readers with a background in the subject will also benefit from Culler's extremely detailed analysis of the mysterious world of deconstrution.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2000
On Deconstruction delivers lucid explanations of some of the most difficult ideas in post-structural theory. Culler manages to explain the ideas without diluting them, which is no mean feat. Culler reads like an excellent teacher who whets the appetite for further reading. Read this book before you read anything by Jacques Derrida. It may change your whole experience. This book is also helpful as an introduction to a cross section of literary trends including feminist criticism and reader response. I have owned this book for several years and find myself returning to it again and again.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2003
Responding to an earlier review:

"Has anyone else noticed that Culler's recent book (2003) on deconstruction simply recycles what he says in this book from 1983? Culler hasn't learned a whit more about deconstruction in the past 20 years. Yes, he's better than Christopher Norris on deconstruction, but then again so is my auto mechanic (I'm not kidding). Read Culler if you want to know what Culler thought deconstruction was 20 years ago."

People have already responded to this but it bears repeating. The book you're discussing was written in 1983. Hence, it seems (eerily) similar to Culler's work from 1983.

"As for reading Heidegger for ten years constituting a perfect world, as another reviewer suggests, I think we can all agree that that really wouldn't be a perfect world at all. What's more, this argument seems to say that it's fine - really, it's OK - not to read philosophy because Heidegger (and Derrida) are really too complex to get anyway."

This isn't what the previous reviewer was suggesting. The point was that if you want the best possible understanding of Derrida, you're going to need to read extensively within the philosophical tradition. No secondary text on Derrida--not Gasche's, Culler's, Bennington's, Norris', Harvey's, Beardsworth's, etc.--will change that. Nonetheless, people have limited amounts of time--they can't read everything (though they can certainly try). If you want to read something on Derrida that doesn't assume a vast knowledge of the tradition, Culler's book is an excellent choice.

"If you really think ten years of Heidegger is necessary to understand Derrida, then the situation really is futile and impossible (and you've probably misunderstood something about Derrida's work)."

First, it's not an all or nothing proposition. If you know Heidegger (and Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, etc.) well, you'll be better able to grasp Derrida. Second, why does the idea that you might have to study something for ten years make it "futile and impossible?"

For someone who's clearly spent so much time reading Derrida, you seem to be a terrible reader.

The bottom line is that Culler's book has remained for twenty years one of the clearest and most intelligent guides to Derrida available.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2000
On Deconstruction delivers lucid explanations of some of the most difficult ideas in post-structural theory. Culler manages to explain the ideas without diluting them, which is no mean feat. Culler reads like an excellent teacher who whets the appetite for further reading. Read this book before you read anything by Jacques Derrida. It may change your whole experience. This book is also helpful as an introduction to a cross section of literary trends including feminist criticism and reader response. I have owned this book for several years and find myself returning to it again and again.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
When Jacques Derrida introduced his theory of the deconstruction of literary texts in 1966, there was a general rush by academics to welcome his contribution and make instant use of it. They were entranced by its ability to uncover what they saw as a "hidden" meaning that lay tantalizingly close just under the surface of that text. Further, they could not resist using Derrida's new and "mysterious" use of convoluted and arcane terminology. In ON DECONSTRUCTION, Jonathan Culler takes a different tack in presenting less of a defense of deconstruction but more on a linked series of analyses and anecdotes that in his mind justifies deconstruction as a legitimate tool of literary theory. Culler's efforts, however, fall short of his aims.

Culler might have had more success had he addressed the legitimate concerns of deconstruction's detractors. Typical of such criticisms is John Ellis, who, in his AGAINST DECONSTRUCTION, notes three objections. First, whenever a deconstructionist applies Derrida's theory, that approach never varies regardless of the type, nature, or complexity of the text, thus calling into question whether the resulting paired opposites do little more than reduce the complexity of the text to a lower level of simplicity. Second, deconstructionists in general and Culler in particular are fond of grounding their vocabulary in a manner that overly uses such evocative words as ""unmasking" "disruptive" "subverting" and "challenging" in an effort to invest their respective analyses with a patina of powerfully exhilarating prose that suggests that they are heirs to a tool that only they know. And third, related to the psychologically loaded use of words is the tendency of deconstructionists to express themselves in an oblique language that is very nearly indecipherable to all readers but themselves. When they are called to explain why their language must be couched in such dense prose, their typical response is to complain that reducing the complexity of the language is to reduce the legitimacy of the theory itself. And that, counter the opponents is exactly the point. After reading Culler, one is left with judging the usefulness of deconstruction based only on his chosen points with the previously mentioned criticisms going unanswered.

Culler starts his book with an overview of Reader-Response and feminist critical theories. In the former case, he notes the need for an interaction between reader and text. In the latter he stresses the need to consider the gender of the reader in that there is a "male" way to read and a "female" way. The common link between the two is that Culler sees that both schools displace or undo the system of concepts or procedures that mark them, which coincidentally enough is the basis for most deconstructive thought.

Oddly enough, Culler, despite his vigorous defense of deconstruction is not the favored poster boy of other deconstructionists. They object to his too frequent bouts of blunt honesty when he points out both sides of the critical issue of deconstruction's legitimacy. A typical example of Culler undercutting himself is "Deconstruction has no better theory of truth. It does not develop a new philosophical framework or solution but moves back and forth with a nimbleness it hopes will prove strategic." (155) Such honesty is indeed refreshing and should Culler wish to address certain other critiques of deconstruction in a future edition, then that edition would prove more useful than this one.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2000
As Cullers himself tells this book is a sequel of his Structuralist Poetics but with different methods and conclusions. In the 80ths write about critical theory is no longer to introduce unfamiliar questions, methods, and principles, but to intervene in a lively and confusing debate. This is the special point about this book.
The reader finds an account of what Culler considers the most vital and significant in recent theoretical writing and undertake an exposition of issues often seem poorly undertood. For it brings up debate, On deconstruction is provocative and demands some effort from the reader. It is certainly not a book for begginners... The theory and criticism of recent years is discussed focusing on deconstruction as the principal source of energy and innovation. He offers a detailed exposition of its ideas and methods, defining its relation to other strands of contemporary criticism, and assessing its implications for literary studies.
With emphasis on readers and reding, Culler considers deconstruction, in terms of the questions raised by psychoanalytic, feminist, and reader-response criticism. He then turns to a systematic analysis of deconstruction, drawing together the disparate and difficult writings of Jacques Derrida and the working out the implications of his approach for the concepts and methods that literary critics have relied on.
Surveying the variations and achievements of American deconstructive criticism, the author clarifies the procedures and assumptions of several interpretative essays, giving special attention to the work of Paul de Man. Not an easy book but surely a good deal for those who search for a better understanding of the post structuralist critics point of view and methods. Give a try!
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8 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2004
Has anyone else noticed that Culler's recent book (2003) on deconstruction simply recycles what he says in this book from 1983? Culler hasn't learned a whit more about deconstruction in the past 20 years. Yes, he's better than Christopher Norris on deconstruction, but then again so is my auto mechanic (I'm not kidding). Read Culler if you want to know what Culler thought deconstruction was 20 years ago. Or read his new book to get a sense of what Culler thought deconstruction was 20 years ago, and still thinks it is today. Either way you slice it, Culler is hopelessly outdated and draws a mere caricature of Derrida's thought. For those really interested in Derrida, Culler's fluff version carries no weight at all, and better books abound. If you want to understand Derrida completely ineptly then read Norris and Culler together.
The list of solid works on Derrida is much larger than a previous reviewer suggests. As for reading Heidegger for ten years constituting a perfect world, as another reviewer suggests, I think we can all agree that that really wouldn't be a perfect world at all. What's more, this argument seems to say that it's fine - really, it's OK - not to read philosophy because Heidegger (and Derrida) are really too complex to get anyway. Well, if that's the case, how does Culler *really* make understanding Derrida any easier when he strikes the same pose and omits philosophy? It's a hopeless argument. If you really think ten years of Heidegger is necessary to understand Derrida, then the situation really is futile and impossible (and you've probably misunderstood something about Derrida's work). But it's still OK to read Culler all the same, because Culler avoids all that philosophy stuff. In the meantime, however, he's also avoided explaining Derrida.
So what's all the fuss about? The reality is that if Derrida's work helps you in your own thinking, then great. If not, then why are you reading him? Move on to something else that works for you. Derrida is not the be-all and end-all of anything. If Derrida interests you, and you want to understand his arguments better, then it really just comes down to one thing: Culler doesn't present Derrida's work or thought in any capable way. And other books do.
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2 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2004
I believe that Culler seems to have missed the point here. Clearly, the first Seattle reviewer was referring to Culler's most recent book, from 2003, titled "Deconstruction: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies," which he edited.
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