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Culler Fails to Defend Against Legitimate Objections
on September 23, 2007
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.