In recent years, at least in the United States, a new movement in criticism that calls itself “deconstructionism” and its method “deconstruction” has not only found adherents but has spread like wildfire through many universities and colleges: it dominates several periodicals, such as Glyph, Boundary 2, and Diacritics, and has elicited some twenty book-length studies1, ranging from enthusiastic endorsement to severe condemnation. The movement is not simply another fashion with a new vocabulary and a shift of focus but a self-proclaimed revolution that embraces nihilism as its basic philosophy. J. Hillis Miller, its most articulate spokesman, proclaims proudly his allegiance to nihilism, “an inalienable alien presence within occidental metaphysics, both in poems and the criticism of poems.”2 Nihilism is not of course the creed of bomb-throwing revolutionary groups in Tsarist Russia nor the positivism or the naive belief in science professed by Turgenev’s nihilist, Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons (1861), but is rather derived from Nietzsche’s concept, which in turn comes from the anti-Kantian polemics of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who used and possibly coined the term in 1799 in an open letter to Fichte in which he calls idealism “nihilism.”3 For Nietzsche nihilism is, of course, a deplorable symptom of the decadence of modern civilization, of pessimism a Ia Schopenhauer that he himself was proud to have overcome. Nihilism, with the deconstructionists, sounds more like Camus’s “absurdity of existence,” like Sartre’s sense of Le Néant. Jacques Derrida, the influential French mentor of the group, and the late Paul de Man, a Belgian who lived in Antwerp during the war years, were deeply marked by the atmosphere of French existentialism.

But nihilism in this sense is only the philosophical background and ultimate consequence of their literary theory and criticism with which I am here concerned. Pronouncements such as Hillis Miller’s on the “underlying nothingness”4 of all existence or even Paul de Man’s deeply personal statement that “the human self has experienced the void within itself as pure nothingness, our nothingness stated and restated by a subject that is the agent of its own instability,”5 express the basic mood. They are only the ultimate justification of a radical theory of literature.

It starts with the “death of the author,” long ago formulated by Roland Barthes. “We know,” he tells us, “that the text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.” Barthes blithely draws the consequences: “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” He recognizes that “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the Text. “Thus if there is no author, no originality, no personality, then Derrida can say “there is nothing outside the text,”7 a statement that denies the whole perceptual life of humanity. It is explained and defended by the theory that there is nothing but writing (écriture) and that writing precedes speaking. Any child before his years at school and any of the hundreds of civilizations that have no written literature refute this. The paradox can only be defended by a verbal trick. “Ecriture” means, in Derrida, not just writing but any system of signs, any institution, any sense of orientation (even the distinction between left and right) that thus precedes speech and what all others call and recognize as writing.

If there is no reality except an assembly of signs, writing has nothing to do with reality; it has no reference and there is no referent. The problem of realism and representation of reality is thus easily disposed of. As Hillis Miller puts it, “the representative aspect as in all great art tends to dissolve before the spectator’s recognition of the primacy of the medium in its meaninglessness.”8 What the Russian formalists called the emphasis on the medium, the self-reflexivity of much art when they exalted Tristram Shandy as the first novel about novel-writing, is pushed to the extreme by the deconstructionists who argue that every word refers to another word and so ad infinitum in an endless regression. This denial of any reference to reality has excited the most opposition. Robert Scholes has discovered amusing examples of naming such as “kangaroo,” first seen and named by Captain Cook in 1770, or Aphra Behn’s story of an electric eel she saw in 1688. A. D. Nuttall, in A New Mimesis (1984), has elaborately shown how Shakespeare represents a definite, external historical reality subject to change in spite of all literary sources, stage conventions, and fantastic devices.’0 All this, however, seems to me unnecessary: the doctrine of the “prison-house of language” is manifestly absurd. It would reduce literature to a play of words with no meaning for people and society: it would relegate it to a musty corner of the intellectual universe.

If there is no author and only one endless web of text, there can be no individual works of art set off from other works. Coherence and unity, especially organic unity, are explicitly denied. The American New Criticism is attacked for believing in an artifact, and the whole tradition of aesthetics descended from Plato and Aristotle is repudiated. The deconstructionists often misinterpret “organic” to mean a biological organism, though most adherents of organistic aesthetics well understood that organism means not a uniform entity but a union of conflicts or opposites as Coleridge knew.

If there is no clearly set-off work of verbal art, there can be no difference from any other text, historiographical, philosophical, or simply expository. Derrida has argued, quoting Nietzsche, that truth is only “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations and that therefore all philosophy is metaphorical.’2 Hayden White, in his Metahistory (1978), has shown that the great nineteenth-century historians are in their writings dominated by metaphors he classifies in the terms of Northrop Frye’s theory of genres: Michelet is Romance, Ranke Comedy, Tocqueville Tragedy, Burckhardt Satire. But instead of drawing the conclusion that philosophy and historiography are permeated by rhetorical devices that serve conceptual or aesthetic purposes, the deconstructionists perversely deny anything like aesthetic experience and generalize the metaphorical nature of writing in order to abolish the distinction between fictional writings and writings with claims to truth, thus crippling the realm of history as incapable of representing real events and live people and likewise depriving philosophy of the possibility of making valid propositions. Oddly enough, with some critics, this abolition of the distinction between imaginative literature and expository writing leads to the reverse claim: criticism is metaphorical and just as fictional as any play or novel. Hillis Miller says expressly that “the critic’s interpretation is fiction, too.”3 Critics can now claim to be on a par with creative writers. Miller has ingeniously punned on the relationship between the critic, often called a “parasite,” and the text, the “host,” and Derrida, in several writings has played a game of equivocations. In his Glas we get the Phenomenology of Hegel contaminated with the Thief’s Journal by Genet and are treated to a series of puns: Hegel is aigle, which leads to seigle, the rye field through which the thief escapes, and then to sigle, the sign. Exalting criticism as an art, the deconstructionists proclaim complete freedom, deny any deference to the authority of a text or to any ideal of correct interpretation. This extreme liberty of interpretation, the defense of misreading—called “misprision” by Harold Bloom—is apparently one of the main attractions of the movement. It allows arbitrariness, caprice, the display of the ego of the critic, a battering of the object, accompanied by the satisfaction that the interpreter is the master of the text under examination and is thus superior to it and potentially greater than the greatest writers.

I am aware of the conflicts in theories of interpretation and of the whole enormous debate, which ranges from P. D. JuhI’s Interpretation (1980), which defends the correctness of a single interpretation, to E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation (1967), which tries to rescue authorial intention and the prescription of genre, to the “fusion of horizons” propagated by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Wahrheit und Metliode (1960) and his often unfaithful followers in German Rezeptionsaesthetik, such as Hans-Robert Jauss. There is no time to state here my own position, formulated long ago in Theory of Literature (1948), except to say that if there is anything to remain of literary studies, some kind of authority must reside in the text, something I call, with a term derived from Husserl, a “structure of determination.” If there were none, there would be no reason to engage any text, or even to read anything, including the writings of the deconstructionists themselves. There are obviously wrong interpretations, as the classroom experience of any teacher will testify, and they can be easily exemplified by such theories that Hamlet is a woman in disguise or a satire on King James 1.

If there is no standard of interpretation there can be no standard of evaluation. The ancient task of criticism, the judgment whether a piece of writing is good or bad, is declared to be a mistaken enterprise. All texts are equal, from pornography, detective fiction, Westerns, romances, up to the pinnacle of the highest art, which is easily disparaged as upperclass and elitist. Leslie Fiedler, no deconstructionist himself, in What Was Literature? (1978) has stood the usual canon on its head and praised the lowest genres and such middling fiction as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. There are good arguments for the study of undervalued genres. Feminist criticism is engaged in a large-scale enterprise of rehabilitation. But there is, inevitably, a gulf between great art and real trash. Criticism, whether by silent neglect or by explicit condemnation, has carried out the task of sifting the wheat from the chaff, establishing a canon of works, defining the classic. This task cannot and will not be. abandoned. Newspapers or simply conversations will do it even if scholars and students may choose to reject it.

Up till now I have expounded the creed of deconstructionism, which makes, I think, preposterous claims or pushes some arguable doctrines to absurd extremes. No self, no author, no coherent work, no relation to reality, no correct interpretation, no distinction between art and nonart, fictional and expository writing, no value judgment, and finally no truth, but only nothingness—these are negations that destroy literary studies. It is a violent break with the tradition of humanity. Fortunately, things are not that bad. The deconstructionists constantly contradict their theories in practice. To prove this, I shall quote examples from the two committed deconstructionists, J. Hillis Miller and the late Paul de Man, men of wide culture and great acumen. Harold Bloom, though he collaborated in the manifesto Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), is no deconstructionist. He is rather a psycho-analytical critic who could quote Stevens’s poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” saying that “the theory of poetry is the theory of life.”

The deconstructionists, who deny the author in theory, cannot help speaking of authors not only as necessary pointers to a body of texts, but as personalities whose psychology, life-experience, and social situation become relevant to the texts they analyze. The chapters on Rousseau and Proust in Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading (1979) are eloquent testimony to this concern. Nor is it possible for them to avoid singling out specific works of art. Hillis Miller discussed seven Victorian novels in Fiction and Repetition (1982) and Goethe’s Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) (though no other work of Goethe’s).’6 Paul de Man focuses on specific poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, on Nietzsche’s Geburt der Tragedie, and on Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise. While they over and over again assert the impossibility of a correct interpretation, they actually lay claim to the correctness or at least validity of their own readings. They get annoyed and upset when critics doubt their infallibility. In a single essay, “Narrative and History,”7 Hillis Miller complains of critics who have “misunderstood and misjudged” Middlemarch of George Eliot. A commentator on Walter Benjamin is accused of “an error of interpretation,” and a note to the English translation asserts, we are told, something “incorrectly.” Paul de Man complained frequently of “many aberrations in the interpretation of Rousseau.”8

Hulls Miller is not adverse to make explicit value judgments: he calls Middlemarch a “masterpiece,” and on the next page calls a passage “admirable” and another “splendid.” He is “overwhelmed by the beauty” of Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften. Miller even states, surprisingly: “I believe in the established canon of English and American literature and the validity of the concept of privileged texts,”2° a welcome acknowledgment that he and Paul de Man concentrate on a few authors they recognize as great—Miller on the Victorian novelists and English and American poets from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens and de Man on Proust, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Rilke. They have a very definite, rather exclusive taste, though they deny any aesthetic standard, just as they deny the distinction between imaginative and expository literature. But de Man discusses only philosophers, such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, on the borderline of imaginative and expository literature and avoids philosophers such as Kant or modern analytical philosophers. Actually they both try, in spite of their theory, to set off the world of literature as imaginative fiction from expository writing by going even beyond the claim of the self-reflexivity of literature of the Russian formalists as formulated, for example, by Tzvetan Todorov: “The meaning of the work lies in telling itself, its speaking of its own existence.”2’ De Man makes this the distinguishing mark of literature: “The criterion of literary specificity does not depend on the greater or lesser discursiveness of the mode, but on the degree of consistent rhetoricity of language.”22 “Rhetoricity” means here the web of tropes that is “deconstructed”—that is, shown to contain a contradiction between the propositional meaning or the performative language and the figural rhetoric. De Man always concludes that there is an inescapable aporIa, the figure of speech translated as “Doubt” in Puttenham’s Arte of English Poetry (1587) who drew on Plato’s and Aristotle’s use of this term. Aporetikoi was a name given to the ancient skeptics by Aulus Gellius and Diogenes Laertius.23

The monotony and predictability of the method should work against its spread. But the appeal is in the sense it gives of being “revolutionary,” dismantling, destroying without any particular political commitment; their only target seems traditional scholarship established in the literature departments of American universities. Hillis Miller, however, insists that he is not deconstructing a text, but that the text has deconstructed itself. “Deconstruction,” he says, “is not a dismantling of the structure of the text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself.”24 Barbara Johnson, a younger adherent, describes the method as a “careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text.”25

I must admire the acumen and sometimes the learning and rational rigor with which this “teasing out” is done. However, it always comes to the same conclusion that the text is contradictory, and even paradoxical, a result that has persuaded a commentator, Michael Fischer, to conclude that deconstruction makes no difference, is simply a revival of the New Criticism in its search for paradox and irony. But the New Critics wanted to increase understanding while deconstruct-ionists try to prove its impossibility. The New Critics could not have arrived—to give an example from Hillis Miller’s reading of Goethe’s Wahlvent’andtschaften—at the conclusion that “each great work of Western literature demonstrates its self-subverting heterogeneity” and that the meaning of the novel is “in the necessity of this contradiction.” In contrast to Walter Benjamin’s mythic interpretation, Hillis Miller, boasting of his “literal” (buchstäblich) reading, sees this story of marriage, passion, and adultery as “in fact an allegory of the laws, powers, and limitations of language.”26

Similarly Paul de Man in Allegories of Reading persecutes his writers by exposing their contradictions, though oddly enough he preserves his admiration for them. It is easy to refute Nietzsche’s Geburt der Tragodie and to demonstrate its inconsistencies. I find it, however, hard to see the contradiction in Proust’s account of the reading of the young Marcel in Combray. It can be done only by pressing the contradiction between the coolness, tranquility, and darkness of his room and “the shock and the animation of a torrent of activity” into which de Man reads “heat,” as “torrent” suggests to him torride. He is more convincing when he shows how the “messianic promise” that Rilke holds out in Duineser Elegien is repudiated in later poems of despair and silence, though I would shy away from his generalization that “poetry gains a maximum of convincing power at the very moment that it abdicates any claim to truth.”27

Rousseau is an easy game. De Man demonstrates the contradiction in the Second Discourse between the “state of nature,” which Rousseau himself has to admit to be fiction, and the concrete political society. He can show that in the Profession de foi Rousseau keeps listening to the voice of conscience although he can no longer believe it: “The text is and is not a theistic document.” But I am puzzled when de Man completely allegorizes La Nouvelle Hélolse, though he admits the “constraints of referential meaning.” I find the interpretation of the well-known episode of the stolen ribbon in the Confessions forced and far-fetched. Much is made of a single sentence: “I [Rousseau] excused myself upon the first thing that offered itself,” an assertion that contradicts his alleged desire for the girl Marion, whom he falsely accuses of the theft. De Man, as always, concludes that “performative and cognitive rhetoric don’t converge. Irony is the systematic undoing of understanding”. The systematic undoing of understanding becomes the aim of literary studies, their destruction not merely their deconstruction.

Admitting the acumen of some of these readings, one cannot help reflect that a terrible impoverishment of literary study is being propagated. It is limited to a rhetorical analysis that does nothing else than to reveal over and over again that there is an irreconcilable contradiction in every text that leaves one in doubt, undecided, with the matter left for ever “undecidable”, their favorite catchword. Literary studies would become a specialty, a new anti-aesthetic ivory tower that would deprive literature of its human and social meaning as a representation of reality, as stimulation, admonition and simply enjoyment. It would scare off students who could not possibly see why they should devote their lives to such a negative and finally futile pursuit of dismantling, deconstructing. One can only hope that deconstruction is a passing fashion and that literary studies will continue to explore the riches of literature in the spirit of tolerance and positive appreciation. In recent decades the great variety of new, and not so new, methodologies has contributed to a deeper understanding of literature: psychoanalytical critics, students of sociology, Marxists, structuralists, semioticians, reader-response critics, feminist critics, comparatists, and others have in their different ways widened our horizons. Only deconstructionism is entirely negative.

This paper originally appeared in Aesthetics and the Literature of Ideas: Essays in Honor of A Owen Aidridge, edited by Francois Jost, published by the University of Delaware Press, 1990.

The New Nihilism in Literary Studies


1. Here is a chronological list of comments in book form only. The periodical literature is even larger.
1979. Gerald Graf. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.
Murray Krieger. Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, contains chapter:“Literature vs. Ecriture: Constructions and Deconstructions in Recent Critical Theory.”
1980.Geoffrey H. Hartman. Criticism in tile Wilderness: Tile Study of Literature Today. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Frank Lentricchia. After the New Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, contains chapter on Paul de Man.
1981.Jonathan Culler. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Denis Donoghue. Ferocious Alphabets. London: Faber and Faber, contains essay on de Man.
Geoffrey H. Hartman. Saving the Text, Literature/DerridaiPhilosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Suresh Raval. Metacriticisin. Athens: University of Georgia Press, contains chapter: “Deconstruction and Criticism.”
1982. Elizabeth W. Bruss. Beauti:ful Theories: Tile Spectacle of Discourse in
Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jonathan Culler. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Christopher Norris. Deconstruction: They,- & Practice. London: Methuen.
Michael Ryan. Marxism (old Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1983. Jonathan Arac; WIad Godzich: and Wallace Martin, eds. Tile Yale Critics:Deconstruction in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Terry Eagleton. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ulrich Horstmann. Parakritik und Dekonstruktion: Eine Einjühru,lg in den amerikanischen Poststrukturalismus. WU rzburg: Konigshausen & N eumann.
1984.Christopher Butler. Ill terpretation, Deconstruction, and Ideology: All Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
William E. Cain. The Crisis ill Criticism: Theory, Literature and Reform in English Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Eugene Goodheart. The Skeptic Disposition in Contemporary Criticism. Princeton:Princeton University Press.
William Ray. Literary Meaning: From Phenomenologv to Deconstruction. Oxford:Basil Blackwell.
1985.Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, eds. Rhetoric and Form: Dc-construction at Yale. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Howard Felperin. Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of’ Literary Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Michael Fischer. Does Deconstruction Make Any Difference? Poststructuralism and the Defense of Poetry in Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Floyd Merrell. Deconstruction Refrained. West Lafayette. and: Purdue University Press.
Robert Scholes. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2. Critical Inquiry 3 (1977): 447.
3. Werke, ed. E Roth and E Koppen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980), 3 :44.
4. “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure,” Georgia Review 30 (1976): 12.
5.Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 19.
6.Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 146.
7.Dc Ia Grammatologie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1976), 227; (English translation) Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
8.Dickens Centennial Essays, ed. Nisbet Nevius and Blake Nevius (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 150.
9.Robert Scholes, Textual Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 97— 101.
10.A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London: Methuen, 1984).
II.Nietzsche, “Uber Wahrheit und Luge im aussermoralischen Sinn,” in Werke, ed. Karl Schlechta (Munich: Hanser, 1965), 3: 314.
12.Derrida, Marges de Ia philosophic (1972), English translation in New Literary History 6 (1974): 5—74.
13.Dickens Centennial Essays, 22.
14.Leslie Fiedler, What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society (New York:Simon and Schuster, 1982).
15.Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), 331.
16.In “A ‘Buchstabliches’ Reading of Tile Elective Affinities,” Glyph 6 (1979): 1—23.
17.In “Narrative and History,” ELH 41(1974): 455—73, quotes on 472, 462, H 463,470,471.
18.Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 248.
19.In “A ‘Buchstabliches’ Reading,” 20.
20.Hillis Miller, “The Function of Rhetorical Study in the Present Time,” ADE     Bulletin, September 1979, 12.
21.Tzvetan Todorov, Littérature ci’ signification (Paris: Larousse, 1967), 49.
22.Blindness and Insight, 137.
23.See Aulus Gellius Noctes Atticae 11.5.6, and Diogenes Laertius Dc Vita el     Moribtis philosophorum 9.61ff.
24.Miller, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure,” 34.
25.Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 5.
26.In “A ‘Buchstabliches’ Reading,” II, 13,7.
27.Allegories of Reading, 60—66.
28.ibid., 147,275,245, 167,288,300,301.

the Rathouse