Deconstructionism, as applied to literary criticism, is a paradox about a paradox: It assumes that all discourse, even all historical narrative, is essentially disguised self-revelatory messages. Being subjective, the text has no fixed meaning, so when we read, we are prone to misread. Deconstructionism emerged from Paris and, notwithstanding its claim to universality, has an evident history. It is a manifestation of existential anxieties about presence and absence, reality and appearance. It developed via structuralism, with its emphasis on semantics and symbolism.
From these sources it derived its fundamental premise: the endless slippage of the subject, the futility of any attempt to name reality. The premise suggests the disillusion attendant on the collapse of the two major forces in twentieth-century European thought: enlightened humanism and idealistic Marxism. Despite its origins, deconstructionism found its own best home in the United States, that historically dissociated construction of random meanings. (“America is deconstruction,” said its leading proponent, Jacques Derrida.)
By the 1970s, deconstruction filled—perhaps better, emptied—the gap left in the humanities in the U.S. by the demise of the old “new criticism.” But what began as brilliant and creative analytic performances soon became classroom pedagogy. Throughout the decade, the seminar rooms on U.S. campuses—and then campuses worldwide—became workshops in deconstructionist practice. Junior misreaders worked away, becoming ever more like C.I.A. operatives, decoding false signals sent by a distant enemy, the writer.
Deconstruction exalted itself with ever higher pretensions. As one academic critic exulted, “The history of literature is part of the history of criticism.” Deconstruction transformed everything into social commentary, easily making affinities with sexual and racial politics, two other militant philosophies that challenge the sanctity of text. It presented itself as a supra-ideological mode of analysis, exposing the ideological aberrations of others while seemingly possessing none itself.
Any resistance that deconstructionists encountered was usually interpreted as censorious ignorance. As their approach prevailed, gangs of neodeconstructionists descended on the library with their critical services. One would demythologize, another decanonize, another dephallicize, another dehegemonize, another defame. Literature, as the deconstructionists frequently proved, had been written by entirely the wrong people for entirely the wrong reasons. Soon all that would be left of it would be a few bare bones of undecidable discourse and some tattered leather bindings. This frenzy would be called a conference of the Modern Language Association.
The point that needs to be reaffirmed is that writing is an existential act, an imaginative exploration of ideas. It is, in fact, an expression of moral responsibility. Literature is not a subordinate category of social criticism. When writers are censored, imprisoned, killed, or threatened with death for their writings, it is not because their discourse is undecidable. If we are to take authors and their fate seriously, we must recognize that fiction is more than an opportunity for word games; we must honor it as a mode of radical discovery.
We need an ambiance around writing that affirms its nature as creativity, as art, and that in a larger sense considers creativity a prime power in the making of intelligence, feeling, and morality. This was the position from which Jean-Paul Sartre with his freedom-affirming existentialism started the postwar debate of which deconstruction is a latter-day development. He started it because during the 1930s the word had been defamed and disfigured, the book burned, the writer erased, by forces that lay outside criticism, in history.
Adapted from M. Bradbury, The scholar who misread history. ©1991 by New York Times.