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The Rise & Fall of Deconstruction

The intellectual and moral disaster that overtook the academic world in the 1970’s and 1980’s is hardly a secret. Yet so complete, and so unforeseen, has been the transformation of the universities from places of learning to arenas of political confrontation that a satisfactory explanation of what happened is still not available. Somehow, the countercultural ethos of the 1960’s came to be embraced by the guardians of culture themselves, in the very institution dedicated to its guardianship. In the end, even the standards of argument on which values rest were discarded along with the values themselves.

Nowhere is the current situation better articulated than in the story of the rise and decline of deconstruction. This arcane intellectual fad, originating in France, seized hold of the American university over the same 20-year period that ended with the domination of radical activism and the “politically correct.” But then in 1988 it suddenly became known that the leading American practitioner of deconstruction, the Belgian-born and recently deceased Paul de Man, long a professor at Yale, had been a Nazi collaborator in 1941 and 1942. That de Man’s Nazi past had anything to do with deconstruction was hotly denied by many of his colleagues. That it could have anything to do with the present condition of American universities might seem even less likely. But academic reactions to the de Man revelation brought the present and the past into vivid alignment.

In 1987 a graduate student attempting to memorialize de Man by locating his every precious scrap of writing discovered some 180 articles written for Nazi propaganda newspapers, starting soon after the Germans had overrun his native Belgium. De Man was twenty-one at the time he began contributing literary and cultural pieces to these papers; he continued to write in praise of Nazi “culture” and the “Hitlerian soul” through 1942, when it was just beginning to look as though the Germans might lose the war. In one of these articles, de Man expressed satisfaction at the fact that European culture had remained “healthy” despite “Semitic interference in all aspects of European life.” Writing not long after the deportation of the neighboring Dutch Jews, de Man raised the possibility of “a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe.”

The friends of de Man, whose “school” of analysis had come to dominate the field of literary studies, first discussed among themselves and then reported publicly on what had been found, promising to release all the articles in due time, in translation from the original Flemish and French. No doubt to their surprise, the announcement made front-page headlines in the newspapers. In the accompanying reports a few academics allowed themselves to be quoted in disparagement of de Man; but most remained silent. Reporters may have sensed a scandal, but without some knowledge of the place of deconstruction in American universities they would have been unable to see that the scandal went beyond the discrediting of a major figure.

David Lehman, a poet and critic with a Ph.D. in English, was one who did. In Newsweek, for which he was then working, he wrote a brief account of the affair, and since then he has published a book-length study, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man.1 In Newsweek Lehman described deconstruction as “a controversial analytic method which turns literature into a play of words, robbing it of any broader significance.” He explained that “deconstruction likes putting ideas in question—things like cause and effect, right and wrong, the idea that a text expresses an author’s intention.” But, Lehman noted, the revelations about de Man cried out for unequivocal judgments on precisely these matters.

That being so, one might have expected that the deconstructionists, having themselves been deceived by de Man, would reject him—if not out of moral revulsion, then simply to distance themselves from his evil. For it soon emerged that a few years after his time-serving of the Nazis, de Man had run away from Belgium to avoid legal action for debt, abandoning his wife and two children in South America. In the United States, where he arrived in 1947, he had then lied about his past to his closest friends, as well as in a written response to charges about that past which he submitted to Harvard University. Yet with one or two exceptions, the leading practitioners of deconstruction reacted to the revelations of de Man’s behavior by doubting, denying, or minimizing it, employing circumlocution and euphemism to couch their elaborate responses in a fog of obfuscation.

Thus, de Man was “stupid” (not evil), wrote one leading deconstructionist, Jonathan Culler. “We can accuse” (not “we accuse”) and “we abhor” (not “I abhor”), wrote another, Geoffrey Hartman, a colleague of de Man at Yale. Regarding the most overtly anti-Semitic passage in de Man’s wartime writings, Jacques Derrida, the French inventor of deconstruction, asserted, “one has to condemn these sentences [not Paul de Man] . . . which I have just done.” But “let us never forget,” Derrida urged, the precise contexts of what were, after all, only “pages by a young man of twenty-one or twenty-two.” In the end, the “feelings” that won out for Derrida had to do with his “bereaved friendship” with de Man; they were feelings “of immense compassion”—for de Man, not for the slandered and murdered Jews.

Derrida instructed that de Man’s Nazi writings called for “the most serious and careful analyses.” One analysis of which he approved was Jonathan Culler’s, which concluded that accusations of anti-Semitism were exaggerated since de Man had praised Hitler directly and by name “only” once. Indeed, Derrida’s own “careful analysis” revealed that in his Nazi writings de Man’s “primary” intention—also spotted by another colleague of de Man at Yale, J. Hillis Miller—was to condemn “vulgar anti-Semitism.” (As the political writer Jon Wiener pointed out in the Nation, “even if de Man had published nothing but sports scores or recipes in Le Soir, he would properly be defined as a collaborator”—a term Derrida refused to employ.)

In their frantic efforts on de Man’s behalf, the leading deconstructionists tripped over one another’s exculpations. Derrida declared that “what happened in Brussels in 1940-42”—i.e., de Man’s Nazi collaboration, never referred to except indirectly—“cannot, by definition, have anything to do with deconstruction.” But Geoffrey Hartman insisted on a profound connection between deconstruction and what happened in Brussels. He argued, and found other deconstructionists to agree, that for de Man, deconstruction itself was no less than “a belated act of conscience” for his past. According to this fantasy, de Man’s particular brand of literary criticism constituted a moral act in which he not only repudiated the totalitarianism to which he had been allied, but helped prevent its return.

As if the major deconstructionists had not embarrassed themselves sufficiently, minor ones proceeded inadvertently to expose the qualities of mind that actually lay under the impenetrable mask of deconstructionist jargon. Shoshana Felman, dismissing “the easy judgments made on de Man’s historical misjudgments,” stated that “in reality we are all implicated—and in more than one way—in de Man’s forgetting, and in his silence.” Richard Rand demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the current attacks on de Man were themselves anti-Semitic, “for are not, indeed, Paul de Man and his deconstruction somehow overwhelmingly Jewish?”

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In their confrontation with moral challenge, then, the deconstructionists made a spectacle of themselves at once grotesque and disturbing. But they also made a bad tactical error. Had they repudiated de Man as a person, they and their movement would undoubtedly have weathered the storm. Instead, they helped to render the theory of deconstruction vulnerable to attack.

Not that deconstruction had gone altogether unchallenged before then. But in the face of such challenge, deconstructionists had always been able to take refuge in the position that since language is always too slippery to enable us to name or describe anything with complete accuracy, any description of their movement, let alone any analysis, was by definition mistaken. (In the words of Derrida, “All sentences of the type ‘deconstruction is X’ a priori miss the point.”) But now in the de Man affair it turned out (as critics like Christopher Butler and John Ellis had been contending all along) that deconstructionists actually did trust language, just like everyone else. Whoever has commented on any of the defenses of de Man by his fellow deconstructionists—efforts at “damage control,” Roger Kimball of the New Criterion called them—has noticed one or more self-contradictory violations of deconstruction’s dogma of indeterminancy. For example, J. Hillis Miller complained of “errors” in the accounts given by critics of de Man, seemingly forgetting that language is supposedly always in error. “All these propositions are false,” he fumed: “the facts are otherwise.” Suddenly, there again were knowable facts in the world.

The new situation was well summarized by David H. Hirsch of Brown University. In order to defend de Man, Hirsch pointed out, a deconstructionist like Derrida “must sacrifice all of the positions that he has labored two decades to establish”:

Language, it turns out, is decidedly referential; meanings are not necessarily indeterminate; truth not only exists but really does matter; the self does exist and can even be used to elucidate an author’s intention. . . .

The same point was made, this time apologetically, by J. Hillis Miller in the course of his defense of de Man:

Deconstruction is not nihilistic, nor anti-historical, nor mere play of language in the void, nor does it view literature or language generally as free play of language, nor is it committed to the notion that readers and critics are free to make texts mean anything they like.

But either deconstruction was or it was not what it had always previously maintained: an attack on certainty. If it was, then why were deconstructionists now denying it? If it was not, then deconstruction had no point at all. In defending de Man, Derrida, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and their followers ended up doing to deconstruction what deconstruction had set out to do to meaning and certainty: they left it in ruins.

But that is not all. By failing to repudiate de Man, the deconstructionists also helped to establish a linkage between, in David Lehman’s words, “de Man then and deconstruction now”—the very thing they “presumably wanted to avoid.” They gave fuel to the idea that deconstruction itself, far from being a neutral method of inquiry, or (as Geoffrey Hartman tried to suggest) somehow a force for good, was compatible with if not actually tied at the root to totalitarian modes of thinking.

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In ridiculing the very attempt to describe or define them, deconstructionists used to say that what they did was “not a theory” but a “performance.” What was called “deconstruction” was really only a disturbing, disruptive “scandal”: an activity that “unmasked,” “subverted,” “dismantled,” “exposed,” “challenged.” Deconstructionists referred self-congratulatingly to their jouissance, playfulness. Now, however, faced with an actual scandal, their jouissance disappeared, replaced not by sober judgment but by the rage and contempt that deconstruction had always harbored.

Some of that rage and contempt was evident in the terms in which deconstructionists denounced de Man’s “hasty, ill-informed, and often vindictive” critics in the media. Not de Man but these critics, they said, were “appalling,” and they were the ones who had committed “heinous” acts, acts of “violence” (Derrida), of “slander,” of “resentment, malice, and undisguised xenophobia.” It was they who were “murderous,” “obscene,” “terrifying,” they who employed “totalitarian procedures of vilification.”

Despite Derrida’s claim, however, no “violence” had been directed at him for defending de Man; the critics were elaborately polite and deferential. But violence aplenty spewed forth from his own rejoinder to those critics. David Lehman compiles a list of the adjectives Derrida heaped on them: abusive, arrogant, crude, degraded, dishonest, grossly wrong, ignorant and aberrant, indecent, murderous, naive, obscene, obtuse, outright laughable, venomous, violent.

In this choice of words, Derrida was only drawing on a vocabulary of denunciation that had marked deconstruction from the beginning. It was significant, for example, that Paul de Man described “writing” as something always “experienced as a dismemberment, a beheading, or a castration.” It was he, too, who announced early on that the means of attacking the literary establishment would be the “terrorism” of “ruthless theory.” Derrida put it that when it came to changing the world, deconstruction was “not neutral”: “Nothing here, without a ‘show of force’ somewhere.” Michel Foucault termed that show of force, often directed at adversaries of deconstruction, “obscurantisme terroriste.”

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One source of deconstruction’s obsession with violence can be found in the prose of the philosopher usually named as its intellectual progenitor, and whose own Nazi connections have also been the subject of recent new revelations: Martin Heidegger.2 Of course, unlike Heidegger, de Man seems never to have been an enthusiastic Nazi or actively involved in doing harm to individual Jews. It seems, instead, that de Man turned to collaboration out of the kind of expediency he later displayed when he absconded from Belgium to avoid prosecution for debt, abandoned his family, became a bigamist, and misrepresented his past (going so far as to hint at having been part of the Resistance, which had in fact denounced him for “excessive” collaboration). Even as a Nazi collaborator de Man mouthed anti-Semitic formulas in an opportunistic way: one does not sense rabid fanaticism in his writings. When deconstruction came along, he took it up with similar sang froid. This time, just as he had given sufficient evidence of commitment to the Nazis to satisfy them, so he now gave sufficient evidence of leftism to satisfy his American colleagues.

Nevertheless, despite the differences between them, Heidegger and de Man shared a link. Nor were they alone. As the literary theorist Tsvetan Todorov has pointed out, at least two other French Heideggerians, Maurice Blanchot and Jean Beaufret, were tainted with anti-Semitism. (In an interview in 1986, de Man named the Blanchot of the 1930’s as a greater influence on him than Sartre.) Todorov also noted that de Man had written favorably about Hans Robert Jauss, a “former SS member and current leader of the Rezeptionaesthetik school” (which is closely allied with deconstruction), and had brought him to Yale as a guest lecturer. All of this rendered positively ludicrous Derrida’s confident pronouncement that de Man’s collaboration with the Nazis could not, “by definition, have anything to do with deconstruction.” Instead the case was as David Hirsch concluded: deconstruction reflected “the Nazi ideology of its origins.”

Of course, in ordinary political terms it had traveled some distance from those origins, from the Right to the Left side of the political spectrum. Thus, the original French deconstructionists, openly calling themselves Marxists and radicals, claimed to have discovered the means by which the bourgeoisie had gotten away with its historic crimes of oppression and exploitation—namely, by employing language itself as a weapon of social control. According to this view, the ruling classes, pretending that language was a fixed, dependable reflection of reality, used it to enforce and to ratify the existing division of society into haves and have-nots. The French deconstructionists were dedicated to unmasking this bourgeois imposture by means of their own countertheory of the indeterminacy of language and meaning, and in that sense they considered themselves to be embarked on a politically revolutionary undertaking.

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Although the American version of deconstruction was nowhere near so explicit as this, its politics, too, were unmistakable, visible in its rhetoric, in the violent images of decapitation and castration invoked by deconstructionists in their attack on the “bourgeois” understanding of reality, and in their bullying treatment of critics, nowhere more evident than during the de Man affair itself. And that brings us to the role of deconstruction in the current politicization of the universities. Deconstructionists themselves may have intended no escalation of their rhetoric of violence into actual behavior, but there is no blinking the fact that within their world they helped open the way for the present dominance of the Left, with its intolerant stifling of dissenting opinions and values.

Deconstruction helped to break down the consensus of reality, and to undermine the belief that language and literature can reliably convey truth. As deconstruction’s influence spread from literary studies to the rest of the humanities, history, the law, even architecture, it played a key part in the disintegration of the traditional curriculum, another supposed bastion of “bourgeois” privilege. Into the vacuum thus created moved the minions of the politically correct, ready, precisely on the deconstructionist model of vilification, to “unmask” and anathematize any who resisted the new regime as racist, homophobic, anti-female, Eurocentrist. In short, as Neal Kozodoy wrote apropos of the de Man affair in Contentions, “were it not for the labors of the deconstructionists, gaily precipitating the crash of entire edifices of humanist learning, today’s hard-eyed Marxists would never have been able to establish so effortlessly their squatters’ rights over the rubble.”

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For the academic class as a whole, the deconstructionist episode has represented a critical test, both intellectual and ethical, which it has failed. Against the nihilist onslaught of deconstruction, most academics simply never lifted a finger in defense of the principles of rationality that supposedly constituted their reason for being. To this day, most have still not spoken up forthrightly either about deconstruction or even about the de Man affair. In the end, it is true, deconstruction has suffered a decline—not, however, because it has been opposed and defeated, but because of the ill-advised response of the deconstructionists themselves to the revelations about one of their heroes, and because the movement has been succeeded by something even worse, for which it paved the way.


Footnotes

1 Poseidon Press, 318 pp., $21.95.

2 See “What Heidegger Wrought,” by Mark Lilla, COMMENTARY, January 1990.

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