Debunking Deconstruction

Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 430-34.

Denis Dutton


In the 1970s we published a book review so breathless that it required some blue penciling to tone it down. The reviewer — an English professor — couldn’t contain himself. The book was on literary theory and he had heard his first cuckoo in the very late spring of deconstruction. It was all so new and exciting, such “a heady brew,” as he put it. These days, deconstruction is treated as passe, but this idea is disputed by John M. Ellis, whose new book, Against Deconstruction (Princeton University Press, $21.95) has just been published. The talk of decline notwithstanding, Ellis says, “books and articles in the deconstructionist mode continue to appear at an ever increasing rate, and Derrida continues to be cited more than any other theorist.” The situation reminds me of something Sam Goldwyn is supposed to have said about a nightclub: “Aw, nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”

John M. Ellis
I’ve not seen a book on deconstruction that packs more force than this one. Ellis treats deconstruction in ways previously reserved for creation science and the Shroud of Turin, but does it in a way that is sober, careful, and lucid. He begins with Derrida’s claim of the priority of writing over speech. Poor Saussure! Against the backdrop of a European philological tradition that emphasized written language at the expense of oral traditions, he stressed the spoken roots of language — and so in turn was used as the foil against whom Derrida built his notion of the priority of writing over speech, being cast in the role of the archetypal purveyor of what Derrida calls “the ethnocentrism which, everywhere and always, has controlled the concept of writing.” Ellis says, “It is somewhat characteristic of deconstructive arguments that they claim to seize on unexamined assumptions of all kinds — ethnocentrism being one — in order to explode and transcend them, hoping to enlarge our consciousness of the issues concerned.” But Ellis does not think that apologia will wash in this context: “Indeed, it is easier to see in Derrida’s position here, not a corrective to ethnocentrism, but instead a determined reassertion of the ethnocentrism that Saussure sought to correct and transcend….”

Ellis reveals confusions and ambiguities in the concept of logocentrism by analyzing not only Derrida, but specimen passages from various epigones. Ellis’s stand is not that Derrida is altogether wrong, but that there is far less which is novel in Derrida than anybody is willing to admit and that “in writer after writer” on these subjects the actual exposition of the basic ideas is “extraordinarily poor.” The second of these features is, of course, intimately related to the first. It is one of Ellis’s themes that deconstruction deals with philosophical issues which have a significant history: the reference theory of meaning, essentialism in the philosophy of language, the relation of authorial meaning to textual meaning, correspondence vs. coherence theories of truth, the general status of knowledge claims. After extracting at last from his chosen texts an intelligible account of logocentrism, Ellis concludes that “if the logocentric error were stated in any clearer way it would be far too obviously an unoriginal discovery.” In general, “the belief of deconstructionists that they are attacking [in logocentrism] a superstition that still beguiles everyone seems quite out of touch with the reality of the twentieth-century debate in theory of language.” The thesis under attack would by now “have to be counted as a very naive and uninformed one” to anyone familiar with Wittgenstein, linguists such as J.R. Firth, Sapir, Whorf, and many others: “When, in 1966, Derrida began to denounce this kind of thinking as a universal error, he was demonstrating an extraordinary isolation from what had been happening for many years; and the mood of gleeful iconoclasm, revolutionary fervor, and avant-garde daring of the uniquely enlightened displayed by followers of the deconstructionist banner contrasted strangely with the underlying reality that none of this could by now be considered remarkable or even unusual.”

One of the most entertaining chapters of Ellis’s book is entitled “The Logic of Deconstruction.” In it he presents the formula for a typical deconstructionist performance. We begin by identifying our concern with one of a small number of traditional problems of philosophy or literary theory: Are there absolute truths? Does a literary text have a stable meaning? Does our language simply describe a pre-existing world? The initial focus is on a naive view of the issue, one so naive that it is likely that no current well-known thinker holds it — for example, the idea that literary works possess single, ascertainable meanings. In other fields, Ellis remarks, “attempts to advance thought is normally taken to require Focus on the highest and most advanced level of thinking that has been achieved on a given question; we start from the latest state of the art and try to go on from there.” Deconstructionist thinking, on the other hand, begins by trotting out “unsophisticated, simple notions” in order to put them “in question,” to “problematize” them. So, referring to the example, the deconstructionist simply ignores the inconvenient fact that the “consensus of critics for some time has been that literary texts are inexhaustible” and that they do not have single meanings. Serious advanced scholarship on the question outside of deconstructive texts may also be appropriately ignored.

The next stage involves supplying “a polar opposite to be set beside the naive beliefs with which the argument began” — that readers create the meanings of texts, that words do not refer to things but only to other words, that all readings are misreadings, or whatever. Sometimes from this point on the writer maintains a neutrality between the naive position and its opposite, but usually there is a strong tilt toward the opposite, which tends to be identified with freedom, play, liberation, and generally having a good time, as opposed to the original naive position, which is portrayed as constraining, restrictive, (literally) authoritarian, suggesting nuns slapping rulers across knuckles, and so forth. The result is not without a certain charm: “By keeping attention fixed on the initial simple view that is to be displaced and making the denunciation of that view a central aspect of the whole performance (rather than merely a starting point that is to be left behind and forgotten), deconstruction creates a sense of the excitement of intellectual progress beyond the commonplace, of the drama of intellectual confrontation, and of the exhilaration of provocativeness.”

Is this fair to deconstruction? Obviously not, if the description is taken to cover every deconstructionist performance; this is merely deconstruction at its worst. Nor does Ellis try anywhere in this book to find any socially redeeming features in Derrida’s writing. (Surely there must be some; for example, Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence.) But why be fair? Deconstruction is very often at its worst, and even when it is better than Ellis’s caricature, it is still afflicted by many of the problems he describes. In truth, his book does give an accurate picture of the central difficulties of deconstruction, understood as style, as method, or as theory. At the beginning of the book, Ellis remarks that the usual deconstructionist formula for handling criticism is to claim that the critic hasn’t read enough, isn’t really sophisticated, hasn’t rehearsed the initiate’s “knowledge of the full range of deconstructive writings...” I expect Against Deconstruction will face the same evasions. But such a response will not do deconstruction any further credit. Ellis deserves a serious, sustained answer.


Deconstruction has had a fair run over the past couple of decades. It has been making extravagant claims which if correct — or at least useful — would have the most important bearing on how we understand history, meaning, being, politic, race, gender, international relations, and so forth. But still its influence continues to be seen primarily in university literature departments. Though philosophers often feel obligated to nod in its direction, not many seem to have found it greatly enlightening, few historians pay much attention, and beyond the odd pocket of interest elsewhere (some, but hardly all, feminists) its impact falls off strikingly: politicians don’t care, gender and race relations move on as they would have without it, and the scientists just scratch their heads. Deconstruction remains an intense preoccupation only for a group of academics who write books, and go on writing books about those books. What an extremely patient person may someday do is produce a general account of deconstruction which is able to explain why it arose when it did and why it was found so appealing by its academic promoters. In the meantime, here is a partial and tentative guess:

First, it has long seemed to me that there is in academic circles, especially among humanists, an odd sort of prestige that attaches to philosophy. Perhaps it is some sense that even if philosophers don’t have the final answers, at least they are raising the important issues. Perhaps it is the impressive technical rigor which characterizes some philosophy. Or maybe it is the capacity of philosophy to ask the most amusingly awkward questions about such diverse enterprises as politics, religion, and silence. As a philosopher, I find this awe pretty silly, but there it is: I hold piano virtuosos in reverential awe and my pianist friends tell me that’s silly too. Second, it must be admitted that there are intelligent scholars in other fields who, whatever their considerable abilities, have little aptitude for philosophy. No crime in that: talents for mathematics, languages, music, poetry, literary criticism, and other fields are not evenly spread across the academy, and why should it be different with philosophy? Anyway, talent aside, there are only so many hours in the day to permit gaining expertise beyond one’s chosen scholarly specialty.

But here we have a possible partial explanation for the popularity of deconstruction in literary and other humanist circles. Deconstruction provides academic folk with the illusion that they are raising big, deep philosophical issues, because they are (courageously, no doubt) “calling into question” or “problematizing” the very foundations of thought, meaning, and value. Intellectually, this is bargain basement stuff, of course: philosophy on the cheap. It stands to real philosophy as the electric organ stands to piano virtuosity. But it seems very exciting — the “heady brew” that so agitated that English professor. And there are other benefits as well. Deconstruction has built into it the usual self-immunizing strategies characteristic of other ersatz sciences, such as astrology or doctrinaire Freudianism. Confronted with any intellectual criticism, the deconstructionist airily waves the speaker away, or gestures knowingly to his fellow believers, as though to say, “Tiresome, isn’t it, the way people keep trying to revive the superstitions we have long since transcended!” There is no need, and certainly no demand, for the believing deconstructionist to engage the benighted skeptic in any argument. In fact, the situation for the deconstructionist is ideal: one can have the transcendent exhilaration of seeming to tackle profound philosophical questions without having to actually do any philosophy. And philosophers who object can be ignored, since they are still the unknowing dupes of logocentrism, or something. Finally, while the whole procedure, like a roller coaster, seems dangerous, with that dark talk of radical “subversion” and “scandal” it is virtually risk free. One can be on the correct side, against sexism, racism, or ethnocentrism (a show of hands, please, of those in favor of ethnocentrism), but all from the cozy security of the academy.

This helps to explain both why deconstruction has captivated the imaginations of so many literary scholars who enjoy dabbling in philosophy, and why it has not caught on to anything like the same extent with professional philosophers. In the first place, even those philosophers who take deconstruction seriously are nevertheless interested to consider alternative theories — not just Derrida on, say, essentialist philosophies of language, but thinkers such as Wittgenstein or Quine or Kripke as well. And once one is on this road, the depth and appeal of alternative theories become apparent. (This isn’t unique: Christians who take up comparative religion often suffer a similar loss of faith.) Second, philosophers really do listen to arguments, even if they don’t always change their minds. If a philosopher presents me with two arguments designed to show that God cannot exist, and I respond by trying to demonstrate how they fail, it is simply not open to my opponent merely to dismiss me with, “What? You mean you believe in God?” In fact, such a response simply spoils the fun. Among philosophers, the rejection of an argument for a position need not entail anything about whether the speaker accepts or rejects that position.

I am talking here not about something that happens now-and-then in philosophical discussions; I am talking about the air philosophy breathes. The point would hardly be worth making, except that this simple respect for your opponent’s argument is not encouraged by deconstruction. The way all-too-many deconstructionists play the game, if you object to the deconstructionist account of logocentrism, you are still under the spell of some phonologist superstition. If you suggest that there might be reasons why some literary interpretations are intrinsically better than others, or that authorial intentions cannot be wholly dismissed by criticism, then, you obviously favor making reader and critic subservient to the God-author. If you question the slogan “all interpretation is misinterpretation” you must be one of those people who believe in One Truth. In confronting opposition, the deconstructionist does not move in the realm of claim and counter-argument. This fact is implicitly recognized in the way that, in the popular vocabulary of deconstruction, theories are said not to be refuted but to be displaced by other positions: the language (borrowed here from Freud, but it might as well be Thrasymachus) is not that of argument and evidence, but of hogging space, getting attention, repressing or getting even with some enemy. It’s all power and desire.

Copyright © 1989 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.