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John Allman PAUL DE MAN, DECONSTRUCTION, AND DISCIPLESHIP God may be dead, but his vocabulary lives on, oddly enough, in the militandy secular pages of recent literary theory. Just when we thought it was safe to plunge the depths of postmodernism without the muddying mystifications of worship, religious language seems to have resurrected itself and is walking once again on the troubled waters of literary criticism. In an essay on "The Institutional Control of Interpretation ," forexample, Frank Kermode suggests that the Church offers us the best model for understanding the "exegetical activities" ofliterary critics everywhere: "self-perpetuating, hierarchical, authoritative, much concerned with questions of canon, and wont, as we are, to distinguish sharply between initiate and uninitiate readings, the Church is a model we would do well to consider as we attempt to understand our own practice."1 We can find traces of sacred vocabulary in the description not only of the Church of Criticism in general, but also of particular sects within this institution, even those determined to undermine the notion that anything is sacred. In fact, religious language seems most abundant in critical assessments ofdeconstruction, by all appearances the most iconoclastic of recent modes of interpretation. Gerald Graff, for example, argues that the deconstructive project transforms literature into "a vehicle for a nihilistic metaphysics, an anti-didactic form of preaching." Literature becomes "once again the great oracle of truth, but now the truth is that there is no truth. In a curiously inverted restatement of the religion of literature, the literary work is made the sole source of truth only in the sense that it alone refuses to succumb to the delusion that the truth can be spoken."2 Focusing on the style rather than the Philosophy and Literature, © 1990, 14: 324-339 John Allman325 dogma of deconstruction, Mark Felperin echoes a number of theorists (both radical and conservative) when he comments that de Man, Derrida , and their brethren, much like "high priests ofa new mystery cult," are guilty of "a deliberate obscurantism designed to exclude all but an elite—only those who already know will understand and be saved."3 And John Ellis suggests that "deconstructive logic" is simply a crude version of "a standard formula in many branches of religious mysticism ."4 Clearly, Ellis, Graff, and others so stigmatize deconstruction not by way of providing neutral descriptions of an interpretive approach, but rather as part of a polemical strategy intended to expose flaws in deconstruction—its hypocrisy, its elitism, its unoriginality. Despite this appropriation of religious language in the rhetoric denouncing deconstruction, it seems to me to be both possible and useful to examine how religious vocabulary might offer a fair as well as illuminating means of describing rather than proscribing the critical phenomenon known as deconstruction. In particular, I would like to look at the ways in which the relation between the originators ofdeconstruction and their successors resembles that between master and disciple. To those sympathetic to deconstruction, such an approach may seem inappropriate, if not hostile; deconstructionists, accustomed to charges that they are presenting a metaphysics of absence, a religion of antirepresentationalism , have consistentiy denied that their practices are in any way religious. What I would like to suggest, however, is that deconstruction , like the texts it reads, is governed by the very forces it resists. By studying the relation between one "exemplary" deconstructive critic— Paul de Man—and one of his influencial students—Barbara Johnson—I hope to illustrate how the survival of deconstruction depends paradoxically on its ability to both resist and restore the powers that shape the relation between master and disciple. Particularly useful in the context ofmy argument are the observations of two sociologists of religion, Joachim Wach and Max Weber, whose sociological perspective permits them to comment on the dynamics of the master-disciple relationship without referring to any particular set of beliefs or teachings. Wach's essay "Master and Disciple" is especially helpful, for he begins his discussion of this dynamic by contrasting the relation between master and disciple with that between teacher and student. For Wach, the essential difference between master and teacher is that the teacher "gives a definite subject matter" while the master "provides only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 324-339
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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