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Anthony Close CENTERING THE DE-CENTERERS: FOUCAULT AND LAS MENINAS Over the last two decades, French avant-garde critical theory has shaken the pillars of the traditionalist temple with this thought: the interpreter of a literary text should not primarily be concerned with its author's intentional design, but rather with the surreptitious forces which shape it, warp it, and ultimately turn it into a problematic will-ofthe -wisp. The "decoding" of those forces takes many forms (Freudian, anthropological, and so on), of which deconstruction is the most celebrated ; "de-centering"—the banishment of the intentional subject from the focus of interpretation — is common to all. In the first part of this article I wish to set out my philosophical objections to that exclusion, and in the second part, to examine an interesting failure to make it effective in practice: Foucault's analysis of Velazquez's painting Las Meninas, which constitutes the first chapter of Les mots et ks choses. One of my reasons for choosing Foucault's text as an example is that its premises are in some ways comparable to the philosophy of the archdeconstructor , Derrida. My skepticism about them and the analytic method based on them is not meant to suggest that I regard Foucault's historical studies as valueless. On the contrary, I recognize that he, together with some other decoders (particularly Barthes), has important things to say. My attack is a form of defense. I wish to uphold the value of traditional forms of interpretation by showing that though Foucault, like other decoders, casts radical doubts upon them in theory, he tends to negate those doubts by the implications of his practice. 21 22Philosophy and Literature M. H. Abrams has defined the traditionalist historian of culture as one who assumes that (a) authors of the past exploited the norms and possibilities of their language to say something determinate, (b) the properly equipped historian can approximate to their meaning, (c) his interpretation can aspire to a reasonable degree of objectivity. ' Let that serve as a working definition of my traditionalist standpoint. This has a philosophical rationale, basically Wittgensteinian and Austinian, which needs to be explained and set over against some of decoding's typical presuppositions. I choose Derrida's as an example. From my perspective , two objections can be leveled against his thought: its tendency to hypostatize the intentional subject as a metaphysical essence which must be reached through and beyond language, and to see language itself as an unrealistically slippery medium. Both objections were raised against him by Searle in their famous polemic with each other.2 Derrida's thought is inscribed within, even while it reacts against, a traditional conception of language as a name-like substitute for essence. According to this conception, influentially represented in this century by Husserl's phenomenology, bits of language somewhat resemble sterling currency bills which bear on their face the legend: "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ? pound(s)" That is, they are potentially capable ofbeing cashed for lumps of being, which can thus be possessed by mind. Derrida counters that the currency is fraudulent: it continually defers presence and possession, rendering problematic its relation to being and self, and their very existence. In order to foster the illusion that he is master of his words, hence of what they designate, Western Man has historically given status of originality to voice rather than to writing, to a form of expression which is seemingly intimate to consciousness rather than external. The paradoxical thesis ofDe lagrammatologie is that writing came first. One of the routes by which Derrida arrives at this conclusion is Saussure's conception of the discontinuous, articulated nature of language and the negative and differential character of linguistic signifiers, not stably linked to universal referents.3 On this basis he builds his idea of différance (a pun on difference and deferral ), the elusive negative margin which makes language possible, and at the same time, makes impossible consciousness's full presence to itself and to being.4 Hence Derrida's notion of language's anarchic and willful power to detach itself from die intentions or usage of its users and to float...


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