- Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory, and: Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction, and: Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (review)
- Philosophy and Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 11, Number 2, October 1987
- pp. 317-329
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Critical Discussions Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory, by Howard Felperin; 226 pp. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1985, $24.95, $7.95 paper. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction, by Steven Mailloux; 228 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982, $19.95. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English, by Robert Scholes; xii & 176 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, $18.50, $6.95 paper. Discussed by Wendell V. Harris THE once-feared deconstructionists, the rampant paynims who fell so fiercely on unwary knights of the New Critical Round Table, appear to be losing dieir strength apace. Committed deconstructionists must take what comfort they can in recognizing that many of the most recent challengers in the critical lists are still happy to include die deconstructive armorial device — a text argent plunging into an abyss sable— among the quarterings of their shields. 'Twas always thus. The power of Arnoldism was claimed by Paterian aestheticism, Wildean creativity, new humanistic moralism, and die early (I. A.) Richardsonian doctrines tiiat underwrote the New Criticism. The inspiration of Leavisism contributed to Marxism on the one hand and die semi-concealed moral commitments of die New Criticism on the other. The energies of structuralism flowed into narrative grammars, narratology , revived interest in conventions and genres, Barthian social analyses, and deconstruction. We now see deconstruction dividing into, or appropriated by, a similar plurality of interests. Marxists, finding tiieir 317 318Philosophy and Literature views ofhistory vulnerable to various kinds oflogical analysis, seek to coopt deconstruction for their purposes; feminist critics find it an efficient reagent even while realizing that as an all-purpose solvent it can dissolve their own position; even those who wish to do no more than foster more critical reading of literature or encourage freer writing in freshman composition classes draw on it. Of course most such derivative uses are domestications and adulterations, but equally of course they are part of the natural life of any theory, principle, or vision of meaning. It is a pity that the name ofdeconstruction is invoked in these denatured applications. Deconstruction proper reminded us of much mat had been forgotten by a generation of critics, and indeed of the complexity of the relationships between language and experience that have rarely enough been direcdy addressed since die Platonic war with the Sophists. It showed us that the ramifications of the thought of Saussure (and Peirce, and indeed of Ogden and Richards) on the nature of signs had very substantial consequences, and that language was much shiftier than we were accustomed to remember. While giving additional grounds for denying die possibility ofthe positivist project oftreating words as tiiough each was like a definite street address (Burke's ironic description), it has equally given reason to look again at pragmatist solutions to the problem ofmeaning. It showed once again that anything can be read against the grain, against ordinary notions of an audior's intent. And it reminded us tiiat, after all, no substantial utterance can wholly seal out intimations ofthat which opposes or contradicts it: die multiplicity and interactivity of forces in the world makes it impossible to isolate or sum up any aspect of it with finality. Custom cannot stale nor theory grasp reality's infinite variety. But now, twenty years after De la Grammatofogie, many more or less antitiietical directions are being pursued by critical movements that do not much trouble themselves with attempting to refute deconstructive arguments —radical skepticism can after all never be logically overthrown. The "new historicism," increasing interest in Jauss's Rezeptionsästhetik and his concept of"horizons of expectation," Bakhtin's emphasis on die social context which makes each utterance unique, and the proliferation of a broad set of methodologies all confusedly lumped as reader-response criticism are moving away from the deconstruction that moved away from formalism that moved away from die Arnoldism that moved away. ... (I prefer "moved away from" to "moved beyond": change and even improvement are more likely than progress.) AU of which is a longish preface to consideration of diree books that Wendell V. Harris319 reflect and participate in the present de-centralizing (de-centering?) of deconstruction and allied poststructuralist endeavors. The...