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Notes and Fragments DECONSTRUCTION AND MEANING: THE TEXTUALITY GAME by E. Warwick Slinn Of all the issues which have troubled the incursion of poststructuralist thought into Anglo-American literary criticism, the problem of meaning and its dissemination is among the most vexing. The responses of M. H. Abrams and others in the late seventies quickly raised the spectre of an eternity of indeterminate meanings, an apocalyptic nightmare for those whose business it is to contain and tame meaning, for those whose authority rests on their ability to amass evidence which makes their reading "right."1 It does not seem to have occurred to many of these critics that perhaps the nightmare was of their own making, that careful attention to the major theorists might lead to a more complex articulation of conflicting, yet containing, possibilities than their anxieties allowed. More recent discussions of poststructuralist theory might appear to have allayed these fears, but Alfred Louch's recent account in Philosophy and Literature of a book on deconstruction by Michael Fischer once again offers the view that deconstruction means unconstrained interpretations, readings licensed "to say anything at all."2 Louch himself quite nicely plays the game of diagnostic equivocation. He ascribes the game to Fischer, but despite various disclaimers—"I do not say these things on my own account but to summarize Fischer's more polite and deferential . . . account" (p. 327)—he aligns himself generally with Fischer: "You will be safe with him on this tour of deconstructionism " (p. 325). Louch may point to the effects of Fischer's equivocation by saying that he "seemed at times unsure whether he was 80 E. Warwick Slinn81 leading the reader through a rogue's gallery or a madhouse" (p. 325), but the images of "gallery" and "madhouse" in this context are both equally critical of the sights on the tour (of deconstructionist theory), regardless of the helmsman's intentions. Still, my concern here is not with Louch's representation of Fischer; it is with the way in which the combined Fischer/Louch intertext presents deconstructionist views about meaning. In my reading of deconstructionist theory, this presentation is considerably misleading. The "axiom" of deconstruction which appears to be the source of the problem is presented by Louch as "nothing but the text." From this axiom, it is deduced that critics and texts are "cut off from the world," and therefore that the deconstructionist game leads to the task of saying something about the text which does not refer to anything outside it (p. 327). This game involves the loss of "standards of truth," which then allows us to say "anything at all" and ends in mere "babbling"—a value term which, I would have thought, indicates somebody's view, unless, of course, Louch's text sustains the covert view that subjectivity is merely an effect of the text. Given that babble is incoherent, Louch cannot understand why the skeptical conclusion about truth should not lead equally to a moratorium on critical talk; sometimes it does, of courseit is just that we cannot talk about it when that happens! A little later, after separating literary interpretation from the social seriousness of legal interpretation, Louch returns to the slogan of "nothing but the text"—now as a citation and described as a "self-denying ordinance." Here he refers to the consequence of this slogan ("the indeterminacy of meaning") as an "alleged" consequence, but his description of it as a "self-denying ordinance" leads to a series of motifs whereby "selfdenying ordinance" becomes a sign for "an escape from dull and plodding empirical investigation" (p. 331). Whether Louch likes it or not, his text assumes throughout that "nothing but the text" (his phrase) leads automatically to "the indeterminacy of meaning." It may indeed be true to say, as Louch does later, that deconstructionists endorse the idea of "the indefinite proliferation of interpretations" (p. 329), but Louch either does not notice or does not bother to point out that "an indefinite proliferation of interpretations" is quite different from "indeterminacy of meaning." Deconstruction does indeed, I think, affirm the prospect of endless proliferation, but it does not affirm the proposition that meanings are indeterminate. The latter would be a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 80-87
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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