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Notes and Fragments THE MISUSE OF NIETZSCHE IN LITERARY THEORY by Michael C. Milam It is now widely claimed that deconstruction is passé. Whether this claim is true or not, there are certain myths that have been installed in general contemporary literary theory by deconstruction that persist and need to be exposed. One outstanding case is that surrounding Nietzsche. Most of the major deconstructionists have claimed that the philosophical orientation and the methodology of the deconstructive enterprise itselfare somehow attributable to Nietzsche's ideas. Attempts to appropriate the philosopher for this movement have generally fallen into three broad categories: "Nietzsche as linguistic nihilist"; "Nietzsche as impotent postmodernist"; "Nietzsche as first deconstructionist." Many of these claims are able to be made because his historical and philosophical context is simply ignored and, too often, the claims of Nietzsche's supposed affirmation of nihilism are rarely documented from his own work. Examples from the work ofJacques Derrida, David B. Allison, Paul de Man, andJ. Hillis Miller1 will demonstrate this misuse of Nietzsche. Deconstruction originated with Heidegger's philosophy and reached its present form in Derrida's view of language and the interpretation of texts. All "writing," for Derrida, is subject to the ineluctable vagaries of interpretation. Meaning is incessantly deferred, put off, or delayed. According to Derrida, no piece of writing can have an absolute, determinate meaning because words do not refer to any world outside of the text itself. In this sense, texts suffer from a "nihilism of reference," in that any philosophical or cognitive "value" is a linguistic illusion— Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 320-332 Michael C. Milam321 ultimately a "nothingness." Interpretation results, then, in a "free play" of signification in which all interpretations are considered arbitrary and ultimately indeterminable. Put in a historical perspective, the idea of determinate meaning, according to Derrida, is a vestige of the tradition of metaphysical thinking in the West. The deconstructionists insist that language is "burdened" with "logocentric" notions such as "order," "purpose ," "center," and others which reflect a now-untenable tradition. In other words, logocentrism "is taken to involve a set of value priorities typical of Western philosophers and intellectuals: the value of truth over illusion, ofscience over art, oflogic over rhetoric, ofliteral language over figurative."2 The purpose of deconstruction, then, is to seek out and discredit these notions in all texts and, thereby, liberate them from logocentrism (metaphysical "presence"). Derrida claims that Nietzsche's writing is, of course, not "privileged," hence, subject to free play and indeterminacy ofmeaning. Nevertheless, Derrida insists that free play is "a Nietzschean affirmation ... of a world of signs without error, without truth, without origin."3 There are major issues, suggested by Derrida's assertions, which Nietzsche addresses throughout his work concerning the affirmation of indeterminacy and the untenability of absolute concepts. Such questions are, however, ignored by Derrida in favor of assuming that Nietzschean affirmation has only to do with free play—the absolute relativity of meaning in any text. According to the Derridian position, Nietzschean affirmation can have nothing to do with "the terrible and questionable aspects of existence ," the Apollonian/Dionysian duality, the overcoming of nihilism, or amorfati in any substantive or referential sense because Nietzsche's texts do not refer to any "real" world. In Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, Derrida takes this unequivocal position when he insists that all Nietzsche's writing can be considered as having no context, and therefore as undecidable, like the well-known cryptic note found in the Nachlass: "To whatever lengths one might carry a conscientious interpretation, the hypothesis that the totality of Nietzsche's text, in some monstrous way, might be of the type ? have forgotten my umbrella' cannot be denied."4 That Derrida uses "might" to qualify this statement does nothing to alleviate the fact that he argues adamantly for the fundamental undecidability of all of Nietzsche's work throughout Spurs. For Derrida, Nietzsche is the archetypal linguistic nihilist who affirms the "nothingness" of meaning . Although sparsely documented from Nietzsche's work and conveniently expedient, Derrida's general position, that he is a nihilist, has a history in Nietzsche studies beginning with Arthur Danto's Nietzsche 322Philosophy and Literature as Philosopher. Other deconstructionist positions on Nietzsche...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 320-332
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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