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On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, by Jonathan Culler; 307 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982, $22.50 (cloth), $8.95 (paper). Discussed by Allan Megill Jonathan culler bills On Deconstruction as a sequel to his widely-known study, Structuralist Poetics (1975). But whereas the earlier book aspired to be comprehensive in scope, On Deconstruction is deliberately selective. It focuses on what Culler finds "most vital and significant in recent theoretical writing," seeking to provide "an exposition of issues diat often seem poorly understood" (p. 7). How successful is he in elucidating these issues, and in justifying his belief in the vitality and significance of the writings through which he pursues them? We have come to expect Culler to give us clear explanations ofdifficult topics. He has forged for himself a kind of house style — a "Cullerian style," if one will. It is a style that strives to be urbane, calm, and reasonable. It speaks in a voice that claims to be that of straightforward, enlightened common sense. In Structuralist Poetics, Culler did a marvelous job of translating continental structuralism into American and British terms. Deconstruction, however, is much more resistant to being translated into Culler's language. Deconstruction's founding figure, Jacques Derrida, is perhaps the least reasonable of contemporary writers and tiieorists. Here lies the great problem, and stumbling block, ofthis book — one that gives it its dynamic and is reflected in its structure. When a book bearing the title On Deconstruction does not actually begin to discuss deconstruction until page 80 or so, the attentive reader begins to suspect that the author is engaged, consciously or not, in an avoidance maneuver. Admittedly, Culler does warn us that his focus is on "theory," notjust on deconstruction. Nor can one deny that the discussion of feminist criticism diat occupies the early part of the book is interesting — so much so that one wishes he had dealt with it more thoroughly. Still, if it is deconstruction that we want to talk about, we need to come to grips with Derrida. 285 286Philosophy and Literature It is only in his long second chapter ("Deconstruction"), the centerpiece of the book, that Culler really gets down to tackling Derrida and deconstruction. But diose readers who hope to find out about Derrida by reading Culler need to be warned that Culler systematically distorts Derrida. (On p. 178 he predicts that On Deconstruction will be "attacked as a misreading of Derrida," and he is right.) The distortion occurs because of die radical disjunction between Derrida's style and Culler's. Culler attempts to explicate Derrida in the same levelheaded way that he does more prosaic theorists. He presents us with a neat collection of categories that supposedly make sense of Derrida: "Writing and Logocentrism," "Meaning and Iterability," "Grafts and Graft," and so on. In doing so, he omits Derrida's poetry and outrageousness, his jokes and his anger, giving us mere formulas instead. What we get is a domesticated, Anglo-Saxonized Derrida. We get a Derrida safe for English departments — so safe, in fact, that we can pretty well ignore him if that is what we want to do. It is as if one were to translate a long and convoluted discours amoureux with the bland and functional "I love you." One of die several minor polemics peppering the pages of On Deconstruction is directed against Geoffrey Hartman. In his recent Saving the Text: Literature/ Derrida/Philosophy, Hartman emphasized what he saw as Derrida's "hilarity." In response to Hartman's account of Derrida's Glas, Culler remarks on the "considerable straightforward exposition of Hegel, Genet, and Saussure" that Glas contains (p. 137). This is surely nonsense: Glas, in which the German philosopher faces off against the French thief, homosexual, playwright, and novelist, is about as unstraightforward as any work could be. Culler is here not so much explicating Derrida as he is metamorphosing him into someone bearing a remarkable resemblance to Jonathan Culler. To put this in another way, for all his advocacy of deconstruction Culler is unwilling to let it work on his own discourse. Culler is nicely aware of the difficulties diis creates, for he notes how his "logic of summary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 285-289
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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