Teaching Deconstruction: Giving, Taking, Leaving, Belonging, and the Remains of the University
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Diacritics 31.3 (2001) 89-107

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Teaching Deconstruction
Giving, Taking, Leaving, Belonging, and the Remains of the University

Simon Morgan Wortham

The Remains of the University and the Study of Culture

In his recent essay "Literary Study in the Transnational University," J. Hillis Miller tries to account for the hostility shown by some practitioners of a certain kind of cultural studies toward what is perceived as "high" theory—in particular, deconstruction. Describing the emergence of cultural studies as a quasi-discipline, he remarks:

Insofar as cultural studies still depends on the traditional idea of culture as the production in a subject or subjectivity of an identity produced through indoctrination by a nation-state or by a subculture such as an ethnic or gender community . . . it was necessary to resist the questioning by deconstruction of all the key concepts necessary to this idea of culture. These include identity, agency, the homogeneity of a given culture, whether hegemonic or minority, the definition of an individual by his or her participation in a nation or community, the unbreakable tie of a text or any other assemblage of signs to its context. The questioning by theory of these concepts often needed to be sidestepped in order for the project of cultural studies and related new disciplines to get going. These key concepts are glued together by a reinstalled referentiality that can no longer afford to be put in question and remain in question. [83]

For Miller, a cultural studies of this sort relies on a minimal degree of retention of such unquestioned "referentiality" as a condition of its need to thematize, narrativize, or interpret various texts, events, and artifacts according to a wider "context" (whether this be described as "historical," "social," or "cultural") to which these phenomena remain unbreakably tied. A "context" such as outlined by Miller would of course need to be accorded a basic level of coherence for the analysis to get underway. Furthermore, insofar as—for Miller—this "context" would thereby establish a more or less generalizable framework within which might be understood the shaping of identity in particular instances, thus facilitating rather traditional ways of determining objects of cognition and knowledge, it could be considered to work so as to reanimate conventional ideas of the "self" or "agency." In assuming that there is always a "context" for every "text," in a way that could be comprehended in the above terms, a cultural studies of the kind described by Miller would reinstall the particular as an expression or exemplar of a more clearly determined situation or setting (history, nation, culture, society, ideology), which, in turn, might be considered to fuel critical misrecognition or reduction of the effects and implications of "transnationality" or "globalization." Furthermore, in this case, the [End Page 89] supposed exemplarity of the particular in its identity with the general would inevitably tend to prompt an account, as Miller himself puts it, of the "production in a subject or subjectivity of an identity" produced by a culture, whether it be hegemonic or minority: the assumed culture of a nation-state or, as is more often emphasized nowadays, a subculture existing in some sort of relation to more dominant cultural practices and trends. In addition to this reinscription of knowledge in relation to the human subject, the founding of a certain kind of cultural study upon longstanding models of cognition, as described above, would reestablish cultural studies practitioners working in this way as themselves knowing subjects. From this perspective, then, Miller would doubtless see certain aspects of the critical landscape of cultural studies—its not infrequent commitment to "identity politics" over the years, its shift of emphasis toward the participatory agency of subjects within contemporary popular culture, even some versions of the debate about the ethics of cultural studies—as set up to reinstall the coextensivity of subjects of knowledge and knowing subjects in a way that would depend uncritically on deeply structured relations of reference, identity, and agency.

Miller therefore views cultural studies as, in the last analysis, based on a rather unquestioning reversion to more orthodox humanistic...