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  • The Fatality of Readings: de Man, Gasché, and the Future of Deconstruction
  • James O’Rourke (bio)

This will in fact be the task of literary criticism in the coming years.

—Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (17)

The most familiar account of the history of deconstruction in America is probably the one that describes the domestication of the radical force of Derrida’s work as deconstruction was transformed, primarily by de Man and his Yale colleagues, into a method of literary criticism. While a benign version of this story would allow that some deconstructive principles have been absorbed into cultural studies and the new historicism, the presumption remains of a binary opposition between what is potentially valuable, radical and authentically Derridean about deconstruction and its use as technique of literary criticism. This belief, which sustains the ease with which deconstructive criticism has been marginalized in literary study in the last decade, depends upon an unexamined foreclosure of de Man’s argument for the category of “literature” as a privileged site of the “critique of metaphysics” (1979, 15). This foreclosure, in turn, depends upon the mistaken identification of the concept of “literature” with an empirically determinate field, yet even a passing familiarity with de Man’s work should make it clear that, for his purposes, not every text that begins “Once upon a time” qualifies as “literature,” while one that opens with the seemingly factual claim that “Man was born free and is everywhere in chains” might well involve an ironic evacuation of the metaphysical underpinnings of the field of political theory.

The decline of de Man’s critical fortunes has coincided with an increasing visibility accorded to the work of Rodolphe Gasché, whose chastisement of deconstructive literary critics for their supposed “miscomprehension of deconstruction in the strict sense” (1986, 3) has helped to justify the marginalizing of deconstructive literary criticism [End Page 49] at the same time that Gasché has provided a more respectable public face for deconstruction as an advanced form of philosophy than did the proliferation of the “technically correct rhetorical readings” (de Man 1986, 19) which characterized de Manian deconstruction. Gasché’s identification of the “infrastructures” that supposedly organize Derrida’s work and define the “systematism of deconstruction” as a “coherent theoretical configuration” (Gasché 1986, 124) leads him to charge deconstructive literary critics with not having done the necessary “preparatory steps” (1986, 255) with these infrastructures to enable them to “lay claim to the title” of being “deconstructive in the eminent sense” (1986, 3). One Gaschean critic has spelled out the implications of Gasché’s critique in no uncertain terms; as Jeffrey Nealon has argued, “assuming that Gasché is correct,” the reform of deconstruction would demand far more than deconstructive critics coming to a better understanding of the principles behind their interpretive practices. If, as Gasché and Nealon claim, Derrida’s work represents the most advanced form of a postmodern critique of a logocentric tradition, this teleological view of history calls into question “the value of critical projects that aim at simply rereading the tradition from another point of view (such as the deconstructive one)” (Nealon 1992, 1267–8).

Relegating deconstructive literary criticism to the role of an aberrational epiphenomenon would be entirely justified if we could assume, as Nealon asks, that Gasché is right about the inadequate Derrideanism of a literary, or de Manian, deconstructive critical practice. If the unending parataxis that ensues from de Man’s arguments that “the possibility of reading can never be taken for granted” (de Man 1983, 107), yet “this act is being systematically avoided” (de Man 1986, 15) is based on the superficial appropriation of a few Derridean principles that literary critics have, in their philosophical ignorance, detached from the philosophical context which alone determines their significance, then Gasché’s focus on the “infrastructures” of Derrida’s work offers a systematic explanation for de Man’s confessed habit of seeming to “always start again from scratch” in essays whose “conclusions fail to add up to anything” (de Man 1984, viii). These reflective comments on the essays collected in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, where de Man acknowledges a “failure to make the individual readings coalesce,” become, from a Gaschean perspective, not...

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