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  • Unknowing Barbara
  • Lee Edelman (bio)

There's something you should know about Barbara Johnson. Something you don't know. Something you can't know. Something that's hidden in plain sight. And Johnson, though never possessing that knowledge, indicates, time and time again, both its utter impossibility and the impossibility of ceasing to utter it—the impossibility that generates time as always already time again, as allegorical temporality, as the compulsion (implicit in the phrase "you should know") to repeat our failure to know it and to call that failure knowledge itself. There's something you should know about Barbara Johnson, and it's something I'm here not to tell you. For telling, as Johnson allows us to see, obscures the unmasterable relation between what's told and the act of telling it. It distracts our attention, in other words, from something else always at work in its words to complicate or confound it, something we've come to identify as the rhetorical, the performative, or the literary, but something to which Johnson, by way of reference to Freud, gives another name as well: "Freud called this something the death instinct, but this death instinct is to be understood as what ceaselessly escapes the mastery of understanding and the binary logic of opposition by exhibiting some 'other' logic one can neither totally comprehend nor exclude." To which she then goes on to add: "Any statement that affirms, while using a logic different from the logic of binary opposition, will necessarily not conform to binary notions of 'clarity'" ["Nothing Fails Like Success" 13].

Now consider the opening sentences of the headnote to the Norton Anthology of Criticism's selection from Barbara Johnson's work, a headnote that situates Johnson with the anonymous authority of a knowledge from on high, of the sujet supposé savoir, though that subject here, like its object, is Barbara Johnson, who wrote it herself: "Barbara Johnson is known as a translator in various senses of the word. She is the celebrated translator of Jacques Derrida's Dissemination; and she is also one of the earliest and most interesting translators of structuralist and poststructuralist theory into literary insights. Often praised for her 'lucidity' and 'clarity,' she has nevertheless emphasized, again and again, the unavoidability and necessity of linguistic complexity and difficulty in formulating intractable problems."1 Though this seems, on the face of it, clear enough, don't let that obscure its obscurity. For Johnson acknowledges—or confesses, or laments—that she's "often praised" for a "clarity" to which, as the earlier passage makes clear, the statements in deconstructive texts "will necessarily not conform." Are Johnson's texts not deconstructive then? Is her logic really binary? Or is some "other" logic operative here when she clearly affirms that deconstructive affirmations necessarily won't seem clear?

To see this obscurity more clearly—to see it more clearly, that is, as obscurity—let me translate Johnson's comments into the logical pattern of a syllogism, although Johnson herself reminds us that "what is most radical in deconstruction" is precisely its incompatibility with familiar structures of binary logic ["Nothing" 12]. Describing that incompatibility, she writes, "while traditionalists say that a thing cannot be both A and not-A, deconstructors open up ways in which A is necessarily but unpredictably [End Page 89] already different from A" [14]. Let me frame this account of deconstruction as the major premise of a syllogism: "All deconstructive statements or texts affirm through a logic different from that of binary opposition.'" Johnson, in discussing the death instinct, has already provided our minor premise: "All statements or texts that affirm through a logic not that of binary opposition 'will necessarily not conform to binary notions of "clarity."'" Syllogistic logic, then, clearly affirms an inevitable conclusion: "All deconstructive statements or texts 'will necessarily not conform to binary notions of "clarity."'" But if this is so, why is Johnson herself "often praised" for being clear? Just what does she have in common with the logical clarity of a syllogism despite her repeated insistence on "linguistic complexity and difficulty"?

Well, for one thing, she shares a name. My syllogism belongs to the type that's been known, since...