- Are Parody and Deconstruction Secretly the Same Thing?
Does the principal purpose of Sec [Derrida’s pet name for his essay “Signature Event Context”] consist in being true? In stating the truth?
And what if Sec were doing something else? 1
As these teasing questions hint, deconstruction does not aspire in a straightforward way to be a discourse of truth. It is interested in questions of truth, but it does not pursue them in the direct, serious, and analytic fashion of speech-act philosophers like John R. Searle or of traditional hermeneutics. In the subjunctive voice, it might be “doing something else,” but what? Derrida goes on to outline his essay’s (and philosophy’s) uneasy relationship with truth, exclaiming “How is it possible to miss the point that Sec, from one end to the other, is concerned with the question of truth, with the system of values associated with it, repeating and altering that system, dividing and displacing it in accordance with the logical force of the iter, which ‘ties repetition to alterity.’” 2 Repetition, alteration, iterability: these doublings and distortions of truth into language are what fascinate Derrida, rather than truth as essence or truth as brute fact. He looks at the effect of truth in language with the eye of neither an idealist nor an empiric, but a parodist. Long ago, Gregory L. Ulmer argued that “part of the difficulty of Derrida’s oeuvre is that it may be the first fully developed theory ever couched in the parodic mode.” 3 Much in Derrida’s work demonstrates the accuracy of this perception. However, I want in this essay to take this point further and to turn it around, to argue that Derridean deconstruction is not just a (serious) theory couched in a parodic mode (that it is a parodic theory of language), but also that it treats language and questions of truth and reference as if they were already in a play of parody (that it is a theory of parodic language). Though some recent work is beginning to look at ways of taking it less “seriously,” 4 this is decidedly not the way it has generally been received in the academic community, so the first thing I have to do is to make a space for this argument in the context of thought about deconstruction. [End Page 673]
I. The Range of Deconstruction
Deconstruction can, among other things, be read as a rethinking of Western philosophy, or as a rhetoric of textuality and absence. I take the second path because I am not intellectually equipped to assess deconstruction as a challenge to philosophy, and I am temperamentally disinclined to believe either (a) that it is on the verge of destroying civilization as we have known it, or (b) that it is on the verge of creating new heaven and new earth, beyond logocentrism. So, for my purposes, deconstruction is a thoroughgoing rhetoric of traces and absences in language, a theory of textuality, and a powerful (if occasionally pointless) way of reading. This essay’s interest in it is tactical rather than fundamentalist, and the tactics that I will focus on are those connected with interpreting texts.
As a method of interpretation, deconstruction came to fame as a hostile way of disfiguring texts, as, according to Mark Edmundson’s persuasive argument, an attack by philosophy on literature. 5 In an act of hermeneutic violence, it sought to expose and exploit the gaps, blindnesses, contradictions, and aporias in texts that make naive claims to truth, beauty, reason, structure, progress, mimesis, and the like. Paradoxes, inconsistencies, and unconscious contradictions (conceived psychoanalytically, politically, or in a spirit of formalist rigor not wildly different from New Criticism) were exposed, especially in Romantic texts, and their implications were teased out in more or less tendentious ways. This seemed exciting in the 1970s and early 1980s, but employing a skeptical method to undermine texts which are naive about their truth claims is really rather easy, and it rapidly becomes repetitive. 6 A few of these deconstructions provided interesting and rigorous investigations of the terms of and biases in the production of meaning in texts. A lot lapsed into empty, odorless...