- Baptismal Eulogies: Reconstructing Deconstruction From The Ashes
I. Burials Past & Faster
“The true wretchedness . . . is particular, not diffuse.”1 So begins Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” one of many Poe tales which has found its way to the movie screen as a British Hammer production, becoming in the transition all lurid technicolor drapes and heaving white bosoms. Of course, the movie version defers the prematurity of the burial as long as possible and finds its climax—as we knew it would—in the crypt with the heroine reacting in hyperbolic horror to the “true wretchedness” of her premature burial. The premature burial.
Or so the film version would have it. One irony (among so many) of the film’s misreading of the story is the slavish attention paid to that little word “The.” Poe’s story in fact begins with accounts of several premature burials, the better to establish ethos for the premise of his story, to grant it “verisimilitude,” (to mix Russian with American horror). Poe knows that, by supplying various examples, the particular will become credible; will even, through the sleight-of-hand of logic, become the exemplar of those examples. The premature burial—the exemplary, or “standard” premature burial.
And yet Poe realized that, while the logos of his story might rest on the general structure of inductive reasoning, its “single effect”—that which Poe believed defined a successful short story—resided not in the conceptual accumulation of generalized (as in “made vague”) instances, but rather in the specific image of the narrator—“man the unit”—undergoing the individualized tortures of being buried alive. These seemingly opposite requirements—that an example be representative, yet somehow unique—are what we might term the paradox of exemplarity. More about this paradox in the section on Derrida’s Cinders.
But in fact the greatest irony of Hammer’s “adaptation” of Poe’s story is that in “The Premature Burial” there is no the premature burial at all; the narrator misreads the signs of temporary confinement for those of eternal interment. And in much the same fashion, the Academy in general (as in “widely but not completely”) have misread—with a haste usually reserved for cholera victims—the “signs” of the death of deconstruction and the interment of Derridean criticism.
In fact, the stampede to denounce deconstruction has been so precipitous as to trample on the venerable traditions of mourning; and this, in a profession where Tradition is the constant specter, the incorruptible monument. The “mourners” at deconstruction’s graveside have skipped right over the Eulogy and proceeded, with undisguised glee, to the Obloquy—the stage of hypercriticism which would normally follow burial by a respectable period of reassessment; a stage generally (as in “popularly”) arrived at gradually, reluctantly and sincerely.
Emeritus Yalie C. Van Woodward blithely writes of deconstruction’s “brief and tormented” history.2 Jonathan Yardley suggests, to everyone who will publish, that deconstruction has breathed its “last gasp.” And in a viciously enthusiastic (and woefully inaccurate) article supposedly “debunking” deconstruction, poet David Lehman argues from the premise that “the fortunes of deconstruction as an academic phalanx have declined,” using as spokesmodels everyone from Robert “Iron Man” Bly to “former” deconstructionist Barbara Johnson.3
While it may seem shooting ducks in a barrel to attack the rusty dreadnaughts of Old Criticism like Woodward and Yardley (and Lehman), in fact the ranks of crocodile mourners are not limited to these scholastic neo-conservatives; they simply gloat the loudest.
After all, “ex” deconstructionist Barbara Johnson did indeed give a talk entitled “The Wake of Deconstruction” at last summer’s School of Theory and Criticism at Dartmouth College. Recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the MLA Newsletter speak of deconstruction in the assured past tense. And, however thoroughly the word “deconstruction” is disseminated in the academic and even public discourse, the Yale School rarely uses the “D-word” anymore.4 Even those in favor of a reconstruction...