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1. Theory, Deconstruction, and the Yale Critics In the opening sentences of an early essay, “Force and Signification” (1963), Jacques Derrida imagines a figurative future beachscape strewn with signs: If it recedes one day, leaving behind its works and signs on the shores of our civilization, the structuralist invasion might become a question for the historian of ideas, or perhaps even an object. But the historian would be deceived if he came to this pass: by the very act of considering the structuralist invasion as an object he would forget its meaning and forget that what is at stake, first of all, is an adventure of vision, a conversion of the way of putting questions to any object posed before us, to historical objects—his own—in particular. And, unexpectedly among these, the literary object.1 The spent “structuralist invasion” lingers on as works and signs (oeuvres et signes); the historian of ideas objectifies this event, so as to know it as a subject knows an object. He thereby forgets the meaning of an invasion that has already invaded him and thought past him—past the Cartesian paradigm of the knowing subject and its world picture. The works and signs are traces of an act that questions how best to question “historical objects”; and as soon as the historian sets out to know such an act as one more such object, he mistakes what it is. Though Derrida does not say so explicitly, that predicament turns out to motivate the appearance of the “literary object” in the last sentence quoted above. The literary object does not appear on the beach—the flotsam is rather the wrecked record of the structuralist invasion’s “unexpected” effort to read (among other objects) the literary object—yet it shadows these membra disjecta. For Derrida’s essay, a respectful but sharp critique of Jean Rousset’s literary-critical study Forme et signification (1962), will find that the structuralist critic, like the beachcombing historian, erroneously converts an act into an object. “The force of the work, the force of genius, the force, too, 20 Theory, Deconstruction, and the Yale Critics of that which engenders in general, is precisely that which resists geometrical metaphorization and is the proper object of literary criticism” (20). But “a structuralist reading, by its own activity, always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book” (24); it “risks stifling force under form” (26). Its wreckage, washed up on the shore of history, passes a version of that error on to the historian of ideas. Derrida’s parable speaks richly to a would-be historian of theory in America. It does not say that histories of critical thought are impossible or should not be written, or even that they have to move beyond the formalizing mode of a “history of ideas” to be useful (in fact, “by virtue of the essential shadow of the undeclared, the structuralist phenomenon will deserve examination by the historian of ideas” [4]). But it reminds us how easily we slip into remembering such events by forgetting the impact that makes them memorable. The works and signs of an “invasion”solicit narrative ; and theory, so frequently caricatured as an invasion from France in American polemics, has often enough been flattened into a history of falsely objectified ideas, dangling one after the other like beads on the string of a homogenous temporal and communicational medium. Admittedly, the historian of theory faces an even more recalcitrant and evanescent historical object than that offered by structuralism (which itself, from the perspective of the historian of theory, becomes an appendage to the history of theory). Whereas “structuralism” names a reasonably identifiable if diverse intellectual movement, “theory” does not. The heterogeneity of the texts to which it makes reference is such that its meaning threatens to wither away. A broad-brush account such as François Cusset’s French Theory inevitably processes its titular subject into an empty signifier, “no longer designating anything but its own aptitude for dissemination, its sheer power of contamination.”2 The problem of telling a history of theory, furthermore, goes beyond both the difficulty of resisting the temptation to objectify the act that puts objectification into question, on the one hand, and the challenge of describing a diffuse and diverse phenomenon, on the other. “Theory” never functioned simply as an empty descriptor. The word itself was embarrassing, and often appeared protected by inverted commas, little compulsive flickers of irony; its emptiness came laced with affect and performative...


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