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Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man.

According to David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, the study of literature is going to hell, one further sign of the end of the world and the collapse of Western civilization. The culprit is the pervasive concern for theory, by which Lehman means deconstruction, personified in the figure of Paul de Man. Lehman rehearses a number of old complaints: the poets suffer at the hands of the critics, who are very ungraciously usurping the rightful place of the poets; the professors are too professional and use too much jargon; theory is a nonsensical academic game; professors are seducing the impressionable young to this jazzy field of theory; and so on. We've heard these complaints before, but Lehman updates them, like a stock Renaissance play, with a cast of contemporary protagonists (de Man obviously, and Jacques Derrida, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Bruce Lincoln, et al.) and a quick-paced journalistic style.

Lehman goes about it like this: the first half of the book (five chapters) reviews the current field of theory in general, assigning nearly everything along the way the title of deconstruction; in a neat symmetry, the second half (likewise five chapters) folds back from this panoramic view, focusing almost exclusively on the case of Paul de Man. Lehman opens by surveying the seeming ubiquitous appearance of the term "deconstruction" in print, from newspaper stories to academic articles. He goes on to raise a red flag over the distinctly theoretical tenor of discourse in contemporary criticism, attributing it to deconstruction, as I've mentioned, and cursorily explains some of what he finds to be its tenets. In chapter 5, he goes on to suggest that deconstruction is what Suzanne Langer calls a "key idea" of our time, a leading intellectual fashion akin to existentialism in the 50s.

Skeletally, Lehman's claim for the pervasiveness of theory -- i. e., deconstruction -- seems a supportable, if arguable, sketch of what has occurred in literary studies over the past twenty years. It is no secret that theory has changed the institution of literature and that deconstruction has had a significant role in that change. However, what Lehman does with this argument, the terms in which he puts it and the way in which he carries it out, is anything but neutral. Finally, it is marred by a distinct aversion to and disdain for deconstruction, most obviously evidenced in his slanted rhetoric. To cite specific examples: Lehman repeatedly characterizes deconstruction by slurs, calling it a "fancy French mustard on the hot dog of a banal observation" (22), a cult (24), writing comparable to a bad senior essay (27), a "foppish French fashion" (48), a drug we should say no to (51), a product of "fanatics" who rely on mass psychology (72), an activity carried on by "terrorists" (77), and so on. In rare instances, Lehman does allow for a "soft" deconstruction, and says that it can sometimes open textual enigmas (120), but such moments are quickly swept over in the next rash of slanted polemic. What makes this kind of portrait particularly disturbing is Lehman's stance as an almost quizzical reporter, objectively telling about these strange things going on in the academy. He has an upbeat, falsely inquisitive style, asking questions like, "How to explain the cachet of deconstruction . . .?" A perfectly reasonable question, but that reasonableness turns out to be a ruse in the second half of the question: ". . . the way it has infiltrated public discourse?" With "infiltrated" -- a term characterizing deconstruction as a disease or virus -- and shortly thereafter answering that it is "French mustard," Lehman gives away any pretense of reportorial balance.

Further, Lehman makes egregiously broad generalizations about and serious charges against deconstruction from scant evidence, examples out of context, dubious anecdotes, and vague sources. He elides the many different positions and arguments in theory into his catch-all bin of deconstruction. At different moments, he mentions feminism, structuralism, reader response, Marxism, new historicism, and Foucauldianism as all in the same camp. One does not have to read very far in theory to know that these various positions stand for very different things, and that they are frequently opposed to one another's views.

To back up his claims, Lehman is prone to invoke phrases such as: "Many observers think . . .," "Deconstructionists have a reputation for . . .," "one senses . . .," or "One hears . . .," which work to give his report an air of authority without providing any hard evidence or thorough analysis. His individual sources are usually unnamed (for instance, portentously, "One literature professor who has taught at Yale . . ."), and his evidence seems to come from dubious personal anecdotes ("On another occasion, I went with a friend and fellow writer to the Temple of Zeus, a basement snack bar . . . at Cornell. We sat with two well-known deconstructors . . ." |58~). We've seen this kind of hatchet job before, in Roger Kimball's alarmist account of the academy in Tenured Radicals, or in John Ellis's more reasoned but still slanted polemic, Against Deconstruction. Parenthetically, I find it a perverse irony that those who champion the waning or lost values of scholarship and cogent argument never seem to worry about the normal protocols of proof in making damning statements about what goes on in universities and criticism.

This isn't to say that one can't criticize theory and, by extension, the profession of literature. As I've mentioned, the field certainly is not closed off from frequent and lively debate. To demonstrate the possibility of informed and genuinely critical argument, I would cite Paisley Livingston's Literary Knowledge as a welcome counter-example. Livingston patiently and learnedly locates several central problems in current criticism and argues for solutions on the rationalist model of the philosophy of science. One might take exception to Livingston's argument, but at least he works out his points in a thorough and knowledgeable way.

The second part of Signs of the Times shifts gears to an examination of the career of Paul de Man, focusing on his wartime writings and the reactions to their discovery a few years ago. There are the by now familiar slurs here -- quick invocations of and comparisons to Waldheim, Hitler, and Heidegger -- and the usual sneers at the expense of practitioners of deconstruction, but this section of the book seems fuller and gives a good bit more of the journalistic information. Still, what I find most objectionable is its implied argument: de Man wrote in a collaborationist journal, de Man wrote an article making explicitly anti-semitic statements, de Man is a leading figure in deconstruction, deconstruction is a leading critical theory; therefore, de Man was a Nazi, akin to a war criminal, deconstruction is fascist, and theory is condemnable. An elementary logical analysis will show that this line of induction is fallacious and even pernicious. Nevertheless, implication and innuendo have irreversibly altered the public perception of de Man and of the place and value of theory. To make an analogy that Lehman, an actively publishing poet, might take to heart, this would be akin to condemning all of modern poetry because of the venerable T. S. Eliot's not very masked anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound's blatant fascism and treason.

Lehman's vandalizing of the idea of deconstruction and his condemnation of de Man are particularly unfortunate because a sensible popular account of current trends in theory, one that explains theory to lay audiences, would be very useful and serve to dispel the air of obfuscation surrounding literary studies. For one thing, it would help answer the question, often shrouded in mystery, of what we do in literature departments and as literary professionals. It would also allay fears that we are dispensing with the great books for the sake of trendy imported fashions. Overall, it would correct many misrepresentations -- from cliches, but more crucially from the recent spate of slurs on "political correctness." These slurs adversely affect what we do professionally, in the material form of governmental funding, grants, and so on, as well as in the less quantifiable form of reputation and public image.

By the same token, a brief non-academic biography of de Man, tracing his career, would be of immense value. Such a project would not only be helpful in clarifying the many gross mischaracterizations now circulating, but it would also present an illuminating case study of an exemplary academic career. This story is by turns about a post-World War II European emigre to the American Academy; a key figure in the institutional rise of critical theory; and an influential professor who drew a loyal and even devoted following. It would also tell us something about the economy of intellectual reputation and about the ways in which such reputations rise and fall, inside and outside the academy. Unfortunately, Signs of the Times is not that book.

Although the specific targets of Lehman's book are deconstruction and de Man, at heart it is underwritten by a severe anti-professionalism. To put it in a slightly different way, Lehman's real problem is not with deconstruction per se, but with the professional tenor of literary studies. For Lehman, "|l~iterature and literary criticism were both perhaps healthier when the accreditation system was less formalized and the field was home to 'mavericks'" (87). While this sounds appealing -- it feeds into a certain kind of nostalgia that projects a simpler, halcyon time, before the bustle of modern life -- one would only have to look at New Grub Street to see that the "maverick" system might not have been especially healthy or that Lehman's nostalgic conjecture is not very accurate. He also bemoans the increasing specialization and the outmoding of the common reader (citing Irving Howe, 45) inherent in the professionalization of literature. Like the image of the "maverick" critic, this concept of the narrowing of literature is problematic. The reading public and the function of literature have changed considerably in history, and literature has rarely been "common" or anything close to democratic. To give one quick example, modernist literature was written for a decidedly elite audience and explicitly directed against a middle class one, aiming to exclude precisely the "common" reader. But Lehman isn't interested in points of fact; rather, he is more concerned with filling in his melodramatic picture of the Fall of Literature, of the halcyon days that have been corrupted by professionalization.

Now, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, antagonism against the professional coordinates of literature is nothing new. In a sense, we've heard it all before. However, what distinguishes Signs of the Times is its prominent place in the market at the current moment, in the current political climate. Published by a major commercial publisher (Poseidon is a division of Simon & Schuster) and marketed aggressively, it has had a significant impact on a large, college-educated audience, who might look at The New York Times Book Review and who would consider themselves literate and cultured. These people are, by and large, those who might give money to universities, sit on boards of trustees, and have access to governmental policies and power. With its slick veneer of knowledgeability, Signs of the Times serves to define the humanities for that public sphere. Its tacit message is not only that something is amiss, but also that something should be done to correct it. In a sense, Lehman prescribes a return to the so-called "Ivory Tower" version of the academy, to a time when critics acted like the good "appointed curators of literature" (86) that Lehman thinks they should be, dusting the monuments, rather than daring to question categories such as gender, authority, or power, or the social uses and functions of literature.

In this diagnosis and proposed cure, Lehman's book moves beyond being simply an unsympathetic exposition of deconstruction or a typical anti-academic jeremiad; it becomes very much a political intervention that speaks to the role of (literary) intellectuals in our culture. The real stake is not which theories professors are teaching, but which roles they have, which place and position we have in the public sphere. Lehman sets up literary intellectuals as deconstruction-infected, thereby necessitating a call to quarantine their work, or rather to cauterize its potentially political thrust. In other words, and make no mistake about this, Signs of the Times is about suppression. To twist a Conrad line, it is about the suppression of the customs of the intellectual savages. I take this as an indeed unfortunate sign of the times, although not an irremediable one.
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Author:Williams, Jeffrey
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:2064
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