Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Danger of Deconstructionism

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Peter Brooks (comparative literature, Yale) has an essay called "The Ethics of Reading":

I've long been invested in the notion that teaching to read literature carefully, seriously, reflectively can be an ethical act. So I was shaken when I recently began the latest book of an author I admire very much, J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (labeled a novel, but much of it a diatribe against America's role in the world), and I came upon a passage on the prosecution of four young American Muslims accused of planning an attack on Disneyland. They were indicted, in part, on the basis of a home video so amateur and irrelevant that the prosecutor argued those very characteristics proved their link to Al Qaeda, where "nothing is as it seems to be."

"Where did the prosecutors learn to think in such a way?" Coetzee's fictional persona asks. "The answer: in literature classes in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, where they were taught that in criticism suspiciousness is the chief virtue, that the critic must accept nothing whatsoever at face value." The denunciation continues, criticizing "not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase," who, the book says, acquired "a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom, and an intuition that the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places."Is that right?

The question Coetzee raises relates to an issue obsessing me for five years now: the interpretations produced by the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice to defend the use of torture (by any other name). The infamous August 1, 2002, memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee to Presidential Counsel Alberto Gonzales (written, it is said, by John Yoo, now at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley) uses at least five different dictionaries, of varying dates, to select definitions of words it can then bend to its point, which is essentially that nothing is "torture" short of death-inducing pain. And even that can be excused by a good-faith belief it was not intended as torture.


The readings in the memo get yet more detailed and weird as it proceeds. It resonates at moments as a kind of parody of literary interpretive deconstruction at its worst.

It must be admitted that the lessons of deconstruction in the wrong hands — less adept than its original practitioners — led to facile untetherings of meaning. Nonetheless, the best, most responsible "close readings," whether by New Critics or structuralists or poststructuralists, were essentially ethical in their wish to understand how texts mean and how language works.


Must we who work in the interpretive humanities accept Coetzee's bitter condemnation of our role in the world? The "torture memos" suggest the pernicious effect of unscrupulous reading, whatever its origin. Can we affirm — as I hope we can — that our practice and pedagogy of reading leads our students to a reflective engagement with those "reasons assignable": with the tough and supple work of language in representing the world and clarifying its moral dilemmas? We need to ponder the ethics of our readings, urgently.

It is rather ironic, then, that Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory have used the tools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism to hack away at the idea of law as a neutral principle in order to excavate how law produces and reifies hierarchy and oppression along the axesf class, race, and gender. The myth of colorblindness and neutrality is just as dangerous as the myth that there is no truth to seek or no higher moral principle to be bound to.

While I do not deny that the elasticity and subjectivity of meaning is dangerous when used to justify evil, it is the evil that is to be abhorred, not merely the method of justification. Any method of justification would be so evil, even neutral, static principles of fixed meaning.

This is a mess of an article, and a debate. Prof. Carrie Menkel-Meadow has better formed, more articulate thoughts at Concurring Opinions. I will return to this issue later today.