BOOK REVIEWS (2014): J.M. Ellis’s (1984) Against Deconstruction

3 August 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[2] Against Deconstruction

At this point, I have perhaps allowed too much time to pass since finishing my reading of this book to remember the specific points I might have made about it.

A key contribution by it involves its disclosure of the intellectual roots of deconstruction that deconstructionists deny in order to make deconstruction seem fresh and new or revolutionary. Ellis makes clear, for instance, how Derrida (deliberately or ignorantly) misreads Saussure and then his (Derrida’s) epigones parrot that position grievously and garishly incorrectly, &c. In general, Ellis almost literally skins the cat of deconstruction and shows that it comprised (comprises) more a balloon of a cat than a cat.

Two things Ellis does not do, however. His psychologising of deconstructionist practitioners seems a bit beside the point insofar as it “blames” the individual for wanting to impart a sense of momentousness to the practice. He cites, as does Eagleton (1984)[3]—to say nothing of others—how deconstruction arose in a French context where an assertion about the unitary and monolithic character of literature had actual institutional support in the French Academy; a fact that nowhere exists in the US academy, such that deconstruction got received here as simply one more trick up one’s sleeve. But, unlike Eagleton, he less emphasizes the institutional implications of this.

At least I remember it that way. I read both books proximately to one another, but I most of all remember Ellis remarking on the psychology of deconstruction while Eagleton, not surprisingly, focuses more on the institutional history that the stuff occurs within. And neither of them—though Eagleton to a vastly lesser degree—seems to explicitly connect this to the “postmodern turn” in general.[4] But however much I’m misrepresenting Eagleton here, Ellis certainly spends the overwhelming amount of his time, when he addresses himself to the issue, examining the psychological motives of deconstructionists; he analyses its practitioners, rather than the setting of its practice.

In a vague way, to the extent that Ellis stands for a kind of common sense view of literature, meaning, and the like—a position that seems undamaged by such a characterisation, however much he complicates or articulates his position—he likely stands against the trends of postmodernism that permit (or that seem to permit) one to “say anything about anything”. As he notes more than once, this sort of premise means, therefore, the corollary that nothing means anything.

Again, because he does not fully articulate his position but exposes deconstruction in a reductio ad absurdum, only by cherry-picking his book would one arrive at his general position about the function of criticism, what a critic can claim vis-à-vis a text, and the like. A primary complaint of his involves debunking the claim that deconstruction does anything radically new or different and, in this respect, the strongly conservative and reactionary elements in deconstruction bear highlighting, since they make for a very cogent political reason to stand opposed to it.

But all of this points to the wider problem of postmodernism, not in the way that it dismantles any pretence or hope of (critical) consensus about meaning—this makes for a separate and pressing problem—but the way that postmodernism sits so felicitously within the academic culture industry. To put it bluntly: since capitalism requires an endless stream of new commodity for consumption, to the point that (or at the points where) postmodernism licenses the slogan “anything can mean anything”, then the production of endless streams of “academic” (in the most negative sense) work becomes possible. One may (or must) seriously entertain the notion of a study of eggs in Shakespeare’s late sonnets and the like. And, rather than a richness of view upon a single object (however we construe the literary “thing”) that constantly serves to disclose some kernel of the piece (recall: this is how science purports to proceed with that “thing” called the universe), we wind up instead with a mountain of self-cancelling observations that guarantee nothing but future iterations of more of the same.

Another of the things this guarantees, as Ellis makes clear: bad scholarship (or, less politely, a very low bar for academic talent and work). Part of the race to the bottom and the dumbing down of the United States becomes visible here; if one can say anything about anything and no criteria exist to judge such assertions, then academic work takes on a merely two-fold significance: it becomes self-aggrandizing for the author and masturbatory (if not pornographic) for the reader.

But even to say this still sidesteps the institutional support—particularly in the United States—that postmodernism has, where deconstruction offers little more than a style of propagation more than any serious intellectual endeavour, as Ellis makes clear over and over. In other words, notwithstanding Ellis’ own claims about what can and cannot happen in critical studies, his complaint about the illegitimacy of deconstruction does so without objecting to the milieu that supports his sort of criticism. He construes deconstruction as a bogus for of postmodernism, while his own tacit postmodernism (admittedly of a different type) needn’t bear up to scrutiny. And this, particularly as it remains buried within institutional structures.

Specifically, he notes that deconstruction in the United States could hardly offer anything revolutionary. Its opposition to monolithic, monologic meanings seems merely strident and silly in a context where a multiplicity of approaches has long prevailed (for a set of historical reasons not at all necessarily salutary). To put the matter too succinctly, in the US we laud “freedom” as the freedom to do whatever one likes—and if that means you like reading literature as a feminist, a racist, an anti-racist, a reader, a reader-response critic, an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, or whatever else, we have no objection whatsoever so long as the institution can co-opt and politically neutralize that gesture by making it into a commodity. In a different milieu, the pathetic example of the band Rage Against The Machine sold on Sony Records shows exactly how radically the culture industry can co-opt anything.

So deconstruction simply makes more visible what has already always played a key role in (US) academia, and the capitalist world generally, and all the more extensively with the advent of postmodernism. As a strategy, deconstruction demands a style that participates in the sort of destruction of the public sphere that Eagleton traces in his book (The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism). Multiple critics have noted the dogmatic insistence on language, for instance. Ellis underscores this as a gambit to keep the actual content of the contested terms away from analysis. I mean: if one proposes a distinction (in language), it typically becomes necessary to protect that distinction against misinterpretation (and thus misuse), but this fact does not mean that deconstructionist’s insistence on their term actually protects such a distinction. In fact, since deconstruction insists that all interpretation is misinterpretation, it becomes incoherent to insist that its own mysterious use of a term could warrant itself while anyone else’s does not. Ellis observes this tactic seems an especially common fault in the United States.

But what he does not emphasise in this involves how this belligerent insistence on terminology analogises with a belligerent insistence on one’s own point of view to the detriment of anyone else’s. If every time you try to contend with my point of view I reply, in some way or another, with, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t (or can’t) understand,” then besides the human offense of this, this represents an attempt at power over that obviously links to how political power forms (itself). In a US context, it dovetails with the “Freedom means I can do whatever I want” ideology, which particularly means I don’t have to pay attention to you (or give you any credence as an existent being) if I don’t want to. And if I have the money (or the power) to do it, then I also get to control the discourse and say so.

One could go on much more about this, but the second thing Ellis eschews involves any criticism of his relentlessly rationalism-as-common-sense presentation. Many times, he exposes the intellectual incoherence of deconstruction, and this makes for welcome exposition. But while this “logical” analysis succeeds in ably exposing the egregious failings of deconstruction, he so overemphasises it—or, perhaps more properly, because he seems to see or imagine no other mode besides this particularly variety of the “rational”—that he often winds up sounding carping. If you have ever read a critique of “rationalism” that laments or lambastes the sterility, pointlessness, or inadequacy of a “purely rational” approach but could not understand why the author seemed to pitch such a tizzy, then Ellis’ book may provide you a test case of such.

Ultimately, this problem rests on the same sort of thing that Ellis so ably explodes on the side of deconstruction. What he (correctly) objects to amounts to an illegitimate substitution, but we find exactly the same kind of illegitimate substitution at work in his insistence that “reason” can establish anything. On a much broader scale, this reprises the perennial (Occidental) philosophical convulsion between “positivism” (of some variety) and “scepticism” that Putnam has characterised as 3,000 years of naïve realism. In entering into and allowing the “play” of this contention, what disappears involves the power and warrant of those allowed to speak, whether the deconstructionists on one side claiming everything means anything or someone like Ellis on the other, claiming that things do, in fact, mean in particular ways, &c.

And they do, because of some consensus, whether we’ve arrived at that consensus through some “fair” process—which Eagleton tentatively characterises[5] in terms of the public sphere in the book I keep citing in this blog—or by a “loaded” (self-perpetuating) process, which we see the work of at the very least when we note the white supremacy of the United States. This doesn’t mean Ellis’ desire for a certain level of work already guarantees undesirable hierarchical processes of power but only that the implementation of it so far, historically speaking, has done so. Deconstruction, similarly, in principal offers an alternative to this sort of entrenched process, but its historical implementation has not worked out justly—most of all, it would seem, because the institutional forces of capitalism corrupt human intention to its own ends.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[3] Eagleton, T. (1984). The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism: London: Verso.

[4] I feel like this must mischaracterise Eagleton’s position. Or, perhaps more accurately, it raises the issue in a particular way that ignores in general how Eagleton addresses it in his book. This, in any case, makes for an issue in that reply not this one; so I defer the point.

[5] I say tentatively characterizes, because he at no point suggests that the political reality of the late-1800s permitted literally anyone to participate in the public sphere; rather, the public sphere took as a blinkered premise that, in principal, anyone could participate in the public sphere. What this meant in practice—i.e., who actually did and was permitted to participate in the public sphere—differed markedly from the actual pool of “anyones” in England at the time.

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