Poststructuralism and Its Discontents
- Paul ArdoinPaul ArdoinDepartment of English, University of Texas at San Antonio
Deconstruction and poststructuralism have profoundly shaped popular and academic thought, while also drawing both popular and academic resistance, and doing so (strangely) consistently over decades. In particular, deconstruction and poststructuralism (and their synecdoche—the capital-T “Theory”) are viewed as sources of existential peril to English studies, where their impact has been indelibly tied to a canon expansion that takes seriously—and particularly—the contributions of women, people of color, queer people, and others. Detractors often reduce poststructuralism to its -ism—making of it a stagnant force of destabilizing chaos or a hopelessly unproductive and apolitical form of theoretical play. Dogmatic enthusiasts often become similarly reductive. Thinkers like Barbara Johnson and fiction writers like Percival Everett exemplify and advocate for a brand of deconstructive self-critique in which we: avoid allowing our enthusiasm or opinions to harden into any -ism (even when the enthusiasm is for, say, undecidability); embrace (in fact, seek) opportunities of confrontation with ignorance in our own thought; and recognize the potential value of upheaval in our real-world practices. Such self-critique is far from an existential peril to central values of English studies; it is, in fact, something not unlike the “critical thinking” valued and marketed by the Humanities.
As soon as any radically innovative thought becomes an ism, its specific groundbreaking force diminishes, its historical notoriety increases, and its disciples tend to become more simplistic, more dogmatic, and ultimately more conservative, at which time its power becomes institutional rather than analytical.1
He would, in his philosophical mode, have liked to claim an infinite number of interpretations, but as is the case with most theories, application is a bit of a sticky wicket.2
Though it pains me to say it, a certain Frenchman was correct.3
To describe poststructuralism or deconstruction today is inevitably to do so in inextricable concert with the critiques—fair or unfair—of poststructuralism and deconstruction (which have often been reduced to mere synonyms). Perhaps fittingly, these critiques have multiplied, becoming just as widespread and diffuse as the influence of poststructuralist thought itself, though (in most cases) not nearly as inventive and productive as the more enthusiastic poststructuralist inheritors, who have used the creative energy of deconstruction to challenge our understandings of race, sex, gender, and so much else. A quick scan through American AM radio bands will still find religious and political ideologues holding forth about the dangers of a cartoonish (as described) postmodernism, intent on destroying all meaning and unleashing a chaos of relativism—a strangely long-lasting critique of poststructuralist thought, impervious to correction or more nuanced explanation of the work of figures such as Jacques Derrida.4 Such explicit resistance has diminished in American academia, which has long since variously absorbed or ignored the lessons of poststructuralism—or sometimes both absorbed and ignored those lessons, as evidenced by the surprising number of academics who claim they do not “get,” say, Derrida and do not “do” theory but regularly recognize, cite, and attempt to expose stagnant and dangerous truths or practices, highlight the arbitrary structures or webs of power behind them, and reveal the assumptions and presuppositions surrounding them and the contradictions and tensions within them. That is, they continue to do the work of structuralism, deconstruction, and poststructuralism, even as they claim that work’s independence from such “Theory.”
A Crisis in English Studies
Academia has certainly seen its own share of (quite well-known) attacks on deconstruction, the perceived obscurity of its central texts and writers, its perceived attacks on—but also its perceived appropriations of—science, and the amorality and chaos it supposedly invites.5 Among the most well-known Theory (or “High Theory”) takedowns of its day, Walter Jackson Bate’s “The Crisis in English Studies” sees in “deconstructionism” nothing less than “intellectual emptiness,” contributing significantly to English departments’ “potentially suicidal movement”: “the profession sprawls, without its old center, in helpless disarray.”6 Deconstructionists, of course, could not but have a field day with Bate’s anxiety about a missing “center,” particularly as his center and its “whole cultural heritage” explicitly exclude course and panel topics that draw attention to specific groups within that whole culture.7 As is now common practice in such complaints about the state of the profession, Bate recounts a list of Modern Language Association (MLA) conference panel topics and university course titles that he claims make English departments “a laughingstock in the national press”: “‘Deconstruction as Politics,’ ‘Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Texas,’ ‘The Trickster Figure in Chicano and Black Literature’”—all are too “specialized” and represent a dangerous “fragmentation.”8
The enemies to Bate’s center—it becomes clear—are not only those deconstructionists itching to chip away at a White, male, Harvard professor’s idea of a cultural center, but also a range of particular experiences, traditions, concerns, and voices (and the very idea that there could be a range of traditions valuable to English studies). It is this particularity that Bate insists is the threat here, despite the rather screaming implications one would draw (and many have) from his sample list of threats-from-within. Bate makes clear that it is actually in the spirit of inclusivity and “liberal-minded[ness]” that he fears particular subjects being “torn from [broad human] context and treated in isolation”:
Women writers who had worked, with pride, in larger literary traditions,
were snatched arbitrarily—whether major or minor—and a field overnight was created in ‘women’s studies.’ The militant exclusiveness in focus of ethnic literatures is too well known to need comment, as is the sadness that excellent literature, among all minorities, should be treated in the isolation that liberal-minded people deplore. ‘Gay’ studies were presented in courses.9
The isolation of such course topics is, for Bate, an act of tearing them away from a larger human literary tradition. Most of us will count as “too well known to need comment” the likelihood that “Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Texas” and Chicano trickster figures were not actually staples of the larger human literary tradition seen fit for inclusion in Bate’s undergraduate survey courses but were simply not covered at all—ignored until they dared to draw attention to themselves on the margins of Bate’s center just in time for him to offer a liberal-minded lament that those excellent works of literature had been snatched to isolation.
Deconstruction, argues Bate, actually revels in isolation, preferring to claim “elite status by constructing a special, allusive [and elusive] vocabulary” that “runs counter to the healthful, anti-jargonistic stance of literary studies at their best.”10 His attitude, then, is a democratic one, welcoming all to disappear within the healthful center that “belongs to all of us” rather than drawing attention and national press laughter by standing in isolation.11 Deconstruction, in this view, is undemocratic, “elite,” segregationist, “nihilistic,” sneakily gaining entrance into the profession because most are “intimidated by it”—too “naïve” to recognize the “kindergarten”-level thought of its hyperspecialist, elusive elites.12 Bate ends on a high note, though: he and his colleagues have made Harvard’s graduate English program a bulwark for democracy. “As never before,” he promises, they “are attempting to instill antibodies against pressures or fads that can lead to trivialization” or the various other dangerous professional infections he has catalogued.13
One Poststructuralist Reader’s Response
To Stanley Fish, the world Bate obviously wishes to recover and make great again, “the state Bate associates with earlier and happier days,” is one from which “any number of worlds and activities will have to be excluded. There shall be no blacks, no gays, no Chicanos, no filmmakers, no journalists, no women,” and so on.14 “The enormous expansion of colleges and universities after World War II” brought into the academy “men and women of every religious, ethnic, national, and sexual persuasion from every possible social class.”15 Fish argues that this is a significant part of Bate’s real “lament”:
What he objects to (and in these circumstances, it is all that he can object to) is the tendency of these men and women to comport themselves as gays, blacks, Chicanos, and so forth rather than as literary persons who just happen to be of a certain race, sex, or color. That is, the social diversity of the members of the literary community would be tolerable if their differences were subordinated to some general project, to some ideal that was not particularized in any way that corresponded to the interests and concerns of this or that group.16
And if those differences are not subordinated, Bate fears we will “have abandoned general and abiding truths” because we “insist, instead, on bringing into the canon (no longer the canon) texts produced by hitherto excluded groups.”17 Bate, in a later response, argues that Fish “condemns me of being antiblack, antifeminist, and so forth . . . [by plucking] out some remarks from a small part of” Bate’s essay and “removing a few sentences from context.”18 Bate instead encourages the reader to “judge me by what I said rather than by what he inferred or magnified.”19 On the topic of deconstruction, however, Bate does admit a prejudice (one much more acceptable for a liberal-minded person to hold): he had been “testy and unfairly dismissive” in the “short paragraph on deconstructionism” (which was actually two paragraphs, and not noticeably shorter than most others in his essay). Some fresh “close study of Culler’s recent books helped to change my perspective,” Bate reports, and that new study “encouraged me to consider the subject with a less prejudiced mind. Accordingly, I wish I had omitted that paragraph.”20 Bate is willing, on second thought, to remove deconstruction from his list of perils to English studies. Unprejudiced and liberal-minded, Bate holds with his original statements about the sadness-inducing isolation of the “excellent literature [of] minorities.”21
By this point in his career, Fish (and poststructuralism-influenced authors of reader-response criticism more broadly) had already been accused of the same “nihilistic” kinds of views Bate finds in deconstruction.22 The fact that a nihilistic, deconstruction-adjacent thinker centers his critique of Bate so much around the question of excluded groups might at least justify Bate, then, in what may have otherwise seemed his surprising decision to align the threats posed to the center by deconstruction and diversity in the first place: it turns out that fragmentation, or at least multiplication and difference, can work as a sort of through line between deconstruction, reader-response, and social diversity.
“Poststructuralism” and “Deconstruction,” Part One
This is as good a place as any to begin to add some complexity to that typical reduction of deconstruction and poststructuralism to mere synonyms. We might imagine poststructuralism as working to draw the line from deconstruction to the social—applying deconstruction’s lessons to the problems of stability, unity, and power in daily lives. (And we might deconstruct that claim at the same time. The theorist of deconstruction might remind us that the line I have just imagined drawn by poststructuralism is, of course, a lie: deconstruction was never outside the social, the social was never outside deconstruction, and neither was ever outside text.)
Multiplying Crises in English Studies
Explicit resistance to poststructuralism is far more rare in American academia today than it is in certain contemporary religious and political discourses, but Bate’s poststructuralist theory→diversity→particularity through line still seems to have an astonishing lifespan within the academy. Read alongside Bate’s 1982 alumni magazine screed, a recent lament in The Chronicle of Higher Education strikes familiar chords. In “The End of Literary Studies?” Steven Kellman worries about “sustained, perhaps fatal, assault” on “the study of literature in American colleges and universities.”23 The Harvard antibodies have failed, it seems, because again English studies is “in crisis,” again “scholars have abrogated their role as custodians of the literary heritage.”24 Kellman cites several symptoms and causes. Like Bate he decries the economic and political forces that have panicked English departments into making what he views as self-destructive decisions, but again specialization, diversity, and theory (of the poststructuralist ilk) seem to intersect at a marginal point of peril for the canonical center:
To avoid extinction, disciplines must adapt and evolve. . . . Feminism, critical race theory, ecocriticism, reader-response theory, New Historicism, queer theory, and other approaches have made the 21st-century English department quite distinct from the one that formalists dominated in mid-century. The demographics of instructors and students has also changed dramatically. Courses in travel writing, science fiction, cookbooks, and other paraliterary genres are common. Topics such as Bollywood, Black Lives Matter, and Food as Cultural Capital would have made the fastidious Yale formalist William K. Wimsatt shudder.
Necrophilia, mermaids, and Australian cinema are no doubt worthy topics in themselves, but since life is short and academic years are not long enough, should they be supplanting Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton?25
Kellman’s assurance that these topics are “no doubt worthy” is perhaps his version of Bate’s liberal-mindedness,26 but where Bate mourns the particular attention in his list of apocalyptic panel titles and claims that he simply wants to include Chicano trickster figure lit in the tolerant center, Kellman seems to lament the fact that institutional attention is being paid at all to Bollywood films: there is a zero-sum game, he fears, and every moment spent on Bollywood is subtracted from the store of time one can spend on Shakespeare.27 One can only cover so much. Kellman will grant that Bollywood is surely “no doubt worthy” (of some attention, some time, by someone) but will also grant that its presence in the academic curriculum could reasonably be greeted by a shudder. Black Lives Matter may matter, suggests Kellman, just not here. (Such a topic is perhaps too “specialized,” to recall Bate’s language about the “trickster figure in Chicano and Black Literature.”28) Here, Canonical Lives Matter. Here, there is no time for such paraliterature as travel writing (even by D. H. Lawrence? Robert Louis Stevenson? James Boswell and Samuel Johnson? Do they receive a canon-centrality pass, or is Lawrence’s travel writing classified para- to his oeuvre?). The pressures on English departments are too great to spare the credit hours.
(English professor Kellman himself is actually a comparativist, with a history of scholarship that attends with great affection and seriousness to subjects his Chronicle screed might otherwise dismissively file under the “no doubt worthy,” as in the case of his work on translingual texts, which encompasses topics as non-canonical as Esperanto film. He is, at the same time, also author or editor of a large body of books and articles focused specifically on individual authors [such as DeLillo, Nabokov, or Camus] and their great works, with much attention to the individual genius as the source of the great work [a recipe critiqued most famously by Barthes and Foucault].)29
A key moment in Kellman’s piece—and one that again brings Bate’s essay to mind—comes in the two sentences directly ahead of the list of what he considers paraliterary or not literary at all. The first addresses the barrage of Theory that has contributed to this 21st-century dilemma. The theories he lists all emerged long before the 21st century, but they all—in their late 20th- and early 21st-century forms—share an engagement (often an extensive engagement) with the general tenets of deconstruction and poststructuralism—decentering, for example, humanity’s special place relative to the environment, or men’s special place in humanity, and thereby putting deconstruction to productive new uses. Kellman implies that such adaptations and evolutions, along with the unmentioned-but-omnipresent cultural studies, have decentered the canon in the curriculum, too, and to great loss. “The profession sprawls, without its old center, in helpless disarray,” we recall from Bate, and pushes English studies toward the “potentially suicidal” in a precarious moment for the humanities.30
Kellman leaves the cause and effect relationship of the next sentence unstated, but only just barely unstated; the directly consecutive arrangement tells the tale: “The demographics of instructors and students has also changed dramatically.”31 Of course there is a much more obvious connection between demographic change and a course on Black Lives Matter than between demographic change and a course on travel writing. (Perhaps the travel experience of all those American soldiers stationed abroad laid groundwork for a booming interest in travel writing in English departments after the GI Bill.) In any case, Kellman’s complaint again echoes Bate, who finds the democracy of the English department threatened by post-World War II growth in enrollment that saw “major state universities, which till 1955 each produced five Ph.D.’s in English per year, . . . within another ten years, producing seventy or eighty!”32 Bate blames growing student population, and Fish reads this (based on both historical information and the kinds of panels Bate decries) as really a complaint about demographic change. Kellman, whose tenure in the profession has not seen an equivalent boom in overall enrolled undergraduate English majors (although PhD overproduction has only continued to grow worse), cites “demographics” directly, of students and their professors, and he lets that declaration—“The demographics of instructors and students has also changed dramatically”—stand alone as implication and evidence of an unstated causal claim.33 The claim seems to be that Theory and demographic diversity threaten English studies by attending to Black or Bollywood texts when they could be attending to White texts instead—and therefore are attending to the texts of Black Lives Matter at the expense of those White texts. The coy arrangement of sentences seems to indicate that increasing numbers of people of color learning and teaching in English departments are, along with poststructuralism-infused brands of Theory, a threat to the White canonical center of literary studies. At least one participant in the article’s comments section reads this as the essay’s entire takeaway: “The shorter version is this: white man is angry that whiteness is not centered.”34
If Kellman is right about the causes and the result, then many poststructuralists, along with many antiracists, would consider the result a success. Decentering; renewed scrutiny of universal claims; questions of boundaries and power; highlighting exclusions, omissions, marginalizations, and the actors and diffuse structures of power that seek to do the excluding . . . these are among the primary aims of much work in deconstruction and poststructuralism. (And, argues Chela Sandoval, the work of many generations of women of color, whose lived experience at the margins preceded Deconstruction’s celebration of the margins.35 Before Derrida’s exposure of phallogocentrism or Gilles Deleuze’s celebrations of the nomad, becoming-woman, becoming-minor, and deterritorialization, U.S. third world feminists were already practicing “oppositional consciousness.”)36 If there is a threat to claims of universal truth in a narrow canon, if the “literary” in literary studies is feeling a challenging “stretch” and a disruption to the stable line separating the canonical author’s literary work from a multitudinous web of texts, then poststructuralism is indeed still making a difference (and still highlighting difference) in 21st-century English departments.37
Poststructuralism in (and in) Literature
Since life is short and handbook entries are not long enough, as Kellman might say, let us turn from poststructuralism in English departments to poststructuralism in literature—specifically, in the novels and short stories of Percival Everett. First, however, a return to the question of the movement between the terms “deconstruction” and “poststructuralism,” which has to do with the degree to which a theorist’s focus and aims are in “the real world” (of identification and power relations, especially, between person and self, person and other, person and animal, person and the environment). Then, a turn to Barbara Johnson as an exemplary figure for helping to differentiate between the two terms, and as a proponent of self-critique for the deconstruction-minded who fear that theory’s potential hardening into an -ism. Finally, an analysis of Everett, whose texts frequently take deconstruction and poststructuralism as their subjects, right down to making Roland Barthes a character and reconsidering Ferdinand de Saussure’s diagrams in the novel Glyph. The simultaneous reliance on and reluctance about poststructuralism in Everett’s texts both provide a grounded critique of deconstruction, as well as its disciples, and dramatize the value of the sharpening and the openness to surprise for which Johnson advocates. While Everett’s narrators and other characters frequently doubt or deride deconstruction, Everett’s texts open up a productive tension about the simultaneous urgency of poststructuralist thought. His characters deplore essentialism—including the -ism that deconstruction always threatens to become—but often cannot master these –isms as completely as they want to and suffer from neglecting deconstruction’s relevant lessons about attempts to master in the first place.38
“Poststructuralism” and “Deconstruction,” Part Two
The terms poststructuralism and deconstruction have been treated by some as largely interchangeable since their heyday. Popular usage, and some philosophy, will often add postmodernism as another potential synonym, and some poststructuralists, like Deleuze, even continued to refer to what most would call “poststructuralism” as “structuralism.” For most, the stakes of any terminology dispute here are not very high: the terms typically signify roughly the same things and carry roughly the same baggage. Those who are intimidated by, say, structuralism do not tend to feel more comforted by the word poststructuralism. Those who find poststructuralism obnoxious would tend to read the same affect in deconstruction. One common usage—and the one largely followed in this article—uses “deconstruction” to refer to a (roughly) Yale-School-plus-Derrida-plus-other-disciples group focused primarily on language as object of analysis and conclusions. Poststructuralism, then, either becomes a catch-all larger category, of which deconstruction is a subset, or (as I use it) a broad term for the work that turned the tools and lessons of deconstruction toward “the real world.” Barbara Johnson describes her own evolution, as she starts “to transfer the analysis of difference . . . out of the realm of linguistic universality or deconstructive allegory and into contexts in which difference is very much at issue in the ‘real world.’”39 A list of real-world-oriented, poststructuralist inheritors to deconstruction would perhaps look much like Kellman’s list: contemporary feminism and critical race studies, queer theory, postcolonialism, ecocriticism, animal studies, affect theory . . . one could go on and on because, arguably, there are few fields in literary studies that have not broadened their definition of “text,” challenged the idea of single, stable meanings in texts, sought to understand the text and its language as among the myriad texts and discourses that preexisted, limited, and multiplied its potential meanings, and recognized the role of, say, culture in writing on, in, and through bodies. Derrida, of course, wrote (increasingly) about broad and specific political concerns in the real world, and one could charitably read the project of all deconstruction as inevitably a political one, since the act of troubling binaries—even if focusing on language—could always (and perhaps inevitably does always) lead to political questions.
This is not to dismiss the familiar accusations about deconstruction’s conservative, apolitical, or even quietist tendencies: one could make that case about more than one practitioner of deconstruction. Even if such is not the aim of deconstruction, it is a possible result of any potential hardening of, say, deconstruction into something that is effectively a deconstructionism. Deleuze was, for reasons like this, more likely to call himself an antifascist than almost any other term: he was against any process or becoming hardening into system and so advocated—following Sartre—for “permanent revolution.”40 Hardening even a politically positive process into a system inevitably results in, among other things, new (dead) structures, with perhaps new winners and losers, new settled truths, and so on. Hardening into a system also, arguably, creates a new conservative class, interested in preservation of that system rather than experimentation or even innovation. It was often women in poststructuralism who recognized and highlighted such risks. As Julia Kristeva notes: “As soon as . . . power is recognized as such, it situates itself on the side of the symbolic, of institutions, apparatuses, structures.”41
Barbara Johnson usefully debunks critiques of deconstruction, offers a more useful warning about preventing deconstruction from hardening, and illustrates what permanent revolution might actually look like, and how one might actually get there. This is in response to criticisms of deconstruction from both “radicals” and “conservatives,” who “always absolutize” deconstruction “into nihilism or quietism.”42 The real problem, Johnson warns, is the same for deconstruction as for anything else:
As soon as any radically innovative thought becomes an ism, its specific groundbreaking force diminishes, its historical notoriety increases, and its disciples tend to become more simplistic, more dogmatic, and ultimately more conservative, at which time its power becomes institutional rather than analytical.43
How then to avoid this destiny?
How can the deconstructive impulse retain its critical energy in the fact of its own success? What can a reader who has felt the surprise of intellectual discovery in a work by Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man do to remain in touch not so much with the content of the discovery as with the intellectual upheaval of the surprise? How can that surprise be put to work in new ways?44
The answer begins with a deconstruction that is always questioning itself: “deconstruction must in fact continuously make against itself” the “charge” that “judges deconstruction against its own claims to an unflagging critical stance.”45 This means, among other things, that deconstruction’s own undecidability cannot settle into comfortable formula: “comfortable undecidability needs to be surprised by its own conservatism,” by itself as otherness, allowing deconstruction to find ways to continually “bare some hint of an ignorance one never knew one had.”46 Deconstruction is not a one-time or repeatable epiphany, in Johnson’s view: it is a quest for ever more surprising otherness and nature-changing recognitions of ignorance. “If the deconstructive impulse is to retain its vital, subversive power, we must therefore become ignorant of it again and again,” in order to continue to access “the surprise of an otherness we can only encounter in the moment of suddenly discovering we are ignorant of it.”47
To bring this all together: the aim here is to highlight two methods of refreshing and expanding deconstruction’s import and effectiveness. First, we incorporate the poststructuralist attitude of attending to and engaging with the real world. Second, we push ourselves to a new level of self-critique—finding our permanent revolution by finding new ways to surprise ourselves by searching for and embracing confrontation with some ignorance in our knowledge or thought that can point us toward more upheaval and away from dogmatism and conservatism about our own formula for resisting conservatism. The most valuable otherness here is the discovery of a hitherto unrecognized ignorance.
It is time to turn to Everett’s works, which benefit from a framework that recognizes these ambiguities: that permanent revolutions can easily become institutions and cartoons of themselves, and that some degree of self-critical skepticism might be the best way to keep deconstruction sharp for use in the world. Everett offers a series of warnings and cutting jokes about an institutionalized, formulaic deconstruction at the same time as he models ways poststructuralism might keep as sharp and surprising as Johnson hopes and as those conservatively and dogmatically committed to, for example, preserving an imagined stable center in English studies fear.
Not only does discussion of poststructuralism pop up again and again in Everett’s stories and novels, so too do (fictional versions of) real poststructuralists. (Everett was himself a student in the philosophy of language [and mathematical logic] before he became a fiction writer.) Everett’s novel Glyph features both—from the title itself, to the first section title’s announcement that readers are looking at “Deconstruction
Paper,” to the periodic appearance of Roland Barthes as a character and as a thinker.48 The novel’s narrator protagonist is himself a Derridean cartoon (a “Pharmakartoon”?): Ralph is a toddler who reads and writes but does not speak. He pities his parents, unfortunate “speakers” that they both are.49 This pity does not (at first) overcome his disdain for his father’s profession and way of moving through the world, though: his father (derisively nicknamed Inflato by Ralph) “was a postmodernist and my mother hated his guts.”50
Such is the general attitude Ralph holds for poststructuralism, inheritor as he is to all its most annoying and abrasive habits. Ralph describes a kind of “sickness that infected my father, and so my parents, and so my family, and so me. To view the sickness as it existed, I think, does not entail naming it, for to name it would be to miss the point and, more importantly, to limit appreciation of its effects by limiting our perceived possibilities.”51 The joke here is to not speak a word like poststructuralism or deconstruction. Ralph, of course, does not speak anyway, but here he uses poststructuralism’s own logic to take a poke at it. Its damage comes by mere proximity to its horrifying personification in the aptly nicknamed Inflato, proliferating implications as effectively as words (according to deconstruction) proliferate meanings. We know exactly what thing Ralph is not speaking of when he promises to “speak of a thing unnamed and address it as the multitude of things that it must be.”52
Inflato may be full of hot air (“a poststructuralist pretender,” as Ralph calls him).53 He may be utterly ineffective in the world—endlessly not finishing his book, while prostrating himself before the Author-Gods of poststructuralism. But he, like the Barthes he so worships, is also causing real harm in his real world, and justifying it through the logic of his philosophy. Inflato belittles his wife’s paintings by reducing her to mere “product of [her] culture”; he cheats on her; he leaves her for his lover/graduate student (who then leaves him).54 It is, of course, ironic that Barthes, the author of the Author-God-slaying “The Death of the Author,” appears as earthly deity here, tossing out bits of “French” wisdom that spur Ralph to roll his eyes. It is a running joke that baby Ralph defecates while considering works by Barthes and Lacan.55 It is another that Barthes points to his own Frenchness as an explanation for his bad behaviors, his inability to satisfy a lover, and his nonsensical or pointless speech.56 Barthes, from the moment he arrives at Ralph’s house, is already, claims Ralph, “looking at my mother with his French accent.”57 “I’m French, you know,” he says later when trying to seduce her after briefly dropping the Barthes-ey quality in his speech: “Eve eased off her stool and began to back away. There was something wrong. The man was making sense.”58 Poststructuralism (or at least the actions of poststructuralists) in this world can have at least negative consequences.
What Ralph learns, though, is that poststructuralism also holds an explanation for some of the other negative things in the world. This means the same source of one sickness can accurately diagnose another; the poison can also be a medicine. The plot of Glyph is essentially that Ralph is repeatedly and continuously kidnapped and imperiled because of his curious condition (reads, writes, understands speech, and has an intelligence quotient of 475). Scientists kidnap him for studies they hope will unlock the keys to language.59 The U.S. military wants to use him as a weapon. A childless religious couple rescues him but then reads him as a miraculous answer to their inability to conceive children of their own. A priest wants a victim too young to report the molestation. Even his father, before the more literal exploitations, uses Ralph as a tool to charm and seduce women. When his mother and a number of his former kidnappers see him on television at the same time and all shout out some version of “That’s my baby!,” it becomes clear that Ralph is, in fact, a single sign with multiple meanings, a single sound-image—“Ralph”—bound to a number of concepts—son, experiment, weapon.60
As it becomes increasingly clear how much Ralph’s meaning in the real world is out of his own hands, he also begins to feel a shakier grasp on his authorial control over meanings in the “autobiography” that is Glyph.61 Increasingly, his narration turns interrogative, doubtful: “If I make a noise in the woods and there is no one around to hear it, am I real? . . . Can the unreal me make a real noise? . . . Can the real me make any noise at all? . . . Have I written myself into existence or have I doomed myself to an unreal fictional planet?”62 Poststructuralism may be “bedazzled . . . by its own reflection, mesmerized and mechanically decisive in the face of academic action,” but it is also, Ralph is unsettled to find, often correct.63 By the end of the novel Ralph is desperately clinging to the line that separates but also binds signifier and signified, reunited with his mother and now sure that he wants a permanent bond:
the line is everything.The line is everything.64
He ceases writing when he reunites with his mother after a coming of age journey through a poststructuralism that fails when it is institutionalized, simplistic, dogmatic, conservative, “mechanically decisive,” but one that also accurately describes the ways power writes its subjects. Trying to resist that poststructuralist truth drove Ralph to sputtering. In clinging to one of the many interpreters tying him to a signified, Ralph acknowledges the truths of poststructuralism he had previously refused to acknowledge. He is finally able to allow himself to recognize how dogmatically he had refused poststructuralism’s insights exactly because of his father’s own mechanicalness and dogmatism: “I wondered what indeed it meant about me that I was so set against the notion of convention that I should attack it.”65 He even begins to see his father more sympathetically, especially after Inflato’s ego pops when the student for whom he left Ralph’s mother leaves him in turn. One of the clearest signs of Ralph’s softening attitude towards poststructuralism and its practitioners comes when he ceases referring to his father as Inflato and begins to call him by his name, Douglas. This arc leads to something like, perhaps, a peculiar form of Johnson’s “surprise of an otherness we can only encounter in the moment of suddenly discovering we are ignorant of it,” and one Ralph is only able to reach because poststructuralism speaks so directly to his real (fictional) situation.
Slippery Categories and Slippery Texts
Unsurprisingly, given his own academic background, a number of Everett’s other texts work to preserve the tension between poststructuralism’s insights and its pratfalls.
The novel Erasure, for example, features a protagonist who desperately seeks to be free of the tyranny of socially derived categories (particularly race), and he despises those disciples who make of poststructuralism a dogmatism and who gain such a sense of superiority from doing so that they dismiss him as “You mimetic hack,” “You mimetic Philistine.”66 He comes to (simulated) blows with a mechanistic representative of deconstruction and postmodernist writing:
Gimbel found his legs and stood straight, puffed up his chest. “I have unsettled readers. I have made them uncomfortable. I have unsettled their historical, cultural and psychological assumptions by disrupting their comfortable relationship between words and things. I have brought to a head the battle between language and reality.”67
And the narrator describes himself as relentlessly cool in the face of such puffery, casually dodging a punch here, pityingly shaking his head there: “‘Man, do you need to get laid,’ I said, shook my head and stepped through the door.”68 At the same time, he continuously returns to those postmodernists’ philosophies—reading an elaborate parody of Barthes at their conference, publishing other “parodies of French poststructuralists”, and jotting down ideas for similar stories, going to bed (again) with a woman he describes as “the postmodern fuck”:69
She was self-conscious to the point of distraction, counted her orgasms and felt none of them. She worried about how she looked while making love, about how her expression changed when she started to come, whether she was too tight, too loose, too dry, too wet, too loud, too quiet, and she found need to express these concerns during the course of the event.
“Does my hair look nice splayed out across the pillow?” she asked.70
But the novel also finds the narrator repeatedly succumbing to a tendency to place others into social categories—the postmodernist writers, “a young woman with curling, blue fingernails” whom he “had expected . . . to be a certain way, to be slow and stupid, but she was neither. I was the stupid one”—despite his own disdain for being categorized and despite those cases in which the people he categorizes slip out of those categories.71 The protagonist (Monk Ellison—his very name an intersection of cultural texts) finds himself trying and failing to pin down stable meanings even among his family members—including a mother whose cryptic hints highlight the “forever changing” nature of the rules in even a shared language and a father who led an elaborate second life that posthumously multiplies Monk’s readings of him.72
Most upsetting of all for the protagonist is the genuine success of his disingenuous new parody, Fuck, which readers receive as a profoundly truthful take on the “real” African American experience rather than as an infuriated attack against imagining one can reduce millions of people to a single definite article, “the.” Monk wants to control the meaning of a work he imagines as determined by its author (when the author is him), but he finds that he has been erased by the text, which buys him, controls him, and increasingly exposes (that is, deconstructs) him as his own opposite. The poststructuralism he disdains for its perceived dogmatism and inflexibility surprises him by exposing his own inflexible failure to control the meaning of his text or himself.
Everett’s short story “The Appropriation of Cultures” slightly changes direction. Here, the African American protagonist recognizes a gap between the stated and practiced meanings of the confederate flag and decides to perform an act of appropriative deconstruction. He purchases (from a White couple) a truck with a large confederate flag decal and does not remove that decal. Instead, he refers to it as “the black-power flag” and encourages other Black southerners to fly it as well. The White population of South Carolina is so unsettled by this appropriation that they cease to fly the flag, which it turns out was always really about hate and White supremacy and never about history or heritage.73
The narration, though, and the protagonist’s friend Sarah work to complicate his own motives and privilege. The story’s opening paragraph reads:
Daniel Barkley had money left to him by his mother. He had a house that had been left to him by his mother. He had a degree in American Studies from Brown University that he had in some way earned, but that had not yet earned anything for him. He played a 1940 Martin guitar with a Barkus-Berry pickup and drove a 1976 Jensen Interceptor, which he had purchased after his mother’s sister had died and left him her money because she had no children of her own. Daniel Barkley didn’t work and didn’t pretend to need to, spending most of his time reading. Some nights he went to a joint near the campus of the University of South Carolina and played jazz with some old guys who all worked very hard during the day, but didn’t hold Daniel’s condition against him.74
There is much work being done by the verb “had,” which appears six times in the first three brief sentences. In the midst of a fitting focus on inheritance, we find passivity—an emphasis on just how little we “deserve” what we inherit. This is true of the story’s White southerners, who imagine “Dixie” as somehow more theirs than Daniel’s, but it is also just as true of Daniel, who only has the time and money to play deconstructionist tricks because of his passive receipt of wealth, with the resulting idleness revealed through free indirect discourse to be derisively imagined by his band mates as a sort of illness.
Also worth noting, his wealthy, idle life is not just dependent on inheritance but on inheritance from women: his mother and his aunt. A third female character, Sarah, will serve as Daniel’s companion, and she will tug at the thread dangling from that paragraph—the one that will reveal the precariousness of Daniel’s heroic deconstruction, built as it is on a degree of privilege not so available to those whose biographies do not include quite so many appearances of the word “had.” After Sarah learns of his plan to buy a truck solely for its decal, she first highlights his idleness and lack of employment: “You’ve flipped. I knew this would happen to you if you didn’t work. A person needs to work.”75 Her view of idleness and privilege as a condition that might cause one to “flip” puts her into the company of his band mates, but she pairs this with a set of questions about his plan to appropriate the confederate flag. “Don’t take it down,” Daniel confidently sloganeers, “just take it. That’s what I say.” Sarah responds with questions: “That’s all you have to do? That’s all there is to it?” “Yep.”
His “Yep” signals that Sarah’s questions are as functionally invisible to him as their implications, of which he does not even realize he is ignorant. They are as present-but-unseen as the matrilineal source of his wealth. This invisibility is companion to other realities his wealth and gender allow him to ignore. His empty answer comes in response to Sarah’s signals that something else might be at play here. Daniel’s act of deconstruction is shadowed by those acts of deconstruction performed by Sarah and by the narration. Or, to be more consistent with the logic and language of deconstruction, Daniel’s act of exposing that the confederate flag is always already deconstructing itself is shadowed by those acts performed by Sarah and by the narration that reveal that Daniel’s cool, confident, straightforward reasoning is always already deconstructing itself. In a state, and country, which systematically impedes the accrual of inheritable forms of property, like owned homes, by African Americans, Daniel assumes any African American can easily disrupt symbols of White supremacy. In a state, and country, plagued by White violence against poor people and Black people, Daniel assumes the ammunition provided by an American studies degree will not draw, for less fortunate experimenters, a more literal brand of ammunition.
With “The Appropriation of Cultures,” Everett does not see his protagonist through a Johnson-esque process of sudden upheaval upon discovery of otherness and one’s own ignorance, but the story does offer a path for readers to find their way there. Starting with that profoundly unsettling narrative device, free indirect discourse—which blurs diegetic lines and turns one voice into (or reveals one voice as already) multiple simultaneous voices—and then refusing to allow a complete erasure of the women buried (and revealed) by “yeps” and “hads,” “Appropriation” finds ways to bare some hint of the ignorance comfortable, privileged Daniel never had to know he had. Even at the height of enthusiasm for poststructuralism’s potential intervention in the real world, then, its deconstructive itch toward permanent revolution insists on a productive, self-critical tension.
Life Is Short and Academic Years Are Not Long Enough
Everett is not Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, of course, but if we can find time for his work in an English studies curriculum, we can find time for some sophisticated and complex literary engagement with a lineage of a poststructuralism that has—even by the accounts of its detractors—permanently altered the shape of the field, well into the 21st century. What has been described here as a deconstructive itch, what Deleuze describes as permanent revolution, and what Johnson describes as a surprise encounter with one’s own ignorance of otherness, defenders of the humanities might productively recognize as something like the difficult to describe skill or stance they have frequently celebrated (and centered) in their disciplines as “critical thinking”—that most lionized of “intellectual upheavals.”
- Ellis, John M. Against Deconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
- Fish, Stanley. “Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech.” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 2 (Winter 1997): 378–395.
- Huehls, Mitchum. “The Post-Theory Theory Novel.” Contemporary Literature 56, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 280–310.
- Julien, Claude, and Anne-Laure Tissut, eds. Reading Percival Everett: European Perspectives. Tours: Presses Universitaires François Rabelais, 2007.
- Lehman, David. Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. New York: Poseidon Press, 1991.
- Rooney, Ellen. Seductive Reasoning: Plurality as the Problematic of Contemporary Literary Theory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.
- Schor, Naomi, Elizabeth Weed, and Ellen Rooney, eds. “What’s the Difference?: The Question of Theory.” special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 21, no. 1 (May 2010).
1. Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 11.
2. Percival Everett, Glyph (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1999), 5.
3. Percival Everett, Percival Everett By Virgil Russell (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013), 40.
4. An idea of the important place postmodernism holds as source of menace and anxiety for American Christians, for example, can be grasped by noting that “Understanding Postmodern Thought” has its own, fairly lengthy entry in the “Family Q&A” and “Faith Q&As” sections of the website for the organization Focus on the Family, presented as a response to a question about postmodernism’s degree of “threat to Christianity in contemporary culture” and found alongside topics such as “Repeatedly Straying Christian Wonders if He’s Beyond God’s Forgiveness” and “A Christian’s Relationship with a ‘Godless’ Government,” as well as being complemented by a list of links to resources available for purchase in the Focus on the Family store that address the question of potential threats faced from postmodernism and relativism. The online archives of The Rush Limbaugh Show include as a topic for its August 25, 2017 episode, “Postmodernism is the Root of the Current Campus Madness.”
5. In a February 5, 1999 piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Language Crimes,” Denis Dutton (then editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature) describes his “Bad Writing Contest” as a response to the impenetrable “jargon” of “literature professors who do what they now call ‘Theory.’” Dutton defines this “theory” as “mostly inept philosophy applied to literature and culture.” The most recent winners at that time were Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha, both of whom are seen as central figures in poststructuralist thought (“The Bad Writing Contest”). Jonathan Culler—associated with both structuralism and poststructuralism—then led one defense of such charges in Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb, eds., Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). See also the so-called “Sokal Hoax” paper, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, eds., Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (London: Picador, 1998). On amorality, see the wake of the revelations of Paul de Man’s anti-Semitic essays, his financial crimes, and his treatment of his family.
6. Walter Jackson Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” Harvard Magazine (September–October 1982), 51.
7. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 52.
8. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 51.
9. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 51.
10. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 47.
11. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 52.
12. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 51.
13. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 53.
14. Stanley Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself: Fear and Self-Loathing in Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 355.
15. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 50; and Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself,” 355.
16. Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself,” 355–356.
17. Fish, “Profession Despise Thyself,” 363, 355.
18. Walter Jackson Bate, “To the Editor,” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 368.
19. Bate, “To the Editor,” 369.
20. Bate, “To the Editor,” 370.
21. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 51. Read alongside a text like Percival Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009), Bate arguably looks less like a liberal voice than a conservative one. That novel’s protagonist, Not Sidney, visits his girlfriend’s house and meets her parents. Her father refuses particularity: “Young man, let me just say this, I’m one-sixteenth black, an eighth Irish, two-fifths Choctaw, one-thirty-second Dutch, a quarter English, and a ninth German. . . . It means I’m nothing but an American. I’m no needy minority” (Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, 134). The mother “heads a conservative think tank,” which focuses on ending oppression of African Americans by policing a center and refusing particularity and special treatment: “She’s trying to get rid of the welfare system because it keeps black people down and to stop gay rights because it endangers the family structure and keeps black people down and to abolish affirmative action because it teaches special preference and that keeps black people down” (Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, 128). When Bate insists the Chicano trickster figure should cease leaving its context and return to its invisible place in the human center, much of the particularity or difference between the “liberal-minded” and the “conservative” is lost. Bate’s academia, then, perhaps finds some potential places of agreement with Limbaugh’s fear of postmodernism-induced “Campus Madness.” “Guest Host Todd Herman.” The Rush Limbaugh Show (25 August 2017).. 31 August 2019.
22. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 51.
23. Steven Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 22, 2018.
24. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
25. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
26. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
27. Jonathan Gil Harris notes that “Shakespeare is arguably the most popular screenplay writer in Hindi cinema,” given the tradition’s many adaptations of his works. Harris offers, too, a reminder of a long colonial tradition of weighing Indian texts as of less worth than European texts, quoting “Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), in which the colonial official infamously declared that ‘a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”; Jonathan Gil Harris, “The Bard in Bollywood,” The Hindu, April 25, 2016.
28. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
29. See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image—Music—Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–148; Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Image—Music—Text, 155–164; and Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 101–120.
30. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies.”
31. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
32. Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” 50.
33. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”
34. Roger A. Sneed, “The shorter version.” “The End of Literary Studies?” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
35. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Chela Sandoval, “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World,” Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 1–24.
36. See Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); and “Jacques Derrida may sometimes see himself as philosophically positioned as a woman, but he is not politically positioned as a woman. Being positioned as a woman is not something that is entirely voluntary” (Johnson, A World of Difference, 2).
37. Kellman, “The End of Literary Studies?”; and Barthes, “From Work to Text”.
38. This productive tension is highlighted in the dueling Everett epigraphs at the beginning of this article; see notes 2 and 3.
39. Johnson, A World of Difference, 2.
40. Gilles Deleuze, “How Do We Recognize Structuralism,” in Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953–1974), trans. M. Taormina (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2003), 191.
41. Julia Kristeva, cited in James Williams, Understanding Poststructuralism (Chesham: Acumen, 2005), 134.
42. Johnson, A World of Difference, 6.
43. Johnson, A World of Difference, 11.
44. Johnson, A World of Difference, 11.
45. Johnson, A World of Difference, 14.
46. Johnson, A World of Difference, 15, 16
47. Johnson, A World of Difference, 16.
48. Everett, Glyph, 1.
49. Everett, Glyph, 6.
50. Everett, Glyph, 6.
51. Everett, Glyph, 22.
52. Everett, Glyph, 22.
53. Everett, Glyph, 44.
54. Everett, Glyph, 12.
55. Everett, Glyph, 19n5, 97, 164.
56. Everett, Glyph, 187.
57. Everett, Glyph, 21.
58. Everett, Glyph, 116.
59. Everett, Glyph, 157.
60. Everett, Glyph, 190–191.
61. Everett, Glyph, 119.
62. Everett, Glyph, 105.
63. Everett, Glyph, 168.
64. Everett, Glyph, 207–208.
65. Everett, Glyph, 37.
66. Percival Everett, Erasure (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2001), 18, 19.
67. Everett, Erasure, 37.
68. Everett, Erasure, 37.
69. Everett, Erasure, 14–17, 2, 30.
70. Everett, Erasure, 230.
71. Everett, Erasure, 21.
72. Everett, Erasure, 32.
73. See also Percival Everett, God’s Country (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 127, in which General Custer confesses the ability of slaves and Native Americans “to confuse me . . . to confuse us” by refusing to accept the meanings placed on them by White owners and settlers.
74. Percival Everett, “The Appropriation of Cultures,” in Damned If I Do (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), 91.
75. Everett, “The Appropriation of Cultures,” 98.