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Why deconstruction still matters: A conversation with Jonathan Culler

This month Cornell University Press issued the 25th anniversary edition of Jonathan Culler's "On Deconstruction," a seminal work on Jacques Derrida, the late apostle of deconstruction theory. (The first edition of the work sold over 45,000 copies.) Culler, the two-time chair of the English department, has arguably had a greater influence on humanistic studies at Cornell than any other person since arriving on campus in 1977. The publication of his book "Structuralist Poetics" (1975), which won the Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association, earned him a reputation as a pre-eminent American exponent of structuralism, a then new set of approaches to culture, linguistics and literary meaning.

In this interview with Paul Sawyer, professor of English and director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, Culler offers some reflections on the enduring value of theory, not as a set of abstruse doctrines but as an unbounded, ever-changing series of questions and vantage points. A longer version of this interview was published in the fall 2007 issue of the English department's newsletter, English at Cornell.

Paul Sawyer: In the popular reception of deconstruction in the United States, theory is something scandalous and threatening, something you fall for or run from. I recall one magazine article that featured a photo of Derrida posed as a bandit, as if he were about to rob the palace of culture.

Jonathan Culler: It's certainly true that his -- and other -- forms of theoretical writing were a challenge to English departments. They proposed new questions as well as new readings, often difficult. And if you resisted you were identifying yourself as retrograde and old guard. I can sympathize today with those who then hoped this new theory thing would dissipate -- I'm not especially eager at my age to engage with complicated new discourses.

So what is deconstruction?

The Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on deconstruction was written by Jonathan Culler. This is how he describes the theory:

"A form of philosophical and literary analysis, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida that questions the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or 'oppositions,' in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts. ... In polemic discussions about intellectual trends of the late 20th century, deconstruction was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest nihilism and frivolous sketicism. In popular usage, the term has come to mean a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional modes of thought."

On the other hand, the right-wing attempt to characterize deconstruction and other forms of theory as destructive of Western culture and subversive of Western civilization is something I've always found puzzling and to a certain extent in bad faith, since it's Derrida more than anyone else who got students and faculty in literature departments reading Plato or Kant. He brought them to explore classic philosophical texts whose meaning people previously assumed they knew. Derrida's rereading of major texts of Western culture has reinvigorated the humanities, and his engagement with literary works has never been a debunking of literature but always a celebration of the shrewdness and rhetorical and imaginative resourcefulness of literature. The right-wing claim that students would read Derrida and deconstruction and become turned off from literature proves false. On the contrary, students exposed to deconstruction have taken a heightened interest in literary and philosophical texts -- with different questions, certainly.

Sawyer: In your most recent book, "The Literary in Theory," you define theory not as one mode among others but as the space where discussion of literature takes place today, which I think is indisputable. Has "theory" then simply become the nickname for criticism in general, or does it still have a specific definition?

Culler: There used to be a subject, called theory of literature, which asked questions about the nature and function of literature, the number and characteristics of literary genres, and so forth. What's striking about the body of work that tends to be called "theory" these days is that it often does not seem greatly interested in those kinds of questions (though I think it should be), but focuses on other political, philosophical, linguistic and ethical questions -- about meaning, identity, power and the political implications of various discursive practices. "Theory" thus has been an interdisciplinary body of work -- that's one of its defining features: a discourse that may arise in another discipline and become relevant and provoke thought within the realm of literary studies. This makes theory hard to define because it is often not clear why certain works of sociology, historiography or philosophy have come to count as "theory" and others haven't. They still can come to count as theory, of course, when claims are made for their seminal importance.

Theory is also interdisciplinary; it is self-reflective, seeking to stand outside itself and understand its functioning as thought, and it is speculative, in that it does not offer demonstrations but rather reframings, in a generalizing discourse that offer hypotheses that by nature can't be demonstrated one way or another. Theory proposes new ways of looking at cultural phenomena, often generalized from particularly engaging investigation. What comes to count as theory are those reframings that others find intellectually profitable, reconceptualizations that "take."

Sawyer: In the delightful essay that you wrote on our late colleague A.R. Ammons, one of your favorite poets, you take up the question, "Can poetry be useful?" and you start with Auden's famous line "Poetry makes nothing happen." You don't take that line to mean that poetry has no effects at all, even though it may have no direct and obvious consequences of the sort that a traditional humanism might want to claim for it. Can theory be "useful" in any sense?

Culler: I think the consequences of literary discourse are extremely varied. Certainly literature is not always progressive; it can minister to the status quo and help people take social arrangements as natural, but it can also be highly subversive, both thematically by enabling people to see things otherwise, to experience the world from the vantage point of people who are differently situated, and in its work on language, which resists or seeks to transform the cliché, the normal ways of thinking, and provoke imaginative possibilities. In its work on language it enacts a utopian impulse to try something new.

As for recent theory, it especially has been a putting into question of what is seen as natural and commonsensical. The exposure of the "natural" as a historical product that could have been different and therefore could be different in the future has important potential consequences in social and political realms. Perhaps the most obvious examples are ideas about gender and sexuality and identity, which theory has challenged in various ways. Feminist theory and then queer theory can stand as models of ways in which theory -- or here I should say "theoretical debates," for the vitality of these domains lies in disagreements and alternatives -- can promote change.

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