The left and right alike have misunderstood deconstruction…
Over the past four decades, scholars in the American humanities have used deconstruction — a style of interpretation pioneered by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida — to question the binary oppositions that structure society and enforce power relations. One example: The historian Joan Wallach Scott deconstructed the categories of “man” and “woman” and helped launch the field of gender history. While fueling trailblazing work such as Scott’s, deconstruction has conjured rather extreme, sometimes downright hysterical, responses. In the American press, vilification stretches back to the 1980s, when conservatives regularly launched polemics against deconstruction, condemning it as a movement against Western civilization. There has also been little love lost for deconstruction among members of the American left, from Marxists to Liberals, many of whom faulted Derrida and his epigones for an inadequate commitment to truth that made it impossible to develop a political philosophy.
But the left and right alike have misunderstood deconstruction — and the “de Man affair” certainly did not help matters. In 1987 it was revealed that the Yale professor Paul de Man, who had died four years earlier and was Derrida’s closest friend in American intellectual life as well as the most prominent exponent of deconstruction in the United States, had written pro-Nazi articles — at least one explicitly anti-Semitic — in 1941 and 1942 during his youth under the German occupation of Belgium. Derrida’s deconstructive readings of his friend’s wartime writings proved highly controversial; at one point, Derrida suggested that de Man’s criticism in his article “The Jews in Contemporary Literature” of “vulgar anti-Semitism” could be interpreted as support of a refined anti-Semitism and a clandestine critique of the “vulgarity of anti-Semitism.” Derrida’s interpretation was red meat for hungry enemies of deconstruction, who offered it as proof of deconstruction’s nihilism. Since then, it has been difficult to conduct a dispassionate conversation about deconstruction.
It is into this contentious legacy that Theory at Yale arrives — marketed as an important first: a book-length history of the Yale School of Deconstruction.