If you teach or study literature in a university, the chances are you've spent at least some of your time recently arguing with colleagues about the uses and abuses of literary theory. Not only do structuralism, deconstruction and their offshoots draw the biggest audiences at professional conferences, but the quarrel over them has aroused the curiosity of mass journals like Newsweek. Amidst this swirl of publicity and controversy, Jonathan Culler has managed to remain calm long enough to write a reasoned defence of deconstruction, one from which both scholars and general readers will be able to learn a good deal. Culler is fairly termed an apologist for the post-structuralist critical modes typified by the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, yet he writes without the supercilious tone of the former or the soporific word-play of the latter. Nor does Culler indulge in cheap vilification of opponents, suggesting that unwillingness to buy the whole post-structuralist bill of goods is a symptom of psychic repression or a police mentality. Even more refreshing, Culler doesn't obscure the steps of his argument - and there is one, though this is a book of separate essays - by resorting to slogan-like clichés or great fogs of verbiage. Unlike critics who claim to take risks in their work while writing so evasively as to be protected from any criticism, Culler takes genuine risks in presenting deconstructionist insights as arguments rather than as dithyrambic assertions. He is thereby open, not only to the counter-arguments of opponents, but to the dismissal of allies, who will be able to accuse him of vulgarising the mysteries.
LRB 3 September 1981 | PDF Download