Music 251D: Readers' Comments on Courses

Some remarks on 251D: THe Nature of the Avant-Garde

Andrew Noselli

Andrew B. Noselli MODERNISM, POSTMODERNISM AND THE ETHICS OF RHETORIC Andrew B. Noselli-------27 Feb 97-------Deconstruction: Putting the Truth Up For GrabsS

What is deconstruction? To what extent does deconstruction imply, as the subtitle of today's lesson has it, putting the truth up for grabs? These are the questions I will be addressing in this prec In 1966, at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Jacques Derrida delivered a lecture that, in many ways, announced the closure of modernism. In this lecture he declared, "This is a moment when language invades the universal problematic, where, in the absence of a center, everything becomes discourse--that is to say, a system in which the central signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences" [SS 449]. Today's readings demonstrate the link between the abstract thinking of communication theorists with the concrete notions of pedagogical and political practice. This development in thought blossomed into the movement known as poststructuralism. While this intellectual trend was first noticed by only a small group of people, it eventually became the dominant line of social thought, changing teaching methods in colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.

As we have seen from our readings in this course, the idea that the culture of modernism had limits, and the belief that these limitations needed to be transcended, are ideas that have been around since the earliest theoretical writings on modernism itself. Having begun our study of the history of modernism with the writings of Matthew Arnold and Friedrich Nietzsche, I feel it will be profitable to our discussion of deconstruction by returning to our conclusions regarding these individuals. As we remember, the distinction between Arnold and Nietzsche is one of extreme critical difference. Recall these quotes: In ArnoldUs view, RThe criticUs task is to see the object as it really is and so promote an order of truth; while Nietzsche asserts that, historically, truth has been nothing more than RA mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms--a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory.S As these passages illustrate, while Arnold continues to privilege the the idea of a central textual meaning, Nietzsche disagrees vehemently with such 'privileged' thinking, and takes the radical view that we are not entitled to this notion of the centrality of truth, for 'truth' is nothing more than an interpretation made from a particular perspective.

Nearly one hundred years later, emerging from this clash of critical wills, we find Jacques Derrida, who makes the Nietzschean statement that the project of modernity is itself unstable, for it lacks access to a privileged center of truth. According to Derrida:

It has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered contradictorily coherent [SS 448]. While it appears that DerridaUs critique of modernity is a Nietzschean devaluation of modernist culture and thinking, our readings for today show that DerridaUs intended goals exceed even those of Nietzsche. Along with LyotardUs The Postmodern Condition (1979), which we will be reading later in this course, DerridaUs lecture is considered to be among the earliest formulations of postmodernism, as it indicates a fundamental change in the individualUs belief in the project of modernity.

Contrary to the somewhat inflamed rhetoric Derrida uses to construct the foundation of his philosophy, his plan for deconstruction is within the purview of modernist critics. DerridaUs deconstruction does not entail, as popular myth would have it, the destruction of literary texts. Deconstruction is, in fact, markedly similar to the traditional modernist view of textual analysis. In various interviews, Derrida has explained that deconstruction is neither a technique or a system at all, nor is it an ism in an ideological sense (as in RDeconstructionismS); deconstruction is simply a close reading of a text, so close that the Rshaping influences of the author's ideology are found within the workings of the literary text [TR 134]. This view of deconstruction stands somewhat opposed to that of another important critic, Paul de Man, who, viewing deconstruction somewhat more programmatically than Derrida, believes that literary critics are needed to deconstruct the Rnaive metaphysical mystificationsS of literary texts [AR 17]. As we can see from today's readings, Derrida views deconstruction as having a multiplicity of philosophical motivations and historical concerns.

Today's readings supply us with additional ways of thinking about deconstruction, some of which are related to the progressive development of pedagogical institutions In Barbara JohnsonUs opinion, deconstruction can be used profitably in the teaching of literature. This is because, as a critical practice, it bears resemblance to the neo-Aristotelian school of criticism and, in key areas, it even exceeds the formal standards of this school. In this respect it resembles the critical practice envisioned by Edwin Black who, in Rhetorical Criticism (1964), suggested the need for a new critical approach that retained the critical methodology of neo-Aristotelianism while simultaneously allowing a critic to move beyond these standards and extend the temporal dimensions of textual dialogue [RC 76]. Johnson defends deconstruction against its detractors, who libel DerridaUs concept by suggesting that it legitimizes a textual relativism, displacing the concept of meaning in favor of a free-ranging hermeneutical nihilism. Contrary to what some may think, Johnson argues, deconstruction is a principled and meaningful critical process whereby textual signification is carefully elucidated, showing precisely how meaning emerges out of a conflict of forces within the text.

Far from being eliminated, the deconstructive reading makes meaning multiple, and in so doing ends the tyranny of modernism that prescribes the existence of a central and univocal meaning behind the literary text. Through deconstruction, the literary text is able to promote a multiple range of meanings and significations. RA deconstructive reading,S Johnson says, Rmakes evident the ways in which a text works out its complex disagreements with itself. As stated above, deconstruction is a way to read a text very closely; so close, Johnson says, that the critic can determine how the text arrives at its meanings, not simply what it means. The student who has assimilated deconstructive thinking into his or her critical methodology displays an exceptional critical acumen, for deconstruction teaches the student how to read the literary text as it is written, and not as it is reflected in canonical critical discourse. The student is enabled to be an active interpreter of a living text, rather than a passive recipient of a consensually agreed-upon meaning.

There are a number of facets of the deconstructive reading that allow possibilities of signification prohibited by the hermeneutics of modernism. These include elements of textual ambiguity, undecidability or incompatibility that a modernist reading, if confronted with these same elements, would marginalize or else totally ignore. Deconstruction, too, possesses a greater measure of critical self-reflection than the traditional modernist reading, enabling the interpretive process itself to become a suitable subject for contemporary fiction. Finally, Johnson adds, the deconstructive reading demonstrates that, regardless of how faithfully a critic might articulate the meaning of the text, the text always demonstrate how this interpretation TresistsU an authoritative judgment. Here the deconstructive critic experiences a direct confrontation with their own humanism. This humanism, Johnson says, is not a totalitarian demolition of meaning, but is the aporia of a critical Tself-projectionU [TD 148]. Like Johnson, Leitch, too, believes a number of pedagogical benefits can be derived through training a student to read deconstructively. He cites Derrida's work with the Group for Research on Philosophic Teaching (GREPH) as an instance where Derrida gave his support to pedagogical institutions by re-affirming the importance of the study of philosophy in modern education. Derrida explicitly relates deconstruction and pedagogy when, in an essay written in 1975, he says, RDeconstruction has always had a bearing in principle on the apparatus and the function of teaching in generalS [Derrida in Leitch 17]. This, Leitch says, is DerridaUs admission of the intrinsic link between deconstruction and teaching. Furthermore, unlike the shifting of power relations within the French universities, to which Derrida remains largely indifferent, when it comes to the critical affairs of pedagogy, he holds strong views on the need for direct action and insists that the individual exercise his or her political voice. As such, GREPH attempted to initiate a re-evaluation of the way teaching was done in schools [DP 16].

Leitch believes that deconstruction may be considered DerridaUs treatise on the need for educational institutions to undergo an epistemological revision. Leitch observes four fundamental theses in DerridaUs plan to re-institutionalize the pedagogical order of things, beginning with the human sciences, philosophy and literature. These include the following propositions: (1) each field constitutes itself through the play of a number of forces; (2) each field reflects an inherently hierarchical system of values and differences; (3) each field, being a self-enclosed and self-contained discursive site, lack a privileged position from which out may be look ToutsideU and; (4) radical change in the institution rarely produces favorable results [DP 17]. These theses, in addition to DerridaUs speech to the Sorbonne in 1979, as well as his address at Columbia University in 1980, all serve to document DerridaUs swing from a deconstruction of the metaphysics of literature to a deconstruction of the social-political assumptions associated with pedagogical inquiry.

By permitting deconstruction to address these pedagogical concerns, Derrida extends deconstructionUs potential as a means of cultural critique. While Derrida surveys the development of cultural institutions on a macro level, intellectuals such as Roland Barthes work at the micro level of pedagogy, focusing on effective teaching strategies in the classroom. BarthesU critical project, one of TexplodingU and TdepropriatingU the literary text, invites comparison with DerridaUs deconstruction [DP 190]. Leitch says that Barthes attempts to put deconstructive readings to work in the classroom [DP 20]. According to Leitch, BarthesU depropriation of pedagogical discourse causes the student to recognize that Rtext is everywhere, but that all is no longer textS [Barthes in Leitch 19]. If BarthesU project for a deconstructive pedagogy contrasts with DerridaUs critique of institutional structures, it is because Barthes takes a position as a lone radical, while Derrida attempts to alter existing hierarchies and pedagogical institutions through committed activism. Leitch feels that there are two features that Barthes and Derrida hold in common. One is the common desire to Rbreak down the prevailing cycle of educational production and reproductionS [22]. The other is a belief that pedagogical institutions can be distinguished by their ability to criticize, a practice that is grounded in writing. RIt is the power of writing,S Leitch says, Rwhich produces the grounds for critique and transformationS [23]. Even though Derrida himself has spoken of his belief in deconstructionUs potential benefits to pedagogy, what Johnson and Leitch say about the place of deconstruction in the educational institutions runs directly counter to statements made by Derrida himself. From such statements it would appear that Derrida would strongly disagree when a critic like Johnson and Leitch attempt to import deconstructive teaching into pedagogical institutions. Or would he? Perhaps Derrida made such these statements because he had misgivings about the implementation and institutionalization of a theory, any theory, into the abyss of modern culture. What many critics fail to perceive when they write on deconstruction is the rigorous ethical foundation behind its critical principles. The next section of this prec While Derrida's early commentaries on the practice of deconstruction often address the epistemological concerns of deconstruction, his later writings demonstrate his interest in the development of an ethics of postmodernity. According to Richard Kearney, after 1972 DerridaUs writing was supplemented by a concern for ethics, something that was largely absent from his earlier ontological-epistemological writings. In this respect Derrida contributes to the subject we have been studying in this course, a topic that also involves Heidegger [see Hyde, RThe Call of ConscienceS] and Levinas [see Bauman, Postmodern Ethics]. Kearney asserts that Derrida, like Levinas, places a central emphasis on the being of the other. In a lecture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1986, Derrida remarked: RThe thinking of the alterity of Being opens the space where being and time give themselves and give rise to thinkingS [Derrida in Kearney 29]. In making this statement, Derrida recognizes the uncertain status of the other as the crux of the postmodern ethical dilemma. Kearney formulates this question succinctly, saying, RIs it the other-who-gives who invents me or is it I who invent the other-who-gives?S [ER 29].

One of the original goals of deconstruction included the task of finishing the Heideggerian project of the destruction of metaphysics. As mentioned, around 1972 Derrida expanded on deconstructionUs original goals, announcing the need to re-evaluate the deconstructive project in light of this ethical turn. This is accomplished, Kearney says, through DerridaUs Rrereading of Heidegger, the deconstructive turn, in the light of Levinas, an ethical re-turnS [ER 30]. To substantiate his argument, Kearney will turn to Christopher Norris who, in his critical examination of DerridaUs work, writes that RBy pressing the aporias of metaphysics to the limits of conceptual explanation philosophy begins to perceive what lies beyondS [Norris in Kearney 30]. This critical investigation and destruction of metaphysics, claims Norris, is what caused DerridaUs work to pass from matters of ontology and epistemology into the realm of ethics. Like Levinas, Derrida believes that critical debate with ethical texts constitutes the highest ends of philosophical inquiry.

Why is deconstruction considered a morally nihilistic institution whose practitioners subscribe to a relativistic hermeneutics? Perhaps it is perceived as such by people who have become wary of recent movements in literary criticism such as Treader-responseU school of criticism which, on a surface level, appear to advocate the abolition of the idea of meaning itself. Indeed, in its incipient stages, Derrida promoted a view of deconstruction as a critical practice that regarded the very idea of meaning as a terrorist act. How could deconstruction not be mis-interpreted, when DerridaUs peers failed to recognize the significance of deconstruction? Michel Foucault is often remembered for having called DerridaUs writings Tan exercise in the terrorism of obscurityU. Such an appreciation fails to observe the full extent of DerridaUs remarks, including the revealing statement that Rdeconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness but an openness towards the otherS [Derrida in Kearney 31]. Any interpretation of deconstruction which fails to include this statement becomes, by necessity, a misinterpretation of DerridaUs intentions.

Kearney pairs Derrida and Levinas as two Jewish writers who view ethical questions as being integrally bound up with questions of ontology [31]. Derrida makes the claims that the thinking of Being can be used as a direct route to the ethical dimension of postmodern thought. Knowing that Heidegger viewed the ontological composition of human consciousness as composed of language, Derrida uses Heidegger to breach LevinasU ethical Weltanschauung, making the Levinasian statement that RThe other precedes philosophy and necessarily invokes and provokes the subject before any genuine questioning can beginS [Derrida in Kearney (32)]. The inauguration of ethics takes place only with this intermingling of the consciousness of self with that of the other. Believing that deconstruction is deeply concerned with the other of language, suddenly, what had appeared to be a number of projects in Derrida now shows itself to be a unified project of the cleansing of philosophical discourse through the elimination of unclear and prejudicial thought and, in particular, the logocentrism that is endemic to the Western philosophical tradition. In Of Grammatology (1967) Derrida reads PlatoUs Phaedrus as an early expression of the phonocentrism that rationalized that priority of spoken words over written language. As Derrida says in RDeconstruction and thethe otherU reflected in contemporary works of art? In their article RPublic Memorializing in Postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial As Prototype,S Blair, Jeppeson and Pucci write about the creation of a public memorial that reflected the postmodern condition that was discerned by thinkers like Derrida, Barthes and others. Discussing the use of memorials in recent cultural history, the authors suggest that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., displays a form of rhetorical power unlike memorials that followed more traditional principles of commemoration. By making the Tblack, V-shaped wallU the dominant feature of the Vietnam Memorial, Maya Lin was able to create a public memorial that was able to tap into and Rappropriate the rhetoric of postmodern architecture.S This was an unprecedented act of memorializing. The enthusiastic acceptance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a distinctly non-traditional kind of memorial, speaks to the Rsignificance of the emergent postmodern discourseS [PM 264]. Even though the monolithic dominance of the featureless wall is essentially a modernist gesture, the Vietnam Memorial take a radical departure from generic conventions; and, as a result, generates an aura of Rpostmodern monumentalityS [279]. This is because, the authors say, the Vietnam Memorial avoids the seductive appeal of modernist narratives in favor of a postmodern view of narrative. In this way the Vietnam Memorial allows a multiplicity of voices to develop whenever a group of people, or even a single person, go to the wall. By entering into the workUs space the silence of the wall invites the individual to Ttalk backU in response. Like the Derridean ethics of deconstruction, the Vietnam memorial is a work of art that is structurally open to, and calls for a response from, the other. There is no central meaning behind the wall; the meaning of the memorial is an open question. In this sense, then, the truth, too, is an open question. The postmodernist version of truth is Tup for grabsU because postmodernity abandons the idea that meaning can be instituted without acknowledging the existence of ambiguity and uncertainty. Without commenting on modernity directly, postmodernism, like the Vietnam Memorial, 'questions by being and by differing' [279].

Works Cited:

  • Blair, Carole and Marsha S. Jeppeson, et al. RPublic Memorializing in Postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial as Prototype.S Xerox.
  • Black, Edwin. Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method. Xerox.
  • de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale U P, 1979.
  • Derrida, Jacques. RDeconstruction and the Other.S Xerox.
  • ---. RStructure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.S In Social Theory. Charles Lemurt, ed. San Francisco: Westview P, 1993 [1966].
  • Eagleton, Terry. Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. New York: Verso, 1981.
  • Johnson, Barbara. RTeaching Deconstructively.S Xerox.
  • Kearney, Richard. RDerridaUs Ethical Re-Turn.S In Working Through Derrida. James M. Edie, ed. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1993.
  • Leitch, Vincent B. RDeconstruction and Pedagogy.S Xerox.

  • Carl Bergamini, Yale University.

    -- I think the expression avante garde is one which is no longer relevant in the arts. It is closely linked with modernism and its attempt to critique bourgeois ideals and culture. It implies that artists, musicians and makers of culture can stand outside the larger systems of cultural production. At present we exist within a climate which aestheticizes all forms of social and cultural critique. The avant garde has lost any ability to be poignant in this environment.