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Theory and Practice

Christopher Norris

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Theory and Practice

Christopher Norris

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Deconstruction: Theory and Practice has been acclaimed as by far the most readable, concise and authoritative guide to this topic. Without oversimplifying or glossing over the challenges, Norris makes deconstruction more accessible to the reader. The volume focuses on the works of Jacques Derrida which caused this seismic shift in critical thought, as well as the work of North American critics Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller and Harold Bloom.
In this third, revised edition, Norris builds on his 1991 Afterword with an entirely new Postscript, reflecting upon recent critical debate. The Postscript includes an extensive list of recommended reading, complementing what was already one of the most useful bibliographies available.

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To present ‘deconstruction’ as if it were a method, a system or a settled body of ideas would be to falsify its nature and lay oneself open to charges of reductive misunderstanding. Critical theory is nowadays a reputable academic business with a strong vested interest in absorbing and coming to terms with whatever new challenges the times may produce. Structuralism, it is now plain to see, was subject from the outset to a process of adaptation by British and American critics who quickly took heart from what they saw as its ‘practical’ or ‘commonsense’ uses. What started as a powerful protest against ruling critical assumptions ended up as just one more available method for saying new things about well-worn texts. By now there is probably a structur-alist reading, in one guise or another, of just about every classic of English literature. A few minutes’ search through the index of any learned journal is enough to show how structuralism has taken hold in the most respectable and cherished quarters of academic study. Old polemics are quietly forgotten because the ground has meanwhile shifted to such an extent that erstwhile opponents find themselves now in a state of peaceful alliance. To trace this history in detail would provide an instructive example of the capacity of Anglo-American academic criticism to absorb and domesticate any new theory that threatens its sovereign claim.
Deconstruction can be seen in part as a vigilant reaction against this tendency in structuralist thought to tame and domesticate its own best insights. Some of Jacques Derrida’s most powerful essays are devoted to the task of dismantling a concept of ‘structure’ that serves to immobilize the play of meaning in a text and reduce it to a manageable compass. This process can be seen at work in the reception of a book like Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975), regarded (not without reason) as a sound and authoritative guide to the complexities of struc-turalist thought. Culler’s volume has been widely prescribed as student reading by critics and teachers who otherwise show small sympathy with current theoretical developments. Its appeal, one may fairly conjecture, lies partly in its commonsense dealing with problems of interpretative method, and partly in its principled rejection of other, more extreme kinds of theory which would question any such method. Culler makes no secret of his aim to reconcile structuralist theory with a naturalized or intuitive approach to texts. The proper task of theory, in his view, is to provide a legitimating framework or system for insights which a ‘competent’ reader should be able to arrive at and check against her sense of relevance and fitness. Culler’s main claim for the structuralist approach is that it offers a kind of regulative matrix for perceptions that might otherwise seem merely dependent on the critic’s personal flair or virtuosity.
His argument becomes strained when it tries to link this notion of readerly ‘competence’ with an account of the manifold conventions – or arbitrary codes – that make up a literate response. On the one hand Culler appeals to what seems a loose extension of the linguist Noam Chomsky’s argument: that linguistic structures are innately programmed in the human mind and operate both as a constraint upon language and as a means of shared understanding. Thus Culler puts the case that our comprehension of literary texts is conditioned by a similar ‘grammar’ of response which enables us to pick out the relevant structures of meaning from an otherwise inchoate mass of linguistic detail. On the other hand, he is obliged to recognize that literary texts, unlike the sentences of everyday language, involve certain specialized codes of understanding which have to be acquired and cannot be accounted for in terms of some universal grammar of response. Competence in these terms is a matter of trained intelligence, of justifying one’s reading of a text ‘by locating it within the conventions of plausibility defined by a generalized knowledge of literature’ (Culler 1975, p. 127).
This is structuralism at its most conservative, an outlook that lends support to traditional ideas of the text as a bearer of stable (if complicated) meanings and the critic as a faithful seeker after truth in the text. Culler is non-committal as to whether these interpretative structures are unchangeably vested in the human mind or whether – as seems more likely – they represent the force of established convention, a kind of second nature to the practised reader. Whatever their status, they clearly imply some manner of check or effective restraint upon the freedoms of critical discourse. Hence Culler’s doubts (in the final chapter of Structuralist Poetics) about the radical claims of those, like Derrida, who seem bent upon dismantling the very bases of interpretative method and meaning.
Deconstruction is avowedly ‘post-structuralist’ in its refusal to accept the idea of structure as in any sense given or objectively ‘there’ in a text. Above all, it questions the assumption – so crucial to Culler – that structures of meaning correspond to some deep-laid mental ‘set’ or pattern of response which determines the limits of intelligibility. Theory, from Culler’s point of view, would be a search for invariant structures or formal universals which reflect the very nature of human intelligence. Literary texts (along with myths, music and other cultural artefacts) yield up their meaning to a mode of analysis possessed of a firm rationale because its sights are set on nothing less than a total explanation of human thought and culture. Theory is assured of its methodological bearings by claiming a deep, universal kinship with the systems of meaning that it proposes to analyse.
Deconstruction, on the contrary, starts out by rigorously suspending this assumed correspondence between mind, meaning and the concept of method which claims to unite them.


‘Kantianism without the transcendental subject’ is a description often applied to structuralist thought by those who doubt its validity. Culler’s line of argument demonstrates the force of this slogan, showing itself very much akin to Kant’s transcendental-idealist theory of mind and knowledge. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) set out to redeem philosophy from the radical scepticism of those, like Hume, who thought it impossible to arrive at any definite, self-validating knowledge of the external world. They had tried and conspicuously failed to discover any necessary link between mind and reality, or ‘truths of reason’ and ‘matters of fact’. Thought seemed condemned to a prison-house of solipsistic doubt, endlessly rehearsing its own suppositions but unable to connect them with the world at large. Sensory evidence was no more reliable than ideas like that of cause-and-effect, the ‘logic’ of which merely reflected our accustomed or commonsense habits of thought.
Kant saw an escape-route from this condition of deadlocked sceptical reason. It was, he agreed, impossible for consciousness to grasp or ‘know’ the world in the direct, unmediated form despaired of by Hume and the sceptics. Knowledge was a product of the human mind, the operations of which could only interpret the world, and not deliver it up in all its pristine reality. But these very operations, according to Kant, were so deeply vested in human understanding that they offered a new foundation for philosophy. Henceforth philosophy must concern itself not with a delusory quest for ‘the real’ but with precisely those deep regularities – or a priori truths – that constitute human understanding.
It is not hard to see the parallels between Kantian thought and the structuralist outlook presented by a theorist like Culler. Both have their origins in a sceptical divorce between mind and the ‘reality’ it seeks to understand. In structuralist terms this divorce was most clearly spelled out by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He argued that our knowledge of the world is inextricably shaped and conditioned by the language that serves to represent it. Saussure’s insistence on the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign led to his undoing of the natural link that common sense assumes to exist between word and thing. Meanings are bound up, according to Saussure, in a system of relationship and difference that effectively determines our habits of thought and perception. Far from providing a ‘window’ on reality or (to vary the metaphor) a faithfully reflecting mirror, language brings along with it a whole intricate network of established significations. In his view, our knowledge of things is insensibly structured by the systems of code and convention which alone enable us to classify and organize the chaotic flux of experience. There is simply no access to knowledge except by way of language and other, related orders of representation. Reality is carved up in various ways according to the manifold patterns of sameness and difference which various languages provide. This basic relativity of thought and meaning (a theme later taken up by the American linguists Sapir and Whorf) is the starting-point of structuralist theory.
There are, however, various ways of responding to this inaugural insight. Culler exemplifies the Kantian response which strives to keep scepticism at bay by insisting on the normative or somehow self-validating habits of readerly ‘competence’. Culler is in search of a generalized theory (or ‘poetics’) of reading which would fully encompass all the various means we possess for making sense of literary texts. Relativism is thus held in check by an appeal to the reader as a kind of moderating presence, a mind in possession of the requisite intelligence and the relevant codes of literate convention. One must, Culler argues, ‘have a sense, however undefined, of what one is reading towards’ (Culler 1975, p. 163). Interpretation is a quest for order and intelligibility amongst the manifold possible patterns of sense which the text holds out to a fit reader. The role of a structuralist poetics is partly to explain how these powerful conventions come into play, and partly to draw a line between mere ingenuity and the proper, legitimate or ‘competent’ varieties of readerly response.
What Culler is proposing in the name of structuralism is a more methodical approach to the kind of criticism that has long been accepted as a staple of academic teaching. The virtue of his theory, from this point of view, is the ease with which it incorporates all manner of examples from other ‘prestructuralist’ critics who happen to illustrate the conventions Culler has in mind. There is room within his generalized notion of literary ‘competence’ for various insights which had often been arrived at without the benefit of any such systematic theory. This follows logically enough from the analogy he draws with Chomskian linguistics. To demonstrate the complex system of rules and transformations underlying a speaker’s grammatical utterance is not, of course, to claim any conscious knowledge of that system on the speaker’s part. Linguistic ‘competence’, as Chomsky calls it, is tacit and wholly unconscious except when brought to light by the linguist’s peculiar and specialized activity. The ‘transcendental subject’ (or locus of thought and experience) in Kantian philosophy is likewise capable of exercising its a priori powers without being in the least aware of them.
Culler adopts the same attitude to critics whose intuitive approach is undeniably fruitful but lacks any larger, organizing theory of valid response. Typical is his treatment of a passage from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, selected for what Culler sees as its all-but-conscious structuralist implications. The ‘poem’ in question (see Emp-son 1961, p. 23) is Arthur Waley’s translation of a two-line fragment from the Chinese:
Swiftly the years, beyond recall.
Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.
Culler remarks how Empson’s reading brings out the ‘binary oppositions’ (mainly the extreme contrast of time-scales) which give the lines their effect. This lends support to Culler’s argument that, ‘in interpreting a poem, one looks for terms that can be placed on a semantic or thematic axis and opposed to one another’ (Culler 1975, p. 126). Such strategies arise from the reader’s desire to maximize the interest or significance of a text by discovering its manifold patterns of meaning. A ‘competent’ reading is one that displays both the acumen required to perceive such meanings and the good sense needed to sort them out from other, less relevant patterns. For his notion of ‘relevance’ Culler appeals once again to a trans-individual community of judgement assumed to underlie the workings of literate response. Structuralism, with its emphasis on distinctive features and significant contrasts, becomes in effect a natural extension or legitimating theory of what it is properly to read a text.
Culler has no real quarrel with those among the ‘old’ New Critics who talked in terms of irony, paradox or (like Empson) types of ambiguity. These and other patterns of response he regards as enabling conventions, produced by the will to make sense of texts in a complex and satisfying way. Culler’s relatively modest proposal is that critics continue to read in much the same manner but also reflect on the presuppositions that govern their various reading strategies.
Thus Empson’s ‘ambiguity’ is found to rest on a principle of binary opposition, the presence of which, in structuralist terms, does more to explain its suggestive power. Such structures may not be objectively ‘there’ in the text but they offer (it is assumed) so basic and powerful a convention of reading as to place their validity beyond serious doubt. Culler’s poetics, therefore, involves a double prescription or regulative claim with regard to literary ‘competence’. On the one hand it presupposes an activity of reading grounded in certain deeply naturalized codes of understanding. On the other, it assumes that texts must offer at least sufficient hold – in the way of contrastive or structural features – for such an activity to take its own intuitive bearings.


Culler’s implicit equation between ‘structure’ and ‘competence’ is precisely the kind of interpretative ploy that deconstruction sets out to challenge. The concept of structure is all too easily allowed to dominate thought and take on a self-sustaining objectivity immune to critical reflection. It is on these terms that structuralism has proved itself a not-too- threatening presence on the academic scene. Least of all does it now seem a menace – as traditionalist critics once argued – through its ‘scientific’ rigour and taste for abstraction. American New Criticism in its day attracted the same hostility from those who regarded its rhetorical bases – ‘irony’, ‘paradox’, ‘tension’ – as so many bits of monstrous abstract machinery. Yet it soon became clear that, so far from wanting to rationalize poetry or reduce it to logical order, the New Critics were bent upon preserving its uniqueness by fencing it off within the bounds of their chosen rhetoric. The poem as ‘verbal icon’, in William K. Wimsatt’s phrase, became the rallying-point of a criticism devoted to the privileged autonomy of poetic language.
If system and structure were prominent in the New Critics’ thinking, the aim was not so much to provide a rationale of poetic meaning – a logic of logical anomalies – but rather to build a criticism capable of warding off such rationalist assaults. New Critical method was rational enough in its mode of argumentation but kept a firm distance between its own methodology and the differently organized workings of poetic language. This distance was emphatically preserved by the rules of interpretative conduct which Wimsatt, philosopher-elect of the movement, raised to a high point of principle (see Wimsatt 1954). Chief among these was their attack on the ‘heresy of paraphrase’, the idea that poetic meaning could be translated into any kind of rational prose equivalent. The poem, in short, was a sacrosanct object whose autonomy demanded a proper respect for the difference between it and the language that critics used to describe it.
The New Critics’ programme soon took hold as an eminently teachable discipline of literary study. Its erstwhile detractors were easily reconciled to a creed that scarcely challenged the proprieties of critical discourse. The same is true of structuralism in its early, scientistic guise. Culler’s arguments demonstrate the ease with which a structuralist gloss can be placed upon strategies of reading basically akin to those of the ‘old’ New Criticism. Academic discourse has little to fear from a ‘scientific’ criticism – however sweeping its claims – which holds out the promise of a highly self-disciplined knowledge of the text. Such a specialized activity can be allowed to take its place as one among many alternative methods, relied upon to beat its own disciplinary bounds.


Culler’s poetics of reading is therefore in accord with one prominent strain of structuralist thought. In the early writing of Barthes, among others, the aim was a full-scale science of the text modelled on the linguistics of Saussure and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi- Strauss. These ambitions were signalled by the widespread structuralist talk of criticism as a ‘metalanguage’ set up to articulate the codes and conventions of all (existing or possible) literary texts. Hence the various efforts to establish a universal ‘grammar’ of narrative, along with a typology of literary genres based on their predominating figures of language. This view of structuralism as a kind of master-code or analytic discourse upon language is taken by Barthes in his Elements of Semiology (1967). Natural language, including the dimension of ‘connotative’ meaning, is subject to a metalinguistic description which operates in scientific terms and provides a higher-level or ‘second-order’ mode of understanding. It is evident, according to Barthes, that semiology must be such a metalanguage, ‘since as a second-order system it takes over a first language (or language-object) which is the system under scrutiny; and this system-object is signified through the meta-language of semiology’ (Barthes 1967, p. 92). This tortuous explanation really comes down to the belief in structuralist method as a discourse able to master and explain all the varieties of language and culture.
At least this is one way of construing Barthes’s text, a reading that brings it into line with accepted ideas of the structuralist activity. There are, however, signs that Barthes was not himself content with so rigid and reductive a programme. If semiology sets up as a second-order discourse unravelling the connotative systems of natural language, why should it then be immune to further operations at a yet higher level of analysis? ‘Nothing in principle prevents a meta-language from becoming in its turn the language-object of a new meta-language; this would, for example, be the case with semiology if it were to be “spoken” by another science’ (ibid., p. 93).
Barthes is well aware of the dangers and delusions implicit in a discourse that claims the last word in explanatory power. The semiolo-gist may seem to exercise ‘the objective function of decipherer’ in relation to a world which ‘conceals or naturalizes’ the meanings of its own dominant culture. But this apparent objectivity is made possible only by a habit of thought which willingly forgets or suppresses its own provisional status. To halt suc...

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Citation styles for Deconstruction
APA 6 Citation
Norris, C. (2003). Deconstruction (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
Chicago Citation
Norris, Christopher. (2003) 2003. Deconstruction. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Norris, C. (2003) Deconstruction. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.