The Invention of Deconstruction
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The Invention of Deconstruction

M. Currie

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The Invention of Deconstruction

M. Currie

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Why did deconstruction emerge when it did? Why did commentators in literary studies seem to need to look back on it from the earliest moments of its emergence? This book argues that the invention of deconstruction was spread across several decades, conducted by many people, and focused on its two central figures, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man.

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Part I
Invention, Advent, Event
After the Event: Looking Back on Deconstruction
If invention is the creation of something new, we must be looking back when we talk of the invention of deconstruction, from a position after the event. There are many discussions of the aftermath of deconstruction but not many historical retrospectives that look back on the invention, the period of emergence, of what was one of the most notorious intellectual movements of the twentieth century. This book offers this kind of hindsight on the invention of deconstruction, but it begins from the position that retrospect is, and perhaps always was, necessary for an understanding of deconstruction, and may even have been necessary at the time of its emergence. This means that retrospect might not in itself be the marker of completion or an indication that deconstruction has come to an end. It is, paradoxically, part of the history of its invention, and it follows that, as we look back on it, the process of invention may still be unfolding.
The entanglement of invention with retrospect in intellectual life is one of the main subjects of this book, and part of the interest of this topic is the way that movements in thought have to incorporate some retroactive moment of comprehension even at the time of their emergence. This is particularly clear for deconstruction in literary studies, and perhaps also especially true in the United States, where there was, unusually, an inaugural moment. The moment of invention, supposedly, was 21 October 1966, when Jacques Derrida presented ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ at a conference about structuralism in the social sciences at Johns Hopkins University, but the idea of this as an inaugural event is something of an absurdity. The reason that it is absurd is perhaps also the reason that it is so famous as a moment of arrival: its story has been told, in retrospect, more or less from the moment that it took place, and in this sense retrospect has been there all along.1 It is not too implausible to suggest that retrospect might have been there in advance, given the preoccupation, in that essay and elsewhere,2 with the notion of a future anterior, a very historical sense of the present as what will have been, that Derrida’s own writings explore. Deconstruction was, in other words, always in the past, and the event of its inauguration became so well established because its story was so often told, so much reiterated afterwards. This book presents a significantly prolonged process of invention, and focuses in particular on the 20 years that follow from this supposed beginning in 1966, a period in which deconstruction was constantly narrated and recapitulated as something that had already happened.
When we speak of the invention of deconstruction, then, we are not only talking about looking back, but also about looking back on looking back, because retrospect was there from the start. In the early parts of this discussion I am going to focus this question on the arrival of deconstruction in literary studies in the United States from 1967 to 1984, the period in which deconstruction was most actively mediated and interpreted in the American academy. It was invented in the complex, unfolding process of looking back. The suggestion is not that the process came to an end in 1984, but that this phase is notable for a particular kind of narrative account which proposed again and again that the reception of Derrida’s work in literary studies in the United States was a story of ‘domestication’. I will say from the beginning that I don’t like the word ‘domestication’, but I need also to recognize that it was an influential metaphor in many of the accounts that I want to discuss, which proposed that something radical and wild in Derrida’s work was somehow tamed, assimilated, removed or softened when it was imported from its original contexts in Europe to university departments of literature in the United States. Oddly, then, the invention of deconstruction had a built-in sense of pastness, but also a built-in sense of loss – that whatever it was that was truly radical about Derrida had somehow been lost in translation or transport. Often these domestication narratives focused on the relationship between Derrida and Paul de Man, and this period of preliminary focus represents the period up to de Man’s death in 1983 and including some of its aftermath. Much of this study is devoted to an understanding of this relationship, partly in an effort to challenge the kinds of domestication argument that became so influential, but also to recognize and recast important differences between Derrida and de Man. Though Derrida’s work is engaged with the concept of invention from start to finish, his most direct, extended discussion of the concept came in two lectures dedicated to the memory of de Man in 1984, eventually published as Psyche: Invention of the Other, and in these several senses, the question of invention is closely bound up with the relationship of Derrida’s work to de Man’s. These three points of focus, on literary studies, the United States and the work of de Man, mean that there are other quite different and equally interesting stories that will not be told here in the depth that they merit. I am particularly thinking here of the untold stories of the invention of deconstruction or the reception of Derrida’s work in the UK, which in many ways follow from the account offered here, and which I hope to address more fully in a future work.
In this chapter I am going to explore some of the ways in which invention can be thought about that emerge from that essay. The notion of invention holds a particular explanatory power in relation to deconstruction, especially in retrospect. In the phrase ‘the invention of deconstruction’, the double genitive speaks of something done to deconstruction, but also done by deconstruction, and both meanings are bound up with the everyday sense of invention as the emergence or creation of something new. This chapter is going to set out, with the help of the word ‘invention’, an account of what deconstruction is. Before that, however, I would like to reflect briefly on the current moment, the position from which we are looking back, from a number of points of view.
One of the points of interest in the concept of domestication, of the sense that something had been lost in the invention of deconstruction in America, is its importance for the longer history of literary studies, and not only in the United States. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, there is a feeling that Derrida’s work is still very definitely with us, fully present, but also a terrible sense that the process of domestication is complete. At one time, as we will discover, Derrida’s work was regarded as a kind of menace, as something that threatened not only the universities but the very values of logic and reason themselves. Yet ten years after Derrida’s death the scope of this threat seems dramatically diminished, and even within literary studies a range of traditional practices and notions, of criticism, linguistics and historical scholarship, have re-established themselves. There is, despite the continued presence of Derrida’s work, a palpable feeling, in literary studies and philosophy, the humanities and the university, of business as usual. In literary studies we might take the example of linguistics, established as the pre-eminent science of verbal structure, especially in the period of structuralism’s greatest influence, until the authority of that science was brought into question by deconstruction. But in what way was it brought into question? Can we say, in the world of literary studies, that the challenges that were issued to linguistics by deconstruction have been in some way resolved, to the extent that, for example, cognitive literary studies can simply re-establish linguistics as the pre-eminent science of the mind and its processes, as if deconstruction had never happened? To answer these questions we need to establish what that challenge was, and then whether it has been addressed, discounted or simply forgotten. There are many more specialized versions of this question. We might ask, for example, whether a field of study such as cognitive narratology, which has been an influential school of narrative criticism in the United States since the 1990s, is justified in moving beyond some of the debilitating assumptions that it associates with the classical phase of narratology, and in particular the ‘moratorium on referential issues’3 that it associates with structuralism. These are areas of criticism that have their basis in linguistic debates, but these debates are simply no longer conducted, responded to or engaged with. Debates about reference and communication in particular, which were important contexts for the impact of deconstruction in literary studies, have been set aside in order that literary criticism might get on with its business.
The issue is even more striking when it comes to the general question of history. The crisis in authority that deconstruction represented for linguistics was in fact much more pronounced for the question of history – for historical method, historiography, the idea of history, the knowability of the past and the authority of historical literary studies. By the end of the 1980s there was a definite sense that the basic assurances of history, the ability of historical discourses to refer to past events, and the status of historical facts had been sufficiently challenged to make necessary some kind of new historicism. The early stages of the new historicisms were clearly linked to the arrival and impact of deconstruction, to the challenges that deconstruction posed to a conception of language, of narrative as a referential medium, and to the more general questioning of objectivity that emerged from the invention of deconstruction. The new historicisms were direct responses to the problems issuing from structuralism and deconstruction for the ideology of historical method, but where are these responses, these new forms of history, now? If there is anything that characterizes the contemporary critical scene, it is the return of historical scholarship of the most pre-critical kind, not as it was until recently, a return in the name of a Marxist materialism, but a straightforward restoration of the values of archival discovery. We might even talk about the spread of historical scholarship into periods of literary study not until recently dominated by the authority of the archive, such as the historicization of the modernist period. Perhaps we need to recognize also the crisis that the authority of archival research presents to scholars of the contemporary as a result of the very constitution of research as archival discovery in the contemporary university. The interest here lies partly in the paradox of an archive of the now, that we might be capable of archival discovery as a form of research into the present, but also in the idea that the notion of an archive of what happens in front of the eyes is entirely plausible as an understanding of the present. This is one of the questions that hovers over the invention of deconstruction: the notion that historical presence itself is increasingly inflected with retrospect, and that to look back on deconstruction after the event is barely distinguishable from the proposition that deconstruction is still present, and unfolding before our eyes. But the notion of discovery, the constitution of university research as discovery and the refurbished notion of historical, archival discovery are all crucial for the formation of meanings, artistic and philosophical, around the word ‘invention’. This is how I want to frame the importance of looking back on deconstruction now; not only as an analysis of the present, but also as a defence of invention in an academy in thrall to the values of scientific and archival discovery.
Discovery and invention
In Psyche: Invention of the Other Derrida describes invention as a ‘tired, worn-out classical word today experiencing a revival, a new fashionableness, and a new way of life’ (2007, 22). Derrida lists eight recent titles that illustrate this revival as it was in 1984 – L’Invention de la democratie, L’invention d’Athenes, L’Invention de la Politique, L’invention de l’Amerique, L’invention du racisme among them – titles that often remind us that invention is ‘a matter of culture, language, institutions, history’. A Google search in the present demonstrates just how well established this has become as a titular form, and how firmly the word ‘invention’ has come to be associated with processes not normally thought subject to invention, where the object in question was neither produced nor inaugurated – I offer The Invention of Childhood and The Invention of Clouds as contemporary examples. In many ways the form of these titles reflects a range of intellectual positions, in the ascendant since the 1960s, which hold that apparently natural objects are cultural constructs, not entities that exist in the universe, but things brought into being, often unwittingly, by acts of construction, structuration, human interpretation and comprehension. It was a necessary element of critique in the social sciences in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, that gender and race were perceived as social constructs rather than categories given in nature, or that they were part of the ideological contours given to social formations, often by language itself. It is easy to understand the appeal of structuralist linguistics in the same period in this light, as an extension of the notion of invention, of cultural construction and production, to everything. Structuralist linguistics develops the notion that words themselves are not passive reflections of the entities that pre-exist in the world but the active producers of those entities, and therefore that language invents more than it reveals the world. Deconstruction undoubtedly extended this kind of thinking, and it is in this sense that the genitive of ‘the invention of deconstruction’ is double: that deconstruction was both the subject and object of invention, being both the thing produced and the act of production. But we need to recognize the precise relation that deconstruction adopts to the notion of construction, the one that the word calls out to us, of dismantling, exposing the act of construction and reversing it. Deconstruction in this sense seems to be the opposite of inventing. It seems to name the kind of critique that puts into reverse the unwitting process of construction that produces the categories, natural and unnatural, through which we interpret the world, so that the invention of deconstruction has the ring of contradiction, in the convergence of creation and destruction.
Derrida considered this ‘apparent contradiction that might exist between deconstruction and invention’ to be an important misconception, and one which cast deconstruction as the negative other of all the positive and affirmative connotations of invention. It is apparent, for example, that in the previous paragraph invention had already taken a turn towards a negative meaning, as cultural construction or ideological production. But invention is not really severable from affirmation, or from the positive desires for something new that respond to ‘a certain experience of fatigue, of weariness, of exhaustion’ (2007, 23). The question of novelty, of making something new as a response to repetition, is also, according to Derrida, the affirmation at the heart of deconstruction:
Deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all; it does not settle for methodical procedures, it opens up a passageway, it marches ahead and marks a trail; its writing is not only performative, it produces rules – other conventions – for new performativities and never installs itself in the theoretical assurance of a simple opposition between performative and constative. Its process involves an affirmation, this latter being linked to the coming – the venire – in event, advent, invention.
(2007, 23)
There is an insistence here on the temporality of a process over the opposition of the performative and the constative that requires some further thought, because it seems to establish a notion of deconstruction which is entirely bound up with time, with the coming of the future and with invention as a temporal concept. It is worth dwelling on for a moment because it serves as a premise for all that follows, as well as the basis for my sense of what is still not properly acknowledged about deconstruction, that it is a fundamentally temporal intervention into the question of structure, and that deconstruction needs to be thought of, as this passage insists, in temporal terms. Although we might ordinarily think of invention in temporal terms, as the human creation of something new, we need also to think of the relationship between a ‘worn-out classical word’ experiencing a ‘new fashionableness’ and this much more affirmative sense of invention that Derrida wants to align with deconstruction, as an event through which the future comes to us.
For a clear statement of the ‘classical’ concept of invention we need to go into one of Derrida’s footnotes in which he cites Kant on the distinction between discovery and invention:
Invention [erfinden] is quite different from discovery [entdecken]. When we say that someone discovered a thing, we mean that it already existed beforehand: it was just not well-known – for example, America before Columbus. But when someone invents a thing – gunpowder for example – the thing was not known at all before the artist who made it.
(Derrida 2007, 41...

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Citation styles for The Invention of Deconstruction
APA 6 Citation
Currie, M. (2013). The Invention of Deconstruction ([edition unavailable]). Palgrave Macmillan UK. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Currie, M. (2013) 2013. The Invention of Deconstruction. [Edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Harvard Citation
Currie, M. (2013) The Invention of Deconstruction. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Currie, M. The Invention of Deconstruction. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.