Ellis on Deconstruction: A Second Opinion

[First published in English Studies in Canada 18.1 (1992): 83-103.]


The book review section of English Studies in Canada has customarily been reserved for the evaluation of books by members of the Canadian academic literary community. The appearance in the June 1991 number of a review of John M. Ellis's Against Deconstruction would therefore seem to indicate (since Ellis is not, I think, Canadian, and does not address himself to Canadian scholars, unless as members of a larger scholarly community) that this is a book of unusual importance.

Such is indeed the reviewer's opinion. David Jeffrey, who shares Ellis's puzzlement that “the incoherence he patiently analyzes” should have acquired “such wide appeal,” describes Against Deconstruction as an “exposé of a project [Ellis] takes finally to be an insult to critical intelligence, even granted the debatable terms it proposes,” and judges it to be “so thorough-going, so cogently argued, and so patently destructive, that it seems to this reviewer either essentially unanswerable by contemporary versions of deconstruction or, at the very least, so fundamentally corrosive of their central positions that an effort to sustain them can only be at the expense of further commitment to discussion and debate” (243).

The rhetorical anticlimax of this last sentence may produce an odd effect of diminuendo (from what point of view can a commitment to discussion and debate be regarded as disabling? Could any position, sensible or otherwise, be sustained without such a commitment?).1 Yet this anticlimax also reveals a degree of openness that, given the strength of Professor Jeffrey's convictions, is surely commendable. While viewing Ellis's prosecution of deconstruction as an open-and-shut case, he has nonetheless left the door ajar.

To what end? it might be asked, if any effective rejoinder is out of the question. But perhaps, drawn by the echoes of Ellis's forensic vehemence, a flâneur—one who would count himself neither as a partisan nor as an enemy of deconstruction, yet who has strolled (not without incident) on both sides of the street2—may take this occasion to slip into the courtroom.



I re-emerge (several hours later) with disconcerting news. On one issue at least—his challenge to Jacques Derrida's critique of Saussure—John Ellis is thoroughly stimulating. And he is occasionally trenchant, as when he argues, in opposition to the practitioners of what as been called Teflon Theory, that there is “no room in [theoretical argument] ... for claims of exemption from logical scrutiny, for appeals to an undefined unique logical status, for appeals to allow obscurity to stand unanalyzed...” (1989: 159).3 One might well applaud—as Christopher Norris, one of the foremost British deconstructionists, has in a muted way already done (134-36)4—his brisk exposure of these and similar tactics of evasion.

And yet Ellis's book seems to me, on balance, neither “thorough-going” nor important. He has in effect rounded up a number of the usual suspects (some of them only very tenuously related to the writings of Jacques Derrida), and invoked against them the full penalty of the law—in the form of “theory” understood as a means of regulation and control. What “annoys everyone,” Ellis asserts, “is the flood of critical writing” that the present “randomly pluralistic” theoretical consensus permits; what will presumably please this same “everyone” is a “genuine, rather than illusory” form of theory designed to provide “some check on and control of the indigestible, chaotic flow of critical writing through reflection on what is and what is not in principle worthwhile” (1989: 156, 159).

Several questions spring at once to mind. Would it be imprudent to inquire what form of check or regulation might be envisaged for those who do not find this project of flood control, with its implications of nostalgia for a mythical status quo ante diluvium, to be itself either compelling or worthwhile? Are we to understand theory as a species of heresiology, and Ellis's Against Deconstruction as situating itself in a tradition inaugurated in the second century of this era by Irenaeus of Lyons with his treatise Against Heresies? Should exclusionary gestures of this kind be acknowledged as implicit in any description of literary studies as a “discipline,” or are other less restrictive conceptions of what we are engaged in also available? But intriguing though such questions may be, I will defer any discussion of them until later, for other, perhaps smaller, issues are more immediately pressing.

The first is a matter of Ellis's definition of his target. With all due allowances made for the elisions necessary in a short polemical book, I would like to ask how close Ellis comes to honouring his own ideal of theoretical discourse as a site where “one careful attempt to analyze and elucidate the basis of a critical concept or position is met by an equally exacting and penetrating scrutiny of its own inner logic” (1989: 159). The second overlapping issue I will consider is one of methodology. Logic is very much in play throughout Ellis's polemic, both in his contemptuous dismissal of the claim of deconstructionists to be working with a non-traditional logic and in his recurrent arguments to the effect that Derrida's positions are either intrinsically foolish or else entail absurd or self-contradictory consequences. To what extent is this dismissal justified, and how adequate is Ellis's own logic as a basis for literary-theoretical inquiry?



First, then, how carefully does Ellis define the object of his attack? There is, I believe, a wide gap between his own practice and the ideal of theoretical discourse that he advances. For although Ellis inveighs against “intellectual laziness” (1989: 135), he is not himself a very scrupulous reader. To be sure, all the signs of scrupulosity are there. In his first reference to Derrida's Of Grammatology, for example, he remarks that

I have cited the English version of the published translations of Derrida throughout this book but in each case have checked them against the original French to make sure that they do not introduce changes of emphasis that would have any significant bearing on the course of my argument. Responsibility for any distortion of the issues discussed here because of the translation is thus also my responsibility, not solely that of the translator. (1989: 18n1)

But one's faith in this admirable declaration may be shaken when, later in the same chapter, Ellis informs us that Derrida's notion of the deferral of meaning is elaborated most fully “in the essay 'Différance,' the closing chapter of his La Voix et le Phénomène (translated under the title Speech and Phenomena)” (1989: 52n44). This magisterial allusion to the French text happens to be wholly misleading. “Differance”—spelled without an accent aigu—is indeed the last essay in the book Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. But the text of which this essay is a translation is entitled “La différance”—and it does not appear in La voix et le phénomène. As the translator of Speech and Phenomena indicates in a prominently placed note that Ellis apparently did not read, “La différance” was first published in the Bulletin de la société française de philosophie 62.3 (1968), and was reprinted that same year in the collective work Théorie d'ensemble (Speech 129). (One might add that the essay subsequently appeared in Derrida's Marges de la philosophie [1972]; in the translation of that book, Margins of Philosophy, it bears the title— “Différance”—that Ellis ascribes to the French text.)

The most charitable explanation of this little gaffe would be that a scholar with an intimate knowledge of the primary texts has in this one instance made the mistake of relying on a perhaps overcharged memory. But Ellis's cavalier way with his sources may by this point already have strained the reader's generosity. In the opening pages of Chapter One, Ellis takes aim at Derrida's claim to be moving beyond the exclusionary categories of traditional logic. His tactic is not to analyze a paragraph, even, from one or another of Derrida's writings; rather, he finds it sufficient to examine a brief passage from an essay by Barbara Johnson—on the grounds that “since it takes its cues from Derrida's writings, it can claim his authority” (1989: 5). The gesture is breathtaking: one might by the same token ascribe the “authority” of Aristotle to any one of his innumerable commentators, that of St. Paul to Faustus the Manichaean—or, since Professor Ellis is a Germanist, that of Goethe and Nietzsche together to Oswald Spengler.5

When on the next page Ellis declares that “Johnson is certainly abstracting from Derrida's writings in a way that does not distort them” (1989: 6), the reader may suspect that the emphatic adverb in this sentence at once represses and reveals the first stirrings of synderesis—of a bad scholarly conscience. But Ellis's conscience does not prevent him from doing his best to give a distorted impression of one of the texts from which Johnson quotes. Many readers will feel a twinge of irritation when Derrida writes that “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa” (Derrida, Dissemination 207; qtd. in Ellis 1989: 6). But how should we categorize the following comments by Ellis?

Presumably, one could pursue a serious and subtle inquiry into the particular ways in which Mallarmé shares common features with, or is indebted to, Plato or Hegel and the ways in which he does not.... By the time the inquiry has been pushed to any reasonable degree of depth, the question whether Mallarmé is or is not a Platonist will begin to seem rather trite and anyone who insists on that level of generality will only seem to be interrupting and disrupting something that has gone well beyond this elementary level of analysis. Derrida's statement that it is neither true nor false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist works only on that level of generality, and is therefore surely devoid of substantial content. (1989: 6-7)

I am tempted to call this passage dishonest. For at no point does Ellis indicate that the Derridean paradox that he cites from Barbara Johnson's essay is not simply an isolated aphorism. How many readers, then, will suspect that it is drawn from a text, “The Double Session” (Dissemination 173-286), in which for more than one hundred pages Derrida conducts what might well be described as a “serious and subtle inquiry into the particular ways in which Mallarmé shares common features with ... Plato [and] Hegel”? Is it possible that Ellis did not bother even to skim this text before sitting down to refute its author? Or is his emphatic adverb—“surely”—once again the sign of a bad conscience?

Elsewhere in Ellis's book, a different kind of carelessness is evident. In Chapter Five his principal target turns out to be American reader-response theory and neo-pragmatism, which Ellis blandly conflates with deconstruction on the grounds that their “major points are virtually the same” (1989: 113). Although there has indeed been an overlapping of these and other tendencies in North American critical practice, Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish might well be surprised to find themselves so casually tossed into the same bucket. To be fair, one should remark that blatant misrepresentations of one's opponents are common enough in polemical writings: Jonathan Culler, for example, has found it convenient to assume that opponents of structuralism must all be practitioners of a simple-minded thematic criticism (20). Misrepresentation on this scale, however, does not sit well with Ellis's ideal of theory as an “exacting and penetrating scrutiny” (1989: 159).

Chapter Four is slipshod in a different sense. In refuting the view that “all interpretation is misinterpretation,” Ellis repeats this catch-phrase twenty-seven times in less than sixteen pages—though only once does he quote a passage by any theorist in which something resembling it occurs. (The passage in question is ten words in length.)6 One reason for this reticence may be an awareness on his part that the various more or less sceptical approaches to interpretation that this slogan reductively summarizes are by no means the exclusive property of deconstructionists.

One such approach is, I think, implicit in any cultural materialist understanding of textual transmission. Hamlet, for instance, has been effectively decontextualized by the passage of nearly four centuries; it comes to us mediated (which is also to say recontextualized) by discursive factors of which its first shapers had no inkling; and we turn to it with ideologically conditioned motivations that differ in many respects from those of its Elizabethan audiences. What, then, would it mean to claim that even the most historically scrupulous contemporary readings of this play are not also misreadings? A related sense of the conditioned and conditional nature of interpretation can be derived from post-Heideggerian hermeneutics—as when Hans-Georg Gadamer writes that according to Heidegger's description of the hermeneutical circle, “the understanding of the text remains permanently determined by the anticipatory movement of fore-understanding.... The circle, then ... describes understanding as the interplay of the movement of tradition and the movement of the interpreter” (261).

On the other hand, it is by no means evident that deconstructionists would as a group subscribe to the view that “all interpretation is misinterpretation.” Paul de Man, for example, proclaims that “Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable.” Although with characteristic irony he complicates this declaration by adding that such readings “can rightly claim to contain within their own defective selves all the other defective models of reading-avoidance, referential, semiological, grammatical, performative, logical, or whatever,” and that they “still avoid and resist the reading they advocate” (19), his position is clearly unlike any of the ones attacked by Ellis.

It is of course Harold Bloom who most forcefully equates reading with misreading, and declares that “there are no right readings, because reading a text is necessarily the reading of a whole system of texts, and meaning is always wandering around between texts (Kabbalah 107-08). And indeed Ellis describes Bloom as “a leading advocate” of the view of interpretation he wishes to refute—a writer who, “though allied with deconstructive critics, is also an independent figure who reaches this position by his own path” (1989: 97n1). What exactly Bloom's position is Ellis does not trouble to tell us.7 Nor does he remark that Bloom's “alliance” with deconstruction is, to say the least, problematic. Bloom did in 1979 edit the book Deconstruction and Criticism, which contained essays by himself, Derrida, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, but he has since described the title as “my personal joke, which no one can ever understand: I meant that those four were deconstruction, and I was criticism.” He adds, “Nothing is more alien to me than deconstruction” (Salusinszky 68). In the same interview, Bloom clarifies his differences with this theoretical tendency by recounting a conversation with his colleague de Man:

“The trouble with you, Harold,” he would say with a smile, cupping my head in his hands and looking at me with an affection that always made me want to weep, “is that you are crazy: you do not believe in the 'troot.'” I would look at him, shake my head sadly and say:
“No, I do not believe in the 'troot' because there is no 'troot,' dear Paul. 
“There is no method: there is yourself, and you are highly idiosyncratic. 
“And you clone, my dear: I dislike what you do as a teacher, because your students are as alike as two peas in a pod.” (Salusinszky 67)

Jonathan Culler may be right to suggest that in Derrida's view of reading truth has no more than a residual or trace function: “'misreading' retains the trace of truth, because noteworthy readings involve claims to truth and because interpretation is structured by the attempt to catch what other readings have missed and misconstrued” (178). But Derrida has himself denied ever having espoused an equation of interpretation with misinterpretation. In Culler's agonistic view of interpretation one may detect more than a trace of the theories of Harold Bloom—while Derrida, rather than proclaiming misapprehension as a general principle, seems to have been concerned (most particularly in his exchange with John Searle) to argue that insofar as positive theories of linguistic apprehension have been instituted though a systematic idealization, an exclusion of so-called parasitic, deviant, transgressive, or marginal cases, they are adequate neither in theoretical terms nor as an account of actual usage. As he himself wrote (as a time when Ellis's book may already have been in press):

I do not think nor have I ever said that “any interpretation is inevitably a false interpretation, and any understanding a misunderstanding.” Why? In what way? This is what I discuss and argue at length (for I am one of those who love “arguing,” as can be seen), for instance in Sec [i.e. Signature Event Context] and in “Limited Inc....” The relation of “mis” (mis-understanding, mis-interpreting, for example) to that which is not “mis-,” is not at all that of a general law to cases, but that of a general possibility inscribed in the structure of positivity, of normality, of the “standard.” All that I recall is that this structural possibility must be taken into account when describing so-called ideal normality, or so-called just comprehension or interpretation, and that this possibility can be neither excluded nor opposed. An entirely different logic is called for. (Limited 157)

There is no reason to take a statement like this at face value: Derrida may in this passage be revising an earlier position, or he may be refusing to admit the direct implications of his own arguments. But I do not see how one could even tentatively judge such possibilities without reading those of his writings that are relevant to the matter—a labour that John Ellis, on the evidence of Against Deconstruction, would find superfluous. It is, after all, easier to refute an opponent on the basis of suppositious arguments extrapolated from reductive slogans than it would be to engage with the possibly more challenging arguments which that opponent's writings may contain.

More could be said about Ellis's distortions of deconstructive theory and practice. In Chapter Three, for example, he conflates Derrida's early practice of deploying metaphysical terms sous rature with the quite different notion (of which he cites no published instances) that deconstructive literary criticism makes a similar use of, and indeed “requires ... the literal, obvious meaning sanctioned by tradition and authority”—in the form of a unitary traditional interpretation, which is then subverted and preserved by the deconstructive reading as though “in eternal purgatory instead of being laid to rest” (1989: 74, 81). But even if one felt that deconstructive readings tended all too often (in de Man's words) to be “boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant”—and, moreover, far from irrefutable—it would be hard not to lose patience with shadow-boxing of this kind.



I turn therefore to the issue of logic. I have already quoted Derrida's claim that, if one wishes adequately to analyze the structural possibility of error or aberration that he sees as inscribed in the standard of the normal, “An entirely different logic is called for.” Is such a logic possible? 

John Ellis thinks not. He quotes amusingly from an essay by a deconstructive adept who, asserting that deconstruction has supplanted the “old” logic of “binary oppositions,” proceeds to “pin down the 'unclear' logic of deconstruction” by setting it in binary opposition to traditional logic: “the clearest distinction between traditionalist and deconstructive logic resides in....” Without completing the quotation, Ellis is able to comment that “binary logic is needed to characterize deconstructive logic,” and to suggest that “claims for an 'other' logic have often been too lightly made without being adequately thought through” (1989: 8-9n3).

But will such a gesture as this suffice to dispose of Jacques Derrida, or even of the Derridean whose sentence Ellis does not complete? It seems to me that two further interrelated questions need to be posed. First, is the word “logic” being deployed here in more than one sense, and if so, how significant are the differences? And second, is the relationship between a “traditional” or “binary” and a putative Derridean logic one of supersession or rather one of supplementarity?

In common usage the word “logic” occurs in a variety of senses. These range from the popular “logic of events” or “logic of facts” (where “logic” is a sign of the persuasive force of things beyond our control) to expressions like “the logic of liberalism” (where the reference is to an ideology, a particular manner of arguing or repertoire of arguments) to “Aristotelian” or “modal” or “symbolic logic” (where “logic” means a formalized system of rules that define the legitimacy of different forms of argument) and finally to a generalized recognition that any such system involves the deployment of binary structures of signification.

Let us accept that the rational mind operates in terms of binary oppositions: does it therefore follow, as Ellis seems to assume, that the binary terms with which we reason must be mutually exclusive categories, and that there can thus effectively be only one formalized logic and one way of using the word “logic”? What, one wonders, would he make of Edmund Burke's “logick of taste,” of the comment of a writer in Mind, more than a century ago, that in Germany “Logics swarm as bees in spring-time”—or indeed of one John Ellis's remark that the “alternative views of war and society” of the sixties' generation “had their own logic” (1989: 82)?

Although Ellis (who complains of “the equation of obscurity and profundity that has been readily available in European thought since Kant and Hegel”) [1989: 147]) might not like the idea, it is clearly possible to speak, as a writer for the Encyclopaedia Britannica did in 1882, of the “metaphysical logic of Hegel ..., the formal logic of Kant.”8 Why not also, then, of a “Derridean logic of supplementarity,” or a “Derridean logic of the margin”? And if the dialectic of Hegel has accustomed us to the notion that the categories of thought need not be fixed, mutually exclusive entities, but may rather be dynamically interrelated in a number of ways, can we not entertain the possibility that Derrida's attempts to provide a vocabulary with which to talk about the slippage of terms, the interpretation of categories, and the challenge posed to regulative codes by “hard cases” and parasitic or transgressive instances may permit a more accurate account of what is going on around us (and within us) than might otherwise be available?

What Derrida speaks of as “la logique de la marge” (Marges xix) does not, as I understand it, imply the same level of formalization as does “syllogistic logic” or “formal logic”—but as anyone who has wrestled with the complex meanings of Derridean terms like “tympanum” or “hymen” can attest, it is also far removed from the unformalized and ideological plane of an expression like “the logic of neo-conservatism.” In my opinion, this intermediate level of formalization does not detract either from the rigour and strenuousness of the arguments Derrida conducts or from the importance of what he is attempting. As he himself claims of the essays brought together in Margins of Philosophy:

If they appear to remain marginal to some of the great texts in the history of philosophy, these ten writings in fact ask the question of the margin. Gnawing away at the border which would make this question into a particular case, they are to blur the line which separates a text from its controlled margin. They interrogate philosophy beyond its meaning, treating it not only as a discourse but as a determined text inscribed in a general text, enclosed in the representation of its own margin. Which compels us not only to reckon with the entire logic of the margin, but also to take an entirely other reckoning: to recall, doubtless, that beyond the philosophical text there is not a white margin, virginal and empty, but another text, a weave of differences of forces without any present center of reference (“History,” “politics,” “economy,” “sexuality,” etc.: everything which was said not to be written in books...). (xxiii)9

One may want to remember that the etymology of “context” (con plus the past participle of texere, “to weave”) suggests something woven into a text that is itself, Derrida would claim, “a weave of differences.” The logic announced here thus appears to be one that would seek (among other things) to make visible within the text the traces of those exclusions and repressions by means of which it was instituted. In challenging any fixed sense of identity, this activation of context also brings into play the notion of supplementarity—and with it, another set of Derridean coinages: supplément, différance, pharmakon, parergon. Whatever one's opinion of the value of these deliberately elusive terms, the logic involved is evidently a double-edged one. The French verb suppléer means both to supplement and to supplant; and it is characteristic of Derrida's arguments that they likewise both complicate and cast doubt upon the philosophical structures that they inhabit. There may be good reasons for finding this a troubling tactic, but if this is the kind of relation in which Derrrida's texts stand to the philosophical tradition of which they are a part, I fail to see why the scholar whom Ellis mocked could not legitimately declare Derrida's logic to be one that unsettles and challenges exclusionary binary opposites, and then proceed to explain in what respects it differs from a logic that, like Ellis's, assumes the distinction between p and not-p to be settled and impermeable.10 The ensuing explanation might well be a feeble one. But what would that tell anyone but the most blatant sophist about the validity of Derrida's work?

With respect to John Ellis's own logic, I have two points to make. His arguments, first, are on occasion too elliptical to be valid. He wishes, for instance, to show that because of their supposedly unconstrained insistence on textual indeterminacy, deconstruction and reader-response criticism tend to reduce texts to “an indiscriminate, shapeless chaos of meanings” (1989: 127)—as a result of which, any identification of the specific features of a text becomes problematic. Three critical studies by a fellow-Germanist, James McGlathery—a book on E. T. A. Hoffmann, a second one on Kleist, and an article on Kafka—provide Ellis with an example of this. By McGlathery's account, Ellis says, all three writers turn out to be obsessed with “sexual guilt and unacknowledged sexual shame” (1989: 130). This, with no further analysis, prompts the comment that

By now, a judgment of this situation will be irresistible: this recurrent idea has its source in the mind of the scholar concerned, not in the work of Hoffmann, Kleist, and Kafka. That there is some overlap in the thematic concerns of different authors is not difficult to believe; but that a variety of very different writers really all have the same predominant concern is another matter. Surely, no one should pay much attention to criticism when it is, as here, clear that the ideas expressed have little to do with the writers who are the claimed subject of the criticism. (1989: 130-31)

But the one thing that is clear to me from this passage is that Ellis has not earned the right to the conclusion he draws. He has not shown that McGlathery's analyses of Hoffmann, Kleist, and Kafka are undifferentiated; indeed (as the recurrence of his emphatic “surely” may in itself be taken to indicate), he has shown nothing at all. To this I would add that the first volume of McGlathery's study of Hoffmann, the only one of his writings that I have consulted, is a sturdily documented and thoroughly traditional piece of critical scholarship in which there is not the slightest trace of deconstructive or reader-response methodology. Odder still, this book contains an acknowledgment that “as two recent studies by John M. Ellis, a British-American critic, have shown ..., there is much to be gained by a willingness to see sexual implications in the riddles posed by Hoffmann's tales...” (38).

A related weakness in Ellis's logic stems from the all too frequent recurrence in his arguments of what I would describe as a kind of logical monadism. By this I mean that he repeatedly seems ready to assume that the doctrines of Jacques Derrida must in some mysterious manner by fully present in any fragment, however small, of his writings. Ellis's second chapter, it should be said, escapes censure on these grounds: in challenging Derrida's interpretation of Saussure he quotes liberally from both of them, and the result is a forceful argument that deserves close study. But elsewhere Ellis does not put himself to equal trouble. Thus, in his first chapter, he can refute Derrida's logic on the basis of a total of thirty-three words quoted (in English) by Barbara Johnson from two separate books. Given Derrida's views on the subject of metaphysical presence, there is a mordant irony to this—an irony that can only be redoubled if one remembers how often Derrida's readers have complained that, for all his love of lapidary paradoxes, he is far from being the most concise of philosophers.

However, a further irony reflects back more distinctly upon Ellis himself. Derrida is sometimes betrayed by his very expansiveness into what seem, upon analysis, to be clearly fallacious statements. But Ellis is seldom there to catch him out: an unfortunate consequence of that recurrent reluctance to engage in serious reading that may be attributable to what I have called “logical monadism,” or that might equally well be ascribed to something Ellis says is encouraged by deconstruction and reader-response theory, although he seems to suffer from it as well—“intellectual laziness” (1989: 135).



One scholar, then, has taken a run at another (who happens to be the most frequently abused, as well as the most frequently cited theorist alive); his polemic, although it receives a glowing review in English Studies in Canada, turns out on close examination to be a rather shoddy piece of work. How important is all this? The only reasonable answer must be: Hardly at all.

And yet there may be a sense in which this little episode is symptomatic of something that should be of more than passing concern to readers of this journal. In 1988 Jacques Derrida complained that

Everywhere, in particular in the United States and in Europe, the self-declared philosophers, theoreticians, and ideologists of communication, dialogue, and consensus, of univocity and transparency, those who claim ceaselessly to reinstate the classical ethics of proof, discussion, and exchange, are most often those who excuse themselves from attentively reading and listening to the other, who demonstrate precipitation and dogmatism, and who no longer respect the elementary rules of philology and interpretation, confounding science and chatter as though they had not the slightest taste for communication or rather as though they were afraid of it, at bottom. Fear of what, at bottom? Why? That is the real question. What is going on at this moment, above all around “deconstruction,” to explain this fear and this dogmatism? Exposed to the slightest difficulty, the slightest complication, the slightest transformation of the rules, the self-declared advocates of communication denounce the absence of rules and confusion. And they allow themselves then to confuse everything in the most authoritative manner. (Limited 157-58)

I must confess that my first reaction on reading this passage three years ago was a kind of guilty pleasure. (So: the anxieties of living in a situation in which the rules of discourse are routinely transgressed have rebounded on a writer whose own “transformation of the rules” was perhaps more profound than he wished to acknowledge? Too bad!) However, this response gave way to a recognition that Derrida's complaint is justified—and not only with regard to his treatment at the hands of journalists and ideologues. It does indeed seem bizarre that reputable critics and philosophers—the examples of Howard Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction and Jürgen Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity come immediately to mind—should feel at ease with the notion of publishing extended critiques of Derrida's work in which not a single text is quoted or even named. For if one wishes to defend certain rules of evidence, certain standards of interpretation and argumentation, does it make sense to throw these same rules and standards to the wind for the sake of obtaining a merely rhetorical advantage over a particular opponent?

The Greek word kanón, meaning “rule” or “standard,” refers more strongly in Hellenistic usage to the principles governing comparison, selection, and ordering, than to any system of texts that may result from these processes. This same word also means “measuring rod”—and before that, it would seem, meant simply “rod” or “stick.” In the behaviour of scholars who cast aside the rules and standards that they themselves profess, and proceed to belabour an opponent with any old stick that lies to hand, one can, I think, identify a regression that is as much ethical as etymological.

In the text from which I have just quoted, Derrida claims to be underscoring “a situation that is unfortunately typical—and politically very serious—at a juncture that I will not hesitate to qualify as worldwide and historic; which is as much to say that its scope can hardly be exaggerated and that it deserves serious analyses” (Limited 157). Three years ago this claim seemed to me to be very precisely an exaggeration, and a self-interested one as well. But in the interim the controversy over “political correctness,” which has been simmering on American campuses for nearly a decade, has burst upon us. The same words now have a different ring.

Let us consider just one Canadian product of this controversy, the issue of Maclean's magazine that was timed to coincide with the 1991 Learned Societies Conference and carried a cover photograph of two gagged models dressed to represent academics. The integrity of the first of two stories that developed this theme can be judged by the fact that its subtitle—the declaration in block capitals that “A NEW WAVE OF REPRESSION IS SWEEPING THROUGH THE UNIVERSITIES” (Fennell 40)—was supported in the text by a list of exactly four incidents. One of these—the harassment of anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo at the University of Toronto by activists who interpreted as racist an exhibit she had curated at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1990—seems genuinely disturbing. A second case, that of Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, is troubling in a quite different sense, insofar as it appears to suggest that what most Canadians would regard as overtly racist discourse has been found acceptable within the academic discipline of psychology.11

What remains of the “wave” would scarcely fill a teacup. It appears that feminists at Acadia University wrote to protest the reproduction in the university calendar of an Alex Colville painting that they believe dehumanizes women. The Maclean's story does not tell us whether their letter was rude or insensitive—nor in what sense Colville, who in addition to being a superb artist is also the chancellor of Acadia University, was “repressed” by it. And it appears, finally, that unidentified feminists at a Vancouver Shakespeare conference criticized the bard “for being sexist and racist” (Fennell 41). On the other hand, the murder of fourteen women in 1989 at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, on the supposition that female students at such an institution must be “feminists,” did not qualify for mention in the Maclean's story as an instance of repression within the universities. How could it, if feminists and other “politically correct” people are by definition the agents, not the victims, of repression?

The editors of Maclean's might respond to such comments, if at all, by pointing to the balanced declaration with which this article ends: “Canadians will increasingly have to occupy the middle ground—taking the most worthy ideas from the reformers, while keeping the best of the Western tradition” (Fennell 43). Setting aside the gross distortion involved in the assumption that advanced work in the human sciences is automatically opposed to “the Western tradition,” connoisseurs of journalistic balance may want to consider how much space the second cover story about the universities in this same issue of Maclean's (Jenish and Lowther) gives to statements of opinion abut “political correctness.” By my count, the article is weighted by a ratio of more than eight to one in favour of those like President Bush who want to persuade us that a monolithic leftist conspiracy is threatening free speech and deforming the study of literature and the human sciences on this continent. Perhaps it would be worth asking why, if ideologically motivated intolerance had indeed become a major problem on our campuses, exaggeration and slanted reporting on this scale should be required to make us aware of the fact.



But have I been digressing? Is an allusion to the “political correctness” furore, in which George Bush and other supposed defenders of free speech seem to be trying very hard to close down certain forms of literary-theoretical discourse (while at the same time accusing those whom they would like to intimidate and silence of McCarthyism), wholly irrelevant to the issues raised by John Ellis's polemic Against Deconstruction?

I think not. For if the wilful distortions by Maclean's magazine of the current situation in our discipline and our universities seem scandalous, so also (if on a different scale) do Ellis's misrepresentations of contemporary literary theory. And, given the manner in which journalistic attacks upon “political correctness” have fed upon earlier misrepresentations of literary-theoretical work, one might anticipate that Ellis's formulations will resurface in future journalistic accounts of academic literary criticism as a senseless and irrational, yet simultaneously menacing and transgressive subculture.12 Indeed, Ellis has himself provided some useful signposts for journalistic mudslingers: in an essay published in 1990 in the London Review of Books, he describes the politics of “Radical Literary Theory” as “a disaster of simple-mindedness,” and likens the overlapping of deconstruction and Marxism in contemporary theory to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 (1990: 8).

It could of course be argued that what we are witnessing in such polemics as John Ellis's, as in the much larger phenomenon of the “political correctness” furore, is a reaction against certain kinds of excess. I am willing to concede the legitimacy of John Ellis's irritation with “Teflon Theory”—and indeed to add that during the controversy which followed the rediscovery of Paul de Man's wartime writings some of those, including Derrida, who wrote in his defence, engaged in sophistries of a kind that did credit neither to the rhetoric of deconstruction nor to themselves.13 But I find it hard to escape the conclusion that Ellis's violations of the ideal of theoretical discourse that he himself enunciates surpass the worst such offences on the part of deconstructionists.

Let us also admit that there have been recent occasions in the United States when, as in the Cannizzo case in this country, over-zealous or injudicious opponents of racism, misogyny, and homophobia within the universities may have infringed upon the rights of other people.14 A principled stand is called for in such cases—and more distinctly, I would insist, in the far more numerous instances in which people within the universities have been wronged on account of their “subversive” methodological commitments or political views, have been subject to racial or sexual harassment—or, more subtly, have been and still are victimized by a systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

Those who take such a stand will very quickly find themselves in opposition to the drum-beaters of the American right—about whose high-minded professions of humane values there is no need to be naïve. To give just one example, Dinesh D'Souza, author of the much-discussed book Illiberal Education, has written in a conciliatory tone that “It is not always possible” in disputes like those that have arisen in American universities “for a reasonable person, in good conscience, to take any side; there is a good deal of excess all around. The middle ground seems to have disappeared on campus, and whether it can be restored is an open question” (“Illiberal” 52). But are his own credentials as a bemused would-be occupant of this “middle ground” any better than those of Maclean's magazine? D'Souza does mention, among the supposedly scattered forces still engaged in resistance to the “victims' revolution” that he blames for this unhappy situation, the off-campus Dartmouth Review—as editor of which in the early 1980s he says (in curiously bland terms) that he “witnessed first-hand engagement with the administration...” (“Illiberal” 18-19). What he neglects to say is that this “engagement” took place over Dartmouth College's efforts to attract women, blacks, and native Americans as students—and that under his direction the Review published a series of violently racist attacks on minority groups at Dartmouth.15

While D'Souza's recent past cannot be taken to invalidate the arguments of his book, it may tarnish somewhat his claim to the “good conscience” of a neutral witness. His past (which also includes the writing of an adulatory biography of the evangelist Jerry Falwell, published in 1984) may in addition raise the possibility that he has chosen and manipulated his evidence in the service of an extremist agenda16—although the more charitable hypothesis that he has failed to understand his evidence will on occasion seem more persuasive. (Where else could literary scholars learn that “Much of modern literary criticism is based on the surprising premise that poems and novels do not mean anything in particular,” and that this notion, which is shared by “numerous schools of criticism based on the denial of textual meaning: formalism, hermeneutics, psychoanalytic theory, semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, deconstructionism,” can be traced back to René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature [Illiberal 177]?)

I believe there is a similar need for scepticism with respect both to the arguments and, more important, the goals of polemicists like John Ellis who would like to re-define literary theory as a system of checks and controls, the principal function of which could only be to silence critical work that those with power in such matters felt to be subversive. Of course, since theoretical writing of any kind tends to imply that certain critical orientations are more interesting than others, it might be remarked that dominant theories, whether New Critical or deconstructive, have already tended to displace and thus to silence those other forms of criticism that by their criteria are not of interest. But this has never been more than a secondary effect of literary-theoretical discourse, a by-product of the preoccupation of theorists with issues of representation, context, authority, intention, and the like.

What would be the results of making “reflection on what is and what is not in principle worthwhile” (Ellis 1989: 159) into the primary function of literary theory? One, I suspect, would be a gradual re-moulding of the literary theorist into the image of the cultural commissar;17 another might be a legitimizing of academic muggings of the sort perpetrated by John Ellis upon his fellow-Germanist James McGlathery.

To conclude. In evoking the current “political correctness” controversy as a context within which contemporary debates over literary-theoretical matters must now unavoidably be situated, I do not mean to suggest that we should mute our discussions for fear of their being taken up and distorted by journalists or unscrupulous politicians. Prudential arguments are seldom very appealing; and it is now perhaps late in the day to warn that should literary scholars fall into the habit of routinely identifying this or that group among their peers as kettle-menders, Visigoths, head-bangers, jackdaws, gangsters, or what you will, there is some chance that the word will start to get around in a manner that may not reflect credit on the level of intellectual discourse within the profession as a whole.

But there may be better reasons for subjecting to a cool and sustained examination the tone in which we conduct our debates, the kinds of argumentation and of evidence that we regard as acceptable, and the forms of closure and exclusion that our arguments imply. For if we would like journalists and politicians, on those occasions when they deign to take notice of literary scholarship, to make some effort to tell the truth about us, do we not have a prior obligation to tell the truth about one another? And if, whatever our methodological commitments, we are willing to accept as valid, let alone to praise, such declensions as those of John Ellis from the standards of our discipline, with what degree of integrity can we uphold those standards ourselves?




1  Actually, Professor Jeffrey's sentence could mean either that any effort by deconstructionists to sustain their “central positions” will cost them a “further commitment to discussion and debate”—or, alternatively, that given the mauling they have had at Ellis's hands, they can hope to sustain their views only if they forego any commitment to further debate. The reader is thus left to choose between an anticlimax and a paradox. I have chosen the former, as making better sense. But deconstructionists, should there be any about, might prefer to regard this sentence as a tidy illustration of their claim that “When one writes, one writes more than (or less than, or other than) one thinks” (Johnson 46)—and to maintain that the ambiguity of Jeffrey's “at the expense of” indicates, in effect, a polite willingness on his part to listen to whatever deconstructionists have to say, so long as they remain silent.

2  I have on two occasions discussed texts by Derrida in some detail—in University of Toronto Quarterly 55.1 (1985), and, in more measured tones, in the 1989 volume of this journal. Since John Ellis has difficulty in distinguishing between the theories of Jacques Derrida and those of Stanley Fish, I should perhaps add that I have also criticized Fish, in an essay published in University of Toronto Quarterly 56.4 (1987) that had impolite things to say about more traditional modes of textual criticism and literary interpretation as well. I have since developed some of the latter points in the introduction to my edition of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (Peterborough: Broadview, 1991).

3  Ellis's gesture of exclusion—his announcement that there is “no room” for this or that—may nonetheless seem disturbing, especially given the eccentricity of his own philosophical judgments (he dismisses Kant and Hegel as obscure, and Husserl as a kind of philosophical simpleton [1989: 147, 142]).

4  Of course, having expressed sympathy with Ellis's “insistence that deconstruction—or those who speak in its name—be held accountable to the standards of logical rigour, argumentative consistency and truth” (134), Norris argues that Derrida's writings meet these standards, while Ellis's book, which in other respects as well is glaringly inadequate, does not. I differ with Norris's view of the logic of deconstruction; elsewhere in this essay I have avoided dwelling on aspects of Ellis's book already discussed by Norris.

5  Professor Jeffrey seems oblivious to the oddity of Ellis's manoeuvre: he writes, with no apparent awareness of possible tension between the expressions italicized below, that “Ellis builds his critique solely on the authorized representations of deconstruction. He makes extensive use of statements by Derrida and by Jonathan Culler, Christopher Norris, Barbara Johnson, and other self-proclaimed apostles” (244; my italics).

6  Ellis quotes, from Culler's On Deconstruction, the words that I have italicized in the following passage:

According to the paleonymic strategy urged by Derrida, “misreading” retains the trace of truth, because noteworthy readings involve claims to truth and because interpretation is structured by the attempt to catch what other readings have missed and misconstrued. Since no reading can escape correction, all readings are misreadings; but this leaves not a monism but a double movement. Against the claim that, if there are only misreadings, then anything goes, one affirms that misreadings are errors; but against the positivist claim that they are errors because they strive toward but fail to attain a true reading, one maintains that true readings are only particular misreadings: misreadings whose misses have been missed. (Culler 178)

7  Here, to supply the deficiency, is a passage from Bloom's Kabbalah and Criticism: “An empirical thinker, confronted by a text, seeks a meaning. Something in him says: 'If this is a complete and independent text, then it has a meaning.' It saddens me to say that this apparently commonsensical assumption is not true. Texts don't have meanings, except in their relations to other texts, so that there is something uneasily dialectical about literary meaning. A single text has only part of a meaning; it is itself a synecdoche for a larger whole including other texts. A text is a relational event, and not a substance to be analyzed. But of course, so are we relational events or dialectical entities, rather than free-standing units” (1975: 106). Whatever one may think of this position, it is at least more interesting than the banal suppositions that Ellis attaches to the slogan “All interpretation is misinterpretation,” and then so easily refutes.

8  This and the preceding unreferenced quotations are derived from the Oxford English Dictionary.

9I   have made some minor changes to the translation of the last sentence quoted here. Derrida wrote, in that sentence: “Ce qui oblige non seulement à tenir compte de toute la logique de la marge, mais à en tenir un tout autre compte: à rappeler sans doute qu'au-delà du texts philosophique, il n'y a pas une marge blanche, vierge, vide, mais un autre texte, un tissu de différences de forces sans aucun centre de référence présente (tout ce dont on disait—l''histoire', la 'politique', l''économie', la 'sexualitié', etc.—que ce n'était pas écrit dans des livres...).” (Derrida 1972: xix)

10  This seems an appropriate point at which to correct a curious slip on the part of Professor Jeffrey, who declares that “At the psychological level merely narcissistic, philosophically [the deconstructive] theory of meaning echoes that found in nineteenth-century logical positivism (a theory not now of much interest to philosophers of language). That Derrida's garbling of Saussure was meant to serve as ardent anti-essentialism is clear; that the project he erects on this foundation is incoherent, at least partly as a result of his garbled Saussure, is equally clear” (245). Whether or not Derrida garbles Saussure, it seems evident that Jeffrey is himself garbling Ellis—who in his second chapter wrote that Newton Garver, “in his preface to the English translation of La voix et le phénomène, sees that the logocentric error diagnosed by Derrida really amounts to the theory of meaning inherent in logical positivism” (Ellis 42). Moreover, Jeffrey's “nineteenth-century logical positivism” is an oxymoron: he is presumably confusing the nineteenth-century positivists (Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach) with the logical positivists (Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and others), whose activities as a group are usually held to have begun with the founding of the so-called Vienna Circle in 1923.

11  The Rushton case does raise the issue of free speech—but also, more distinctly, that of professional competence. Any scholar has the right, within the limits of our legislation against the dissemination of racial hatred, to air claims about race, sexuality, and intelligence. But if the “scientific” work adduced in support of these claims is racially motivated and methodologically unsound, it is by no means evident what right such a person has to air them as a university professor. Nor is it evident, given that the attributes in question cannot be meaningfully studied in abstraction from a social context, and that no social context untainted by systemic racism is available, in what sense work of this kind could ever claim scientific respectability.

12  David Lehman has already written, in Signs of the Times, that “John Ellis in his book Against Deconstruction alternates between contesting deconstructive notions and proving that the valid parts of the theory could be gleaned—without the excess doctrinal baggage—in the works of linguists and philosophers who preceded Derrida by many years” (75-76). But Lehman's book, though openly prejudiced against literary theory, is above the level of “mere journalism”; moreover, in the passage to which Lehman is referring, Ellis makes a serious attempt to document his claims (1989: 37-44). Characteristically, though, while in this passage Ellis takes Newton Garver's comments on certain parallels between La voix et le phénomène and the later Wittgenstein as evidence that Derrida is both ill-read and unoriginal (1989: 42n34), he ignores Garver's further remark hat Derrida's concept of différance “seems to me to be original with him and to be highly interesting,” as well as his judgment that Derrida's critique of Husserl is a first-class piece of analytical work in the philosophy of language” (Derrida 1973: xxiv, ix). (It should be remarked that this positive assessment has recently been challenged by J. Claude Evans.)

13  I refer to certain of the essays which appeared in Hamacher, Hertz, and Keenan—and most particularly to Derrida's “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War” (which appears also in Derrida 1989). While honouring Derrida's grief and his wish to defend the memory of a close friend, I would at the same time argue that his reading of de Man's wartime journalism evades and obfuscates some of the hard issues which those writings present to us.

14  The most notorious instance of the suppression of free speech by the “politically correct” turns out, however, to have been a malicious fiction created by unprincipled journalists and members of the right-wing National Association of Scholars. A lecture by two members of the NAS was delivered at the State University of New York at Binghamton on March 14, 1991. According to a videotape and audio recording of the event, and also to the evidence of eyewitnesses (including a student newspaper reporter, a reporter for a local TV station, an on-campus plainclothes policeman, and members of the faculty), the lecture was interrupted for some four minutes by a student in the audience, who was then restrained by other students, among the head of the Black Student Union. The lecture was delivered without further interruptions and was followed by a question and answer session, after which the lecturers and their audience dispersed peaceably. A quite different account of this event, derived from NAS members, appeared in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin in early April. According to this version, a violent “mob” had imitated the tactics of “the Nazis' heyday,” “Stalin's reign of terror,” and “Mao's cultural revolution.” This story was taken up by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial entitled “Return of the Storm Troopers” (April 10), and subsequently by the New York Post, under the titles “Outrage at SUNY-Binghamton,” and “The Brownshirts and the Cowards.” (See Beers 34-35, 64).

15  “During D'Souza's tenure at The Dartmouth Review, the paper published an interview with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, illustrating it with a staged photograph of a black man hanging from a tree on the Dartmouth campus, and an article on affirmative action written in what was supposed to be a parody of black speech ('Now we be comin' to Dartmut and be up over our 'fros in studies, but we still not be graduatin' Phi Beta Kappa'); it once ran the slogan 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian' on its back page; and it printed documents stolen from the office of the Gay Student Alliance, that revealed the homosexuality of at least two Dartmouth students who did not wish it to be made public” (Menand 101).

16  It seems worth noting that D'Souza, in claiming that Stanford University's revised liberal arts survey course substitutes radical third-world texts for European classics in a wholesale manner, does not bother to mention that seven of the eight “tracks” available to students in this course retain the traditional structure. Since the presence of a significant number of European classics in the eighth track as well—the only one he discusses—cannot be disguised, D'Souza objects to the manner in which these are taught, finding it an “indignity” to suggest (in the words of the course outline) that Shakespeare in The Tempest drew on “contemporary reports of natives in the newly discovered 'new world'” (D'Souza 1991s: 70-71). Has D'Souza perhaps not bothered to read this play?

17  I am thinking of Stalin's cultural commissar A. A. Zhdanov, who on the basis of his moral and political principles had no difficulty in determining what was or was not worthwhile: his literary interventions included the declaration that there could be “no place” in Soviet literature for a satirist like Zoshchenko, or for poets like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova who sought “to deprive literature of its high ideological and social significance and to drag it down into the morass of meaninglessness and cheapness”—and no place either for the “bestial malice” of theorists like Merezhkovsky (Craig 518-21).    




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