Louis Menand’s Strange Explanation of Deconstruction

Louis Menand: Paul de Man’s Hidden Past : The New Yorker. It seems the only way anything theoretical can get press these days is if someone has a Nazi background. Menand’s essay is strange, not because he’s a bit credulous of Evelyn Barish’s new biography, The Double Life of Paul de Man (see Peter Brook’s review essay in the New York Review of Books, which is scathing about the biography) but because he starts it by a quite respectful take on deconstruction, noting that in the 1980s, opposing accademics often failed to understand it, but critiqued it anyway:

The people who attacked de Man after the revelations about his wartime writings were attacking deconstruction, or what they imagined was deconstruction. “Deconstructionism views language as a slippery and inherently false medium that always reflects the biases of its users,” the Times advised its readers when it broke the news of de Man’s wartime journalism. Attempts to characterize deconstruction got a little better than that, but not much.

At this point, you’re waiting for the point where he explains it better. Here goes:

We could say that deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water. Which, when you watch it being done by a writer like Derrida, can be exhilarating.

Well, I didn’t think I’d see something positive on Derrida in the New Yorker. And it’s true that it’s about “interrogating apparently unproblematic terms.” But going through the looking glass, digging with a shovel made of water? Well that helps the reader, doesn’t it?