The Deconstructive Angel (Meyer H. Abrams, 1912-)

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Critical philosopher and cultural historian. Abrams received HA, MA and Ph.D. from Harvard and has taught since 1945 at Cornell, He is known for the editorship of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, for his contribution to literary history and history of ideas in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) and, to the delight of the literature students, for A Glossary of Literary Terms (1971). Abrams writings display well his breadth of knowledge, as exemplified in the following essay (1971), a response to "a tendency in contemporary American criticism toward ideological monism as well as to deprecating the usefulness of knowledge of the intellectual tradition of East and West (the socalled canon) and questioning the virtues of pluralistic humanism. "

 

 
It is often said that Derrida and those who follow his lead subordinate all inquiries to a prior inquiry into language. This is true enough, but not specific enough, for it does not distinguish Derrida's work from what Richard Rorty calls "the linguistic turn" which characterizes modern Anglo-American philosophy and also a great part of Anglo-American literary criticism, including the "New Criticism," of the last half-century. What is distinctive about Derrida is first that, like other French structuralists, he shifts his inquiry from language to ecriture, the written or printed text; and second that he conceives a test in an extraordinarily limited fashion.

 
Derrida's initial and decisive strategy is to disestablish the priority, in traditional views of languages, of speech over writing. By priority I mean the use of oral discourse as the conceptual model from which to derive the semantic and other features of written language and of language in general. And Derrida's shift of elementary reference is to a written text which consists of what we find when we look at it — to "un texte deja ecrit, noir sur blanc. " In the dazzling play of Derrida's expositions, his ultimate recourse is to these black marks on white paper as the sole things that arc actually present in reading, and so are not fictitious constructs, illusions, phantasms; the visual features of these black-on-blanks he expands in multiple dimensions of elaborately figurative significance, only to contract them again, at telling moments, to their elemental status. The only things that are patently there when we look at the text arc "marks" that are demarcated, and separated into groups, by " blanks;" there are also "spaces," "margins," and the "repetitions" and "differences" that we find when we compare individual marks and groups of marks. By his rhetorical mastery Derrida solicits us to follow him in his move to these new premises, and to allow ourselves to be locked into them. This move is from what he calls the closed "logocentric" model of all traditional or "classical" views of language (which, he maintains, is based on the illusion of a Platonic or Christian transcendent being or presence, serving as the origin and guarantor of meanings) to what 1 shall call his own graphocentric model, in which the sole presences are marks-on-blanks.

 
By this bold move Derrida puts out of play, before the game even begins, every source of norms, controls, or indicators which, in the ordinary use and experience of language, set a limit to what we can mean and what we can be understood to mean. Since the only givens are already-existing marks, "deja ecrit," we are denied recourse to a speaking or writing subject, or ego, or cogito, or consciousness, and so to any possible agency for the intention of meaning something ("vouloir dire"); all such agencies are relegated to the status of fictions generated by language, readily dissolved by deconstructivc analysis. By this move he leaves us no place for referring to how we learn to speak, understand, or read language, and how, by interaction with more competent users and by our own developing experience with language, we come to recognize and correct...
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