"The subversiveness of a deconstructive reading of literary texts is a purely textual, not political phenomenon..." Discuss in 2500 words.

Academia has always already been politicised, not necessarily in a populist sense, but in the way in which communal leaders have historically been the only ones deemed worth of education; in the way that definitions of canon have been used to delineate 'pure' literary trope from political discursion; and even in the way that many critics point to the desire of deconstruction to operate within the literary community for purposes of status and validation as a practise, but never entirely be of it. Even the tendency of critics not 'native' to deconstructive practise to narrate in a language of desire which reveals their hope of meaning, when compared to Lyotard's "crisis of legitimation",[1] presents a significative view of their personal politics.

Examining current political events rooted in historical literary precedent to identify political problems incurred by "the endless deferral of definitive meaning"[2] which deconstruction presents, and turning to The Turn of the Screw as exemplary of a literary text which possesses the potential for distinctly political subversion, I aim to present the conflict between postmodernist critics and their structuralist and Marxist precursors, and the relevance of that possible dichotomy to mainstream political dialogue. As part of discussion of this conflict, I shall be engaging with Howard Felperin as he attempts to move 'beyond deconstruction', and with other critical observation of literary politics.

To begin; as Rivkin & Ryan wryly note: "Marxists have made something of a cottage industry out of denouncing Post-Structuralism"[3] Thus, if deconstructive readings were not politically significant, it is unlikely politically-minded theorists and politicians would feel threatened by them, or seek to downplay their authority and importance. Marxist and other structuralists are closely linked in their assumption of an exterior location, which the critic may 'escape' to in order to objectively observe the text... at this juncture, however, all I wish to carry with me of Marxism is the contextual inseparability of literary and political discourse or (returning to post-structuralism) the indivisibility of those micro-narratives that provide the illusion of immediate context.

Most people, our political leaders especially, have likely discovered moments when they wished their words to be communicable unequivocally. More often, however, they seek language that may be deemed fixedly positivist by the largest possible demographic. The political speech is inseparable from any other literary collage; it is nothing if not intertextualised, perhaps best described as an unwritten palimpsest.

Developing this, President Bush's use of the word "crusade"[4] in remarks the Sunday following 9/11th was examined in the context of literary discussions of historical events. It was an instance of aporia at the heart of the discussion through which, in a deconstructive context, all past and subsequent statements may be read. Thus, whilst in one of its shades of meaning, we have the relatively innocuous "A series of actions advancing a principle or tending toward a particular end."[5], many were conscious of the worrying political implications of drawing parallels with "Any of the more or less continuous military expeditions in the 11-13th centuries when Christian powers of Europe tried to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims."[6] His subsequent prepared script expressed clear intertextualities with Roosevelt's articulation of Pearl Harbour when he spoke of "a day that will live forever in infamy"[7] It assimilated literary tropes such as the Western in metaphors such as 'wanted: dead or alive'; thereby rendering his contextualisation indivisible from a wealth of public and academic critical opinion on the conventions of that genre. The deconstructionist merely brings to our attention that comments such as those contain as much that is subjectively negative (notions of frontier justice, shooting first and asking questions later) as they convey sober, controlled and above all justified anger.

Historically too, literary deconstruction (as part of the post-structuralist movement) is inseparable from political phenomenon. Its presence is latent in structuralist theory and reflected more a change of attitude than of formulation: "After Words and Things, French thinkers began to see signification not as a gateway to structure but as a way of constructing repressive orders of knowledge."[8] This movement in thinking towards the ascription of meaning as anything but ultimately desirable and quantifiable led to a re-evaluation, not only of the self-negating boundaries of Saussurean semiotic theory, but the justness of all eternalised systems. What Derrida and others such as Irigaray identified was that working against a system having identified oneself within it merely entrapped one in the production of reflections of that system, and that only by refuting the singular / inversion hierarchy offered by binary oppositions and embracing the plural may alternatives ever be realised.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this late-60's dissatisfaction with all things self-proclaimedly authoritarian manifested itself as a frustration rapidly burgeoning into a desire to burn or otherwise erase symbols of prevailing political regimes. For, as Baudrillard wrote:

there is a major role for students, youth who are disqualified ... [who] fall into marginality, into the periphery, into the zone of disaffection and irresponsibility. Excluded from the game, their revolt henceforth aims at the rules of the game.[9]

The 'rules of the game' here being the established social order, and indeed the possibility of an order being imposed or validated. Deconstruction, then, may be viewed as a political act by virtue of its politically destabilising intent: It challenges and subverts existing, privileging values, and therefore leads to a mindset in which all discourse is closely examined for signs of conflict and paradox—one in which even the casual user of political rhetoric must beware complacency.

'Irresponsibility' is key to understanding the potential of deconstruction when applied to literary or other discourse: It does not actively seek to replace the systems it negates, which has led many to pursue the similarity in etymology of 'deconstruction' and 'destruction'. However, though aporia may be a shibboleth of the literary community, it is noticeable in popular usage in the devices of sarcasm and irony, by the differentiation of a speech act as literal or figurative dependent upon immediate context (as in the statement "the weather's nice today!"[10]) However, deconstruction is more than the relatively clear potential inversion of irony, and is often the communicator of a wish not to accept a statement at its nominal value. Many people now would read against itself a statement which remarked "everyone (dis)likes <noun/adjective>", noting the inconsistency (even if only with one's own opinion), and raising objection. There remain few tolerable subjects of which overt literarily-exclusive construction is tolerable: Examples might be that 'bigotry is unacceptable', or that 'child abuse is wrong', even though intolerance directed towards prejudice remains describable as bigotry, and 'abuse' is rarely defined, having been naturalised as the unspeakable, (as we shall further observe in our discussion of The Turn of the Screw.) However, if even single sentence statements cannot pass without deconstructive comment on their political implications and repercussions, how then can larger literary texts escape being viewed as similar phenomena, always already containing their own deconstruction?

For, as Derrida notes, "we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest."[11] Against this might be pitted the dubious caveat and oppositional critical opining of the offended structuralist, "let the semioclasts beware, lest there be no signs or idols left to break",[12] which does rather assume that any ever existed in a state not entirely fragmentary. As Derrida goes on to explain succinctly: "there is no scandal except within a system of concepts which accredits the difference between nature and culture"[13]—to whit, a world in which the only potential absolute is a lack of absolutes also lacks this fear of elusive transcendental meaning.

For Felperin, contextualisation and re-evaluation of existent material is the only way to proceed having irresponsibly 'let the cat out of the bag'; as he develops De Man's metaphor of evasive language, he concerns himself merely with asking: What is the "best strategy for survival"?[14] In the construction of "a new corrective conscience"[15], the systematically rigid canon of 'classic' literature is once more enshrined, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is predicated upon the assumed notion that art such as Shakespeare is great because there always exists an infinite plurality of meaning to be explored. I would yet more interested to discover where he would locate The Turn of the Screw within this canon, since it is a widely critically-discussed text notoriously resistant to any single definitive context; which actively makes transparent the play of a multiplicity of simultaneous narratives.

On occasions, diverse interpretability is more readily apparent than others, but the potential always already exists: When we attempt to view a sample of apparently non-homogeneous texts we realise (as does Derrida) that attempting to delineate convenient distinctions between speech and writing, or between other classifications of discourse such as political and literary spheres, creates a privileging of one pole of the binarily constructed opposition. Felperin displays this overtly and pejoratively in stating:

After more than a decade, feminism has yet to define a mode of existence for itself that transcends political cause or religious cult, and a method that addresses the special demands and problems of literary texts." [16]

In other words, criticism worthy of appreciation requires transcendence to achieve the lofty ground of pure literary criticism, and a move 'beyond' societal or personal concern. In response to this, I present that whilst discourse is viewed within a context (as Felperin himself suggests it ought be), it cannot escape the label of being 'political'. A deconstructive awareness of writing defamiliarised as 'black marks on white paper' brings us to the particulars of a publishing of a literary text, in which realisation of the implications inherent in editorial decisions help to explode the myth of the text as a fixed entity: How is authorial intention to be preserved when multiple distinct manuscripts or revisions may exist?[17] Do we judge writers and orators on the basis of what they say, what they meant to say, what we thought they meant to say, or some combination thereof? McGann observes that,

Everyone agrees, of course, that meaning is a wild variable, but people commonly also assume that the 'originals' do not vary, or (perhaps) that they vary at a much slower rate. [...] In this view we see texts as relatively stable, whereas interpretation is sowing the wind.[18]

However, questions of textual authority and a realisation of the inherent intertextuality of discourse are directly brought to the attention of the reader of The Turn of the Screw, in the way that James' narrative is told by the governess, through the medium of her writing, through the further recital of Douglas, through the senses of the narrator, by James himself.

Notably, our expectations of the text are affected and to some extent prefigured by the opening scene, the parlour ghost fictions. However, James makes an explicit point of Douglas' rebutting the narrator's assumptions:

"The moral of which was of course the seduction [...] She succumbed to it."

"She saw him only twice." [19]

The narrator also seeks to establish precipitant control over the text when he asks:

"What's your title?"

"I have n't one."

"Oh I have!"[20]

Douglas perhaps consciously bids us, as readers, to be aware of the structures we may be constructing around the events outlined in his narrative, and to question the assumptions of precedent genre and form we bring to our reading. There is contemporaneously a desire to be understood, for certain popular assumptions to be rebutted because they differ from authorial intention, and to present a narrative that contains prominent ambiguities that lend themselves to speculation.

Felman's conclusion that "To say that the mast is in reality a phallus is no more illuminating or unambiguous than to say that the phallus is in reality a mast"[21] highlights that, if the two terms become interchangeable, other terms might similarly substitute for either or both. Flora might well be attempting to fashion a miniature umbrella, a view I am equally suspicious of because it would enable a similar psychoanalytical connection to be made with the 'obviously unequivocal' feminine metaphor of the lake and water in general. It requires but a little textual harassment to construct parts of The Turn of the Screw as a wish of the author for an abeyance of primitive Freudian discourse. Large portions of this scene and the rest of the novel are saturated with Freudian imagery, to the point where James' narrative seems knowingly to satirically list; "[the spirit of Mrs Jessel] rose erect ... there was not in the long reach of her desire | an inch of her evil that fell short."[22]

This variety of textual play revealed in deconstruction and the validation of post-structuralism have been particularly warmly received by marginalized communities who recognise in the absence of grand narratives an inherent privileging of their own discourses to a level of parity with any other. Felperin is sharp (or grudging) enough to point to the political implications of the silence of female (and other) voices, which may be reclaimed and empowered through deconstructive practise.[23] There is authorial support for interpretative practise when James talks of "no eligible absolute of the wrong" and his intention to "make [the reader] think the evil";[24] he directly invites his audience to allow no mental barriers in their construal of the narrative, an invitation that possesses far-reaching political implications if one identifies themes of pederasty, subverting normative taboos that are as real today as the century previous.

Therefore, I tend towards a feeling that to read the multiplicity of meanings in The Turn of the Screw as aporia in their strictest sense is reductivist; it rather tarnishes the appeal of a novella whose interpretative qualities happily enjoin no cessation, and whose author cheerily termed it a "perfectly independent and irresponsible little fiction."[25] It also serves to suppress readings that may potentially be of great social value, which remain proscribed because the merest hint of their discussion is deemed corruptive: It would be fittingly ironic if it took a writer belonging to a Victorian society popularly branded as prudish to induce freer discussion on a such a subject in a purportedly more sophisticated and less reactionary culture. Multiplicity of meaning may not always require us to make exclusory decisions, and I think that recognition of that possibility, as it exists in potential, is always worthy of quest.

In summation, whilst people continue to analyse in terms of historical and other contexts, I conclude it insufficient response simply to pour scorn, with or without the privileging dynamic being a deconstructive reading. Perhaps, however, we might indefinitely defer the defensive reflex of forming literary faith communities to sustain semiotic dogma,[26] choosing instead to proceed with an awareness of the illusions we require to endure, and adhere to the tender truism of Rivkin & Ryan, that: "We are simply in the world we have always been in without knowing it."[27]

* * *

Reassuringly, Baudrillard's car remains alight.


Henry James, edited by Peter G. Beidler, The Turn of the Screw, Bedford, 1995

Howard Felperin, Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses And Abuses of Literary Theory, Oxford, 1985

Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998

Henry Duff (ed.), Modern Genre Theory, Pearson Education, 2000

Rice & Waugh (ed.), Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Hodder, 1992

Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition, Princeton, 1991

Political References (cached 1st November 2001):








RT1 Lecture Presentations provided by the English Department hosted 2000-01 at:


Quick reference definitions from:

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[1] RTI lecture notes

[2] Felperin, p118

[3] Rivkin & Ryan, p354

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/americas/newsid_1562000/1562436.stm

[5] WordWeb

[6] WordWeb

[7] http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/americas/newsid_1555000/1555912.stm

[8] Source: Rivkin & Ryan, p337

[9] Source: Rivkin & Ryan, p333

[10] Felperin, p125

[11] Source: Rice & Waugh, p152

[12] Felperin, p215

[13] Source: Rice & Waugh, p155

[14] Felperin, p217

[15] Felperin, p218

[16] Felperin, p209

[17] McGann, p72

[18] McGann, p184

[19] The Turn of the Screw, p27

[20] The Turn of the Screw, p27

[21] Essay in The Turn of the Screw, p201

[22] The Turn of the Screw, p98 (my italics and bar)

[23] Felperin, p208-9

[24] 1908 preface, The Turn of the Screw, p123 (this and preceding quote)

[25] 1908 preface, The Turn of the Screw, p117

[26] Felperin, p207

[27] Rivkin & Ryan, p355