M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

What is Deconstruction? Philosophy and Literary Theory

Instructor: Yitzhak Lewis
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Coined by Jacques Derrida, “deconstruction” is notoriously hard to define. Derrida himself insisted  that “deconstruction” is not a method of reading, nor an analytical approach, nor even stable in its own meaning. And yet, deconstruction became the cri de coeur of literary theory in the United States: to its proponents, a necessary excavation of the foundational concepts of the Western tradition; to its critics, a byword of intellectual scholasticism, even charlatanism. In the hands of its most famous practitioners, the so-called Yale School of Paul de Man,  Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and the visiting Derrida, deconstruction was used to expose a fundamental instability of meaning in a range of literary, philosophical, legal, and religious texts, while feminist deconstructionists like Hélène Cixous and Shoshana Felman used it to interrogate hierarchies of gender, power, and privilege. Yet, for all its emancipatory promise, deconstruction, in undermining the possibility of shared meaning, seemed to strike at the very foundations of politics and solidarity. How, then, can we understand deconstruction—theoretically, philosophically, and politically? What can the Deconstructionists—and their critics—teach us today?

In this course, we will examine the multifaceted and contentious emergence of deconstruction by focusing on the activities of the Yale School and its contemporaries. What were its literary and philosophical applications? What were the motivations that propelled it and the terms of debate surrounding it? What was so provocative about it, for its skeptics and detractors? We’ll explore not just the academic debates over literary interpretation and canon formation that deconstruction inspired, but also the intellectual dynamics and ethical dilemmas of the postwar landscape in which it was situated, including the discovery of de Man’s earlier collaboration with the Nazis. And, decades after its emergence, we’ll seek to situate deconstruction in our time. Is it outmoded as a theoretical practice? Or does it remain, perhaps forever after, an imperative of post-modernity? Readings will be drawn from works by Derrida, de Man, Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Stanley Fish, Shoshana Felman, and M. H. Abrams, among others.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 7:00-10:00pm EST
November 16 — December 14, 2023
4 weeks
Class will not meet Thursday, November 24th.


Registration Open

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