Preparing to Teach Learn Deconstruction Anything

After several weeks of reading Cleanth Brooks’s essays, my Intro to Criticism students turned to The Barbara Johnson Reader (2014) and the theory / practice of deconstruction.

This word—”deconstruction”—has a funny effect on people. Whenever I say, “My students are reading Derrida,” or, “We’re beginning a unit on deconstruction,” I tend to get pessimistic responses.

*eyes widen*
*sadistic grin* (at the thought, presumably, of the trap students are walking into)
“Glad I’m not in that class.”
“Have fun with that.”
*chuckle* “Good luck.”

I’m used to this. People occasionally smile or clap at the prospect of teaching or studying deconstructive criticism or Derridean philosophy, but I think they’re really just happy for me.

Or just happy that they don’t have to teach it.

Or they’re kind, encouraging me because they know how much it might matter to me.

Once in a while, I get a sense that people think I enjoy torturing students. I make them read things, after all, that they can’t possibly understand, texts seemingly designed to  frustrate their efforts to read and to know things.

As a scholar and teacher of Virginia Woolf’s writings, I’m pretty used to bafflement in the classroom, it’s true, but I get no pleasure out of student pain or anxiety.

When teaching formally, syntactically, conceptually, or stylistically challenging texts, I see my pedagogic task as a kind of preparation for the transfiguration

of frustration into curiosity,
of barriers into gestures of invitation,
of the desire to know right now into an acceptance of perpetual but variable uncertainty and the “surprise of otherness” (Johnson 332).

In one of the last essays included in The Barbara Johnson Reader, “Teaching Ignorance: L’École des femmes” (originally published in 1982), Johnson writes,

“What Socrates seeks [in Phaedrus] . . . is to teach the student that he does not know. To teach ignorance is, for Socrates, to teach to unknow, to become conscious of the fact that what one thinks is knowledge is really an array of received ideas, prejudices, and opinions—a way of not knowing that one does not know. . . . The question of education . . . is the question not of how to transmit but how to suspend knowledge” (419).

This pedagogic suspension can be poisonous or curative.

Negatively, it might repress and keep students from preparing themselves for the world. (Telling students, for instance, that the oceans are not warming up. That the world is safer than it has ever been. That they should not worry about the men or mechanisms behind the curtain. It’s not really worth checking anyway . . .)

“But positive ignorance,” Johnson writes, “the pursuit of what is forever in the act of escaping, the inhabiting of that space where knowledge becomes the obstacle to knowing—that is the pedagogical imperative we can neither fulfill nor disobey” (419-20).

What does this mean?

I want students to learn to honor signs of strangeness in the familiar, to notice tracks that lead off beaten paths, to encounter problems and optics and others that will teach them what I cannot . . .

I want them to learn to be prepared to encounter and then to sit with something they won’t be prepared to understand. At least not yet. Not right away.

Whether it’s a poem.
Or a novel.
Or an idea.
Or a human being.
Or a way of reading.
Or deconstruction.

Is this deconstructive teaching? Teaching deconstructively? Is it possible to assess this goal?

But how to teach deconstruction and deconstructive criticism deconstructively? It is (perhaps) a good thing to train the deconstructive habit of mind, but my task in ENGL 284 is not just to teach habits of mind but to teach students to see the difference and to move between New Critical interpretation and deconstructive criticism (and many, many other paradigms).

A few years ago, I taught Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology in a class on postmodernism. Not everyone took to it, of course, but I did discover that even if they learned to deal skillfully with Derridean syntax that a much more significant problem awaited my students: The book was not written with literature students in mindIt inhabits the margins of a different tradition.

At the beginning of this public conversation between Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, Spivak addresses the difficulty of Derrida’s writing and that one must be prepared to read him.

She narrates here (as she has been doing recently, since the publication of the 40th- anniversary retranslation of Of Grammatology) that she came to Derrida wholly ignorant of the philosophical tradition. That she had to immerse herself in it in order to learn to enter Derrida’s strange text.

But my students in that postmodernism class three years ago did not have time to do this.

And Spivak’s long preface (which I love) could not help them.

It is not enough, after all, to have a passing understanding of Ferdinand de Saussure to understand Of Grammatology. Who is Jean-Jacques Rousseau? (My students had never heard of him.) Who is Martin Heidegger? Hegel? And what does Freud or Nietzsche have to do with this book about the (impossibility of the) science of writing? Why should it matter that philosophers, linguistics, and theologians have been subordinating writing to speech for millennia?

How is this subordination related to anthropology and masturbation?

The challenge of teaching deconstruction and Derridean writing in general, then, is not just definitional—what is a “trace”? what is “différance”?

Definitions only get one so far.

Additionally, the challenge is affective or relational. Why should I care? What does it matter? Why should I invest a piece of my short life (the only one I have) into this book and this writer I can’t understand?

Preparation, I’ve learned, is not just a problem when teaching deconstruction.

Jumping back to Fall 2016, when we studied Cleanth Brooks, his casual references to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, I.A. Richards, William Empson, and other poets and critics tended to operate as obstacles to student understanding (rather than as points of clarification).

These references are clear to me.

Some might be clear to students who have taken their literature surveys.

But to most of my students, an allusion to someone named Coleridge is as obscure as a reference to the Hegelian dialectic or to Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche or to Swiss linguist who never wrote about literature.

Mastering the literary allusions of Brooks or the philosophical tradition of Derrida in one go—beforehand, before reading them—is clearly impossible. But this problem of preparation—which is to say, of perpetual unpreparedness—is one way, perhaps, to read Johnson’s pedagogical imperative.

And it is also one way to teach the difference between New Criticism and deconstructive criticism.

As much as I have come to admire Brooks, who wants us to learn to become alive to the poems we read, he also begins from the presupposition that to be alive to a poem means understanding its wholeness, its integrity, and its preparedness for us to examine each of its parts and to assume their mutual, collective, and organic functioning.

This approach is useful. It teaches us to honor complexity, to love the variations of an idea in every feature and element of even the simplest poem.

But such an approach, according to Johnson’s theory of teaching, makes a categorical mistake: that the poem is whole and complete; that I (the reader) am separate; that I as a prepared subject observe it as a prepared and finished object.

But once I shift my presupposition and recognize that I encounter texts in the middle of things (and in the middle of my life), suddenly I might learn to unknow the themes and ideas which I come to expect in Wordsworth or Keats poems. I might also learn—as Johnson teaches us—to follow the trace of a problem (like “Muteness Envy”) across romantic poems, myths, Lacanian theory, film, film reviews, and political campaigns.

I might come to see that my lack of preparedness is the very condition of possibility for learning not just deconstruction but, perhaps, anything. The condition to see what I might not have otherwise seen.

In preparing to teach deconstruction (via Johnson’s work), I have come to learn that my lectures or our discussions of binary oppositions, traces, the tendencies / strategies of deconstructive criticism, or deconstruction itself might not be the most important thing that students learn.

From their own beginnings—entangled in the middle-of-things—perhaps students will learn to unknow something wholly non-literary.

To critique presuppositions.
To wonder about the silences they envy or demand.
To ponder the nature of the languages they know best.
To reflect on what they find monstrous.
To interrogate the boundaries of their sense of self.
To see the failures at the heart of the myth of success.

Or perhaps they will come to admire—even love, be surprised by—what a deconstructive “execution” of Herman Meville’s Billy Budd might look like.

Reading on . . .


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