Barbara Johnson and Deconstruction


José Ángel García Landa

Brown University


Web edition 2004



In Barbara Johnson's works I find an attractive and masterful articulation of most innovative critical approaches of the last twenty years: structuralism, deconstruction, feminist and black criticism. It is significant that feminist and race issues are present only in her latest book; she is trying to develop ways of making the deconstructive undecidability relevant to political issues, to show the connections between "the difference within" and the differences relevant in political debate. She is still within the pale of literary studies, but I would not be surprised if she eventually became interested in other social discourses beyond the academia. I think that this desire to build bridges between deconstruction and the social movements of the USA is the main difference between her approach and Paul de Man's; she is finding a personal voice (but Derrida, for one, would no doubt be horrified to hear this expression!).

I have a problem with the idea often articulated by Paul de Man and the early Barbara Johnson that literature "stages the modes of its own misreading" (Johnson, The Critical Difference xii) or that "poetic writing is the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruction" (de Man, Allegories of reading 17). Johnson declares the affirmative moment of theory to be irrelevant. Theory is not useful to grasp literary works, "On the contrary , it is through contact with literature that theoretical tools are useful precisely to the extent that they thereby change and dissolve in the hands of the user" (CD xi-xii). But surely there are interesting effects which derive from the way theory hits the target, and not merely from the way it misses. If all works contain their own deconstruction, why write theory? Because, as we see later, the difference within the text is not evident: identifying the opposite forces at war inside one text requires an amount of "careful teasing out" (CD 5). Who does the deconstruction? In the first essay of The Critical Difference, the subject opposed to Barthes is not so much Balzac as "Balzac's text", but when Barthes's meaning becomes plural and undecidable as well, we have "Barthes's text." Are texts endowed with a consciousness or an agency of their own? I think that a more adequate perspective would be: "I do the deconstruction using Barthes's or Balzac's text; the forces in the text are at war from my perspective." It is risky to assume that something is in "the text itself" beyond the more generally shared linguistic conventions which constitute it as a text. And being vague or dismissive about who exactly does the deconstruction (WD 66, Johnson or Mallarmé?) entails the risk of ahistoricism.

I do not find in these essays the answer to why undecidability becomes in some way decidable, to where to stop deconstructing. Johnson's answer that we must activate ignorance and learn to forget our principles (A World of Difference 16) does not clarify things to me. It is symptomatic that in the more recent articles this issue is not pursued, and deconstruction is seen in a Culler-like way as negative principle which moderates the totalizing claims of other discourses (e.g. feminism, WD 46; racial essentialism, WD 166).

The emphasis in the recent sections of A World of Difference is, well, different. Now we find that Johnson's theory no longer effaces her own role in the deconstruction. She asks herself "why am I reading this text?" or "What question about it does it itself not raise?" (WD 4)-- questions which are a far cry from the inbuilt deconstructions theorized in CD. The play of the text with itself has given place to "the complex dynamism of an interaction" between writer and reader. This approach surely builds bridges between deconstruction and other theoretical approaches, but I wonder whether it does not forsake some the dearest tenets of deconstruction, and reduce it to criticism.