No more truth, only “reading.” … “Caution! Reader at Work!”

Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature.

Derrida pushed a radical skepticism that targeted the very idea of core meaning, original intention, or truth in or behind or before or under the work itself. … Claims to true interpretation, Derrida said, rested upon a “center,” something outside the work that explained constituents of it—an author’s psychology, his religion, his class relations, and so on. Freud interprets Hamlet by invoking the Oedipal triangle, Marx takes ­Robinson Crusoe as capitalism in its fundamental form. Here’s the problem, Derrida insisted. This center is taken for granted—it has to be, in order to determine what the phenomenon means. Conventional criticism uses the center to interpret a work, but it does not interpret the center itself. God explains the Bible—we don’t explain God. The center determines the significance of the work but is not implicated in the work. The center is in the work and, at the same time, outside it.

Derrida found in this within/without center an insurmountable contradiction, one that set criticism on a different path. His followers caught the direction instantly. The new theory demanded that the “center” undergo interpretation as well. It, too, should be understood as a text to be analyzed in its turn, not a ground to be presupposed. One had to presuppose something, the Derrideans admitted, or else one could not say anything. But one could get through the impasse by being super self-conscious about it. Hence the endless qualifiers, scare-quotes, parenthetical remarks, and circling-backwards in deconstructive discourse. In this theory of reading, self-reflexivity would never stop. Interpretation must go on! This embrace of the heroic role of the endless interpreter swept everyone away. The search for the central truth of a literary work was over. The rehearsal of the forever-deferred and “problematized” truth of the work took its place. No more truth, only “reading.”

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