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Hugo Blumenthal © 2006

The Limits and Advantages of Deconstruction:


Reading Pamela, Humphry Clinker, and Evelina

by Hugo Blumenthal

‘deconstruction n. not what you think: the


experience of the impossible: what remains to be
thought: a logic of destabilization always already on
the move in ‘things themselves’: what makes every
identity at once itself and different from itself: a logic
of spectrality: a theoretical and practical parasitism or
virology: what is happening today in what is called
society, politics, diplomacy, economics, historical
reality, and so on: the opening of the future itself.’
Nicholas Royle, What is Deconstruction?

Introduction (to a paradoxical task)


To pretend to write about the advantages and limitations of deconstruction for the study of
literature or the practice of literary criticism is a paradoxical task. First of all, because
deconstruction cannot but question our role as evaluators (that is, position, authority,
criteria, etc.), as well as the institution (here university) under which such evaluation is not
only made possible but necessary. Second, because deconstruction would necessarily
question the assumption that it could offer a ‘method’ for the interpretation of literary texts;
and if deconstruction cannot be said to be or to have a method or a theory that could be
applied to literature, what then could we evaluate in terms of advantages and limitations?
And third, but not last, because the homogeneous existence of something called
‘deconstruction’, for all we know, could be not more than an illusion that haunts most of its
declared opponents.
Trying to avoid static definitions of ‘deconstruction’ (singular), J. Hillis Miller has
repeatedly ‘defined’ ‘deconstructions’ (plural) as mere practices of good reading. In fact,
understanding for good readers ‘those readers who are, for whatever reason, sensitive to the
kinds of rhetorical complexities that Derrida, for example, sees in works’, Miller has gone
as far as to be ‘prepared to say that all good readers are deconstructionists.’1 Unfortunately,
even if I would not go as far as to imply that there have not been some quite ‘good readers’
of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, and Frances
Burney’s Evelina, there does not seem to be ‘criticism’ of any these three novels that could

1 ‘The Authority of Reading: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller’, conducted by Martin Heusser and Harold
Schweizer, in J. Hillis Miller, Hawthorne & History: Defacing It (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991), p. 158.

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be considered a deconstruction.2 A fourth paradox then arises, having to evaluate an


‘application’ that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Because of that, we would have to
concentrate on an evaluation of the possibilities of deconstruction, rather than in
‘deconstruction’ as something already given.

Writing as a Deconstructive Topic


To glance at some of the possibilities of reading that a deconstruction could make
available, let’s take the topic of writing, one of Jacques Derrida’s main interests, clearly
manifest through his first books and essays: writing, as it tend to be considered secondary,
accessory, dangerous, misleading, etc., in relation to speech, thought, truth, etc. 3 Writing
also could be a very interesting topic to start with, in relation to Pamela, Humphry
Clinker, and Evelina, as they are –to borrow Julian Wolfreys’s words to describe
Charlotte Perkins Hilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper– ‘representations in writing of the act
of writing,’ where ‘the subject is read as writing’ of herself (or himself) writing. 4 In other
words, these novels appear not just written by an author (Richardson, Smollett, or
Burney), but also, at the same time, appear as composed by letters and journals written by
some of the characters (Pamela, Evelina, Matthew Bramble, etc), who in not few
occasions appear as writing about their writing.
A deconstruction in relation to the question of writing in these three novels could start
by analyzing what all the writers (including the characters that write) state as the reasons
for their writing, or the function that writing seems to have for them. Among those
reasons, let’s remember, for example, that Humphry Clinker mentions two for writing
‘novels’ in England in the Eighteenth century: as a ‘branch of business’, apparently
opposed to writing ‘merely for the propagation of virtue’ (HC160).5 From there, a

2 Joanne Cutting-Gray’s ‘Evelina: Writing Between Experience and Innocence’, Woman as ‘Nobody’ and the
Novels of Fanny Burney (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992), pp. 9-31, seems to have some
influences from deconstruction, but she prefers to define her critical position as ‘hermeneutic’; Julia
Epstein’s ‘Evelina: Protecting the Heroine’, The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s
Writing (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1989), pp. 93-122, though a feminist reading with some
resemblances of deconstruction, is rather dismissive of deconstruction as a outdated fashion (cf. p.
227-228). Richardson’s Clarissa has had better luck in relation with deconstruction, especially with
William Beatty Warner’s Reading Clarissa. For a defence of his deconstructive reading of Clarissa against
the criticisms of Terry Eagleton and Terry Castle, see William Beatty Warner, ‘Reading Rape: Marxist-
Feminist Figurations of the Literal’, Diacritics, 13, 4 (1983), pp. 12-32.
3 Cf. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London: John Hopkins
University Press, 1997); Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Dissemination, trans. by Barbara Johnson
(London: Continuum, 2000), pp. 67-186; and Jacques Derrida, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, Writing
and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 246-291.
4 Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 76.
5 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, ed. by T.
C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971); Tobias Smollett, The
Expedition of Humphry Clinker, ed. by Angus Ross (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985); Fanny Burney,
Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, ed. by Edward A. Bloom (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998). For economy, I would use the following abbreviations for the quotations:
P for Pamela, HC for Humphry Clinker, and E for Evelina, followed by a page number. Therefore, ‘P105’ is
not a misprint of ‘P. 105’, but stands for Pamela, p. 105.

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deconstruction could start to explore and contrast the possible functions of writing for
Richardson, Smollett, and Frances Burney (as they could have been ‘at the moment’ of
these three novels), with those of their characters.
After all, by writing no novels but letters and journals, the characters seem to have a
completely different set of reasons: Lydia says to write because it ‘lightens the burthen of
affliction’ (HC348), and Pamela says to write to ‘divert My Grief’, and is encouraged by
Mrs. Jewkes to keep her ‘out of worse Thoughts’ (P105). Apart from that, Pamela’s
writing seems primarily used as an aid to memory (P94), to strength her resolutions and
keep her virtue (P52); and the same could be said about Evelina. But the characters that
write in Humphry Clinker also could use writing with similar functions (though apparently
less as a guarantee for moral behaviour): Matt and Jery Bramble, for example, account for
everything ‘worth’ seeing and mentioned through their journey or ‘expedition’, so their
letters also promote a question of archive, of leaving register of experience.6
A deconstruction could then focus on how writing seems to be regarded as a tool, not
only to ‘re-present’ a reality, thought or speech that would supposedly exist or would have
been ‘present’ ‘before’ writing (as it could be the case with Richardson’s ‘writing to the
moment’) but also for something else. A deconstruction then could follow all these reasons
through, to see to what point the writers could be said to have achieved or not their
purposes through their acts of writing. In the last term, a deconstruction could probably
show how such ‘uses’ of writing are deconstructed by the same practice of writing that
seems to contain or perform them: witting, for example, being not only a form to record
experience, but of shaping or creating experience –as pointed out by Joanne Cutting-Gray
in relation to Evelina.7

Deconstructing Appearances
Taking as a model Derrida’s now famous strategy used in Of Grammatology to deconstruct
the binary opposition speech/writing, a critic could try to deconstruct the opposition
between appearances and what is taken for real or truth –an opposition not only essential to
Western metaphysics, but also particularly marked in our three novels, especially as a
warning to young, ‘innocent’ women, against a deceptive world. One of the tasks for a
deconstruction then could be to see to what degree Pamela, Humphry Clinker, and Evelina
deconstruct or subvert the binary opposition reality/appearances they seem to promote; to
see if appearances are not, in the last instance, the condition of possibility of truth or what
is considered real.
That does not mean that the critic would end up merely acknowledging the importance
of the existence of appearances (that must be mistrusted) as something necessary to oppose
to something else that could then be called truth or real (and that could be taken for
granted); to do so, would be to reinforce the same opposition that a deconstruction would
pursue to deconstruct. On the contrary, a deconstruction would need to show how

6 For the question of archive, see Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. by Eric
Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
7 Joanne Cutting-Gray, ‘Evelina: Writing Between Experience and Innocence’, p. 24.

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appearances are important or fundamental (as much as truth or what is real) through the
three novels, almost to the point that there could be said to exist ‘only’ appearances (from
the form ‘to appear’, to become into existence), where truth or what is taken as real could
be taken as ‘other forms’ of appearances. But it must be made clear that the goal of
deconstruction is not to instaurate the inversion of a binary opposition (as J. M. Ellis and
Peter Zima seem to think, taking for the whole of ‘deconstruction’ what constitutes only a
part of one of its possible strategies), but to show how the ‘secondary’ term is fundamental,
contained in the existence of the first.8
In order to do this, there are many possible ‘threads’ that a deconstruction could follow
in each text. Let’s take, for example, the case of Evelina.
First, it could be possible to show how Evelina is constantly reminded that she must not
trust appearances, to the point that after her disillusion with Orville she decides that ‘never,
never again will I trust to appearances […]’ (E256). But later on she is encouraged to
confront her father, based in her appearance, ‘without any other certificate of your birth,
[but] that which you carry in your countenance, as it could not be effected by artifice
[…]’ (E337). And in the end, it is because of such appearance that she is recognized by her
father (E374).
Second, a deconstruction could show how Evelina deceives herself, trusting her inner
self, without being able to recognize her love for Lord Orville, a love that she keeps
assuming to be something else, until Mr. Villars (who can only judge from Evelina’s
exterior appearances) reveals to her the truth of her condition. That would prove how the
‘inner’ self –which, by apparently not depending of exterior appearances, could be taken
as a core of truth–, could be as deceptive as appearances.
Third, to show that there is not such a thing as a clear difference between appearances
and truth, a deconstruction could be focused in Evelina taking for granted the truth of
Orville’s signature, and what comes signed by it. A signature, after all, is supposed to be a
guarantee of truth, as a form for a subject to claim responsibility for what he/she signs.
But a signature is also –as Derrida has shown– an appearance of signature: it depends on
the possibility of its repetition –and because of that, it could be also ‘falsified’, repeated
by someone to whom it does not ‘belong’.9 And in effect, what Evelina takes for the truth
or reality of Orville’s signature would prove to be, later on, an ‘appearance’ created by
Willoughby. But because of her belief in the truth of such signature, Evelina must also
believe in the ‘content’ of the ‘false’ letter. And even though that Orville is in love with
her (the meaning she gathers in her first reading) would prove to be truth, Evelina cannot
but be shocked by the contrast between (what she takes to be the truly expression of)
Orville’s socially improper intentions towards her, and Orville’s behavior when they have
met (what she then takes as mere appearances).

8 Cf. Peter V. Zima, Deconstruction and Critical Theory, trans. by Rainer Emig (London: Continuum, 2006),
p. 173. See also H. M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
9 Cf. Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 307-330.

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And taking further the subjects of letters, signatures, appearances and truth, a
deconstruction could also raise questions about the epistolary novel as a genre, asking, for
example, if Pamela, Humphry Clinker, and Evelina, contain or are formed of real letters
or appearance of letters. After all, Pamela also contains ‘falsified’ letters, as the one Mr.
B sends to Pamela’s parents, ‘in her name’, and Humphry Clinker raises similar questions
with ‘Wilson’s’ love letter to Lydia, which could be said to be basically truth, even if
who signs it signs with somebody else’s name. But in general, a deconstruction then
could show how all the letters in the three novels are also confronted by similar questions
of writing and authorship, with a ‘real’ author (for example Frances Burney) ‘signing’
also with somebody else’s name (for example ‘Evelina’ in her letters, within the novel).
A deconstruction then could ask that, if at one level all three novels seem to warn against
appearances, could that warning be also applicable against the appearance of reality of
each novel? Or does each novel also criticize such warnings against trusting appearances?

Correspondences and Names


The epistolary genre and the question of the name contain also a whole series of other
related issues, as pointed out by Derrida in some of his works. 10 The materiality of the
letter, the letter as an object, for example, is important in relation to its possible (or
sometimes apparently necessary) concealment, the possibility that it could be read by
others (and therefore fall in wrong hands) than the person it was intended to –as in
Pamela and Evelina, but also as possibility of the three novels, that ‘exist’ on condition of
the possibility of making public (publishing) letters essentially regarded as private. There
is also a question about the channels a letter follows (or posting and delivering), and how
a letter could be deviated from them, by mistake (apparently delivered to the wrong
person, as in Pamela (P144)), be stolen (as in Evelina (E259) and Pamela (P34)), or get
lost. Such channels relate to questions of authority, gender, and patriarchal models, as in
Humphry Clinker, where the male (Matthew and Jery), heads of the family, are the ones
with the most mediums of getting their letters delivered –whereas women (manly
Winifred Jenkins and Lydia) depend upon favorable circumstances to send their letters.
That relates also to freedom, censure and clandestinity, as for Pamela, Evelina, and Lydia.
A deconstruction could ask, in relation to Evelina, for example, what a ‘correspondence’
means, when does one could be said to start or exist, what it involves (as to be considered
‘improper’ –what a deconstruction, in a game of words, could relate to the question
‘property’– and immoral for a single woman, in the Eighteenth-century, to correspond to/
with a man), etc.11 All these relate to questions of signature, proper name, identity (as
self-writing and self-definition), the body (especially the female body, with the letter as
fetish, as in Pamela (P203-04)), and the letter as a gift.

10 See, particularly, Derrida’s deconstruction of Jacques Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The
Purloined Letter’ in Jacques Derrida, ‘Le facteur de la vérité’, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and
Beyond, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 411-496; and Jacques
Derrida, On the Name, ed. by Thomas Dutoit (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).
11 Cf. Nicholas Royle, After Derrida (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 118, n. 9.

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Focusing on the question of the name, then, a deconstruction could help to explore
questions that relate to authority, inheritance and identity. It could ask for the ‘origin’ of
certain names, and what implications does such an ‘origin’ carries with them. After all, if
–as Julian Wolfreys has pointed out– ‘the name assumes, or is assumed to have, a framing
function. Its use is economical, implying a closed system and intimating a unitary
presence, origin or source,’ one of the functions of a deconstruction could be to
deconstruct such ‘intimations.’12
For example, Evelina, by bearing her grandfather’s and mother’s surname (Evelyn),
carries with her some ‘absences’ and some ‘presences’: the absence and presence of her
mother, as a memory of her mother’s death (a mother who she also resembles); an
‘absence’, the lack of the father’s recognition, legality (as a sort of bastard), social
position (because the father possess not only the title, but also a ‘fortune’), and therefore,
apparently, the cause of most of her difficulties. In a similar way, Humphry Clinker could
be said to suffer in his name, or because of his name is not what it ‘should’ had been,
because of an accident involving names, with his father having changed his name, etc.
The question of the name is also important in Pamela: Pamela is certainly recognized by
her parents, but ends up changing her humble condition as servant by marrying her master
and changing her father’s name –becoming instead part of the name of her ‘master’, a
form of erasure proper of ‘courtship novels’, as pointed out by Julia Epstein.13
For a deconstruction, however, such questioning of the name does not have to be
circumscribed to within the novels, but could also raise questions on what is called
‘literary influence’, with Evelina not only bearing clear influences from Richardson’s
Pamela, but also (though apparently less obviously) from Smollett’s Humphry Clinker.14

Translations and Influences


But the ‘deconstructive’ topics and reading strategies mentioned above are not only far
from representing a complete list of all the ones that could be explored and performed by ‘a
deconstruction’, but are also far from representing all the deconstructive readings that could
be possible in relation to our three novels.15 A more complete list of the topics and readings
strategies ‘of’ deconstruction must necessarily take into consideration not only the works of
Jacques Derrida, but also those by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Barbara
Johnson, Tom Cohen, Colin McCabe, Julian Wolfreys, Geoffrey Bennington, Nicholas

12 Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida, p. 86.


13 Julia Epstein, ‘Marginality in Frances Burney’s Novels’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth
Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002), p. 199.
14 For some of the similarities and differences between Evelina and Humphry Clinker, see Ronald Paulson,
‘Evelina: Cinderella and Society’, in Modern Critical Interpretations: Fanny Burney’s Evelina, ed. by
Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1988), pp. 5-12; and John Skinner, ‘Charlotte Lennox’s The Female
Quixote and Frances Burney’s Evelina’, An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Raising the Novel
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 196-211.
15 Just for more of Derrida’s ‘interests’, see Geoffrey Bennington, ‘Derridabase’, in Geoffrey Bennington and
Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 3-316; and Niall Lucy,
A Derrida Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

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Royle, Derek Attridge, Peggy Kamuf, and William Beatty Warner, to mention just some of
the best-known in English. But even then, deconstruction cannot be limited to an already
established body of concepts, topics, figures or reading strategies. And to use the same
topics, concepts or figures, as in an inter-textual reading (reading Pamela ‘with’ Derrida,
for example), does not necessarily constitute a deconstruction of anything –even if that
could be as valid as reading Sterne’s Tristram Shandy with Locke.16
The topics, figures and reading strategies of every deconstructive attempt depend not
only on what is intended to be deconstructed, but also of the particularities of the texts
where such deconstruction is going to take its place. In other words, one cannot
generalize, create a method to ‘deconstruct’.17 A method, after all, implies not only an
erasure of differences, by generalization (since in order to apply, the method must reduce
everything to the same), but also ‘totalization’ (the method, then, assumes to account for
everything). That would amount to generate the kind of ‘constructions’ that
deconstructions usually seek to deconstruct. And that is not because deconstruction could
be said to reject the elaboration of theories. Derrida’s writing on logocentrism in Western
metaphysics, as well as Paul de Man’s writing on the ‘blindness’ inherent to every act of
criticism, are theories, after all, but theories raised by recurrent findings through a series
of particular texts, not methods that could be applied to any text, indiscriminative of its
differences. In that sense, ‘deconstruction’ could be said to exist only in its
‘applications’.18 There is nothing as a pure theory of deconstruction.19
But that does not imply that each deconstruction has to be absolutely different. That is
not to say that some deconstructive practices cannot be transposed or ‘trans-lated’ into a
deconstruction operating in a different text. After all –as Julian Wolfreys puts it, quoting
Derrida–, ‘the chance of ‘deconstruction’, of a ‘deconstructive mode’, of that ‘kind of
practice’ is in transformation, translation from ‘the same thing each time.’20 That is, even if
deconstruction also cannot but remind the critic that there is nothing as a perfect
translation, that something cannot be transposed into another medium or context and keep
the ‘same’ (invariable) meaning or function. Bearing that in mind, it is that deconstruction
could be seen has always already in ‘translation’, through what could be called its

16 Cf. John Traugott, Tristram Shandy’s World: Sterne’s Philosophical Rhetoric (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1954).
17 Cf. Jacques Derrida, ‘Deconstruction and the Other’, p. 124, quoted by Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction ·
Derrida, p. 50.
18 Cf. Geoffrey Bennington, ‘X’, in Applying: to Derrida, ed. by John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins and Julian
Wolfreys (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 1-21.
19 Cf. Jacques Derrida, ‘Letter to a Japanese Friend’, trans. by David Wood and Andrew Benjamin, in A
Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. by Peggy Kamuf (London: Harvester, 1991), p. 273.
20 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, p. 28-29, quoted by Julian
Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida, p. 90.

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influence or legacy.21 Or to borrow the title of one of Nicholas Royle’s books ‘on’
Derrida, today critics seem obliged to deconstruct ‘after’ not only Derrida and Paul de
Man (still the most influential names associated with deconstruction), but ‘after’ many of
those others names mentioned above. In other words, today we are obliged to deconstruct
after ‘deconstruction’, understanding by ‘after’ not as if deconstruction had been a thing
from a past to which we could return to or leave behind, but as ‘something’ that somehow
‘has taken place’ in the field of literary criticism (though deconstruction is far from being
limited to literary criticism, this is what concerns us here), that has taken place and is
something still ‘to come.’22

Further Advantages and Limits


By not being limited to a series of topics or procedures, deconstruction works perfectly at
ease with/within a wide range of critical theories, approaches or discourses, as philosophy,
literature, history, linguistics, politics, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism… In fact, it
could be argued that there does not exist anything that could be called a pure work of
deconstruction. The works of Derrida, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller, for example, could
be located, roughly, as ‘in between’ ‘philosophy’ and ‘literature’; the deconstructive work
of Barbara Johnson (translator of Derrida’s Dissemination) could be located between
psychoanalysis and feminism; and the deconstructive work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
(an earlier translator of Derrida’s Of Grammatology) could be located between post-
colonialism and feminism.
And in relation some of those ‘other’ critical theories, other advantages of the ‘use’ of
deconstruction –as pointed out by Spivak, explaining her interest in deconstruction– could
also be
[…] the recognition, within deconstructive practice, of provisional and
intractable starting points in any investigative effort; its disclosure of
complicities where a will to knowledge would create oppositions; its
insistence that in disclosing complicities the critic-as-subject is herself
complicit with the object of her critique; its emphasis upon “history” and upon
the ethico-political as the “trace” of that complicity –the proof that we do not
inhabit a clearly defined critical space free of such traces; and, finally, the
acknowledgment that its own discourse can never be adequate to its
example.23
However, depending of the point of view, some of those same advantages could be
perceived by some critics as limitations, disadvantages, or even dangers. That is,
deconstruction is sometimes perceived as an a-historical, generalized scepticism, that over-

21 On the ‘translation’ of deconstruction, see Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida, p. 30. On the
transference of a legacy, see Jacques Derrida, ‘To Speculate –On “Freud”’, The Post Card: From Socrates
to Freud and Beyond, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 257-409.
22 Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, p. 4.
23 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Draupadi’, pp. 382-383, quoted by Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, pp.
224-225.

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interprets the role of marginal elements, makes everything relative, undermines all
foundations (including the idea of objectivity and truth), and leads therefore to anarchy. As
for the political role of deconstruction, it is well known that for some critics it is practically
non-existent.24

Marginal Elements
Certainly, a reading strategy that a deconstruction could pursue through Pamela,
Humphry Clinker, and Evelina, is by focusing on those elements that could be said to be
located ‘at the margins’ of the text: things as the titles, the dating of each letter or journal
entry, the signatures, the comments of the ‘editors’, etc. (Not to be confounded with the
marginal as a topic. After all, Pamela, Humphry Clinker and Evelina, though figures of
the marginal or ‘outcast’ in relation to their societies, as ‘protagonists’ cannot be said to
constitute a marginal topic).25 The titles of our three novels, for example, are especially
telling in their abbreviations (Pamela, Humphry Clinker, Evelina): located at the margins
of the book, in the cover (next to the author’s name), those very names designate a
‘content’ (a novel called ‘Evelina’) and a subject (a girl called ‘Evelina’). In other words,
because of the title, the writing that constitutes each novel seems to be made equivalent to
a character. Through this marginal figure of the title, a deconstruction could then start to
deconstruct some binary oppositions, as inside/outside, private/public, or other forms of
logocentrism in relation to writing and identity, authority and authorship, property and
female virginity. After all, the title could be shown to work as a membrane or hymen, that
keeps apart and connects the inside and the outside (what is in the novel, and it is
outside); the private (letter and diaries, as the most ‘private’ forms of writing about what
is regarded as ‘private life’) and the public (by been published as novels, everyone can
read them); etc.26
A deconstruction, then, does not have to restrict itself to what is acknowledged as the
main concerns or themes of a text, but neither it limits itself to work with the so-called
marginal. If some of Derrida’s work, for example, manifest a preference for marginal
elements, that is more due to a question of strategy, not an explicit limitation imposed by
‘deconstruction’. But still, a deconstruction would certainly encourage the thinking of the
marginal, supplementary, excluded, as it could prove to be vital to the same system that
apparently tries to put it aside or conceal it. As a result, such strategy cannot be said to be
restricted to the marginal elements it uses as a starting points –especially since by

24 Cf. Jacques Derrida comments on the criticisms of ‘deconstructionism’ by Marxism and New Historicism,
in Jacques Derrida, ‘Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Post-isms, Parasitisms,
and other Small Seismisms’, trans. by Anne Tomiche, in The States of ‘Theory’: History, Art and Critical
Discourse, ed. by David Carroll (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 90; quoted by Nicholas
Royle, After Derrida, p. 38, n35.
25 For a ‘non-deconstructive’ reading of the topic of marginality, see Julia Epstein, ‘Marginality in Frances
Burney’s Novels’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti
(Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002), pp. 198-211.
26 Cf. Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida, pp. 92, 109.

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deconstructing the marginal the critic inevitably ends deconstructing what the text
supposedly proposes in relation to its ‘central’ themes.

Deconstructive Criticism
A deconstruction, then, cannot be said to deconstruct novels but certain readings of those
novels. In fact, a deconstruction does not claim to deconstruct anything by itself, but to
show how a text contains the deconstructions of its own readings. That does not mean,
however, that deconstruction negates the possibility of ‘standard readings’ –as M. H.
Abrams seems to think–, but that questions that such ‘standard reading’ could be taken as
the truth of the text. 27 What a deconstruction then usually does is to follow certain textual
threads in order to deconstruct a reading that could be shown as a simplification or
misreading.28 In that sense, it goes without saying that a critic could also deconstruct
previous deconstructions –as Paul de Man has shown through a deconstruction of one of
Derrida’s deconstructions in relation to Rousseau’s Confessions. 29
Such apparent implication of the possibility of an endless process of criticism is one
of the things that troubles most critics. Not that deconstruction promotes free play, textual
indeterminacy or that every reading or interpretation of a text is equally valid.30 After all,
a deconstruction cannot but point out not only that plays, like games, include strict rules
and laws, but that a text, as an inscribed form, is far from escape certain determinations.
That is, the marks that conform a text cannot but promote certain readings, making others
practically impossible.31 On the other hand, if all the readings promoted by a text could be
said to be equally ‘valid’, how could a deconstruction promote the deconstruction of
anything?
Another popular criticism of deconstruction relies heavily on the supposed danger of
its alternative ‘readings’, as for example the possibility of reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein
Kampf to show that the ‘author secretly implies the opposite of what he declares
‘openly’’, showing Hitler as ‘a friend of the Jews who represses his sympathies.’32 A
deconstruction, however, could hardly feel authorized to assimilate a writer to its texts.

27 M. H. Abrams, ‘Constructing and Deconstructing’, in Rajnath (ed.), Deconstruction: A Critique (1989), p.


44, quoted by Peter Zima, Deconstruction and Critical Theory, p. 175.
28 Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Dissemination, pp. 69-70.
29 Cf. Paul de Man, ‘The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau’, Blindness &
Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed (Cornwall: Routledge, 1996), pp.
102-141.
30 For the possible influence of Geoffrey Hartman’s Saving the Text in the popular misinterpretation of
deconstruction as ‘free play’, see Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, p. 49. But Hartman was not the only one.
See also M. H. Abrams, ‘The Deconstructive Angel’, Critical Inquiry, 3, 3 (1977), pp. 431-432.
31 On the question of the inscription of literature, see ‘“This Strange Institution Called Literature”: An
Interview with Jacques Derrida’, in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. by Derek Attridge (Routledge:
London, 1992), p. 44.
32 Peter V. Zima, Deconstruction and Critical Theory, p. 175. Cf. also D. Lehman, Signs of the Times:
Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (London: André Deutsch, 1991), p. 238.

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But, all the same, just imagine what could have been Hitler’s reaction, and the effect on
his popularity, if instead of taking his words for their ‘face value’, a deconstructive critic
could have shown that he ‘secretly implies the opposite of what he declares ‘openly.’’
Wouldn’t that have been the most radical criticism, textual as political, to Hitler?
On the other hand, deconstruction cannot but question the apparently inherent desire
in most criticism to stand for the last word, to put a stop to any other possible critical
enterprise in relation to the text interpreted; or since the history of the criticism associated
with any particular text seems to question that such a thing could happen, to constitute at
least a milestone in the way of a future total interpretation. Of course, such desire is hard
to distinguish from a wish for truth, inherent to an ethics of reading, and therefore
necessary to all criticism. Such a wish for truth is certainly not stranger to any
deconstructions, but by been aware of those things that cannot but escape its acts of
translation (and therefore of the impossibility of any mastery), a deconstruction would be
necessarily suspicious about any pretension of standing in the place of truth.33
Unfortunately, that deconstructive critics could maintain such desire for truth despite the
skepticism of its fulfillment is something that most analytic philosophers (like Donald
Davidson) and pragmatic critics (as Peter Zima) could hardly understand. 34

Historical Contexts
The quest for ‘the historical context’, though in part an understandable reaction to the
simplification of what was called ‘New Criticism’, is one of the best examples of such a
desire for an end to all criticism: to achieve the full meaning or truth of a novel, after
which no further readings or interpretations would be necessary, after which all the rest
would be merely accessory. After all, such ‘historical context’ usually pretends to contain
not only ‘the time’ when a novel was written and published, but implicitly also to account
for what the author could have really ‘meant’, as well as for the meaning(s) that the novel
had for its contemporary readers (the source of truth is then shared with the ‘original’
reader, a popular shift after ‘Reader-Response’ theories). The ‘historical context’, always
taken as one, and definable, is then the new form of logocentrism: the search for an
‘origin’, a source of truth, grounded on reality (as opposed to mere speculations), to find
what a text ‘really mean’.35 And as such, it constitutes one of the main criticisms to
deconstruction. As Peter V. Zima puts it,
When they claim that all texts are aporetic and ultimately deconstruct
themselves, the Deconstructionists tend to neglect the historical and
sociological dimension of their research. For the plurality of texts and their
historical contexts makes such an hypothesis […] appear rather implausible.36

33 Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction · Derrida, pp. 17, 190.


34 Peter V. Zima, Deconstruction and Critical Theory, p. 177-178, 191.
35 Cf. M. H. Abrams, ‘The Deconstructive Angel’, Critical Inquiry, 3, 3 (1977), 425-438.
36 Peter V. Zima, Deconstruction and Critical Theory, pp. 168-169.

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Deconstruction is rather skeptical about the possibility of such knowledge of the


historical context and its assumed warranty of the truth of the text. If for deconstruction
there is supposedly to exist nothing outside the text, that means not that one has to limit
oneself to the covers of a book, but that –as Nicholas Royle points out– ‘there is nothing
outside context (even though, or rather precisely because, context is non-saturable). […]
there is nothing exempt from effects of textuality.’37 That doesn’t mean that deconstructions
have to be a-historical, or against history, as some critics have put it. Derrida’s work, for
example –to borrow Nicholas Royle’s words–
insists on this specificity and singularity of the time and place of a production,
of a text and a reading. This historical specificity of the texts he reads: thus in
Of Grammatology, for example, considerable energy is devoted to the (in
some respects highly ‘traditional’) question of assessing when Rousseau’s
Essay on the Origin of Languages might have been written. At the same time,
however, Derrida’s work is concerned with a deconstruction of classical
notions of history, extending indeed to the exorbitant thought of
deconstruction of meaning as such (in so far, that is to say, as ‘history’ is
construed as ‘the history of meaning’).38
What a deconstruction would not do is to rely on ready-made concepts of history as
source of truth or political commitment. A deconstruction, then, does not have to ignore the
‘historical context’ of our three novels. On the contrary, it’s practically obliged to take them
into consideration. But what it would not do is to rely on any of those ‘contexts’ as a proved
source of truth. In relation, for example, to those readings of Humphry Clinker that tend to
reduce Smollett’s novel to a ‘mirror’ of history, a deconstruction would necessarily have to
question the assumptions involved in its supposed representation of history.39 That,
obviously, would also have to take into consideration question relating to writing, memory,
‘formal realism’ and objectivity; confronting, for example, statements like Ian Watt’s on
Richardson’s lack of objectivity towards Pamela, as where ‘the most serious objections to
his novel arise,’ and John Richetti’s on Evelina’s ‘revealing neutral and even objective
perspective.’40 That is, despite critics like Terry Eagleton, who would prefer to wave such

37 Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, p. 21. See also Jacques Derrida, ‘Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments’,
trans. by Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry, 15, 4 (1989), p. 841.
38 Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, p. 26. Unless otherwise stated, all italics are the author’s.
39 Cf. Paul-Gabriel Boucé, ‘The Representation of the Real’, in Modern Critical Views: Tobias Smollet, ed. by
Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1987), pp. 95-117; Michael Rosenblum, ‘Smollet’s Humphry Clinker’,
in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge:
Cambridge, 2002), pp. 175-197; John J. Richetti, ‘Smollett: Resentment, Knowledge, and Action’, The
English Novel in History 1700-1780 (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 162-195.
40 Cf. John J. Richetti, ‘Women Novelists and the Transformation of Fiction’, The English Novel in History
1700-1780, p. 219; Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 193.

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questions saying to be interested more in what the novels ‘do’ (politically) than in what
they ‘mirror’ –especially since he also assumes a novel as ‘the true history’ of something.41

The Death and Future of Deconstruction


That there could have been a fashion of deconstruction, between 1970s and early 1980s,
does not make deconstruction just a death fashion today. Such too easily assumed death of
deconstruction could be partially contested by an evident increase, since the 1990’s, in the
publishing of books related to deconstruction and/or Derrida’s work. Some of them,
however, by trying to dissect, expose, define and ossify ‘deconstruction’ into a practice that
could be easily recognized, they also threat it with the possibility of its death. But, at the
same time, those publications could also be said to be opening up the compass of
‘deconstruction’s influence.’ In that sense, then, the future of ‘deconstruction’ could be said
it is still to come, and as we have seen, we still cannot claim to have started to experience
its limits.

Hugo Blumenthal
London, 2006

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Filmography
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