February 21st, 2014 / 3:58 pm

The challenge is to analyze a history of effects other than by seeking to identify personifiable causes, to recognize that nevertheless the struggle is taking place as much among personifications as among persons, and to intervene to transform the social allegory without either buying into, or dismissing, the temptations of readability. For the necessity of reading and being read is a dream from which we cannot awaken.

— Barbara Johnson, The Wake of Deconstruction


  1. Erik Stinson


  2. deadgod

      Much of this retailing of postmodernity seems reasonable and well-said: history (and philosophy?) as a history of impersonal effects; effects committed and experienced by concrete–concretely individual and collective–persons; conscious intervention in that history of effects being possible, despite the grasp of that history being linguistically mediated but not literal.

      Not sure why interpretation itself is a “temptation” and not, say, a fate of the assemblage of forces that a ‘person’ is (from postmodern points of view). Yes, understanding of the processes that constitute an interpreter and in which interpretation is caught fast can’t ever be final or complete or comprehensive. So understanding is always provisional and being remade on-the-fly.

      But what’s the theatrical effect of the word “temptation”? (As though interpretation – perspective – were a choice.)

      And what’re the effects of the glamorous trope of a ‘necessary dream from which one can’t awake’? If waking is impossible, why call coming-to-understand a “dream”–other than to excite emotion vaguely?

  3. reynard seifert

      interpretation is a choice. we may be, as korsgaard says, ‘condemned to choice and action’ — the corresponding parts of sartre’s ‘freedom’ — but we do have a choice. not all action requires interpretation. interpretation is a search for meaning, and that’s not necessary. we can be affected without interpreting the effect. dreams, for instance, might be necessary and meaningless

  4. deadgod

      To me, ‘search for meaning’ is redundant; ‘meaning’ is where you already find yourself, imagine whatever search you like.

      By “reading”, I don’t think Johnson means ‘methodologically distinguishing “true” from “false”‘: logically rigorous thought. I think she means to indicate the consequence–also, dialectically, the condition for the possibility–of everything being textual.

      “Interpretation” means ‘have a perspective’, and every thing has that: relations of force to whatever happens. You can refuse to be methodical in your thinking about any particular experience you’ve had, but even unanalytically to receive an impression is already, in my view, to have begun to have some understanding of it–already to be interpreting it.

      It’s in that sense that I wonder why Johnson’s “reading and being read” are a “dream”–what would being ‘awake’ involve?–, and what the effects of calling “readability”–already an interpretation of the conditions for the possibility of interpreting–resistible are.

  5. Jeremy Hopkins

      To be “awake” would be to be in a sort of Zen-like No-Mind, but also untainted by any others’ reading; so either to be in the company of like-No-Minded individuals, or to have achieved a status of Non-Status.
      Unless she’s actually just talking about words, in which case succumb to the temptation to read the above as a metaphor… about words…

  6. reynard seifert

      did anyone read this as a direct response to janey’s rape post? because

  7. reynard seifert

      the excerpt concludes barbara johnson’s essay on women and allegory (namely, whether or not theory is a woman, being that the greek theoria, from whence it came, is ‘feminine,’ and sir joshua reynolds painted a painting of a woman in the clouds and called it ‘theory’); johnson says:

      “Human beings are constantly being read — and misread. Just because identities are fictions does not mean that they have not had, and could not have, real historical effects… The outrage and resistance, the appeals to free speech, on the part of those (mainly but not exclusively white males) who identify wit the voice of the institution of law or of the law school is a resistance to being read — being read speaking ‘as a’ rather than simply speaking; being read through a predicate of embodiment, location, interest, and readability, rather than through the disembodied, authorized, official impersonality of the theoria. If they see themselves as personifications, it is as personifications of the whole — humanity, reason, law, truth, — not personifications within a psychomachia for control of the social text. ¶ But the resistance to being read ‘as a’ is just as necessary as the acknowledgement of positionality — indeed, that resistance has prompted the struggle against reductive stereotypes in the first place.” (and then my excerpt begins)

      i did not include this before because it was too long and too specific

      it’s a pretty short book, and along with sontag’s ‘against interpretation,’ gives an interesting context to a set of issues we continue to deal with today. i recommend it

      the problem with a lot of the attempts at dialogue on the subject of feminism and textual analysis here and elsewhere is that a lot of the work has already been done by literary theorists and social philosophers who are currently working on far deeper questions, which is not to say that work does not need to be done by those with privilege (nor by those without) to have empathy for other people, and to attempt a constructive dialogue, rather than simply lobbing language grenades from their team’s bunker. one doesn’t simply stop being sexist or racist or classist at the realization of said biases; it takes work, and the job may well never be done

  8. reynard seifert

      SPOILER ALERT: in the book johnson suggests that deconstruction theory might wake up in the middle of its own wake, as in finnegans

  9. deadgod

      I think that’s a very good image for Derrida’s philosophical ambition–his Big Idea–. It’s like another image in the history that Derrida would deconstruct: theory might wake up to its shackles in the middle of the shadow-play it sees for the sunlit world.

  10. deadgod

      To “being read through a predicate”, there is resistance so as to preserve the privilege of an effective membership, but there also is resistance to being read exclusively through a predicate.

      That’s the tension Johnson indicate at the end of the now-larger fragment’s addition: just as women don’t want ‘woman’ to be a reduction, so now those “mainly but not exclusively white males” want ‘man’ not to be a reduction.

      ‘Woman’ and ‘man’ each is a position – a complex of circumstances and a continuously provisional resolution of forces – , and those forces, while ineluctably at work, are to some extent critically available and transformable not just by circumstances, but as a not-wholly-controllable effect of conscious action.

      Trying to further understanding–empathetically seeking meaning–is, I think, always contestable. It’s so hard to distinguish the desiderata of ‘justice’ from ‘power’ because they’re so rarely distinct.

      I’d often call “empathy” a language grenade.

  11. mimi

      ima print out this post+thread and read it a couple or ten more times, penciling notes in the margins, highlighting

      “I’d often call “empathy” a language grenade.” – lol/sweet

  12. Jeremy Hopkins

      Justice is indistinct from Power? That’s like saying Greed or Pleasure are indistinct from Power. Anything which manages to be is obviously powerful enough to be (which is clearly not really all that powerful), and so anything which merely wishes to be is nothing, but for that statement’s impossibility.

  13. Jeremy Hopkins

      you’ll notice I ignored “desiderata”