The following entry discusses deconstruction theory as a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary texts.
Deconstruction is a literary criticism movement originated by French critic Jacques Derrida in the 1960s, developed in three works—De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology), L'Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference), and La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomènologie de Husserl (1967; Speech and Phenomena and Other Writings on Husserl's Theory of Signs). Drawing on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, on the language theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, and on the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Derrida presented his notion of deconstruction in 1966 at an international symposium at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There he met Lacan and American critic Paul de Man for the first time, and they formed the core group that would go on to popularize deconstruction in the United States. Initially considered elitist, nihilistic, and subversive of humanistic ideals, deconstruction has been much debated in academe and has gained more widespread acceptance, although it still remains, to an extent, a radical way of analyzing texts.
Deconstruction theory embraces the precept that meaning is always uncertain and that it is not the task of the literary critic to illuminate meaning in a given text. Derrida began with Saussure's ideas of the signified and the signifier: an idea (signified) is represented by a sign (signifier), but the sign can never be the same as the idea. The French term “différer” used in deconstruction discourse refers both to the difference between signified and signifier, and to the way the signified defers meaning to the signifier. The signified contains a trace of the signifier, but also of its opposite. According to practitioners of deconstruction, the job of the literary critic is to look for “slippage” in the text—to note duplicity, or to expose how a text has violated the very linguistic and thematic rules it has set up internally. Calling attention to breaks in the internal logic of a literary text achieves its deconstruction. Deconstruction itself can be deconstructed, however, and the process goes on indefinitely.
Because it challenges logocentrism—that is, it questions order and certainty in language—deconstruction has been viewed by its opponents as an intellectually obscure, negativistic form of cultural critique. M. H. Abrams wrote a particularly devastating essay on deconstruction, and Steven E. Cole and Archibald A. Hill have criticized the methods of de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, respectively. Other scholars have found deconstruction a stimulating and innovative new approach to literary criticism. While such critics as Lance St. John Butler and Shawn St. Jean have written on major literary figures and works using deconstruction theory, other scholars, including Edward Said, David B. Allison, and Christina M. Howells have found an application for deconstruction in the fields of history and philosophy.
Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, Wallace Martin, editors
The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (criticism) 1983
Murphy (novel) 1938
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (play) 1953
L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953
Watt (novel) 1953
Fin de Partie [Endgame] (play) 1957
Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman, J. Hillis Miller
Deconstruction and Criticism (criticism) 1979
On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (criticism) 1982
De la grammatologie [Of Grammatology] (criticism) 1967
L'Écriture et la différence [Writing and Difference] (criticism) 1967
La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénomènologie de Husserl [Speech and Phenomena and Other Writings on Husserl's Theory of Signs] (criticism) 1967
La dissémination [Dissemination] (criticism) 1972
Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy] (criticism) 1972
Positions [Positions] (criticism) 1972
Nietzsche aujourd'hui [Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles] (criticism) 1973
Glas [Glas] (criticism) 1974
Mémoires: Pour Paul de Man [Mémoirs: For Paul de...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “The Deconstructive Angel.” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (spring 1977): 425-38.
[In the following essay, which many critics consider the strongest and most influential critique of deconstruction, Abrams points out the limitations of deconstruction in literary criticism.]
—If the Abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets:—but a voice
Is wanting …
—Shelley, Prometheus Unbound
We have been instructed these days to be wary of words like “origin,” “center,” and “end,” but I will venture to say that this session had its origin in the dialogue between Wayne Booth and myself which centered on the rationale of the historical procedures in my book, Natural Supernaturalism. Hillis Miller had, in all innocence, written a review of that book; he was cited and answered by Booth, then re-cited and re-answered by me, and so was sucked into the vortex of our exchange to make it now a dialogue of three. And given the demonstrated skill of our chairman in fomenting debates, who can predict how many others will be drawn into the vortex before it comes to an end?
I shall take this occasion to explore the crucial issue that was raised by Hillis Miller in his challenging review. I agreed with Wayne Booth that pluralism—the bringing to...
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SOURCE: Atkins, G. Douglas. “J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction, and the Recovery of Transcendence.” Notre Dame English Journal 13, no. 1 (fall 1980): 51-63.
[In the following essay, Atkins explores the charge of lack of spiritual concern leveled against deconstructionist critics, pointing out that their writings reinterpret rather than negate questions of the spiritual.]
Following publication of Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958), The Disappearance of God (1963), and Poets of Reality (1965), J. Hillis Miller became known as one of the most knowledgeable and articulate spokesmen for religion in modern literature. These works, and others, not only testify powerfully to Miller's interest as a literary critic in religious questions, but they also reveal his own deep religious convictions. A member of what was originally The Society for Religion in Higher Education, Miller has frequently contributed to conferences dealing with the growing interest in literature and religion, and his work has been reprinted in collections on religion in modern literature.1 As he put it in a subtle and judicious essay “Literature and Religion,” written for the Modern Language Association volume on Relations of Literary Study, “the religious commitment of the critic, or lack of it, cannot be considered irrelevant to his work.”2
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SOURCE: Atkins, G. Douglas. “The Sign as a Structure of Difference: Derridean Deconstruction and Some of Its Implications.” In Semiotic Themes, edited by Richard T. DeGeorge, pp. 133-47. Lawrence: University of Kansas Publications, 1981.
[In the following essay, Atkins discusses the ideas of Derrida, a leading practitioner of deconstruction, defending him from accusations of nihilism and undermining the humanistic tradition in literature.]
A major force to be reckoned with in contemporary literary criticism is Jacques Derrida. Derrida's star has risen precipitously since his participation in 1966 in a Johns Hopkins international symposium, where he took structuralism, and particularly Lévi-Strauss, to task and inaugurated deconstructive criticism in America. The following year he published La Voix et le phénomène: introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl, De la grammatologie, and L'écriture et la différence, all of which are now available in English. In 1972 Derrida published three more books: La dissémination, Positions, and Marges de la philosophie. His monumental, and probably untranslatable, Glas appeared in 1974. That these books and various essays, several already available in English, are changing the face of literary criticism is apparent in several ways: Derrida and his theories have been embraced, in...
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SOURCE: Cole, Steven E. “The Dead-end of Deconstruction: Paul de Man and the Fate of Poetic Language.” Criticism 30, no. 1 (winter 1988): 91-112.
[In the following essay, Cole focuses on the critical theory of de Man, suggesting that his deconstruction of meaning in literature leads not to liberation from tradition, but to a logical dead end.]
Perhaps no contemporary theorist is more difficult to analyze than Paul de Man, although the difficulties are not precisely what his admirers have supposed. In the flood of commentary which has appeared since his death (and this is true even of Jacques Derrida's remarkable Memoires1), one finds less analysis than a kind of mimetic homage in which the acolyte gestures mysteriously at texts whose profundity is insured by their resistance to comprehension. Thus, in a memorial volume of essays, we are told that de Man “will also teach us, once again, in his own voice, how to read in new and unexpected ways, how to contend with the impossibility of reading,”2 and warned that the attempt to find a value system in de Man's deconstruction must confront “a mystery about which no moral imperative to leap from textuality to subjectivity or history can tell us more than de Man's stubborn labyrinths of rigor, resistance, and profoundly meaningful unreliability.”3 In such proclamations (and they are...
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SOURCE: Hill, Archibald A. “Deconstruction and Analysis of Meaning in Literature.” In Language and Cultures: Studies in Honor of Edgar C. Palomé, edited by Mohammad Ali Jazayery and Werner Winter, pp. 279-85. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 1988.
[In the following essay, Hill discusses Hartman's deconstructionist interpretation of selected poems and posits that deconstructionist critics confuse textual with contextual meaning.]
As an academic who has spent a good many years in teaching both literature and linguistics, and in watching and even participating in literary and linguistic analysis, I can not help being repelled by some of the recent developments in literary study. I refer to that school of litterateurs who call themselves deconstructionist, revisionist, or hermeneutical critics. The school certainly has attracted a great deal of attention, even notoriety.1 I believe that any one who reads such manifestos of this school as Deconstruction and Criticism, or Criticism in the Wilderness, will be familiar with the two main tenets of this group. They are, first that there is no such thing as a text of a poem—only the separate, individual, and subjective texts set up in the minds of the hearers and readers. The second tenet is that all such individual textual interpretations are to be judged altogether as art forms, so that all are equally true or false, though not...
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SOURCE: de Vries, Hent. “Deconstruction and America.” In Traveling Theory: France and the United States, edited by Ieme van der Poel and Sophie Bertho, pp. 72-98. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, de Vries presents an overview of issues raised by deconstruction theory as it was introduced and flourished in the United States.]
Much has changed since October 1966, when the famous conference on structuralism took place at Johns Hopkins University, introducing the work of a remarkable group of contemporary French thinkers in the United States. The conference, which featured lectures by Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, among others, had been organized by the newly founded interdisciplinary Humanities Center. It was intended to inaugurate a two-year-long series of seminars and conferences which “sought to explore the impact of so-called ‘structuralist’ thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies.”1 This concise description of the basic tenets of the program hardly captured the actual direction of things to come. Already in their preface to the second edition of the symposium's proceedings, dated November 1971, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato felt the need to distance themselves from the—indeed, somewhat surprising—title they had given to the volume when it was first published in hardcover in...
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Criticism: Deconstruction And Literature
SOURCE: Muller, John P., and William J. Richardson. “The Challenge of Deconstruction.” In The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, pp. 159-72. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Muller and Richardson present a survey of the critical dialogue between Lacan and Derrida regarding Lacan's interpretation of Poe's “The Purloined Letter,” emphasizing that Derrida's method is to “deconstruct logocentrism.”]
Beyond any question, the most serious challenge to Lacan's reading of “The Purloined Letter” comes from his compatriot Jacques Derrida. The challenge is all the more telling because of Derrida's influence upon the contemporary literary scene—at least in Anglo-Saxon countries—by reason of a theory of language and practice of criticism that he proposes under the general rubric “deconstruction.” As such it has come to characterize an entire movement that often goes by the name “poststructuralism” or “postmodernism.” Since the name of Lacan is often associated with that of Derrida as a leading figure in this movement, the “published debate” between them (Derrida 1984, 10) is significant, partly because it serves to differentiate them, partly because the differentiation itself helps clarify the meaning of deconstruction not only for literary criticism but for psychoanalysis itself. For that reason, Derrida's critique...
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SOURCE: Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. “Making and Breaking Meaning: Deconstruction, Four-Level Allegory, and The Metamorphosis.” Midwest Quarterly 35, no. 4 (summer 1994): 450-67.
[In the following essay, Ben-Ephraim demonstrates how Kafka both builds up and deconstructs the traditional pattern of allegory in his The Metamorphosis.]
From Quintilian to Angus Fletcher critics have noted allegory's doubled significance; “twice-told,” but many times understood, allegory invariably means more than it says. To supplement meaning, allegory characteristically enfolds abstract significance in narrative images. These suggestions may be provided by presences in the text, verbal signals like the name of the protagonist in Everyman, a nominal allegory which designates significance in its very title, or by absences in the text, covered mysteries like the unknown face in “The Minister's Black Veil,” a tale that is itself a mask over figural meaning. Allegory's polysemous texture is created through addition and subtraction in a doubled allegorical technique.
Writers of allegory often conflate the two methods. Naming a Dragon “Errour,” Spenser makes Christian involvement with theological confusion an added element in a knight's encounter with a serpent. He thus points to the danger of hopeless entanglements with ideological opponents, implying that it is better...
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SOURCE: Butler, Lance St. John. “Beckett's Stage of Deconstruction.” In Twentieth-Century European Drama, edited by Brian Docherty, pp. 63-77. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Butler examines deconstructive elements in several plays by Beckett, suggesting that in them Beckett attempts to “escape … from the tyranny of the signifier.”]
Beckett is the poet of the poststructuralist age. In his plays, as in all his work, we are offered something like a version of the world according to Derrida. Where Beckett has already given up the search for determinable meaning, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a vain pursuit, poststructuralism would proclaim, in the 1960s and 1970s, the ultimately undecidable nature of meaning, and would celebrate meaninglessness as an objective correlative for a new vision of the world.
Beckett started as a Modernist, offering in the poem Whoroscope, of 1929, and in the stories More Pricks Than Kicks, of 1934, formalistic constructs in the manner of Joyce which, though socially anarchic, operate according to the Joycean equation of world-order to word-order. He did not seem able to find his voice as a playwright before the Second World War, although he had dabbled, as a student and later, in dramatic experiments. His parody of Corneille's Le Cid, entitled Le Kid, written in collaboration with the French...
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SOURCE: Findlay, Isobel M. “‘Word-Perfect But Deed-Demented’: Canon Formation, Deconstruction, and the Challenge of D. H. Lawrence.” Mosaic 28, no. 3 (September 1995): 57-81.
[In the following essay, Findlay considers Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature in light of deconstructionist critical methodology, emphasizing his belief in multiple textual meanings.]
In recent decades changing faculty and student bodies and new methodologies have raised questions about the nature and distribution of power and authority, challenging traditional institutional, disciplinary and discursive protocols. Not surprisingly, the consequent reconstitution of English as a discipline—a veritable paradigm shift registered in the 1992 MLA publication Redrawing the Boundaries (Greenblatt and Gunn, eds.)—has occasioned very different responses: read apocalyptically by formalists and literary historians, this reconstitution has been seen as the dangerous politicizing of literary studies and the academy, or even as the end of Western civilization; read approvingly by feminists, poststructuralists and Marxists, it is seen as a belated gesture of inclusion and liberation. What therefore becomes dramatically clear is the way that such rhetoric and polarization attest to the continuing political importance of the canon, its role in the construction of social subjects and of terms we live...
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SOURCE: St. Jean, Shawn. “Social Deconstruction and An American Tragedy.” Dreiser Studies 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 3-24.
[In the following essay, St. Jean explores how a deconstructionist approach to Dreiser's An American Tragedy illuminates his focus on the relativism of truth in the novel.]
Of all major aspects of his work, Theodore Dreiser's social criticism is perhaps the most elusive and has therefore received the least sustained critical attention. It cannot be called obvious at any level, else readers would not be forced to wonder over such basic issues as whether a book like The Financier (1912) is a celebration or an indictment of capitalism. We know of “Dreiser's full endorsement of the Communist party and its goals from the early 1930s to his death in 1945” (Pizer, Cambridge 12), and with almost equal surety accept the historical truism that “During the twenties … the act of rejection of American cultural codes and economic values (a rejection most clearly enacted by the expatriates' self-exile) was almost a requirement for serious consideration as an artist” (Pizer, Cambridge 9). Certainly Dreiser's bids for the Nobel prize for literature for An American Tragedy (1925) demonstrate his wish for “serious consideration.” Yet, even though the author extended a tour of Russia from a week to three months in 1927-28, he returned promptly to...
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Criticism: Deconstruction In Philosophy And History
SOURCE: Said, Edward, M.-R. Logan, Eugenio Donato, et al. “An Exchange on Deconstruction and History.” boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 65-74.
[In the following conversation following a presentation, Said, Logan, Donato, and others discuss some theoretical implications of deconstruction for the study of history.]
I'm sorry, I'm not sure that I can be as brief as you would like, because I have a number of things to say on what both of the speakers have said. I think these things are important for the general discussion of critical theory that we have been having here. Now, as you know, I have a great admiration for both of your work, and certainly I find absolutely nothing to disagree with on what you said about Flaubert and the whole question of the end of history as you discussed it, Eugenio. But let me preface what I have to say with one comment: that the notion of deconstruction is not a Derridean idea exclusively, that is to say—if you were to go before Derrida to Marx, for example, who in the Eighteenth Brumaire refers to the weapons of criticism, and before him, to Vico and so on, right back to Aristotle—there is an activity called criticism which exactly exists to use intellectual means to understand what it is texts are saying, what they are not saying, what they are doing. So, rather than repeat, you might say, the litany of virtues—and they are...
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SOURCE: Allison, David B. “Destruction/Deconstruction in the Text of Nietzsche.” boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 197-222.
[In the following essay, Allison examines elements of deconstruction theory in several texts by Nietzsche, also commenting on Derrida's interpretation of those texts.]
The paper I'd like to present—“Destruction/Deconstruction in the Text of Nietzsche”—is composed of two parts, two quite different parts. The first and shorter part deals with the issue of a deconstructive style within the text of Nietzsche, and the second is concerned with such an operation as performed upon Nietzsche's text—i.e., by someone else and from without. The second part, then, concerns a stylistic fold or doubling-up of interpretation: the example or model I have chosen for this is a text with which most of you are no doubt familiar, Derrida's recent work on Nietzsche, entitled Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles.1 For the earlier account of an immanent deconstruction, I have turned to the analyses of Paul de Man.
To what extent is my presentation phenomenological? Perhaps only etymologically—to the extent in which one can “lay out” or “say” something about the phenomenon of a text. This certainly seems to be the sense that both Derrida and Heidegger accord the term. Indeed, Heidegger himself remarks in one of his last works,...
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SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Semiotics and Deconstruction.”1Poetics Today 1, no. 1-2 (autumn 1979): 137-41.
[In the following essay, Culler examines the interplay between deconstruction methodology and semiotics, noting that semiotics can benefit from “the most rigorous pursuit of logic” in the text that is the hallmark of deconstruction.]
The moment when semiotics is becoming well-established in America—a subject of conferences, a topic of university courses, and even a domain to which people in various traditional disciplines are beginning to relate their own work—is also, as is perhaps only appropriate, a moment when semiotics finds itself under attack, criticized as a version of precisely the scientific positivism which is itself very prone to reject semiotics. In many cases, of course, the attack on semiotics comes from a traditional humanism, affronted that a discipline with scientific pretensions should claim to treat products of the human spirit. These arguments can be countered in various ways which I shan't be discussing here. I'm interested in a more radical critique which also focuses on the scientific pretension of semiotics—a critique which compels our attention precisely because it isn't another version of traditional humanism. One could cite various examples of this position. I offer as not untypical, but among the better informed, J. Hillis Miller's argument that...
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SOURCE: Howells, Christina M. “Derrida and Sartre: Hegel's Death Knell.” In Continental Philosophy II: Derrida and Deconstruction, edited by Hugh J. Silverman, pp. 169-81. London: Routledge, 1989.
[In the following essay, Howells discusses the textual interplay between the works of Hegel, Sartre, and Derrida—with Derrida attempting to refute Sartre, and both Derrida and Sartre attempting to refute Hegel.]
Ils ne savent pas qu'en fait ils décapitent, pour ainsi dire, l'hydre.
(Jacques Derrida, Glas, p. 118)
Derrida and Sartre spend much of their philosophical energy in a (vain?) attempt to decapitate the Hegelian hydra. Derrida also spends some time in occasional parricidal attacks on Sartre. Both see Hegel as a serious threat, but Sartre tends to confront it directly, through philosophical argument (albeit of a paradoxical and ‘continental’ variety), whereas Derrida's rebuttal is both more oblique and also more explicit. Both are well aware that the dialectic engulfs contradiction and recuperates any other attempt at subversion as error that will be transcended.
If one thinks what the logos means, if one gives thought to the words of the Phenomenology of Mind and the Logic, for example, there is no way out of the absolute circle. In any case that is what the...
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SOURCE: Michaels, Walter Benn. “‘You Who Never Was There’: Slavery and the New Historicism—Deconstruction and the Holocaust.” In The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by Hilene Flanzbaum, pp. 181-97. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Michaels uses the example of the treatment of the Holocaust by American academics as an example of the importance of upholding cultural myths.]
DO THE AMERICANS BELIEVE THEIR MYTHS? OR, BELOVED
The title of this section is derived from Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?—a book that I read several years ago, first with great eagerness and then with a certain disappointment. The eagerness stemmed from my curiosity about whether the Greeks really thought, to take one of Veyne's examples, that events like “the amorous adventures of Aphrodite and Ares caught in bed by her husband” had actually happened;1 the disappointment stemmed from Veyne's commitment to regarding such curiosity as naive. The book's subtitle is An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination; Veyne thinks that “it is we who fabricate our truths, and it is not ‘reality’ that makes us believe” (113); hence, truth is “plural” and myth, like “history,” “literature,” and “physics,” is “true in its way” (20). So, “of course,” the Greeks “believed in their...
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Bové, Paul A. “Beckett's Dreadful Postmodern: The Deconstruction of Form in Molloy.” In De-Structing the Novel: Essays in Applied Postmodern Hermeneutics, edited by Leonard Orr, pp. 185-221. Troy, N.Y.: The Whiston Publishing Company, 1982.
Compares Kierkegaard's deconstruction of aesthetic form in his works with that of Beckett in Molloy, concluding that both writers push their readers into unfamiliar territory where they can explore their “own forgotten possibilities.”
Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981, 242 p.
Discusses semiotics as a theory of reading and charts its connections to deconstruction criticism.
Fischer, Michael. Does Deconstruction Make Any Difference?: Poststructuralism and the Defense of Poetry in Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985, 142 p.
Maintains that deconstruction and other poststructuralist criticism is inspired by a consciousness of the ideological limitations of the academic establishment—which, in turn, feels threatened by it.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. “Deconstructive Reflections on Deconstruction: In Reply to Hillis Miller.” Poetics Today 2, no. 1b (winter 1980-81): 185-88.
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