To Undermine and Subvert

I've been back in graduate school for a while now, and this summer I'm taking an English literature course. The syllabus states that one of the course objectives is to "undermine and subvert" the traditional narratives of "American hegemony and mythology." In both the objectives and the description of the required research paper, it is made clear that we are to use post-structuralist approaches to the readings.

Post-structuralism, according to the All-Knowing Wikipedia, is associated with theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva. Wikipedia continues:

In the post-structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.). These alternative sources are never authoritative, and promise no consistency.

This is apparently typical in English literature today.


E Hines said...

This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning....

Sounds like some judges and Justices....

Eric Hines

Ymar Sakar said...

Somebody has to make new Gramsci revolutionaries. Ayers did a good job with Hussein though. But the Left is never quite satisfied with just a few round of evil.

Eric Blair said...

Take a different course.

Eric Blair said...

Actually, that's all been "typical" in literature since the 1980's. Read John Ellis' "Against Deconstruction" for a useful corrective.

And ammunition if and when you start explaining how all that is totally wrong.

Tom said...

Mr. Hines, indeed it does.

Ymar, indeed, someone must. That is exactly right.

Eric B., I'd heard that, but I had wondered how it was enforced. Now I know.

This class fits my needs, so I'm willing to play the professor's game. It will help me understand post-structuralism better, the better to argue against it in the future.

And thank you very much for the suggestion! The book looks very useful.

Grim said...

Just be clear on what the danger is, can you tell me in one paragraph why this approach to interpreting literature is linked to undermining and subverting American hegemony?

Tom said...

Just to clarify, when I say the course meets my needs, that's because courses in English literature are a core component of the degree I'm working toward. I don't have to take this particular course, but I have to take some English lit course. This one was the best of the options for the summer, I think.

Also, I'm not looking to escape it. You need to know the enemy. I'm trying to adopt the attitude of a cultural ninja.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Whoa, PTSD for me, here. Deep breaths.

You will find they are not 100% wrong. They couldn't be, as that would require an intellectual consistency they don't possess. Yet even granting that, they make some good points. They argue against men who are largely, but not entirely made of straw, rather like that one type of atheist who thinks he has scored points by exploding 2nd-grade Sunday School lessons. Partial truths are more dangerous, always. You go into the den of lions. Do not be dismayed by occasional defeats. The counter-arguments will come to you eventually, even if it is years later.

Remember Galileo saying "And yet it moves." (Though that may be apocryphal, it was his attitude.) Remember Frodo in Mordor with no hope but still determined - or if you prefer, Eowyn facing down the Nazgul, or Puddleglum with the Green Lady. Plato's Cave and John at Patmos, Patrick Henry and John Stark, Luther and Augustine. We have the heroes, they have the children kicking over their older sister's blocks.

Be of good cheer.

Tom said...

... can you tell me in one paragraph why this approach to interpreting literature is linked to undermining and subverting American hegemony?

I don't know. I think historically this approach comes from people who wanted to destroy tradition and is carried on today by people with the same goal. In philosophical terms, it is thoroughly relativistic, denying Truth and endorsing instead the idea that each reader has their own "truth," and that each "truth" is of equal validity, even if it conflicts with or contradicts others. In social terms, it divides us by race, gender, sexuality, and class. In political terms, it is Marxist and hence opposes the social, economic, and political organization our nation requires. In short, it is a good method for atomizing a culture and society. However, I'm just hypothesizing here. I don't really understand their theories fully yet, just what others have written and said about them.

Tom said...

AVI, thanks for the encouragement!

Right now, my plan is just to learn their arguments to prepare for future battle. Or, maybe I'll learn in class and express my real thoughts here or in other forums. At some point, though, I will be the teacher, and then we'll see what needs undermining and subverting.

Tom said...

Grim, I should also add that it makes real communication much more difficult because it focuses the receiver (reader / listener) on their own reactions to the sender rather than on understanding the sender's message. It focuses on disconnecting, rather than connecting.

Tom said...

One last thought for the morning. I joke about being a cultural ninja, but really, I have no idea what I'm doing. I have no idea how to do post-structuralist analysis. Along with the course texts, I got an intro to theory book that I plan to read bits of, but if anyone has suggestions, I'm certainly open to ideas.

Grim said...


Cf. with principle (4) above, "Judicial Originalism," which JG says his readers will know "instantly.. is perhaps the most crucial in the platform."

ColoComment said...

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition)
by Stephen R. C. Hicks

Nice condensed history of the movement.

Tom said...

Grim, yes, that and everything else we look to for guidance: the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, everything. Even the use of reason.

ColoComment -- thanks! That looks good.

Grim said...

It's actually a really important insight, for literature, that the reader brings a great deal of the meaning they receive from encountering the work. That's why a great book is different when you read it at different times of your life -- because you are different, and you are bringing different things to it.

There's also an important philosophical point, which is that I can't actually communicate what I think to you. I can only come part way, no matter how well and carefully I construct my ideas. What you bring to my words is different from what I brought to them. We never fully understand each other. That's a disturbing idea, but disturbing ideas are the business of philosophy.

But as a tool of destroying American power, it's helpful to teach the young that what they bring to the work is just as important as what the author put there. Then the Constitution means whatever it feels to you that it ought to mean, and that's just as legitimate as what anyone else finds in it -- or what the authors intended to put into it.

Decentering the author, or privileging the interpreter instead of the author, frees you to change any constitution or any law or anything else to be whatever you want it to be.

So there's a difference between the right way to interpret literature versus the right way to interpret constitutional documents. Even taking the philosophical point on board, the duty of any interpreter of the law is to do the very best they can to understand what the intent of the authors was when they made the law. Understanding that we can never do it perfectly, it is our duty to do it as well as possible. Otherwise, the interpreters become unbounded tyrants.

raven said...

Their feelings are as important as your facts. Even if their feelings are verifiably wrong. George Washington's false teeth were carved from ivory and this means he was the Original Planet Destructor and everything else he ever did was just whitemale evil.

Their unreasoning fear of green airplanes is correct, even if all the FAA statistics from the Wright brothers to the present day show green airplanes crash no more frequently than any other color airplane.
Green airplanes are dangerous. And that is valid and reasonable to them. More-ever, they want you to accept and validate their insane beliefs, because their feelings are as good as your facts.

Follow this to it's conclusion and we arrive at a point where left handed orangutan ballet dancers must be banned- because they scare someone. "but there is no such thing as an orangutan ballet dancer, left handed or otherwise." "They still scare me and must be banned!"
The plague of the infant idiots is upon us.

Tom said...

Grim, yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And it is used against not just our political system, but every traditional and good part of our society.

Raven -- Whoa there buddy! You've missed the point. This is much more of a James Bond style undercover mission. I have to blend in with the locals, stop Dr. Evil's plan to destroy the world, seduce his evil but beautiful henchwoman, fight off sharks with lasers on their heads in an epic underwater battle, that sort of thing. Telling the truth is forbidden, until I graduate.

Grim said...

Even then, if you choose to continue this mission.

In which case, consult Leo Strauss.

Tom said...

Thanks for recommending Strauss. A quick glance through Wikipedia revealed Persecution and the Art of Writing, which may be very applicable to my situation. I'm sure he's written other valuable words as well.

douglas said...

Sounds like fun, Tom. You know, the most fun class I ever took in all my college years was an English 101 class in J.C. The teacher was, of course, trying to indoctrinate his class to leftist ideology, but didn't come out right away as a communist. I could tell as soon as I saw the reading list that he was from the left, and it took maybe three classes before I realized he was communist. I consistently and politely contested the interpretations he presented- which is hard for them to invalidate, as they will have just gotten done telling you all interpretations are 'correct' and legitimate. After a time, I was clearly his intellectual opposition, and one day, arriving early to a classroom with several other students already there, discovered that several of them were quietly very happy I was contesting his assertions, and reconsidering the texts we were reading from another perspective, as well as questioning that which was presented as fact in them. LAter we had to write a paper, I don't remember much about it but that I continued in my opposition, and we met with him 1 on 1 for a review of our work. I knew I wrote a solid paper, and to his credit he simply identified me as a conservative, and encouraged me to read people like George Will and Bill Kristol. I said I was familiar with their work, and that I was more interested in reading things I disagreed with to understand my opposition more fully. It's pretty clear that, like many of my points over the semester, he wasn't prepared for that, having battled strawmen for so long, with such fervor. I got an A in that class. Good times.

That was back in the late 80's. Just not sure you can get away with that today. It would be great if you could, though.