David Foster Wallace Describes Poststructuralism

Thumbed through my copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again yesterday and ended up re-reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “Greatly Exaggerated,” ostensibly a review of H.L. Hix’s book Morte d’Author: An Autopsy, considers the literary fall-out after Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author.” Anyway, I thought Wallace’s description of poststructuralism was worth sharing–

The deconstructionists (“deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” mean the same thing, by the way: “poststructuralist” is what you call a deconstructionist who doesn’t want to be called a deconstructionist) . . . see the debate over the ownership of meaning as a skirmish in a larger war in Western philosophy over the idea that presence and unity are ontologically prior to expression. There’s been this longstanding deluded presumption, they think, that if there is an utterance then there must exist a unified, efficacious presence that causes and owns that utterance. The poststructuralists attack what they see as a post-Platonic prejudice in favor of presence over absence and speech over writing. We tend to trust speech over writing because of the immediacy of the speaker: he’s right there, and we can grab him by the lapels and look into his face and figure out just exactly what one single thing he means. But the reason why poststructuralists are in the literary theory business at all is that they see writing, not speech, as more faithful to the metaphysics of true expression. For Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, writing is a better animal than speech because it is iterable; it is iterable because it is abstract; and it is abstract because it is a function not of presence but of absence: the reader’s absent when the writer’s writing, and the writer’s absent when the reader’s reading.

For a deconstructionist, then, a writer’s circumstances and intentions are indeed a part of the “context” of a text, but context imposes no real cinctures on the text’s meaning, because meaning in language requires a cultivation of absence rather than presence, involves not the imposition but the erasure of consciousness. This is so because these guys–Derrida following Heidegger and Barthes Mallarme and Foucault God knows who–see literary language as a not a tool but an environment. A writer does not wield language; he is subsumed in it. Language speaks us; writing writes; etc.

6 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace Describes Poststructuralism”

  1. To the endlessly untraceable iteration of DFW’s summation of theory after 1967:

    “There is an originary violence of writing because language is first, in a sense I shall gradually reveal, writing. “Usurpation” has always already begun.” (Derrida, of Grammatology 37)

    Perhaps he unfortunately dulls the distinct edges of Derrida’s first turn in his critique of the _Phaedrus_. Writing isn’t more faithful to the “trace” effect of (non)presence in language, but rather ALL language functions as if it were writing.

    If DWF were with us I would tell him to reread 1967…yes, the whole year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bradley, you’re spot on (or at least I think you are . . . your writing is kind of hard to follow) — Wallace has completely failed to account for the details of Derrida’s response to Plato. Maybe that’s because he was trying to explain deconstruction in the most basic way possible to a general audience, but you’re absolutely right, he should be made to go back and “reread 1967” (whatever that means). Let the voodoo commence.

      In the hopes that Derrida might never be misread, I’ll link to his essay “Signature Event Context”.

      Thanks for your insight!


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