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This Is Only a Text

The semiotics-department backdrop to Jeffrey Eugenidess new novel, The Marriage


Plot, seems to have sparked a new mode of confessional writing. Because I was in
college in the late seventies, theres no hard drive from which I can exhume my
comically overburdened academic essays, as Steven Johnson didin
the Times Book Review and as my colleague Alex Ross did here. But they existed,
and for the same reason as did theirs: I, too, was a teen-age deconstructionist.
In fact, I was one before I knew that there was such a thing. As a high-school
philosophy geek, my star was Heidegger, with a supporting cast of Nietzsche,
Kierkegaard, Hegel, and, for comic relief, Cioran. When I got to college (for the
record, Princeton) and discovered that these writers hardly figured in the philosophy
curriculum, I dashed over to the comparative-literature department (Dostoyevsky and
Malraux were close enough) and discovered, in a mandatory theory and methods
seminar, Roland Barthes (Writing Degree Zero)a coup de foudre that propelled
me down the then unlikely rabbit hole of what was soon enough packaged as French
theory. Guided by a few lonely figurestwo young lecturers who had studied with
Barthes and Derrida, respectively; a senior member of the faculty who went way back
with Paul de Man; and a graduate student who was writing a dissertation about Walter
BenjaminI studied these writers, plus Foucault and Lacan, along with Freud, and
inevitably thought and wrote in a hodgepodge of their vocabularies, their rhythms,
and their tones. (Did I leave out their ideas? Not intentionally.)
I thought that, compared to the Newtonian observations of traditional literary
criticism, with its emphasis on naked-eye mechanisms of plot and character, author
and action, they were offering a sort of Einsteinian literary relativity that saw
literature from the perspective of language itself, in its most impersonal and abstract
yet nonetheless distinctively literaryform.

And thats why these theorists were so seductive: they were, themselves, essentially
literary. They wrote with a spellbindingly incantatory power, and they provided me
with the assurance that, as I studied and wrote about literature, I was also rivalling,
equallingGod knows, surpassingthe author whose figurative death they had
(perhaps enviously or vengefully) proclaimed. Where traditional criticism lay hold of
a work from without, the theoretical, philosophico-psychoanalytico-linguistic
enterprise lay hold of the atomic structure or the DNA of a text, replicated it,
transformed it, even improved on it (right). Hemingway may have had to get shot up
in war and to punish his body in other heroic exertions, Fitzgerald had to get his heart
broken and to risk his talent in the social whirl, but I, theorist, could contemplate and
conjure their work from the ease of a dorm room or a library carrel and assert this
critical enterprise as the comparable creative achievement of the era.
Like Alex, I didnt read as many novels in college as a literature major should; I, too,
emerged from college with huge gaps in my knowledge of the canon, and since then
Ive been trying to catch up. He says hes glad to have approached the great books a
little later, after he had lived a bit; Im glad I didnt have to write many papers on
them in which Id have had to analyze plot, character, motive, style. By detaching
books from their human encumbrances, the theorists, perhaps paradoxically,
encouraged an immediate and personal confrontation with these books, prompted us
to extract them from sedimented opinion and to discover our canon for ourselves
indeed, to determine our own criteria of aesthetic value. By considering the elusive
and recalcitrant nature of language itself, these writers made me intensely aware that
there was no writing about that wasnt itself writing, no privileged or protected or
superior position from which to contemplate experience, whether physical or
aesthetic. When writing an article or a letter or a dissertation or a poem, one was
wielding Promethean fire that demanded audacity, care, and total commitment. One
was putting oneself on the line, intellectually, morally, even politically (if you agree
with me that Derridas life work was the reconfiguration of Heideggers methods as a
left-wing project).
Ive written here before about the dangers of exposing young people to sublime
abstractions, whether chess or (as Plato suggests) philosophy. Both make for such
perfect virtual worlds that they obviate, for those who inhabit them, the messy human
experience that forms wisdom, judgment, character. But the self-deprecating irony
and undertone of wistful regret with which we former young deconstructionists look
back on our student days suggests that these self-questioning thinkers did their job
maybe even too well.
P.S. And movies? Im amazed by Alexs essay snippet, in which he applies advanced
theory to The Shining. Id never have wanted to do such a thing; I was already a

movie nut and thought that movies had a metaphysics all their own. They already
were all that theory was meant to be.

Worst College Essays 1989


BY ALEX ROSS

In last Sundays New York Times Book Review, Steven Johnson, the author of The
Ghost Map and Where Good Ideas Come From, wryly recalls his
days as a collegiate poststructuralist, when he interrogated everything in sight and
tortured the English language in the process. The piece is inspired by Jeffrey
Eugenidess new novel, The Marriage Plot, which makes fun of the great
Jacques Derrida craze of the nineteen-eighties, the stateside heyday of deconstruction
and the Death of the Author. I went to high school with Steven, and when I reached
college I followed a similar path into the theoretical wilds. A year or two ago, he and I
joked about putting together an anthology entitled Worst College Essays 1989, in
which writers of a certain age would offer up incomprehensible pseudo-Derridean
gobbledygook from the dustiest corners of their hard drives. Steven has bravely
exposed one of his inexquisite corpses, and I will do the same. This is from a paper
entitled The Grand Hotel Abyss: History and Violence in The Shining, which
purports to analyze the famous scene in which Jack Nicholson types the phrase All
work and no play makes Jack a dull boy:

Nicholson has become a chomping-machine of language, recycling stock


phrases, appropriating whatever drifts into his path. His words are nothing but
echoes; but, as Andr Topia writes of the nameless narrator of the Cyclops
chapter in Ulysses, the words are struck from a matrix, an idiom of the voice
which destroys and sublates their origin. In Ulysses and in The Shining there
is this phenomenon of near possession which makes the Nameless One, though
re-saying the already-said, seem to be bringing it into existence for the first time.
He becomes its origin and founder. The text is the absurd writing of one
determined to write all the same, to produce text, to sign whatever texts come his
way. Each line of text bears his own signature, Jack; he writes to saturate the
void with his own subjectivity. But this writing project does not cheerfully
consume the boundary between text and play. It is hermetic, a pure and rather
fragile exertion of writerly will which is shattered by the intrusions of its only
reader, the woman named Wendy. Jack would have been content to type for ever
and ever and ever. But the spell is broken, and he stalks way. In the Gold Room,
the fatally disconnected under-zone of play, he finds a fin-de-sicle soire in
progress; after a drink of Jack Daniels, he dances about for a bitif you will, a
cha-cha on the floor of the Grand Hotel Abyss.

If you will! You probably wont. This essay, whose title phrase alludes mysteriously
to Georg Lukcss attack on Theodor W. Adorno, dates from the latter end of my
Derridean period, and may have been somewhat absurdist in intent. Yet I took the
stuff very seriously at the time. My copy of Derridas Writing and Difference is
studiously dog-eared and scrupulously annotated; there are excited check-marks of

assent next to passages that I can no longer make head or tail of, and probably
understood little better at the time. The sentence Now, stricto sensu, the notion of
structure refers only to space, geometric or morphological space, the order of forms
and sites is doubly underlined and asteriskedsearch me why.
Looking back, I cant help wishing that I had spent more of my seemingly infinite free
time reading actual books, instead of books that denied the existence of books.
Although I was nominally an English literature major, I emerged from college with
huge gaps in my knowledge of the canon, and since then Ive been trying to catch up.
Not until my mid-twenties did I crack open a novel of Henry James, and subsequently
I went through nearly all of Jamess books, in a bout of post-poststructuralist remedial
education. In a way, though, Im thankful that I waited before plunging into James.
The majestically chilling final sentence of The Wings of the Doveno spoilers
here, for the benefit of young people who are reading Slavoj iek insteadwouldnt
have blindsided me at age twenty the way it did some years later, when I had lived a
bit, felt a few shudders of the real, and seen the infinite horizon of possibility begin to
shrink.
If I could relive my college years, yes, Id do it with a little less sublation. Yet, like
Steven Johnson, I dont feel that I wasted my time completely. Derrida and the other
poststructuralists were virtuosos of doubt, tunnelling underneath all forms of
ideological certitude, and, to the torment of the Sunday essayists, refusing to offer a
fresh ideology to supplant the old. At the tail end of a gruesomely dogmatic century,
there was something necessary about their extreme resistance to even the baldest
statements of fact. As my marginal annotations tell me, I was particularly impressed
by Derridas claim, in the essay Violence and Metaphysics, that every verbal
statement, no matter how indefinite, ultimately passes through the violence of the
concept. Still, he dreamed of a pure thought of pure difference, even if it dies away
when one begins to speak, like a dream upon waking. I now find the tortuousness of
the language exasperatingif I want a critique of locked-in intellectual systems, I
read Nietzsche or William Jamesbut Derridas esoteric pragmatism, dosed with
mysticism, was by no means an unhealthy influence. For us undergraduate
Derrideans, the writing had the effect of waking us up, putting us on edge. Later, we
rediscovered the virtue of a simple sentence, but we were never again as we were.

I Was an Under-Age Semiotician

By STEVEN JOHNSON
Published: October 14, 2011

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It is an occupational hazard of being a writer to be appalled by the prose style you


deployed in your youth. Most of the time the flaws reflect unchecked enthusiasm, or
literary clichs that have not yet worn away, or a certain inability to settle on a defined
voice. But reading my own college juvenilia, I have a strange and almost total sense
of disconnection. This is from a paper I wrote at the age of 19:
Enlarge This Image

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin

The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative always lies in its own
effaced and circuitous recourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the
rigidity and insistence of its taxonomies and the facility with which it relegates each
vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciative formations testifies to a
constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or comply
with the linguistic form it examines.

I was a sophomore in college, and my voice on the page sounded like that of a 60year-old Sorbonne professor, badly translated from the French.

But writing those sentences and there are thousands like them still tracing their
vagabond utterances on my hard drive turned out to be a critical part of my
education. I was, you see, a semiotics major at Brown University, during a remarkable
spell in the 1980s when semiotics was allegedly the third-most-popular major in the
humanities there, despite being a field (and a word) that drew nothing but blank stares
at family cocktail parties and job interviews. Ah, semiotics, a distant relative once
said to me during winter break. The study of how plants grow in light. Very
important field.

The obscurity of the field was partly the point. In Jeffrey Eugenidess new novel,
The Marriage Plot, which takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s, the
heroine first stumbles across the semiotics program when a friend comes home with a
copy of Jacques Derridas Of Grammatology: When Madeleine asked what the
book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book
being about something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was

about anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about
things.

Greek for the science of signs, semiotics as a field dates back to fin de
sicle philosophers and linguists like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in
modern times it is most commonly associated with Umberto Eco. The general thrust
of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if language shapes our
thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to
make sense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of
language itself: signs, symbols, metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You
could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools as readily as you could a Nike ad.

Yet when I arrived at Brown in the mid-80s, there were dozens of splinter groups
huddled beneath the semiotics flag: Derridas deconstruction, post-Freudian
psychoanalysis, postfeminism, poststructuralism, cultural studies. (We were post- a lot
of things, it seemed at the time.) Insiders rarely talked about semiotics, in fact. The
umbrella term was just Theory, with a capital T. Theorists like Derrida and Michel
Foucault were heroes on many college campuses around that time, but somehow
having a dedicated major that announced your allegiance instead of hiding behind
a more traditional degree in philosophy or English made the affinity more
pronounced.

Some of this was posture, to be sure. Going to college in the moneymaking 80s
lacked a certain radicalism, Eugenides writes. Semiotics was the first thing that
smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and
Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism
with sex and power.

I Was an Under-Age Semiotician


Published: October 14, 2011

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(Page 2 of 2)
Embracing semiotics
came with certain costs.
In my own case, I spent
most of my mid-20s detangling my prose style. (It got younger as I got older.) I now
spend more time learning from the insights of science than deconstructing its truth
claims. I slowly killed off the desire to impress with willful obscurity. During my grad
school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise
visit, modestly answering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined
reading his written words on the page. He seemed, amazingly, to be saying something,
rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one
cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential question
that began by putting under erasure the very nature of an answer. I remember
breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, I am sorry,
but I do not understand the question. It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida
himself was asking for more clarity.
But there was more than just the-latest-from-France fashion to semiotics in those
years. As a good friend once observed, it left many of us with an intoxicating sense
that the everyday world particularly the world of media contained a secret layer
of meaning that could be deciphered with the right key. (Some of that allure was
packaged neatly into the Symbology discipline of the Da Vinci Code novels.) As
we grew older, many of us started using different conceptual tools, but it was that
initial rush during our semiotics years that got us started: that exhilarating feeling of
being 20 and gaining access to a hidden world of knowledge. By the time I started
writing books about technology and media in my late-20s, the sentences were shorter
and the arguments less prone to putting themselves under erasure, but what animated
my work was the sense that computer interfaces or video games had a subtle social
meaning to them that was not always visible at first glance. That perspective was also
the legacy of my semiotics years, and it turned out to be much more durable than the
prose style.

I know of very few friends from that period who continue to practice Theory as it was
taught to us then. But a striking number of semiotics students have gone on to
influential careers in the media and the creative arts. (Perhaps anticipating this
development, during my tenure at Brown the concentration was renamed Modern
Culture and Media.) NPRs Ira Glass, the novelist Rick Moody, the filmmaker Todd
Haynes, Eugenides himself all spent their formative years in the semiotics
program. The antihero of Sam Lipsytes hilarious 2010 novel, The Ask, takes theory
classes at a college clearly modeled on Brown. (Lipsyte was in fact my roommate for
most of my college career; I like to think the stinging parodies of semio-babble in that
book were modeled on his other friends.) A long list of aspiring semioticians went on
to play important roles in the early days of digital media. Looking back, I suspect the
semiotic worldview with its constant emphasis on textual play gave us
conceptual antennas that helped us tune in to the hypertextual chaos of the Web when
it first emerged.
Semiotics, for all its needless complications, still taught us to look for new
possibilities in the ordinary, turning signs into new wonders. For all our talk about
being post-everything, the most interesting thing about us turned out to be what we
were pre- .

The Awful Truth


75

The world is a terrible place. Your kids


already know it. Theres no point in lying to
them.
By Dahlia Lithwick

Two people of different ages who know that the world is a dark place
where horrible things happen.
Photo by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

ast week, as an armed shooter raced through Ottawas

Parliament buildings, my 14-year-old nephew found himself locked


down in his Ottawa high school. School lockdowns have been a
mercifully rare occurrence in most Canadian cities, and normally
sleepy Ottawa is no exception.But as the active shooter situation
played out in Canadas capital, schools across the city were locked
down. The problem, as my nephew later explained it, was that some
of the school staff attempted to persuade their anxious students
that there was nothing going oneven as the children were on
their smartphones, receiving frantic email messages and
photos from their parents who were themselves trapped in lockeddown offices and government buildings, relaying the progress of
police and SWAT teams sweeping the streets for gunmen.
DAHLIA LITHWICK

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

As my frustrated brother later expressed it, Our kids are tuned in to


the world. Treat them like idiots, and its inevitable that teenagers
will come to resent authority figures.
Kids are connected 24/7even young kids. When we lock them
down, they have their pipeline and are going to turn to it, if for no
other reason than to call their moms. Schools and parents need to
think about that as they formulate strategies for giving students
information during a crisis. If the school is giving out limited or false
information as frantic parents text different information to their kids, we are
teaching our young people that their teachers and schools lie. And if
parents arent telling their kids anything, but their kids have
iPhones, then were also teaching them that their parents lie.
At a dinner party recently, pondering the tsunami of bad and worse
news this summer, a group of parents I know wondered whether the
world is just a much more terrible place than it used to be (ISIS,
Ebola, Hannah Graham, Ray Rice, Ferguson, Ottawa) or whether our
parents just did a better job of lying to us as kids (Watergate, the
Challenger crash, the Easter Bunny, Iran-Contra). The consensus
seemed to be that lots of awful stuff happened when we were
children too, but access to information was limited and slow,
and schools and parents managed crises in such a way as to shelter
us from the gruesome details.
Those times are decidedly over. My kids are now 11 and 9. Between
them they have learned details we would never have willingly
shared about a murdered parent of a schoolmate, a teacher arrested
for possession of pornography, the most lurid details of the Hannah
Graham investigation, and every last thing Ray Rice did in that
elevator. My kids dont yet have phones by the way. But their friends
do. And in the midst of just one of the events described above, as
my husband and I tried to formulate what information we needed to
share about why people might wantimages of naked children, it
quickly became clear that even if their classmates dont have
phones, their classmates siblings do, and that our decisions about
what to impart and how to impart it were already too late. By the
time we sat down to debrief them, they had too much information

and we hadnt considered how to make sense of any of it. How can
it be a sickness and a crime, Mommy? Yeah. I dunno.

Top Comment
I was a kid growing up in the pre-digital 1960s, and I don't think
any child was sheltered from neighbors going to Vietnam and not
coming back, the protests and riots, the assassinations (You could
see part of the city... More...
-J P McMahon
75 CommentsJoin In

We are no longer the gatekeepers of our childrens nightmares, nor


are their schools. They are now, instantly and irrevocably, as wellinformed as their most connected classmate and neighbor. (Or they
are that classmate/neighbor.) As we make decisions about how we
are going to protect them from the dangerous world in which they
reside, we should understand that we cant manage the information
they receive. Different people may feel differently about how much
information you need to convey to a child about an ongoing crisis.
But we no longer have the luxury of being the first responders when
it comes to breaking down complicated and frightening ideas for our
kids. By the time they get home from school its already too late.
They already know more than we would have ever shared.
I am not certain what the normative answer is to this problem, but I
am fairly certain that lying to our kids is not it. If anything, our kids
need the stability of and trust in institutions such as their schools
and families to help them deal with crises.Schools shouldnt
downplay the seriousness of a situation, and parents should accept
that we are just not going to be there to filter most news events for
our children, even our very young ones. Technology has transformed
parenting and education in ways we have failed to reckon with. Even
if we want it to be our job to filter the world for our kids, it no longer
is. But Ill confess that Im not sure how to tell them the truth either.