Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Decomposition (first draft)

[Here's the first full draft of the second "working week" five-paragraph essay. Again, I'm just putting the paragraphs together and reading the text over. I can see that this one is going to need a lot of work.]

In his forgotten little handbook, Herbert Grierson insists that good composition is characterized by "coherence and the right distribution of emphasis as determined by the purpose you have in view" (1944:135). But who are "you"? Grierson clearly assumes that the writer, operating somewhere well outside the text (somewhere beyond the page on which the words have been gathered) is in control of his (always his) expression. He would no doubt install the reader in the same space. But why, then, do these two subjects (of the same merciful lord) need a text? Couldn't "you" and "I" just talk to each other? Can't we all just get along? No, let us assume that the only "you" to speak of is the reader. Texts often crumble in our hands when we pick them up. If "composition" denotes how a text is "put together", "decomposition" might denote how they "come apart". If construction is about how a text is built up, how it is assembled out of words, sentences, and paragraphs, deconstruction is about how a text breaks down, how it collapses (Derrida 1967; see Cuddon 1991: 222-225). Decompsition is about activating the incoherence of the text, its excesses of emphasis, the indeterminacy of its always multiple points of view. A new text may then grow out of such compost.

A text coheres if it is read charitably, that is, morally. Cued by markers that suggest the text wants to describe a place, or tell a story, or put forth an argument, we let our familiarity with space, time, or logic respectively, (and always respectfully) inform our reading. Herbert Grierson emphasizes the we have "knowledge by acquaintance" of these "orders of phenomena", that is, we are continually aware of these orders in going about our ordinary business (Grierson 1944: 21-22). Coherence is an attribute of the surface of discourse. The first sign of the underlying incoherence of a text is therefore the superficial interference, or dissonance, that may be observed between spatial, temporal and conceptual orders. The story may at first seem plausible, but not in the place suggested. The arrangement of things in the room may be quite reasonable but how did they get there? All sorts of embarrassing details lurk in the clash of orders that deconstruction brings to the fore. Most important, however, is the order that Grierson leaves out, or (more charitably) subordinates to the order of thought (logic): the order of emotion. Words and sentences do not just evoke thoughts, facts and acts, they also evoke particular feelings. Too often, writing makes too little or, in other literature, too much of the emotional response of the reader. It underestimates the indignation or overestimates the emphathy of the reader. And we, as readers, often much too easily play along. "[The] law of coherence is a heuristic rule," said Foucault, "a procedural obligation, almost a moral constraint of research." It tells us

not to multiply contradictions uselessly; not to be taken in by small differences; not to give too much weight to changes, disavowals, returns to the past, and polemics; not to suppose that men's discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of their desires, the influences that they have been subjected to, or the conditions in which they live. (1972: 149)

To decompose a text is precisely to confront it, not with the "order of phenomena" normally supposed by the reader (to have been intended by the writer), but with the disorder by which the text is strangely disposed. It happens whenever we shamelessly insist on reading the text.

Deconstruction is a shift of emphasis while reading. It actively challenges the principle of composition: "coherence and the right distribution of the emphasis" (Grierson 1944: 135). We have just dealt with coherence; to better understand the decomposition of emphasis, consider two different ways of playing Bach. Wolfgang Sandner has said that Keith Jarrett (the famous jazz pianist) plays Bach "emphasizing nothing, demanding nothing, concealing nothing and withholding nothing. In one word: natural." He cites the pianist himself in support of this thesis. "This music does not need my assistance," says Jarrett. "The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me." Compare this with what Sandner says of perhaps the most famous interpreter of Bach, Glenn Gould. "Obviously," writes Sandner, "he did not even trust his own analyses. He remained in search of clues. He spread the tones, loosened their coherence, emphasized side-lines and with his extreme tempi subjected the works of Bach to a kind of stress test." There may be no better way to summarize the spirit of deconstruction: don't trust your own analyses but continue the search for clues; emphasize side-lines and read at extreme speeds (whether fast or slow); all in all, subject the text to a stress test. You can experience the difference by listening to their recordings of the thirteenth prelude in Book I of Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 858). By slowing it down, and emphasizing the space between the tones, Gould is able to draw our attention to our own contribution to the music, our listening (Basbøll and Born, 2007). It is important to keep in mind that Sandner is talking about two performances of the same composition, two "readings" of the same "text". The composer may have preferred one or the other, but there is no basic sense in which one is "right" and the other "wrong". Each reveals something about the composition. A "natural" emphasis may offer a great deal of immediate aesthetic pleasure, to be sure, but deconstruction is the pursuit of a more difficult beauty. Decomposition results from an excess of emphasis.

It often assumed that good academic writing is rooted in a singularity of purpose. "The specialist," Grierson tells us, "need think of nothing in regard to style but clearness and precision." And he alleges a reason: both his subject-matter and his audience is given to him so his point of view is largely fixed in advance. He need only ensure that his style does not obstruct the audience's view of his subject. "Everything else is an intrusion, and an unnecessary intrusion, because he can count upon willing and patient readers who desire to study the subject" (1944: 25). For Grierson, specialist writing is a particular way of establishing the point of view of a text, which in turn "determines everything" (16). Since the point of view depends on the speaker, the subject-matter, and the audience involved (Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 3), says Grierson, there are really an infinity of possible points of view for any text. But he makes a crucial assumption, namely, that a given text will have a single point of view, i.e., that the writer can make a number of rhetorical decision to, as it were, "fix" it. Deconstruction draws this assumption radically into question, beginning with the allegedly singular purpose of the writer; for even the most academic writers are torn, at least, between enlightening their readers and furthering their careers. This immediately suggests multiple audiences, but it also suggests that a text is about any number of things that are not mentioned in the abstract. Deconstruction attempts to chronicle the "wars of signification" that take place behind the often irenic facade of an academic text. What we might call "academic composure" is fostered by an illusion of the writer's singular purpose, namely, that his only intention is to instruct a "willing and patient" reader, one whose only desire, in turn, is "to study the subject". Once we drop this assumption the text begins to decompose.

The essential thing is to read the text. To deconstruct it, we loosen its coherence, redistribute its emphasis, and question the unity of its purpose. All of these are acts of reading. It is true that deconstruction demands that we set aside the usual obligations of reading; it demands that we read against what are often the clearly marked intentions of the author. But deconstruction should not be taken as a personal attack on the author. Grierson assures the writer that the text will be read in the light of the reader's "knowledge by acquaintance" of the basic orderliness of experience, that it will be read with a natural emphasis, that it its readers, desirous only of study, will be patient and willing. Such assurances, when believed, produce a particular kind of text, and it may be a very good one. Every once in a while, however, we need as writers to see what our assumptions about the reader have actually accomplished. On such readings, the text will begin to come apart, sometimes like a collapsing structure, and sometimes like a mound of compost. We can use the results of such decompositions when we compose texts of our own.

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