WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2021
First, though, deconstruction: How does the New York Times tend to understand the concept of "race?"
An op-ed column in today's paper helps us consider that question. It deals with These DNA Tests Today. Its headlines offer this:
America’s Brutal Racial History Is Written All Over Our Genes
Our country has struggled to reckon with the horrors of the past. Could DNA tests help?
Interesting! Can DNA tests help us reckon with the horrors of our nation's brutal racial history? There's no question that our nation has such a history. But can DNA tests somehow help?
We may tackle race and the Times next week. For the most part, we think today's column helps advance some of the unenlightening, unconstructive ways we tend to think about "race."
Yesterday, we asked a question. Familiar branding notwithstanding, is it possible that the New York Times is perhaps just a tiny bit dumb on the rare occasion?
Suggesting the answer might be yes, we mentioned a report about the "Yale School" and its approach to deconstruction. We're sorry to say that the report in question was an obituary—an obituary of J. Hillis Miller, an extremely prolific literary critic who died last week at the age of 92, having lived an exemplary life.
What follows isn't intended as a commentary on the work of Professor Miller. We mean it as a commentary on the work of the New York Times.
As we noted yesterday, Miller's work may have made perfect sense. Yesterday's report in the New York Times rather plainly didn't.
RISEN (2/16/21): J. Hillis Miller, a literary critic who, by applying the wickedly difficult analytic method known as deconstruction to a broad range of British and American prose and poetry, helped revolutionize the study of literature, died on Feb. 7 at his home in Sedgwick, Me. He was 92.
Though his career spanned nearly 70 years at three universities, Professor Miller was most closely associated with the so-called Yale School, a band of scholars in the 1970s and ’80s that included Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman and, for a time, Harold Bloom.
Scattered across the English, French and comparative literature departments at Yale, they were united by their interest in deconstruction, the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts—an idea first propounded by Mr. de Man and Mr. Derrida, imposing intellects who brought the approach with them from Europe.
What follows is not intended as a critique of Professor Miller's work. It's intended as a critique of the Times, a publication widely believed to be Our Town's brightest newspaper.
As the report begins, we're told that Professor Miller applied "the wickedly difficult analytic method known as deconstruction" to a broad range of British and American prose and poetry. Before long, that difficult analytic method is defined:
Deconstruction: The theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts.
Question: Do you have even the slightest idea what that might possibly mean?
Answer: No, of course you don't. And neither does anyone else!
As we've noted in the past, we're never happier than when we encounter incoherent prose. We think first of the many indecipherable "Einstein-made-easy" books, not excluding the original Einstein-made-easy book, the one written by Einstein himself.
Even Albert Einstein couldn't make Einstein easy! In his 2007 biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson told the humorous, all-too-human story of the way that "general interest" book came to be so incoherent.
We also think of Bertrand Russell's obsession with "Russell's paradox," the foolishness which lured Wittgenstein to England, then eventually drove his work in a whole new direction.
The widespread existence of such prose, especially within the high academy, was the subject of the later Wittgenstein's work. Beyond that, the widespread existence of such prose is deeply instructive as a matter of anthropology.
For the person with a sense of humor, incoherent high-level prose can also be wonderfully funny. Channeling Homer himself, we strongly suspect that it makes the gods on Olympus laugh,
Getting back to deconstruction—at the New York Times, people thought the salad posted above made sense as a definition. Reading further, we come upon additional amusements, such as the one shown here:
RISEN: In 1953 Professor Miller joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where in the late 1960s he became friends with Mr. de Man, who also taught there, and Mr. Derrida, who was a visiting lecturer.
Mr. Derrida, with whom he had lunch every Tuesday, was particularly taken with Professor Miller’s use of his first initial, J., which sounds like the French word for “I” and yet also contains a “hidden” meaning, his first name—exactly the sort of linguistic slipperiness deconstructionists loved.
Mr. de Man moved to Yale in 1971, and Professor Miller followed a year later. Mr. Derrida arrived in 1975.
As noted, Professor Miller published as J. Hillis Miller. According to the New York Times, the world-famous Professor Derrida "was particularly taken with Professor Miller’s use of his first initial."
The Times then tries to explain why that was. We're told that his use of that first initial contained or involved "exactly the sort of linguistic slipperiness deconstructionists loved."
As obedient readers of the Times, we're supposed to pretend that the anecdote in question makes some sort of decipherable sense. Obviously, it doesn't. "But then, this is the New York Times," to borrow from the poet.
We humans are wired to function this way. Leading top experts all say this.