In class we deconstructed J-Lo’s pop hit “Jenny from the Block” and also the perhaps misleading “conclusion” to The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne teases us with. But in this post, I’d like to review deconstruction because I know that many of you still find it to be a strange and nebulous thing. Since my own speciality is early American literature, I will try to perform several different readings of two famous paintings that I often teach in my English 346 class so you can see different ways of reading the same “text.” I will use a painting as my “text,” instead of a poem or novel, to save you from having to read pages and pages.
But, before I go on, I also want to remind you of something that Jaques Derrida said in his 1996 interview with Amnesty International at Oxford University that we watched in class. His interlocutor asked him what deconstruction is, and Derrida added parenthetically “if it exists.”And his reason for saying that, of course, is because deconstruction is by definition not a definable method. In contrast, the scientific method has certain norms and assumptions for analyzing plants and animals just as the ”new critical” or “formalist” method has certain norms and assumptions for analyzing poetry in terms of metaphor, irony, thematic tension, etc. Deconstruction, essentially, is not a method but rather a strategy of reading that unravels contradictions, contexts, and indeterminacies within the text to reveal alternative meanings. For more on that, click [here].
Now let us look at an old painting from 1575 by Theodor Galle of Amerigo Vespucci discovering America.
How might we analyze this painting like a poem? Well, let’s first analyze it in the way that a traditional “new critic” or formalist might analyze a poem — perhaps the way you were taught in high school. The theme obviously is the discovery. Vespucci’s identity as an explorer is emphasized metonymically by the sextant he holds before him and by the ship in the background. America’s identity is represented metaphorically by the figure of a naked woman. Moreover, her leg and arm are V-shaped so that her knee forms a pointer that focuses the viewer’s attention on the background scene which is framed by the V of her arm. In the background (which is hard to see on the internet) are several cannibals roasting a human leg above a fire, a leg which is a mirror image of the woman’s leg. Not only is the background framed by the foreground, it is also an inverted image of the foreground. Thus, by means of the form of the painting, its structure, the painter meaningfully connects the foreground and the background, and in so doing, he creates an ironic tension between a sense of America as an innocent and fertile new world and a sense of America as dangererous and amoral.
OK, now let’s move on to demystification. Demystification would begin by pointing out the ideology of the Spanish conquest. Vespucci is represented as a heroic man and America as a woman willing to submit to him. The native Americans are represented as amoral cannibals who must be conquered and brought to God by the civilized Vespucci. That is the ideology that was invented to justify the European conquest of America, and maybe you were even taught that in your high school history class. To demystify this ideology, we would point out the reality, and the reality of Spanish conquest is that the Native Americans were not cannibals. In fact, many of the European sailors who were shipwrecked or stranded in America became cannibals themselves, and so the representation of the Native Americans as cannibals is what we might call, using psychoanalytic terms, a “displacement.” Also, the reality of Spanish conquest was hardly civilizing. Rather, it was a brutal massacre and enslavement of thousands and thousands of people. And certainly, the metaphor of America as a willing, naked woman is not too hard to demystify as something really, really creepy . . . or to use some fancy vocabulary instead of the word “creepy,” we might say Eurocentric and male chauvenistic.
OK, now for deconstruction. In some ways deconstruction will look a lot like demystification, but in other ways it will look a lot like formalism. The center of the European narrative of conquest is always the binary relationship between the discoverer and his discovery. However, the background image of the cannibals (the mirror image of the foreground) is the other “center” of this painting that reveals the psychological anxiety surrounding the colonial enterprize. The metonymic linkage of the woman and the cannibals creates a strange association between sex and violence — the sex and violence that became very much a part of the colonial project as a fantasy of European power – a fantasy that is expressed over and over again, not just in narratives of exploration such as Sir Walter Ralegh’s Beautiful Empire of Guiana but also in John Donne’s famous poem “To his Mistress Going to Bed.” In addition, Vespucci here is expressing his “manhood” metonymically through his “tool” of exploration (the sextant). He seems to want to reveal his superior knowledge, but ironically, this painting is not really about the knowledge he already has, but about the knowledge he seeks to gain and take from “America.” Metaphorically, “she” is the “knowledge” that he seeks, and her own knowledge of herself is repressed by the Latin inscription below the painting which says “Americen Americus retexit; semel vocavit inde. semper exitam” which can be translated into English as ”Amerigo discovered (or, more literally, undressed) America, and once called, thenceforth she will always be awake (or, more literally, excited.)” The Latin draws attention to America as a repetition of Amerigo’s name (Americen Americus), and reminds us that “America” itself is a metaphorical figure (an other) through which Vespucci creates his own identity. In addition, we can intertextually link the sexual puns in Latin on discovery and undressing to the name for maps of the world commonly used in the 15th and 16th centuries — mappae mundi, which literally meant “clothes of the world.”
Thus, not only is Vespucci’s knowledge expressed in sexual terms, but also in Eurocentric terms as it appears America is only a subject of knowledge (is only “awake”) when “she” is interpellated (or called out) by the European male. The figure of the cannibals in the background that represent Europe’s fear of America exposes both the European’s repression of his own selfhood as well as his repression of the Native American’s knowledge of themselves.
We can go on, but why don’t we stop there. This painting is telling a story, and, as I hope you can see, deconstruction is not so much a method as it is a strategy of reading that story that (1) highlights the the margins of the text (i.e., the cannibals in the background) rather than the center (i.e., Vespucci), (2) traces the odd and often contradictory associations among the different parts of the story, and (3) draws in the historical context and intertextual connections between this painting and other paintings, novels, desires, etc.
Let’s look at another painting, this one made more than two hundred years later by the famous poet and engraver, William Blake. The painting is called “Europe Supported by Africa and America.” How might you analyze this painting formally? How might you demystify it? How might you deconstruct it?