Barbara Johnson showed that while deconstruction had ignored feminism, it was nonetheless a form of feminist critique.
Deconstruction was radical because it dramatized the manner by which literary texts, rather than communicate a single meaning, inevitably betray multiple and often contradictory meanings. For Derrida, the touchstone figure for deconstruction as a reading practice and philosophical system, this was a result of the basic structure of language—rhetorical figures, syntax, the etymology of words. Meaning, Derrida argued, often appears in hierarchical binaries: public/private, presence/absence, and so on. As a translator of some of Derrida’s early deconstructive work, Johnson was instrumental in ushering Derridean ideas into the center of American intellectual life. She was also key in pointing out that the organization of many literature departments in the 1970s testified to a major problem with the theory: Namely, that this otherwise revolutionary mode of close-reading seemed to ignore one of the most fundamental binaries of all, that of gender.
Deconstruction needed feminism. At the same time, as Johnson showed, it was inherently a form of feminist critique. Johnson’s deconstructive readings of literature are preoccupied with the idea of the difference within, the way that literary texts—often through the most overlooked, but pivotal detail—helplessly reveal their constitutive ‘other’ness. Her approach thus brought to the fore the importance of thinking about difference not just as an abstract and impersonal notion, another empty term that academia has overused, but as an urgent question of life and death, gender and sexuality, race and the law. Showing how theoretical questions reverberated throughout the social landscape, she navigated between rhetorical figures as between flourishes of lyric poetry, and identified language as the crux of fundamentally irresolvable issues such as abortion.
In our current intellectual culture, these kinds of tensions are at the forefront, hardly in need, it would seem, of a focused, technical analysis like deconstruction. Yet the act of reading as Johnson performed it was not a narrow or cold-hearted operation, as the recent collection A Life with Mary Shelley, which showcases Johnson’s work, beautifully illustrates. A Life brings together four of Johnson’s contemporaries in feminism and theory—Shoshana Felman, Judith Butler, Cathy Caruth, and Mary Wilson Carpenter—to reconsider a handful of Johnson’s short-form theoretical pieces (a genre in which she is without peer) as well as her final manuscript, “Mary Shelley and her Circle,” which Johnson typed with one finger while battling a rare terminal disease. It is a book that shows the tremendous warmth between its late author (Johnson died in 2009) and her interlocutors, all of whom are still teaching and writing. Together, they articulate a form of feminist solidarity that is at once a throwback to a bygone era of academic radicalism and something of a call to bring it back to life.
This call to life is inspired in part by someone long dead: the Romantic novelist Mary Shelley, an enduring subject of Johnson’s. Shelley was the author of Frankenstein and the daughter of the prominent feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who died giving birth to Shelley) and philosophical radical William Godwin. She was married to the philandering Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. (After his body washed ashore, it was cremated. An apocryphal tale has it that Mary kept his heart as a token of her widowhood; Johnson slyly notes that “she looked good in black, and while a living husband could always be unfaithful, there could only be one official widow.”)
As Johnson memorably recounts in “Mary Shelley and her Circle,” Frankenstein was hatched as part of a writing competition between Byron, Mary, Percy, and John Polidori in the summer of 1816 in Geneva. In hindsight, the victory was clearly Mary’s: Her novel was published when she was just 19, though anonymously. As it was dedicated to William Godwin, most readers assumed it was Percy’s creation rather than the “hideous progeny” of a woman writer. When its true authorship came to light, one contemporary reviewer remarked that “for a man it was excellent, but for a woman it was wonderful.” Wonderful, yet hideous: For Johnson, this fundamental ambivalence characterizes Frankenstein, a work about many things—the monstrosity of science, but also creation, knowledge, humanism, and writing.
One thing Frankenstein does not seem to be about is femininity. Victor Frankenstein “produces” his masculine creature himself, and when the monster seeks a female companion, she never materializes. Further, all the women in the background of the novel seem conventional and thinly drawn. How could this be the case in a novel by the daughter of a pioneering feminist? In Johnson’s spectacular “My Monster/Myself” (first published in a special issue of Diacritics dedicated to feminist theory), she announces: “To speak of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is immediately to approach the question of man indirectly through what has always been at once excluded and comprehended by its definition, namely, the woman and the monster.” Read through this lens of exclusion, Frankenstein becomes a feminist text; a theorization of the unheimlech or monstrosity that invades any attempt to reproduce an exact or even accurate version of the self.
A Life catalogs a few different time periods: the time of “Mary Shelley and her Circle” in post-French Revolution Europe, the heyday of apocalyptic Romanticism; the 1970s and 80s when Johnson wrote many of her most canonical essays, while helping to shape the institutional field of women’s studies; and of course the present. As is the case with Mary Shelley’s work and that of many, many others, women’s writing has historically been received and acknowledged belatedly: out of time, in a way. (Frankenstein really only rose in status a few decades ago, thanks to Johnson and other second-wave feminist critics.) Yet what struck Johnson about Shelley’s writing was her sense of being in her time, as well as ahead of it. A kind of future-orientation marks both Frankenstein and Shelley’s last novel, The Last Man. Meanwhile, Shelley’s life seems full of ghosts: She was haunted by her parents’ celebrity, by children she lost, and by prophetic ideas of the technologies that were to shape the near future.
It is appropriate, then, that A Life actually begins with a kind of ending: Johnson’s essay on The Last Man. Johnson’s legacy, as A Life shows, is not simply her brilliant recuperation of sexual difference out of the “subtly male pseudogenderlessness of language.” Rather, we find that it might be the other way around: “Female effacement” and feminine subjectivity and sexuality in language all reflect back on the unstable notion of the individual. In The Last Man, a narrative about the lone survivor of an apocalyptic 21st century plague, Shelley “promises the reader only a future in which he will not be able to have read the novel.” Thus, “the reader is dead,” according to Johnson, and consequently the humanist figure of “man” himself. Shelley’s work allows Johnson, more than a hundred and fifty years later, to pose a chilling set of questions about the survival of the category of human subject: “How indeed can one survive humanism? How one can create a language that is postplague, that is, postuniversal?” How indeed. Shelley’s plague survivor, without anyone to measure himself against—or talk to—is neither man nor woman but a third being, a kind of witness-ghost, and in The Last Man time itself vanishes as measure of human life. The unsettling essay is a fitting way to reintroduce Johnson’s older work, which, even after years, still has the capacity to upset the foundations of our thinking.
Shoshana Felman notes that like one of Johnson’s other literary idols, Proust, Johnson was “searching for lost time” in her last works, yet also, like Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, “going over a whole life of thinking, feeling, reading, writing, living, suffering, teaching.” The juxtaposition of these two women writers, Johnson and Shelley, evokes in A Life a sense of feminine untimeliness, but one that appears acutely modern and prescient. As the title would suggest, the contributors to the volume seem to want to create a special kind of proximity between Shelley and Johnson, a sense of “being-with” that is deliberately counterposed to such paternalist frameworks as Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.” The effort is at once the book’s greatest promise and its weakness. Johnson’s feminist commentators offer a communal forum in which to reconsider her most fundamental assertions about sexual difference, the academic institution, and reading. And yet the secondary essays’ veritable encomia foreclose some unanswered critical questions: Why did Johnson devote her last work to a series of biographical stories (ones that are often quite far from historical fact)? What might be the significance of this turn to life-writing for a critic committed to the fundamental indeterminacy of the term “life”?
Such questions might begin to get back some of the theoretical rigor that feminism in its current state could benefit from, and which Johnson so deftly and generously practiced. What Johnson did best was, quite simply, to raise the stakes of reading, as anyone will agree who has read her classic essay “The Frame of Reference,” with its account of how thinkers (in this case, two giants: Lacan and Derrida) who point out blind spots in another’s work will often perform exactly what they purport to denounce. Johnson theorized—with characteristic whimsy—that serial blindness in critical disagreements in fact defines all reading. Basic literary labor, then, as Shelley’s Frankenstein would also suggest, is a confrontation with the abyss of the unknown—not within some text, object, or person, but within oneself.
Johnson was dedicated to reading not just literature but life as we understand it, and A Life pays tribute to her singular intellectual bravery. Unlike Johnson’s work on Mary Shelley, however, the book doesn’t fully draw what was past into the present moment. And unless we want to risk deconstruction (and maybe its larger home, academic reading and writing) becoming a ghost story, we would do well to take into more immediate account the feminist ethics of reading, the kind that Johnson is most remembered for, and which gave it breath.