I was at Essex University in the mid-1970s and like many English students felt bewildered and not a little intimidated by French Theory.
At that time it had a close connection with Marxism and the department ran a series of now-famous conferences on how this conjunction would transform the study of literature. As an undergraduate, my experience of these gatherings was of luminaries, chins wedged on chests, mumbling through complex and interminable papers that elicited complex and interminable responses. What were they saying? All I knew was that you were not allowed to use the word book any more, you had to say "text", and that "empiricist" - whatever that meant - was the worst thing you could call anyone, except of course for "Leavisite". I thought I knew what structuralism was and wrote my tutor a 30-page essay to prove it. Post-structuralism was more tricky. Those who termed themselves as such said it was about allowing for different opinions but got very cross if anyone disagreed with them. Derrida's concept of différance , whereby "no" means "yes" and "yes" means "I can't give you an answer just at present", seemed to represent the essence of at least one brand of post-structuralism. This man had to be respected since he had created a new philosophy simply by misspelling a word. David Blunkett take note. Why couldn't someone please explain what it was all about?
And lo, someone did. Christopher Norris's little masterpiece, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (1982), is not mainly a textbook. Textbooks are generally more about the acquisition of techniques than the exploration of values - that is the fundamental preserve of English, and why it excites such disagreements among those who study it. Norris's book put everything into perspective for me. He traced deconstruction back to problems in Kant and discussed what bearing it had on the grounds of our knowledge. Was truth really no more than a metaphor? If so, then the study of literature suddenly seemed more important than philosophy. But deconstruction also challenged the idea of literature as a self-sufficient entity and was highly sceptical of the process of valuation. Its message was therefore the impossibility of choice; with the rider that we have no choice but to choose.
Norris dealt with these issues with exemplary clarity. Deconstruction was democratic in its demystification of theory and deserves its reputation as one of the best books in the New Accents series. It was an inspiring and dazzling tour de force that revolutionised my thinking. I doubt if I would have persevered with theory had it not been for Norris, who taught me theory's value while cautioning me about its limitations. Did it change my life? It made me change my career and that is enough.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.