Sunday, August 30, 2009

Best of... Marxism

Nothing truly interesting is possible without negativity; error or ideology, false appearance, are also objective facts that have to be reckoned back into truth.
-Fredric Jameson, "On 'Cultural Studies'" in The Ideologies of Theory, 633

I know I said a phenomenology collection would be next, but returning to Marx and Hegel recently in my reading has given me a fondness for my (somewhat more sketchy) writings on Marxism:

Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach: A very, very lengthy attempt (it extended into six posts, and still remained incomplete) to piece together some basic characteristics "Theses on Feuerbach" and comprehend the level at which Marx's "overturning" of Hegel proceeds. I'm not as technical here as I should be, especially in explaining Hegel, but I hope my simplifications (especially the use of Foucault, who I toyed around with as an explanatory mechanism, and, quickly after this, threw away) are generally helpful in making the problem Marx encountered clear. I should add that in short, I am generally trying to outline something like what Fredric Jameson says (as usual, excellently) here, or find out why and how exactly it is the case: is a mistake to think that Marxism is simply a type of interpretation that takes the economic "sequence" as that ultimately privileged code into which the other sequences are to be translated. Rather, for Marxism the emergence of the economic, the coming into view of the infrastructure itself, is simply the sign of the approach of the concrete.
-"Towards Dialectical Criticism" in Marxism and Form, 322

...and Here are the other posts in the series: post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5, post 6, and some rough notes on where I am going after the sixth post.

On Hoarding and Specters of Marx: a detailed analysis of the "hoarding" chapters in Capital and the Grundrisse, and a general perspective on the usefulness of Marx, via a somewhat unorthodox (or at least less Marxist) take on Derrida's Specters of Marx.

Marx, Economics and Law
: explaining the "Critique of the Gotha Programme."

Spivak v. Derrida on Value: A look at "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value" and a localization of differences between Spivak and Derrida when it comes to Marx. I should say that Spivak seems closer to what Marx says, which refuses analogies between capital and subject, and insists on analogies (in order to demystify them) between capital and society (the demystification proceeds by then seeing society in terms of the means of production), if I can speak loosely.

Gramsci on Hegemony
: my presentation for a class with Spivak on Gramsci (and, in a shockingly productive pairing or contrast, W.E.B. Du Bois--whose Black Reconstruction I can't recommend enough), which tries to explain in detail how the concept of hegemony emerges in Gramsci's analysis of history.

Structuralism and finitude: I touch on structuralism mainly, but I have a nice part on the famous "effective causality" passages in Althusser and Balibar's Reading Capital.

You can also expect in the future more detailed treatments of Raymond Williams than the ones I have written so far, as well as considerations of Althusser and Fredric Jameson.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

On Latour and Sedgwick

(I have been rewriting this over the last few days, adding a bit to the end especially, so I am reposting it.)

The practical problem we face, if we try to go that new route, is to associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, knee-jerk reactions, habits of thoughts.
-Bruno Latour, "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?"

Latour has been a guiding light for many people looking for a way to transform critical theory (that is, to give it more specificity) and bring it out of the morass of heavy ideological/cultural critique that was so prevalent in the last twenty or more years. (I should say he hasn't only been influential in critical theory, but also in the regular activities of various fields, like philosophy.)

I won't recapitulate his more recent (and not so recent) arguments about associations and things. Suffice it to say that many people find his critique of critique insightful because it stresses adding to the reality of whatever is being studied rather than undermining it, or searching for its conditions of possibility. (Latour is quick to say that phenomenology does something similar, but still goes the wrong way: I'd totally agree to the first part, the fact that phenomenology adds reality, as the main reason one gets interested in phenomenology in the first place.)

His parallel in literary studies and literary theory has to be the late Eve Sedgwick, whose paper on paranoid reading and reparative reading has become increasingly popular over the years as the Latourian critique of critique has hit home more and more.

Unfortunately, both reparative reading and positive or realist criticism (as I'll call it), remain too close to 1) a shift merely in attitude, not of method and 2) the creation of new objects, not tools. I'll admit Latour is, to my mind, much more productive of tools, and so the criticism of him here is a bit less harsh. But when he says something such as the above statement (that we need somehow to condition ourselves to act positively) what he is doing is turning a question about method, indeed about the creation of tools, into something indistinct, something which the critic can either have or not, a property that is assumed to be too self-evident. Sedgwick is horrible on this front: the reparative reading, which does not suspect its text, which does not try to undermine it in order to prove a point, which does not try and look for contradictions but which, well, it's hard to say what it actually does... perhaps inflect it in a different way (I try to extract something good out of it in this later post)... well, this reparative reading (whatever it is), remains more a banner or sign which one can pin to one's analysis without having to make any methodological concessions or innovations at all, without citing differently, without writing differently, and fundamentally without thinking differently. It involves the worst of what theory does: it announces a methodological change without at all making this change, or, perhaps more accurately (and more perversely), announces a methodological change and turns methodology into an evaluation of the announcement.

While Latour shies away from such a perspective by the creation of a particular level at which his analysis will move, and both he and Sedgwick generally escape these criticisms because of the insightfulness and innovation of their work (in short, because of their sophistication), it isn't hard to see their statements producing a sort of criticism or critique that merely replaces the disasters of recent theory with other disasters. Before I say what these disasters actually are--for all of recent theory and all of the new theory aren't themselves disasters--let me say that this criticism would be, basically, feel-good criticism overconfident in the actuality of its object (though the diffuseness of Latour's object again keeps him from being so overconfident--not so for simpler associations), or a criticism that values individual judgment insofar as it is confident of its contributions and its grasp of rich areas of investigation. One can look at various philosophical realists (championing, like Latour, their pre-criticality) glimpse, at times, this sort of confidence that says now, we're not only getting at the real things, but also that our attitude, our willingness to add to the reality of things, assures us that we get at the reality of things--a field that I should say is less subject to this particular feel-goodery, however, because it has to pay attention to its method, or its way of inquiry, and so can't totally be assured of much. One can certainly look at literary criticism, however, and see that the turn to two areas in particular, affect and aesthetics, while they also respond to other necessities in the field (the return of aesthetics is a very much needed return, though the question is how much it ever really died off), also exhibits a certain Sedgwickian self-satisfaction--by which I mean less of a focus on method and on explicitly looking at how interpretation will proceed, in favor of creating a new object of inquiry with the old tools by the sheer force of one's individual grasp of the real (one can see both aesthetics and affect return in this way in Sianne Ngai's overrated, but sometimes insightful, Ugly Feelings).

What both here rely on is some notion that previous acts of criticism or critique somehow don't really display the qualities they attribute to a reparative or realist criticism. And this, this dismissal of the previous as too critical, is precisely the disaster of old critical theory that new critical theory would repeat. When Latour says, for example,

Once you realize that scientific objects cannot be socially explained, then you realize too that the so-called weak objects, those that appear to be candidates for the accusation of antifetishism, were never mere projections on an empty screen either...

in short implying that once you see your object as a richness rather than a mask, a fetish (Marx's sense), you begin to see the world of objects itself as things, as richnesses, as the real, which cannot serve as some ground with which to undermine the former set of objects--when Latour says this, how can he seriously think that previous theory and previous critique in general did not operate this way? I agree, there was a period when all you got was the social and the ideological. But good critique works this way pretty much whatever the situation.

Interestingly, Latour (along with Sedgwick) don't seem to really get at the problem--a problem literary theory (and not critical theory) has dealt with for a while. When they say that exposing the social or ideological conditions of possibility of an object has gone on too long, and that we need to care and protect our objects by adding to their reality, they're still assuming that there is some social or cultural connection between the individual critic's work and the societal effect of such exposure or protection. Yes, I agree with Latour: if you add to the reality of the object, you won't get such crazy things happening, probably, as the sociological critique of science hoisted on its own petard by crazy Republicans saying global warming isn't a fact, or inanely claiming that affirmative action is itself racist--thereby enlightening the enlightenment, or bringing down the idols that are the results of the process of bringing down the idols, a critique meant to advance learning, not impede it. But then again you might also still have these things happening, because fundamentally the way the public picks up these habits is not through the results of research but through instruction. That is, if they pick them up at all: frankly, it doesn't seem to me at all clear that academic work has much connection to the society whose products it unmasks. Or, because this borders on sounding unduly pessimistic, I should say that this connection is very very mediated, through all sorts of complexities (teaching, and I'd like to add method, are two of the more direct connections still available--the first direct because it is still immediate, the second because it has mediated, the connection, installed itself in a symbolic field or discourse and triangulated itself--to use a term from Frederic Jameson's "cognitive mapping"--in some way). Just adopting another attitude supposes that the power to point out the object, along with the object's being produced by society, is enough to guarantee that the resulting statement will be in some sense about a societal object. In philosophy, the same maneuver will allow one to talk about real or natural objects, "bypassing society," because they are produced by nature (or man controlling nature).

On this point, one is reminded of that dictum of Fredric Jameson: "In matters of art, and particularly of artistic perception [...] it is wrong to want to decide, to want to resolve a difficulty." It strikes me that both Latour and Sedgwick want to resolve difficulties, even if they aren't entirely dealing with artistic perception but interpretation more generally (with critical perception in general). We might also follow Jameson, who, in the essay from which I extract this remark (the famous "Metacommentary"), points toward Paul Ricoeur and his distinction between a negative and positive hermeneutic. The idea of a positive hermeneutic which would oppose a sort of demystifying critique (the negative hermeneutic) might be more helpful in the long run than Latour's realism (though it could be supplemented with the work on objects and things), and certainly, I think, is more helpful than Sedgwick's reparative reading (who cites Ricoeur only to, in effect, bypass him and replace his powerful notion with a hazy one). Why? Because, unlike reparative realism (as we might call it) Ricoeur links the positive hermeneutic to a search for an origin. In other words, the positive hermeneutic is not just a shift away from demystification, but is an effect of an effort to restore a forgotten meaning. In this respect, it points towards a goal (it is the explicit search for origin, though not as ground), that brings about a method, a process, or at the very least installs the work of criticism within a certain field that requires elaboration, systematic extension, which the conception of criticism as merely additive (ironically) does not do and, frankly, isn't interested in doing (since all that is required is the blank assertion that by adding one is immanent to the process of extension itself--and indeed perhaps what criticism does is think long and hard about the distinction between addition and elaboration).

Talking about poems

You all might be wondering, why the continual interest in I.A. Richards? Well, quite frankly, strange, brilliant, complex, and fragmentary discourses, like Coleridge's, like Derrida's--these are always the most exciting and productive for me to research and to read. Bordering on incompleteness, they provoke you to think in order to complete, and then test and weigh, in a way that something more finished fails to do.

And Richards' certainly belongs in this group. His fault, I think, is that he is actually too fragmented. His remarks are so scatterbrained in what they are trying to get at, that he falls far short of someone like Coleridge (whose fragments have more to say in them), and often embarrasses those who would defend him. In short, he ends up being too idiosyncratic, too quirky--a quality that is actually thankfully lacking in the strange, complex, fragmentary discourses I mentioned earlier. These, I would say, remain unique or singular, and repay--much more than Richards can--the effort of reconstruction.

Nevertheless, Richards still has amazing things to say that are often too quickly dismissed. Here's a bit, for example, that should get people thinking:

Northrop Frye has written: "The great writer seldom regards himself as a personality with something to say: his mind to him is simply a place where something happens to words." This, as it stands, looks like a generalization from biographies; but that, I think, is largely a façon de parler. Language invites us continually to talk about poets under conditions which only entitle us to talk about poems. The substance of this sentence, for me, is that well-organized poems can be studied as places where transactions between words take place.
-from "How Does a Poem Know When It Is Finished?" (1970)

"Language invites us continually to talk about poets under conditions which only entitle us to talk about poems." Notice he says language, language in general, and not as an abstract medium or force but as a system (which is what the next sentence implies, when it talks about "the substance" of Frye's sentence) that is psychological and social at once. When we talk about poems, we talk about minds, but minds that we can only talk about in terms of poems. My point is that this doesn't necessarily reduce to something like "the autonomous text," which anti-formalist critics (and even some formalists) hate, even though it is a pretty quirky view.

More radically, I'd say it accomplishes two things that anti-formalism misses--the bad, first aspect of which it actually ends up unselfconsciously (that is, stupidly) repeating:

1) Making the work immanent to language itself qua communication, and by way of this, to an immediate situation of language-users, and then to society at large. That is, the work becomes a concretion of the capabilities of minds to form and understand sentences, which can can be projected onto various capabilities of society as a whole. This is absolutely torn apart even by Geoffrey Hartman (no anti-formalist he) in his various discussions of Richards, and rightly so. The notion is this: the work, as read, represents a psychology (as we said above), which in turn represents a linguistic capacity (talks about itself by putting itself into language, or is, at some level, an instantiation and internalization of language structures that are social because universally shared, like metaphor), which in turn represents some level of acculturation, or of health more generally, within society. Thus, Richards can point, in Practical Criticism, to the horrible misreadings of his classes at Cambridge and say that if this represents the reading abilities of the best educated in England, the state of society must be horrible. What we have here is the remnant of a certain Arnoldian insistence that the act of criticism must be ultimately social in its influence: here, criticism is clearing away the misreadings of the text, and thereby improving the capacities of the nation in general to understand, to comprehend, to communicate effectively. Richards is at least rigorous enough (unlike someone like Empson, I believe, and unlike some cultural criticism) to say that these capabilities are indeed psychological, and have to unfold themselves along lines that are ultimately at work only in one sort of cultural capability. But the notion that poems let us talk about minds, minds that use a social language and therefore have the same (linguistic) structure, preserves a sort of linkage between the poem and society that is dubious, because so little mediated.

2) The other side of this (and this is certainly not present in Empson or in bad cultural criticism) is the creation of a sort of network through which the poem is indeed triangulated in its relationship to structures larger than itself, situated within a context that is concrete, and yet ultimately not empirical. In Richards in general we see both the empirical and the ideal coalesce: we have a psychologist who is at the same time a Platonist, and so he brings into birth both an empirical poetic text with immediate, and also empirical, ties to culture and society--which we said were dubious, though concrete--while at the same time we have the poem as a representative of a structure that is not actually on the page, a mind. I'll be clearer: if the poem is what we talk about when we talk about minds, it is not really there on the page. At the same time, if it is precisely what we need to talk about, if it is only what we have to talk about, it has to be the thing there--it has to be these words, concretely there, so organized. The poem here is then both empirical and ideal, and where Richards is good is in actually saying that our reading of the poem is, ultimately, an ideal process with empirical consequences at each point. When we read, we are reading a mind, a thing not there in the poem, however much it is there as the poem. What this does is direct us to another structure which produces the reading. What this does is make us explain whatever we read in terms of something that is not empirically there, and what this does is start to involve us in a series of questions about where the reading came from. Richards proceeds to answer these psychologically, but is continually made to articulate them also as ideal structures responsible for the production of such and such effect, which brings out such and such effect, which eventually produces the poem. The process of reading is then dependent on the model with which we explain this reading to an unprecidented degree. This is how Richards can move from psychology to linguistics, ultimately, throughout his career: he switches models. But what this sort of explanation does is also create vectors along which possible explanations of the poem must proceed, which are indeed ideal. In this way, what we have is the creation of a process which methodizes research into the meaning of the text. As such, it situates the text in relationship to the critical approach which intends to explain it, and does so explicitly. In this way, we have a better, more accurate version of a connection to society: insofar as society creates certain critical procedures, the text can be explained in terms of them. Ultimately, this is how Richards' continual insistence that rhetoric is a structure of the mind needs to be taken: he is both making an empirical claim, in saying that certain psychological operations correspond to the structure of metaphor, but he is also saying that certain psychological operations have a relationship to constructs that are created by institutions in order to understand texts. Thus he can ask for a revival of metaphor in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, as well as update the trivium in Interpretation in Teaching, and imply that a particular amount of attention which earlier forms of society exhibited with respect to communication will be necessarily brought back. The claims here are much more minimal, of course, but I think they are more solid. I think they are hard to appreciate because they are often explained away in terms of the empirical, or by generalizing about the way language just works--as Empson does. Richards situates himself in between these approaches, and thus makes literature into something that we have to have a method to adequately deal with critically.

If I have explained this last accomplishment of Richards' doctrine less clearly, it is because it is, really, just so hard to articulate. It is easier in a person like Coleridge, for whom these same two points can be seen at work in the notion of the clerisy. With Richards, each of these things is done on the level of a more modern psychology and a more modern empiricism, so it is harder to abstract the second, ideal layer. At the same time, we get a sense of textual concreteness as well as concreteness in method in Richards that is way beyond anything Coleridge had precisely because of this psychology and empiricism.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wordsworth and tautology

Lyrical Ballads exploits the tendency for repetition dominating the ballad’s form, or what we might call the ballad's easy lapse back into refrain. This repetition does not necessarily have to happen in a chorus: it is something that we can find even in the middle of stanzas, like the “(an’) a’ that” in Robert Burns’ “Is there for honest poverty:”

Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by—
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that , an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

In "The Thorn," Wordsworth is picking up this tendency and playing with its effects on time (through speed, as we’ll see). He tends to take this tendency and make it into one of narrative (or descriptive) dilation, as Walter Scott somewhat does in his ballads--“Lord Randal” for instance. Take these lines from the first and second stanza of "The Thorn," describing the thorn:

There is a thorn; it looks so old,
In truth you’d find it hard to say,
how it could ever have been so young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two-years’ child,
It stands erect this aged thorn;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.
It stands erect, and like a stone
With lichens it is overgrown.

Like rock or stone, it is o’ergrown
With lichens to the very top…

"It stands erect," comes up twice, as well as the simile "like a stone / With lichens… overgrown,” with that nice inversion at the beginning of the second stanza. There are other instances, of course, of varying importance. In some cases it seems to be the very slight act of versification whereby the line is filled out with another syllable under the aegis of emphasis (“A cruel, cruel fire, they say” (129)). In other cases, it is more like the refrain, and takes up a large space (the cry of the Martha: “‘Oh misery! oh misery! / Oh woe is me! oh misery!’” (65-66)). I think that all these actions can be seen as part of what Wordsworth is doing, such that they become functions of the tendency in ballad that he is exploiting (rather than the other way around: that is, it is not the case that the ballad here is a function of the regular acts of versification).

What Wordsworth is doing, then, is taking the sort of dilating function of the balladic refrain and distributing it around the poem, so that the unfolding of the poem is caused by this function and less by other traditional poetic devices. The meter, for example, gets taken up into this much larger rhythmic work of the poem: that is partially why, in the line “A cruel, cruel fire…” it does not matter as much what the metric stress, in itself, isolated from what I am calling this rhythmic work, actually is (despite what prosodists might say); while in Elizabethan poetry or even Pope, perhaps, this might be less common (there it is not isolated either, of course, but connects rhetorically with a syntactic, not rhythmic work). What this means is not that form is done away with, but that something formal (refrain) is elevated beyond the sphere in which it perhaps normally worked in earlier poetry, such that it becomes one of the motors of the poem.

This is still a bit abstract and hazy in my head, but I am getting it all from what Wordsworth says in his crucial note to the poem:

It was necessary that the Poem, to be natural, should in reality move slowly; yet I hoped, that, by the aid of the metre, to those who should at all enter into the spirit of the Poem, it would appear to move quickly.

In other words, Wordsworth sees two things at work in the poem’s movement or what I am calling (and I’m not sure this is totally synonymous) its unfolding. First, the work of the meter, which is “Lyrical and rapid,” as he says right before the above quote (400). Second, the slow work of the natural voice of the speaker or narrator (or, as we said above, describer: this is a an elegy, a story, and a locodescriptive poem all wrapped in one, so unfortunately I can’t be as precise as I should be about this). This speaker is, as Wordsworth says, one who is “credulous and talkative” has “slow faculties and deep feelings,” and it is the aim of the poem to represent this passion in him. So meter speeds the speaker up and the speaker slows the meter down. Or rather, meter works with and against the speaker: it might be more accurate to say that we just have two different speeds at work, each of which only indirectly effect each other by the fact of their occurring simultaneously (there is a complex experiment in time going on here, I think—that’s the ultimate thing Wordsworth seems to be playing with). And on the side of the speaker (this is what I’m claiming in the paragraphs above) we have the dilation that his voice produces as he loquaciously but passionately tells the story—a dilation that has its origin in the rhythms or particular rhythmic tendencies of ballads. The work of the ballad is the slow work, the passionate work aligned with the voice. And (Wordsworth seems to claim) we cannot understand the meter and in fact the work of versification in general without this passion and voice—unlike in earlier poetry, perhaps.

This is why he then makes the odd turn in the note towards defending repetition, and tying this repetition together with the essential function of poetry, which is to be passion (“poetry is passion,” Wordsworth says here, reiterating the claims of his famous Preface). If we see repetition as a certain rhythmic aspect of the ballad, a certain tendency to slip into refrain, as well as being the mere repetition of a set of words, then we can defend it when it occurs in our poetry—for it is then not words that get repeated so much as passions or feelings of a (perhaps talkative) speaker which get represented:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same. Words, a Poet’s words more particularly, ought to be weighed in the balance of feeling [...] For the Reader cannot be too often reminded that Poetry is passion…

The meaning of the words emerges not out of each word’s individual work (and their individual stress or lack of stress, say, as might be more the case in Elizabethan and Early Modern verse (according to Wordsworth): a lack of stress is, by itself and insofar as it is disconnected from a passionate voice, less likely for Wordsworth to be something that signals how the word should be interpreted), but out of their connection to a feeling, to a passionate speaker. What this means is that when a word is repeated, it might have more meaning and in fact a different meaning than if it had only appeared once. Thus, for Wordsworth, it is through repetition that tautology is avoided--a conclusion that might seem paradoxical at first.

Moreover, this is how tautology is defended in the cases in which it actually applies—that is, in cases where “different words” mean “exactly the same,” which is in fact the precise classical rhetorical definition of tautology, or tautologia. Wordsworth might here be a defender of classical rhetoric, in other words, which would only strengthen the case I’m making: that he retains form as he elevates some formal elements into something like principles of composition, thus enlarging our idea of form while transforming it.

All this, of course, connects with what he says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads about rhythm allowing us to endure pain and redirect it towards an experience of pleasure. It might also connect to the title of the collection, as "Lyrical Ballads" is a famously huge oxymoron: a ballad is a communal or folk tale, while a lyric is an individual song. At the heart of this might be a paradox concerning the relation of the poet to the community not unrelated to this one concerning repetition and tautology--especially if repetition is seen as a quality particular to the ballad.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Best of... Freud and psychoanalysis

So I have been trying to collect together a few sets or series of posts that I have done on this blog around various topics or themes that have come up. A "Best of" collection. So far, I we have Derrida and Heidegger. Today, Freud and Psychoanalysis. In the future, we'll probably have Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology. Look for them on the sidebar, where I'll put a more permanent link to the sets. Now, on to Freud:

Freud, philology, associations
: I try to read an interesting remark in The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, and reflect on the difference between psychoanalysis and philology.

Anticipated normal path of development
: I look closely at a crucial passage in the Schreber case that has been misread, making Freud's theories of development much more normative (in one respect) than they really are. Such cheap points against Freud usually are trying to push you into a false choice: either Freud is normative or he isn't. If you want to defend Freud against the sciolism (to borrow a great word of Coleridge's), you have to prove the impossible. For of course Freud is going to give you some sort of normativity. The real issue is where exactly he is normative--and it usually isn't where you expect.

Vicissitudes: A little reflection on this interesting Freudian (or, rather, Stracheyian) word.

Drives and primal repression: My attempt to work through the two theoretical essays "Instincts and the Vicissitudes" and "Repression."

Looking at drives: Basically, how drives work. I should say, though, Freudian drives, which are odd things.

Lacan and repetition: My reading of Lacan's "Tuchê and automaton."

Place, or/of the fetish
: the beginning of a paper on "Fetishism," the splitting of the ego, and place in Freud and psychoanalysis.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reading and society

A literal and thematic reading that takes at face value assertions of the text at their word would [...] satisfy a desire all the more tempting since it is paradoxical: the desire for a secluded reading that satisfies the ethical demands of action more effectively than actual deeds. Such a reading is put into question if one takes the rhetorical structure of a text into account.
-Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, p. 67.

This extraordinary statement, uttered (according to the very logic of the passage itself) as if de Man did not care at all about its effects, sums up one of the most important and most dangerous aspects of de Man's position. It insists that there is no royal road from the statement of a critic concerning a particular text to the culture and society, to the the world of action, from which such a text emerges. At the same time, it insists, weakly and defensively through hyperbole and polemic, that the only place reading occurs is in a world "secluded" from action, or isn't "real" action (it is so slight that it might almost be worthless). We find, as is typical of de Man (and many of his followers), a radical conceptual innovation forwarding intellectual work with the most conservative, humanist sense of the place and purpose of that work ultimately forwarding anti-intellectualism (which is by no means opposed to radicalism, or the appearance of a progressive, liberatory agenda).

How? Because we don't take away the helpful notion that what we have been thinking is a connection between criticism and society is really more complex (the royal road doesn't exist), but that there is no link between criticism and society except by a rhetorical reading that continually insists on its distance from society (the royal road doesn't exist)--that if we act in a way that almost insists on our seclusion (but really is acting with due respect for language) we will in fact become less secluded (as John Guillory puts it, we "apprehend the secret mechamism of causality in the realm of the social without ever transgressing the decorum of literary study," a study that is contained and specific in its focus--see Cultural Capital, 237).

For doesn't the "rhetorical reading" here end up in the unnecessary (though dramatic) position of maintaining that the only place society would end up actually imposing itself on the text is through the reader? While this helpfully puts the burden of connecting criticism to society more on the critic than on the text such that, if we held something like this position, we would be less able to assume a remark about a text immediately is a remark about culture--while it does all this, it quite obviously goes too far, because it has no useful way to actually consider how a certain cultural product is indeed produced by society and ends up as representative of it, as having a genuinely social meaning.

To put it a different way: if the text ends up having a social meaning, for de Man, the critic will have put it there. This is half right and half wrong. A text might have a social meaning or reference that the critic didn't put into it, and to point that out isn't supposing that you are performing an action "more effectively than actual deeds." But--and this is my reason for belaboring this simple point--this doesn't have to mean, as the de Manian would object, that when one is pointing out that social meaning, one is pointing out something in the text that refers to society. It might precisely mean that the act of pointing that out is also a social act. This possibility de Man jettisons from the get go, and makes the act of criticism for him a resolutely individual process. Frankly there's no reason to assume that. The social act is just something which de Man cannot quite fathom.

To give him his due, I don't think semiology, which de Man is precisely constructing rhetorical reading to combat here, really forms a viable notion of this either--as one can see in Barthes. This might also go for much cultural criticism. But certain projects with definite ties to culture and society, like feminism and queer studies, seem precisely to get at this sort of act. Historicism makes some inroads into this area as well. However, it is sociological (though it gets a little too mired in the act of revealing the presence of social acts) and structuralist criticism that seems to have most explicitly grasped this "half and half" notion, by thinking about the social nature of the critical activity. And de Man has very little to say about these.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Predicaments (and sophisms)

Last time, I said that de Man is not concerned with deconstruction. Rather, he is concerned with literature. Thus (using an excellent phrase from Frances Ferguson) de Man is not interested in engaging in deconstruction as much as he is interested in "verg[ing] on establishing a metaphysics of rhetoricity," (Solitude and the Sublime, 53, note 8; Rudolphe Gasché and John Guillory also make similar arguments).

Now, one could object: this is no mistake of de Man's. It is, in his view the task of criticism to set up a sort of metaphysics--which for him is a literary metaphysics, though a de Manian would contest this term, as we'll see--in which deconstruction can work. This is what de Man would be precisely getting at by saying, famously, that deconstruction is the grammatization of rhetoric--"criticism is the deconstruction of literature, the reduction to the rigors of grammar of rhetorical mystifications" (Allegories of Reading [AR], 17)--which enters into relationship with (or disrupts, or is disrupted by) a rhetorization of grammar (via its own blindness, deconstruction's displacement of what, precisely, "deconstruction was supposed to eliminate," AR, 17).

But to then claim that this produces deconstructive effects--that just doesn't seem to follow, or follows only through a series of sophisms. Don't get me wrong, it may produce "the systematic undoing of understanding" (AR, 301). And (as we just hinted a de Manian would say) it even might, thereby, merit being called something different than a metaphysics. But fundamentally, this undoing has no real connection to deconstruction. It just is pointlessly destructive.

One can then get de Man out of this predicament by saying that rhetoricity is understood as something extraliterary, and thus that de Man is actually closer to Derrida, or is deconstructing after all. In some sense it is a little naive to say that this is not at all what is involved in de Man's notion of rhetoric: tropes for him turn, materially, and thus never are able to be collected into a system (a system of tropes). In turn they disrupt language, insofar as this is considered a stable system of rhetoric.

But there are two reasons this doesn't quite work (Rudolph Gasché outlines them best, in that classic essay "Deconstruction as Criticism," once in Glyph, now in Inventions of Difference). First, if we accept this in full, it seems to undo the need for constructing a metaphysics, or some place for deconstruction. More significantly, this reading just isn't supported by what de Man says. The point is precisely that the outside of language here, the material here, is indeed linguistic, in that it can only be registered through language: as he famously says, "the resulting predicament is linguistic rather than ontological or hermeneutic" (AR, 300). Let's not read this too straightforwardly, now (even though the duplicities of de Man's writing encourage that we read it this way): the linguistic here is precisely what is "beyond" the ontological or hermeneutic, and therefore is really just a name for what is not yet determinately linguistic. But doesn't that precisely mean it is an ontological and/or hermeneutic problem? De Man treats it as if it is not so, and thereby gives linguistic contours to what really doesn't merit them.

Ultimately, a lot of this revolves around what, exactly, de Man understands "deconstruction" to mean. If this is an old question, I don't apologize for asking it again. I ask it again not because it is important to "get" deconstruction or anything, and separate the wheat from the chaff, thinking from sophism, important as these tasks are. It is rather because it is too easy to weigh de Man's destructiveness: when we begin to open up the de Man phenomenon into the cause of all of literary theory's problems--which we have been doing for a while now--we lose the sense of the limited nature of his proposals. Because they are so general, and polemical (and those, like Marc Redfield, who would chide critics of de Man for being too polemical fail to grasp just how polemical his own writing actually is: I would say it is fundamentally polemical, or more polemical than theoretical) we begin to believe that his theory's power is precisely what he says it is. We somehow think that, even though we think he's a sophist, certain concepts of his will, if they don't undo understanding, will use this process to undo all sorts of other things (Gerald Graff makes this mistake, I think, despite his cautious approach). In short, we don't see how puny such a destructive discourse really is. More pertinent to our issue here, we also don't see how little it had to do with deconstruction, in the end: granting it the power to inflect our understandings of decon, as Gasché famously does, is probably granting it too much. Thus, when I ask what deconstruction meant for de Man, I'm already presupposing that it is a misunderstanding, or (since I'm not even really concerned with a proper understanding of Derrida) a skewed take on it, a miniature version, or projection of what it is. And it is in this sense that we must again ask the question.

The answer is somewhat familiar, and yet, framed this way, also takes a new turn. Look at the quote above, from "Semiology and Rhetoric," that says deconstruction is "supposed to eliminate." What's not important is that this is a common misreading of deconstruction as destruction (which is itself a misread distinction when it is said to articulate a distinction between Derrida and Heidegger: Heidegger is, actually, mostly on the side of deconstruction). What's important is that "elimination" is a complicated process for de Man, involving many things--most notably, the process by which rhetoric is made into a grammar. This process has its own contours, distinct from any ideas that Derrida has. It involves, for example, a sort of unending effort. As a process, in other words, it seeks out every remaining bit of rhetoric and grammatizes it. It is in this way that it eliminates.

Considered as deconstruction, then, it says less about how de Man misread Derrida than what de Man thinks a process of grammatization involves. It is on these terms that de Man is mistaken, or at least singular enough that we can begin to judge the effects of his conceptions. For when he, at the same time, imputes to this continual, unending process the effects of Derridian deconstruction, like resisting metaphysics (see above, when we were pressured to take back our language about a "metaphysics of rhetoricity"), we can see just how huge the leap he makes actually is--in other words, we can understand just how much his terms are, at bottom, quite indistinct. More importantly, we understand more precisely how huge a leap someone who follows de Man, who thinks de Man is producing deconstructive effects, actually makes. This insight is not an insight into pedagogy or anything, but rather an insight into the nature of what a de Manian actually believes about literature, literary criticism, language, etc. etc.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blindness, continued

Here's another (perhaps simpler) way to put what I was getting at a couple days ago concerning "The Rhetoric of Blindness."

De Man's criticism of Derrida is correct. Derrida, in Of Grammatology, ties the figural language in one or two passages in Rousseau's Essai, most famously the passage where early man calls other men giants, to a literal referent, fear (See Of Grammatology, 275-280: it is an extremely complex moment that needs to be reconstituted in full, not reduced to a paragraph or two as de Man does, and the most simplistic logic). For de Man, this involves a failure to recognize the figurativeness, the rhetoricity, of the figure Rousseau is talking about. But this criticism is only right from the perspective of someone who is invested in figural language as de Man, the literary critic, is. In other words, the criticism is only right from within the sphere of the literary, or is only right insofar as deconstruction will is seen as a discourse with effects and implications that are specifically (indeed, almost solely) literary. In other words, this is only right as long as you are going to speak of deconstruction as literary criticism, and deconstruction's effects as the effects of literary criticism when it encroaches on other discourses.

Why? Because figural language--or ultimately the rhetorical and fictional character of literary discourse that mobilizes figures--suspends reference, or rather requires reference to occur without a corresponding semantic effect, the production of a definitive meaning that you can say is true (or false) of the discourse. In short, it is what makes you talk about Elizabeth Bennett or Oliver Twist as real people, as entities with meanings, despite the fact you know them to be fictional, lacking any correspondence in reality--and what makes you wrong for doing so. Now, I'd be the first to insist on the unreality of these characters and the way that a metaphoric meaning, say, does not just take the place of a literal meaning. But I do so because this is what establishes a science of literature, or gives specificity to literary discourse as a discourse that is able to move past this complication and say something about the fictional or rhetorical discourse involved (in fact, it also allows me to situate a particular literary text historically, or refer it to reality, even more rigorously: when I actually do refer it to reality, I situate where the fiction takes place, instead of trying to talk about how literature refers to real events). I do it, that is, because this insistence on the undecidability of literary discourse with respect to its truth allows me to be more precise about the discourse that I analyze. I don't insist on this unreality because I believe it to be productive of the same thing that deconstruction brings about.

Deconstruction, in other words, is not the same thing as the insistence upon a difference between reference and meaning, or rather it doesn't assume this insistence will produce the entirety of what decontruction produces. Deconstruction might, when it approaches the province of literature, involve itself in this insistence (as Derrida does in Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, in a reading of Blanchot), but (and this is even the case in Demeure), it does not have to respect this distinction between the figural/fictional and the referential in the way that de Man says it should.

For de Man putting forth the distinction involves eventually "isolating" rhetoric "from its epistemological function," ("Epistemology of Metaphor," 49), or that indecision between the true and the false, and does so such that the distinction itself, if pressed, then actually resists this isolation. But this resistance, as it were, need not come solely from this distinction. This is why Derrida continually tries to pull the word "trope" from de Man's discourse and use it differently, most notably as a turning (not only of phrase). Seen in this light, the criticism of de Man seems is not as concerned with deconstruction but with literature, and thus, instead of deconstructing, "verges on establishing a metaphysics of rhetoricity," as Frances Ferguson puts it (Solitude and the Sublime, 53, note 8).

This is at once to recognize the immense achievement of the de Manian appropriation of Derrida: it suddenly gives you a mode of achieving critical effects that align with the project of deconstruction which are specific to the study of literature. That is, they don't have to start using the same concepts as Derrida, and looking for dissemination in King Lear. This is the origin of the 1975 battle between Joseph Riddell and J. Hillis Miller (see the latter's review of the work of the former, "Deconstructing the Deconstructors," and the former's reply to the latter, "A Miller's Tale," in the summer and autumn issues of Diacritics). Both Riddell (who writes against de Man) and Miller (who writes for him) miss the point and refuse to recognize de Man's achievement.

At the same time, it is to recognize that these effects are indeed an appropriation that, as I said last time, get at the same thing as Derrida, but precisely by seeing it as the same thing, as something that is not (as it is for Derrida) a continual problem calling for different inflections, or rather (as it is not for Derrida) a problem that stabilizes itself quite easily. (However, I should say that sometimes, when de Man says "Derrida's thesis" is "precisely" "asserting the priority of language over that of presence," I have my doubts the same thing is even being got at, since this like a huge misreading of what Derrida is doing. See "The Rhetoric of Blindness," 119.)

This is what Gayatri Spivak was getting at when she said (in a class I attended, and probably in others) that Derrida is whoever you want him to be. If you are a psychoanalyst, he is a critic of Freud. If you are a critic of Mallarme, god save you, he is the best of those critics. It is an insightful comment because it lets you recognize there is a world of difference between this statement and what de Man himself says, which is that Derrida is blind, as a critic, to Rousseau's text and misunderstands it, while, at the same time, "Derrida's version of this misunderstanding comes closer than previous version to Rousseau's actual statement because it singles out the point of maximum blindness the area of greatest lucidity: the theory of rhetoric and its inevitable consequences" ("The Rhetoric of Blindness," 136). And it makes me revisit a statement of hers that I criticized a while ago but of which I now approve, if it is understood as applicable only within the problematic that I am here trying to sketch (as it is not always, I think, by Spivak):

The aspect of deconstructive practice that is best known in the United States is its tendency towards infinite regression. The aspect that interests me most, however, is the recognition, within deconstructive practice, of provisional and intractible starting points in any investigative effort...
-Gayatri Spivak, "Draupadi" in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 246.

It goes on to talk about these starting points as recognized "complicities" ("...intractible starting points in any investigative effort; its disclosure of complicities where a will to knowledge would create oppositions...") and there I do believe my criticisms apply--in fact for the same reasons that I am outlining here with respect to de Man. Derrida at that point becomes a political thinker, or appropriated to political discourse as it is articulated in the project of critical theory, just as for de Man he becomes a literary critic or literary theorist. This fate of Derrida, to be appropriated--and most oddly now appropriated by philosophy--isn't so much because his ideas get perverted or misunderstood (indeed, as I'm saying, de Man is understanding them and getting at the same thing), it is just that what is continually a problem for Derrida keeps getting solved. Now, this doesn't mean it is unsolvable. It in fact means that efforts to assert it is unsolvable end up solving it--while for Derrida (most of the time: he too succumbs to this) they don't.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


De Man's famous essay, "The Rhetoric of Blindness" is, for me, about a very crucial deconstructive question: where does the deconstructor go in her or his analysis? Put in more correct terms--you can already see de Man misunderstanding or misconstruing it here, in a way that was crucial for the history of deconstruction--where is the site or place of inscription in which the overturning and displacement of a text (to use that classic formula of Derrida's from the interview "Positions" in the book that takes its name--Positions) takes place?

The answer, for Derrida, is not really an answer. Inscription takes place also in a text, in a place that is also displaced by the displacement, in a space that itself spaces itself out (though no longer as itself) if or when overturning comes to overturn the spacing of a text. But this is all fraught with inaccuracies of expression, if I can put it that way, and is ultimately quite problematic. That is, it is a problem, and chiefly a problem of when the overturning that I says comes to overturn the spacing of the text, indeed comes. It is a question of the coming of this other, what Derrida would later (in the lecture "Psyche: Invention of the Other," in another book that takes this for its name, though with one small difference--Psyche: Inventions of the Other) call the invention (in-venio) of the other.

De Man would simplify things, or rather solve the problem, deproblematize it once and for all in this essay--even though it might require a few revisions later. For him, the problem can be solved by saying the displacement of the site by displacement is the inevitable, not chance, outcome of an act of criticism or critique: deconstruction, in other words, becomes a criticism that itself can be (deconstructively) criticized. In short, the deconstructor is deconstructed as a critic would be criticized and thereby, de Man, claims (most outrageously) what Derrida calls text becomes literature--or that which inevitably escapes criticism.

This settles it. But it also doesn't. When Derrida opens up the problem of the invention of the other, when he calls what we were clalling overturning by a new name, isn't he merely restating the problem? "Invention" in other words, means merely the same thing: on the one hand, it is an act of constructing (inventing) an analysis, a critique, of setting up yourself as a deconstructor in relationship to what you will deconstruct. On the other hand, there is the problem of when, exactly, the coming of the other will come with respect to what you have invented, to your critique. De Man would then say there is no difference here, that this is just a repetition of the same problem. In other words, he would say that this lecture of Derrida's, which takes place twenty years later after the interview "Positions," is essentially the same problem, or has the same position. Or, rather, he would say that the problem is already solved.

What he--and the many, many others who think something similar--would fail to see would be precisely that Derrida, throughout his life, was overturning and displacing the problem of the overturning and displacement. And rather than this meaning that he operated in the same way, with the same problem, with the same positions (using that favorite figure of de Man's, the "irony of irony"), this would mean that he was reinscribing the problem along different lines, or reproblematizing it--not solving it. To think this would be to admit the chance that the two discourses were not inevitably the same, or rather to see that calling "overturning and displacement" "invention of the other" is not a naming of the same thing, or, more precisely, that the second phrase is not an outcome of the former, a development out of an inevitable residue of the first.

This is just to explicate a fine sentence I found recently, which goes like this: for Derrida, "[what] repeatedly institutes difference also acts to reify difference, so that the problem of trying to face [difference] continually reasserts itself as a problem" (Frances Ferguson, "Reading Heidegger: Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida," in boundary 2, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1976), pp. 593-610). To reify difference is to begin to think that the chance here is just inevitable, or that the inevitable is always the same inevitability, and to reduce the problem. This is what de Man, in trying to ensure difference is never reified, does. That is, its not a question of de Man (and others) getting Derrida wrong, or not getting at the same thing . It is just that this thing, for Derrida, is never the same, is continually a problem.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Duplicities of deconstruction

Occasionally, Derrida will say something like the following, where he is speaking of the movement of deconstruction:

...No matter what their interest or their necessity may be today,the social sciences (notably those dealing with cultural or scientific and academic institutions) cannot, as such, claim to "objectify" a movement which, essentially, questions the philosophical, scientific, and institutional axiomatics of those same sciences.
-"Mnemosyne" in Memoires for Paul de Man, 15

To be understood, we have to take the statement ironically: the stress falls on the "as such" and on the quotations around the word objectify, and, instead of a brash assertion that deconstruction is impervious to the analysis of the social sciences, we get a statement that these social sciences will transform the nature of their claims and of their process of objectification insofar as they account for deconstruction. In other words, the statement is not "negative," it is, read ironically, quite "positive" (this is what people are getting at, in other words, when they say deconstruction is not negative, but is a hopeful endeavor, though this remains a little too simple, for reasons we'll see right now).

But at what point does this irony become duplicity?

Derrida, to his credit, after saying this goes on to elaborate on the nature of the movement, which buttresses the point regarding deconstruction's ability to transform the discourses that attempt to comprehend it, especially by objectification. He makes other statements, in other words, that rely upon the statement here qua ironized. This not only clarifies the original sentence, or teaches us how to take it, but also makes his discourse one of unfolding such bald statements wherever they appear. In short, he tempers and directs the brashness, so as help distinguish it from the radicality of his task (which here does indeed include a challenge to discourses that would unproblematically comprehend deconstruction).

By no means does he engage in this slow separation of the duplicity of a sentence from its irony all the time. But it is, I'd say, generally the way he works when he lets one of these statements fly.

Not so with Paul de Man. For de Man, duplicity is constantly mashed together with irony, so as to make us confuse the former for the latter. But let me elaborate on the distinction, first, since "duplicity" carries a reference to truth that does not seem relevant here.

By a duplicity, I don't entirely mean a lie. But I do mean that, in duplicity, one forgoes (or tries primarily to forgo) reference to a schema where truth is indeed at play. Such a scheme would be the Heideggerian one, which does not at all define the true merely as the correct (nor does it keep the question of truth out of art or fiction). What is important in duplicity is the mere construction of a double, of another meaning, that, before it references any schema, will make one meaning less able to be unproblematically apprehended. It does not, without elaboration, continue to disrupt a schema by calling into question its truth or falsity, as irony does. (In short, it confuses phenomenality with truth, which violently turns everything on its head.)

The distinction, then, between de Man and Derrida becomes more clear. It involves the trajectory of their statements, the way they are elaborated. De Man ends up at statements which are just assumed to be ironic, when they are often merely duplicitous. He even constructs a notion of irony that allows these statements to be assumed to be ironic (if it isn't clear from what I have said, I am using irony differently than de Man's definition--or rather, insisting on the use of this definition in a different way than he uses it). Derrida occasionally sinks from his generally ironic discourse into duplicity. But I would also stress that Derrida is also not continually ironic. His statements can be understood otherwise.

The difference can be seen in "The Rhetoric of Blindness." The essays acts as if it ironizes Derrida, but it merely makes him duplicitous--that is, trying to say something other than Rousseau has already said. This is duplicitous in itself, which is evident on its reliance on unfounded, duplicitous statements, like,

The only literal statement that says what it means to say is the assertion that there can be no literal statements.
-"The Rhetoric of Blindeness," in Blindness and Insight, 133.

No elaboration. Just another conclusion, which relies, at bottom, on duplicity (not irony), the fact that "Rousseau explicitly says the opposite" (notice how "explicit" has lost any connection with truth):

In the narrative rhetoric of Rousseau's text, this is what is meant by the chronological fiction that the "first" language had to be poetic language. Derrida, who sees Rousseau as a representational writer, has to show instead that his theory of metaphor is founded the priority of the literal over the metaphorical meaning, of the "sens propre" over the "sens figuré." And since Roussau explicitly says the opposite, Derrida has to interpret the chapter on metaphor as a moment of blindness in whcih Rousseau says the opposite of what he means to say.
-"The Rhetoric of Blindness," 133

This is all, apparently, necessitated--look at all the has tos--but it does not at all serve to elaborate, to push the duplicity into irony, as I have defined it above.

This is just one of the problems of this disturbing essay (which nevertheless opens up some interesting, if naive, questions about Derrida's inscription). De Man works to revise some of its conclusions in Allegories of Reading, most notably through increasing elaboration. That doesn't ever seem to get him to the point of irony, though.

But we might legitimately wonder whether deconstruction, even as "practiced" by Derrida, has a tie to this sort of duplicity. I'd say it has in the past, but there is no reason why it can't untie them in the future. Derrida's more forthright work gets rid of it pretty thoroughly (The Gift of Death, for example, but also "earlier" texts like Glas).


What, more precisely, do I mean by "elaboration?" Here is another "bald" statement of Derrida's, meant to be taken ironically (it is said "with a smile"). Watch what he does with it:

Were I not so frequently associated with this adventure of deconstruction, I would risk, with a smile, the following hypothesis: America is deconstruction. In this hypothesis, America would be the proper name of deconstruction in progress, its family name, its toponymy, its language and its place, its principle residence. And how could we define the United States today without integrating the following into the description: It is that historical space which today, in all its dimensions and through all its power plays, reveals itself as being undeniably the most sensitive, receptive, or responsive space of all to the themes and effects of deconstruction. Since such a space represents and stages, in this respect, the greatest concentration in the world, one could not define it without at least including this symptom (if we can even speak of symptoms) in its definition. In the war that rages over the subject of deconstruction, there is no front; there are no fronts. But if there were, they would all pass through the United States. They would define the lot, and, in truth, the partition of America. But we have learned from "Deconstruction" to suspend these always hasty attributions of proper names. My hypothesis must thus be abandoned. No, "deconstruction" is not a proper name, nor is America the proper name of deconstruction. Let us say instead...
-"Mnemosyne," 18 (it continues, with a nod precisely to de Man, but I'll stop here).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The destruction of rhetoric in the 18th century

The following is a speculative narrative, at once too general and too specific, repeating points others have made and not backing up whatever original claims it makes:

Addison quotes a French author in his "Pleasures of the Imagination" series in The Spectator. Fréard is talking about architecture, and the necessity of introducing "grandeur of manner" into buildings.

Addison explains this particular "grandeur" as what makes the dome of the Pantheon more impressive than a Gothic cathedral, even though the latter is larger: the general plannedness, or designedness of the structure is carried out across the large structure, while the cathedral is just large (indeed much larger) and supplemented by ornamentation. Design trumps bulk, or rather bulk is created where there is no design.

But there still remains the question of why the ornamentation (little figures and such) doesn't make up for the lack of planning, or why it doesn't signify design as much as the coffering of the Pantheon. Fréard says the following, which Addison quotes:

...that will have but a poor and mean effect where there is a redundancy of those smaller ornaments, which divide and scatter the angles of the sight into such a multitude of rays, so pressed together that the whole will appear but a confusion.
-The Spectator, #415 (Thursday, June 26, 1712)

In short, ornament is seen not as an addition anymore to something that is lacking. It is seen as adding to what is already a plenitude. This makes it into something that scatters: if the eye is already being directed, adding something else will direct away from what was the unadorned direction. Or even more accurately, it will pull the eye away while also pulling the eye away while also soliciting it to follow the original direction: the view is scattered because it is split.

Who would have thought ornament could be seen as something so violent, when just a century before, it was considered to only enhance beauty if not carried too far? The general line of thought here is to convert this into a point about rhetoric as well: what is usually characterized as the 18th century destruction of classical rhetoric, beginning with neoclassicism and ending with the reformation of the educational system and the creation of public schools (which no longer stressed the classics, but stressed the need for general intelligibility), is not so much a destruction as a transformation of its role, which centers on the devaluing of its ornamental role (it should be noted that this general characterization has already fallen apart with due attention to the transformation of political rhetoric surrounding the Civil War, and can even be pushed farther back to the late 16th century, when the use of classical rhetoric was at its peak (see the work of Walter Ong on the rise of the idea of information).

But in order to convert this into a point about rhetoric, one also has to consider how, a century before, even ornament in rhetoric was less ornamental than it appeared. It was generally seen as the structure given to argument--that is, design. And if this is so, well, what we're talking about is not so much a destruction as a return of rhetoric. But how could it return in such a different guise?

One answer comes from yet another art, situated between literature or verbal argument and architecture: painting. The 18th century increasingly saw both architecture and (what is often harder to even think about today) literature as similar to painting (though Addison actually tries to retain the primacy of architecture over painting: I think we can still see he succumbs to this rubric however, which is why I started with his remarks on the Pantheon etc.). This is a bit unreal to us, who are more used to seeing literature in particular in terms of cinema--if anything. So what roughly happens is that the design given to argument had to become more visible. And this meant seeing what were essential aspects of classical rhetoric, like tropes, as things that popped out of the discourse. This was helped by the classicists' tendency to categorize rhetorical figures, which could easily allow them to be abstracted out of the linguistic medium. While this abstraction was once seen as more natural, or more accurately as something to be naturalized or internalized by education and made into a skill, the increasing tendency to see the verbal medium like paint strokes made naturalizing them unnecessary (I am arguing this instead of the general argument that proceeds by seeing this conversion of rhetoric into ornament rather than skill as a product of declining standards of education or emphasis on more public goals--an argument that is, I think, either unnecessarily pessimistic or unnecessarily nostalgic, and at its worst either undemocratic or Luddite, and tends to turn this transformation we are tracing here back again into destruction). So while skill is reinterpreted as involving, not the deployment of internalized knowledge, but something more explicit--namely, the arrangement of ornament--it also made ornament more obtrusive, less transparent, since it did not proceed from some background intention or knowledge.

(One could also say that the process of proceeding-from-background-knowledge has changed as well, since in Locke it becomes association, not expression. The notion of memory, considered not as preconscious but non-conscious knowledge, then also becomes more important: this is what produces the division in Addison between primary and secondary pleasures of the imagination.)

The explicitness of design, then, naturally produces another movement to eliminate ornament as superfluous to that design. The neoclassicists held on to the notion somewhat, trying to play with ornament as arrangement. But the increasing explicitness seems to have also made the notion of design expand beyond what mere arrangement can produce. Or rather, arrangement itself transforms to become the arrangement elements that are both smaller and larger than anything resembling the size of the classical rhetorical unit (which was either small trope--a few words--or a large rhetorical plan--considered as the relation between a block of sentences and the preceding block). I would say that this is the point at which we get the vague early-mid 18th century notions of design like variety, novelty, and the picturesque, and then more concrete notions of design as animating authorial intention, like genius (in Young), the general (in Johnson), and imagination (in Coleridge's sense). But the whole point of my little history here is that it would be a mistake to see this as an all-out retreat from design, a complete forfeiture, as many people do who are either not schooled in the 18th century (particularly its middle), or give too much credence to the notion that rhetoric relies on skill, considered as implicit knowledge that is then deployed (that is, the educational argument). What has happened is that design now appears in units which simply have less relationship to traditional rhetorical units, and a different function--one that is much more in keeping with the idea that using language is painting. But this means that rhetoric, far from being destroyed, is actually still at work: it just appears as that part of the text which can be traced to an origin or function, or rather to what gets called a "whole." Rhetoric has not lost, but regained much of its functionality. The only thing different is that language, in which rhetoric takes place, has become a thicker medium, incorporating the visual in painting. Thus, if you don't exit language and consider the history of other art forms, this will of course appear as a destruction, a thinning out.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The critical in theory

I'm thinking the distinction between literary theory and critical theory is growing more and more useful. Despite the fact that it probably originated because Barnes & Noble had some weird shelf-space issues, I feel like we also know this difference intuitively.

This is not just because critical theory is something more like "theory for theory's sake" and literary theory "has literature as its object." In fact, I'd like to insist (and I think it needs to be insisted upon more and more in the years to come) that it matters less what object each has. What matters more is the difference in method, in the way each works, and what concerns are generally proper to its working.

Literary theory pulls the act of determining a text's meaning apart from the act of saying something about a text, or interpretation. Critical theory, on the other hand, invents useful concepts that saturate the concerns of the human sciences (philosophy, sociology, history, political theory) with politics. It is because of this that you see literary theory more in literature departments, and critical theory in architecture. It is also because of this that you see literary theory in architecture, and critical theory in literary theory.

Indeed, literary theory's political power is usually found in troubling this distinction, spilling into critical theory. Whether this happens when its concepts lose or gain their power is a real question. As literary theorists try to answer it more and more, or, to put it another way (to use the titular phrase of Jonathan Culler's excellent book), become concerned with the literary in theory, one of two things must happen: either the distinction between critical and literary theory will have to base itself more and more on the objects involved, or literary theory will have to assert its political power in other ways.

I hope things move in the latter direction, not because I think literary theory should become less political (that should be clear from what I've said), but because I think it should define itself less in terms of its object--that is, because I think it should become more methodical, or aware of itself as method.

Whether this means that the critical in theory will have to come into its own more, I don't know. It has, I think, had no problem in doing this over the years. But I think critical theorists should be more aware, at least, of the distinction, so that they aren't made aware of it in the way literary theorists have been.

Then again, maybe critical theorists have been made aware of it from the get go...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Giving up deconstruction

When I said (albeit rather quickly as I was growing tired that night) de Man puts forth the notion that literature is singular, unique, privileged, irreducible in order to understand its relation to society as mediated, complex, rather than immediate and representative--when I said this, I might have also stressed that de Man's view constitutes more of a caution against the immediate than a definite, positive account of mediation. In other words, de Man's goal is not so much to outline exactly what the artwork qua singular is, as to use this definition of the artwork in order to make us resist that jump from the work to society. De Man is giving us a caution rather than some positive notion, resting in the supposed fact of literature's irreducibility.

To understand this in more detail, one only has to follow Frances Ferguson (in Solitude and the Sublime and in her numerous essays) and look at how de Man would view multiple interpretations of a literary work. When we have more than one interpretation, we have an instance where mediation and immediacy are able to be confused: we might take the multiplicity of interpretations as somehow indicative of the way society at large interprets simply because where there is more than one interpretation, you might have some sort of sociality taking place (as reader-response critics do). The legitimate question would then emerge of how such a social work is still singular, or implies certain processes of production.

But de Man, because he would rather caution us than provide us with positive notions, condemns such an approach as immediacy (or phenomenalism: see his essay on Iser, "Reading and History"). But this still leaves open the question of what to do with multiple interpretations. De Man therefore takes the opposite tack. That is, he considers the multiplicity of interpretations as a fact, before it considers it as an indicator that there may thereby be a sociality established by virtue of this multiplicity. It is, indeed, a fact of language itself--which I touched at in my previous post in the remarks on privileged language: each word has an indeterminate multiplicity of significations. It will of itself produce differing interpretations. In the text itself there are already multiple readers.

In other words, de Man rightly sees that there is a difference between more than one interpretation and a social consensus of some sort. In fact, this difference makes possible the thought that the multiplicity of interpretations might at times oppose sociality, might make sociality in certain situations impossible. This is nothing less than the New Critical innovation of I.A. Richards, who grasps that a certain lack of consensus in the way meaning is understood entails a completely different literary text gets perceived than the one we might presuppose is there: the difference between the two then becomes a limited indicator of how perception involves culture, and the text itself on the page becomes something that is, as text, not fixed. This, in other words, is something coming very close to that socially indicative, and yet singular, text that we were saying a positive account might imply. Ferguson points out (see "On the Number of Romanticisms," ELH 58 (1991)) that as New Criticism evolves (helped along primarily by Empson and Leavis) it becomes more and more willing to just insist on the difference between sociality and multiplicity in order to say that certain types of multiplicity, usually virtuous people or people with common sense, create good types of sociality (this is what, in Fish and also Iser, reader response criticism also moves towards). What started as an exception becomes an argument for exceptionalism. Now, de Manian deconstruction takes this exception and makes it the rule: the notion that multiple interpretations might in fact oppose the formation of some sociality or consensus becomes the notion that multiplicity never entails sociality. Multiplicity is, rather, a fact of language which the social must confront. Or, better put, multiplicity is that which must always be reduced in order to talk about the social, for multiplicity has become precisely singularity.

This is why Ferguson sees deconstruction as an empiricist or materialist skepticism: to talk about anything that we can derive from the multiplicity of interpretations is to remove ourselves from its being a fact, from the dispersed and material process of its production, and therefore to erase its singularity.

This might be enough for now, but I'd like to actually consider the larger implications of this view.

For to understand deconstruction as empiricist/materialist skepticism is to change the terms by which people often disagree with it--before or after becoming enormously frustrated with it. In short, it makes it possible to see that retreating from deconstruction is not a retreat.

Often people see that deconstruction lacks something, but instead of seeing that this lack is really not enough of a lack, as Ferguson suggests, they see it as the limit, the bottom, if we can make this even more of a spatial metaphor. I choose this language because many use it: "deconstruction gives us nothing positive, in the end," is a common way to put it. I myself have just used the language in talking about de Man. But the question arises, why are we supposing that all alternatives are positive, are plenitudes? Why do we think that alternatives do deconstruction get us moving again, but in the wrong direction, the direction of positivity? To give up deconstruction on this view is seen as a return to normalcy, say, rather than what Ferguson suggests it might be: a furthering of, a fidelity to deconstruction.

But we've skipped over what this lack exactly is. What do people see that it lacks? Put as clearly as such a limited space as this can allow, deconstruction lacks a more concrete focus on the creation of rules, principles, or classifications--in short provisional regulations--which, to use two such concepts or regulations created by Derrida (see his Rogues: Two Essays on Reason), would help distinguish unconditionality from sovereignty. This would relate (by separating them more) this act of distinguishing (what we awkwardly call deconstruction "in practice") to what the distinction names, but cannot bring about: the unconditional renunciation of sovereignty (which is "real" deconstruction, which of course no longer is simply deconstruction).

Here, I'd like to make an important distinction: these regulations are quite different than what de Man imputes to language. On this basis, I think one can differentiate between Derridian deconstruction and de Manian deconstruction (as one can also distinguish Jean-Luc Nancy's deconstruction from Derrida's). It's not a matter of style or even of approach, but of the status each give to the concepts they are dealing with. De Man's are distinct from Derrida's in two ways: 1) they aren't provisional, and 2) they aren't rules or regulations, but rather names (or, sometimes, classifications). And while Derrida uses names, these names at bottom function to regulate. In de Man they refer and disrupt reference, generating a particular type of performance. As is obvious from much of what I have written on the subject, I find the Derridian status (and excuse me for this inaccurate, but convenient, word) much more rigorous, and ultimately much more useful--not to mention clearer and more honest. But there are huge benefits to what de Man does as well.

The point, however, is that both these regulations seem to come out of nowhere. We lack, in other words, some stable way of creating them. This is what makes both Derrida and de Man seem extraordinarily subjective to people--and thereby what makes them say (despite Derrida's continual statements to the contrary) that deconstruction is a form of criticism or critique (in short, that it is destruction, in not even a Heideggerian sense).

Giving up deconstruction, then, is seen as a way to return to a space where rules can be created out in the open. But to see deconstruction as Ferguson sees it--and I have continually thought this important since I began to read her work some years ago--is begin to see this openness within deconstruction itself. This does not mean that deconstruction is thereby saved. It just makes deconstruction able to be furthered in some larger project.

More precisely, seeing deconstruction as empiricism or materialism places it on a sort of continuum where all the alternatives to it don't become different in kind--as is the case with the language of lack and plenitude--and thereby seem like they are retreating from anything. We don't have to give up deconstruction by focusing on the creation of rules. We just have to bring it to the other side of the continuum (or bring what in it is more on this other side, like certain aspects of the status, I think, that Derrida gives his regulations). As Ferguson says, that other side is, of course, formal idealism.