Why Literary Criticism is like Virtue

Stanley Fish

There is a great difference between trying to figure out what a poem means and trying to figure out which interpretation of a poem will contribute to the toppling of patriarchy or to the war effort. Until recently the assertion of this difference would have been superfluous, but in many circles it has come to be an article of faith that the idea of a distinctively literary system of facts and values is at best an illusion and at worst an imposition by the powers that be of an orthodoxy designed to suppress dissent. It is thought to be an illusion for the reason that both the form and the content of a discourse are not self-generated, but have the shape they do by virtue of relationships (of similarity and difference) with other discourses that are themselves relationally, not essentially, constituted. If literature, under some definitions, occupies (has title to) the realm of the ‘imagination’ it is because other enterprises – law, sociology, chemistry and engineering would be interestingly different candidates – find their self-definition (and their methodologies) in a renunciation (not a negative, but an enabling gesture) of that realm; and each of these enterprises will in turn gain a franchise by pushing away as beside its point responsibilities and concerns that ‘belong’ elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’, what they do over there, defines ‘here’, what we do in our shop; the identity of an activity, that which enables you to know it when you see it, is radically dependent on everything from which it would be distinguished. Nothing stands alone; no discipline is an island; no fact – be it legal, literary, historical, physical, psychological – rests on its own bottom or on the bottom of a self-sustaining practice; all facts are pickoutable only against a background of the entire array of practices no one of which has a substantial (self-authorising) existence. It follows that when one experiences immediacy or perspicuousness – when the intelligibility of something seems transparent and indisputable – the true cause of the experience is always hidden; what appears is a function of what does not appear. One ‘sees’ a poem or a tort but the perceptual effect ultimately is produced by a stage setting which, by escaping our attention, determines the content of our attention, determines what will be for us the category of the obvious.

Those who make this argument are usually careful to say that they do not intend by it to reaffirm the old distinction between the literary object and its historical or sociological context, the distinction between the inside and the outside of the ‘poem proper’. Indeed, it is that very distinction or the possibility of making it that is usually being challenged when the constitutive essence of the literary object is found not on its surface but in the cultural forces that bring surfaces to visibility. Given this analysis of what is productive of the object and its details, the last place you will look if you want deeply to comprehend the object is to its local, limited site of production; the last place you will look is to the narrowly conceived intentions of the author or to the machinery (vocabularies, categories, value terms) routinely employed by unreflective practitioners. In short, if you want to know what is really going on in literature, look elsewhere.

Just this advice is given over and over again, and given in the casual manner that signals a commonplace too well established to require elaboration, in almost every piece of ‘high’ theory published in the past few years. Terry Eagleton insists that ‘the literary text bears the impress of its historical mode of production as surely as any product secretes in its form and materials the fashion of its making’. Tony Bennett draws the moral (without endorsing it): ‘Rescued from the status of a contingent context or backdrop, what was defined as outside literature has been imported to the very centre of its inside; what seemed circumstantial has been redefined as constitutive.’ As Robert Scholes put it, we must ‘make the object of study the whole intertextual system of relations that connects one text to others ... the matrix or master code that the literary text both depends upon and modifies’. That is, he continues, ‘in order to teach the interpretation of a literary text, we must be prepared to teach the cultural text as well.’

Teaching the cultural text is the role of cultural studies, whose promise is well presented in Patrick Brantlinger’s Crusoe Footprints. Cultural studies, he explains, ‘aims to overcome the disabling fragmentation of knowledge within the disciplinary structure of the university, and ... also to overcome the fragmentation and alienation in the larger society which that structure mirrors’. As a practice it is ‘counterdisciplinary’, resisting ‘the disciplinary narrowings and specialisings’ which stand in the way of constructing ‘a unified map of knowledge’. It refuses the move by which academic critics keep literature separate from all other forms of discourse, insisting that literature is not a ‘system,’ but an ‘ensemble,’ a ‘leaky category’ that includes ‘all other forms of discourse that are supposedly nonliterary’; it has no properties of its own; ‘its properties are the properties of discourse in general.’

The logic of this is clear and seems to be compelling: if it is the case that the literary text emerges in a space and with an effectivity provided by the larger culture, focusing on the larger culture is the way to focus on it. But the logic is flawed in two related directions. First of all, you cannot focus on the background array of social practices, on the ‘whole intertextual system of relations’ within which everything is interdependent (‘heteroglot’) and nothing free-standing, without turning it into an object that is itself in need of the kind of explanation it supposedly provides. If you try to make what is hidden and constituitive appear, it will disappear (recede further) in its supposed appearance; the potency of a cultural ensemble of differential forces cannot be reduced to an item in its own field; and when it is so reduced, all potency has fled away.

Yet even if cultural studies must necessarily fail of its aspiration to reveal the true causal structure of things, it can produce a new object, another text. But that text – call it the cultural text – has no epistemological superiority over the texts (of literature, history, law etc) it displaces. That is, it is not a larger text or a more inclusive text; it is just a different text, with its own emphases, details and meanings which ‘naturally’ crowd out the emphases, details and meanings of other texts. The cultural text, if it comes into view, will not provide a deeper apprehension of the literary text or the legal text; rather it will erase them even in the act of referring to them, for the references will always be produced from its angle of interest, not theirs. Cultural studies tell us to look elsewhere to find the meaning of the literary text; I say that if you look elsewhere, you will see something else.

A practice only acquires identity by not being other practices, by representing itself not as doing everything but as doing one thing in such a way as to have society look to it for specific performance. When the hard outline of a practice is blurred by a map that brings into relief its affiliations (borrowings, lendings, overlappings) with other practices, those affiliations, rather than anything specific to the practice, are what become visible. It is like what happens when a map produced by an automobile association displays the distance between cities; the cities themselves become mere nodes, junctures in a relay, while all the attention is focused on what goes on between them. Looking at such a map one has no sense of the shape, extent or geography of the cities, for they are points marking the beginning or end of a journey. In the same way an interdisciplinary map, a map of the routes going in and out of disciplines, will be incapable of indicating just why any particular discipline is there, what it does, why anyone takes it seriously: it slights the immanent intelligibility of disciplines.

Although the interdisciplinary map is general, surveying many disciplines rather than focusing on one, its generality is itself particular, for the shapes it makes available gain their prominence at the expense of the other shapes it renders visible. The fact that the cultural text has no place in it for the routines and imperatives of specific practices is not a sign of its completeness or deeper perspicuity, but of its partiality. Of course not all partialities are the same except in the sense that they are similarly partial. One could always argue, and argue persuasively, that for a particular purpose at a particular time the partiality of the cultural text will be more helpful than recourse to the partiality called literary criticism or philosophy or art history. To say that the cultural text is partial is not to criticise it or to deny its usefulness in certain circumstances; it is merely to deny its claim to be representationally superior to other partial texts doing other jobs.

Were it not partial, were the cultural text or interdisciplinary map wholly adequate to every detail in the universe as seen from every possible angle, no one could read it. A text that was adequate to every detail as seen from every possible angle would be unsituated; it would not proceed from a perspective – a ‘here not there’ – but from everywhere and therefore from nowhere. Human beings, however, cannot be in such a condition of dispersion. Human beings are always in a particular place; that’s what it means to be human; to be limited by what a specific coordinate of space and time permits us to see until we move on to another coordinate with its equally (if differently) limited permission.

Not only can human beings not be everywhere; they cannot be in more than one place, at least not at the same time; and that is why (to circle back to the beginning of this discussion) there is a great difference between trying to figure out what a poem means and trying to figure out which interpretation of a poem will best contribute to the war effort. Each effort only makes sense in relation to the traditions, goals, obligatory routines and normative procedures that comprise its history and are the content of its distinctiveness; as tasks geared to different purposes, they call on entirely different skills and set in motion different orders of attention. If I am interested in the moral structure of Paradise Lost, I will look at Satan’s speeches to see whether or not they display contradiction, evasions, self-deceptions and hollow posturings; if I am interested in rousing my troops or rousing a nation I will accept those same speeches (no longer the same) at face value and quarry from them shamelessly so long as they lend themselves to my cause. I cannot, however, do both – perform as a literary critic and perform as political or military leader – simultaneously; for while the two performances will at some level share Paradise Lost, the Paradise Lost that emerges at the conclusion of one project will have very little resemblance to the Paradise Lost that emerges at the end of the other.

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