Gerald Graff

Gerald Graff is the author of the polemical work Literature against Itself (Chicago University Press, 1979). He is a professor of English at Northwestern University.

Against Theory

Gerald Graff, 21 January 1982

In the noisy polemical atmosphere of contemporary literary criticism, Geoffrey Strickland’s quiet ‘thoughts on how we read’ may not have got a fair hearing. His book is an answer to the philosophical critics who have lately been questioning the assumption that literary and other texts have determinate meanings, meanings more or less under the control of their authors. Not that doubts about whether authors’ intentions need be involved in the interpretation of texts are new among literary theorists. But recent theorists go much further than the enemies of ‘the intentional fallacy’ of several decades ago by stating or hinting that the concepts of author, intention and determinate meaning are not only philosophically unjustified but politically retrograde. These concepts are said to express a self-glorifying myth of the sovereign Western ego, a myth that enables professional élites to repress disruptive textual – which is to say, psychological and social – forces. Accordingly, these critics conceive of texts, not as communications by individual human beings to other human beings, but as ‘discursive formations’ produced, reproduced and dissolved by the contending forces of power that play across and through them. It may be that these critics can’t help acknowledging the intentions of authors in the very process of demonstrating how their intentions are inevitably undone by uncontrollable textual forces. But that acknowledgement still leaves these critics many miles from orthodox interpretation-theory. In other words, Strickland is concerned not with ‘structuralism’ in its many varieties, as his title might seem to promise, but with the heterodox species called ‘deconstruction’ which aims to unsettle traditional interpretive practices. Strickland’s attempt to shore up these practices is summed up by him in the following propositions:

Culler and Deconstruction

Gerald Graff, 3 September 1981

If you teach or study literature in a university, the chances are you’ve spent at least some of your time recently arguing with colleagues about the uses and abuses of literary theory. Not only do structuralism, deconstruction and their offshoots draw the biggest audiences at professional conferences, but the quarrel over them has aroused the curiosity of mass journals like Newsweek. Amidst this swirl of publicity and controversy, Jonathan Culler has managed to remain calm long enough to write a reasoned defence of deconstruction, one from which both scholars and general readers will be able to learn a good deal. Culler is fairly termed an apologist for the post-structuralist critical modes typified by the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, yet he writes without the supercilious tone of the former or the soporific word-play of the latter. Nor does Culler indulge in cheap vilification of opponents, suggesting that unwillingness to buy the whole post-structuralist bill of goods is a symptom of psychic repression or a police mentality. Even more refreshing, Culler doesn’t obscure the steps of his argument – and there is one, though this is a book of separate essays – by resorting to slogan-like clichés or great fogs of verbiage. Unlike critics who claim to take risks in their work while writing so evasively as to be protected from any criticism, Culler takes genuine risks in presenting deconstructionist insights as arguments rather than as dithyrambic assertions. He is thereby open, not only to the counter-arguments of opponents, but to the dismissal of allies, who will be able to accuse him of vulgarising the mysteries.

In her review of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalise American Education (LRB, 22 July), Lynn Hunt complains that I offer ‘no clues to [my] own values or [my] understanding of the truth and no intellectual defence of [my] position beyond expediency’. This charge is untrue, as Hunt’s own summary of my defence of the cultural Left will show. But even if it were true...
SIR: In ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ (LRB, 25 June) W.J.T. Mitchell misrepresents my views on current academic literary criticism, expressed in Criticism in the University, edited by Reginald Gibbons and myself (1985). Mitchell takes a position which is actually sympathetic to his own defence of current theory and criticism and makes it sound as if it is antagonistic.Mitchell confuses me with...

The centre fights back

Lynn Hunt, 22 July 1993

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