Philosophers are understandably aggrieved when literary critics presume to instruct them in the finer points of textual interpretation. Particularly irksome is the claim of conceptual rhetoricians like Paul de Man that philosophy has not yet caught up with ‘elementary refinements’ that criticism has long since taken for granted. Deconstruction goes furthest towards contesting the status of philosophy by showing how its concepts finally come down to the ‘unmasterable’ play of linguistic figuration. There is a striking example of de Man’s mercilessly consequential logic – deployed to most ‘illogical’ ends – in his reading of Kantian aesthetics, collected in the Shapiro and Sica volume. This essay deconstructs the Critique of Judgment by pressing its concepts and categories to the point where they yield up a series of perverse rhetorical manoeuvres at odds with any self-respecting ‘philosophic’ argument. It is tropes, not concepts, that structure the economy of Kantian reason and enable its crucial transitions from stage to stage of ‘enlightened’ critique. From the deconstructive viewpoint, de Man’s is a reading of exemplary rigour and scrupulous textual awareness. To most analytic philosophers – those trained up, let us say, on the regulative mastery of concept over trope – such ‘rigour’ looks more like mere semantic juggling, the sort of thing which had better be confined to university departments of literature.
This desire to ‘keep philosophy pure’ (in Richard Rorty’s phrase) has more to do with professional self-esteem than with the interests of reason and truth. Territorial imperatives were clearly at stake when John Searle (in a recent number of the New York Review of Books) gave a simplified account of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction, and used it to launch an attack on this whole new breed of overweening literary theorists. From this point of view, deconstruction is merely the belated revenge of those disreputable sophists and perverters of reason whom Socrates so memorably nailed. Of course, not all philosophers take this aggressively self-promoting line. Some – like Rorty – would cheerfully concede that philosophy, at least since Descartes and Kant, has got its priorities all mixed up and now needs pointing in a new direction. Rorty writes approvingly of Heidegger, Derrida and others in the broadly ‘hermeneutic’ tradition who offer an alternative to the mainstream (post-Kantian) analytic strain. Philosophy has missed its true vocation, he thinks, through mistaking metaphors for concepts, believing itself firmly on the track of clear and distinct ideas when in fact it was simply devising new tricks to keep the same old debate turning over. What is needed now is a different self-image for philosophers, one which would place them on a common, companionable footing with literary critics and other participants in the dialogue of culture at large. The good thing about Heidegger and Derrida, Rorty thinks, is that they go a long way (if not quite far enough) toward curing philosophy of its age-old grandiose delusions.
Still, there is the question of what is left for philosophers to do once this chastening message sinks in. Rorty’s answer is simple enough, though not, one might think, very welcome to fellow professionals. In the absence of ‘foundational’ truth-claims, he argues, philosophy becomes a kind of narrative activity, rehearsing its own pre-history in the light of its present-day interests and concerns. In fact, this is just what philosophers have always done – constructed some kind of legitimating narrative by which to explain their position – though the storytelling is usually presumed to have an end when it comes to the moment of philosophic truth. But as Rorty sees it, there is no such moment, no point at which philosophy can claim special access to a knowledge independent of the special kind of story it is trying to tell. All we have are the various, more or less convincing narratives which enable us to see (in Davidson’s words) ‘how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term’. Rorty’s tale is one which begins with the decisive wrong turn by which Descartes and Kant set philosophy off on its quest for absolute truth. The plot is worked up through successive complications induced by various deluded contenders for the major role (‘clear and distinct ideas, sense data, categories of the pure understanding’ and suchlike). Only now, Rorty thinks, has the time come round for a genuine narrative dénouement. Pragmatism – good old American pragmatism, James and Dewey style – is the looked-for issue out of all philosophical perplexities. The pragmatist has no use for truth-claims, unless by defining them provisionally in terms of ‘warranted assertability’. Truth is simply, as William James put it, ‘the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief’. Philosophy can keep itself in business by updating the story of those various beliefs which have proved themselves good (or philosophically productive) from time to time. But it is the pragmatist who always has the last word since only he can admit – without losing professional face – that this telling of plausible tales is really all there is to philosophy.
One might expect such an outlook to commend itself more readily to literary critics than philosophers. What Rorty’s argument amounts to, after all, is the virtual deconstruction of philosophic reason into two modes of thinking – metaphor and narrative – which critics are perfectly at home with. But maybe the critics have got it all wrong, Rorty thinks, and still look to philosophy as some kind of privileged discourse, able to bring theoretical rigour to their fumbling, intuitive efforts. This is what he calls the ‘weak textualist’ position, one that falls back upon hypostatised concepts (of ‘structure’ or whatever) as a hedge against the play of intertextual meaning. Rorty sees this as a latterday counterpart to those varieties of 19th-century idealism which gave up all claim to unmediated knowledge of the real, but still clung to a shaky apparatus of supposedly a-priori concepts and categories. On the other hand, there are those – ‘strong textualists’ – who dispense with such unnecessary props to understanding. These critics make terms with the fact that language provides no vantage-point of method, no meta-linguistic ground from which to conceptualise its endless play of tropological drives and substitutions. And this attitude, he argues, is just another version – albeit more strenuously arrived at – of the pragmatist willingness to let go of ‘truth’ in the interests of mutual understanding.
So literary theorists are deceived if they imagine that ‘philosophy’ holds the key to any knowledge beyond their own unaided grasp. What is wrong with deconstruction, Rorty now thinks, is that it has turned itself into a kind of sophisticated counter-philosophy, rather than sticking with its valuable perception that all such systems are episodes merely in the history of rival claims-to-truth. At this point the critic may want to respond that there is more to deconstruction than Rorty thinks. And if this means aligning oneself – strategically at least – with all those deluded seekers-after-knowledge, then that may be preferable to the pragmatist option of declaring for things as they are in the ‘post-modern bourgeois liberal’ world of present-day American culture. For this is the upshot of Rorty’s narrative, the point to which all his arguments tend. What need for critique if American society has thrown up a working consensus of views which offers its own, quite adequate cultural self-image? What use for those old meta-narratives (Hegelian, Marxist, structuralist) now that we live in a tolerant pluralist society where everyone (almost) gets his or her say and the story just unfolds in its own good time? Such is the basis for Rorty’s argument that philosophy can henceforth manage without its old delusions of epistemological grandeur. Faced with this, the critical theorist may well want to side with philosophy, since Rorty’s alternative dispensation seems to spell the end, not only of an academic discipline, but of critical intelligence as such.
Readers of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne (1979) will recognise this call for an end to meta-narratives. It was always implicit in Rorty’s arguments, but comes into focus more clearly now that he appeals to Lyotard (as in the phrase ‘post-modern bourgeois liberalism’), and now that Lyotard’s book is available in English translation. The case can be summarised roughly as follows. Philosophers (political theorists especially) have always cast their ideas in narrative form. Mostly they have wanted to disguise that fact, as by shifting from a first-order ‘natural’ narrative to a higher plane of understanding where the story would yield up its true (e.g. ‘dialectical’) meaning. What the post-modern era signifies, according to Lyotard, is an end to such consoling myths of intellectual mastery and truth. First-order narratives are all we have, their significance strictly a matter, in Rorty’s phrase, of ‘natural narrative pragmatics’, and not of any master-plan cleverly dreamed up by theorists or dialecticians.
In literary terms, this position works out as a slap on the back for ‘post-modernist’ writers who disclaim any kind of ultimate narrative authority. It also carries a sharp rebuff to the ‘modernist’ idea that fiction can actually make us more aware of what it means to interpret reality. Modernism merely suspends one kind of naive metaphysical certitude (that of the pre-existent ‘world out there’) in favour of another, more subtly misleading (that the mind makes sense of experience according to its own highly complex but intelligible laws). This diagnosis bears a striking resemblance to Rorty’s account of post-Kantian philosophy. In each case, the upshot is a summons to put away the false meta-narrative security of system and theory, and to come out fully on the side of post-modern narrative pragmatics. Politically, the message is equally clear: that all those totalising schemes of explanation (Marxist meta-narratives especially) are henceforth redundant because nowadays they just don’t apply to the straightforward business of interpreting the world. The position is the same (so this argument would have it) in philosophy, literature and politics. The time is long past when it was sensible to place any faith in theories which thought to criticise their own native culture from a standpoint of rational detachment. Such perspectives are rendered unattainable by a state of naturalised consensus which sets its own terms for valid debate. The only kind of history which then makes sense is the kind that sticks to first-order narrative pragmatics and surrenders all claim to a higher (dialectical) order of knowledge.
In one way or another, these questions surface in all the books under review. They are all works of literary theory which occupy the active zone of debate between criticism, philosophy and history of ideas. More to the point, they each raise the question of how theory relates to narrative, or philosophic reason to the background of cultural assumptions from which all philosophy takes rise. The essays collected by Shapiro and Sica cover a great range of disciplines but mostly return to this central topic. J.N. Mohanty puts the case most explicitly in a paper on ‘Transcendental Philosophy and the Hermeneutic Critique’. There is, he argues, no possibility of attaining that absolute, presuppositionless knowledge which philosophers since Descartes have often dreamt of. Husserl’s phenomenology sometimes seems aimed toward just such a radical suspension of everything pertaining to commonplace experience. But Husserl also realised, according to Mohanty, that ‘an act of consciousness is always inserted into a total life of consciousness, and in fact into a tradition and community, so that meanings ...are not creations de novo but always presuppose the context of meanings that are available.’ This pits the ‘hermeneutic’ viewpoint squarely against the a-priori claims of a ‘transcendental’ theory of knowledge.
The other contributors approach the same question from various angles but often with similar conclusions in view. Thus Anthony Giddens has an essay which argues for a critical sociology capable of transcending the old debate between ‘method’ and ‘meaning’ – Ideologiekritik, on the one hand, and cultural interpretation, on the other. Hermeneutics is seen as the one tradition that promises a way beyond these drastic antinomies. The trouble with Lyotard’s narrative pragmatics is that it simply collapses any distinction between the self-understanding of a given culture and the critical methods which seek to interpret that culture. There is no room for the concept of ‘ideology’ if beliefs can only be grasped from within the natural context of meanings and assumptions that generates their first-order significance. On the other hand (as several contributors argue), it is impossible for theory to achieve some kind of Archimedean point outside and above the social realm of lived ideology. W.H. Dray makes the point in a closely-argued piece on conflicting interpretations of the English Civil War. Historians come up with all manner of methodical checks and contrivances to give their narratives some semblance of objective truth. In fact, these refinements of method are always embedded in a larger sense of what properly counts as convincing historical narrative. There is no transcendent viewpoint which would finally adjudicate the issue between rival narrative versions. But this is not to say – as a thoroughgoing pragmatism would have it – that the only viable narrative on offer is the one currently sanctioned by prevailing consensus.
De Man’s essay comes at this problem from a deconstructive angle. It may be the case (stage one of his argument) that Kant is passing off tropes as concepts, presenting not so much a rigorous transcendental deduction as ‘a story, a dramatised scene of the mind in action’. But this is not to license a last-ditch retreat from the claims of philosophical rigour and critique. Ideology and criticism may be ‘interdependent’ to the point of creating all manner of confusion in texts which strive to keep them apart. But simply to collapse that distinction – as Lyotard thinks we must – is to give up all hopes of rational understanding. As de Man puts it, ‘philosophies that succumb to ideology lose their epistemological sense, whereas philosophies that try to bypass or repress ideology lose all critical thrust and risk being repossessed by what they foreclose.’ This is the aspect of deconstruction – the element of ideological critique – which tends to be ignored by its Marxist detractors, as well as by ‘post-modern’ pragmatists like Rorty. De Man’s deconstructive ‘allegories of reading’ have nothing in common with Lyotard’s insistence that theory should give way before the levelling regime of first-order narrative pragmatics.
William Ray’s useful book on recent literary theory has its own way of coping with narrative demands. It takes a whole series of exemplary ‘positions’ and shows (with continual nods toward de Man) how critics’ best insights often get into conflict with their programmatic statements of intent. There are many sharp perceptions to be found in Ray’s treatment of the various ‘schools’, from reader-response in its manifold guises to structuralist and deconstructive approaches. Of course this tends to imply a narrative sequence, with the chapters leading up to decontruction as the most refined and sophisticated response to the problems involved. But Ray is as far from simply endorsing de Man as he is from suggesting that deconstruction is just another episode in the pageant of ideas. ‘By its own logic,’ he concludes, ‘de Man’s writing is really neither theory nor criticism, neither truth nor fiction; it is at all times both the theory of narration and the narration of a theory.’ Any hint of a providential narrative, with deconstruction as its culminating moment, is shrewdly undermined by Ray’s awareness that theory is unable to deliver the goods in any such decisive way. What he reads in de Man – with a fine attentiveness to detail and logic – is the moment at which ‘theory’finds itself always already involved in fictions of its own (more or less conscious) devising. The great virtue of Ray’s book is to keep this difficulty steadily in view while refusing to let go of the idea that theory – ‘intelligent theory’, if you like – is indispensably a part of the reader’s role.
Jay Bernstein’s study of Lukacs also has to do with the relations between theory and narrative. It takes as its central text Lukacs’s early essay The Theory of the Novel, written in 1914-5, before he joined the Communist Party, and usually regarded as a product of his youthful ‘idealist’ phase. The problem with this account, as Bernstein points out, is that Lukacs went ahead and published the essay, largely unrevised, after he joined the Party. Subsequently it played an ambivalent role in the history of Marxist aesthetics, often denounced (as betimes by Lukacs himself) but also exerting a powerful influence, no doubt due in part to its cryptic and resonant style. Bernstein argues that The Theory of the Novel is best, most productively read as a wide-ranging essay in Marxist (though by no means orthodox Marxist) ontology. To this end he is willing, not only to acknowledge flaws and contradictions in the essay’s argument, but also to rule some of Lukacs’s own pronouncements either wrong or irrelevant. For Bernstein, this text is an object of patient reconstructive inquiry which can, if successful, discover great depths of historical and hermeneutic insight. Implicit in Lukacs’s drastically compressed style of argument is a full-scale philosophy of narrative form which extends beyond the novel to Marxist debates on history, consciousness and the politics of knowledge. Bernstein’s book thus becomes a sustained meditation on and around the crucial ambiguities of Lukacs’s text.
The novel, for Lukacs, was basically a product of the divided or ‘unhappy’ consciousness, the mind cast adrift in a comfortless world of alien objects and events. In this lies the fundamental difference between novel and epic as modes of narrative. The epic protagonist exists in an unproblematic relation to the objects and events which make up his experience. He may be the victim of some malign, implacable destiny, but this remains a fact to be stoically endured, not a cause of metaphysical anguish and doubt. With the advent of the novel there occurs, according to Lukacs, a decisive shift in the manner of relating inward and outward experience. The novelistic hero is one whose characteristic ‘homelessness’ is figured, not only in his physical wanderings, but in the gap which opens up between action and motive, instinct and self-conscious reflection. Epic now becomes a long-lost realm of authentic, natural experience which novelistic man can only re-imagine by way of some consoling myth of origins. The novel thus stands, in Lukacs’s Hegelian scheme of things, as the art-form most truly representative of mind in its modern, self-divided and restless condition.
This nostalgic mythology (as it seems when thus briefly recounted) is clearly wide open to deconstructive reading. In fact, de Man has an essay in Blindness and Insight – mentioned admiringly by Bernstein – which unravels some of the narrative and figural tropes by which Lukacs constructs his speculative history. It bears, one might add, a more than passing resemblance to other forms of literary myth-mongering, like T.S. Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Bernstein is aware that The Theory of the Novel lends itself readily to a mystified reading of precisely that kind. But he sets about excavating another, more ‘progressive’ side to Lukacs’s argument, one which brings it squarely into line with his subsequent Marxist philosophy of history and art. The main source here is Lucien Goldmann, whose reading of Lukacs was the first to emphasise the structural continuity between his earlier and later productions. Goldmann argued that the theme of dissociated (‘tragic’) awareness could only be grasped by reading it in the context of Lukacs’s developing ideas on class-history and the subject-object dialectic. Tragedy was the literary form which corresponded to the state of metaphysical solitude experienced by man in the absence of consoling religious or communal beliefs. At a later stage this ethos gave way to a form of philosophical rationalism (notably in Kant) which could find no means of connecting subject and object, the structures of a-priori reason and the world of noumenal ‘things-in-themselves’. This deadlocked condition of thought could only be transcended (or effectively theorised) from the standpoint of a higher, dialectical reason as expounded by Hegel in a mystified, idealist form and by Marx in its full-dress materialist version. ‘Tragedy’ and ‘dialectic’ were thus to be conceived as two distinct but related episodes on the path to Marxist-historical truth.
Such is the intellectual framework of Bernstein’s attempt to rehabilitate The Theory of the Novel for the purposes of Marxist criticism. It amounts to a detailed spelling-out, not only of Lukacs’s arguments, but of all their suggestive bearings on philosophy, aesthetics and historical method. Reflection on the novel becomes the jumping-off point for a wholesale critique of Western cultural tradition. The question of origins receives a new twist when Bernstein suggests that we read Descartes’s Discourse on Method – rather than, say, Don Quixote – as marking the beginnings of a distinctly fictional divided consciousness. Elsewhere his book has some shrewd points to make about Schlegel, Kierkegaard and the concept of irony as opening new, vertiginous perspectives on the theme of divided narrative identity. I noted quite a number of detailed objections to Bernstein’s argument, especially his habit of reasoning analogically from case to case through a headlong succession of abstract categories. Lukacs’s relentless totalising drive has certainly left its mark on Bernstein’s style. But his book has the compensating virtues of a fine intellectual sweep and speculative vigour.
It also gives a pointed relevance to the question of how narrative – or the idea of narrative – relates to dialectical schemes of explanation. Bernstein preserves a clear-cut distinction here, following Lukacs (and Walter Benjamin) in locating the era of natural, authentic narrative firmly in the pre-novelistic past. It is the modern, alienated consciousness – under conditions fixed by capitalist society – that works such a change as to demand theoretical understanding. As Bernstein writes, ‘the novel is, or was, the remembrance of significant, collective narrative under the dominion of the anti-narrative social relations of capital. By viewing the novel against the background of epic we are able to recognise the dimensions of collective storytelling we have lost; the sign of that loss in the novel being the consignment of form to fictionality.’ ‘Form’ is among the self-conscious attributes forced upon narrative in an age of dissociated meaning and purpose. This conclusion of Bernstein’s allows us to grasp more precisely the politics implicit in Lyotard’s ‘post-modern’ outlook. The pragmatist view that theorising has had its day, so that now all we’re left with is straightforward honest narrative, clearly goes against the thrust of Bernstein’s argument. From his reading of Lukacs the very opposite case emerges: that theory is indispensably the precondition of enlightened modern thinking, strive as it may to recapture the innocence of communal narrative forms. Lyotard’s argument would then come to seem a mystified attachment to the kinds of self-naturalising story that present-day society likes to tell by way of preserving its cultural self-image. The result, if this philosophy really took hold, would be a form of passive consensual politics tantamount to sheer bad faith.
Raman Selden’s Criticism and Objectivity is likewise concerned to reassert the claims of historical reason against what he sees as the relativist temptations of current ‘advanced’ critical theory. Selden is far from rejecting these ideas in the name of a straightforward common-sense outlook. He concedes that post-structuralism has challenged the notion of determinate textual meaning to the point where any talk of critical ‘objectivity’ needs a good deal of argued justification. In fact, he welcomes the interpretative freedoms opened up by a discourse which ‘decentres’ the literary text and ‘displaces the subject as source and origin of meaning’. A large part of Selden’s book is devoted to a perceptive working-through of the various theories which have lately effected this shift. What he does reject – and with a good show of argument – is the idea that criticism is henceforth licensed (or condemned) to interpret texts in whatever way it pleases, without the least regard for methodical constraints. Post-structuralism leaves us, he argues, not with ‘a chaotic field of arbitrarily conflicting or interweaving codes’, but with ‘a more complexly structured discourse and a less unified concept of meaning’. Selden’s ‘objectivity’ is qualified (in both senses of the word) by a lively awareness of the problems confronting any effort to think these questions through.
This puts him in the company of philosophers like Hilary Putnam who have argued against the kind of drastic dualism that sees only hard factual knowledge, on the one hand, and mere subjective ‘values’, on the other. Criticism has been bedevilled by such false dichotomies, Selden argues, since Mill made the choice between ‘poetry’ and ‘science’ the crux of his spiritual life-history. Subsequent attempts to heal that rift produced little more than a series of accommodating gestures designed to ‘save’ poetry for the needs of emotional fulfilment. Post-structuralism merely perpetrates this chronic situation if it seeks no alternative to the dubious pleasures of unlimited textual ‘freeplay’. Selden therefore pins his hopes to a version of historical criticism derived (though not without significant revisions) from Althusser’s thinking on the relationship of text, ideology and Marxist ‘science’. He is aware – uneasily at times – that deconstruction has techniques in plenty for revealing the elements of figural sense involved in the discourse of Marxist-theoretical reason. There is some wire-drawn argumentation here, as Selden negotiates these tricky corners of current post-structuralist debate. But the strength of his book lies more in the range of argued practical examples that Selden calls up to support his case. Satirists (from Juvenal to Marston and Gay) enable him to make some effective points about the ways in which historical context can work to limit the interpretative options of any but a resolutely anti-historical criticism. At the same time, satire provides a clear case of textuality outrunning all attempts to fix its sense in terms of authorial ‘presence’ or intent. It thus falls nicely into line with Selden’s argument, resistant to naive monological readings but open to the more sophisticated forms of historical account.
These writers all acknowledge – Selden and Ray most explicitly – that post-structuralism has altered our habits of thought beyond hope of a return to the innocence of unreflective origins. Bernstein sees this predominance of theory as a symptom of the modern, alienated consciousness forced to reflect upon its own belatedness vis-à-vis the simple satisfactions of first-order narrative. Ray makes the point by moving to implicate the hypocrite lecteur who might wish to deny it. We can, he writes in his concluding chapter, ‘eliminate from the outset speculation on the success of post-structuralism: it has already succeeded in infiltrating our belief-systems; if it had not, we could not understand it – I could not have written and you could not have read this book.’ But Ray sees an in-built paradox looming as post-structuralism shows signs of settling down into a normalised, routine ‘system’ of reading. The success of such theories means their failure, he argues. ‘When deconstruction becomes the unexamined truth for significant numbers of students, it will, true to its own paradigm, mean something entirely different.’ This very sense of communal enterprise indicates that deconstruction has already suffered the inevitable change from ‘revolutionary gesture’ to ‘institutionalised norm’.
To the question ‘What next?’ Ray returns a tentative answer by pointing to signs of a newly emergent discourse where theory assumes a distinctly narrative mode. His own book stands as an obvious example, but he might well have mentioned Terry Eagleton’s turn to narrative treatment in his recent ‘introduction’ to literary theory. The course of Eagle-ton’s thinkng since Criticism and Ideology (1976) can be seen as a passage from high theoretical rigour in the Althusserian vein to a more strategic, interventionist sense of the use to be made of different ideas at different historical junctures. His book on Walter Benjamin (1981) was frankly intended as a tactical move to rescue Benjamin for the purposes of materialist criticism, while at the same time using his texts to score some shrewd points against American deconstruction. The narrative turn in his latest book is likewise a means of forestalling any premature claims to system or method. And this seems to be what Ray has in mind when he suggests how things might begin to look in the wake of current post-structuralism.
Critical writing may regain its power, he thinks, through the loss of its assumed theoretical privilege. More specifically, ‘history and theory will merge with interpretation in an eclectic form of literary study less obsessed with controlling truth than (perhaps) with its ability to provoke the pleasure of new ideas.’ An odd conclusion, on the face of it, after so much fine-tuned analytic commentary. Taken out of context, the passage might suggest that Ray’s arguments have finally surrendered to the kind of post-critical narrative pragmatics that Lyotard seeks to promote.
The difference is that Ray, like Bernstein, preserves an awareness of the complicating factors which prevent any simple return to the acceptance of legitimating narrative myths. There is a fine but crucial distinction between Lyotard’s philosophy and the outlook that Bernstein suggests in his closing remarks on the status of narration in Marxist theory and historiography. ‘How else,’ he asks, ‘can we read The Theory of the Novel (or this telling of it) than as a political narration of the fate and meaning of narrative in our time?’ To pursue this question through the necessary detours of modern, self-conscious understanding is not to proclaim a straightforward return to the ethos of communal myth. Critical theory still has important work to do in maintaining a sense of this distinction. Without it, thought seems destined to collapse into a state of passive acquiescence in the myths, ideologies and naturalised half-beliefs which make up common-sense wisdom.
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