Against Theory

Gerald Graff

  • Structuralism or Criticism? by Geoffrey Strickland
    Cambridge, 209 pp, £17.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 23184 1

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:

1. All that we say or think about a particular utterance or piece of writing presupposes an assumption on our part, correct or otherwise, concerning the intention of the speaker or writer.

2. Which is why we can say certain things about what we read which are true but never deny the possibility that we may be wrong.

3. But a true understanding of what is written or said does not and could not possibly involve a complete sharing of the writer’s or speaker’s experience. which is why a true understanding of those whose experience differs from our own, including writers from a distant past, is always possible.

4. We cannot possibly understand what is written or said unless we understand its interest and importance for the writer or speaker, which affects inevitably its interest and importance to us. Evaluation, in this sense, and interpretation are the same.

Each of these propositions is expounded at some length in the central portion of the book, a section preceded by an introductory discussion of ‘where structuralism doesn’t work’, and followed by chapters contrasting the criticism of Roland Barthes and F.R. Leavis. In the former section, Strickland draws on Emile Benveniste’s critique of Saussure’s principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, which is the thing in structuralism that Strickland thinks doesn’t ‘work’. In the latter section, Leavis (‘criticism’) triumphs over Barthes (‘structuralism’). The core of the argument, however, is in the elaboration of the above propositions.

Now these propositions are so reassuring that the suspicion must arise that they can’t be true. So it will seem, anyway, to those who measure ideas by the Intellectual Discomfort Index. According to this measurement, the truth of an idea is proportional to the mean average distress it induces in that mythical straight-man of avant-garde criticism, the reader so hungry for confirmation of his certainties that he can’t even listen to what the avant-garde critic has to say. It will do little good to reply on Strickland’s behalf that not all his propositions are necessarily comforting. Knowing, for instance, that we can recover the meanings of past texts only, if at all, by arduous historical research might be more daunting than reassuring. Even the assurance ‘that a true understanding of those whose experience differs from our own ... is always possible’ would not be heartening if what we came to understand of some of those people was that they were out to kill us: being condemned to misunderstand them would be comparative, if temporary bliss. Conversely, Roland Barthes’s ‘disturbing’ ideas don’t seem to disturb those who agree with them. But such casuistical attempts to raise Strickland’s (or one’s own) discomfort-rating must fail, since the discomforts just described have nothing to do with upsetting ‘bourgeois’ certainties, which is, after all, the point. It’s a measure of the great difference between Strickland’s sense of the current situation and that of the critics he is answering that whereas he wants to restore the common reader’s sagging confidence, they want to undermine this reader’s over-confidence.

This difference in perspective is so great as to cause one to wonder whether the parties to the current dispute over interpretation are sufficiently on the same wavelength to have a genuine disagreement. Strickland is talking epistemology, whereas his opponents, at least some of the time, are talking politics, or are confusing epistemology with politics. (They would object that the two are not separable.) Strickland might have paid more attention to the frequency with which his critical adversaries apply a political calculus to the philosophy of interpretation. He quotes but passes quickly over Barthes’s assertion that language is ‘quite simply fascist’. According to Barthes’s textual leftism, language ‘legislates’ by imposing classifications, and ‘every form of classification is oppressive.’ Whether Barthes really believed such things, or said them merely to outrage the university authorities, is not clear: but if you take such statements seriously, one of their implications is that recent critical quarrels may be misleadingly framed insofar as they are made to turn on the question of the minimal interpretability of texts. For if linguistic transactions are ‘fascist’ (if you don’t think they are, consider the sinister connotations of ‘transactions’), then what is properly at issue is not whether anybody can come to some normative agreement about what texts mean but whether anybody ought to. Those who equate the idea of looking for a ‘correct’ interpretation with political complicity are conceding that interpretive norms are indeed possible – so menacingly possible that we have to exercise vigilant resistance against them.

What may be most at issue in our recent critical quarrels, in other words, is not the epistemological authority of interpretation but the social authority of the interpreters. Again, radical critics deny that these questions are separable and regard attempts to separate them as ‘ideological’ power-moves. One often can detect familiar resentments behind such blurring of distinctions: the professor who invokes expert knowledge in order to silence heterodox student interpretations arouses the suspicion that expert knowledge is intrinsically authoritarian. In the face of such suspicion, patient demonstrations that we do, after all, manage to get texts decently read are likely to be seen as beside the point. The problem is to distinguish the canons of interpretive expertise from the way those canons may function within a set of institutional power-relations: which is to say, to distinguish the logic of interpretation from the way interpretations get used. If such a distinction is tenable (again, radical hermeneutical sceptics say it isn’t), then there need be no necessary quarrel between a criticism of the kind Strickland envisages that concentrates on the meanings authors intend, and a criticism that concentrates on the meanings, political or otherwise, authors betray.

Strickland does help us disentangle the philosophy of interpretation from its politics when he points out the independence of any text’s meaning (intention) from the changing ramifications that meaning can take on in the light of changing historical conditions. He argues well against the view, widely held among literary critics of various persuasions, that textual meanings change over time. The reason such meanings don’t change is that they are historical acts which, once committed, are over and done with. ‘If it is true,’ Strickland writes, ‘that Jones is speaking with genuine contempt when he makes jokes about immigrants and is not being merely facetious, then this will always have been true, irrespective of what different people may think at different times of racialism or facetiousness. Again, if it is true that Moliére’s eulogy of Louis XIV at the end of Tartuffe ... is an expression of admiration for what a great king can do, then this is as true today as when it was written.’ Just because many of us now think of kings very differently from the way Molière did, it doesn’t follow that Molière no longer means what he once meant, though his meaning now appears in a different light. Similarly, the fact that we may not, in some instances, be sure what Molière or Jones probably intended doesn’t alter the finality of whatever it was they did intend. Thus far, Strickland’s argument is borrowed with little modification from E.D. Hirsch. Strickland should be credited, though, with perceiving that Hirsch’s theories are avowedly historical, a point missed by critics who have accused Hirsch of placing texts above history.

Where Strickland makes his own contribution is in defence of his third proposition, that understanding utterances doesn’t and can’t involve ‘a complete sharing of the writer’s or speaker’s experience’. The formulation could be improved upon – what counts as a ‘complete’ sharing? – but it’s good enough to get at one of the central confusions behind the current campaign against theories of semantic determinacy. Understanding, he writes, ‘presupposes necessarily that one’s experience is different from that of the person one understands as well as sharing certain common features. It could never be a matter of becoming miraculously the person one understands, and this is something no speaker or writer could intend. If a drowning man calls for help, it is because he hopes that someone will throw him a lifebelt, not that those who hear him will undergo the illusion that they are drowning as well.’ That is neatly said, and if attended to would render superfluous most of the current critical attitudinising over the tragic (or post-tragic) abyss that separates language from what it seeks to signify. For if language doesn’t pretend to offer itself as a substitute for what it expresses, if words aren’t trying to be persons or things (and admittedly, some important philosophers and poets have thought of language in this mistaken way), then the colourful melodrama of literary and critical alienation that can be extracted from the recognition of the ‘failure’ of language need not be staged.

Unfortunately, the force of Strickland’s better theoretical arguments is diluted by his frequently maintaining that criticism should be wary of theoretical argument. Leavis is Strickland’s model critic for having ‘made no claim to be anything other than a critic’ – that is, for his ‘freedom from the philosophical ambitions associated with structuralism’. He praises Leavis, as Leavis praised himself, for having declined – at René Wellek’s published invitation – to formulate ‘an abstract or abstractable norm’ for judging literature. But why should structuralists or anyone else be blamed merely for entertaining ‘philosophic ambitions’, and why is ‘freedom’ from such ambitions equivalent to virtue? Strickland’s own best pages, which betray at least modest philosophic ambitions on his part, score against his opponents, not for presuming to philosophise, but for not philosophising well enough. Leavis’s critical accomplishments don’t seem to me diminished by his avoidance of abstract elaboration, but Leavis was unwise to make a boast of this avoidance, as if it conferred superior critical tact and flexibility. When Strickland congratulates Leavis for eschewing ‘absolute aesthetic or linguistic rules’, he fails to notice he’s joined up with the hermeneutical sceptics he’s been attacking all along for confusing principles with dogmas.

Perhaps in the best of possible worlds, theorising would be unnecessary. But when there is no consensus on first principles, evading the business of thrashing them out doesn’t help. Matthew Arnold set a precedent for such evasion in his famous essay, ‘The Study of Poetry’, when he conceded his inability to define ‘what in the abstract constitutes the characters of a high quality of poetry’, but then went on to say that such definitions are of little use anyway and that one does better to resort to ‘touchstone’ passages. That was a futile gesture: those of Arnold’s readers who had not already internalised the taste elusively embodied in Arnold’s touchstones would not have been helped much by them to acquire that taste, and those who had already acquired the taste wouldn’t have needed touchstones. Once a consensus has disappeared (if it ever really existed), there is no way to restore it except through the arduous, messy, maddening, often seemingly hopeless process of argumentative give-and-take. As Leavis and Strickland at their best moments recognise, without supporting theoretical argument, the appeal to touchstones, common readers, or intuitive ‘criticism’ set over against ‘theory’, is question-begging, since it’s the disappearance of the things appealed to, or their questionable status, that occasioned the crisis to which the critics are responding. Such a crisis draws one into theoretical controversy whether one likes it or not, at which point the question becomes, not whether or not to theorise, but whether to do it well or badly.