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.

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