Wild, Fierce Yale
- Deconstruction: Theory and Practice by Christopher Norris
Methuen, 157 pp, £6.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 416 32060 0
There are no Departments of Literary Criticism; and even proposals to have a Criticism question in official examinations can cause turbulence in academic circles. What is at stake? By now, of course, a political element has entered, and many suspect that under the name of ‘criticism’ all kinds of illegal goods may be smuggled in. Customs is instructed to make a proper search. Is ‘criticism’ a hidden agenda for Marxism, Lacanianism, structuralist anti-humanism etc?
Originally, the resistance to allowing criticism the curricular dignity of, say, the Age of Pope came from a simpler source. It was argued that criticism had no existence apart from the works it scrutinised, and that, on the whole, critical texts did not form a special tradition: nothing that could or should be institutionalised. Though René Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism tried to show that Saints – bury’s attitude of connoisseurship was inadequate, and that critics used something more than rationalised notions of taste – they also borrowed or converted ideas that might be said to constitute an unacknowledged philosophy – there was a reluctance to extend self-consciousness in that direction. Criticism, it was thought, should remain auxiliary. If it intended to raise the question of its universal or principled basis, it might apply to Philosophy, not to Literature, for its academic entrée.
It is certainly unusual to read essays about literature that oblige us to think about them rather than primarily about their object or occasion. Not that we don’t enjoy some of these essays, especially time-honoured ones: Charles Lamb on Shakespeare’s plays in relation to their stage representation is as delicious as it is dated. Yet unlike Lamb’s piece, the contemporary critical essay often demands a knowledge that is highly specialised, and uses a vocabulary drawn from various theories. One can feel terrorised rather than instructed – let alone delighted.
Specialisation is not the only problem. There need be no objection to the linguistic analysis of a literary work, if it is clearly conducted as such. But essays that mix linguistics with psychoanalysis or social remedies seem basically uncritical, in the sense that even the educated reader cannot tell, faced by such ‘motley in the brain’, what is scientific or scholarly, and what is not so. There is a deeper problem, caused by our very hope that criticism could save us from specialisation, or fragmentation: we have identified it as the re-humanising activity, so when it becomes technical or claims a field of its own – when criticism says, ‘Let us be like other departments of knowledge’ – it seems not only to mistake but even to betray its nature.
Criticism, in any case, is no longer what it was; and Christopher Norris’s compact book on deconstruction is more useful, in its open-minded descriptive acuity, than other, more complex and defensive, treatments. Occasionally Norris falls into distancing gestures about ‘going too far’ or ‘rhapsodic philosophising’; most of the time, however, he clarifies the present situation by defining the intellectual milieu of a controversial array of writers active in America since about 1955, though not achieving full notoriety till the advent of Derrida and his invasion of American academic criticism in the 1970s. Deconstruction in America, he sensibly remarks, ‘is not a monolithic theory or school of thought but a gathering point for critics who are otherwise divided on many central issues of technique and style’. His book has considerable range, therefore: not only in philosophical backgrounds, but in its focus, which goes beyond the ‘Yale School’ to Jakobson, Macherey, Althusser, Barthes and Foucault on the Continental side, and Leavis, Empson, Eagleton, Jameson, Culler, Said, Rorty and others on the Anglo-American side. Wittgenstein’s relation to language and scepticism is too skimpily treated: but at least it is there.
Norris’s account centres on ‘the American Connection’, but he does not overemphasise it. He corrects the historical equivalent of an optical illusion by showing that the Yale critics had their own practice with roots in the New Criticism, a movement they questioned long before Derrida arrived on the scene. They questioned it by a more rigorous application of its own emphasis on the text rather than on the text’s historical frame. But even the text as its own frame is questioned by this group, which did not privilege unity by vesting it in the ‘achieved’ or ‘coherent’ form of a literary work. Their tendency, fed by many sources including Freud, was not so much, to radicalise ambiguity and to delay closing the interpretation as to see through literary form to the way language or symbolic process makes and breaks meaning. To hold that making and breaking together risked, sometimes, giving the impression of enchanting disenchantment; the word ‘flower’ (to cite Mallarmé) evoked something absent from all bouquets: but the main thrust of this American deconstruction that did not know its name was to create a more dialectical and open view of how literature worked. The rhetoric of ‘tension’, refined by the New Critics as irony, paradox and controlled ambiguity, seemed too self-enclosing a version of literariness. It was felt that they promulgated-under aesthetic cover a language-ontology that made poetic and religious claims converge. So Father Ong could point out that wit and paradox also characterised the language of faith: the New Critics had shown how a transcendent presence could be brought, by analogy at least, into the confines of a secular (literary) construct.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: Geoffrey Hartman’s review (LRB, 21 October 1982) of Christopher Norris’s fine book Deconstruction: Theory and Practice is even more instructive than the book he reviews. Its history of the filiations between the old and the new Yale is not one I am inclined to deconstruct, any more than I am to honour the title. If the ‘Yale School’ is wild or fierce, that is the problem either of its denizens or of its enemies. My own, surely not idiosyncratic, opinion is that we would all be very much the poorer without Yale, whose intellectual range is not the worse for ranging beyond deconstruction.
Certain shadings and omissions in Hartman’s review do excite my wonder. He shows great poise, in responding to Norris’s depiction of him as an almost exclusively ludic critic. Hartman’s work belies the charge, and the forbearance is remarkable. I cannot understand, however, his omission of Norris’s casting Jonathan Culler as a villain, a kind of traitor within the walls. Is there any reason for a partisan of deconstruction like Norris to exhibit such a puritanical high tone?
Not that I have a love affair with deconstruction. It seems to me to have certain distinct limits. A local friend claims that another woman is the best Chinese cook in Princeton, and that she is the fourth best: ‘There is no second or third.’ Practically speaking, the nouvelle critique has a number of first-class cooks in New Haven (and a few elsewhere). The problem is that, unlike the old New Criticism, it produces no second or third, or perhaps fifth or sixth best, whereas ‘Formalism’ produced no end of seconds and thirds as well as firsts. In other terms, unlike a structuralist such as Harold Bloom, the deconstructionists have yet to show that the chief concerns of humankind can be dealt with by them. Good and evil, or joy and suffering, are not on their agenda. Neither is non-Western literature, or even much in the way of pre-Romantic literature. History, except the history of studies at Yale, seems not to exist. And what kind of principle is it that privileges the critic from the instability, the non-meaning attributed to writers who (many of us think) are greater than these brilliant individuals? Literary study has many margins, as well as centres, and I worry that Hartman and his gifted colleagues may have mistaken the former for the latter. Much can be forgiven for intellectual power, but the questions are how much is to be forgiven in context, and whether power is to be identified with intellect alone.
Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983
SIR: Professor Earl Miner (Letters, 10 January) defends Jonathan Culler against what he sees as a needlessly ad hominem attack in my book Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. I have to protest that Culler is not cast as ‘villain’ of the piece, or as a ‘traitor within the gates’ of recent literary theory. My book treats his Structuralist Poetics as an exemplary case of those conceptual problems and paradoxes which deconstruction would claim to have uncovered in the structuralist project at large. Indeed, I could think of no better text by which to bring out the difference between structuralism, in its quest for some ultimate validating method, and deconstruction in its principled mistrust of all such totalising claims. This will not, I hope, seem a backhanded compliment, especially since Culler has himself moved on toward the deconstructionist standpoint obliquely essayed in The Pursuit of Signs (1981) and powerfully argued in his On Deconstruction (1983). To have ignored this development would indeed stand as a culpable omission had my book merely picked on Culler as a personalised embodiment of ‘structuralist’ thinking. In fact – as I try to make clear – deconstruction has come about very largely through the rigorous questioning of structuralist ideas, a process in which Culler’s text has played its own significant role.
Professor Miner goes on to deplore the kind of intellectual one-upmanship (including my own ‘puritanical high tone’) which he finds so offensive in the acolytes of Yale deconstruction. ‘Much may be forgiven for intellectual power,’ he writes, ‘but the questions are how much is to be forgiven in context, and whether power is to be identified with intellect alone?’ I can only reply – with good deconstructionist warrant – that critical exchange can and must be carried on without conjuring up suspicions of personal animus. Oddly enough, it is precisely his appeal to a larger, humanising context – an antidote to the rigours of Yale deconstruction – that leads Professor Miner to construct this scenario of naked ‘intellectual’ aggression. Equally odd is the fact that he selects Harold Bloom – most fiercely embattled of the critics at Yale – not only as a ‘structuralist’ (which term scarcely fits), but as a countervailing voice against his colleagues’ will-to-power over texts. Yet it is Bloom who openly proclaims the necessity of ‘strong’ (creative) misreadings and the struggle for mastery that critics – as well as poets – must face if they are to throw off their burden of ‘belatedness’ vis-à-vis their great precursors.
‘What kind of principle is it,’ Miner demands, ‘that privileges the critic from the instability, the non-meaning attributed to writers who (many of us think) are greater than these brilliant individuals?’ Not, certainly, the position of a purist deconstructor like Paul de Man, who argues precisely that criticism is deluded if it seeks a secure theoretical vantage-point outside and above the exemplary aberrations – the interplay of ‘blindness’ and ‘insight’ – that characterise literary language. What Bloom indicts as the ‘serene linguistic nihilism’ of his deconstructing colleagues is rather (in his view) a lack than a surplus of will-to-power over texts. Professor Miner is quite right in suggesting that my own account of deconstructionist criticism tends to favour conceptual rhetoricians like de Man, those whose relation to their texts, if not ‘serene’ or ‘nihilistic’, is at least capable of a certain sobriety and epistemological tact. And this has a bearing on my treatment of Culler’s Structuralist Poetics. Culler is far enough from claiming a role in the personalised agon of revisionary ratios which Bloom embraces as the critic’s elective destiny. To deconstruct Culler’s text is to take it as worth deconstructing, and not to engage in any kind of private or ritual-professional rivalry.
University of Wales, Cardiff