From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris

  • Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 244 pp, £15.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 631 13258 9
  • Essays on Fiction 1971-82 by Frank Kermode
    Routledge, 227 pp, £9.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9442 6
  • Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction by Vincent Leitch
    Hutchinson, 290 pp, £15.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 09 150690 5
  • Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies by Peter Wollen
    Verso, 228 pp, £15.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 86091 055 5
  • Knowing the Poor: A Case-Study in Textual Reality Construction by Bryan Green
    Routledge, 221 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9282 2

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had better be abandoned in the interests of a practical, transformative involvement in cultural politics. Like Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, Eagleton asks his reader to think, and think hard, about the theories on offer; then, having achieved a perspective that transcends them, to kick away the ladder and enjoy the prospect thus afforded. Those familiar with Eagleton’s earlier writings will hear the crash of ladders distinctly near home as the book comes to deal with structuralist and post-structuralist theory. Gone is the Althusserian quest for a ‘science’ of the text and its productive mechanisms, the project which Eagleton resourcefully argued in Criticism and Ideology (1976). As that scientistic dream receded, so the influence of Foucault replaced that of Althusser, and the truth-claims of knowledge were increasingly seen as effects of a dominant ideological discourse. No matter how radical their proclaimed intent, critical theories were all too readily processed and adapted to the ends of maintaining the institutional status quo. If ‘truth’, as Foucault argues, is a reflex function of the power to impose such a dominant discourse, then it is the concept of truth which itself needs dismantling, and along with it the old opposition between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’.

It is therefore not a question, Eagleton now argues, of devising some new and improved critical theory to get over the problems encountered to date. That those problems remain, and need thinking through if they are to loosen their cramping hold, is a point which he, like Wittgenstein, wouldn’t for a moment deny. Indeed his book is three-quarters devoted to precisely this effort of ground-clearing commentary and critique. But in the upshot it appears that both problems and solutions – or at least those solutions hitherto proposed in the name of ‘critical theory’ – display the same blindness in regard to their own institutional motives and interests. The discipline of ‘English’ has proved itself remarkably capable of coming to terms with apparent threats to its traditional values and self-image. From Leavis to American deconstruction, the story that Eagleton has to tell is one of successive accommodating moves between the literary-academic ‘institution’ and those critics, schools or ideas which begin by challenging its cultural hegemony, and end up by merely extending its powers.

The story is more convincing in some parts than in others. Eagleton has shrewd points to make about the founding of English as a university discipline, its ideological underpinning, and the complex of historical motives which went to shape its emergent discourse. Like others of late, he looks to such documentary sources as the Newbolt Report of 1921 for a first-hand illustrative sample and test-case of the uses of English in upholding a sense of threatened cultural tradition. The Report is an odd mixture of high-minded argument and transparent political motives. Matthew Arnold’s rebuke to the complacent philistines of his day has by now – in the wake of 1917 – taken on a more urgent toning. Deny the working classes their share of the nation’s spiritual heritage, and they are likely to forget all about the common Culture and press their demands for material equality. What the Newbolt committee expressed with such engaging frankness, literary critics like Eliot and Leavis were soon erecting into a wholesale mystique of cultural tradition and values. Notions of a long-lost ‘organic’ community served to legitimate a myth of historical decline, and, along with it, an irrationalist cult of the literary work as somehow restoring the vital complexities of lived experience. If history could only bear witness to that calamitous ‘dissociation of sensibility’ which set in – as Eliot thought with the English Civil War, then so much the worse for history. What remained was Tradition, that imaginary museum where poems could relate one to another in an ideal order of meanings and values which transcended mere historical fact.

Thus it was that English Literature, as a newly-emergent discipline, took over and developed the 19th-century ‘culture and society’ debate. But where that earlier tradition had grown up in protest and preserved at least something of its emancipatory character, ‘English’ very quickly succumbed, Eagleton argues, to the pressures of conservatism and institutional conformity. It became, that is, a displaced or surrogate ideology, called upon (especially at times of unrest) to support and reinforce the myth of a unified national culture. Whatever its present troubled condition, that culture could always be rediscovered in the past, projected into a golden age of refined sensibilities and rich communal experience. Criticism was charged (whether consciously or not) with the task of perpetuating this myth and devising a discourse which would work to preserve it from the crass intrusions of everyday political reality. Hence the supra-historical ‘tradition’ of Eliot’s creating, and the Leavisite myth of a lost ‘organic’ culture fleetingly recaptured in the acts of a trained or ‘mature’ critical intelligence. University English grew up as a discipline for reproducing this powerful ideology and discovering new and more persuasive means of imposing its cultural hegemony.

Such is Eagleton’s diagnostic view of the rise and present institutional character of English Studies. A similar case was argued by Peter Widdowson and his contributors in the ‘New Accents’ volume Re-Reading English. It is hardly surprising that their arguments were met with great hostility by those (not only ‘Leavisites’) who continue to believe in the vital role of English as a force for creative and cultural good. What is left of the subject, after all, if one questions its ideological grounding to the point where ‘literature’ becomes merely a pretext for imposing a mystified discourse of outworn cultural politics? The traditionalist might argue that it is sheer bad faith, on Eagleton’s part, to set up still as some kind of ‘literary’ critic, while proceeding to demolish both literature and criticism as products of institutionalised bad faith. And again, why write such a lengthy account of recent ‘literary theory’ when the upshot is to argue that most of these developments are merely more sophisticated versions of the same technique for occluding history and politics? Eagleton’s reply is ready to hand. Only by understanding the institution, grasping its structured genealogy, can criticism free itself from fetters of its own creating. The way is then open for strategic interventions – feminist criticism being his chief example – which would break once and for all with the hegemonic discourse of ‘English’.

One may doubt whether theorising can have an end in the way that Eagleton hopefully envisages. As philosophy continues to be vexed by old problems – despite all Wittgenstein’s efforts to let the fly out of the bottle – so criticism seems unable to effect that clean radical break with its own prehistory. The ladder can only be kicked away at risk of falling back into the common-sense dogmatic slumber which Eagleton equates with the Eng Lit tradition at large. That his book takes pains to work through such a range of critical theories before reaching its pyrrhic conclusion – formalist, New Critical, structuralist, post-structuralist and stations beyond – can scarcely be written off as whimsical self-indulgence. These theories are now components of the very ‘institution’ that continues to resist their perceived threat to its integral self-image and tradition. Eagleton knows all this very well but finally represses the knowledge in his idea of a leap into the great beyond of a post-theoretical literary politics. Neither theory nor its object and antagonist – call it culture, tradition or ‘institution’ – can be thus summarily wished away in the interests of an uncluttered critical praxis.

Frank Kermode’s Essays on Fiction are likewise preoccupied with the relationship between criticism and its broader institutional context. That he construes the relationship in very different terms is a measure of its deep ambivalence as regards the politics of interpretation. Eagleton looks for a means to break with the tacit complicity which yields up text and criticism to a bland continuity of cultural tradition. He values ‘literary theory’ only in so far as it affords a glimpse of that coming rupture. Kermode neither anticipates nor desires any such radical change in the relations of interpretative power. He agrees with Eagleton to the point of acknowledging the deep vested interests of critical discourse, the way in which literary ‘competence’ is established by a whole institutional network of coded authority and values. The licence to interpret texts – or to obtain a hearing for one’s interpretation – rests upon the fact of belonging to that privileged community. And a similar principle operates in the selection of texts which come to be deemed worthy of serious interpretative study. As Kermode puts it: ‘The invitation to interpret, once issued, is never revoked, though it is never unconditional.’ Broadly speaking, two forces control its history. Texts certified as canonical by a certified institution are regularly credited with literal inspiration and inexhaustible meaning; but the same institution that established the canon also controls its interpretation and issues more or less powerful hermeneutical fiats and restrictions.’ It is precisely this vested community of interests, this nexus of knowledge and power, that Eagleton identifies with the cramping ideology of traditional English Studies. For Kermode, on the contrary, it is a fact of cultural life, a complex phenomenon to be brooded on and – as far as possible – understood, but not to be transcended by some radical gesture of new-found political will.

Kermode’s essays reflect in various ways on the production of meaning by interpreters working either squarely within or on the ambiguous margins of this privileged hermeneutic space. He sees a close analogy between Scriptural exegesis and the secularised canon of literary works and commentaries. In each case there exists, at any given time, a system of tacit institutional checks, such that ‘outsiders’ – those without the requisite authority – are effectively consigned to heretic status. Kermode makes the point rather neatly by digging out examples of ‘eccentric’ Shakespearian criticism, published (often privately) by scholars outside the existing academic community and hence disregarded, whatever their possible merits. Yet history can bring about radical changes in the make-up of canon and community alike. If interpretation is conventionally bounded by the limits of permissible sense, it is nevertheless compelled, by its very nature, to seek out novel or hitherto unlooked-for depths of significance. And this process generates the history of hermeneutic change, the constant dialectical play between tradition and the ideas which spring up to challenge it. Authority passes from the margins to the centre, from the alien discourse of yesterday’s heretics to the inside, canonical readings of today’s privileged interpreters.

Kermode makes the point that this history goes back beyond the wrangling commentaries to the very genesis of narrative texts, whether religious or secular. Storytelling always implies some reflection on its own authority and antecedent sources, reworking material to suit its revisionary ends. There is no getting back to a ‘single, correct interpretation’, a hard-core meaning immune to all the vagaries of cultural transmission. Narratives are pre-emptively involved, as it were, in the subsequent history of variant readings prompted by their oblique or secretive nature. Kermode looks to the Gospels for a clear example of this revisionary process at work. As in his earlier book The Genesis of Secrecy, he shows how the Evangelists successively modified their narrative material, amplifying certain details and omitting or occluding others. Their elaborated versions often point back to the Gospel of Mark as a kind of cryptic Urtext, all the more resonant for its hermeneutic gaps and withholding of relevant information. Mark provides, in a sense, the very paradigm of fictional structure as Kermode conceives it. The enigmatic quality of his narrative, its hoarding of ‘secrets’ yet to be discovered by later initiates, makes of his Gospel a prototype instance of what it means to interpret texts. Yet even such a bare-bones treatment of ‘the facts’ lies open to reading in the light of antecedent tradition. Any thought of coming to rest in the authentic, historical truth is undermined by those elaborate typological correspondences between Old and New Testaments which operate already in Mark’s version of events. Narrative invention always contrives to block access to the single, imperative truth which purportedly inspires it.

Kermode underlines his point by taking up the now familiar formalist distinction between fabula and suzhet, ‘story’ and ‘plot’. Our naturalised habits of reading lead us to assume that there exists some basic, orderly sequence of events which is then reworked, rendered more complex and intriguing, by devices of narrative art. In fact, Kermode argues, it is impossible to draw such a firm methodological distinction. The further back one presses in the quest for originary structures of narrative, the more evident it becomes that all fictive constructs, even the most ‘primitive’, are already acts of interpretation. As with the Gospels, so with those texts of secular tradition which solicit understanding not only of their manifest but of their latent or enigmatic sense. This ‘secret’ or hermeneutic dimension of texts is the topic of Kermode’s most penetrating comments in many of these essays. It produces some exceptionally fine readings of Conrad, Ford and other novelists who found themselves torn between tradition and modernity, the straightforward pleasures of a tale well told and the secretive delights of obscurity and latent disruption.

The point is best made in a remarkable piece on ‘The English Novel, circa 1907’. This brings together an unlikely assemblage of novelists, from Elinor Glyn and Florence Barclay to Chesterton, Arnold Bennett and Conrad. That their fictions all touched, however confusedly, on the troubled condition of Edwardian society is Kermode’s major premise. He then goes on to argue that their resourcefulness – or lack of it – in coping with ‘reality’ was not so much a matter of straight forward documentary grasp as of a willingness to let go the old conventions and explore the new, wherever they might lead. Such a radical change was heralded by the Nietzschian ‘transvaluation of values’, obliging writers and readers to ask ‘how a text might have to stand in a new relation to reality to be truthful’. Its implications for narrative technique would have to wait ‘half a century or more’ to be fully and consciously absorbed. Meanwhile Edwardian fiction bore witness to the pains of its own transitional era. ‘All we can say on this evidence is that it is one thing to know about or sense the issues – in a way, Elinor Glyn did that for those who shared her language and her expectations – and another to research the means by which a text might be caused to illuminate them.’ This puts a rather different slant on the issue between Eagleton and Kermode. It implies a strong claim for the demystifying power of a criticism which yet owes allegiance to ‘conservative’ ideas of hermeneutic relevance and tact. Institutional restraints, as Kermode describes them, may be subject to internal crises of legitimating power with effects as radical as those which Eagleton would bring about by breaking altogether with existing codes and values.

Not that Kermode goes along with the kind of ‘textual’ radicalism currently espoused by proponents of left-deconstructionist theory. Though expressly much influenced by developments in the wake of French structuralism, and ready to defend them in the face of institutional prejudice, Kermode has his reasons for not subscribing to the extreme antinomian stance of the present deconstructors. What he resists is the desire – recently and forcefully expressed by Jonathan Culler – to have done with the endless old business of ‘interpreting’ texts. As one whose main professional pleasures have come from ‘finding out what texts seemed to be saying as it were voluntarily’, Kermode declares himself unwilling to join ‘a party whose sole business it was to elicit what they were saying in spite of themselves’. Eagleton is likewise opposed to deconstruction, though on very different grounds and with no such conciliating gestures. For Eagleton, it figures as a species of textual mystification, merely the latest, most sophisticated variant of a well-tried strategy for sealing off ‘literature’ from history and politics. Deconstruetion collapses the whole of Western intellectual tradition into a single, timeless ‘logo-centric’ delusion, a suprahistorical ideology existing all the way ‘from Plato to Nato’

Kermode and Eagleton have, this much in common: a mistrust of theories which assimilate history to an endless, ungrounded play of textual significations. It is equally clear where they differ, Kermode in his qualified respect for continuities of cultural tradition, Eagleton in wanting to wrest that tradition from its past and present hegemony. That they converge in resisting the claims of deconstruction is a measure of its power to unite the most diverse of opposing views. Vincent Leitch’s book is unmistakably the kind of thing that Kermode has in mind when he remarks (with definite misgivings) on the ‘ludic’ quality, the absence of traditional hermeneutic tact so manifest in the current-deconstructors. This comes of their refusal to countenance the rules conventionally laid down for distinguishing ‘literature’ from criticism’, primary texts from those others which merely expound or interpret them. The result is a new-found freedom of style in which commentary self-conscrously assumes the prerogatives normally accorded to ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ writing. Critics like Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller exploit this freedom to the full, deconstructing what they see as the privileged metaphysical status that literary texts have traditionally enjoyed.

Up to a point, such practices might seem to square with Kermode’s line of argument: that narratives are first and last products of interpretation, reworking antecedent structures or typologies and in turn giving rise to endless new readings. But there remains, to Kermode’s way of thinking, a powerful (albeit ‘institutional’) check on the liberties of interpretation. Implicit in the idea of hermeneutic ‘competence’ is the requirement that commentary remain aware of its own distinct tradition and ground-rules of relevance. Where criticism determines to break with those rules once and for all – to ‘cross over’, as Hartman puts it, from commentary to literature – it necessarily loses touch with that informing cultural tradition. Theory becomes an intensely self-occupied or ‘autotelic’ activity, such that critical texts both claim a special interest on their own (rhetorical) account and in turn provoke further readings, themselves having an equal claim to attention. Criticism at last enters the promised kingdom of autonomy and self-reflexive ‘literary’ status. Leitch’s commentary on Derrida and the Yale deconstructors understandably embraces this newly-won freedom with considerable relish. His book eschews an orderly, expository style and instead takes full advantage of the prospects opened up by the deconstructionist breaking of bounds. It proceeds from point to point in a glancing, allusive manner – more narrative than argument – and indulges in a good deal of Derridean etymological word play. Selfconsciously rejecting the protocols of genre, it occupies a nameless textual zone between literature, criticism and philosophy.

Is this really nothing more – as Eagleton would have it – than a self-promoting romp on the part of liberal-humanist academics whose one last, desperate retreat is the realm of unlimited textual ‘freeplay’? Kermode suggests one possible response in his tentative movement back and forth between hermeneutic theory and the claims of historical demystification. A similar question is broached, in different ways, by the two books under review. Peter Wollen’s Readings and Writings is a mixed bag of texts, including a number of short stories (or, more aptly, experimental fictions) along with essays on the semiotic theory of film. Wollen is at one with the deconstructionists in wanting to break down the rigid division of labour between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ discourse. It no longer seems possible, he writes, to maintain the.‘classical’ (structuralist) distinction between text and commentary, object-language and meta-language. Yet Wollen is unwilling to take the last, giddy deconstructionist plunge and merge all distinctions in the infinite freeplay of signs. ‘Rather than dissolve one into the other ... my strategy was to work in both areas, and to explore some of the relations between them. The volume contains fictions as well as analytic and critical texts; the fictions incorporate elements of theoretical discourse, and a few of the essays ... make use of fictional forms.’ In fact, some of these pieces – notably the detailed ‘morphological’ analysis of Hitchcock’s North by North-West – get along quite happily with ‘classical’ techniques of formalist and structuralist description.

Wollen is cheerfully eclectic on the whole, prepared to take over whatever seems of good strategic use in the various ‘discourses’ currently on offer. If his essays evoke a certain cultural moment, it is that of the late 1960s when structuralism was taken up – some would say, kidnapped – by soi-disant ‘materialist’ semioticians proclaiming an imminent revolution of the sign. This particular melange of ideas and influences (Brecht, Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Julia Kristeva) has enjoyed a lasting currency among the jargonauts of Screen, though its effects on literary theory were more short-lived. Wollen succeeds in reviving its heady radical flavour by picking up ideas where he needs them, and not attempting any large-scale unwieldy synthesis. He treats the successive waves of theory as a kind of sweeping panorama, interspersed with reflections on art and revolution (from Eisenstein to Godard and beyond). What they lack in consistency or rigour his essays make up for in intellectual verve. They are perhaps best read with the kind of alert but mobile attentiveness that Wollen describes in his own reading of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks: ‘the uninterrupted linear progression of type is repeatedly broken by encirclements, strokes of the pen, lists, tableaux and interpolations. When Lenin skipped pages of Hegel, they are simply omitted from the text, abolished by the suspension of his look. I have never been so conscious of the movements of hand and eye.’ There is something of the same quality in Wollen’s writing: a kind of intellectual tourism saved from superficiality by its clear-eyed impressionistic grasp.

Bryan Green’s Knowing the Poor pursues another, more systematic set of claims about the relation between text, theory and reality. Again it draws on a wide range of current ‘discourses’ – Althusserian Marxism, Foucault, post-structuralism, Frankfurt Critical Theory – but with a view to forging something like a consistent interpretative method. The texts upon which these strategies are trained are the Poor Law reports of 1834 and 1909, documents produced for administrative purposes by Royal Commissions of Inquiry. The object of Green’s study is to elicit the effects of an elaborately coded institutional knowledge, as brought to bear by the custodians of official discourse. His claim is that texts of this kind have a clearly-marked legislative function: to exclude – or render ‘illegible’ – those aspects of reality which don’t fit in with their governing assumptions. ‘Knowing the poor’, as these documents set out to know them, is a process of textual reconstitution whereby certain scandalous or anomalous instances are consigned to a problematic realm beyond reach of prescriptive rationality. Certain figures – like the vagrant or able-bodied pauper – are effectively marginalised by the dictates of administrative reason. Their outcast status is constantly quizzed and confirmed by a discourse which can neither ignore their existence nor properly come to terms with them. The resultant blind-spots and paradoxes are what Green sets out to uncover in his relentless close-reading of the Poor Law documents.

Basic to his approach is the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, taken over (not without argued reservations) from Althusser’s reading of Marx. Ideology presents itself, like science, as ‘a rational movement of thought from problems to solutions’. This is doubly misleading, Green argues: ‘first, because the actual direction of ideological discourse is from already secured solutions to problems, and, secondly, because the solutions are given to thought by extra-theoretical practices ... cultural recipes, conventional wisdom or institutional know-how’. Ideology, in other words, seeks put problems (or anomalous cases) only to confirm its own status as sole possessor of ‘rational’ solutions. And this, according to Green, is the unconscious strategy practised – with significant historical variations – in the documents of Poor Law surveillance and control. The texts in question resort to all kinds of strategic rhetorical ploy in their efforts to master those eccentric ‘cases’ which at once elude and confirm their power. What Green proposes, in the face of this reductive textual ‘knowledge’, is a practice of emancipatory reading which would bring out the tensions and distortions involved in all such official discourse.

Green has demystifying arguments in plenty for showing up the ruses of textual ideology. What is not so clear is the source or guarantee of that alternative, enlightened reading which breaks with the structures of ideological misrecognition. For Green, this would appear to be a matter of distinguishing genuinely lived (or ‘situated’) experience from its various forms of repression in the name of ‘textual-documentary rationality’. Hence the significance of the typecast ‘vagrant’ whose subversiveness lies in his never being found where administrative reason would have him. The vagrant represents, according to Green, the very locus and test-case of ‘situated’ reality. ‘He symbolises in pure form its open, fluid, indeterminate, ad hoc features, the negation of which constitutes objective knowledge of the social in writing.’ It would then be the hallmark of ‘official’ discourse to reproduce constant (unavailing) means to define or contain this errant individual.‘The play of legislative and investigative words around this figure provides us with a figurative confirmation of the negation principle and further evidence of epistemic differences between the reports in their manner of enacting it.’ To read such texts against the institutional grain would count as a decisive step towards liberating the real significance repressed by their rational-administrative character.

It would therefore seem that deconstruction – or something Very like it – has radical uses in the applied sociology of knowledge. To those opponents (Eagleton among them) who attack deconstruction for its political quietism and byzantine cult of textuality, Green’s book might perhaps be held up as a persuasive counter-example. Yet there remain certain problems, most obvious of which is the vagueness – or saving generality – of Green’s appeal to ‘situated’ (real-life) experience. The opponent could protest with some justice that this is simply another textual theme caught up in the self-disabling toils of Green’s sceptical epistemology. Thus the vagrant is described (in the passage quoted) as an emblematic ‘figure’ whose anomalous status provides us with a ‘figurative’ clue to the ruses of official discourse. The pun may be wholly unintentional, a product of the chronic stylistic congestion which afflicts large stretches of Green’s writing. Nevertheless it points to a crucial ambivalence about his whole undertaking. Representative ‘figures’ like the vagrant are treated as figments of textual contriving, interpretable only in so far as they occupy a certain ‘semantic space’ of representation. In the end, there can be nothing outside the play of rhetorical and narrative tropes which stake out the entire possible range of interpretative strategies. Given this thoroughly textual predicament, it is hard to see what room could be left for the ‘emancipated’ reading which Green merely hints at.

This is not to deny that deconstruction could have very marked, even radical effects upon those disciplines – like sociology – which exist on the critical margins of official knowledge and power. The problem with Knowing the Poor is that it clings to a residual empiricist belief in the primacy of lived experience while simultaneously arguing a textualist position so extreme as to undermine its own methodological claims. This ambivalence is most aptly figured in Derrida’s notorious statement that ‘there exists nothing outside the text.’ By critics like Eagleton this is taken to mean that reality and politics are a world well lost if deconstruction can only continue its games of self-indulgent textual mystification. But there is another, more radical construction to be placed on it, the one which Derrida is increasingly at pains to assert. If reality is indeed a ‘textual’ phenomenon, structured through and through by the codes of our conventionalised knowledge and perception, to deconstruct those codes is to challenge what counts as common-sense, empirical reality. Marx’s injunction – that philosophers should give up ‘interpreting’ the world, and set about changing it – would then lose much of its polemical force against the claims of deconstruction. These books all exemplify the transformative potential of theory brought to bear upon the texts of institutionalised knowledge and meaning.