Beyond Textualism

Christopher Norris

  • Text Production by Michael Riffaterre, translated by Terese Lyons
    Columbia, 341 pp, $32.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 231 05334 7
  • Writing and the Experience of Limits by Philippe Sollers, edited by David Hayman, translated by Philip Barnard
    Columbia, 242 pp, $31.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 231 05292 8
  • The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory by Paul Fry
    Yale, 239 pp, £18.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 300 02924 1
  • Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism by Paul de Man, edited by Wlad Godzich
    Methuen, 308 pp, £7.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 416 35860 8
  • Displacement: Derrida and After edited by Mark Krupnick
    Indiana, 198 pp, £9.75, December 1983, ISBN 0 253 31803 3
  • Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre by Susan Rubin Suleiman
    Columbia, 299 pp, £39.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 231 05492 0

One gets the impression from Riffaterre’s book that he enjoys playing single-minded hedgehog to the foxy representatives of Parisian post-structuralist fashion. Despite some fairly arcane terminology, he is basically an old-style formalist whose forays into theory are largely in the service of traditional interpretative ends. The literary text, for Riffaterre, is an object of patient and erudite close-reading, a ‘monument’ whose utterly distinctive character the critic sets out to describe and explain. At bottom, there is not much difference between this kind of ‘structuralist’ activity and the techniques of verbal analysis perfected by ‘old’ New Critics like Wimsatt and Brooks. Of course there is a shift of technical idiom, from the homespun rhetorics of Ambiguity, Irony and Paradox to a post-Saussurian language of signifier and signified, text and intertext. But Riffaterre’s commitment to the structuralist project stops well short of dissolving the poem into a play of circumambient codes and conventions beyond all reach of formal analysis. His readings are squarely opposed to the current mood of ‘textualist’ euphoria which merges poem and commentary in an endless exchange of productive signification. Criticism has its work cut out, he thinks, in explaining what it is about the nature of literary texts that both marks them out clearly as ‘literary’ and preserves their meaning against the ravages of time and cultural change. There is much here that would gladden the heart of a rearguard New Critic, but little – besides the somewhat de rigueur terminology – that a current post-structuralist would want to take on board.

By an odd quirk of circumstance, Columbia have also brought out a translation of Philippe Sollers’s Writing and the Experience of Limits, a collection of essays first published in the heady mid-Sixties. Nothing could demonstrate more plainly the gulf between Riffaterre’s conservative structuralism and the other, more ‘radical’ versions which were then being promoted, mainly in the journal Tel Quel. This was the era of what Barthes called ‘semioclastics’, of a textual theory committed to overthrowing the bourgeois regimes of language, ideology and narrative realism. In the name of ‘semantic materialism’ (or Lacan’s ‘insistence of the letter’), texts were deconstructed to reveal their complicity with an age-old metaphysic which subjugated writing to reading, active production to the passive consumption of sense. The bad old habits of interpretative criticism were seen as products of a mystified endeavour to conceal the sheer disruptiveness of literary texts. Any talk of ‘meaning’ was somehow in league with the process of capitalist accumulation which worked to expropriate labour (= textual ‘production’) in the form of conceptual surplus value. It all added up to a heady rhetoric, a fine iconoclastic mixing of metaphors which grafted Marx onto Freud, the latter (as interpreted by Lacan) providing a link between psychic economy and the workings of materialised textual desire. Bliss was it in that dawn to be reading Tel Quel and watching the signs that led up to les événements of May ’68.

Sollers was among the chief theorists of that ‘moment’, along with Barthes and Derrida. It is not hard to see the connection between these essays and a text like Barthes’s S/Z, where the scientistic dream of a structuralist ‘method’ is likewise forced up against its limits and discarded in favour of a liberated, hedonistic discourse of fragmentary meaning. In 1967 Derrida published the two volumes of essays (Grammatology and Writing and Difference) which proclaimed an end to the repressive era of ‘Western metaphysics’ and, along with it, the concept of ‘structure’ as a last-ditch metaphysical ploy. If Anglophone readers had a long time to wait before those cardinal texts appeared in translation, they will be even more belated in catching up with the ‘moment’ represented in Sollers’s essays. For it is a matter of record that Sollers and most of the Tel Quel editorial collective went on to abandon their Leninist-Maoist stance and to take up a rhetoric not far removed from that of the French New Right. Barthes maintained a certain canny ambivalence with regard to his radicalised colleagues and admirers. Derrida took issue more directly, arguing (in a well-known interview) that much of what passed for ‘materialist’ dialectic still bore the traces of a residual idealism which a deconstructive reading would bring to light. His diagnosis was strikingly borne out. It now seems clear that the Tel Quel brand of ‘textual’ leftism was a token politics easily adaptable to just about any kind of new-found radical creed.

Riffaterre might derive a certain satisfaction from these vagaries of ideological style. His own poetics is conceived as proof against any such temporal visions and revisions. Hedgehog-like, he sticks to the one Big Idea which holds out the promise of a veritable method for unlocking the mysteries of literary texts. He flatly asserts what Sollers just as flatly denies: that there exists a body of texts which deserve the title ‘literature’, and whose workings are amenable to a certain kind of formalist description. For Sollers, this is precisely the root metaphysical prejudice which has hitherto prevented texts from being read – productively, transgressively read – as modes of ‘material’ signifying practice. ‘Literature’ is the locus of all surplus value, the concept which drains off the energies of writing into a timeless realm of plenary meaning. Textuality, he writes, ‘is not to be identified with the historically-determined concept of “literature”. It implies the overturning and complete rearrangement of both the role and effects of this concept.’ His exemplary readings – of Dante, Sade, Bataille and others – all have to do with the textual traversal of limits which unlooses a writing beyond all grasp of traditional notions like ‘literature’, ‘authorship’ and ‘meaning’. Writing becomes the very practice of radical transgression, breaking down the various structured oppositions which separate mind from body, soul from sense, the ‘meaning’ of a text from the physical activity which went into its making. It is all a far cry from the quest for the ‘literary’ structures of signification which Riffaterre sees as the only valid form of critical enquiry.

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