Textual Harassment

Claude Rawson

  • The World, the Text and the Critic by Edward Said
    Faber, 327 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 571 13264 2
  • The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy by Christopher Norris
    Methuen, 201 pp, £4.95, December 1983, ISBN 0 416 36140 4
  • The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. VIII: The Present edited by Boris Ford
    Penguin, 619 pp, £3.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 14 022271 5

In a recent review in this paper, Edward Said used the word ‘narrative’ about thirty times. This might have seemed a lot even in the present state of litcritspeak, and even in an essay on, say, narrative. On this occasion, however, he was writing not about literary texts but about the Palestinian troubles: an affecting topic, on which he writes with eloquence and with a generosity of vision which deserves the respect even of those whose loyalties are opposed to his. My concern here is not with this theme, but with the role of ‘narrative’ within it. The word is used most often, perhaps, in the phrase ‘Palestinian narrative’, variously meaning or implying ‘history’, ‘story’, ‘predicament’, ‘side of the question’, ‘perspective’, ‘version of events’ and occasionally nothing at all. There is an accompanying vocabulary of story, tale, romance, but ‘narrative’ is the main word, and it acquires an increasingly bizarre orchestration as the discussion progresses. Arab diplomats are reported, in some improbable distillations of style indirect libre, as using phrases like ‘collective Arab narrative’ in their conversations with Said at the UN, and David Gilmour, one of the authors under review, is equally improbably described as being frustrated by the ‘non-narrative character of Lebanon’s problems’. Reports of events since the fall of Beirut are described as ‘pre-narrative or, in a sense, anti-narrative’. As to terrorism, its ‘indiscriminateness ... its tautological and circular character, is anti-narrative’.

If you think that, you might as well think that the setting of a car-bomb is ‘surely [sic], at this “post-political” stage, an art-form’, and Said does. The aestheticising of conflagration, carnage, bombs, gun-fire, has a quaint history which goes back to Nero. It has exercised a certain type of Romantic sensibility from Sade to Mailer, and some bards of fascism or para-fascism from Marinetti to Céline. Said on car-bombs is not lyrical in their fashion, but I suppose it’s more in keeping with the times to ‘theorise’ than to enthuse. In the age of what one writer has called ‘post-contemporary fiction’, we are less likely to read paeans to ‘fiery orchids of machine-guns’ than declarations of the aesthetic character of car-bombs in the ‘ “post-political” stage’ of their narrative. The ‘surely’, the quotes around the ‘post’-word, and a certain heavy-hearted jauntiness in the whole sarcastic formulation, suggest some attempt to protect his rear by an act of pre-emptive auto-deconstruction. The nervousness is justified: a great human desolation risks being trivialised by the preening and incongruous array of terms of art. No wonder that after announcing that ‘the Palestinian narrative’ has been ‘barely in evidence’ since 1982, he felt the need to add: ‘This is not an aesthetic judgment.’

These remarks are not intended to deride Said’s heartfelt account of the Palestinian cause, and are more concerned, as I implied, with the present state of literary studies than with Said’s political sentiments. Said is an academic practitioner of literary criticism as well as a passionate and informed commentator on public events. The combination is honourable, potentially vitalising in both directions, and regrettably rare. The point about the language of his article is not just that it is a carry-over into the world of action and suffering of a terminology belonging to the literary academy, or that the specific examples seem inappropriate (though they do). It is also a reflection on the academy itself, even as it pursues its own specialist business: on the state of literary discourse (and indeed of intellectual discourse on a broader front, including many forms of political and social analysis) in a world where the discussion of books and ideas has largely been taken over by university teachers. The predicament is diffused over a wide field, and Said voices disquiet over some of its manifestations. It underlies the way in which ‘empirical’ has become a dirty word even within disciplines concerned with the recording of facts, which is something he probably dislikes. It includes the idea that ‘theory’ is a revolutionary activity as well as the idea that events are ‘narratives’ or ‘texts’. Said’s new book expressly insists on the opposite proposition that ‘texts ... are events,’ but in practice constantly reverses the equation; and when you call indiscriminate terrorism ‘anti-narrative’, where does that leave selective terrorism? Or anti-terrorist acts?

A feature of the same collective state of mind is the process by which the word ‘gender’ has come to replace ‘sex’. There’s an understandable awkwardness, semantic and otherwise, about the word ‘sex’ in certain contexts. My point isn’t that the word does not raise problems, but that the term chosen to replace it (and in a particularly active context of social and political restructuring) should be one which is conventionally used to indicate grammatical rather than human distinctions. It’s now usual to read phrases like ‘gender relations’, ‘gender roles’, ‘class, gender, family and nationality’, ‘gender-oppression’, ‘gender harassment’ and even ‘textual harassment’, the latter in a (woman)-donnish access of half-jokeyness in a learned journal, but undoubtedly destined to become no joke at all and to acquire wider currency. One incidental effect of ‘gender’ is that it sanitises ‘sex’ in a way which promotes the conditions for an odd convergence with the Mary Whitehouse type of morality, a convergence which is beginning to assume a disquieting character as some radical feminist groups press for the banning of books they consider obscene.

Large-scale revisions of linguistic usage under accelerated pressures for political and ideological change are of course likely to produce curious or unintended side-effects. ‘Persons’ become ‘things’: the attempt to remove a terminological distinction between men and women may turn both into an object, as when ‘chairman’ and ‘chairwoman’ are replaced by ‘chair’. Such phenomena are part of the rough-and-tumble of linguistic change and a fair price to pay for legitimate social objectives. My concern is not with the fact in itself but with the particular form which it takes. Both ‘persons’ and ‘things’ have a tendency to become ‘words’. This isn’t just a matter of an ‘unreal’ or abstract terminology, but of a redefinition which regularly resorts to the vocabulary of textuality for its metaphors and terms of reference. When events become ‘narratives’ or when ‘sex’ becomes ‘gender’, the words are writerly words, words about words. It’s a quaint coincidence that the abbreviation finally chosen to remove the distinction between Mrs and Miss should be a minor typographical variant of the shorthand for ‘manuscript’. Casey Miller and Kate Swift, in Words and Women (1976), say Ms has been around since the 1940s, but remained largely unused and didn’t get into a dictionary until 1972. One factor in its resurgence was ‘the growth of direct mail selling’, for which the abbreviation was felt to be handy, and the other was the objection to discriminatory labelling. I should be surprised if the symbiosis of the commercial and ‘political’ was not perfected and legitimised for universal distribution from within university literature departments. Nothing wrong with that, but the settling into official currency of this peculiarly textual abbreviation probably owes something to the collective academic unconscious, and is thus symptomatic of the larger situation I am describing.

It’s not surprising that old ideas of the sexuality of texts, of jouissance in the experiencing of them, should have enjoyed elaborate articulation in recent years. Both Said and Christopher Norris mention aspects of this, but they’ve obviously missed an article in a theory journal which called for a comprehensive ‘taxonomy of literary experiences’, expressly designed as a sort of manual of textual intercourse, and intended ‘(like erotic manuals) to suggest the possibilities of experience that are available to us’. The author wasn’t trying to be funny, but the same journal contains a witty essay by Mary Jacobus, with the Fish-derived cute-colloquial title ‘Is There a Woman in This Text?’, which suggests that some recent French thinking is beginning to turn the old equation round, asserting ‘not the sexuality of the text but the textuality of sex’. ‘Perhaps,’ her own discussion concludes, ‘the question that feminist critics should be asking themselves is not “Is there a woman in this text?” but rather: “Is there a text in this woman?’” It’s in this cultural context that the title of Said’s book, The World, the Text and the Critic, makes its appearance. The triad, intended for reviewers to exercise their wits upon, recalls ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. Part of the point is that the book is a plea for a ‘secular criticism’. It’s not clear how much more specific he wanted his allegory to be, and the correspondence between the two third terms should be allowed its impish fun. But the second term is the one to watch, for it is there, giving a whole new meaning to logocentrism, that the Flesh has been made Word.

The irony is that Said thinks he’s not like that at all. He deplores the ‘labyrinth of “textuality” ’ that literary theory has got itself into and appears to share Jonathan Swift’s contempt for what Said calls ‘the extraordinary Laputan idea that to a certain extent everything can be regarded as a text.’ Some Professor of Applied Linguistics in Gulliver’s Travels had ‘a Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever ... An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on.’ This scheme had ‘only this Inconvenience attending it’, that if you had a lot to say you had to carry a lot of things about with you, so the poor Professors were often to be seen bending under the weight of the objects on their backs, unless they could afford servants to do the carrying for them. Said’s colleagues would have had foundation grants to finance this, but this is fortunately unnecessary, since their problem is the opposite one, too many words, not things. (I bet they get the grants anyway.) Swift’s joke takes up an ancient and continuing theme, but mocks especially the Royal Society’s programme for a plain naked prose, as ‘when men deliver’d so many things, almost in an equal number of words’ (again not exactly our problem, though I think I see Said’s connection).

There is another Swiftian passage where symbols acquire a discomfiting physicality and which interests Said: the scene in the Drapier’s Letters where the halfpence are so worthless that people have to carry huge cartloads of them whenever they go shopping. In this case, the sign of monetary value is itself a physical object, multiplied to massive and unwieldy proportions. There is so much signifier that it deadens into a huge inert signified in its own right. In the case of the Laputan Professors, confusion resides in the fact that the signifier is replaced by its physical signifieds, with the absurd implication that these are better, as the phrase was, at meaning than at being. On all of this, Said comments: ‘We are ... forced to take seriously Swift’s discovery that words and objects in the world are not simply interchangeable, since words extend away from objects into an entirely verbal world of their own. If words and objects ever coincide, it is because at certain propitious times both converge into what the prevailing polity can readily identify as an event, which does not necessarily involve exchange or communication. Yet the contrast between an event and writing as a substitute for an event is an important working opposition in Swift.’

Indeed it is. Swift was mocking a phenomenon Said can’t quite grasp, I suspect: the use of events as crude bullying substitutes for signs, ‘things’ instead of ‘words’, and not the other way round. His concern is with the devaluing of the sign, monetary or verbal. A valueless coin turns into a large oppressive object, while the Laputan scientists are busy dislodging language and humane letters by a butch empiricism of the ‘thing’, oddly ‘abstract’ and abstracted. They are perhaps our first example of pedantry openly exercised in the cause of illiteracy: if we miss the connection, it’s because in these gentle crazed projectors the literary scientism hasn’t yet gone thuggish. In their own dotty way they did choose the living world for text, and it’s some later proponents of a ‘materialist’ criticism who went on to explore alternative recipes: first take the living text for world, then turn it round again without the living. Not surprisingly, Swift’s sense of a ‘working opposition’ between event and word makes Said feel he isn’t being understood these days. ‘If this outline has any value ... it is to have situated Swift’s work at the axes of the basic oppositions and discontinuities that make the work’s total accessibility to the 20th century so limited.’ It’s not clear how a total accessibility can be so limited, but Said finds ‘an onimous [sic?] gap between Swift’s potential as an author of extraordinary power for modern critics’ and the scarcity of writings about him ‘outside the professional guild of 18th-century scholarship’. Others might find ‘ominous’, if that was the intended word, the use of the ‘crisis’-raising term ‘ominous’ (‘In modern culture crisis is congenital, since criticism is an art as well as a topic of crisis’), and ‘ominous’, too, Said’s idea of an author’s ‘potential ... for modern critics’. And as to Swift’s fortunes outside the guild of specialists, one might, looking backwards from the present over the fifty years since Yeats’s Introduction to The Words upon the Window-Pane, come up with the names of Hugh Kenner, Denis Donoghue, Geoffrey Hill, Robert M. Adams, Michael Foot, Norman Brown, J. Middleton Murry, George Orwell, André Breton, F.R. Leavis. Said’s overlooking of most (not all) of these might strike you as a shade provincial, but they aren’t much to his point, since what he really means is ‘the major contemporary literary theorists’. And if he’s right, the limitation might also seem provincial, in a fraternity strong in its belief in the provincialism of others.

The oddity is that my list includes men of letters with an active involvement in public affairs and political thought (Yeats, Foot), like Swift himself. Odd because Said’s book (as you mightn’t have guessed from this review so far, but it isn’t always easy to remember it as you read the book either) is dedicated to the idea that texts must be studied as they function in the world, both the historical world of their first production, and that of the evolving and always political present: ‘Each essay in this book affirms the connection between texts and the existential actualities of human life, politics, societies, and events.’ Swift is a favourite author of his, and gets two whole chapters in the book, more than any other writer. It’s easy to see his attraction for a critic who believes that criticism must be ‘opposed to every form of tyranny ... its social goals are non-coercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.’ ‘Fair LIBERTY was all his Cry’ was what Swift said about himself in the ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, and Said is right to admire in him what he honourably practises himself, the combination of a devotion to letters and a use of his writing skills in the fight against oppression.

Swift’s political allegiances were nevertheless to what might be called the authoritarian Right, a fact Said recognises. ‘Swift’s Tory Anarchy’, the title of one of his essays, is his way of describing the paradox. He takes the phrase from a dictum of R.P. Blackmur’s, that ‘true anarchy of spirit’ should have and usually has had ‘a tory flavour’, though it was Orwell who actually called Swift a ‘Tory anarchist’ in so many words. The paradoxical phrase might suggest Swift’s mixture of a traditionalist or authoritarian outlook and a daring and iconoclastic fertility of imagination, a style mimicking ‘anarchic’ disorder with such inwardness that the derision mingles with a sense of the appeal of energies derided. It also suggests a more technical ‘anarchism’, perceived in their separate ways by both Godwin and Orwell. The highly disciplined and stratified society of the Houyhnhnms operates by spontaneous collaborative impulse, without the need for laws. Godwin had seen in this a useful model for an anarchist state in which order was maintained by natural instinct rather than coercive regulation, while Orwell saw it as a sinister embodiment of ‘the totalitarian tendency’ implicit in the anarchist ideal: when men ‘are supposedly governed by “love” or “reason”, [the individual] is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else’. Swift would have rejected both versions, though he would have shared Orwell’s view of the paradoxical closeness of anarchy and tyranny. His view would have been that the Houyhnhnms are an as if society, derived in part from Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia. Swift’s point is that it is well-regulated because the creatures in it are indeed rational and virtuous, but non-human: it is taken for granted that any human version would need to be very strictly policed, if it could be imagined at all. Swift would nevertheless have understood that Godwin and Orwell, while misreading his book, were speaking a political language he could react to, if only perhaps with annoyance or contempt. But he would I think be totally bemused as to what might be going on in Said’s mind on the subject of ‘Swift’s Tory anarchy’, which is that Swift’s work ‘can be approached and characterised as the highly dramatic encounter between the anarchy of resistance to the written page and the abiding tory order of the page’.

‘Can be approached’. The idiom is again that of critics who judge writers by their ‘potential ... for modern critics’: Swift’s writing, with ‘its agitational and unacademic designs ... supplies modern criticism with what it has sorely needed’ etc. But the ‘agitational’ operations of this truly combative political writer boil down to yet another textualised affair in a world where ‘tory order’ is a state of page, where all the fights are paper fights and all the couplings are grammatical. It would be hard to invent a more pottily academic way of praising a writer for his ‘unacademic designs’.

Said writes much better on Conrad, another conservative ironist, but one whose conservatism and irony took the form of a sceptical disengagement rather than ‘agitational’ aggression. He is very perceptive on Conradian layerings of indirection, which suggest distancing and an inclusiveness of moral sympathies, very different from Swift’s combative concentration. He is particularly subtle on texts which work more through suggestion than statement and show a concern with phenomena of disappearance, disembodiment and various forms of enigmatic shadowiness. The novelist who wants to ‘make you see’ is finely shown to proceed through situations of ‘telling’ rather than showing, and the telling itself has an inward, rather than an outward, orientation: the interior of Africa, the black heart of Kurtz. His comments on those novels (The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes) where the political subject-matter is most concretely particularised are especially alert. Perhaps this suggests that Said is at his best with authors who offer equal scope to his interest both in the concretely political and in the procedures of the abstracting intellect.

There is a good discussion of the moving passage by Erich Auerbach about how he wrote Mimesis in wartime exile in Istanbul, cut off from learned libraries, a deprivation which actually made possible the writing of this bold vast book. But Said seems to be pushing things a bit when he says Auerbach owed the book ‘to the very fact of Oriental, non-Occidental exile’. Two interesting essays at the end on the Orientalist writings of Raymond Schwab, Ernest Renan and Louis Massignon contain fascinating material, but Said’s French needs a lot of pardoning and I don’t know the subject enough to know whether this radically affects his discussion. Among the more strictly theoretical pieces the best is a long chapter on Derrida and Foucault, which includes a well-executed discussion of the Hamlet mis-performance in Great Expectations and the light this throws on the deconstructive process.

The best expository treatment of the latter remains, in my view, Christopher Norris’s De-construction: Theory and Practice (1982). His new book, The Deconstructive Turn, shows a similar energy of mind and seriousness of purpose. His concern now is with philosophical rather than literary texts, carrying deconstruction back to its original home but by way of procedures actually developed in the secondary terrain of literary criticism.

There are essays on Wittgenstein, Austin, Kierkegaard, Benjamin and others and an interesting exploration of The Road to Xanadu. The student of literature rather than of philosophy will probably find the last essay, and the one on Kierkegaard, which is concerned with narrative matters, the most rewarding. Norris’s normally lucid and energetic style occasionally gets overheated (what are ‘virtual sides of a single coin?’), and he really shouldn’t keep referring to ‘Epicetus’. But it’s a strong and interesting book. A ‘methodological postscript’ explains that deconstruction ‘can ... be seen as continuing the structuralist offensive “against interpretation”, or at least against those habits of thought which characterise literary studies in their currently predominant [?] guise’. Apparently some people hold ‘that “American deconstruction” is unworthy of the name’ because it tends ‘to lapse into mere interpretative novelty’: it’s a relief to hear that somebody dislikes it.

Actually, Martin Dodsworth dislikes it too. He contributes a primly disapproving piece on formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism to the latest volume of Boris Ford’s ‘Pelican Guide’. It’s one of three essays broadly surveying the ‘theory’ scene, the other two being a statement about ‘British Philosophy since 1945’ by Michael Tanner, attractive but not really providing the expository account a layman needs, and a limp and uninformative piece by Ronald Hepburn on ‘Literature and the Recent Study of Language’ (try the sentence beginning ‘Many readers, however ...’ on page 504). Dodsworth’s discussion is the only genuine attempt at an expository treatment, but his dislike (some of which I share) for at least part of his subject shows how hard it is to be genuinely expository where there is an active antipathy.

Like Said, Dodsworth worries about the gap between critics and non-specialist readers, but I think his worry is the real one. ‘Talk of the “crisis” is part of a political rhetoric whose function is to bring about the change which it suggests is already taking place.’ But the deep anxiety is that ‘English literature is running out of readers.’ It ‘is ceasing to be read; it is increasingly only studied.’ The normal idiom of parts of Said’s book seems to me to be evidence of this, part symptom, part cause. The ‘political’ fact is that the whole idea of literary studies is under threat both from the radical Right, with its fundamentalist economics and its crude conception of the national need, and from the ghoulish ‘materialism’ of the assorted band of Marxising theorisers. In both cases, the scenario is, as Terry Eagleton put it, ‘that departments of literature as we presently know them ... would cease to exist,’ and Eagleton acknowledges that the present British government ‘seems on the point of achieving this end more quickly and effectively than I could myself’. He doesn’t altogether like the idea: ‘the first political priority ... is to defend them unconditionally against government assaults.’ That, for a ‘material’ fact, is one way, in an imperfect world, of holding on to the pay cheques. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the two sides discovered some day that they are one another’s best friends.