What was new

Eric Griffiths

  • Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature by Colin MacCabe
    Manchester, 152 pp, £17.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1749 1
  • A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory by Raman Selden
    Harvester, 153 pp, £15.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0658 2

A pause for thought in The Tempest:

Miranda:                          O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Prospero:         ’Tis new to thee.

Prospero’s words may or may not be an aside. Immediately after his remark, the other parent and the other child on stage, Alonso and Ferdinand, have 14 lines of dialogue before Prospero speaks to them; Miranda has no more to say in the play. If he curtly tells her what’s what, we can, in those 14 lines, imagine a long look between father and daughter, a long look which silences Miranda, or subdues her for a time. Or his line may be an aside, a sigh of melancholic wisdom, and Miranda be left, unabashedly rapt and attentive through what follows. Prospero often figures nowadays as an embittered killjoy or loopy Chief of Police (with Ariel as multi-purpose, though reluctant, means of crowd control), so it is easy to hear ’Tis new to thee’ rapped out, putting down her enthusiasm. Both these options are equally soft options, both espouse Miranda’s wild surmise as against Prospero’s response; one wishes to protect her from hearing it, and the other to protest on her behalf against its asperity. Prospero, though, happens to be right, and can be imagined talking straight to a daughter he respects more than her would-be defenders, talking without desire to wound but with a sense of the need to warn. And the silence which follows his words would, then, be one they share, each comprehending the worth of the other’s attitude, her excitement intimate with his sense of disillusions possibly to come.

It is a characteristic Shakespearean moment in being so dramatically thoughtful. What strikes me as ‘deep’ here is not what is said, but what the speeches ask me to hear: a range of attitudes to the new. The thought is ‘dramatic’ in the sense that the best way to explicate it is to show the various possible ways of staging the exchange, and how each staging is instinct with differing estimations of the relative value of what Prospero and Miranda realise. The exchange takes place in three dimensions; you can, so to speak, walk round it, and so need not take sides on it. Something important hinges on such a momentary freedom from the imperative to partisanship, because the ‘new’, whether it ever exists, whether it is mostly to be welcomed or feared, and so on, is one of those cloudy powers which sway lives, commanding allegiance or mistrust or each by turns, because they operate neither through reasoned arrival at conviction, nor through impulsive appetites thought can hardly check, but through something that is both reasoning and impulsive – call it ‘temperament’. And temperament is something particularly hard to come to intellectual grips with because, most of the time, we are each of us in its grip.

Colin MacCabe, in 1969, was pretty much a Miranda, agog at Paris and 1968. Indeed, he was a champion of Mirandas in Cambridge, eager to make contact with ‘the brave new thoughts which seemed to circulate everywhere but in the teaching of the Faculty’. He ends up in this book as a slightly grouchy, middle-of-the-road Prospero, muttering: ‘Theory, a word which I must personally confess jars more every time I hear it and jars all the more because it is pronounced in a tone of political piety which seems inappropriate in every way’. Much of what had once seemed an ‘explosive force’ of politico-intellectual commitment struck him in the Paris of 1979 as having all the time been ‘simply ... a response to Parisian fashions’; he travelled to work with Althusser and Derrida in 1972, and in 1983 thinks it an open question ‘whether Althusser, Lacan and Derrida will come to seem merely historical curiosities’. Putting it this way does less than justice to MacCabe’s very flexible responses, for he can be Miranda and Prospero within the space of three sentences as well as over a decade, thus: ‘Barthes’s characterisation of the break between the classic and the modern was of vital importance, for modernism was the product of a radically new positioning of the literary text in relation to both audience and sexuality. However it was also, as Kermode had convincingly indicated in the final chapter of The Classic, hopelessly reductive. Barthes collapsed all pre-modern writing into an unacceptable homogeneity which took no account of the histories of language, education or genre.’ This is not the dialogue of the mind with itself but the Punch-and-Judy back-chat of mindlessness with itself: ‘vital importance’ and ‘hopelessly reductive’, a true identification of the ‘radically new’ and a complete failure to take account of histories, let alone history. There is a difference between dramatically revolving the various aspects of an issue and being in a flat spin; the former is a partial release from temperament, the latter its insistence, despite the motions of self-knowledge, the gestures of retraction.

Literary theory announces itself as the new. MacCabe achieves ‘a new way of thinking through the relationships between the social and the individual’; Selden who, though a Senior Lecturer at the University of Durham, is more wholeheartedly a Miranda than MacCabe, believes he lives in times of ‘new critical self-awareness’. This new critical self-awareness contrasts with the whole of past literary history, when ‘criticism spoke about literature without disturbing our picture of the world or of ourselves as readers.’ ’Tis new to thee, Selden, or, at least, new to theory, for criticism did not speak like this when Coleridge lectured, in Bristol on 16 June 1795, about readers who wept over novels but cared nothing for the victims of the slave trade: ‘true Benevolence is a rare Quality among us. Sensibility indeed we have to spare – what novel-reading Lady does not over flow with it to the great annoyance of her Friends and Family – Her own sorrows like the Princes of Hell in Milton’s Pandemonium sit enthroned bulky and vast – while the miseries of our fellow creatures dwindle into pygmy forms, and are crowded, an unnumbered multitude, into some dark corner of the Heart where the eye of sensibility gleams faintly on them at long Intervals – But a keen feeling of trifling misfortunes is selfish cowardice not virtue.’

Coleridge evidently intended to disturb a picture of the world with which certain readers entertained themselves in the act of reading, and to do so by literary means which politically and ethically challenge a reading habit. The luxuriance of reading is brought up sharp against necessities ignored, and sentiment treated to a glimpse of itself as demonically self-preoccupied. It is a fine passage, but its value is not a scarcity value in literary history: Johnson on Soame Jenyns, Arnold on the Times, Eliot on Baudelaire, Empson on Christianity – all of them, across a range of indignation, needling, defiance, impudent jokiness, and in pursuit of literary-critical considerations, question and re-draw pictures of the world, notions of reading. Criticism forms part of literature, and much acute criticism takes place in imaginative writing: but with Selden’s sketch of a long, dark, complacent age on which self-awareness newly dawned ‘at the end of the 1960s’ it is impossible to make any sense of the history of literature and the part criticism plays in that history. We understand why Miranda believed what she did (she knew no better), but why Selden believes what he says is harder to understand (he ought, professionally ought, to know better).

Selden’s wretched book has the appearance of a work produced with a canny eye to the market, and so, like the latest miracle diet, must lay implausible claims to novelty. It is for this reason, I suppose, that Voloshinov is credited with discovering the fact that words are ‘active, dynamic social signs, capable of taking on different meanings and connotations for different social classes in different social and historical situations’, though Wordsworth could have told us that, and Newman did so in his account of ‘connatural senses’ in the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. And it is for this reason that Gadamer and Jauss find out for us, in these pages, that ‘our present perspective always involves a relationship to the past, but at the same time the past can only be grasped through the limited perspective of the present,’ though when Eliot said that, with more stringency and force, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, it was already a familiar theme of Biblical hermeneutics and theological modernism. The commercial value of ‘the new’ also explains Selden’s failure to give any account of the debates out of which much contemporary literary theory arose: you would not know from these pages that early Barthes begins with an attempt, responding to Robbe-Grillet’s work, to understand the politics of writing in a manner distinct from that of Sartre, or that Gramsci had ever existed. Selden is a ‘guide’ in about the same sense in which a used-car salesman is a friendly counsellor. And so the ‘Further Reading’ for the chapter which vaunts Althusser, Macherey, Eagleton, does not include E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, as the ‘Further Reading’ on ‘Structuralist Theories’ does not mention Pettit’s The Concept of Structuralism or Mary Douglas’s criticisms of Lévi-Strauss. The reader Selden assumes, a reader ‘interested and curious about the subject’, is to be guided neither to the history which would enable an assessment of how ‘contemporary’ these theories are, nor to the arguments which would permit some trial of their cogency. There are some laughs to be had at Selden’s simple-mindedness – ‘by contradicting widely accepted doctrines, Marx was trying to put people’s thought into reverse gear,’ or ‘in the case of the famous duck-rabbit puzzle, only the perceiver can decide how to orient the configuration of the lines’ (it need hardly be said that Wittgenstein doesn’t figure in these pages) – but the odd laugh shouldn’t conceal the stultification of thought which would result from taking Selden seriously. This book belongs in the waste-paper bin, and its author in the pillory.

Still the new occurs. It is misrecognised often just because it is new, and because it can be so readily sold, and sold out, as a commodity. MacCabe observes, with shrewd bitterness, that much of the enthusiasm for literary theory seems to be either ‘some modern self-deluding version of aestheticism or some traditional self-serving version of careerism’. Indeed, ‘theory’ was a boom, like the Gold Rush or its modern equivalent, micro-chip technology. The world of theory resembles high-tech in being a world of swift advances and even more rapid supersessions, new equipment almost daily offering horizons more extensive than had previously seemed possible. There are several contenders for the role of Sir Clive Sinclair in this industry of intellectual growths but nobody deserves the title more than Colin MacCabe. For few owe so much to so many as he does, or exploit their debts with such dexterity; few discard their earlier inventions – so many C5s of the cultural struggle – with such spritely candour of repudiation and such unflagging confidence in their own power to learn from their mistakes. It is amiably roguish, with a suspicion of hype that is part of the charm, as when MacCabe announces of the pioneering work of Screen that its aim ‘was nothing less than to constitute film as a rigorous object of study’ but gives as a first-fruit of that rigour the proposition that ‘the specificity of film was to be located in the field of vision,’ which translates into non-theoretical language as ‘the distinctive thing about films is that people look at them.’ This does enable us to tell the difference between a film and a radio play, but not to tell the difference between a film and a painting, or between a film and a copy of Theoretical Essays. At moments like this, the career charted by these essays is like something from the brain of Peter York, an intellectual Style Wars.

Whether or not you can translate ‘the specificity ...’ into ‘the distinctive thing ...’ is a vexing question, and one on which the newness of theory in part hinges. For theory certainly has a new vocabulary, but this does not prove that it is a new language, or a new style of thinking. It’s a particularly thorny issue because much theory has been spent on some assertions to the rough effect that discourses cannot be explained – because they are not governed – by reference to an ‘anterior’ reality, and from this it might follow that a distinction between, say, the ‘vocabulary’ and ‘intellectual content’ of a discourse could not be maintained. Translation in and out of the vocabulary of theory must, however, be possible, if only because, were it not possible, relations of synonymy and antonymy within that vocabulary could not be established. Take the word ‘refuse’, to which both MacCabe and Selden are partial. Zellig Harris has ‘the immense merit of refusing the classical conception of the subject’, Miltonic syntax ‘refuses any possibility of ordering the variety of references’ – both MacCabe; ‘Shklovsky refused to reduce the bizarre disorder of Tristram Shandy’ and ‘Derrida refuses to assert a new hierarchy (literature/philosophy)’ – both Selden. All these refusals exemplify, it appears, a correct indomitability. On the other hand, when ‘we refuse to allow a text to remain alien’ (Selden), or when ‘narrative ... must refuse its status as discourse,’ or ‘the rationalist and empiricist versions of language take their starting-point in a refusal to understanding [sic] the historical development of science,’ or when ‘representation refuses to accept the unlimited nature of the real’ (all MacCabe), these refusals priggishly decline requests which ought to be met. So much refusing goes on in these pages, that ‘refuse’ takes on the character of a term of art, a portmanteau word made up of ‘refute’ and ‘confuse’, which expresses the blur between attitudinising and arguing that typifies much literary theory. It is a fact of the vocabulary of theory that the word can perform this double-jointed trick, but the fact can be understood only by translation out of that vocabulary: this indicates the possibility and the necessity of such translation, for theorists and non-theorists alike. Perhaps, with this word, we are in Dante’s limbo of the neutrals, along with colui/che fece per vilta il gran rifiuto (‘he who, from cowardice, made the great refusal’) – a bunch, one imagines, of stiffnecked shades wandering around, crying ‘Absolutely not’ ox ‘No, thank you’ at appropriate moments? But that is a question the vocabulary of theory is designed not to answer.

The other essential attribute of theory is self-consciousness, or ‘rigour’ as it is sometimes known. Whether or not theory possesses this attribute depends on the question whether theory is a vocabulary or a language, for self-consciousness requires a language in which it can articulate itself and come to self-recognition. As one thing which distinguishes a language from a mere vocabulary is grammar, so a theory is distinct from a heap of opinions by virtue of the arguments through which it is elaborated. Consider, then, MacCabe expounding an argument of Irigaray’s which habitués of theory will recognise as a version of a central Lacanian thesis, one employed in many recent accounts of the relations between language, subjectivity and sexuality:

Crucially this involves the learning of pronouns: the realisation that the ‘you’ with which the child is addressed by the father or mother can be per-mutated with an ‘I’ in a situation from which it is excluded – when the parents speak to each other. This realisation is the understanding that the ‘you’ with which he or she is addressed can be permutated with a ‘he’ or ‘she’, which is the possibility that the proper name is articulated in a set of differences – and that the child is only a signifier constantly defined and redefined by a set of substitution relations.

This story of how learning pronouns in the same moment teaches the child its sexual identity and the possibility of its own death plays a role in contemporary literary theory oddly like that which the story of transition from a state of nature to civil society played in the political theory of Locke and Hobbes. In both cases, the story has to be merely a narrative explication of conceptual truths and make no claims to historical accuracy: as MacCabe puts it, it is ‘a diachronic fable of a synchronic functioning’. Yet the story also has to be a true story, something which actually happened. Otherwise, words like ‘learning’ and ‘realisation’ have no sense. The story is a story about language and consciousness, and if it is to be something more than a concatenation of bizarre puns, words like ‘learning’ and ‘realisation’ must refer to actual processes. They cannot plausibly do so; no child could think this, any more than the notion of ‘contract’ could occur to people in a Lockean state of nature. On the other hand, the concepts which the story is supposed to illustrate are incoherent. The story is often told to bolster the claim that individual perception is, in some unspecified way, entirely ‘determined’ by the language which the individual speaks (a jazzed-up version of Kant’s argument about the relation between concepts and percepts). But this cannot be so in as strong a form as some theorists wish to believe, for, if it were, it would be the case that all babies are blind until they learn to speak, and that the world dawns on them, word by word. This we know not to be true from the fact that some deaf-and-dumb children can see. What we perceive may in some, still unspecified, way ‘depend on’ or ‘be influenced by’ the language we speak, but that we perceive has no such dependence.

A phrase which interests me in MacCabe’s exposition is ‘the child is only a signifier.’ Setting aside the implausibility of a child’s realising this about itself, there remain difficulties in the implicit thesis that, because proper names can denote only in a language – as Wittgenstein argued, they cannot be pre-linguistic ‘baptisms’ of the object they name – ‘the child is only a signifier.’ The conclusion does not follow from the premise, because the argument grossly confuses a name with its bearer: the name of the child may be only a signifier, but that tells us little about the child. And this conclusion, ‘the child is only a signifier,’ lacking in theoretical cogency as it is, could appeal only to those who keep their infant signifiers locked up in cupboards, starved to death, shaken about, and used as ashtrays. The belief that the child is only a signifier mirrors MacCabe’s inclination to believe that signifiers are like children with little wills of their own (this is perhaps why the signifier in contemporary literary theory is often described as involved in ‘endless play’).

Elsewhere an Althusserian flavour replaces Lacan: ‘Suffice to say that Cartesian philosophy, Newtonian physics and the grammar of Port-Royal all involve very precisely that notion of a unified subject of experience and that the birth of this notion in the 17th century suggests very important links with the growing economic and political domination of the European bourgeoisie.’ Perhaps this means that, say, Newton’s laws of motion entail, if they are true, the truth of other propositions such as ‘my self is identical with my consciousness of it.’ It would be a long argument which took us from Newton’s laws of motion to this proposition; such an argument may exist, but not in the pages of Theoretical Essays. Perhaps the sentence means something else; there are very many things it could mean, because to say one thing involves another isn’t a precise thing to say, and is not made more precise by the simple addition of the words ‘very precisely’. Of course, the word ‘involve’ is a useful word for enthusing with – ‘I really want to get involved in community relations’ – or gossiping: ‘I believe those two have been quite involved with each other for some time now.’ For the purposes of theory, it is, however, useless. As are ‘very important links’. These very important links might be links in a causal chain, or in a chain of reasoning, or links merely of tantalising coincidence such as Joyce made a lot of fun out of in Finnegans Wake. If there is a causal link between Cartesian philosophy, Newtonian physics, etc, and ‘the growing economic and political domination of the European bourgeoisie’, it would be a first requisite of theory that we should know which way round the causal process works: did the rise of the bourgeoisie cause Descartes or did Descartes cause the rise of the bourgeoisie? I think we should be told. You can’t tell from MacCabe, and so it really does not suffice to say what he says, whatever that is.

MacCabe, and the audiences which listened to these and similar remarks, presumably had the sensation that something in the nature of thought, even advanced and formidably difficult thought, was occurring when they were made. I still wonder what induced this pleasant sensation. It has something to do with the essentially gestic nature of MacCabe’s discourse. He is a mime-artist of socio-intellectual currents and, like a mime-artist, looks so terrifically as if he were walking against the wind that we imagine a wind, or, in MacCabe’s case, sounds so thrillingly as if he were arguing, thinking, theorising, that we impute cogency, evidence and concepts. Thus, trying to explain Frege’s distinction between ‘sense’ and ‘reference’, he writes: ‘if I say that Balzac wrote Splendeurs et misères d’une courtisane then it must also be true that the author of Illusions perdues wrote Splendeurs et misères d’une courtisane.’ But this need not be true, and, in fact, isn’t. Several steps of the argument have been left out, such as the important premise that the author of one novel is the same person as the author of the second – ‘same person’ with an implication of identity strong enough to secure that statements made about the author of one of these novels must also be true about the author of the other. This is a premise which MacCabe has every reason to wish to suppress, though he gives none of them. (Admitting such a premise, for instance, entirely resurrects the Author whose death it has been a mission of theory to announce.) MacCabe’s logic is weak, and his facts weaker still, for Balzac did not write a novel called Splendeurs et misères d’une courtisane. He wrote a novel called Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes – a slight difference, it might seem, though the plural gives a slant to the way in which individual stories relate to the rest of the book at odds with what would be implied by the singular. The slight fact remains, though, to cap the invalidity of the logic with the untruth of the statements, and to direct attention to the conditional clause ‘if I say’. Give weight to that ‘if I say’, and there is an imaginable world in which the remark holds good, for there could be a world in which if Colin MacCabe said something, then that something, and whatever he believed was implied by it, ‘must also be true’, or, at least, considered as such by all inhabitants of that world. That world does not, as yet, exist. As it doesn’t exist, it seems fair to say that such a world would be ‘tribal’, and fit exactly Freud’s description of the primitive mind as dominated by a belief in animism, magic and the omnipotence of thought – MacCabe’s account of signification is animistic, his version of intellectual history magically vague, and his ‘if I say’ has the accent of the shaman, though shamanism relies rather on the omnipotence of words than the omnipotence of thought.

A heart-warming thing about Colin MacCabe is how he brings us back to the old chestnuts of intellectual quandary, for all his ‘fresh forms of analysis’ and ‘new and challenging intellectual currents’ (I quote the blurb). Words and thought, words rather than thought – those words, and the thought of them, seem to be the kernel of the puzzlement that arises from contemplating MacCabe and the credit he has been accorded. Dr Johnson wrote, with weary shame, about Soame Jenyns: ‘The shame is to impose words for ideas upon ourselves or others. To imagine that we are going forward when we are only turning round.’ It is a great moment of ruefulness, facing the pranks of intellect and its dexterities with the material of consciousness, language – language riffled through like a pack of trick-cards so that the quickness of the term deceives the mind. Johnson describes an illusion, in the conjuror’s sense, to which MacCabe is subject, of which he is the subject. There’s a touching sentence, one of many, in Theoretical Essays where MacCabe looks back on the Sixties with a mixture of nostalgia for their headiness and remorse for their empty-headedness: ‘In the late Sixties and early Seventies ... we all set out on a theoretical adventure, a ferris wheel of absence and presence ...’ You can set out on an adventure but you can’t set out for anywhere on a ferris wheel, and a ferris wheel is not so much an adventure as the fabricated occasion for a fantasy about one’s own adventurousness. Mistaking a ferris wheel for path-breaking grimly images much of what seemed the promise of the Sixties and of literary theory; to make that mistake is ‘to imagine that we are going forward when we are only turning round.’

Dr Johnson relied on a distinction between words and ideas. They were as distinct for him as he was from the stone from which he rebounded when refuting Berkeley (or what he thought Berkeley had said). The distinction has been long in question, and ‘theory’ vividly sets the question again, not only in the explicit pronouncements of Derrida and Derridans, but also by the nature of its intellectual operation on the language in which we think, if we think at all. If you consider what has happened to the moral vocabulary of the West in the last two centuries, you observe a set of changes which are not all actuated by formulable and coherent theses: some come about through various processes of ravage and shift which go on without self-conscious direction. Why, for example, is ‘virgin’ now so much more felt and understood as a term which conveys a lack of ‘experience’, a negative quality, a missing-out, when it formerly conveyed a commended state of the soul, something actual possessed? Well, it’s part of the secularisation of our moral vocabulary. That is easily and quickly said. But quite how, or why, such a secularisation occurs can’t be rapidly summed up, and a word like ‘secularisation’ in fact stands for our bewildered (or bewitched) uncertainties as we face the history of thinking-in-disarray which shows up in language. Something like this is going on in ‘theory’, a process more like silting than like what we, for the moment, understand by ‘theorising’. As yet, ‘theory’ consists only of a vocabulary, and this is its power; vocabulary, like alluvial soil, is rich, messy and fecund. It will be a worse world in which such a vocabulary rules, because it will be a world in which distinctions which we should strive to make cannot be even glimpsed, let alone made. I think it is not a ‘matter of taste’ to prefer Dr Johnson’s emphasis to Professor MacCabe’s: it would be truer to say that it is, intellectually, a matter of life and death. Nothing guarantees that the world of theory won’t replace the world of what used to be known as ‘thought’. The lives and deaths of vocabulary suggest the contrary.

MacCabe thinks he is turning from a bad past when he turns his attention to ‘discourses’ instead of ‘authors’, to ‘discourse analysis’ instead of ‘literary criticism’. Here is a piece of discourse analysis he performs on an example provided by Zellig Harris, the sentence ‘Casals who is self-exiled from Spain stopped performing after the Fascist victory’: ‘The restrictive relative, on the other hand, is the site of two discourses intersecting and being homogenised by the action of the relative. If we examine the example that Harris uses we can see that the operation in question is a binding together of the discourses of politics and music around the name of Casals.’ A confident translator would put this into non-theoretical English as ‘The sentence has two clauses, one main and one subordinate, joined together by a relative pronoun; in making that join, it makes a remark about the political commitment of a musician’ – which is true enough but hardly has the timbre of excogitated discovery expected from ‘discourse analysis’, lacks the ring of ‘a binding together of the discourses of politics and music around the name of Casals’. When we look at the translation, it is reasonable to apply the word ‘fraudulent’ to the vocabulary which attempts to conceal that so little is being said. But then you would not call the man who appears to saw a lady in half a ‘fraud’; you would be the more disquieted if he actually did it, and you receive the pretence with gratitude. To call MacCabe’s comment on the sentence about Casals ‘discourse analysis’ is indeed like calling ‘Nice weather for ducks!’ a development in the science of metereology: but the history of language shows that people are not good at calling things by their proper names. It is not ‘discourse analysis’ as yet, nor is there such a thing as ‘contemporary literary theory’: yet, as the words take hold of us, these things may come to pass.

Another thing about Colin MacCabe is that he does not appreciate the value of deserts. He has a wholly unreasoned prejudice in favour of a state in which it appears that one’s own in tellectual activity is ‘immensely exciting’. To MacCabe, on his immensely exciting ferris wheel, ‘Cambridge seemed an intellectual desert.’ But great changes in vocabulary, and in more important things, come out of deserts, from desert fathers. It was, after all, on a ‘poor isle’, a ‘bare isle’, that Miranda encountered her ‘brave new world’, and in a ‘full poor cell’ that Prospero schooled himself in the revolutionary virtue of patience.