Untheory

Alexander Nehamas

  • Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory after Deconstruction by Christopher Norris
    Methuen, 247 pp, £16.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 416 39939 8
  • Philosophical Profiles by Richard Bernstein
    Polity, 313 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0226 6
  • Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism edited by W.J.T. Mitchell
    Chicago, 146 pp, £12.75, November 1985, ISBN 0 226 53226 7

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato described, and in which he took part, is still being fought. Poetry today has become, more generally, ‘rhetoric’, ‘fiction’, ‘literature’, ‘literariness’, ‘narrative’ or ‘writing’. It has even found an ally within the enemy’s ranks – the recent anti-philosophical philosophy sometimes known as the New Pragmatism. And though it has now become more pervasive, though the tables appear to have been turned against philosophy, and though the issue no longer seems to be simply the proper domain of each practice, the war between philosophy and poetry goes on. While Plato would have denied that, strictly speaking, poetry is a practice or an ‘art’ (a techne) at all, poets today have struck back by arguing that philosophy itself is a species of poetry. Philosophy differs from the rest of fiction, the argument continues, only by its bad faith. For it is the only branch of literature which deceives itself into claiming that, unlike the others, it can give correct and final answers to deep, serious and substantive questions – to ‘the perennial problems’. Philosophy, the poets claim, is rhetoric which has forgotten that it is rhetoric; it believes it has a theory and methods which can do more than persuade, which can, some day at least, lead us to the truth.

These are heady charges. Yet, though the lines of battle have been starkly drawn, the engagements are seldom direct. Christopher Norris describes the situation perceptively in The Contest of Faculties, paying special attention to one of the parties on the literary side of the dispute: ‘Deconstructionists,’ he writes, ‘continue to snipe from the sidelines at a mainstream philosophy which clings to its deluded belief in truth, logic and sufficient reason. Analytical philosophers content themselves with occasional sallies – book reviews mostly – which deplore the muddle-headed presumption of their literary colleagues.’ Norris’s book is a welcome effort to escape the total domination of the first of these two categories. And the present review, I hope, does not fall squarely within the second.

When Troilus, in Shakespeare’s play, finds that Cressida, whom he has identified with fidelity, is actually unfaithful, he exclaims: ‘This is and isn’t Cressid.’ He also says:

            O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself:
Bi-fold authority! Where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt ...

The passage faithfully expresses, as much as any passage can, the strictly inexpressible tension which deconstructive readings claim to find in every text, literary or philosophical. But it also describes, perhaps aptly, the double and tension-ridden purpose of Norris’s collection of essays. On the one hand, Norris sides with poetry in its quarrel with philosophy. On the other, he argues extensively that ‘critics – let alone philosophers – will be throwing too much away’ if they turn their back completely to philosophy or ‘theory’ as traditionally conceived. They will deprive criticism of one of its cardinal functions: the wholesale critique of our current literary, political and ideological consensus.

This may seem to some, as it does to me, to want to have it both ways. Later on we shall find yet another instance of this bi-fold desire. But it does not prevent Norris’s book from raising a number of important questions.

One word of caution. Philosophers, I suspect, will find a number of weaknesses in Norris’s treatment of authors like Frege, Quine and Davidson. They will certainly remain (at best) unmoved by his confident view that ‘Derrida shows – in exemplary close-reading style – how Aristotle’s entire metaphysics rests on a notion of momentary consciousness which his text simultaneously works to undo.’ But this statement need not be taken to undermine the project of engaging philosophy with literature.

Norris is convinced of the deconstructive view that ‘philosophy is inescapably bound up with fiction, no matter how philosophers may resist the idea,’ and tries to support his claim in an essay on Husserl and Descartes. He credits deconstruction, of which he is one of the clearest expositors and ablest practitioners in England, with having shown that detailed attention to the rhetorical structure of philosophical writing reveals that ‘the more closely one reads philosophical texts, the more one comes across ... evidence of a covert narrative or fictional strain.’

Such an understanding of deconstruction has often led to the view that no writing can engage directly with problems confronting reality. This, for example, is the position Norris attributes to ‘soft’ or ‘non-rigorous’ deconstructive critics like Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, who rest content with pointing out ‘that all texts are figural’ – rhetorical or fictional – ‘through and through, whatever their self-professed logical status.’ Richard Rorty, who identifies philosophy merely as ‘a kind of writing’, also believes, according to Norris, that ‘literary critics had best give up the idea that philosophy (or “theory”) is capable of solving any problems created by their own interpretative practice.’ The very idea of method simply drops out of the picture; all that matters is producing, by whatever means, new ‘strong’ readings. As Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels put it in Against Theory, ‘the only question ... is not how to interpret but whether to interpret.’

Norris relentlessly attacks such a ‘move to foreclose on certain “technical” aspects of epistemological critique’. His book is centrally concerned to show that such anti-theoretical approaches fall in ‘all too readily with the interests of a present-day cultural status quo’. He also locates this ‘move’ in the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who, in contrast to the critical theory advocated by Jürgen Habermas, assumes ‘that all understanding is embedded in a context of pre-reflective meanings and motives which reason is effectively powerless to criticise.’ And he considers it a shortcoming of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s view that ‘no narrative (or narrative theory) could possess the ultimate, truth-telling power that would lift it decisively above all the others.’ Norris, is convinced that only such ‘truth-telling power’ can allow us to take a properly critical attitude toward our present situation.

Such conservative views, Norris claims, support the claim of those Marxist critics who, like Terry Eagleton, accuse deconstruction of lacking serious theoretical, political, ideological or more generally critical implications. Norris answers that, despite the victory of poetry over philosophy, deconstructive criticism, properly practised, has serious and broad consequences. Deconstruction, he claims, sides with Marxism because both are opposed to ‘the kind of inertly consensual thinking which denies that theory can possibly transcend the cultural conditions of its production.’ In support of this claim, Norris paraphrases an argument of Michael Ryan from his Marxism and Deconstruction, makes numerous, if cryptic allusions to the writings of Derrida, and relies on his interpretation of the ‘hard’ deconstruction of Paul de Man. This reliance makes for very heavy going. His discussion of de Man is full of technical terms and ill-defined concepts, which are notably absent from the rest of this clear and unpretentious book (the terms ‘scrupulous’, ‘exemplary’ and, particularly, ‘rigorous’ are worked to death).

Let me try to put the point in my own words, knowing that I may well miss the mark. The American New Critics believed that it was the mark of literature to be ambiguous and paradoxical. ‘Soft’ deconstruction generalised this view to all writing, critical and philosophical as well as literary. By construing all texts, in this sense, as fictional, soft deconstruction deprives all writing of any direct implications for reality. The ‘reality’ all texts concern is nothing but one more fiction.

De Man, however, goes further. When he argues, for example, that Nietzsche’s attack against language in The Birth of Tragedy undermines itself (how can Nietzsche truly say in words that the truth cannot ever be said in words?), he freely acknowledges that the very same problem applies to his own statement of Nietzsche’s predicament as well. For how can a critic ever truly say that Nietzsche’s text, or any other, cannot ever say exactly what it means to say – the nature of language, according to de Man, consisting precisely in its inability ever to express anything accurately? De Man’s conclusion is not simply that all critical and philosophical texts are fictional but also that all fictional texts, themselves necessarily subject to this paradox, have a critical and philosophical dimension. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction simply cannot be consistently maintained.

All texts, then, when closely read, reveal that it is impossible ever to state the facts as they really are. The view of the world contained in every text includes the view that it cannot be a fully accurate view of the world. All texts, read deconstructively, warn their readers not to take them literally, not to confuse their world for the world. And on the controversial assumption that ‘ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality,’ de Man supplies Norris with the view that deconstruction has serious and direct critical consequences: ‘Deconstruction provides the most effective strategy for pressing the critique of wholesale explanatory systems without giving way to a “post-modern” outlook of passive liberal consensus.’

Much can be said for de Man’s elegant, if dizzying approach to fiction and criticism. Much can also be said against it, particularly in regard to his theory of language, which needs detailed explication and defence before we know exactly how to take it. In any case, much can be said about it, and in this respect Norris’s book is only a beginning. But the issue I want to press now is more general. It concerns what I take to be the fundamental assumption on which Norris’s project depends.

It may be true that ‘hard’ deconstruction has ideological consequences, though given de Man’s very broad definition of ideology these are likely to be quite weak. In addition, hard deconstruction is bound to undermine itself, as well as its criticism, since de Man insists that deconstructive texts face exactly the same problem they reveal in the texts they deconstruct. But Norris does not seem to be satisfied with this ambiguous situation.

Norris wants criticism to criticise more than literature, and he wants criticism to be in a serious sense unconditional – which is exactly what, I think, de Man’s deconstructive criticism cannot be. The Contest of Faculties contains nothing less than a defence of ‘philosophic reason’ itself, an effort to vindicate Habermas’s rationalist position: ‘there must be certain positive norms – structures of rational understanding – which allow thought to criticise the current self-image of the age.’

This goes far beyond de Man’s ironic view. It amounts to the idea that unless a neutral, independent, ‘theoretical’ viewpoint from which our present culture can be criticised as a whole is available, no serious criticisms can be given at all. Gadamer’s, Rorty’s, Lyotard’s and even Foucault’s denials that such a viewpoint exists are, for Norris, simply variations on the conservative tradition from Burke to the New Right. They prevent criticism. They rest ‘on the idea that prejudice is so deeply built into our traditions of thought that no amount of rational criticism can hope to dislodge it. Any serious thinking about culture and society will have to acknowledge the fact that such enquiries have meaning only within the context of a certain informing tradition. It is a delusion – so this argument implies – to elevate critique above the everyday, practical knowledge that simply makes sense of things as they are.’

The choice is simple. Either critics and philosophers can occupy an external standpoint from which they can inspect and criticise culture as a whole or they can be no more than apologists who ‘make sense’ of life as it is lived. As Norris writes in the excellent essay he devotes to Rorty, ‘the project of dismantling traditional philosophy goes along with an express commitment to the ethos and values of present-day American society.’ But is there any reason to accept the choice Norris offers and the assumption which dictates it?

There is no denying the fact that Rorty refuses to think of himself as a ‘dissident intellectual’, or that Gadamer’s political views are conservative. There also is no denying the fact that both Gadamer and Rorty hold the view that it is not possible to occupy a position outside your tradition so as to criticise it as a whole. Norris, however, fails to see that this just is the view that you cannot in any way see your tradition as a whole and that therefore you cannot accept, justify or even ‘make sense’ of it as a whole either. Gadamer’s hermeneutics and Rorty’s neo-pragmatism logically forbid any general attitude, positive or negative, toward one’s tradition as a whole. In fact, whether these authors are aware of it or not (and I am not sure that they are), their views undermine the very concept of ‘the’ tradition, conceived of as a single, coherent or unified system. For in order to see tradition in these terms and to take a general attitude toward it, you must necessarily stand outside it: you must occupy just the position Gadamer and Rorty declare can never be occupied.

This is, I believe, precisely the point that Foucault, under Nietzsche’s influence, came to realise in his last writings. And that is why, after the relative excesses of Les Mots et les Choses, he turned his attention to individual strands within the tangled web of logically independent practices and institutions of which ‘our’ tradition consists. To criticise or accept any one of these strands does not imply that we must criticise or accept all (or any of) the others. Nor does it imply that our attitudes, positive or negative, must always be based on the same grounds. What follows from the ‘historicism’ of Rorty and Gadamer is that we must do more history.

Norris discusses neither Nietzsche nor Foucault in any detail, and it would be interesting to see him turn to them in the future. He regards Foucault as a relativist and rejects ‘his espousal of a “micro-politics” of local intervention, carried on by “specific intellectuals” with no grand claims to universal truth’. But he never shows why such claims are necessary for Foucault’s specific projects. Even Donald Davidson, on whose views Norris relies extensively in arguing against relativism, insists that we cannot recognise a conceptual framework or tradition unless we are in broad agreement with most of its elements. Davidson’s view, therefore, explicitly forbids the wholesale disagreement with and criticism of tradition which Norris consistently advocates.

It is in fact as unclear that such wholesale criticism is at all possible as it is obvious that passive acceptance is not the only alternative to it. And it is very likely that the only effective criticism actually consists of the specific projects Norris dismisses. ‘Grand claims to universal truth’ may indeed be necessary if you want to distance yourself from your tradition so as to dismantle it altogether. But even if this can ever be done, the criticism such a project involves cannot be communicated easily, or at all, to those who remain within the tradition. Total rejection is not criticism but revolution.

Norris seems to me to want revolution to be based on objectively justifiable grounds. But, as Richard Bernstein points out, such grounds can always be used ‘to block, stifle or rule out’ revolutionary efforts as well as to promote them. In addition, revolutions, once begun, may turn out to be reactionary rather than progressive. And in any case, I would argue, revolutions depend on ‘grand claims to universal truth’ in a causal and not a rational manner. Faith in universal truth gives us the strength to take up the fight, not the ability to convince non-coercively those who disagree. Once again, we cannot have it both ways.

Norris believes that philosophy shows that literary, political and cultural criticism are intimately connected. Richard Bernstein, too, argues that philosophy is closely related to politics. Bernstein’s is a collection of erudite and sympathetic essays on authors ranging from Dewey and Heidegger to Arendt and Marcuse to Habermas, Gadamer, Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. Bernstein is a good reader, a master of what, with deference to Hegel, he calls ‘immanent critique’: the effort to determine the internal structure and coherence of an author’s views, to determine what to preserve and what to discard from them, and to sketch out the direction toward which we are led by what remains. This direction is, for Bernstein, invariably pragmatist and political, in the spirit of Dewey. In contrast to Norris, for example, Bernstein argues convincingly that ‘it would be a mistake and a slander to think that Rorty’s view entails or leads to an acceptance of the status quo. The critical impulse in Rorty is not less strong than it is in Habermas or even Gadamer.’ Bernstein takes attitudes like Heidegger’s apocalyptic defeatism, Marcuse’s resigned negativism or MacIntyre’s unrelieved pessimism and shows their unexpected positive consequences, especially when supplemented with Dewey’s practical vision.

Readers of Bernstein’s essays are bound to see the authors he discusses in a new and revealing light. But they may also feel, as I did, that Bernstein is faced with a need which he cannot quite satisfy. He is not, I suspect, ultimately content with the modest pragmatist view that ‘social practices’, the strands of culture, are to be criticised singly and specifically, and his book does not contain any such criticisms. Instead, he asks in general terms ‘how we are to understand “social practices”, how they are generated, sustained, and pass away. But even more important we want to know how they are to be criticised.’ ‘Implicitly or explicitly,’ he writes, ‘all criticism appeals to some principles, standards, or criteria ... Even if we grant Gadamer everything he wants to say about finitude rooted in historicity, this does not lessen the burden of the question of what is and what ought to be the basis for the critical evaluation of the problems of modernity.’ But why assume that social practices do have a unified history, and that modernity generates a coherently connected set of problems which can be evaluated on a single basis? And what conditions will enable us to articulate that basis and to engage in the systematic critical project it seems intended to underwrite?

Bernstein’s answer to this last question is political. He advocates a concept of rationality which is ‘not only intrinsically dialogical and communicative but places upon us the practical demand to work toward that form of democratic socialism in which the material conditions exist whereby individuals can confront each other as equals and jointly participate in open communication’. It is hard to quarrel with this: but that, it seems to me, is just the trouble. As with all general answers to such general questions, it is difficult to see precisely where Bernstein’s attractive vision leads us and precisely how we are to know when we have arrived there. Your ‘free open debate among equals’ may just be my ‘manipulation of others by image-making’. It is not that we cannot ever supply the necessary detail. But every such account necessarily presupposes a vast theory of history, politics and human nature which will have to leave all pragmatist scruples about traditional philosophy very far behind.

Are we then to turn completely away from all philosophy, methodology and theory? That we absolutely must and that we cannot but do so, at least in regard to literary criticism, is the shockingly uncompromising answer contained in Steven Knapp’s and Walter Benn Michaels’s article ‘Against Theory’. The collection for which their essay provides the title also contains responses to, and elaborations of, what they have to say. It has been put together by W.J.T. Mitchell, who edits Critical Inquiry, the journal in which all those pieces originally appeared, and who contributes a short but extraordinarily clear and incisive introduction. Depending on your sympathies, you will consider this volume to represent either the destructive chaos or the creative ferment characteristic of current literary studies.

Knapp and Michaels consider theory as ‘the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general’. But an account of interpretation is necessary only if we do not know what that is, only if several alternative views of what constitutes interpretation are present. Such alternatives can exist, according to Knapp and Michaels, only if we think that the meaning of a text and its author’s intention are, logically speaking, distinct. For only then will it be possible to offer different methods for going from one to the other, or different grounds for despairing of ever establishing any connections between them. What this shows, according to Knapp and Michaels, is that the very possibility of theory involves ‘splitting apart terms that are in fact inseparable’.

Their view is that ‘the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author’s intended meaning.’ The project of grounding one upon the other or of demonstrating that such grounding is impossible, the very project of theory, proves therefore to be incoherent. Theory does not exist; it is useless; and it has no implications for practice. The radical nature of this view and the extremely various reactions it can provoke are evident in the essays which respond to the article.

The main reason theory has no implications for practice, Knapp and Michaels say, is that their account of interpretation as the effort to establish an author’s intention, ‘if true, describes the way interpretation always works, irrespective of its relation to any institution ... the profession of literary criticism could ultimately disappear, and this event would in no way alter the fact that texts mean what their author intend.’ This astonishing statement is echoed by Stanley Fish, who writes that the attack against theory ‘says nothing about what we can now do or not do, it is an account of what we have always been doing and cannot help but do’: that is to say, ‘act in accordance with the standards and norms that are the content of our beliefs and, therefore, the very structure of our consciousness’.

Fish cannot intend his statement to be totally trivial (‘We can only do what we can do’). He must intend that it give support to the informative (and quite possibly wrong) view that all critics can ever do is to try to determine authorial intention. And what makes his statement as astonishing as that of Knapp and Michaels is that both are involved in an unavoidable irony. Within what Rorty aptly characterises as this ‘more-pragmatist-than-thou’ context, Knapp, Michaels and Fish presume to state what the project of literary criticism necessarily is: they define the practice of criticism, that is, independently of all the ‘standards’, ‘norms’ and ‘institutions’ which, for any pragmatist, determine the nature and content of every practice. Such presumption is not part of an attack against theory, but one of theory’s proudest parts: it is nothing but ‘the attempt to govern interpretation of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general’.

The authors of ‘Against Theory’ write extremely well. Their view derives a large measure of its authority from their ability to express the most radical, even outlandish views in a calm and detached style. Suppose that you come upon some squiggles in the sand that seem to spell a stanza of a Wordsworth poem. And suppose that, for a variety of reasons, you find it impossible to believe that they were composed by a conscious agent of any sort. Would this show that there was meaning without intention? Not at all, Knapp and Michaels think: ‘to deprive the marks of an author is to convert them into accidental likenesses of language. They are not, after all, an example of intentionless meaning; as soon as they become intentionless they become meaningless as well.’

‘Meaningless?’ I want to ask. In what way? In the way that a sequence like ‘Ghm aml Ugz’ is usually considered meaningless? Or in the way Chomsky claimed that his famous non-sentence, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,’ was supposed to be meaningless? Or, again, in the way Carnap believed that metaphysical statements obeying the rules of grammar, and produced by authors with serious intentions, were meaningless? Knapp and Michaels do not ask such questions. In fact, they don’t argue for their view of meaning at all. They simply produce their confident statement, which is another perfect instance of theory, as the culmination of a smoothly written, paratactically structured, reasonably organised paragraph. They seem serious and mean what they say.

And in so doing, they produce more theory. Or perhaps we could say that they produce un-theory – a species of writing related inversely to the philosophical prose which, despite its pretensions, according to Norris, proves to be fictional after all. We might define ‘untheory’ as that genre of writing which claims not to be philosophical or theoretical but which cannot escape philosophy. Attacks against philosophy, of which untheory is a part, are one of the best ways of perpetuating it and of adding at least themselves to it. If only because none of these three books succeeds in being purely philosophical or thoroughly anti-philosophical, each one contributes in its own way to the ancient quarrel with which we began. We still don’t know where, if anywhere, philosophy begins and ends. Perhaps philosophy answers no perennial questions. But its very nature constitutes its own perennial problem. The quarrel is internal, and is not about to end.