Who can blame him?

Frank Kermode

  • Critical Terms for Literary Study edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin
    Chicago, 369 pp, £35.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 226 47201 9
  • The Ideology of the Aesthetic by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 426 pp, £35.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 631 16302 6

‘Something is happening to the way we think,’ said Clifford Geertz in 1980, and Stanley Fish is right to add that Geertz was partly responsible for the shift. But Fish, in a bold essay on rhetoric included in the Lentricchia-McLaughlin volume, qualifies Geertz’s remark: ‘something,’ he adds, ‘is always happening to the way we think.’ For he doesn’t quite agree with people who claim to have overthrown ‘the rival epistemology’, wiped out ‘foundationalism’, disposed once and for all of ‘essentialist’ thinking. Deploying new rhetorical, deconstructive and semiological tools, they believe they have taken apart all the assumptions by which we – imagining ourselves to be independent individuals in a world we knew roughly how to know – imagined we could deal justly or sensibly with the problems of literature, society and our own lives. They say we must now learn to think about these matters in entirely new ways.

Many will share Fish’s doubts about some of the large claims now being made for these new ways: for example, the claim that the assiduous practice of textual deconstruction can ‘do radical political work’. Having given due thought to the way we think, he concludes that extreme claims must eventually run up against antithetical and impassable limits and be turned back on themselves. Such a view could be taken to imply that the problematic, in the form it now takes, will in time disappear into itself, or perhaps be raised to a new level on a dialectic elevator. Naturally the triumphalists aren’t interested in such predictions: believing they have effected what they are willing to call a Copernican revolution, they despise or at best pity all who are still deluded by such geocentric mystifications.

Since the purpose of the book is expressly to make converts, the essays collected by Lentricchia and McLaughlin offer a fairly modest account of the revolutionary claims. ‘Literary theory has arrived,’ says the Introduction, ‘and no student of literature can afford not to come to terms with it.’ (‘Afford’ and ‘terms’ might here be none the worse for a bit of deconstruction, which might detect a slippage into market terminology.) The editors want to change a situation in which many people remain ‘resistant’ to theory because they haven’t been taught to ask the right radical questions, such as ‘what is an author?’, ‘what is writing?’, or ‘what is literature?’, questions which, difficult enough in themselves, lead inevitably to questions even more awkward, such as ‘what is a subject?’ And it is admitted that these difficulties are compounded by the obscurity, held to be necessary in at least some cases, of many of the texts that explore them.

It would seem that the present collection is somewhat at odds with itself in proposing to make theory available to ‘students and general readers’ – that is, by making it fairly easy to understand. No textbook could hope to succeed if written in the manner of Lacan or of Kristeva, and this one, with its laudable missionary aspirations, has to tread carefully the line between a possibly fraudulent lucidity and an opacity fatal to proselytising and commerce.

The Introduction explains that the contributors have avoided dwelling on recondite terms of art such as Derrida’s ‘trace’ and Foucault’s ‘archaeology’, though they deal freely with others which, in much the same way, give to familiar words new and more esoteric senses – for instance, ‘discourse’, ‘structure’, ‘narrative’. The editorial claim is that these transformations or extensions of the familiar senses of the words are necessary in the new order of things, when it has become apparent that ‘literature is best understood not as a self-contained entity but rather as a writing practice, a particular formation within the world of discourse.’ Literature, that is, loses its ‘privileged’ status, and in so far as it exists at all does so not ‘autonomously’ but as part of a pattern of cultural forces or practices, and finally of a politics.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in