Monday, November 15, 2004

But what about literary criticism?


Can’t one usurp power by deconstructing the master?


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Consider the situation of criticism in the university. The university system, as Louis Menand has pointed out, was built with a positivistic model of research in mind. "According to this model, knowledge develops by the accumulation of research findings, brick piled onto brick, until the arch of knowledge about a field stands clearly defined against the background of mere undiscip­lined information. All the requirements and rewards of academic work - doctoral dissertations based on ‘original research,' tenure review, publication in specialized and refereed journals, and so forth - were established to encourage the production of more bricks."15 And the system seems to work quite well, at least for the hard sciences.
But what about literary criticism? The major critics in the Anglo-American tradition who wrote prior to criticism's com­prehensive institutionalization, writers like Johnson and Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf, would have been hard pressed to see their work as contributing to some looming structure of knowledge. Criticism succeeded in the university not because it modified its conception of knowledge to include Johnson's Rambler essays, or the pieces Woolf brought out in the Common Reader collections, but because criticism changed to meet academic requirements. Criticism followed Coleridge's lead and became more like an organized field of knowledge. By adapting the theory of the unconscious, criticism took another step forward in that it offered the potential for subversive interpretation and esoteric insight, insight inaccessible to outsiders in that only a licensed, that is a university, critic could tell you authoritatively whether the subtext you had found was actually there or not.
How does a senior practitioner know that the latent sense a junior aspirant has pointed to ought to be credited? As Frank Kermode indicates in an essay titled "Institutional Control of Interpretation " that is an unanswerable question: those in power simply know, and that's all there is to it.16 Here the comparison to psychoanalysis becomes illuminating. If the junior practitioner of therapy brings forward an interpretation of the patient's symptoms and the supervising elders feel that it is wrong, another source of appeal exists, the patient. If the patient is being helped by the "insight," then the elders must, presumably, stand aside. But in literary studies, there is no comparable system of checks and balances.
If your reading is dismissed by the elder critics (and no matter how senior you might be, there are always elders), then presumably you can go out and set up a school of our own, something like what Jung did when he and Freud became incompatible. The important point, though, is that you can only set up a school if you have a vision of the latent sense, a vision of which disciples can make use. De Man succeeded in transferring the Freudian model of repression from the sphere of-analytic therapy to that of rhetorical analysis, thus making Freud compatible with the linguistic turn that has characterized much of contemporary thought.
Throughout his career, de Man renamed the symbol/allegory dyad, speaking of blindness and insight, metaphor and metonymy, truth and ignorance, theory and undecidability, always indicating that the latter term was subject to programmatic repression. In so doing he perpetuated the myth of a specially sanctioned realm - comparable to the unconscious in psychoanalysis - to which one might gain secure access only in a department of literature. For there one could find authorities, professors who might trace themselves back, as Freudian analysts like to do, to the founder, and whose judgments about the repressed sense of the text one might take as binding.
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As many students of professionalism have noted, every group that wants to establish itself as a profession must have access to some hidden knowledge from which the public is excluded.' In the merger of systematic philosophy and psychoanalysis, criticism, I think, finds one sort of such knowledge. By turning from the play of figurative language to affirm truth (or the programmatic impossibility of discovering truth), you gain a certain kind of institutionally negotiable power. You acquire a way of knowing that's not altogether embarrassing when compared to what goes on in the physics department.
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Like psychoanalysis, de Man's deconstruction initiates a self‑perpetuating order. It is well known that one psychoanalyst must analyze another: there is the training analysis that inaugurates the career, but Freud also felt that even practiced psycho­na1ysts should return periodically to treatment. Just so, one de Manian reader must disclose the ratios of blindness and insight produced by the other. As a student, one is read, one's blindnesses disclosed, one's coincident insight taken up and made the motive for fresh readings which will in turn yield occlusions and opportunities.
This relay of readings lends itself well to an institutional setting. It reinforces hierarchically established roles. Under de Man's dispensation, one is always reading as a teacher, seeking points of mystification in the text, then becoming the object of scrutiny in one's turn, being read as a student. Every deconstructive reading that works is a teacher's reading of a student. Derrida is, at least in "The Rhetoric of Blindness," a pupil of de Man. The identities of student and teacher shift perpetually (…), but you always play one or the other of the university's two major roles, making those roles spear more natural than they otherwise would. So subversive-construction reaffirms the institutional structure and the pro­fession that it ought, presumably, to question.
Yet can’t one usurp power by reading the senior reader, by deconstructing the master? In the early days of psychoanalysis, Freud suffered considerably from something comparable: his best disciples and heirs were always rebelling. The most famous insurrection was that of Carl Jung, who said that his suspicions about Freud began during an incident on the boat trip they made to America, where Freud was to lecture at Clark University. The two took to analyzing each other's dreams to pass the time. One day Freud reported a dream, Jung began the analysis, but then, to go further, needed to ask Freud some personal questions. Freud refused to answer. When asked why, Freud said it was because he did not want to risk losing his authority.21
Freud had invested a great deal in the hope that the extra-ordinarily gifted Jung would succeed him as the head of the psychoanalytic movement. But the problem that Freud encoun­tered was that the more creative his followers were - and Jung was probably the most creative o all of them - the more they vere disposed to rebel against him. That is, they emulated his drive to speculate, and frequently what they speculated on, using and enlarging the Freudian method, was Freud himself.
At one point in his work, de Man observes that the question of his own readerly blindness is one that he is, by definition, incompetent to pose. Surely one of the attractions of his kind of deconstruction is that it allows one to read the senior reader, deconstruct the deconstructor. But the process will always repeat the original structure of blindness and insight. Thus de Man arrived at a way to sanction, and to circumscribe, the tendency 'of the disciple to rebel. The terms that Jung would have used to analyze Freud's dream would be quite particular to Freud - and quite painful because of how personal they were. (The dream at issue seems to have involved Freud's relations with his wife.) The terms that de Manian analysis deals in are coolly impersonal enough, and so often repeated, that using them will always be a tribute to the founder.
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Why then was de Man so effective at generating disciples? First, because he offered an apparently subversive mode of interpretation, one that was difficult to acquire and that provided arcane knowledge. And too, he offered it to a generation of graduate students who, given the experience of the '60s, were highly skeptical about any claims to authoritative truth. Yet this interpretive method acted to shore up university structures, making them more appealing to those who nursed allegiances to institutional authority. Then, though the blindness and insight motif seems rebellious, it provides no very satisfying way to rebel against the master. The method forms a self-perpetuating order which is pleasing to inhabit and hard to break from.
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Notes
15. Review of Tenured Radicals by Roger Kimball, New Republic, July 9 & 16, 1990, p. 38.
16. The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 168-84.
21. Peter Gay provides a brief account of the episode in Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), p. 225.



Mark Edmundson, Literature against philosophy, Plato to Derrida, Cambridge University Press, 1995, ps. 52-58