previous chapter
next sub-section

We Are the Real Text

Books about books about books. About books. It's become an old joke by now in humanities departments. First there are books. Then literary critics come along and write books about those books. Then more literary critics come along and write books about those books, and the whole process can go on forever. Before too long, the critics writing books about other critics writing books about other critics writing books step back and take a look at what they're doing. They quip about how no one pays any attention to "literature" any more, and then they go back to writing books about books about books. Literary criticism has always meant writing about writing, and literary criticism has been around for a very long time. But never until recently in this country has the discipline seemed so self-reflecting, so circular, and at the same time so self-assertive.

Something extraordinary happened to American academic literary criticism in the late 1960s and early 1970. Before, the activity of reading literary works and commenting on them had been a relatively uncomplicated affair for professional scholars. At least that's the way it seems if you compare the literary criticism of earlier generations with what we see today and what we have seen in the past twenty years or so. The most radical idea the previous generation of literary scholars had encountered was that a literary work should be studied in isolation from its author. This idea was a favorite of the New Critics, who proclaimed


in the late 1940s that an author's intention in writing a literary work was irrelevant to an understanding of that work. The result in literary studies was a shift in emphasis from historical and biographical criticism to criticism that was centered in the literary text itself.

But even this shift seems minor compared with what happened a generation later. Take a look at any of the standard literary journals, and you'll see what I mean. In the 1960s academic critics are still writing about traditional "literary" subjects: the themes in an author's work, the influence of one author on another, historical events that shaped the literary vision of an author. In the early 1970s, however, strange things begin to happen. More and more, literary scholars are writing about things that appear at first glance to have nothing to do with literature. New, outlandish-sounding terms creep into their writing. The titles of their articles often do not give a clear indication of what the articles are about. One has the increasing sense that literary criticism is declaring its independence from "literature" and is setting itself up as an autonomous discipline.

The titles of articles tell an entire story all by themselves. Consider, for example, a fairly traditional journal like the PMLA . In the 1960s we see titles like these: "Hazlitt on the Poetry of Wit," "Emerson and Whitehead," "Hermann Broch's Early Writings," "Hawthorne's Fair-Headed Maidens: The Fading Light." By 1970 things have begun to change ever so slightly. Critics no longer feel they must stick to the sober tone of earlier titles. Now we find, for instance, "'Wanna Go Home, Baby?': Sweeney Agonistes as Drama of the Absurd." A penchant for abstraction and a concern for literary craft arrive on the scene: "The Structure of Platero y Yo " and "The Four Narrative Perspectives in Absalom, Absalom! " Still, there is nothing too striking here, and things remain fairly stable for the next couple of years. In 1973 we still see titles like "Poe and Tennyson," "Perception and English Poetic Meter," and "Proust and the New Novel in France."

But starting in 1974, we read "The Nature of Picaresque Narrative: A Modal Approach" (March 1974), "Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?" (May 1975), and "Risk and Redundancy," which, the author tells us, analyzes the act of reading (March 1975). This last article is only one of a great many over the following few years that focus on "text" in the abstract sense, language, and the act of reading. In October 1975 PMLA publishes an article with a title typical of the new style in criticism: "UNITY IDENTITY TEXT SELF ." In the abstract published in the table of contents the author of this article tells us that


"understanding the receptivity of literature, how one work admits many readers, begins with an analogy: unity is to text as identity is to self ." In January of 1976 PMLA prints an article called "Talking in James," in which the author seeks to demonstrate that in James's late fiction "talk becomes a process of imaginative collaboration, and language virtually creates the conditions under which perception is possible." "'Reading' in Great Expectations, " also in 1976, is about how Dickens's novel "reveals the complex metaphorical nature of the terms 'reading' and 'reader.'" And again in 1976 "T. S. Eliot's Raids on the Inarticulate" shows how the "failure of speech" and the "weaknesses of language" are themes in Eliot's poetic works.

By the end of the decade all the stops are out. "Letters to the Self: The Cloistered Writer in Nonretrospective Fiction," we read, or "A Phenomenological Approach to the Theatrum Mundi Metaphor." Everything seems to be about "text," language, and the act of reading: "Language, History, and Text in Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi'" (October 1980), "Samuel Beckett, Fritz Mauthner, and the Limits of Language" (March 1980). The title has become an art form in itself in many cases, as critics use alluringly mystifying formulations to announce (and in many cases to obscure) their subject. "Rich Text / Poor Text: A Kafkan Confusion" (March 1980) is actually one of the more lucid titles in this genre. In the abstract to this article the author says that a particular "text" by Kafka "is a skeletal, or 'poor,' text in that one code of reading—the referential—dominates it, while other codes present in a classic, or 'rich,' text are almost absent. Using a method freely adapted from Roland Barthes's S/Z, " the author continues, "my article closely examines the referentiality of Kafka's text, juxtaposing the proverbial (or common-language) response evoked by the text with the personal reactions of a single reader. Kafka's theme, the inability of common, proverbial language to make real communication possible, is allegorized in the brief tale of A and B, whose comings and goings are mirrored, and at times interfered with, by the language in which these events occur."

Other journals follow a similar pattern. In 1965 MLN, published at Johns Hopkins, was running articles with titles like "Death and History in Poliziano's Stanze " and "The Function of the Theater in the Work of Nerval." As early as 1966, however, we begin to see glimmerings of what is to come—"Beyond Formalism" and "Topology and Critical Method"—and in 1967 "Of Structuralism and Literature" appears. By the early 1970s, although there continue to be a great many articles on traditional topics, we find titles like these: "Language, Vision, and Phe-


nomenology Merleau-Ponty as a Test Case" (1970), "The Shape of Fiction: Notes toward a Possible Classification of Narrative Discourses" (1971), "Les sources de Valéry. Qual, Quelle" (1972), "'Literature' / Literature" (1971), "Text, Pretextuality and Myth in the Folie Tristan d'Oxford " (1973), and "The Text as Practice and as Idea" (1973). Nothing could be more representative of literary criticism in the mid-1970s than this title: "Little Red Riding Hood's Metacommentary: Paradoxical Injunction, Semiotics and Behavior" (1975). For the new style in MLN 1976 is a banner year: "Vico on the Discipline of Bodies and Texts," "Writers Reading: James and Eliot," "Saussure and the Apparition of Language: The Critical Perspective," "Remarques critiques sur l'énonciation: La question du présent dans le discours," "Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics," "How To Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism," "Structuralist Homiletics," "The Fiction of Self-Begetting," "Presupposition and Intertextuality," "Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language: A Challenge to Derridean Literary Theory," and on and on. After this, each issue of MLN contains numerous articles showing the same concerns and emphases as the ones you see in the titles I've just cited.

In the 1970s, as older journals like PMLA and MLN slowly responded to the emergence of the latest styles in criticism, new journals were founded to offer literary scholars a forum more exclusively given over to the increasingly independent field of literary criticism and theory. Critical Inquiry, established in 1974, was one such journal. It immediately became the most authoritative and intimidating forum for theoretical discourse on literature (in fact, in a contemporary spirit of catholicity, it published articles on other arts as well). In its first year Critical Inquiry served up a diet representative of what was to become standard fare in its pages: "Fact, Theory, and Literary Explanation," "Reductionism and Its Discontents," "Stylistics and Synonymity," "Narrative Structure and Text Structure: Isherwood's A Meeting by the River, and Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, " "On the Margins of Discourse," and "Visual Rhetoric in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ." In the next few years Critical Inquiry consistently published articles on topics that would have been completely incomprehensible to the reader of only a few years before. Titles like these are typical: "Formalism, Savagery, and Care; or, The Function of Criticism Once Again" (1975), "The Limits of Pluralism: The Deconstructive Angel" (1976), "Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure" (1976), "Composition Discomposed" (1976),


"(Nonsymbolic) Motion / (Symbolic) Action" (1977), "Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases" (1977), "Noise" (1976), and "Culture and Modeling Systems" (1977).

Another journal that appeared on the scene in the 1970s bore the forbidding title Diacritics. Critical Inquiry is described on its front page as "a voice for reasoned inquiry into significant creations of the human spirit" and therefore presents critical articles about artworks and a certain number of articles about criticism itself. Diacritics, subtitled A Review of Contemporary Criticism, is given over exclusively to writing about theory and criticism. Most of its articles are reviews of books by other critics, but each issue also contains a few articles on more general subjects relating to theory and criticism. Either way, the title of an article in Diacritics clearly indicates a piece of writing that stands on its own, even if it is only a book review: for example, "Must One Be Metacritical?" (1972), "Sade, or Text as Fantasy" (1972), "Narrative Signs and Tangents" (1974), "Phonetics, Phonology and Impulsional Bases" (1974), "Under the Sign of Symbols: Losey and Hartley" (1974), "The Narratee and the Situation of Enunciation" (1977), and "Puss-in-Boots: Power of Signs—Signs of Power" (1977).

Now I've intentionally omitted the names of the authors of all the articles whose titles I've listed, just as I've omitted any discussion of what these articles actually contain, because to a considerable extent the titles speak for themselves and for the change in criticism I'm referring to. It's easy to see what some of the new trends are: the obsession with "text" and language is probably the most obvious. The use of a difficult, technocratic terminology is another. The quest for obscurity in all those clever, playful, and incomprehensible titles is a third. But perhaps the most basic thing of all is how the art of criticism, traditionally viewed as the handmaiden of "literature," has staked out its own territory. The articles in Diacritics, articles in which critics write about critics writing about either literary texts or still other critics, are a perfect illustration.

Anyone who saw the cynical film Broadcast News (1987) will remember the character of Aaron Altman, the earnest and principled television news reporter who, partly because he is earnest and principled but mostly because he lacks style, never achieves the kind of success that his colleagues do. In one scene he and his coworkers have gathered in the studio to preview a tape of a particularly slick report by a handsome but vacuous new anchorman. The anchorman has pushed journalistic


manipulation to the limit by dramatically beseeching the tight-lipped army general he is interviewing to open up and tell his story. Naturally, the anchorman becomes the center of attention at this moment, and the camera moves in close to show his face; meanwhile the general's head, seen from behind, becomes a mere shadow at the side of the screen. When a dizzy young woman in the studio effusively praises the new anchorman for his performance, Altman cuts in and says sarcastically, "Yes, please, let's never forget—we 're the real story, not them."

Translated into the idiom of modern criticism: Let's never forget—we 're the real text.

previous chapter
next sub-section