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Chapter One— Flight from Eden: Myths about Myths about Language in Modern Times
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The Fracture

Before we describe this history, we need to have a sense of where it goes. How will this struggle for freedom from the old myths play itself out in twentieth-century criticism? I've used the word break to describe the desired liberation from mythical forms of thought. As it happens, the notion of a break or fracture comes to be an integral part of the very theories that seek that break with the past. Now, however, the break has


to do with language itself, not just the relation of theorists and poets to their past.

The late French philosopher Michel Foucault has described the modern view of language in Les mots et les choses (Words and things, translated into English for some reason as The Order of Things ) in a way that is useful, although his context is different from ours. For Foucault, a view of language is part of an episteme, by which he means an entire way of understanding and knowing in a given epoch. An episteme is different from a worldview or Weltanschauung in that it has as its specific object the human, social world. The three broad classifications into which the objects of a single episteme can be divided are life, work, and language.

Foucault is interested irf three epistemai, the most recent of which extends from shortly before the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. The big change that begins to occur in the thinking about language early in this period is the change from a view of language as a representational medium to a view of language as functional. In the period of Foucault's first episteme, roughly corresponding to the sixteenth century, the prevailing notion of language is of a medium that operates through a principle of resemblance between words and designated objects. In the period of the second episteme, comprising approximately the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion of resemblance is rejected in favor of a binary notion of language. That is, language is seen as a neutral and conventional means for representing—rather than imitating—the world, and the emphasis is on the split between representing word and represented world. In the modern period representation gives way to a notion of pure function, as philologists discover laws of similarity among the Indo-European languages, particularly those laws that show resemblances among such purely grammatical attributes of languages as inflectional endings. "Language is no longer composed only of representations and sounds that, in turn, represent these representations and order themselves as strings of thought require. It is instead composed of formal elements that are grouped in a system and that impose on the sounds, the syllables, and the roots an order that is not that of representation." This is how there comes to appear in the modern age a "dimension of the pure grammatical."[8]

As a result, language in the modern age takes on a kind of opacity and becomes an object in its own right, instead of being merely a transparent, representational medium. It "folds back on itself, acquires its own density, displays a history, laws, and an objectivity that belong to


it alone." Language exists now only in a "dispersed mode." "For the philologists, words are like so many objects composed and passed on by history; for those who wish to formalize, language must rid itself of its concrete content, leaving only the universally valid forms of speech to appear. If one wishes to interpret, then words have become a text to be fractured in order that one can then see the emergence of this other meaning they hide."[9]

Foucault's presentation of the modern episteme goes a long way toward describing the status of language in the writings of twentieth-century literary critics, theorists, and aestheticians. But critics, theorists, and aestheticians are not Foucault's subject, at least not exclusively or even prominently. Foucault speaks largely of the professional philosophers—in addition to speaking of authors and poets from time to time—and thus provides a perspective similar to the one we find in Coseriu's article on the arbitrariness of the sign. When Foucault speaks of Mallarmé, saying that with him (and Nietzsche) "thought was led, and violently so, back towards language itself, back to its unique, difficult being," thus making Mallarmé a crucial figure in the twin processes of the "fracturing of language" and its transition to a state of "philological objectivity,"[10] he speaks almost as though the whole question had been settled with Mallarmé. It had not. But the value of Foucault's discussion of language for us lies in its capacity to describe the limits of the trend he is talking about, to describe a view of language that has come to dominate much twentieth-century thinking.

The term fracture is apt, and it certainly gives a good idea of the situation in which language finds itself in the twentieth century. The fracture operates on levels that Foucault does not enumerate (this is not his purpose). But one may classify a great many twentieth-century theories of language according to the terms in which they formulate a fracture. Its most basic sense may be found in the Saussurian doctrine of I'arbitraire du signe, in which the fracture severs the sign from its referent. Any aesthetics that is formalist in the general sense—any aesthetics emphasizing functions and relations over elements (in this case words)—will accept this doctrine as a self-evident truth.

Other schools of criticism, aesthetics, and language theory have seen the fracture as operating at a higher level than sign and referent, namely the level of the extended utterance. Theorists loosely grouped under the rubric of phenomenology tend to see the problems of language arising not out of the relation between words and things, or signs and referents, but instead out of the relation between larger signifying units and a


newly problematized entity called meaning. Edmund Husserl, the founding father of this movement in philosophy, had initiated this trend in his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical investigations, 1900–1901) by referring to meanings as an independent class of ideal objects that don't need to have anything to do with the signs associated with them.[11] In fact, the nature of this association is far less simple than has commonly been supposed, Husserl thinks. Signs may well be signs for something, he says, but they do not in all cases possess a meaning or sense that is "expressed" by them.[12]

When Roman Ingarden, a Polish pupil of Husserl, comes to talk specifically about literary texts in the late 1920s, he organizes language into what he calls meaning units, or unified utterances. Like Husserl before him, Ingarden distinguishes sharply between meanings, which are created by subjective acts of consciousness, and the units of language associated with those meanings. The meaning function of language—the function, that is, that associates a meaning with a particular meaning unit—is conferred on that meaning unit from without by a subjective act of consciousness and can therefore in no way be considered as automatic or absolute.[13] The very premise of Ingarden's theory is thus that there is no necessary, simple, or natural relation between language and its meanings. Three decades later the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty also was to insist on the lack of a necessary and direct relation between utterances (by which Merleau-Ponty understands units larger than individual words) and their associated meanings. For him, meanings are ideas that cannot be directly expressed but can only be approached through a series of "adumbrations" (Abschattungen, a Husserlian term). In his essay "On the Phenomenology of Language" (1951) he describes how the adumbrations in a given utterance suddenly "contract into a single meaning" by a process that can't even be described. For Merleau-Ponty, there can never be any question of a direct signifiedsignifying relation because the signified always "surpasses" the signifying.[14]

A much more radical fracture, however, is the one we find in the work of Jacques Derrida and his many American epigones. In fact, the whole trend known as postmodernism, which helped set the tone for literary studies in the 1970s, is dedicated to an idolatrous fascination with the lonely, nihilistic worldview that is implicit in Derrida's fractured theory of language. For Derrida, language can be characterized only as a play of differences among an intricate network, or "tissue," of signs. Language is marked by the "impossibility for a sign, for the unity of a


signifier and a signified, to occur in the plenitude of a present and an absolute presence."[15] There is no present or absolute presence in any sign other than the divine logos, and the logos is a purely metaphysical, "infinitist" notion.[16] In the language of man, meaning is always in flight, always beyond the horizon; there is no presence, no unity, only the trace of what was just there. Thus language is not only the differences at play in a tissue of signs; it is also différance (with a instead of e ), a word Derrida invented to combine the two principal senses of the French verb différer, "differ" and "defer." In the intricate complex of differences that is language, meaning is always deferred, put off, scattered. Derrida introduces the concept of the trace to describe the way in which language is never fully present (as we would like to think it is) but exists instead in a state that looks back to something that was already there. The trace, always flitting ahead of the presence that it leaves behind, thus describes a double process of "retention" (since it retains what has been present) and "protention" (since it tends forward, away from that present). Signification is born at this juncture of retention and protention, and Derrida finds in the French language a word that happily combines the notion of juncture and rupture he sees united in the trace—brisure, which means "hinge," as in the hinged articulation between two parts of a shutter (this definition, of course, allows Derrida to exploit the double sense of "articulation"), and "fracture."[17]

There is another kind of fracture that at one time had become canonical in literary aesthetics, and that is the fracture that separates speaker from language. This fracture is the premise of any objectivist literary aesthetic, any aesthetic that regards the word as independent of its speaker and the literary work of art as independent of its creator. Such a view had become virtually an article of faith in the teaching of literature in many of the most respected American universities in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was fashionable for professors to shock undergraduate students by telling them that inquiries into an author's life or into the author's avowed understanding of his or her own work were irrelevant to a true understanding of that work—hence the license to throw lecture notes away and spend hours of class time in an exercise known as close reading, wherein students, with their instructor's minimal participation, take a piece of writing, like a bit of organic tissue, pick it into tiny bits, and comment on how those bits interact either with each other (the bits) or with them (the students).

Objectivist criticism became entrenched in the 1950s, when many of the next decade's academics were still in graduate school. Cleanth


Brooks published The Well Wrought Urn in 1947, proposing a view of literary artworks as organic structures whose constituent parts were to be understood and judged only in terms internal to the artwork as a totality.[18] In "The Intentional Fallacy," first published in 1946 and then again as a chapter of The Verbal Icon in 1954, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley had argued that consulting an author to discover the meaning of that author's words was illegitimate. "Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle," the essay ends.[19] And in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958), a work designed as an introductory college textbook in aesthetics, Beardsley forcefully espoused objectivism as a principle of all art criticism.[20]

Wimsatt and Brooks, in their Literary Criticism: A Short History, published in 1957, trace the origins of the objectivist aesthetic, or "impersonality," as they put it (since the author's "person" does not appear in his works). Credit goes to T. S. Eliot, they say, not because he was the first to come up with the idea but because it was he who "brought this matter of impersonality squarely to the attention of his generation." Eliot's position in separating the personal experience of the poet from the poem itself is stated in 1919 "with almost shocking emphasis," as Wimsatt and Brooks put it.[21]

The idea of severing the speaker from his words is by no means restricted to such New Critics as Wimsatt and Brooks. Nor am I persuaded that Eliot is the one who brings it into the open. It is implicit in any formalist or structuralist view of language (in the general sense of those terms), where the emphasis is on relations between words rather than on their expressive qualities. And it emerges in the phenomenological views of language I mentioned a moment ago, since for thinkers like Ingarden and Merleau-Ponty the meanings of language escape and surpass the speaker as much as they escape and surpass language. But no matter what the specifics of the view are, language is a long way from the organic unity it enjoys in the myths—unity with man in Rousseau and many of the romantics, unity with God in the Gospels.

Many of the relativizing tendencies in the twentieth century are evidence of a fracture in the primitive unity of language. This notion is true of any theory asserting that the meanings of language are determined by a context of some sort. It is essential to the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary theorist whose works became immensely fashionable in the 1980s. One of Bakhtin's central notions is raznorechie (translated as "heteroglossia"), which describes the necessary interaction in verbal utterances between the fixed system of a


given language and the context of a particular utterance.[22] It is certainly there in E. D. Hirsch, who, some twenty years before he gained notoriety for his Cultural Literacy (a kind of companion best-seller to Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind in 1987), wrote a book in which he gave a theory of literary interpretation. Hirsch distinguishes between the "meaning" of a literary work as a fixed thing established in the context of its writing, and the "significance" of a literary work as something that changes over history as a function of the contexts of future generations of readers.[23] It is there in so-called reception theories, which see the meaning of language as largely determined by characteristics of the listener (or reader). And it is there in Marxist theory, which views consciousness and, consequently, language as determined by social existence.

The twentieth century is not responsible for inventing the skepticism necessary to produce language theories as lonely and unsettling as some of these. The fracture is there, at least in germinal form, in the early modern period I am discussing. But it is never asserted wholeheartedly. Instead, the old myths dwell side by side with the fractured notion of language. And the forum that allows for this cohabitation is the one where the distinction between poetic language and ordinary, or prosaic, language is investigated. The typical symptom of the surviving neurotic attachment to the old myths is the tendency to distinguish between two types of language, the language of poetry and the language of prose (or whatever you want to call language that is not poetic), and to assign a privileged, Edenic status to poetic language.

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Chapter One— Flight from Eden: Myths about Myths about Language in Modern Times
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