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Wlad Godzich. The Culture of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994. viii + 317 pp. $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.
Gary Wihl. The Contingency of Theory: Pragmatism, Expressivism and Deconstruction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. xiv + 215 pp. $27.50 cloth.

Those who looked forward to the appearance of essays by Wlad Godzich in the 1980s will be gratified to have them here collected. Despite the variety of the occasions that prompted them, they can now be seen as tesserae composing a theoretical mosaic of remarkable scope. The patterns of his thought emerge from his interest in the relationship between language and literacy-the latter conceived as “a determinate set of relations that we have to language.” Godzich reinvigorates the semiological project proposed by Saussure but forsaken by his heirs: that of exploring the social functioning of language in its historical and rhetorical actualizations. This project can link deconstruction, cultural criticism, and third-world literatures in a coherent and compelling design, linguistic practice providing the common ground of their articulation.

For the key terms frequently evoked by poststructuralists (difference, otherness, power, hegemony), Godzich would substitute the cry and the echo (in his introduction) and the communal understanding implied in Kant’s treatment of the “given” (in the last chapter). Any universalizing tendency is stopped short by his insistence that historical reflection must accompany any act of understanding. Rather than trying to integrate current theoretical trends (thus blurring their singularities), he links them together at points where they can fruitfully interact.

The first three chapters-on Hans Robert Jauss, historiography, and popular culture in the early modern period-show how Jauss’s aesthetics of reception can lead to a new understanding not only of literary and cultural history, but of the shifting relations between literature and state power. The model Godzich develops to characterize mass, elite, and popular culture, along with his distinctions between oral, aural, and written communication, provide an alternative way to map modernism. Here we find a wealth of proposals that could prove rewarding for those interested in the overdue project of rewriting literary history. The social and literary transformations that accompanied [End Page 423] the onset of printing in England, Germany and France deserve the attention that Godzich has given to Spain. For the classical period, Pindar (oral), Horace (aural), and Catullus could provide a poetic and political parallel.

Three essays on narrative follow those on literary history. Godzich traces the breakdown of the structural and linguistic models that treated stories as formal objects transmitting messages from one subject to others. From the dismantling of this scheme, stories emerge as examples of human action in which the question of agency again looms large, as it does in history and in life. When used to project possible courses of action, stories precipitate a moment of decision in which time breaks loose from its commonsense and philosophic entailments.

The next section contains four essays on Paul de Man, one of them written for this book. Here as elsewhere, Godzich is as interested in contexts as in particular texts. In one section, he relates de Man’s thought to the dialectic of modernity; another contains a revealing survey of literary pedagogy and theory. Those who have been disappointed with other treatments of de Man are likely to find this one rewarding.

Having consumed and digested other theorists in earlier chapters, Godzich undertakes production in the two on semiotics. His most important thesis solicits comparison with Jurij Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text (1977). The book concludes with treatments of three themes, interlaced in four chapters: the legitimation of institutions; the relation between sociopolitical upheavals and the disciplinary structures that would understand them; and the constitution of comparative literature as a “field” that might expand its horizons by learning to see itself as it appears to those others who live outside its current borders. Godzich’s thoughts on these subjects will repay the attention of political and cultural critics; they also bear comparison with the ideas of thinkers as varied as Kojève, Leo Strauss, and René Girard. For insights into current theory and suggestions about how it might address its accumulated contradictions, no book equals this...

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