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It feels strange to be writing a review of Susan Stewart’s Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation in 1996. The book, which was written in the late eighties and first released by Oxford University Press in 1991, was released as a Duke UP paperback in 1994, making it at first glance contemporary with Karen S. McPherson’s Incriminations: Guilty Women/Telling Stories, the other book under review here. Yet even a cursory reading of Stewart places the book earlier in [End Page 916] the history of literary criticism in the United States, where the cachet of critical schools now changes so quickly that Stewart’s text, although written six to eight years ago, is aIready a significant part of that history. In a way, reading Crimes of Writing was like coming home, reminding me of my critical roots and what those roots have enabled. Phrases like “these studies rest in several ways upon a catechresis in levels of analysis and a catechresis in temporality” place the book firmly in a transitional moment in literary criticism in the U.S., that of late deconstruction. At that moment, decon-as-method (problems with using deconstruction as a methodology instead of a philosophy was one of the key debates of the period) was highly focused and consisted primarily of the formal analysis of literary texts. With the appearance of Stewart’s book and others like it such as Michael Ryan’s The Politics of Culture or Drucilla Cornell’s Beyond Accommodation, deconstruction was applied to a much wider range of institutions and cultural rubrics, like that of what Stewart describes as “the law’s remedy for crimes of writing.”
Discussing the relationship between authorship and subjectivity, Stewart looks at unlikely “authors” such as “the pornographer, the graffiti artist, the plagiarist” in order to demonstrate the limits of conventional notions of representation, authenticity, authors, and the ownership of literary production. Ranging from the origins of the copyright in the eighteenth century to postmodernist fiction and its vexed struggles with representation, Crimes of Writing marks a crucial transitional moment of the passage from, to borrow Antony Easthope’s title, “literary into cultural studies.” As Michael Moon indicates in his jacket copy for the book, “Stewart continues to build on her reputation as one of the most productive and challenging deconstructors of the disciplinary boundaries that supposedly separate literary history and critical theory from contemporary cultural analysis.” Crimes of Writing performs just such a crucial challenge to disciplinary authority, and that those of us who practice culturaI studies now take the deconstruction of those boundaries for granted is a testimony to the power of Stewart’s work and the work of others like her (Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronnell, Drucilla Cornell come immediately to mind).
Karen S. McPherson’s Incriminations: Guilty Women/Telling Stories proceeds from a similar critical paradigm, this time explicitly deconstructive-feminist. McPherson is also interested, although in different ways, in the double-bind that encompasses the large, “postmodern” [End Page 917] problem of voice and subjectivity: who gets to speak with authority and why? Once the assumptions that have traditionally upheld authority are questioned, do the previously marginalized voices enabled by that questioning fall into the same old trap? As McPherson puts it, “the danger for women telling their stories, relating their particular experiences as indicative of some common experience, is precisely that they may, or may appear to, be reinvesting in the very structures of identity, referentiality, and authority that their voices would be rising up against.” Because “voice is a trope of identity and power,” however, for “the voices coming from the margins” such speaking (and hearing) is crucial to political empowerment, and, despite all the deconstructions of voice, she insists on retaining it, not as an origin or source of truth but as a relational category, the voicing of multiple perspectives, senses of truth. If traditionally women are, for McPherson, incriminated and therefore guilty of non-truth, “frequently dismissed...