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Reviewed by:
Elena Russo. Skeptical Selves. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. 225 pp.

At least three books are competing for existence in this dense work: an interpretation of a pragmatic view of signs, a theory of the novel, and an historical work on the way language theory has inflected the practice of fiction since the Enlightenment. Russo’s agenda is not modest, and, for all her talent, it seems that the unity that should emerge from this trinity eludes her here. However, she has produced a lively book for those advanced readers who are patient enough to sort out her various arguments. [End Page 459]

In the interest of clarity, I would suggest that one begin this book by reading the final chapter, in which Russo makes a spirited exposition of the philosophy of signs developed by the American pragmatist C. S. Peirce. Literary theorists come to Peirce by way of structuralist and poststructuralist readings (say, Eco or Derrida) and generally annex him to whatever their agenda is. Russo wants to read Peirce more on his own terms, which subject earlier theorists’ readings to some telling criticism. She proposes that we take this American thinker quite seriously for his view of signs as process. Russo’s Peirce is not the neo-Hegelian, as many American philosophers see him, but a thinker whose thought can overcome the implicit metaphysical idealism that has separated signifier and signified throughout the Western tradition’s dealing with language and symbolism. This separation has led consistently to a “crisis” of the sign whenever philosophers or writers have attempted to account for the way language can actually have some purchase on the real: Russo’s Peirce interprets the sign as an infinite process of interpretation of which reality is the limit. Russo’s most persuasive writing is found here, in her conclusion, in which she wants to overcome the crisis that begins, in her work, with Enlightenment semiotics and continues through Derrida. It is actually only in this final chapter that one can clearly measure to what extent she is undertaking a welcome critique of deconstruction and pointing out deconstruction’s complicity with the very tradition whose end it supposedly signals.

Her second undertaking in this book is more squarely in the realm of literary theory in that she adumbrates here and there a theory of the novel. For example, she draws upon Austin’s analysis of language to suggest that, by analogy to Austin’s performatives, one might look upon literary language, as used in the novel, as a form of performance. The very enactment of the performance should abolish what she calls the distance between the reader’s experience and the representation in the novel. This performative theory is enticing, though not given enough development, I fear, to be more than that. There is a theory of fiction scattered about here that needs to be drawn together and separated from the historical thesis that provides the main axis for the book.

Through the reading of three French novels, Russo wants to demonstrate the thesis that contemporary linguistic skepticism is the product of a longing for the abolition of the metaphysical separation of [End Page 460] signifier, signified, and referent. To this end she reads a work from the Enlightenment, a work of more or less romantic ideology, and a contemporary novel; or, respectively, Prévost’s Histoire d’une Grecque, Constant’s Adolphe, and Le Bavard by the rather obscure Louis-René Des Forêts. My immediate problem with this historical axis is that it is not altogether clear to me why our contemporary linguistic skepticism should be present in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers. Rather, it seems to me that her readings of these specific texts illustrate a certain desire to talk about contemporary theory as if it were part of the thematics of earlier writers.

With regard to Prévost’s French narrator, for example, she finds that the narrator founders on the metaphysics of empirical philosophy when he tries to make sense of the enigmatic Greek woman whom he has freed from a Turkish seraglio. It is true that the Enlightenment narrator experiences epistemological difficulties, not to say erotic anguish, because...

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