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Reviewed by:
  • Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock
  • Michael Szalay
Tom Cohen, Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiii + 266 pages.

Tom Cohen begins Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock with the following questions:

What is the interventionist role of ‘reading’ (indeed, of too close reading) after the era of cultural studies? How does the materiality of language re-assert itself as a transformative agent in reading canonical writings from a post-humanist perspective? How do we exceed, today, the ideologies of retro-humanism in the various forms it takes on the right and the left? How much has a mimetic bias to the traditions of interpretation constituted a conservative politics of its own, and is there, today, an anti-mimetic or anti-representational politics located in the activity of reading.

Cohen’s use of the phrase “too close reading” in his first question is of course meant to be ironic. Indeed Anti-Mimesis announces from the start its commitment to close readings, to what recently has been denigrated as “formalist” by literary critics newly enamored of history and politics. This willingness to defend close reading goes far in providing Anti-Mimesis with its interest and value—not least as a measure of how quickly things change—for Cohen casts himself in the role of the “traditional” post-structuralist theorist defending his formalism from those who see even the most linguistically subversive close readings as somehow politically apathetic. Having declared his allegiance to de Manian deconstruction, Cohen will proceed to offer a vindication of deconstructive practice, a vindication that will insist de Manian deconstruction has a significant political function to perform even now.

Cohen quickly demonstrates that he is more than qualified to take de Manian literary theory into the nineties. Moving from Plato, through American pragmatism and nineteenth-century American literature to modernism and Hitchcock, Cohen produces often compelling accounts of the ways in which the materiality of language—described as “prefigural signifying agents,” as “sound, signature and letters”—emerges as a central concern in a broad contingent of works. Indeed de Man is here in more ways than one: the quixotic and often breathtaking combination of erudition and creativity that characterized de Man’s work appears throughout Anti-Mimesis, lending Cohen’s work a kind of paradigmatic authority. If there is someone who can speak for de Man today, Cohen just might be that person.

It is precisely because Cohen is so adept at doing what de Man did that his work’s interest seems continually to slide from the readings themselves into [End Page 983] the questions Cohen asks concerning the “interventionist” or “political” possibilities of de Manian close reading. In his discussion of American pragmatists, Cohen makes it clear that the politics of the anti-mimetic and prefigural are to be located in the ways in which deconstruction dismantles commitments to a “retro-humanism” characterized for Cohen by Richard Rorty and Cornell West. Under the pressure of readings interested in the materiality of signification, Cohen suggests that man comes to be “dedefined, a dissolved space-holder of the discoursing subject who, inscribed in and as language, is supplanted by the predicate, the metron, as a cutting, criticizing, or reading activity (Whitman might call it tallying) that is fundamentally external to and defining of man” (102).

Much of Cohen’s book attempts to use this emptied out version of the human to replace the more self-possessed humanisms recently promulgated by neo-pragmatists who, he claims, have misunderstood their own philosophical genealogy. American literature, Cohen suggests, offers the truest American pragmatism, for it powerfully insists upon the decentered subject, upon the fact that the human is an always contingent sequence of mechanical (re)productions without origin. Cohen in this manner attempts to make American literature the receptacle of those critical values now associated with continental philosophers from Nietzsche to Foucault. The solution to what he terms an essentially Francophobic resistance to theory consequently involves a curious inversion whereby Americans get to be nationalists after all: no longer dependent upon the foreign import, American academics can now come to understand the decentered subject as a particularly American invention.

Unfortunately, Cohen ignores...

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