restricted access The Culture of Redemption, and: After Theory: Postmodernism/Postmarxism (review)
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Reviewed by
Leo Bersani. The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990. 232 pp. $25.00.
Thomas Docherty. After Theory: Postmodernism/Postmarxism. New York: Routledge, 1990. 248 pp. $55.00.

Like many recent cultural theorists, Leo Bersani and Thomas Docherty both begin by assuming a stance opposed to Theory. For Bersani, Theory means a tradition (beginning with Socrates and named by Nietzsche) that "attributes to thought the power to 'correct' existence." This tradition issues in a "redemptive aesthetic" that is antiartistic in that it views art as a corrective to life, but only through the intervention of a critical practice which misreads art as philosophy. Scorning the world of mere appearance, such a criticism seeks instead for higher truth, for perfect worlds above or beyond the phenomenal representations of works of art.

Beginning with a critique of Freud and Melanie Klein on sublimation, narcissism, and the formation of the ego, Bersani ultimately turns away from psychoanalytic theory, which he sees as having repressed its own definition of the sexual for largely institutional reasons. His own thought remains resolutely psychoanalytic, however, in viewing art as "the record of a special mode of eroticized consciousness," a kind of sublimation of the sexual which is neither the repression nor the transcendance of originary sexual desire, but rather a non-fixated jouissance. Rejecting theoretical "positions" because they tend to become solidified, he embraces instead theoretical "dispositions in front of the work," urging a "circular hermenutics" of reading in which repetitions are not followed out to their supposed conclusions in deep structure (whether of a thematic, Marxist, or psychoanalytic variety). Although he criticizes Walter Benjamin, and more recently deconstruction, for their "arrogant" attempts to appropriate literature for philosophy, his own moves share much with familiar poststructuralist practice. Throughout the book he sets up binaries only to reverse them, hopefully in as scandalous a way as possible (for example, Georges Bataille turns out to be the historically engagé novelist because of the "radical impotence" of his discovery that Nazi violence was produced by all of us, while André Malraux, whose La Condition Humaine had always seemed the very model of fiction committed to historical struggle, is in fact alienated from history and indifferent to the political choices it offers). Rejecting humanistic criticism, which has furthered the notion of art as redemptive, he also has little use for such related Enlightenment remainders as "making sense of life," representational truth rather than play, and, most importantly, the unified subject. His argument is finally a political one, holding that art as redemption reinforces the status quo, whereas art freed from its domination by philosophical Truth can offer new forms of resistance. Thus Gravity's Rainbow deconstructs unique selfhood as a way of undermining the threat of multinational capitalism: as long as we continue to think of ourselves as selves, we remain easy targets for the oppressors. Joyce's Ulysses, on the other hand, is regressive because its "conservative ideology of the self attempts to glorify Western culture. [End Page 808]

Similarly, Thomas Docherty sets out to counter what he calls the "inherent tendency to conservatism" in "theory and marxism." Although its title suggests a wholesale rejection of the theoretical enterprise, After Theory is in fact heavily dependent on the theories of Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Docherty begins with the assumption that the Enlightenment project of emancipation has failed, that understanding and reason, as shaped by the Enlightenment, are in fact a form of "soft imperialism." He rejects all notions of critique or demystification that hold it possible to pierce the veil of ideology in order to make truth claims about reality. Instead, he favors a postmodern hermeneutic that will, on the contrary, make truth claims that "tend toward illegitimacy rather than verifiability." They will be rhetorical, and their aim will be to change the world, not to know it. He admits that this hermeneutic does not lead to enlightenment, but rather "it simply produces more obscurity, or a condition of secrecy." Because culture (as in agri-culture) is literally grounded, and looks to the earth and to tradition to locate some kind of knowable identity (whether individual, ethnic, or national), it is necessarily...


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