restricted access The Pleasures of Babel: Contemporary American Literature and Theory (review)
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Reviewed by
Jay Clayton. The Pleasures of Babel: Contemporary American Literature and Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. ix + 209 pp. $29.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

One taxing problem of the postmodern period (postmodern age? postmodern moment?) is the difficulty in finding adequate authority for connecting the part to the whole, even when it comes to the act of periodizing which gives meaning to the first half of this sentence (or the myth of periodizing, that deprives the sentence of meaning). While some might think this commentary on my own sentence and on the historicizing of its elements is astute, others that it is political, and still others that it is perverse, they all would be locating their comments within implicit narratives of critical activity, in contemporary discourse. Those narratives would depend upon other narratives: stories about literature and criticism, art and culture, canon and margin, pedagogy and practice, cultural products and cultural production, to name a few. Those narratives in turn could rely on narratives about race, religion, gender, nation, History, again, to name a few. But how can these large narratives inform each esoteric practice, each perverse sentence? Although the opening sentence of this review could hardly be called an historical event, how valid is a history—a form of writing—denuded of the everyday practices and myriad scribblings that comprise it? Of all that happens, as Michel de Certeau noted, how little gets written down.

Because authoritatively uniting the particular to the general has proved so perplexing, many scholars and students in many fields, understandably, [End Page 371] appear to admire the ease with which Claude Raines solves his disciplinary problem in Casablanca by rounding up the usual suspects. Jay Clayton, however, greets the demise of the dominant cultural narrative that valorized Casablanca's attitude toward discipline and punishment not as perplexity but as pleasure. Concentrating on American fiction from the last quarter of this century, Clayton demonstrates convincingly—and very lucidly—the exciting potential for the enmeshing of cultural narratives that these works exemplify, especially when juxtaposed with the stories of literature, culture, and human subjectivity suggested by contemporary critical theory. Drawing particularly on work from anthropology, deconstruction, legal studies, psychoanalytic criticism, and feminist studies, Clayton argues for the political and social power of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and anthropological approaches to literary studies.

Beginning with Foucauldian inquiries about the relationship of power to culture—and the role of narrative in that relationship—Clayton argues that studies pointing to the inseparability of law and narrative are paradigmatic in suggesting that authority is the product of a seamless culture and society, even though society is disunified, constituted by "competing communities, each of which must struggle to uphold the validity of its traditions." Defining or maintaining a specific cultural vision, therefore, becomes "a fundamental form of political action," one that foregrounds the cultural and political importance of narrative.

In this context, Clayton demonstrates the political cogency of deconstruction and psychoanalytics. Recognizing the power of deconstruction as critical strategy, he correctly notes that deconstruction has ended as a theoretical movement "because its procedures have become so transparent . . . that it is now possible to speak of deconstruction as a 'practice of everyday life' in literature departments." As a practice, therefore, "deconstruction becomes political . . . because of its deployment at the site of a specific historical conflict." Boldly asserting, as well, the historical specificity of "desire," Clayton develops historical models for desire that allow both desire and narrative to be seen "as variable social phenomena, either one of which might influence the behavior of the other at a particular historical moment, or more likely still, each of which might work simultaneously on the other in a mutually enriching exchange. The job then might be to determine not only the nature of the exchange but also the place, the particular locus in the social world, where the negotiations between narrative and desire are carried out."

In the following chapters, using novels and critical texts almost interchangeably, Clayton thematizes criticism and develops a critical thematics from fictional narrative, to explain the role of narrative in creating communities and thus in deploying power, especially as illustrated by feminist and minority literature. He also demonstrates...