- Criticism and Critical Theory, and: Fictional Narrative and Truth: An Epistemic Analysis
The two works under review here, both of which deal—though in notably different ways—with the cognitive dimensions of literary study, present themselves as forward-looking and intellectually progressive. Although there is a freshness in a few of the essays in Hawthorn's text and an integrity in the philosophical sorting undertaken in Cebik's, critical thought is not significantly advanced overall by the publication of either volume.
In Criticism and Critical Theory, the cognitive shifts in literary study are emblemized as a conflict of ancients vs. moderns, as the overly familiar drama of the pressure exerted on traditional frames of reference (New Criticism, myth criticism, and so forth) by competing, "newer" frames of reference (cultural criticism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and post-Althusserian Marxism). In his Introduction, editor Jeremy Hawthorn (who was not sufficiently demanding of his contributors) measures the change in critical attitudes by comparing the climate in British departments of English today with that existing fifteen years ago; but this rhetoric of "landmarks" finally cannot mask the belatedness of the "new" ideas addressed in most of the volume's ten essays.
When arranged in the order of their theoretical sophistication, the essays turn out to be divided by gaps surprisingly large for a volume aiming to represent present practice. Several are quite disappointing: three overtly devoted to the problematics of reading (R. A. Sharpe's "The Private Reader and the Listening Public," Robert Crossman's "Is There Such a Thing as Misreading?," John Corner's "Criticism as Sociology: Reading the Media") and one feminist essay (Barbara Rigney's "A Wreath Upon the Grave: The Influence of Virginia Woolf on Feminist Critical Theory"). Rejecting much too easily multiple readings as destroying the idea of communication, Sharpe assumes that reading is what we have always thought it was and focuses instead on the difference between "reading" a literary text and "reading" a musical performance. According to him, the latter situation requires the mediation of a performer/interpreter between the composer's score and the audience's hearing of a concerto. Assuming a classical humanist attitude, he overlooks (or ignores) the widely accepted notion that all readings are "mediated" by the grids of intelligibility available to the reader. Things are not much better with Crossman, for he inconsistently embraces both the antihumanistic concept of multiple readings and the prohumanistic conclusion that the existence of multiple readings requires us to display tolerance toward all possibilties. Corner overdraws the dichotomy between reading-based "textualist" [End Page 842] approaches to cultural analysis and nontextual-data-based "contextualist" approaches and ends by appealing to empiricism—an exhausted avenue—as a way of bridging the gap between the two. Rigney tries to renovate Woolf's reputation as feminist critic by dissociating her from generally rejected views and by concluding that she "directs us toward a feminist perspective that is, at the same time, humanistic and interdisciplinary, unlimited in scope and universal in application." Of course, if Woolf's perspective were truly current, it would include none of the elements named by Rigney, who oddly ends up saving Woolf for the past.
Though somewhat more interesting, the critiques of deconstruction by P. D. Juhl and Iain Wright ("Playing with Texts: Can Deconstruction Account for Critical Practice?" and "History, Hermeneutics, and Deconstruction," respectively) are finally unpersuasive. Juhl insists that speech acts (to which he finds de Man's texts both implicitly and explicitly referring) necessarily involve intentionality: thus deconstruction undermines itself by assuming the very authorial intention it denies. Yet speech acts require not only speakers but hearers and a set of shared conventions for communication to take place; in other words, the speaker's intention, though not absent, is not the sole factor to be considered. Furthermore, the concept of play Juhl invokes derives from the one associated with Huizinga, which has been displaced...