- Wittgenstein and Critical Theory
Susan Brill’s central claim for this book is that “by relying upon Wittgensteinian philosophy, literary critics will be enabled to escape the stultifying position of absolutist critical discourses without being bereft of any satisfactory means of evaluating . . .” (p. 2). It is a claim well chosen and she gives a well executed overview of the connections between Wittgensteinian philosophy and the study of literature. Her first chapter is a lucid introduction to Wittgenstein’s heuristic, giving ample quotations and insightful guidance for even the philosophical novice. However, her chosen audience is literary critics and theorists, and she uses the Wittgensteinian corrective of descriptive investigation as a counterpoint to both traditionalist and postmodernist critical theories. Her pragmatic goal, in Wittgensteinian fashion, is to “look” at literature, [End Page 401] not “think” about it in terms of preconceiving “theory.” Those familiar with Wittgenstein will find the application of his work to literary criticism illuminating, and those unfamiliar with his philosophical methodology and ideas will get an introductory account useful for literary and critical applications.
After the introductory chapter, Brill turns to specific critical approaches and some particularly Wittgensteinian twists to literature, literary theory, and criticism. First, she looks at psychoanalytic criticism which she links somewhat oddly, I think, with semiotic critical orientations—probably to offset the Gallic influence which has fascinated American literary criticism for most of the second half of the twentieth century. Then in a series of three chapters, she turns to what she calls “issues of inclusivity and exclusivity” to look at feminist theories and their literary analyses, at the problems of canonical literature and marginalized writers, and at the “deconstructive project” as compared to Wittgenstein’s descriptive one. Although these three chapters are focused on specific literary ideologies, she consistently looks for the elements of connectivity in her approach to them. Her last chapter suggests some future uses of Wittgenstein in literary theory with particular attention to New Historicism and cultural criticism.
The book does have two awkward emphases arising, I think, from the particular methodology of Wittgenstein and from the fact that this is Brill’s first book. First, the Wittgensteinian concept of “game” sometimes is used so broadly by both Wittgenstein and Brill, that everything becomes a “game” and anything can be a piece, a move, a strategy, or a rule. Brill tries to tie this specifically to patterns of discourse and uses it to open up responses to literature, but what is needed is a developed definition of play particularly as it relates to aesthetic behaviors like literature. “Game” is certainly a usable structural device, but without some relationship to the goals and needs of human behavior, it tells us more about the device than the user of the device. Second, the book does tend to take critics at their own estimation, and one needs to remember descriptively that critics are a Victorian invention like corsets and morning coats and just as restrictive in design. Any folk engaged in professional discourse, particularly one engaged in its own legitimization, will tend to over-valuate their own professional worth, and one should not take them too seriously unless it is clear that their profession is doing significant damage.
Of course, that question about the damaging effects of critics and philosophers motivates both Wittgenstein and Brill, and the joining of the two here will probably do good for both professions. Certainly the study will do much to bring a more open notion of theory to the study of literature. Susan Brill is a persistent scholar who has drawn together a wide net, and though her chosen task was to suggest Wittgensteinian strategies for reading literature and to caution literary critics about overinvested theories, her own literary and philosophical desire has been to be as inclusive and open as possible to the [End Page 402] dynamics of texts without losing her own value center. Scholarship would surely be a better enterprise if more did what she has done with the persistence she has shown.