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The Culture of Literacy (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 385-386 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0067

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Reviewed by
The Culture of Literacy, by Wlad Godzich; 317 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994, $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

This is a collection of essays that spans the range of Wlad Godzich’s work in the 1980s, including several pieces on Paul de Man and a number of others that served as introductions to works by Jauss, Maravall, Nerlich, and Certeau. Even though most of the essays in this volume have already seen the light of publication (only one is new), grouping them together in one volume recasts them into an interdiscursive realm. Rather than being narrowed by their initial venues of publication, they are arranged around the subject of The Culture of Literacy, eliciting new and different questions.

In the introduction, Godzich emphasizes that literacy programs in American universities, which developed out of the “New Vocationalism” of the seventies and eighties, “evince a profound distrust of interpretation and other critical functions in relation to language, and proclaim mastery and competence as their goals” (p. 14). Within this framework, theory has raised the voice of difference, challenging the established organization of knowledge as displayed in the academic disciplines and sub-disciplines. Writing programs are one example of the extent to which theory’s original hope of destabilizing [End Page 385] hierarchies of power through greater accessibility to university education has been co-opted and transformed into the commodity of the New Vocationalist literacy programs.

This discussion poses the larger problem of the entire collection. Godzich perceives an “epochal shift” in concepts and practices of literacy not only in regards to writing programs but in the struggles over theory, in the reception of de Man, and in the challenge offered by emergent literatures whose voices raise new questions about the literary and critical presuppositions within which all university scholars function.

Reprinted alongside such essays as “In-Quest of Modernity,” “The Further Possibility of Knowledge,” “The Changing Face of History,” and “After the Storyteller,” Godzich’s earlier essays on de Man are recontextualized beyond the debates concerning de Man’s wartime writings. The question whether it is possible to consider de Man’s later work divorced from his earlier writings is elided. I almost wish that Godzich had simply brought together his already published essays without the inclusion of the one new piece, “Paul de Man and the Perils of Intelligence,” which largely serves as Godzich’s defense of de Man and of Godzich’s own earlier writings on him. A footnote appended to one of the other articles would have been sufficient. Most readers would place Godzich’s articles on de Man in the context of the years when they were written—prior to the public knowledge of de Man’s collaborationist work. But when Godzich writes, “I doubt whether de Man was personally antisemitic—certainly nothing in his postwar life suggests it—but he certainly was culturally antisemitic during the war and probably before as well” (p. 136), he mires his subsequent essays even more deeply in the very difficulties he attempts to set aside. Even if de Man were antisemitic throughout his life, that in no way invalidates his criticism. We might read de Man differently, but we would read him nevertheless. Godzich’s discussions of Blindness and Insight and The Resistance to Theory demonstrate de Man’s contribution to the poststructural “overturning of modernity” and to our linguistic reconceptualizing of our notions of the self and the social. De Man becomes the pivotal focus that frees the reader from the seductive narratives of written history, official or state-sanctioned culture (specifically Spanish literary history), storytelling authority, disciplinary specialization, and the New Vocationalism. As Godzich says, “de Man’s remapping has liberated praxis from the hold that theory has had over it” (p. 169).

There is courage in this collection—the courage to republish that which in a new context takes on a significance other than what the original articles bespoke. In this way, The Culture of Literacy itself exemplifies the “further possibility of knowledge” that Godzich’s essays celebrate and describe.

Susan B. Brill
Bradley University
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