- Practicing What You Preach
I live in a country where, in a sense, the Bad Writing Contest is a national institution. Here, however, the laureates are not scoffed at in academic journals but given jobs and professorships and even instant disciples. So I can empathize with the impatience felt by many critics and theorists nowadays, and I share their desire to bring literary studies back to more reasonable premises and practices. There is, however, something slightly self-defeating about the volume of nineteen articles and excerpts collected by Wendell V. Harris. For this is an anthology with an ax to grind, yet the real proof that we have indeed moved “beyond poststructuralism” would have been a volume that ignored it, or took parts of it for granted, and then got back to work. Harris’s introduction, however, starts with a battle cry, and with a list of characters and heresies that gives us a good idea of how he sees the modern orthodoxy: “it is widely if uncritically assumed that one must eschew the consideration of authorial intention; that meanings are undecidable; that there is no justification for seeking unity in a text; that all hierarchies of value are reversible, that history is no more than an open contest among competing narrative constructions; and that [End Page 444] the very nature of language makes the falsifiability of statements about experience impossible” (p. xi). One senses that Harris and his allies are going to show that all this is wrong, and this summary leads us naturally to the first division of the volume, entitled, clearly enough, “The Dis-abling Confusions of Current Literary Theory.” The second part of the collection is called “Recapturing the Values of Reading”—but often the distinction between the two parts is artificial, as some of the articles in the second part are just as negative as those of the first. The only paper that really goes “beyond poststructuralism” is Martha Nussbaum’s, which is as rich in its insights as it is ignorant of, naive about, or simply uninterested in the poststructuralist strictures it violates.
Harris’s anthology has the advantages and disadvantages of its general unity and coherence. The disadvantage is that there is a certain amount of repetition; the advantage is that there are few contributions which seem out of place. One of the articles that stands slightly apart is John Searle’s “Literary Theory and Its Discontents,” a paper which pursues the continuing Derrida-Searle debate, and which thus certainly deserves its place here. But Searle’s article has another dimension, for part of its emphasis is on the arguments of Knapp and Michaels defending a simpler view of intentionality. Here, for once, the opponents are not outlandish poststructuralists, but, arguably, fellow travelers. For in their own way, Knapp and Michaels were trying to get criticism away from speculation and back to practice—which is close to what Harris has called for in a recent article published in this very journal. 1
Other pieces which seem different or slightly out of place include previously unpublished work by Michael Fischer and Charles Altieri. Fischer’s basic idea is that deconstruction can be a good tool to calm the “polemical impatience” of those critics who would tend to be too hot-headed as political activists (p. 274). But he goes on to argue that “patiently attending to complexity, suspending judgment, and questioning knowledge may be intrinsic to the academic study of literature: they do not just come on the scene with deconstruction.” In that case, we don’t need deconstruction per se—all we need is some discipline that fosters these qualities. “Patiently attending to complexity” will be of help in reading Altieri’s contribution. Altieri is interested in laying “emphasis on the specific dynamics by which wording the world proves inseparable from willing the world” (p. 283). None of this is exceptional in itself, but it is formulated in a style which sounds more like the poststructuralism the volume...