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Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature, by Wendell V. Harris; 240 pp. New York: New York University Press, 1996, $40.00.

Literary theory, as everyone understands by now, has permanently changed the shape of literary study. Love it or hate it, theory has established itself as a basic component of research programs in the humanities. The question remaining is whether loving theory or hating it are the only options available to us. On the one hand, after nearly forty years of ever-more-gonzo theorizing, it has become as clear as it ever will be that theory will not deliver the kind of intellectual revelation that its proponents have hoped, assumed, or otherwise believed that it promises. If there exists a key to all mythologies, it is not literary theory. On the other hand, after four decades of the Age of Theory in the humanities, the hope of theory’s cultured despisers—that it will just pop or float away like the bubble that they think it is—seems equally remote. A third way of looking at theory, of responding to it and utilizing it as a constructive and integral part of literary criticism, simply must be opened up. This in effect is the task that Wendell Harris has set himself in a series of publications culminating with Literary Meaning.

This series begins with Harris’s 1988 monograph Interpretive Acts: In Search of Meaning (Oxford: Clarendon Press), to which the present book is a sequel. The earlier volume builds up a theory about the nature of [End Page 455] linguistic meaning and interpretation. Harris is concerned to show especially that—with a little help from speech-act theorists—an account of communicative transactions can be given that draws upon more or less commonsense ideas about mind, language, and action, and in this way can illuminate our understanding of literature on roughly the same ground as poststructuralist theorists have claimed, but independent of them and—more importantly—of their bizarre and arbitrary assumptions. Interpretive Acts is a constructive work the polemical force of which remains largely implicit—in the roads that it pointedly does not take in theorizing the linguistic basis of literature. The other, polemical shoe drops in Literary Meaning, which takes the linguistic theory previously elaborated as a point of contrast to the arguments and analyses typical of poststructuralist theory, which are surveyed and critiqued in it.

Harris’s new book is thus very similar in scope and spirit to a number of other skeptical responses to fads and fallacies of recent literary-critical thought. These include Richard Levin’s New Readings vs. Old Plays (1979), Fredrick Crews’s Skeptical Engagements (1986), Paisley Livingston’s Literary Knowledge (1988), and Raymond Tallis’s Not Saussure (1988, 1995). All of these works and critics are cited by Harris in his book. 1 Meanwhile, Harris has gathered shorter writings by Levin, Tallis, and kindred thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum and John Searle, in an valuable anthology which serves as a companion volume to Literary Meaning, Beyond Poststructuralism (1996). 2 What is important and interesting about all of this work (and epitomized in Harris’s) is that while it exposes much of the best-known and most oft-imitated literary theory to devastating criticism, it does not carry any implicit claim that theorizing about literature is a bad thing to be doing. To the contrary, like Crews, Levin, Livingston, Nussbaum, Searle, and Tallis, Harris cannot be called anything but a theorist. The group or movement incipient here is not “anti-theoretical”: it does not deny the validity of theoretical reflection on literature and criticism, but simply affirms that this kind of thing could be done a hell of a lot better than it has been so far.

Someone might contest the preceding claim on the grounds that anybody who, like Harris, makes a program of criticizing contemporary literary theory can fairly be described as holding an antitheoretical position. When we say this, however, we need to distinguish Harris’s position from at least three other kinds of antitheoreticism, all more familiar in the literary humanities currently. One is what I might call [End Page 456] curmudgeonly...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 455-465
Launched on MUSE
1997-10-01
Open Access
No
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