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BELSEY ON LANGUAGE AND REALISM by Noel Carroll Like much contemporary literary theory, Catherine Belsey's influential Critical Practice1 is antirealist, where "antirealism" refers both to the rejection of a putative literary style and to the espousal of an epistemological stance, the latter ostensibly grounded in a theory of language, adapted from Ferdinand Saussure. Moreover, these two antirealisms are connected in that stylistic antirealism is, in part, advanced as a consequence of epistemological —or perhaps more aptly "linguistic"— antirealism. Belsey's theory is avowedly political, designed to challenge the operation of ideology in literature, particularly realist literature. That is, though Belsey discusses literature of several different periods and of different genres, her primary preoccupation is with something she calls expressive realism, a tendency perhaps best exemplified by the nineteenth-century novel and still pursued by our less experimental writers. Purportedly, expressive realism is underwritten by at least two tenets: (1) realism insofar as it presumes that literature can accurately represent reality, and (2) a variant of expressionism insofar as it presumes we have access to the thoughts and intentions of authors {CP, p. 7). In this note, I shall concentrate exclusively on the linguistic arguments— which Belsey calls "Post Saussurean" — that are mobilized to discredit the first presumption of literary realism, its claim to represent reality. For Belsey, a major problem with expressive realism is that this sort of literature presents itself or is taken as an accurate reflection of reality . Belsey sometimes makes this point by saying that such literature purports to be an accurate representation of reality. At other moments, that which such literature claims to reflect accurately is said to be experiences of reality. But these alternative claims are also segued by 124 Noel Carroll125 saying that what is reflected are experiences of reality which are recognized to be true. Given the text, the variant of the reflection theory that appears to occupy Belsey most is the notion that literature reflects reality — that is, holds a mirror up to nature, as Hamlet might have it. This raises Belsey's political hackles because she believes that a commitment to the plausibility of the goal of reflecting life accurately invests realist literature with the aura of a socially unmediated, transhistorical , "natural" account of human life rather than an ideologically constructed one. In order to forestall this supposedly political repercussion , Belsey, taking advantage of her expanded version of Saussurean linguistics, charges that realism misconstrues the relationship between literature and the world. Indeed, ana this is the crux of her postSaussurean argument, the error here can be traced to something deeper, viz., a misconstrual of the relation between language and the world, of which the pretensions of literary realism are merely but an instance. Stated baldly, Belsey aspires to debunk literature's claims to realism by denying language's claims to realism. This may seem rather like killing a fly by using a cannon. And, in any case, one would have thought that questions about the representational efficacy of language were logically independent of the issue of the ideological operation of literary realism. However, Belsey, like many contemporary literary theorists , mistakenly believes that one contests literary realism by propounding epistemological reservations about language. Belsey claims that her linguistic antirealism derives from Saussure's putative discovery that "far from providing a set of labels for entities which exist independently in the world, language precedes the existence of independent entities, making the world intelligible by differentiating between concepts" {CP, p. 38). That language always precedes the existence of that to which it refers is a truly astounding discovery. And we should wish to know how Saussure, according to Belsey's interpretation , came upon it. For Saussure, language is a system of signs. Signs are composed of two elements: a material element— a sound-image or graphic image— called a signifier, and a conceptual element, what in different jargons is referred to as a meaning, an intension, or a connotation, and which in Saussure's terminology is called a signified. At this point it pays to notice what is missing in this account, viz., what other theorists sometimes call the reference, extension, or denotation of a term, that is, the set of 126Philosophy and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 124-135
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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