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Critical Discussions Literature and Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin and His Contemporaries, by David Patterson; ? & 166 pp. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1988, $18.00. Discussed by Caryl Emerson Over a decade ago, in his essay "The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory," Hayden White provided a typology of literary criticism that still holds good today.1 Acknowledging the tendency ofcriticism to reinventthe wheel, White identifies five different approaches to literature, each of which reacts against the excesses of its predecessor. Remarkably, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin has been classified with every one of these approaches. To place Patterson's Literature and Spirit within a critical context, then, we might briefly oudine White's categories. First, there is normal or "elementary" criticism, which attempts merely (and often naively) to recuperate the original context in which a text was created. Critics of this school consider neither authorial intent nor the workings of language a problem; they endorse both the text and its author, and react to a literary work with what Bakhtin, in his early writings, calls empathy or "loving form." In response to this benign collaborationism, White claims, there developed a second trend, "reductive criticism." Its task—to "unmask the ideological understructure of a text"—is much less benevolent. In critical readings of this sort, literature as well as life is taken to be preformed by social and physical factors. Thus the task of criticism is not to bring a text close, to supplement or caress its truth out of it, but to achieve distance on the 350 Caryl Emerson351 artwork, even to "torture" it to reveal its hidden and "preliterary" content . Sociology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism—to name but three fields whose criticism is reductivist in spirit—have all developed strategies that tease an extraliterary core out of a literary text, and in each of these disciplines or ideologies, literature must answer in some degree to a special external construct that its advocates call "real life." The above two critical strategies are very different, but neither is hostile to the larger enterprise of literature and criticism. That project was taken on by the remaining three trends. "Inflationary" criticism, reacting against the life-centeredness of the reductivists, tries to restore to the literary text its own integrity: it insists that art, although not autonomous, is at least autotelic. Formalists and New Critics of this persuasion tend to underestimate, or even exile, biographical factors or philosophical content from a work, and inflate verbal art and its structures at the expense of ordinary life and its mess. But "inflation," White reminds us, is not the only reaction possible to the naive realism of the elementary and reductive critics. An altogether other path is pursued by the school of "Generalized" criticism, which insists on an in-depth analogy between literature and the very workings of language. Language, in fact, becomes the general prototype for a "universal science of humanity, culture, mind." Partial to the apparent fact of language's systematicity, critics belonging to this school usually endorse one or another form of structuralism. White's final category of critical thought, which he calls "Absurdist," reacts in particular against the Generalists but also, with various degrees of intolerance and dismay, against all three other modes. Absurdist criticism, White remarks, is the result of a "sickness unto death" over the status of language; it is the residue with which critics work once the promise of universal meaning turns out to be arbitrary. Thus the one activity that absurdist critics credit—in the literary works they study as well as in their own critical writings about those works—is subversion. Fetishizing the arbitrariness at the center of language, the absurdists confirm, and even extend, their own worst fears. Hayden White offers these five categories as a typology with no special agenda, but they suggest a convenient way to understand the astonishingly diverse and indiscriminate reception ofMikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin has been assimilated into all of these critical modes and strategies. He began writing in the Soviet 1920s, in an era marked by Reductive (Marxist) and Inflationary (Formalist) trends, and strenuously opposed both. Now, in his posthumous revival, Bakhtin's work has been inter- 352Philosophy and Literature preted both as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 350-364
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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