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Martin Steinmann A HALF CENTURY OF CRITICAL TORPOR AFEW years ago, Joyce A. Joyce, a literary critic and professor of English, had a nasty battle in New Literary History with two other critic-professors: Henry Louis Gates,Jr., and Houston Baker,Jr. Unlike Joyce, Gates and Baker are literary theorists1 ? la française who deconstruct black literature. It is, as we shall see, rather surprising that a batde like this, but over an issue broader than both deconstruction and black literature and criticism, did not erupt in America much sooner, perhaps as early as 1939. ForJoyce, everything about a black critic-professor like Gates or Baker is disgusting: above all, his rejecting his black heritage and at the same time exploiting it by violating its literature to advance his career.2 Like Wordsworth's philosopher, he is "One that would peep and botanize/ Upon his mother's grave." He utterly misconceives both the role of the black writer and the role of the black critic; the "Black creative writer," Joyce says, "has always used language as a means of communication to bind people together. . . . Black creative art is an art of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people" ("BC," p. 343). And the role of both the black writer and the black critic should be what earlier black critics took it to be: "to guide, to serve as an intermediary in explaining the relationship between Black people and those forces that attempt to subdue them" ("BC," pp. 338-39). But, for a critic like Gates or Baker, language is not a means of communication. Black literature is not an expression ofits writers' hopes and frustrations, or their beliefs and feelings about the world, intended to affect the lives ofblack readers. Writers write in the way they breathe Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 219-233 220Philosophy and Literature or catch colds, without intentions or even volition; there is no world for them to have beliefs or feelings about; and black literature does not affect the lives of the only readers who count: critic-professors. A work of black literature is, then, like all other works, a "text": an autonomous assemblage of words, without antecedents or consequences, that is simply grist for the deconstructive mill—or, as Joyce puts it, "a 'linguistic event' or a complex network oflinguistic systems that embody the union of the signified and the signifier independent of phenomenal reality" ("BC," p. 343). The language of literary theory—text, signifier, signified, and the like—especially offendsJoyce: "their pseudoscientific language is distant and sterile." Invited by New Literary Hutory to respond toJoyce's attack, Gates and Baker, not surprisingly, take umbrage; and Joyce's response to their responses is equally bitter.3 Gates, for instance, finds Joyce's implication that his black critical theory is "somehow antiblack ... to be both false and a potentially dangerous—and dishonest—form of witch-hunting and nigger-baiting" ("WL," p. 346); andJoyce says that Gates and Baker have "two standards forjudgment, one by which theyjudge and adopt the ideas of European and American white males and the other by which they adjudicate the work of black women" ("WC," p. 374). Ironically , Gates and Baker, in this exchange, use language as a means of communication and acknowledge the existence of a world that words can (truly or falsely) describe: Baker goes so far as to say that Joyce's essay is "dreadfully flawed by factual mistakes" ("ID," p. 366). Joyce is not alone in finding deconstruction of black literature repugnant . Norman Harris, for example, writes "that the New Black Formalism disfigures the literature it discusses while trivializing the dreams and aspirations of Afro-Americans in the world."4 Even more striking is the attack of the critic-professor Barbara Christian upon critical theory in general.5 Resentment ofits hegemony in the American critical establishment has, she notes, long been expressed in the closet, "lest we, who are distressed by it, appear ignorant to the reigning academic elite. Among the folk who speak in muted tones are people of color, feminists, radical critics, creative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 219-233
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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