- Criticism in Society: Interviews with Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller (review)
- Philosophy and Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 14, Number 1, April 1990
- pp. 184-185
- View Citation
- Additional Information
184Philosophy and Literature "because globally, these [critical] research efforts are not part of an explanatory structure at all" (p. 239). In all this is a lively and interesting book which helps redress some of the prejudices against science which currendy prevail in literary circles. Livingston does much to debunk the "fuzziness," the dogmatism, and the unthinking allegiance to fashion that increasingly characterizes a good deal of what passes for literary theory. University of Canterbury, New ZealandDavid Novitz Criticism in Society: Interviews withJacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode , Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, andJ. Hillis Miller, by Imre Salusinszky; xii & 244 pp. New York: Methuen, 1987, $14.95 paper. Have you ever wanted to ask Derrida how deconstruction might be taught in high schools, or the author of The Great Code what he thought of Jewish literary criticism? While, happily (or unhappily), these are not the most important questions in this book, they do emerge from a persistent focus on the one self-conscious issue which literary criticism has always found problematic— its cultural significance, its relationship to political power. The importance of this issue in these times of professional stress, when humanities departments are beleaguered from both within and without, is unquestionable. And these interviews display nine outstanding and articulate theorists. Yet the results remain mixed. Reference to Terry Eagleton's accusations about withdrawal into institutions, about achieving security through committing political suicide, sharpens the focus. Political ironies emerge: the way in which decreased funding (designed to increase social relevance) leads to more specialized, arcane work (accountability through publication). There is wide-ranging and stimulating discussion about getting outside ideology, or about institutional appropriation. And there are many highlights: Derrida on intellectual vigilance, Hartman on voice, Bloom's saddest truth (that poetry teaches us how to talk to ourselves, not to each other), Said on the loss of privacy, Johnson's suggestions about depicting the genesis of the dialectical, Lentricchia's refusal to deny possibilities for change, and Miller's delight in die unpredictability of critical practice. But questions lead frequendy to the biographical and the interpersonal, so that whatemerges finally from the volume is the overwhelming sense ofpersonal Reviews185 contexts rather than social contexts. It might well be subtided the "physics of presence." Perhaps this result is inevitable, the consequence of the interview form itself,whose abilitytocombineimmediacywith self-consciousness produces both its vitality and its limitation. The collection seeks cohesion through asking the interviewees to talk about each other (later interviewees are acquainted with earlier interviews) and to discuss the same poem by Wallace Stevens. But the interviewer has to bear responsibility for what too often becomes a distracting concern with patterns of relationship and a tendency (noted by Hillis Miller) for each theorist to define him/herself against the others. Certainly the book in general helps to achieve Lentricchia's stated aim of dispelling the myth of objectivity, of putting more and more of himself as a subject into his work (p. 198), and it certainly dispels any illusions about universities as a disinterested scholarly community. Butdoes Kermode's observation about feelings and animosities affecting academicjudgments simplyjustify what amounts to sophisticated gossip? It is certainly a wonderful moment when Kermode bluntly states that "the importance ofthe Cambridge English Faculty, in the world of modern criticism, is close to absolute zero" (p. 120). But that is hardly a serious contribution to the theme of criticism within society. I am left unsure where patterns of relationship stop and where gossip begins. Salusinszky hopes to make these theoreticians more accessible, and to this end he introduces each interview with succinct, helpful summaries of the critic's career and approach. Yet within the issue of accessibility lurks the most fundamental conflict of all. A tellingjuxtaposition occurs, for instance, when Kermode agrees that "the most important thing of all" is work at the coal-face of teaching, for this agreement is followed immediately by a question about Kermode 's responses to Derrida (p. 109). Here the interviewer unwittingly dramatizes the very dilemma ofhis enterprise—for the relationship between criticism and society so often comes down to the basic contradiction between the demands of the coal-face and the demands...