Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 480-484
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The Raymond Tallis Reader, edited by Michael Grant; xxx & 382 pp. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000, $79.95.
For some people, the name Raymond Tallis evokes theoretical controversy, oversimplified arguments, biting rhetoric, and bruised egos. For others, like the editor of The Raymond Tallis Reader, Michael Grant, he is a twenty-first-century man of Enlightenment who has the vision and the courage to reveal the foibles of poststructuralist literary and cultural theory. It should come as no surprise that an overview of his work so far shows that both of these views are justified, though incomplete.
This selection of Tallis's writings draws on most of his published works, aside from his clinical writings. Texts range from philosophical investigations into the nature of consciousness to close methodological critiques of poststructuralist (or what Tallis also calls post-Saussurean) theory. He has consistently argued that that such theories are fundamentally flawed by relativism, obscurantism [End Page 480] and anti-humanist concepts (such as the language-bound subject), and many of his views are shared by scholars such as Wendell V. Harris (Beyond Poststructuralism and Literary Meaning) and Paisley Livingston (Literary Knowledge). "It is poststructuralism," Tallis writes, "that has brought to a climax the anti-rationalist, anti-individualist and, indeed, anti-humanist strains of the Counter-Enlightenment thought" (p. 152). Tallis has done a valuable service in expressing the most common objections to such theorizing with clarity and vigor, and The Raymond Tallis Reader is useful in collecting his arguments in a single volume, with Grant's prefaces to each reading providing a clear view of the main points. The collection does, however, also bring into focus some of the problems involved in Tallis's critiques. He is an admirable synthesizer of thought, but does occasionally fall into the trap of unsupported generalizations he spends so much effort in trying to eradicate in the writings of others.
The first of section of the book focuses on Tallis's conception of "the explicit animal," on rescuing the idea of consciousness and rational will from scientistic neurological theories. Such views may come as a surprise to those readers who have come to know Tallis as the champion of Enlightenment thinking. He argues, however, that even though neurology has been in many ways invaluable, it has not been able to explain the synchronic and diachronic unity of the self, which collects the various impulses experienced by a human being and which preserves a connection between them over time.
The second section brings together writings concerning the nature of language. Again, the central concept is explicitness: Tallis emphasizes the way human language differs from animal signaling systems or natural signs by virtue of being composed of explicit signs—signs in the Saussurean sense of combining a signifier with a signified in an arbitrary fashion. What he absolutely denies, however, is that such a system of signs would be completely cut off from reality: "Because words do not mirror the world, it does not follow that discourse is cut off from the world" (p. 134). Those theorists who have taken the step from defining the relationship between the signifier and the signified as arbitrary to declaring the relationship between reality and the sign as a whole to be equally arbitrary, have moved from Saussurean theories to what Tallis calls post-Saussurean thinking. His main objection lies in the way such theories deny the existence and efficacy of individual, explicit and conscious human selves: "Our contemporary anti-Enlightenment figures see society, or one of its proxies such as history, socially mediated instincts or language, as being anterior to, and transcending, the individuals that make it up. . . . The post-Saussureans . . . saw selves vanish completely into nodes in sign systems or soluble fish in a boundless sea of discourse" (pp. 148-49). Tallis particularly opposes the Lacanian view of the language-bound psyche. When discussing Lacan's mirror stage he attacks not only Lacan's obscurantist style and undefined terminology, but also the self-contradictory and empirically unsupported theory of the child's entry into the Symbolic...