- The Barbara Johnson Reader: The Surprise of Otherness ed. by Melissa Feuerstein, Bill Johnson González, Lili Porten, and Keja Valens
Barbara Johnson, with signature wit, begins her essay “Bringing Out D. A. Miller” this way: “My title sounds like the equivalent of ‘Barging through an Open Door’” (147). What is at stake in the “bringing out” of someone, she goes on to ask, comparing the many objects to which the phrase might refer, from the closet, to turkeys and mayonnaise, to the best in a person. The Barbara Johnson Reader: The Surprise of Otherness brings out Johnson, or her writing, through the selection of twenty-seven essays that span her career as a critic and teacher, from her remarkable debut in 1978 (including the important essays “The Critical Difference” and “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida”) to essays from her last published volume, Persons and Things,1 in 2008. What does it mean to “bring out” an author, Johnson mused—“it is impossible to know whether one is bringing out the person or the writings. And that is what Barthes means by ‘the death of the author’” (153).
The death of this author in 2009, as much as Barthes’s influential idea, frames this collection. Grief is audible in the editors’ preface, the introduction by Judith Butler, and the moving afterword by Shoshana Felman, who offers a reading of the memorial Johnson herself planned just two months before her death: “She was not sentimental. She was practical. The grief, the heartbreak, the surprise were ours. As always, Barbara was ahead of us” (421). And she was: “Prosopopeia, the voice from beyond the grave, speaks from the grave,” Johnson tells us in an essay not included here.2 But it’s an apt figure for the work of these selected essays: “This is the immortality of literature brought about by reading—to bring alive the voice of a dead author. A text ‘speaks.’ This is how texts in general are assumed to work: they ‘say’ something. Prosopopeia is thus the figure for reading” (14). [End Page 403]
Reading these essays, one finds them as sprightly, brilliant, and revelatory as ever. Johnson’s style—famous for the clarity that paradoxically masks and illuminates the argumentative complexity of the writing—is brisk, orderly, and economical. Her misleading neatness, for example her habit of enumerating, suggests a simplicity that the work everywhere belies. Reading Johnson as a critic must be how it feels for the fiction writer to read Henry James—leaden-footed and dull-witted in the face of the immense subtlety of the prose.
Johnson had a way of shining up the parts of speech, making grammar, as it were, sexy (although, “no one,” she claims, “is syntaxier than Lacan”). The structure of speech or rhetorical figure—whether apostrophe, prosopopeia, or chiasmus—intimately orders our relationship to the world, to life, and to death. On syntax, for example, she writes: “Ever present but often taken for granted, like skin—which, as everyone knows, is a thing that when you have it outside, it helps keep your insides in—syntax is a thing that when you have it in your surface structure, it helps keep your deep structure deep” (26). And on metaphor and metonymy: “Not so very long ago, metaphor and metonymy burst into prominence as the salt and pepper, the Laurel and Hardy, the yin and yang, and often the Scylla and Charybdis of literary theory” (108). It is the literary, that often discounted category, that occupies Johnson—rhetorical figures, colloquialisms (such as “as if”), and, above all, poetry—particularly in the intersection with, or inseparability of, the literary from the political, legal, and conceptual structures that shape our everyday lives. And she is remarkably clear-eyed about the stakes of her readings: “It is often said, in literary-theoretical circles, that to focus on undecidability is to be...