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Reading Dialectically

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 233-277 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0012

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This, then, is the limit of common sense. What lies beyond involves a Leap of Faith, faith in lost Causes, Causes that, from within the space of skeptical wisdom, cannot but appear as crazy. And the present book speaks from within this Leap of Faith—but why? The problem, of course, is that, in a time of crisis and ruptures, skeptical empirical wisdom itself, constrained to the horizon of the dominant form of common sense, cannot provide the answers, so one must risk a Leap of Faith.

—Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes

Fredric Jameson ends his recent book, Valences of the Dialectic (2009), with a careful reading of Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative (1990). On the face of it, a book about the dialectic in 2009 might seem destined for the remainder shelves, especially one that concludes with a long, final section closely reading a work of narrative theory with which few scholars today would be familiar, in order to argue that the task of criticism is to "make time and history appear"—at a moment when, as Jameson himself diagnosed in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), our ability to think historically has all but disappeared. Against the specter of the dialectic's obsolescence, I want to suggest however that Valences of the Dialectic in fact constitutes a timely polemic against the new disciplinary conservatism, and a spirited defense of theory, which is also a defense of reading.

Theory and reading: in the contemporary climate, these two endeavors, more often than not, tend to be pitted against each other. Simply put, theory is on its way out; reading is (back) in. Beleaguered by post-structuralism and Michel Foucault, social constructionism, interdisciplinarity, cultural studies, and the like—all of which get collapsed under the umbrella bogeyman "theory"—a group of literary critics are once again arguing for an emphasis on the literary in literary criticism, and claiming, in essence, that reading literature is what we literary scholars do best and hence what we ought to return to doing after having lost our way in the heady theory days of the 1960s-90s. As the former president of the Modern Language Association, Marjorie Perloff, wrote in her 2006 presidential address, "a specter is haunting the academy, the specter of literature." "It is time," she concludes,

to trust the literary instinct that brought us to this field in the first place and to recognize that, instead of lusting after those other disciplines that seem so exotic primarily because we don't really practice them, what we need is more theoretical, historical, and critical training in our own discipline. Rhapsodes [discussed in the context of her preceding argument regarding the absence of poetics in interdisciplinary literary studies, which she renames "other-disciplinary" to capture its total disregard for the literary], it turns out, can and should serve a real function in our oral, print and digital culture.

This claim echoes those made by New Formalists of various stripes, as well as by a slew of other new "isms" committed to "returns" of one sort or another, which are also presented as reclamations—the need to reclaim the aesthetic, or reading, human nature or pleasure, and so on. In her review essay on New Formalism, Marjorie Levinson identifies two strains within the movement: normative and activist new formalism. She characterizes the former as a "backlash new formalism" for its rejection of New Historicist claims and because it "assigns to the aesthetic norm-setting work that is cognitive and affective and therefore also cultural-political," whereas activist formalism aims to restore the importance of form within historical reading, thereby positioning itself along the continuum of New Historicism rather than as a break with it. For our purposes here, normative new formalism most directly dramatizes the conservatism of these movements in its advocacy of a return to the pleasures of a kind of reading that theory has supposedly made impossible. (I will return to the status of New Historicism and its relationship to theory.) As Levinson notes, "[n] ormative new formalism makes a strong claim for bringing back pleasure as what hooks us on and rewards us for reading...


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