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Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 37-53 | 10.1353/com.2013.0001

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After publishing his study of Racine in 1963, Roland Barthes came under fire for what many critics of the French literary establishment saw as a misreading of the iconic dramatist. One particularly hostile member of the Sorbonne, Raymond Picard, charged Barthes with denying the possibility of self-evident "objective knowledge in literary criticism" (Keuneman xiv). "The stage was set," François Dosse recounts, "and all the elements assembled for the duel, which was cast like some great Racinian tragedy of the twentieth century" (223). But Barthes refused to take the stage. He responded to Picard's attack, which was entitled New Criticism or New Imposture?, with a short treatise of his own entitled Criticism and Truth. Philip Thody characterizes this exchange by explaining that "instead of taking up Picard's somewhat acerbic criticisms and responding with a comparably mordant wit, [Barthes] moved the debate on to higher ground" (viii). Despite Picard's best attempts to pick a fight, Barthes, it seems, avoids any antagonism altogether. Yet, there is a strain of antagonism at work in Criticism and Truth, an antagonism between critic and text: "as soon as one claims to examine the work in itself, from the point of view of its make-up, it becomes impossible not to raise broad questions of symbolic meaning" (Barthes 16). This concept of symbolic, or second-order meaning, which Barthes addresses most notably in Mythologies, transforms the critic into a perennial antagonist dedicated to demystifying, demythologizing, and unmasking the text.

A wave of recent criticism suggests that the predominant view of the relationship between critic and text in literary studies today is one of antagonism. However, what should be a dialogic battle most often turns out to be a one-sided interrogation of the text, which theorists have variously described as "paranoid," "suspicious," and "symptomatic." "As literary critics," Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus observe, "we [have been] trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning meaning to a text or set of texts" (1). In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that "in the context of recent U.S. critical theory [. . .] to apply a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' is, I believe, widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities" (5). Best and Marcus and Sedgwick have tackled this problem, as Rita Felski does in her essay "Suspicious Minds," by situating the hermeneutics of suspicion as one unique approach among many. But as Felski points out, this discussion has focused primarily on "the suspicious dimensions of contemporary styles of criticism" and not "the related issue of how works of literature encourage suspicion in readers" (216n). Rather than jettisoning the language of antagonism altogether as others have done, this essay takes up the issue of textual agency, considering how texts incite, provoke, and generally antagonize readers. Recognizing the agency of the literary text in its antagonism with the reader, I argue, revises our current critic-driven hermeneutic by abandoning unnecessary limitations on the practice of reading that drown out the text's voice and ultimately enslave the critic to the never-ending practice of demystification.

Texts have the agency to antagonize because of their capacity to elicit and control cognitive and emotional responses through formal features such as point of view and characterization. To be sure, many prevalent approaches to reading offer some recognition of textual agency. The formalists and New Critics argue tirelessly that critics should attend to the text itself. John Crowe Ransom, for instance, stresses "the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake" (598). Reception theorists, such as Wolfgang Iser, conceive of reading as a phenomenological process in which "the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text in order to relate the patterns and the 'schematised views' to one another, he sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself " (280). Stanley Fish's influential brand of reader-response theory, while clearly focused on the reader, is most interested in the "experience" constituted by the relationship between literary texts and interpretive practices (164). Each of these critical approaches acknowledges the literary text as a site or catalyst of meaning, but each also ultimately...

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