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Reviewed by:
  • The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History
  • Henry Staten
The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Walter Benn Michaels. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. 224. $24.95 (cloth).

Michaels's absorbing new book swims against the critical stream with a brilliance and originality unmatched this side of Slavoj Žižek. Michaels weaves a dizzyingly intricate argument around a wide variety of texts and topics: science fiction, historicism, deconstruction, modernist and minimalist art, formalism, the end of ideology, cultural identity. He claims that both the privileging of the "object" in modernism and the post-structuralist notion of the "materiality of the sign" covertly privilege subjective experience and hence these movements are logically linked to identity politics (157). The "materiality of the sign," argues Michaels, is really a reduction of language to a physical mark with only the perceptual characteristics of any physical object, such as "shape." This turns "a meaning that might be understood into an object that will be [End Page 362] experienced" (176); "[o]nce . . . the text is turned into an object of perception, it is made literally uninterpretable but also literally inexhaustible, since how it is perceived—not only what it looks like but what it makes you feel like, what it makes you think of—must be a function not only of what it is but of who you are" (113). But interpretation doesn't become endless, it ceases to be possible, since perceptual experience cannot be wrong, only "different" from someone else's experience. Since people in different subject positions "can without disagreement give the same mark different meanings," the "deconstructive commitment to the materiality of the sign is linked in principle to a valorization of the subject position that makes the question of identity primary" (66).The concern with identity and difference is a concern with what we are rather than with the truth or falsity of the beliefs and opinions we hold; meaning, we could say, dissolves into being. This tendency in recent thought culminates in Hardt and Negri's attempt to dissolve the political into the ontological (173).

Michaels believes that this turn to identity not only destroys interpretation but obfuscates the ideal of justice. Jews and Blacks who stress their history and identity miss the point that "the question of past injustice has no bearing on the question of present injustice" (157–8). A blameless nine-year old who is disadvantaged today and whose ancestors were slaves "would be just as blameless if her great-great grandfather had been Simon Legree. Every nine-year-old is blameless; what a just society owes them is not reparations for bad things that were done to their ancestors but an opportunity equal to that of all other nine-year-olds. . . . What we owe the victims of injustice is justice, not a causal account of how they came to be victimized" (166–7).

The latter argument is important and will no doubt cause controversy; in the space I have, however, I will restrict myself to three criticisms of Michaels's foundational arguments regarding "the shape of the signifier."

1. Michaels has still not given a rigorous account of his own theory of intention; he says we need to believe in intention if we are not to fall into grave error, and writes a blank check on it that he fills in for any amount as needed. As near as I can make out, he holds the standard idealist, mentalist, essentially miraculist notion of intention as a magical something that can accomplish what definable worldly phenomena like formal combinatories cannot: provide a transcendent anchor for an otherwise unanchored human practice.

2. Michaels fails to so much as note the conflict between his claim that the Derridean signifier is a physical object and the fact that the concept of différance was developed as a radicalization of Saussure's denial that in language there are any "positive terms." This is a crucial issue because the physical object is the very archetype of positivity and of that "presence" that was the target of deconstruction. Michaels can make Derrida out to be a "matterist" (here I invoke a...


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