- "Words, Words, Mere Words, No Matter From The Heart . . ."
With The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004), Walter Benn Michaels has written a brilliant, polemical, and surgically incisive book about what happens when words written down by human beings are treated as just so much ink on paper, that is, as marks that have shapes (including marks or even blank pages that appear by accident) in response to which we might have a subjective experience, rather than as complete signs possessing both identifiable signifiers and signifieds, which is to say signs from which the only meaning we can logically extract is the intended meaning of the author. It is also much more than that. It is, in a sense, a brief pocket-history of modernity and postmodernity, which means, for Michaels, a history of the Cold War and its aftermath insofar as the transition from the former era to the latter implies a broad transformation in American writing and thought. That transformation is defined by a shift from, on the one hand, belief in ideas, the possibility of disagreement over the truth, and the equation of textual meaning with authorial intention to, on the other, the possession of identities, the acceptance of differences of perspective in a relativist fashion, and the subjective response to texts as composed of endlessly interpretable (which also means "meaningless") marks made by ink on paper.
The book is, I think, a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in what happened to literary (and to a fair amount of not-so-literary) discourse, especially theory, in the latter half of the twentieth century, from deconstruction, the non-essentialist identitarianism of Judith Butler, and the relativism of Richard [End Page 232] Rorty, to the science fiction of Octavia Butler, the racial soul in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and the viscerally slashing prose of Bret Easton Ellis. It is nearly as important for all those who would like a better understanding of what has happened more generally to language in the era of globalization, marked by Francis Fukuyama's declarations about the "end of history" and capitalism triumphant as Soviet hegemony was collapsing; by Samuel Huntington's (and before him Bernard Lewis's) "clash of civilizations" supplanting a Cold War conflict of ideologies; and finally by a post-9/11 "war on terrorism" that has replaced wars waged over a dispute between particular nations or systems of belief. In this sense, Michaels's nearly breathless tour through the logic of theory and history in this period is nothing less than a tour de force, a tide of insights that sweeps all before it. Yet I could never quite shake the feeling that the whole grand logical and historical edifice of what is, in the end, not a very big book is propped up with some remarkably thin timbers. It is perhaps characteristic of Michaels's inventive genius that the building he has so cleverly constructed on such slender supports stays up at all. Now that he has some time on his hands, Daniel Libeskind may be envious.
Michaels describes this shift in a number of ways in the course of his argument, but perhaps the most succinct account of what it means theoretically (or better, analytically) and historically (that is, as we move from the modern, Cold War world, to the postmodern, theory-laden, era of globalization) is the one he gives near the beginning. The theoretic-historic shift is defined by a "movement from questions about the ontology of the text to an insistence on the primacy of the subject" (10), by which Michaels means primarily a movement away from questions about what texts are, which is to say away from a belief that texts are what their authors intend them to mean, to an "insistence" (I will return to the choice of words here shortly) that texts are what subjects, or readers, make them out to be, which is the same thing for Michaels as an insistence that it is the identity of the subject or reader that determines what the text means.
Michaels has thus designed his book around his ex post facto insight...