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  • Reply to John Bender and Mark Seltzer
  • Dorrit Cohn (bio)

Despite considerable differences in manner and matter, these two responses to my “Optics and Power in the Novel” make a rather similar point: for John Bender, my “reprimand” signifies my desire to confine literary studies to the safety of the narratological “garden”; for Mark Seltzer, my “nonsense” insists on the “quarantining” and “immunity” of fictional form from the “contagion” of ideological interests. Neither of them seems to have noticed that my critique of certain Foucault-inspired critical moves—not to mention my reading of the studies in which they occur—signals instead that, like so many other erstwhile students of narrative poetics, I have long since broken out of the supposedly isolated enclosure. What their reaction in turn signals to me is that they would like it better if I had kept (what they take to be) my place.

My critique does not fault Bender and Seltzer for using narratological concepts to construct cultural history but for misusing them: for positing a falsely facile analogy between the novelist’s relation to his characters and Panoptic power. This analogy seems to me no less false for seemingly enabling historiographic advances (up toward Bender’s summit overlooking “institutional formation” or down into Seltzer’s “graphic unconscious”). The reader will have to judge whether my refusal to accept this analogy signifies “insensitivity to historically significant interfiliations” (Bender) and/or “recourse to complexity as such” (Seltzer). What I willingly concede is my belief that persuasive ideological diagnoses of novelistic form cannot be achieved without supreme caution and extensive sensitization to the complexity involved. That this can be approached by nonspecialists in the field of narratology is clear from, among others, the work of Paul Ricoeur. 1 As my semi-optimistic conclusion, at any rate, means to suggest, the intent of my article is not to disable the integration of formal innovations into the study of cultural change but to recommend that it be attempted by someone who has, on systematic as well as on historical grounds, more than a cursory knowledge of the variables he or she aims to integrate.

Bender’s and Seltzer’s responses themselves reinforce my sense that cultural historians tend not to reflect deeply on these variables. How else could Bender, in his opening paragraph, insist that the “apparent [End Page 35] omniscience” of Bentham’s panoptical prison inspector “correlates” with the “impersonality” that Flaubert advocates for the novelist? For one thing, there is nothing “apparent” about the latter’s knowledge of his characters; it is, as an eighteenth-century German novel theorist was the first to point out, quite simply predicated by the fact that “he is their creator, they live in a world he has himself fashioned.” 2 For another thing, whereas the prison inspector intends to transmit the pretense of his omniscience to the minds of the prisoners he wishes to control, the novelist of course intends to transmit his knowledge to his readers (that is, minds outside the novel), and not to the characters who inhabit the created world.

Seltzer, for his part, justifies his attribution of panoptic power to the novelist by insisting on the ontological parity of authors and their characters. As crowning proof for this parity, he quotes James’s repeated avowals of his “love” for the beings he has created. While I agree that a real person’s desire for oppressive power over another real person can easily camouflage itself under the name of love, the transfer of this conundrum to the relationship between an author and his creatures—”these relays between persons and representations”—literalizes the erotic imagery of James’s prefaces in a quite absurd way. For me, critical detective work of this kind reveals the critic’s blindspot, not his detective astuteness. Even Seltzer would perhaps concede that James is not referring to a literal act of copulation when, à propos The American, he speaks of “the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature; the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest.” 3

To my mind, Seltzer takes far more serious aim at the heart of my critical position...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 35-37
Launched on MUSE
1995-02-01
Open Access
No
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