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  • Pandora and Occam: On the Limits of Language and Literature, and: Consequences of Theory
  • Reed Way Dasenbrock
Horst Ruthrof . Pandora and Occam: On the Limits of Language and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 267 pp. $35.00.
Jonathan Arac and Barbara Johnson , eds. Consequences of Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. 235 pp. No price given.

This pair of books is an odd couple, Pandora and Occam an attempt at a systematic grand theory of language and literature in the old sense, Consequences of Theory an unsystematic gathering of essays rather nervous about the future of literary theory. This nervousness is less theoretical than personal and professional in origin: the contributors are mostly academics who have invested in and profited from the "theory boom" of the 1970s and 1980s. As theory comes under attack or is considered passé, these theoreticians are nervously casting about, somewhat like stock market investors suspecting a downturn in the market, deciding whether to sell or hang on, publicly acting full of confidence in their investment but privately hedging their bets.

Since I think that the problems in literary studies are best fixed neither by a wholesale abandonment of theory nor by a holding fast to the current flawed orthodoxy but by the development of better theories, I find myself more in sympathy with the project of Pandora and Occam. It has, admittedly, all the defects of systematic theorization. It is long, ponderous and extremely difficult to read through: the syntax is tortuous, neologisms abound. But anyone with the required patience will find an interesting argument being advanced. One of Ruthrof's virtues is that his intellectual horizon extends beyond the Franco- German tradition from Hegel to French poststructuralism which is all most theorists are well informed about; his broader view includes that tradition but includes Anglo-American semiotics and analytic philosophy as well. He views language theory in this century as caught in an oscillation named in his title as Occam and Pandora, between a restricted, parsimonious view of language as a closed system and a view of language as semantically rich and irreducible to a fixed code or to fixed denotations. All traditions of modern linguistic thought have tendencies in each direction, according to Ruthrof, as the "Occamite" tendency of early analytic philosophy has a counterpart in the structuralist focus on semiotic codes, while the obviously "Pandoric" thought of deconstruction is complemented by contemporary analytic philosophers such as Donald Davidson.

Ruthrof tries to give each side its due, but his central argument is that only a Pandoric conception of language recognizing the essential "opacity" of language can make sense of literature and of much ordinary discourse as well. This doesn't leave us in the morass of free-play and indeterminacy [End Page 431] once celebrated by deconstruction and attacked by its opponents, not just because of the "Occamite" pressure of the other side of the dichotomy but also because of a principle inherent in all reading Ruthrof calls "hypocrisie," which is the reader's effort to fill the "subject position" vacated by the author. Meaning cannot be reduced to a code or a system because the "egocentric particulars" of language-use cannot be eliminated, but these same "egocentric particulars"—what I individually mean when I say "I" or "now" or "this"—work to instantiate the text in a code or system in a way which limits interpretive freeplay.

This analysis of the necessarily deictic nature of language use and its implications for literary analysis is for me both the most promising yet ultimately the most disappointing aspect of Pandora and Occam. Ruthrof's analysis comes close to embracing the "intentionalist fallacy," the only one of the old "fallacies" still considered to be one. Far from reproving him for this lapse, I'd like to urge him on. No matter how heretical this may seem to the varieties of textualism, contextualism, and conventionalism dominating literary study today, an intentionalist model of literary criticism is precisely what logically emerges from the contemporary analytic philosophy of language Ruthrof draws on in his analysis. But in a rather odd (and for me, disappointing) conclusion, Ruthrof draws back from endorsing intentionalism, instead celebrating "the present dissolution...