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  • Room for Maneuver: (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative
  • Leonard Tennenhouse
Ross Chambers . Room for Maneuver: (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. 311 pp. $40.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.

This attempt to consider how a theory of narrative might address political issues is welcome, especially since it begins by problematizing the twin critiques that have derailed narrative theory for almost two decades now and frustrated political criticism. Although the so-called theory revolution of [End Page 438] the late sixties and early seventies opened up a vast new realm of possibilities for investigating narrative, this investigation was put on hold as soon as French poststructuralism began to mount a critique of structuralist poetics. Narrative theory was selected out for special criticism on grounds that it reproduced rather than exposed ideology; to describe a narrative was to give a text a goal and motivation, or teleology, before the fact of writing that not only predetermined what would be written but, in doing so, made us read transparently for this determining force, truth, or structure. In Room for Maneuver narrative theory demonstrates that it has learned the lessons of the past. Chambers dusts off some long-shelved models and methods and demonstrates how they might be put back to work without automatically collapsing narrative structure into teleology.

The theory revolution fueled a second kind of critical concern (now associated with British Marxist criticism, but nonetheless indebted to French political thought of the late sixties). Directed against formalist readings which failed to understand either the ideological operations of the text or the formal possibilities of resistance that could be traced in it, "reading for resistance" began to flourish as a challenge to the literary status quo. Like narrative theory, however, this method of reading was soon identified as an appropriate target for poststructuralist critique. Resistance implies that a cultural system can only be challenged by a counterforce authorizing some other cultural system. But what that alternative system might be, who can speak for it, and to what effect such a counterdiscourse is invoked usually remains a mystery. The rhetorical weakness of literary interpretations that privilege political resistance is compounded by the temper of the times. At the beginning of the nineties, enthusiasm for revolutionary change in Europe and the Americas has dwindled while social injustice thrives.

Chambers proposes a theory of oppositional reading that avoids the theoretical flaws of earlier narrative theory, on the one hand, and, on the other, corrects the logical flaws entailed in reading for political resistance. In contrast with earlier narrative theory, Chambers does not grant narrative a foregone pattern and purpose to fulfill. But neither does he assume we can and must step outside the cultural system that charges any story with its sense of destiny. In contrast with "resistance," his notion of oppositionality does not require us to overthrow hegemony. Quite the contrary, oppositionality reproduces hegemonic discourse because it locates itself within dominant culture as a subset of that culture. The oppositional text characteristically puts the reader in a position that is at once identified with and yet separate from the narratee. In this respect, the reader function can be regarded as an excluded third term. The reader is assumed to participate in making the text and thus to be the object of the narrator's seduction. By endeavoring to lure one into being a compliant reader, however, the oppositional narrative implicitly differentiates the reader's position from that of narratee. Achieving oppositionality simply entails "situating oneself in the reading position where the oppositional character of the narrative act becomes visible." To argue this point, Chambers modifies the theory of seduction [End Page 439] duction developed in his Story and Situation (1984). Our relationship to culture in narrative is no longer the dyadic relationship of seducer/seducee once he incorporates it within a triangulated relationship "which enacts the [cultural] system as an inevitably mediated one." If narrative can be said to seduce the reader by mediating the relationship between that reader and the thing he or she is reading "for," then to read the text is not simply to participate in the opposition between one's desire and the limits that culture...