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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1106-1116

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An Essay-Review

Henry Sussman

Tom Cohen, Ideology and Inscription: "Cultural Studies" after Benjamin, de Man and Bakhtin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 258 pages.

The exactions of launching a critical broadside have never been more demanding. Theoretically grounded work loses its caché of the moment, if it is not powered by meticulous close readings, worked through, where possible, to the syllabic and even sub-syllabic levels. At the same time, the critical work needs to address some broader trendsor arguments prevailing in the marketplace of conceptual models, lest the microscopic analysis be dissipated in a jouissance of poetic articulation. Given the basic commerce in tropes and other metasignifiers that we have been conducting in our readings over the past thirty years, it's not always easy to locate the rhetorico-conceptual "handle" with which to name and orchestrate the polemical flank or register of a critical performance.

In Ideology and Inscription, 1 Tom Cohen, a seasoned critic with remarkable philosophical acuity and scholarly erudition, demonstrates the intellectual athleticism necessary for a commentary authentically adding to our understanding, on polemical as well as microscopic levels, even in a theoretical milieu thick with its prior innovations. As the passage of the years and the sheer demands of [End Page 1106] philosophically rigorous work generate a range of "outs" to contemporary theory's austere language-based and language-directed program, Cohen holds his readers and subjects to an elaborated menu of the working conditions available to theorists, one situated at the conjunction between deconstruction, advanced rhetorical reading, and a full-throttle approach to Russian formalism. If Cohen balks at the submerged humanism and naïve psychologism underlying much of what he finds in the discourse of Cultural Studies and other branches of contemporary criticism, it is because so much remains to be extracted from the rhetorically and linguistically rigorous position subjected, in certain quarters, to a premature burial.

But Cohen does far more than maintain a holding pattern. In the face of his intellectual curiosity and the muscularity of his formulations, he launches a coherent phalanx of his own preoccupations, theoretical infrastructures, and critical scenarios. The heart of Cohen's concern is as much a moment, a transformation, as it is an argument or matter of theoretical substance: a dissolve from a perspective facilitated by metaphysics, history, memory, and psychological subjectivity to a landscape articulate and discernible only in linguistic (or rhetorical, in his language, "allotropic") terms. Cohen's unique contribution to the performance as well as substance of contemporary thought may be described as a critical freeze-frame, a discursive tribute to what he has found critically generative in the cinema, above all in the works of Alfred Hitchcock. At strategic points in his argumentation, Cohen brings the momentum in his subject matter, in the critical positions he is engaging, and even in his own formulations to a screeching halt, exposing the false economies that assured the "thrust" of the argument in the first place. To those whose intellectual work is still sustained, wittingly or not, by the metaphysics of history and presence, this turn transpires with the morbidity of a danse macabre. This sudden shift from something lifelike to something artificial and dead mais de rigeur linguistique, explains the stake of Cultural Studies in the argument: the latter "school," in its appeal to historical specificity, has breathed new life into beliefs and attitudes that were contested, a generation ago, with rigor and determination in each of the major theaters of Cohen's intellectual inspiration: the extended Russian formalism of Bakhtin and Voloshinov; de Man's appeal to and appropriation of the tradition of rhetoric; and deconstruction. In Cohen's mise en scène, Cultural Studies goes the way of a falsely—and therefore tangentially alive—organic epiphenomenon. There is life for various issues, above all for cultural production [End Page 1107] and dissemination, but on the map of close reading, allegorical meta-representation, and linguistic shock and accident rather than in the more familiar settings of lived experience and intuitive understanding.

One among several exemplary instances of...


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