- Running and Dodging: The Rhetoric of Doubleness in Contemporary Theory
Speak of the weather Be thankful he’s dead Who before he had spoken Took back what he said —Bertolt Brecht1
The sociology of literature has often been involved in producing an inventory of social forms. In this role, it has often paid close attention to the formal properties of language, and so clarified the social setting of literature by way of what was once called “stylistics.” The best literary sociologists—Henri Lefebvre, Raymond Williams, and Pierre Bourdieu—frequently undertook such an enterprise and I will look at two of them later in this essay. In fact, the very concept of an inventory, which has been associated with Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about the constitution of the self, was derived from the founder of literary sociology, Giambattista Vico, whose early eighteenth-century proposals turned the science of rhetoric into a method of reading the poetic language of humans in prehistory. In Vico’s influential technique, the mind of civic and political humanity was approached through form. This is sometimes forgotten when thinking of sociology’s nineteenth-century focus on urban underclasses, the abnormal, and the anonymous logic of institutions—a sociology, in other words, that has generic rather than formal connotations as its basis.
An inward turn toward questions of style, then, can be a properly sociological concern, even in a theoretical environment such as ours that often sees the sociological as spoiling the game of form by over-contextualizing the work or reducing it to nonliterary determinations. This suspicion is every bit as strong today in overtly “political” criticism—like that of Jacques Rancière, for example—as it is in the belletristic dimensions of some versions of deconstruction, where the enigmatic character of form is typically foregrounded, or identified as what can never be reduced to the social as such.2 In these circles, “undecidability” [End Page 277] is once again mobilized as a redemptive feature of fiction, denying in advance and as a matter of political principle any hermeneutic endeavor that pretends to render the signified comprehensible, seeing meaning itself as a foreclosure of alternative possibilities.3
In a general sense, this is the “doubleness” referred to in my title, and that I plan to explore below. What seems overlooked in much of our criticism, at any rate, are the benefits of objectifying theoretical style, seeing its ideological gestures as formal components in and of themselves. The first thing to note is that this involves more than a purely formal analysis. It demands a description of the political logic of form as well as an account of how formal devices are often homologies of social agendas. Fredric Jameson’s idea of “cognitive mapping” is an example of such a homology between socius and form, grafting the former onto the latter. But is there a way of getting to the reverse by returning, paradoxically, to the text in order to examine from the outside the rhetorical patterns that betray a political significance never made explicit . . . in fact, explicitly not made so? What would an analysis of the theory posture look like?
Although it certainly follows in their spirit, this sort of inquiry would have to take a different shape from that of Bourdieu or Williams. Both in different ways map a selective tradition of theory that was forged roughly between 1975 and 2000. The phrase “selective tradition” is taken from Williams, who in The Long Revolution uses it in a somewhat different manner to demonstrate how the English literary canon, carved out of tens of thousands of possible texts, was the outcome of an arduous modeling of value derived more or less unconsciously from the principles of English social hierarchy. He went on to use the phrase to describe the unwitting pressures on canon-formation within theory as well. Here, by contrast, I am introducing a different element, one of conscious selection and disavowal, and in that way describing “theory” as a polemical rewriting of a targeted political stance.4
Within this general frame, we have seen in the last decade several important new shifts of emphasis. On the one hand, there have been...