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Reviews 125 Social Values andPoetic Acts by Jerome J. McGann. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1988. pp. xiii + 279. $ 34.95 (cloth). In the epigraph to his fourth chapter, Jerome McGann quotes the closing Unes of Mikhail Bakhtin's "last writings:" "There is no first or last discourse, and dialogical context knows no limits .... At every moment of the dialogue, there are immense and unUmited masses of forgortten meanings, but, in some subsequent moments, as the dialogue moves forward they will return to memory and live in renewed form ..." (73). McGann's project in Social Values and Poetic Acts is precisely to outline the ways in which poetic (for McGann this term is more closely tied to the "imaginative" than the purely poetical) language is never closed, never has a "meaning" per se; rather, language is an act, and poetic language is one afortiovi. "We need to do more than explain what our texts are saying (or what we think they are saying); we need to understand what they are doing in saying what they say. And the same necessity faUs upon ourselves in carrying out our own Uterary work" (vüi). The task of the critic, then, is twofold: to discover the ways in which poetic langauge is a social act—that is, "what it is doing"; and to discover the ways in which the critical act is the same kind of social act—that is, "what our language is doing in conjunction with what the poetic language is doing." Social Values discusses this critical project in two sections: in the first five chapters, McGann lays out the theoretical groundwork for his social criticism. In the remaining six, he puts this criticism into practice. This division is somewhat problematic. McGann wrote the first five chapters (as well as the last, chapter 1 1) as Alexander Lectures to be deUvered at the University of Toronto in 1986. Chapters 6 through 10 were written at the same time, but do not foUow the same "program" as the first section ofthe book. They are, as McGann confesses, "formally discontinuous" from the rest of the book, but this is a more serious difficulty than he recognizes, since this division exhibits the kind of "incommensurability" that is poetic by nature. In his preface, McGann acknowledges a certain "resistance to theory" which these chapters (as well as his theoretical groundwork) reveal, a resistance which, McGann says, is one precisely based "on practical grounds, a certain method for dealing with particular problems" (x). In fact, McGann's work is based loosely on not one but several critical approaches, which he enumerates in the fifth chapter of his work: historicism, formaUsm , deconstruction, and marxism. McGann is presumably hinting in his preface at a resistance to any one particular critical method in favor of one which comes out of practice, but one which nevertheless exhibits some of the "insights" these methods' blindnesses uncover . What one finds is that McGann is not only resistant to his touchstone theories—and rightfully so, as one finds his critiques of those four methods m the subsequent five chapters are quite iUuminating—but that he is also resistant to the very historical and social theory towards which he gestures. The allusions to "blindness and insight" and "resistance to theory" are purposeful references to Paul de Man, whose method is McGann's point of departure. In his introduction , McGann maps out de Man's contribution to critical theoryand also shows its weaknesses. Briefly, de Manuncovered the inherent instability of the language ofthe text, but in a sense, he has "textualized" that very instability. This unstable "textualization" itself becomes a kind of meaning, "transcendent and totalized, a 'universal' meaning" (106). What a readermore specifìcaUy, what a critic (de Man)—finds is that the rhetorical and the performative aspects ofthe text inhibit one another in thetext. Referentiality is questioned, but it is questioned only insofar as the language of the text makes reference to something outside of language. De Man takes this social aspect oflanguge—the "something" to which language may or may not directly refer—as a given. Further, the critical operation mapped by de Man is an individual one, which does not take place...


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