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REVIEWS Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape ofthe Signifíer: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004. vii + 232 pp. Cloth: $26.95. Paper: $16.95. Walter Benn Michaels's thesis in The Shape ofthe Signifíer: 1967 to the End ofHistory links two arguments that seemed unrelated when he developed them in priorworks (even, he says, to him). With Stephen Knapp, he argued in the much-debated "Against Theory" (first published in CriticalInquiryin 1983) for a so-called "intentionalist" theory ofmeaning, holding that "the meaning of a text is simply identical to the author's intended meaning" (Against Theory, 12). In the more recent OurAmerica:Nativism, Modernism, andPluralism (1995), as well as in subsequent essays, Michaels has sought to show that the concept of identity, as it has functioned in an American identity politics whose development he analyzes primarily in prose fiction of the early twentieth century, is logically incoherent. Now he asserts that these two arguments entail one another: if one thinks, incorrectly , that it is possible for a text to mean anything other than what its author intends it to mean, then, in consistency, one "will be required also" to believe in a factitious notion ofindividual and group identity and also to believe, again incorrectly, that this so-called identity (in recent years based on "race, gender, above all, culture") properly determines everything from a person's way ofreading a text to her political commitments (Shape ofthe Signifier, 13, 60). The theoretical connection that Michaels now draws between his two previously developed critiques is clearer than what he describes as the new book's "historical dimension" (12). In brief, he asserts that, if you contend language's physical materiality undoes the possibility of a text's having one fixed meaning, then, no matter what alternative methodology you may think you are following, you will effectively end up with some version of reader-response criticism. If we regard a sign (signifier/signified ) as a material mark, then the mark's meaning can indeed shift with changes in its location or context, as Derrida influentially demonstrated in "Signature, Event, Context." But in that case, Michaels says, what will determine the mark's meaning—or even whether it is distinguishable as a mark—can only be how a given reader, situated in a specific spot and hence with a particular point of view, perceives or experiences it. Moreover, the way we experience an object in the world depends on who we are and the factors that have made us who we are, as well as on "where, when, and why" we encounter the object: in short, our identity and "subject-position" (114). Thus, Michaels argues, "it is only the deconstructive answer to the question what is the text (the mark) that 242Reviews makes the identitarian question—who is the reader—relevant" (114). But this "complete continuity" between apparently different theoretical approaches is, even if one buys it, a continuity only at the level of abstract logic and reasoning. In actuality, the critical turn to "categories of personhood" in the late 1980s focused mostly on the identities of authors, not readers, which remains very much the tendency for literary scholars who focus on "racegenderclasssexualityregion" (to quote a recent American Literature cover). For Michaels, the heart of deconstruction's intellectual error is its abandonment ofan intentionalist account ofmeaning (which was also the error of "theory" in Knapp and Michaels's 1983 "Against Theory"). Yet insofar as literary-critical engagement with the politics of cultural difference characteristically turns our attention to how authors' identities and historical situations inform their writing, then wouldn't it make more sense to say that the practice of"identity criticism" embodies a swing back in the direction of an authorial-intention theory of meaning? After all, efforts to expand the canon ofAmerican literature, as in the revisionary Heath Anthology, are organized around authors' identities and subject positions, not readers'. In 7Ae Shape ofthe Signifíer—and to me this is the most consequential part of the book's argument—Michaels is more expansive than in his previous work about why he finds the concept of"identity" pernicious as it operates in, for instance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 241-245
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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