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HUMANITIES 349 a scholar would like. But there is much in it for any student of modern Canadian fiction. The casual tone belies the seriousness of the main issue under discussion here, the right of an author to 'improve on' events in history in an effort to evoke a meaningful context that readers can relate to. In this scheme of things the history provides atmosphere rather than substance . Atwood makes the point that it is not what we know about history that intrigues us, it is what has been left out. She thus neatly assigns to the creative writer the major role of interpreter to society at large. Any quibbles by historians over their peripheral role in her novelmaking would be beside the point. The value of this little book lies not in Atwood's literary criticism but in her explanation of what goes into her novels. (JUDITH KNELMAN) Michael Calvin McGee. Rhetoric in Postmodern America: Conversations with Michael Calvin McGee. Edited by Carol Corbin Guilford Press. 19B. us $39.95 It is difficult to assess a text that primarily consists of five chapter-length transcripts of conversations with its author. Presumably, transcripts are exempt from the usual analytical rigour one brings to bear on formal discourse. Even so, this book is rife with errors. McGee's representations of structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers - Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and others - are incomplete and distorted at best. McGee understands neither Saussure's conception of the linguistic sign nor the discipline of semiotics that emanates from it. Langue and parole, synchrony and diachronYI signifier and signified - these and other cognate terms are incorrectly defined and improperly used. In 'Formal Discursive Theories,' McGee invokes three master terms: beauty (poetry and aesthetics)1 truth (philosophy, science, and logic), and power (rhetoric). Having got his 'aesthetes shot off' during the Vietnam War, McGee 'simply ended conversation with literary peoplel because in [his] mind literature was not concerned with anything but fads and fashions.' As he reflects, 'I still refuse to acknowledge the artistic status of James Joyce, for instance. The difficulty is that I just don't understand why something I can't read, can't understand, and don't like gets called great art and great literature.' It is hard to respond to such calculated anti-intellectualism , but anyone who cannot appreciate the genius of Dubliners and Portrait ofthe Artist, not only from a linguistic and literary standpoint, but also from a social, political, religious, and cultural standpoint, is rhetorically challenged. Ulysses is admittedly difficult and Finnegans Wake may even be unreadable, but confrontation with difficulty and unreadability is at the heart of education. There are many sectionsof Derrida's Grammatology that at first 'I can't read, can't understand, and don't like,' but the point of 350 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 education is to persevere until you can read, can understand, and do sometimes like the 'great literature' of whatever field. Kenneth Burke, to whom McGee often refers, is no easy read either, but McGee would hardly advocate ignoring the work of such an eminent rhetorical theorist just because the language is difficult. That McGee is at home talking about Roseanne, Archie Bunker, and Mary Tyler Moore and has nothing to say about Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, or any other novelist, living or dead, is telling. Beloved is not just an important literary text; it is an important cultural text as well. In 'The Postmodem Condition,' McGee 'takes orality as the state of nature, the starting point, the beginning place,' a questionable premise given postrnodemism's distrust of origins and ends, and of the metanarratives they subserve. Nevertheless, McGee contends that oral communication valorizes understanding, not truth, whereas written communication valorizes objectivity, not intersubjectivity. 'The Age of Reason or the Enlightenment,' he writes, 'is the heart or the fulcrum of this period where most of the fateful decisions were made. One of them was the "fetishization " of writing, and people came to love and trust only in writing as they once trusted each other and themselves. All of the characteristics that Barthes and Derrida complain about with regard to writing have emerged at this point.' The only problem is that both...


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pp. 349-350
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