- The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form by Audrey Wasser
Not every young scholar would venture to devote her first book to developing an entirely different theory of literature. Audrey Wasser is certainly not like every young scholar. In The Work of Difference, Wasser articulates an account of literary difference as a concept opposed to literary “newness,” the latter being the product of a “still regnant romanticism” (93) which “continues to hold sway over the way we read” (1). Wasser claims that we demand of works that they be new when we expect them to be internally consistent and autonomous on a formal level or to respond to, but negate, codified structures of possible linguistic expression. But such a demand overshadows the specific difference of what is new. “Newness has a particular history” (1), which Wasser traces, offering a deconstruction of its romantic roots, in chapters 1–3. In chapter 4, Wasser articulates her innovative literary theory (for several reasons discussed below, we should avoid calling the theory “new”), which resolves problems inherent in our concept of newness. In the book’s final chapters (5–7), Wasser applies her theory of difference, advancing compelling rhetorical readings of key modernist novels by Samuel Beckett, Marcel Proust, and Gertrude Stein.
In the historical part of her project, Wasser defines two camps in 20th-century literary theory whose concepts of “newness” most directly influence current reading practices: New Criticism, on the one hand (Wasser almost exclusively focuses on Cleanth Brooks), whose legacy is formalist and intrinsic criticism, and the proto-Derridean theory of Maurice Blanchot, on the other. According to Wasser, Brooks prioritizes newness by emphasizing the formal autonomy of any works of art: a work includes formal paradoxes and a multiplicity of metaphors, which its internal consistency as a linguistic unit reconciles in an absolutely unique way (49). For Blanchot, on the other hand, language is “an experience of perpetual self-erasure . . . the structure of the work is one of sacrifice: a sacrifice of the inspiration that gave rise to it . . . so that the work’s very determination is that of a distance from its origin” (66). Both authors demonstrate for Wasser the same problem inherent in using newness as a benchmark for judging literary works, since “what is lacking in both is a positive, genetic account of the difference between literary form and authorial intention, or between form and its causal context” (73, my italics). Neither can answer Wasser’s crucial question: “how can something arise from a given set of conditions and at the same time be different from them?” (68). Whereas Brooks winds up, despite himself, implicitly equating a work’s formal determination to some preceding authorial [End Page 349] intention, Blanchot likewise fails to account for difference with his notion of “negative determination,” which views the work as a representation precisely of (the impossibility of) its linguistic conditions, and which Wasser condemns as “an imposter for real difference” (68).
In both Brooks and Blanchot, Wasser sees a “logic of reflection” operative which “demands that a work be grasped as a mirror-image of its conditions of creation” (5). She traces this logic to early German romanticism, and, in particular, to the “critical imperative” of literature theorized by Friedrich Schlegel (her exclusive reference point for German romanticism). Romanticism claimed that any particular work should ideally “[project] the idea of an absolute Work that would be capable of absorbing its own criticism, theorizing itself and reflecting on itself, and thus effectively excluding any supplemental discourse” (36). In this way, romanticism values in literature its ability “simultaneously to complete and incomplete [itself] with reflective commentary” (36). From the absolute independence and the self-negation of the romantic work of art stem Brooks’ and Blanchot’s theories, respectively.
Wasser identifies the romantic concept of reflection as a response to Kantian critical philosophy: the concept of literary newness which fails to account for the difference of the new is intrinsically bound to the failure of the romantics—and of Brooks and...