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Floating Authorship

I hated to come to anything so uncongenial, so un-American, as a theoretical conclusion—to anything so theoretical and conclusive as a theoretical conclusion. I felt… that it is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life. But I sat surrounded by the results of doing the opposite: the light I read by, the furnace that kept turning itself on and off to warm me, the rockets that at that moment were being tested to attack me, all were the benefits of coming to theoretical conclusions; I was a living—still living—contradiction.

—Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

Because Jarrell’s academic novel was initially published in 1952, its first-person narrator, an English professor, would probably have retired long before his very American inhospitableness to theory could assume an appropriate position in the recent battles over literary study in this country. Like some obtuse guest who has overstayed its grudging welcome, theory has lately been the object of increasingly rude attempts to hustle it out the door. There seems to be an assumption that, once the intruder has been ousted, tranquil domesticity will be restored to the house of American literary studies, or at least that there will be a return to a more congenial mode of disagreement. Even if he were not an anachronism, however, one doubts that Jarrell’s English professor would have been able to take up that fight in good faith. Theory, he realizes, long ago entered the house. Indeed, it is he who is freeloading off “theoretical conclusions,” living—still living—between the promise of continued light and warmth and the threat of final expulsion.

Where Jarrell’s protagonist might have hesitated in the face of his own contradiction, others have declared themselves ready to close the door on theory and make do with a “new pragmatism.” Several of the bluntest efforts in this direction are collected in Against Theory. Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism.1 Someone who follows the ever-unfolding drama of literary theory on the North American stage might recall that this book began its career as an energetically polemical article, “Against Theory,” coauthored by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in a 1982 issue of Critical Inquiry. The authors’ confident (some might say cheeky) dismissal of a handful of the most influential directions taken by literary theory in its more recent phase in this country, their summary decree that such theoretical efforts, having failed, should not be renewed in any direction new or old, their assurance that a streamlined version of “intentionalism” is just what we need to kick the theory habit—all of this in less than twenty pages—did not fail to achieve what was perhaps the main if not sole purpose of the exercise: an equally energetic response, in fact a barrage of “critical responses” from a variety of theorists who felt themselves directly or indirectly in the broadside’s line of fire. Critical Inquiry found the whole episode “stimulating” enough to devote most of a 1983 issue to these responses (and to a response to the responses from Knapp and Michaels) as well as part of a 1985 issue to yet more responses from Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty (along with another reply from the initiators).

Almost without exception, Knapp and Michaels’ respondents are led to comment in one way or another on a charming didactic fiction that “Against Theory” deploys at the outset. The fiction (which we cite in detail later) is supposed to demonstrate “how difficult it is to imagine a case of intentionless meaning” and therefore the general uselessness of theory which, according to Knapp and Michaels, always sets out from a “moment of imagining intentionless meaning” (16). A curious distraction, however, affects the several “readings” of this fiction collected by Against Theory. The sources, the motives, the shape and, perhaps finally, the inevitability of this distraction are the most interesting things about the debate over theory as staged by Critical Inquiry. One may be tempted to see there some large machine at work, or at least a rather dizzying perspective of revolving ironies.

It seems to turn on a single word out of place. The philosopher Alexander Nehamas, in a review of Against Theory, may have noticed the lapsus, but if he did, he calls no attention to it. Paraphrasing Knapp and Michaels’ fiction, he makes an apt substitution of his term for theirs, which to some extent clears up the confusion. First his paraphrase: “Suppose you come upon some squiggles in the sand that seem to spell a stanza of a Wordsworth poem. And suppose that, for a variety of reasons, you find it impossible to believe that they were composed by a conscious agent of any sort [italics added]. Would this show that there was meaning without intention? Not at all, Knapp and Michaels think.” Next, he quotes from their text: “‘To deprive the marks of an author [italics added] is to convert them into accidental likenesses of language. They are not, after all, an example of intentionless meaning; as soon as they become intentionless they become meaningless as well.’”2 In his paraphrase, Nehamas has, inadvertently perhaps, corrected the word “author” by the phrase “a conscious agent of any sort,” and he is right to do so since, in the context, the word “author” should be reserved for Wordsworth if one wants to avoid confusion. Perhaps this is a case of the philosopher giving the literary critic a subliminal lesson in more precise language use. Nehamas, in fact, goes on to do just that when he asks to know what exactly Knapp and Michaels mean by their word “meaningless,” which, the philosopher knows, has many meanings. Yet he is no less confident than these authors themselves that he knows what they mean by their word “author”: read “a conscious agent of any sort.”

But how can one be sure that the authors do know what they mean by their word “author”? And, in the context of an argument about intentional meaning, does not this uncertainty hint at a nearly fathomless irony whirring in the background, its switch locked in the “on” position? Perhaps the reactive “critical response” from Knapp and Michaels’ colleagues should be understood as a response to a crisis set off by a pair of tinkerers who were sure they knew what they were doing but made a terrible mess of things. Experts are called in to turn the damned thing off, but nothing, so far, seems to work. No “author” or “conscious agent of any sort” can get to the controls or get the last word.

Yet, as there is always something instructive in such critical flaps, one should also give Knapp and Michaels credit for setting it off. (Knapp and Michaels, the authors: since this latter term will be more than ever of uncertain designation here, I propose—for the sake of brevity of expression and without intending the least disrespect—to abbreviate the names to the single acronym “KaM,” to be used inconsistently in both the singular and plural.) It is a problem, of course, that they themselves do not seem to know what they have done. They think they have demonstrated why theory is a superfluous gadget that can be discarded without a second thought. But their performance of this gesture includes a neat demonstration of how the gadget keeps thrusting itself upon us with ever more insistent claims as to its usefulness. KaM misses the mechanical effect because he is playing with his gadget. He resembles an entrepreneur dreaming about the profits to be had within the institutional order once he markets his self-destructing theory-gadget. Perhaps KaM has done enough of a market survey to believe that the thing will sell briskly in the Peorias of the American literary academy. (And lest this sound like a geographic slur, I suggest we hear “Peoria” as merely a deformation or denegation of “aporia,” a place, therefore, only on an imaginary map where an essential platitude seems to offer refuge from the pitfalls of a theory-machine that not only will not self-destruct but thrives on the good intentions of those who want to turn it off.)3

But KaM’s mistaken use of the term “author” at a central juncture in their demonstration triggers the aporetic chain reaction and implodes their invention. Before reenacting the accident (if that is what it was) and in order to measure some of its longer-term effects, we need to recall where KaM intended to land if they had not gotten hung up on the shoals of authorship. The safe harbor is called “practice,” by which is meant the practice of “interpreting particular texts.” Theory, on the other hand, “is nothing else,” writes KaM, “but the attempt to escape practice … the name for all the ways people have attempted to stand outside practice… . Our thesis has been that no one can reach a position outside practice” (30). It would not, I trust, be wrong to interpret this particular text as claiming quite forcefully that, if there is no position outside practice, then one is always within practice in some way, regardless of what may be one’s own idea of where one is standing or what one is doing. Understood in these terms, KaM’s point about the inescapabili-ty of practice (of interpreting or reading) seems inescapably correct. One would have wished, however, to know why, in KaM’s opinion, so much effort is wasted trying to escape the inescapable. What, in other words, is so threatening about reading that readers should dream of acceding to an ideal “position outside practice”? Some attempt at an answer could have added considerable force to the conclusion that “the theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end,” even as it would also have explained why such a courageous recommendation was likely to go unheeded.

Although KaM is curiously unwilling to speak of the threat that may be driving the theoretical enterprise and the deluded wish to escape practice, the text of “Against Theory” is eloquent on just such a turning aside from reading. This eloquence, however, is not in the service of a discourse or an argument; indeed, its persuasive effect is won at considerable cost to the persuasiveness of an argument that proceeds, nevertheless, apparently unperturbed by the textual effects also being produced. The scene of these countereffects is explicitly a scene of reading. It is also the only point at which “Against Theory” stages the kind of “practice” which it claims the literary theorist cannot escape.4 Yet, the way KaM stages this encounter with a text to be read is so distracting that one may begin to wonder whether some vaguely sensed threat is at work urging the reader (KaM, KaM’s reader, the reader “in” the text) to turn aside from something on the page.

To read such a text, then, it may be necessary to resist a certain seduction away from the page, to recall (oneself) at every step (to) the scene of reading: in a word, to remark the fictionality of a fiction. As it happens, the elaborately staged hypothetical narrative that KaM deploys in the interest of his inten-tionalist argument is a naively transparent one. And yet, by its very naivete, the writing of this scene can expect to benefit from an understandable reluctance to subject the childlike pleasure of making up a story to any critical scrutiny. (This could explain why, for example, none of the critical respondents to “Against Theory,” all of whom are eminent teachers of literature, has anything pertinent to say about its fictional procedures.) In this narrative, it is supposed that “you” come upon a poetic text in altogether singular, never-before-seen circumstances. Both the second person and the present tense of this narration function as constant reminders that the other scene being evoked—the fictional circumstance of a reading act as well as the surface and the means of an act of inscription—has no support in the real other than the scene of reading this “you” is then performing. Thus reminded, “you” will perhaps be less tempted to look away toward the fantastic events taking place somewhere else, on another surface (somewhere just off the shore of a Californian never-never land), to which KaM points with such delight and wonder.

Three diegetical moments, three suppositions, compose KaM’s fictional stage:

[I.] Suppose you’re walking along a beach and you come upon a curious sequence of squiggles in the sand. You step back a few paces and notice that they spell out the following words:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.


[II.] But now suppose that, as you stand gazing at this pattern in the sand, a wave washes up and recedes, leaving in its wake (written below what you now realize was only the first stanza) the following words:

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.


[III.] Suppose, having seen the second stanza wash up on the beach, you have decided that the “poem” is really an accidental effect of erosion, percolation, and so on and therefore not language at all. What would it now take to change your mind? No theoretical argument will make a difference. But suppose you notice, rising out of the sea some distance from the shore, a small submarine, out of which clamber a half dozen figures in white lab coats. One of them trains his binoculars on the beach and shouts triumphantly, “It worked! It worked! Let’s go down and try it again.” (Pp. 15–17)

The first of these propositions is followed by minimal commentary, while the radical suspension of the second proposition (which makes for all the interest of the tale) is accompanied by a list of some possible explanations of what the beach walker sees and an analysis of the presuppositions that would have allowed each explanation. KaM remarks that “all the explanations fall into two categories. You will either be ascribing these marks to some agent capable of intentions … or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes.” The third supposition—the sighting of the sub-marine and so forth—is followed by a comment which is also the moral of the fable: “You now have new evidence of an author. The question of authorship is and always was an empirical question; it has now received a new empirical answer. The theoretical temptation is to imagine that such empirical questions must, or should, have theoretical answers” (italics added).

Although this moral is meant to end the suspense and reassure the reader that intentional agents and mechanical processes remain distinguishable, one may not be so easily reassured if one notices that the “new evidence of an author” surfaces in the form of “a small submarine, out of which clamber a half dozen figures.” Is this evidence of the author of the lyric poem which begins “A slumber did my spirit seal” or is it rather evidence (within a fiction) of a mechanical or technical process for inscribing marks on a distant surface? When KaM speaks of the “author” of what he calls the “wave poem,” what does he mean? Does he mean that Wordsworth was a member of the submarine team and this was the event of the poem’s composition? Doubtless no. But if it was not Wordsworth who “wrote” the poem on the beach, how can one speak of another “author” without controverting the force of the “empirical” evidence that is the point of the demonstration? Perhaps the demonstration can be saved by substituting for the incorrect term “author” (which KaM would have used by mistake or lack of precision) the correct term. But perhaps as well the mistake is a necessary one since a correct alternative would have to admit some resemblance and thus the possible confusion between intentional and mechanical agencies in the reproduction of marks. This is to suggest that only the term “author,” despite its inappropriateness, can hold the line separating intentional, conscious agency from mechanical, nonconscious process. The choice of the word “author” would thus be no accident but itself produced by a mechanical defense of this distinction.

And, in effect, KaM repeatedly rejects any alternative to their use of the term “author” in the sense of a given text’s actual, empirical composer. In “A Reply to Our Critics,” for example, KaM refuses E. D. Hirsch’s observation that “Against Theory” demonstrates only that “a text’s meaning … must always be what an author intends it to mean” and not at all that it “must always be what its author intends it to mean.” “What can the word ‘author’ mean,” replies KaM, “if not the composer of the text? In our view, to ‘postulate’ an author is already to commit oneself to an account of the composer of the text, and there is nothing to choose betweeen them because they are the same.” In a later response, Richard Rorty returns to Hirsch’s distinction and suggests that KaM has yet to come to terms with it, to which KaM again replies that there is no difference between “an author of a text” and “its author,” that only the latter is implied in an intentionalist account of meaning and that “the only alternative to the intentionalism of ‘Against Theory’ is a formalism that imagines the possibility not of two different kinds of intended meaning but of meaning that is not intended at all” (142). KaM’s all-or-nothing reasoning here (and we will return to this later) tends to confirm the suspicion that when they use the word “author” incorrectly according to their own definition—“What can the word ‘author’ mean if not the composer of the text?”—the mistake cannot be corrected without putting at risk the logic underpinning it and without admitting a significant gray area between KaM’s empiricism and their bugbear: formalism.

The problem is far from being a superficial one of terminology because KaM’s distracted use of the term “author” ends up pointing to a fundamental misunderstanding of the intentionality supposed by the fictional example with which they propose to cement their intentionalist argument. The fable of the wave poem is designed to illustrate that until and unless the beach walker can identify an “author’s” intention to produce what is written in the sand, he or she will be forced to conclude that these marks are not at all the words of a familiar poem but only their accidental likeness. To read the marks at all, one must be able to assume that they were meant as words, as language; one must identify and identify with an intentionality. The problem with this basically sound proposition arises at the point identified by Hirsch and Rorty. When the lab-coated figure exclaims, “It worked! It worked!” this is presumably to be taken as empirical evidence of an intention to produce the marks on the beach, one that, moreover, has realized its aim. Now, what happens when we conjugate the premise of KaM’s intentionalism which the fable is intended to support—“all meaning is always the author’s meaning”—with the slip that designates the excited experimenter as the author? Is it this figure’s particular, finite intention which is the “meaning” of the poem that can now be read on the beach? Clearly not, since “you” the beach walker and you KaM’s reader are to understand that what you have just witnessed is a successful experiment in a method of telekinesis or telecommunication using previously untried media and for that purpose any kind of iterable mark could have served as well. The exclamation concerns strictly the iteration that has occurred and would have been fully as justified if, instead of a well-known poem, the underwater manipulations had managed to reproduce a series of geometrical figures or any other kind of “squiggle” whose form could be recognized when repeated. Thus, the intention of the figure whom KaM calls the author, the imagined empirical “fact” of this particular act of intentional inscription, would tend to empty the poem of all meaning beyond the sheer repetition of the appearance or form of the marks transferred onto a distant surface. KaM’s exemplary “author” is a formalist of the purest sort, which obviously does not prevent in the least his assuming form as a high-tech empiricist.

As should be clear by now, KaM’s mistake, which precipitates such profoundly unsettling effects on the intentionalist argument floated by the fable, can be traced to its source in the structure of citationality which has been covered over or forgotten (cited without acknowledgment) by KaM’s commentary on the events on the beach. Whatever else the underwater experimenters may have been doing, a minimally correct description would have to include that they reiterate, repeat, reinscribe a set of hypercoded marks. To repeat: the fact that the experimenters cite a well-known poem (rather than some other set of coded marks) is or should be altogether irrelevant to the aim or intention of their experiment. By choosing to cite a poem, however, KaM in effect creates a situation in which a citer’s intention can seem to rejoin or reactivate an author’s intention, even though, in their finite senses, the two acts of inscription are apparently highly dissimilar. KaM’s mistake can pass unnoticed because the citational act, whatever its particular, finite purpose, rejoins a general intentionality within which the poem cited finds its original and continuing horizon of readability. But it is no less a mistake and, in the context of “Against Theory” as well as the debate to which the article has given rise, a highly symptomatic one.

KaM’s intentionalist argument forgets to allow for a general citationality or iteration. As one result, rather than showing “how difficult it is to imagine a case of intentionless meaning,” their fable demonstrates most consistently (although it is unclear why this needs demonstrating) that the same words can be repeated with all sorts of different intentions or meanings. Because KaM neglects to make the distinction between a particular, finite (empirical) intention of some speech act and intentionality as an animating principle of language in general,5 he has to end up misunderstanding his own demonstration and attributing to an agent of mechanical repetition the position of “author.” When, therefore, KaM writes that “language has intention [rather than intentionality] already built into it,” how not to read in that statement a denegation of the necessary detachability of words or marks from finite intentions illustrated and acted out by the fable? This denegation—the impulse to deny, in the face of a contrary certainty, the finitude of intentions—is properly the stuff of fiction: the dream of an impermeable, indivisible Authorship. Has KaM dreamed his own intention and given it shape as the wonderful writing machine that surfaces at the end of the fable? Like a vehicle meant to navigate through a medium while remaining self-enclosed, “Against Theory” takes one plunge after another, apparently confident that its own notion of intention, and its notion of its own intention, will prevent any confusion between its “inside” and its “outside.”

But KaM would also be the first to admit that their polemical engine is not of altogether original design:

The claim that all meanings are intentional is not, of course, an unfamiliar one in contemporary philosophy of language. John Searle, for example, asserts that “there is no getting away from intentionality” [“Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” Glyph 1 (1977), 202] and he and others have advanced arguments to support this claim. Our purpose here is not to add another such argument. (15)

Does some responsibility for the design flaws of “Against Theory” have to go to John Searle and specifically to the form of his “Reply to Derrida”? The answer is yes, despite a conspicuous adjustment KaM must make so as to bridge a gap left in Searle’s argumentative vehicle, a gap through which conscious, finite, selfsame intentions risk being detached from their meaning. Searle, in effect, would have left a slight opening for different meanings, for the meaning of difference, for a theory of the other-than-the-one, the other-than-the-Author. KaM, however, moves in to close things up:

Despite this course correction, KaM has taken over in a wholesale and no-questions-asked manner Searle’s procedure in replying to Derrida’s “Signature Event Context.” The proposed adjustment seeks to seal Searle’s argument more effectively against his chosen opponent and to keep the notion of a single, selfsame intentionality out of reach of the otherness that necessarily inhabits and makes possible any intention. Having saved Searle from his own temptation to admit something like an originary gap in any intention, KaM can then proceed as if the “Reply to Derrida” were in every other respect an effective bulkhead against the fundamentally deconstructive law that an intention is always a priori “différante.” This “as if” allows KaM to take a massive shortcut around all the questions about intention and intentionality that Derridean thought has scattered over the terrain of antitheory.6 KaM, in other words, writes as if Searle had definitively replied to these questions, as if, therefore, antitheoretical empiricism and intentionalism could dispense with any direct engagement of Derrida’s work.

But Searle, in KaM’s reading, would have signed more than an excuse not to read. He has also provided them with their definition of what constitutes “the theoretical moment itself.” “In debates about intention,” asserts KaM, “the moment of imagining intentionless meaning constitutes the theoretical moment itself. From the standpoint of an argument against critical theory, then, the only important question about intention is whether there can in fact be intentionless meaning” (15). Searle provided the model for such an argument when he attributed to Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” just such a “moment of imagining intentionless meaning” and then proceeded, without difficulty, to refute its possible occurrence. KaM has taken aim at the same imaginary target, accepting—apparently on simple faith—that Searle got things right in his “Reply to Derrida.”

Regardless of how well this fiction or this let’s-make-believe empiricism will sell in Peoria, it cannot controvert some stubborn facts. In fact, Searle’s reply leaves almost everything unanswered, which is why it could become a pretext for Derrida to reiterate at length, in “Limited Inc abc …,” the necessity of rethinking intentionality as a differential structure or stricture within a general iterability or citationality. Along the way, he repeatedly remarks Searle’s habit of attributing a “moment of imagining intentionless meaning” to a text that“at no time … invoke[s] the absence, pure and simple, of intentionality. Nor is there any break, simple or radical, with intentionality.”7 What Searle (and later KaM) chooses to misunderstand as a simple or absolute absence of intentionality is in fact the not-so-simple yet undeniable absence which every written text supposes: the absence of its author. Derrida recalls and cites what he had already written in “Signature Event Context”:

“For a writing to be a writing it must continue to ‘act’ and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, be it because of a temporary absence, because he is dead or, more generally, because he has not employed his absolutely actual and present intention or attention, the plenitude of his desire to say what he means, in order to sustain what seems to be written ’in his name’.”

This general definition has the force, continues Derrida, of eidetic law (KaM’s fabulous citation of Wordsworth’s poem would be but a particularly fanciful illustration of the law’s validity), which is “moreover … nothing but the consequence of iterability.” An iterable intention is

divided and deported in advance … towards others, removed (écartée) in advance from itself. This remove makes its movement possible. Which is another way of saying that if this remove is its condition of possibility, it is not an eventuality, something that befalls it here and there, by accident. Intention is a priori (at once) différante. (193–94)

KaM’s denegation of the gap or gulf—the écart—within intention which is “its very possibility” relies on an oppositional logic of all or nothing which assigns an exclusively negative determination to the difference that sets it in motion. Because all-or-nothing logic (for example, “If all meaning is always the author’s meaning, the alternative is an empty one”) refuses or suppresses the movement toward the other-than-the-Author, it is powerless to account for the double determination or double movement of iterability as both the limitation and the possibility of any intention. Following Searle, KaM employs a kind of scare tactic, a repeated, intimidating assertion that there is no alternative to oppositional thinking.8 It is no doubt for this reason that they are so eager to believe Searle’s version of a text like “Signature Event Context,” a text that explicitly indicates the horizon of a theoretical program based on a nonoppositional differentiation in which “the category of intention would not disappear:”

Rather than oppose [italics added] citation or iteration to the noniteration of an event, one ought to construct a differential typology of forms of iteration, assuming that such a project is tenable and can result in an exhaustive program. … In such a typology, the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from that place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance. Above all, at that point, we will be dealing with different kinds of marks or chains of iterable marks and not with an opposition [italics added] between citational utterances, on the one hand, and singular and original eventutterances, on the other. (197)

What ‘’Limited Inc” will also call “something like a law of undecidable contamination” baffles the logic that offers thinking a choice only between pure intention (an ideal fiction constructed through the denegation of a priori iterability) and no intention. It is, for example, this nonoppositional “law of undecidable contamination” which alone can allow one to describe with some precision the situation of the cited poem in the text of “Against Theory.” That is, only by acknowledging that the distinction between cited and citing text is a priori not assured to be rigorous or uncontaminated can one give any account of certain iteration effects that are, as we shall see, scrambling the relation between the poem and its narrative-discursive frame.

Before rereading the hypothetical narrative sequence, we should note that KaM does not simply and altogether overlook the fact of citation. They acknowledge that their citational activity is to be read as a recitation not just of Wordsworth’s lyric but of other instances of its quotation. A note to the first stanza supplies a source for the choice of the poem: “Wordsworth’s lyric has been a standard example in theoretical arguments since its adoption by Hirsch; see Validity in Interpretation, pp. 227–30 and 238–40.” Thus KaM’s citation of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” passes at least by way of Hirsch’s citation of the same poem, but in fact (since the latter would have been only the first instance of a theoretical argument like KaM’s which takes the poem as an example)9 the note inscribes a site of multiple citings which is both cited and added to by “Against Theory.” The purpose of this note, however, would seem to be less to acknowledge this minor tradition in theoretical arguments about intentionality than to assert the indifference or exteriority of the “example” to the demonstration in which it serves. KaM is saying, in effect, that the same demonstration could be made with any linguistically coded material. To repeat: this indifference or arbitrariness of the cited marks is key to understanding the specific, limited intention of the submarine crew in the fable. And like those other fictional inventors in the fable, KaM, the inventor of the fable, is to be understood as practicing an empty or voided citation for the sole purpose of demonstrating experimentally the limits on the possibility of readable inscription. The fable is thereby constructed out of the coincidence of an “external” logic of indifferent quotation with an “internal” one. What is more, this coincidence can itself be described as a form of quotation: the submarine experimenters cite KaM’s empty citation, or, put the other way, KaM cites the experimenters’ citation of the poem. Either way, one can rightly say that the fable does little more than inscribe a supplementary set of quotation marks around the poem, placing any consideration of its meaning for a virtual reader (“you”) at yet a further remove from the logic of a demonstration concerned exclusively (and regardless of what KaM says about what he is doing) with the iterability of marks as a necessary condition of meaning in general. The proliferating quotation marks would thus serve merely to underscore the exteriority of any particular example to such a general demonstration.

What if, however, all this empty activity were also an attempt to void or efface or simply forget a meaning that insists in the poem and that keeps returning with each citing and each sighting? What if, that is, the poem’s supposed exteriority from the demonstration should be seen as functioning as an alibi for a relation that implicates otherwise the example in the argument, the quoted poem in the discursive/narrative fiction, according to the law of undecidable contamination?

To pursue these questions, however, one must read, at least in a minimal fashion, the two cited stanzas and traverse all the quotation marks voiding the place of the example. But then very quickly the poem begins to overflow the containing argument. While it is true that examples can almost always be shown to exceed (or fall short of) whatever they are cited to be examples of, the citation of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” here exceeds its frame in a manner that reverses the exemplary relation. By means of this contaminating reversal, KaM’s framing fable itself becomes an example of the mistake exposed by the poem.

This mistake is that of a spirit lulled by slumber into forgetting “human fears.” To the poet, sealed in forgetfulness, “She seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years.” The first lines introduce the dream image of an eternal present, one that, however, only “seemed.” The unsealing of the poet’s spirit, by the event of her death which reveals his mistake, occurs in the space between the two stanzas. The shift in the second stanza to the present tense is underlined by the “now” of “No motion has she now, no force.” A negation of things human continues in the next line: “She neither hears nor sees.” Finally, the last lines refer back to the “thing” she seemed to be in the past: “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” The eternal present returns in the final lines, but there is nothing in the least dreamy about these things left untouched by earthly years. Instead, the sleeper’s vision has been replaced by the sight of an inexorable repetition that even invades the diction of sheer addition: “rocks, and stones, and …”

This rendering might approximate the sort of reading “you” could muster in the circumstances KaM imagines.10 These circumstances even work to dramatize the poem up to a point, underscoring its temporal structure. The “now” in the first line of the second stanza, for example, would have to take on special resonance as “you” watched these lines being written on the beach. The fable’s narration of the second episode even insists on the “now”:

But now suppose that, as you stand gazing at this pattern in the sand, a wave washes up and recedes, leaving in its wake (written below what you now realize was only the first stanza) the following words:

No motion has she now, no force.


You will now, we suspect, feel compelled to explain what you have just seen.

This succession of “nows” seems to be but the bare, almost mechanical punctuation of narrative, and as such it remarks the fundamentally successive structure of the poem. In the poem, “now” signals that a past, deluded version of eternal human presence has given way to a present version that places human “thingness” on a plane with “rocks, and stones, and trees.” What is more, according to the framing narrative, this “now” arrives on the force of a wave, having been rolled round and deposited (somehow) on the beach. This alignment of the stanza as énoncé and énonciation, as an utterance that performs what it says, is really quite remarkable. Indeed, it is curious enough to give “you,” the beach walker—provided you’re awake and halfway lucid—an uncanny shock, as if you had just seen your own ghost. (And, in fact, KaM’s fable could be understood as trying to exorcise the ghost it has so recklessly called forth.) The fable at this point conforms to a near-perfect allegory of the “truth” of the poem, or one could also say it performs the “truth” of the poem’s allegory: the death of the other, “she,” is also “my” death, the death of the speaker.11 The speaker in the poem cannot speak his death in the present, whence the recourse to allegorical narrative. KaM’s fable makes this allegory readable by inventing the optimal condition for “hearing"/ seeing the absence in the voice that speaks the poem. It turns out that the fabulous writing submarine is really a wonderful reading machine.

This overlapping or coincidence, the tendency of the poem’s sequence to double itself in the surrounding narration, raises the question: Who signs the fable of the “wave poem”? Has not Wordsworth, the dead author, dictated at least in part the shape of KaM’s didactic narrative? Does the beach walker do anything more than repeat—or quote—the sequence of illusion/disillusion attributed to the poem’s first person? Notice how the signature of the dead poet, KaM’s ghostwriter, can be restored if the account of the events on the beach is rephrased only slightly: In an initial moment, the encounter with the first stanza unfolds in a state of slumber, the beach walker or sleepwalker remaining unaware of the blind assumption made concerning the durable presence of a human intention. In a second moment and with the arrival of the second stanza, this sleepwalker is rudely jolted into wakefulness when the assumption of human presence is unsealed, admitting in the present what was blissfully forgotten in the past: the death of the “present” speaker. KaM’s discursive commentary on this narrative sequence12 departs very little from these terms and is thus unable to block Wordsworth’s ghost, a certain “she,” from taking over the text. Indeed, KaM himself seems to be sleepwalking though the whole experience, unaware of what—or who—is showing up on the page.

Even the uncertainty of signature, its implication beyond the fully conscious present of the signing author, may have been already inscribed and anticipated by the poem. The first line, which for lack of a title serves to name the poem, gives a version of the speaker’s error in terms of an undecidable seal or, perhaps, signature. The emphatic verb “did … seal” allows for a grammatical interchangeability of subject and object, slumber and spirit: either a slumber sealed my spirit or my spirit sealed a slumber. So the question is: Did slumber turn my wakefulness into forgetful sleep, close me off from the light? or did my spirit put its seal on slumber, sign sleep for its own, recognize the end of wakefulness with its own mark? The first reading permits a certain exteriority of slumber and spirit, the former acting against or in opposition to the latter. The second reading empties out the opposition of lucidity to a sealing off from the light; instead, it marries them or seals them together. Either way, however, the line points to an eclipse of spirit in the act of sealing or signing. Perhaps the poem should be read in a circular manner, “rolled round” the eclipsing signature that unseals its error only to return to the position of signing the slumber which precipitated its fall. At the very least, the undecidable signing of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” could explain why this lyric has repeatedly attracted intentionalist arguments like KaM’s: that argument finds itself already cited—and challenged—there.13

But if, as we are suggesting, KaM’s fable is a displacement of the text it cites, it is also a denegation of what it makes readable, a denegation that is marked by an important deviation that swerves the fable away from Wordsworth’s lesson. The addition of the third episode (the sighting of the submarine and so forth) moves the fable beyond the two-beat sequence of the poem. With this turn or return, KaM attempts to recuperate the example back within the frame and to show us that it was all along merely the material of an experiment. Yet this third moment, when the fable seems to step outside the poem in order to manipulate its example from a safe distance,14 resembles nothing so much as a return to the illusion characterized by the first stanza and discovered by the second. That is, it returns to, repeats, or reintroduces the illusion of a continuing presence (of intention) untouched by earthly years when it mistakes a (living) agent for a (dead) author. This, then, is how the fable becomes an example of the mistake exposed by the poem. The mistake occurs through a movement that denies the eclipse of a wakeful intention. Whereas in the second moment, the fable had allegorized a reading of the undecidable subject of the lyric, in the third moment it forgets everything it has read by fantasizing an “author” who rises out of the sea, resuscitated, not dead, still able to speak and to sign. One need have no human fears. The question is closed. “The question of authorship is and always was an empirical question; it has now received an empirical answer. The theoretical temptation is to imagine that such empirical questions must, or should, have theoretical answers.”

If there is another moral to this story, we would have to look for it in the delusive figure of a fiction that distracts attention from its incoherencies and contradictions even as it preaches the inescapability of the practice of reading fictions, and thus the superfluity of any theory. That “Against Theory” cannot practice what it preaches is the sort of dilemma theory teaches us to look out for. It becomes a moral dilemma, however, when that inability is declared to be of no theoretical interest. Yet one is left to understand such an assertion as a statement of fear—fear of the tool, reading, which alone can expose the mystifying, even demagogic argument in favor of closing the book on theory.

1W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., Against Theory (Chicago, 1985). References will be included in parentheses in the text.

2Nehamas, “Untheory,” London Review of Books, 22 May 1986, 17.

3“Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance.” Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis, 1986), 19–20. It is difficult to resist juxtaposing “Against Theory” with this essay that appeared almost at the same moment—especially since de Man is one of the theorists whose work Knapp and Michaels explicitly address. See below, chap. 8.

4Knapp and Michaels, of course, are engaged in reading many texts throughout “Against Theory.” By “practice,” however, they seem to understand the interpretation not just of any written work but of literary or poetic texts that both demand and resist interpretation. This distinction is at the very least precarious but it is necessary to their other and principal distinction of theory from practice.

5On the Husserlian notion of intentional animation, see Jacques Derrida’s “Introduction” to The Origin of Geometry, esp. pt. VII. KaM’s wave poem resembles at moments that unreadable inscription which, writes Derrida, uncovers “the transcendental meaning of death”: “But if the text does not announce its own pure dependence on a writer or reader in general, if it is not haunted by a virtual intentionality … then, in the vacancy of its soul, there is no more than a chaotic literalness or the sensible opacity of a defunct designation, a designation deprived of its transcendental function. The silence of prehistoric arcana and buried civilizations, the entombment of lost intentions and guarded secrets, and the illegibility of the lapidary inscription disclose the transcendental meaning of death in that which unites it to the absolute privilege of intentionality in the very instance of its essential failure.” Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Stony Brook, N.Y., 1978), 88; trans. modified.

6Since this essay first appeared, Knapp and Michaels have published “Against Theory 2: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction,” Critical Inquiry 14 (Autumn 1987). There they belatedly take up the matter of iterability and attempt to measure their argument against those of Derrida in “Signature Event Context” and “Limited Inc abc …” That argument, which we will not attempt to reconstruct, does not anticipate or respond to any of the questions we are raising here and remains fundamentally impervious to the notion of a priori différance of intention. Nevertheless, one may remark two striking effects of this encounter with Derrida’s texts: (1) Knapp and Michaels’ antitheory is forced to betray more openly than in “Against Theory [I]” its essential investment in an understanding of meaning as self-contained, contained, that is, by the “self” who intends to mean. There is no other on this self’s horizon; it is self-inventing and self-determining, and as such it is just another avatar of the idealist dream of a totalizable system of meaning that would have no outside, no other, no addressee, no difference from itself. All Knapp and Michaels are proposing is a very weak, because very worn-out, version of this wish to exclude otherness from the circle of a hearing/understanding-oneself-speak (s’entendre parler) which Derrida first described in Speech and Phenomena, trans. David P. Allison (Evanston, Ill., 1973). In this regard, it is no doubt significant that the example they give of a performative speech act, whose potential failure or infelicity, they want to argue, does not entail a failure of the intention to mean and thus of meaning itself, is the marriage ceremony. The failure to contract with the other, to receive one’s meaning from the other, to affirm the meaning of the more-than-one, is not, they would claim, an essential failure of meaning because meaning is essentially s’entendre-parler. (2) When Knapp and Michaels do concede a notion of meaning in some relation to an other, that relation is just as thoroughly enclosed but now within the limits defined by convention. “But why should the claim that language is essentially conventional, even if it were true, undermine the possibility of saying what one means? Why should the need to follow the conventions compromise an intention if the intention is an intention to follow those conventions?” (62). Convention, for Knapp and Michaels, is essentially a general extension of s’entendre parler, which is why they can assert that “you can succeed in meaning when you don’t follow any convention at all” (66). By means of these circular moves that attempt to enclose meaning and fend off its outside, Knapp and Michaels end up defending an empty solipsism and its generalized form: a marriage of intention and meaning solely within the limits prescribed by convention, there where an anonymous “I” speaks only to itself and can remain indifferent to whatever might interrupt its self-communion. That, at least, would be the dream.

7Derrida, “Limited Inc abc …,” trans. Samuel Weber, Glyph 2 (1977), 193. Further references are included in parentheses in the text. There have been numerous commentaries on the exchange between Searle and Derrida. One of the most balanced is Ian Maclean’s “Un Dialogue de sourds? Some Implications of the Austin-Searle-Derrida Debate,” Paragraph 5 (March 1985).

8These intimidations are scattered throughout “Against Theory”; for example: “Our purpose here is … to show how radically counterintuitive the alternative would be” (15); or “It makes theory possible because it creates the illusion of a choice between alternative methods of interpreting” (20). KaM relies on a similar pattern of intimidating assertion in presenting the central thesis of “Against Theory,” which equates meaning with authorial intention. Although eventually claiming to have argued this thesis (19), KaM repeatedly seems content simply to assert insistently (e.g., 12, 13, 21), without argument or explanation, that this identity must be seen or recognized. The problem is that if an alternative to such a perception or intuition seems “radically counterintuitive,” that “counterintuitive” quality no more serves to make it false than mere assertion of a given alternative would serve to make it true. (My thanks to Philip Lewis for these remarks.)

9In fact, Hirsch is already responding to other critical treatments of the poem; see below, n. 13. KaM actually owes more to P. D. Juhl’s revision or refinement of Hirsch’s use of this example. See Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (Princeton, N.J., 1980), 71–72. KaM notes that “Juhl employs the same poem we do … in his own treatment of accidental ‘language.’ … The device of contrasting intentional speech acts with marks produced by chance is a familiar one in speech-act theory” (19, n. 9).

10In fact, the profile of KaM’s beach walker hesitates between someone who does and does not recognize the poem inscribed on the beach. In the first moment, “you recognize the writing as writing, you understand what the words mean, you may even identify them as constituting a rhymed poetic stanza— and all this without knowing anything about the author.” In the second moment, you are pictured wondering whether “Wordsworth, since his death, [has] become a sort of genius of the shore who inhabits the waves and periodically inscribes on the sand his elegiac sentiments.”

11Paul de Man has written of this poem: “Wordsworth is one of the few poets who can write proleptically about their own death and speak, as it were, from beyond their own graves. The ‘she’ in the poem is in fact large enough to encompass Wordsworth as well.” “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight, 2d ed. (Minneapolis, 1983), 225. And is “she” not also large enough to encompass KaM, and “you” and “me”?

12“As long as you thought the marks were poetry, you were assuming their intentional character. You had no idea who the author was, and this may have tricked you into thinking that positing an author was irrelevant to your ability to read the stanza. But in fact you had, without realizing it, already posited an author. It was only with the mysterious arrival of the second stanza that your tacit assumption (e.g., someone writing with a stick] was challenged and you realized that you had made one. Only now, when positing an author seems impossible, do you genuinely imagine the marks as authorless” (16).

13More recently, the same short lyric has also served as stage for a “representative” deconstructive reading and a dissenting counterreading of the deconstructor’s moves: see Morris Eaves and Michael Fischer, eds., Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1986), for the essays by J. Hillis Miller (“On Edge: The Crossways of Contemporary Criticism”) and M. H. Abrams (“Construing and Deconstructing”). Abrams’ objections often turn on “inten-tionalist” points. His article also embeds a reference to Hirsch’s previous use of the poem (145, n. 27), which, he recalls, was already an attempt to adjudicate the conflicting readings of still earlier readers: Cleanth Brooks and F. W. Bateson. At this point we might wonder if it is still possible to count the number of quotation marks enclosing the poem or rather detaching it from its “original” intention.

14Miller writes in “On Edge”: “The poem leaves the reader with no possibility of moving through or beyond or standing outside in sovereign control” (108). Maybe this is what “you” come to realize after reading KaM’s fable.

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