A Postmodern Lexicon

Philosophy and Literature 15 (1991): 182-85.

Denis Dutton

Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (University of Chicago Press, $19.50 paper) is a collection of twenty-three essays (averaging 14.2 pages) by twenty-three authors on terms in current use in literary theory, such as ideology, gender, structure, discourse, narrative, author, rhetoric, unconscious, culture, and so forth. The contributors are generally well-known academics in English and Comp Lit departments. The idea is to give readers who know little of literary theory some background in the subject and a bit of provocation. As we could expect, the essays are mixed in their virtues. W.J.T. Mitchell’s on representation is ideal of its kind: he begins with Aristotle, examines what it is for anything to represent anything else, brings in formalism, and concludes with discussion of “My Last Duchess.” You go away from this essay better understanding representation, mimesis, and implicated concepts.

The same cannot be said, to cite another example, of Annabel Patterson’s essay on intention. She begins with legal history, claiming that intentions have “special importance in cases of libel” (which they don’t, anymore than in other areas of law), goes on to a less-than-helpful (or relevant) discussion of Constitutional interpretation and framers’ intentions, and then gets to philosophy. But did Elizabeth Anscombe try to determine whether intentions can be validated by what follows their utterance “by the rules of logic”? Hardly; logic is not a set of rules people like Anscombe can use to “validate” intentions. Anscombe’s Intention is an extremely subtle Wittgensteinian exploration of the idea of intention, not an application of logical rules to any end. Nor can it be said that “idealist aesthetics...ususally presumes that the status of the artefact as art is self-evident. Such a view, by definition unexaminable....” Wait a minute, I don’t know any aesthetics that treats the status of art as unexaminably self-evident. Philosophical aesthetics makes claims about the nature of art, but it argues too, and arguments invite examination and counter-arguments.

On the contrary, it’s literary theory that’s more likely to serve up unexaminable, unargued dogmas, and it is the inevitable obstrusion of these on the pages of this book that’s so disheartening. I found myself supplying a sort of reader’s obbligato, “Hang can’t say that...but what about?” The first page of Thomas McLaughlin’s introduction will have to stand for all. He starts off by telling us that literary theory “has escaped from the academy and become part of popular culture. ‘Deconstruction’ is a word that gets used in Newsweek.” A British pop group apparently in the spell of Barthes publishes its lyrics under name “Jouissance Music.” McLaughlin tells us, “I have even heard a basketball coach say that his team had to learned to deconstruct a zone defense. Literary theory has permeated our thinking to the point that it has defined for our times how discourse about literature, as well as about culture in general, shall proceed.” Note that ominous “shall,” redolent of Moses, General McArthur, and the Central Committee.

I don’t mean to single out McLaughlin for particular abuse, but he does most deftly catch something of the spirit of literary theory — the breathtaking egocentricity, the fatuous sense of self-importance. If a philosopher or almost any other sort of academic made similar claims and used the evidence of Newsweek, a rock group, and a basketball coach he’d induce giggles. Literary theory, however, is strictly serious business. What holds all the various schools and styles of literary theory together is, according to McLaughlin, “a shared commitment to understanding how language and other systems of signs provide frameworks which determine how we read, and more generally, how we make sense of experience, construct our own identity, produce meaning in the world. Theory, then, gets at very basic questions that any serious reader must face.”

This statement cries out for a response. Determine how we read? One would have thought that even more basic was the question of whether or to what extent we are determined at all in reading. McLaughlin’s proclamation assumes we all agree we’re determined by “language and other systems”; it only remains for, in McLaughlin’s list, Marxists, psychoanalysts, feminists, deconstructionists, or whoever to tell us how. Don’t ask if. Not raising certain issues of course makes eveything very chummy. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who likes to question the extent to which reading is not “determined” by language, identity is not merely “constructed,” and meaning is not “produced” but found instead, then expect a chilly welcome in the halls of theory. Basic questions are all well and fine, but they have to be the correct basic questions.

Nevertheless, there are some excellent essays in this collection, including a subtle discussion of race by Kwame Anthony Appiah (the only philosopher in the book), the reliable Gerald Graff on determinacy/indeterminacy, and John Guillory on the canon. Barbara Johnson says in her article on writing that a “comprehensive treatment of the question of writing is obviously beyond the scope of the present essay,” so she’ll just concentrate — surprise! — on “the theoretical ‘revolution’ in France in 1967,” that is, on l’écriture. Those of us who had hoped for a really wide-ranging essay on writing, including the dramatic effects of ballpoint-pen technology, will have to wait for another day.


Copyright © 1991 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.