Monday, June 23, 2014

The Critic's Will to Meaning over the Resistance of the Text

I take as my point of reference the line that Geoffrey Hartman drew between critical reading, on the one hand, and technical structuralism and linguistics, on the other. Of course, I’m referring to the title essay of The Fate of Reading (1975). He’s not the only one to draw such a line. It was obvious enough to all. Thus Jonathan Culler also drew it in Structuralist Poetics (1975) when he asserted that linguistics is not hermeneutic.

But Hartman gave that line a valence that Culler did not. Hartman said that criticism should not, could not, go there. Why? Because “reading” – by which of course Hartman mean hermeneutic analysis and writing conflated with plain old reading – is supposed to bring the critic closer to the text while those disciplines on the other side of that line only position the text farther away.

In what sense closer? Certainly not physically. But in what metaphorical sense? What is this (metaphorical) space in which the text is there, the critic is here, and we can somehow measure the distance between them?

I don’t know, nor, I suspect, does anyone else. But I suggest that if the critic really wants to get closer to the text, why not abandon the activity of constructing a critical commentary? Why not just read the text itself?

Hartman has a reply – that he’s interesting in a more substantial kind of reading – but let’s set that aside. I’m going in a different direction. It seems to me that it is the existence of such things as linguistics and technical structuralism that allows Hartman to assert that the purpose of interpretive analysis (aka hermeneutics, aka reading) is to get closer to the text. He needs them in his metaphorical space as a foil against which he can make the claim that “reading” brings you closer to the text. Without those disciplines “out there” his own philosophically and psychoanalytically informed practice is vulnerable to the criticism that it is based on unnecessary and even scientistic conceptual apparatus.

Note that “distance” is the only criticism that Hartman has of those disciplines. He doesn’t say that they lead to false conclusions, that they posit illusory phenomenon, only that they don’t bring one closer to the text. What kind of objection is that? What’s so important about this metaphorical closeness, whose importance is unquestioned?

From my point of view, then and now, what’s going on is that Hartman rejects methods that don’t deliver objects up to his will to meaning. He objects to methods that allow the text to resist his will to assimilate it to his favored and familiar critical patterns. He objects to methods that allow the text to assert its independent and substantial nature.

Nor, of course, was it just Hartman who rejected those disciplines. It was more or less the whole profession. That’s why Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss at the 1966 structuralist symposium was so stunningly successful. It saved the profession from the objectification that structuralism and linguistics threatened. The conference that Johns Hopkins had organized to advance structuralism turned out to be the beginning of its (much willed for) demise.

To be sure, it took awhile for these things to get sorted out. Technical structuralism, poetics, and narratology still looked viable almost a decade later when Culler published Structuralist Poetics. But that book proved to be the end of structuralism, not a consolidation. Poetics, linguistics, structuralist analysis, and narratology for the most part survived only to the extent that they could be subordinated to hermeneutics.

In my blacker moods I can’t help but see this shift as a matter of greediness, of a need for immediate intellectual gratification, of a refusal to entertain a sustained and incremental collaborative project. We want meaning and we want it NOW! And when I hear calls that digital critics need to develop critique and cultural criticism I cannot but help but hear that old impatient will to meaning in action.

But that’s a subject for another post. The trick, it seems to me, is to distinguish between a need for immediate intellectual gratification and a need for causal explanation. The problem is all the trickier as Theory conflated explanation with uncovering hidden meaning. The meaning is itself the explanation.

That’s one thing.

And the other is to relate this to Edward Said’s anxiety about the existence of an autonomous sphere for art (Globalizing Literary Study, PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1, 2001, pp. 64-68). Once the author was written over – the so-called death of the author – in the name of system, human agency disappeared and the work of art became little more than a nodal point in the intersection of vast impersonal systems. Autonomy was gone, sacrificed, ironically enough, to the critic’s will to meaning. Perhaps intellectual methods that allow the text to resist this will to meaning will also afford us the conceptual means to recover this zone of aesthetic autonomy.

That’s a rather more difficult argument to make.

More later.

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