Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Derrida and Writerly Criticism

For some time now I’ve been arguing that academic literary criticism is (often) intrinsically free of diagrams, tables, graphs, and so forth, rather than incidentally so [1]. Most prose that is free of non-linguistic elements is incidentally so. It is written for some purpose, to make an argument, to explain a some phenomenon, or even to narrate some events, where non-linguistic elements are not needed. Where they are useful, as in writing about a geographical location or a trip, or even necessary, as in giving instructions on using some device, and so forth, they are included without comment.

Initially it would seem that literary criticism is like that. You are writing about poems, plays, novels, and stories, and have no need “visual aids”, as they are sometimes called. And when they are needed, as when explaining the physical layout of Shakespeare’s theater, for example, they are included without comment. But then you have peculiar cases like Mark Rose’s 1972 Shakespearean Design, where he needs simple diagrams to make his point. Strictly speaking, the diagrams aren’t necessary, but they make his point much easier to grasp. And what does he do in his preface? He apologizes for those diagrams [2]. Why?

Well, if by that time academic literary criticism had come to conceive of itself as inherently written, as something that cannot be done but in language, then the use of non-linguistic devices would violate that understanding, that critical contract, and so call for an apology. Is that what’s going on?

I’ve already said all of this, though not in quite those words. I now want to add something else into the mix, the prose style of Jacques Derrida. He burst into the North American critical scene in 1966 when he delivered the coupe de grace to structuralism at the Johns Hopkins structuralism conference, though it took awhile for the corpse to realize it was dead. And it would be a couple years before his work would be extensively available in English translation.

By that time academic critics had begun eliding the distinction between ordinary reading and explicit critical reading – putting it under erasure? – and that elision rather forces non-linguistic elements out of critical prose. If critical writing is really just a genre of ordinary reading, then there better not be anything in there that can’t be read (in the ordinary manner).

It’s in that emerging disciplinary context that Derrida was received. And his is a very writerly prose style – by analogy with the notion of a painterly style, a painter who emphasizes brushwork so you cannot miss the fact that this is a painting. Not only is his language is highly allusive, figurative, and punning (not to mention cunning), but he likes to play games with typography and layout. His is a discourse that cannot be but written.

And it is my impression that deconstructive critics took up some of these writerly mannerisms. I say “my impression” because, by that time, my interests were elsewhere and I wasn’t reading a lot of literary criticism. But allusions and figures have always been there, for they are ordinary features of literate discourse. But I’ve also seen, here and there, the use of crossed out words and, of course, there’s been plenty talk of Derrida’s style.

I wonder if there was in fact an increase of writerly criticism associated with the rise of deconstruction. Is this something that could be investigated with modern computational methods?

And then we have the New Historicism, which has different intellectual roots, but which is very much a text-oriented discourse. Now you have the juxtaposition of literary texts with contemporary non-literary texts where the ideas almost seem to leap of the (critical) page and hover in the air between the literary and the non. Is this too a writerly style?

* * * * *

[1] Most extensively in a working paper, Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism, November 2015, https://www.academia.edu/17168348/Prospects_The_Limits_of_Discursive_Thinking_and_the_Future_of_Literary_Criticism

I updated some of those ideas in a recent post, Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975, January 20, 2017, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/01/rejected-nlh-part-3-party-like-its-1975.html

And I’ve edited that post into a working paper, Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism, January 2017, https://www.academia.edu/31012802/Transition_The_1970s_in_Literary_Criticism

[2] I discuss this in “Pardon these anti-humanistic intrusions, Madam”, New Savanna, September 30, 2016, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2016/09/pardon-these-anti-humanistic-intrusions.html

[3] For example, see remarks here and there in Richard Jones, “Sing Doo Wah Diddy With Derrida”, VQR, Winter 1994, http://www.vqronline.org/essay/sing-doo-wah-diddy-derrida

No comments:

Post a Comment