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A Sane Look At Literature

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modem Society. By Gerald Graff. Chicago. $15.00.

In this brave and spirited book Professor Graff of Northwestern presents a very stringent assessment of those ways of talking about literature that have been increasngly captivating the critical community over the past decade. And, amidst all the clangor being made by the New Irrationalism, the sanity of his argument will be felt to be wonderfully tonic by those whose confidence in the dignity of the verbal arts remains unshaken. The particular trahison which he proposes to interrogate is that denial to literature of any capacity to deal referentially with the circumambient world which is voiced over and again in current theory—and thus, inevitably, the clercs whom he wants most to call to account are those who have learned from the French structuralists to specialize in one or another kind of “deconstruction.” Yet his concern focuses not at all on any narrow sect, since the kind of radicalism being probed is so much a part of the “folk mythology” of literary intellectuals in our period that it overleaps party lines, enough indeed to permit Mr. Graff to find crucial examples in figures so various as Northrop Frye and Paul de Man and Frank Kermode and Herbert Marcuse and Roland Barthes and Richard Ohmann; and on these critics and numerous others he offers a body of commentary the shrewdness and cogency of which are constantly arresting.

The new orthodoxy (as it descends from such theorists as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) is bent, of course, on reducing man himself and all the great forms of the symbolic imagination to the status of being simply functions of the linguistic codes and systems that rule us. Within the terms of Saussure’s dualities of le signifiant and le signifié, of parole and langue, we are assured that the distance between human subjectivity and the world of “things” is so unbridgeable that, as a consequence, all our “signifiers” are without any “signified” and that our gestures in the direction of parole figure forth nothing more, therefore, than those protocols and conventions constituting the langue off which they ricochet. Indeed, the very “things” to which presumably the “word” seeks to make reference are held finally to be in no way distinguishable from the iconic order itself, since (as one scholiast lays it down) “no phenomenon has any ontological status outside its place in the particular information system(s) from which it draws its meaning(s).” So, imprisoned as we are within a universe of linguisticality, the “world” is beyond any possibility of mediation, and thus the language of poems and novels is something radically intransitive, always curving back, says Michel Foucault, “in a perpetual return upon itself, as if its discourse could have no other content than the expression of its own form.” In short, ecriture is utterly “worldless,” and literary art is without any hope of making contact with what innocence takes to be “the ordinary universe,” being able to do little more than comment ironically on its own inveracity, on the spuriousness of its own realist pretensions.

Now it is this whole mystique of (as we now sometimes call it) “postmodernism” that Mr. Graff wants to survey and very severely to cross-question. And, far from its being any sort of absolute mutation of the past decade or so, he carefully remarks the many respects in which this new insurgency does but bring to a point of culmination many of the impulses and attitudes long inherent in modernist aesthetic. For, given the subjective status accorded rational thought and value judgments by the philosophic movement running from Locke to Kant, most of the great strategists of Romanticism, finding literature to have been divested of all claims on any kind of objective truth, chose to reckon with this exigency by declaring it to be in fact a great liberation and went on then to argue that literature wants really not at all to deal referentially with things “out there” but wants rather to offer a heterocosmic alternative to the workaday world. And Mr. Graff quite properly remarks how deeply this disavowal of mimetic intent figures in the lore and ideology of modernist poetics—where, from Croce and Dewey and Cassirer and Eliot to Susanne Langer and Northrop Frye and Frank Kermode, the changes are continually rung on the notion of literature as a nondiscursive and nonconceptual mode of communication.

But, as he asks—and this is one of his central questions— once poets and novelists and literary theorists surrender any mimetic claim for the literary enterprise, how, then, can they expect that it shall not become itself the target of the very scepticism which it promotes? And, as he urges, surely it is but the merest step from the antipropositionalist position that literary forms are purely presentational “to the position that literature has no meaning . . . or that its meaning is totally indeterminate and [totally] “open” to [any and all kinds of] interpretation.” In other words, by forswearing any genuine commitment to representationalist aims, the literary imagination helps to guarantee its cultural marginality and “ends up collaborating with its scientific, commercial, and utilitarian adversaries to ensure its unimportance”—and for it to be in this position is for it to be “against itself.”

Yet it is such a position that Mr. Graff rightly descries to have been increasingly elected in recent years by a sizable vanguard of writers and critics who, whether in the terms of literary method or critical theory, have been busily neutralizing the truth-claims that might be made in behalf of the verbal arts. By such a glossarist of the nouvelle critique, for example, as Jonathan Culler the ideas and thematic statements in literary fictions are themselves conceived to be merely “formal devices”—or “conventions,” or “myths.” And in Mr. Culler’s view the only end subserved by a literary convention is that of the given fiction itself—qua fiction. Moreover, under the new dispensation, the concept of “fiction” no longer designates merely a certain genre of literature or even the special kinds of meanings advanced by literary discourse in general, but, rather, it has been of late so expanded by structuralist thought as to embrace now all of “life” and the whole of “reality”—since “no phenomenon has any ontological status outside its place in the particular information system from which it draws its meaning.” Which is to say that reality itself is nothing more than a system of conventions produced by language. Or, as Edward Said puts it, “Everything . . . is a text—or . . . nothing is a text.” And, of course, le texte is simply any sign or system of signs whereby man seeks vainly to subdue the meaninglessness of the world by encircling it within some pattern of figuration: in short, everything is a “text” and hence a “fiction.” So it is supposed, therefore, to be manifestly foolish to imagine that the “meanings” produced by literary fictions may be answerable to anything apart from other fictions: they are, in other words, not “about” anything other than their own fictitiousness—and Frank Kermode is not alone in regarding textual interpretation itself as merely another kind of fiction-making.

Mr. Graff asks, however, if it follows, because all meanings are “system-constituted” and all perceptions mediated by interpretations, that “”all language is finally groundless”“—to which question he wants to sound a vigorous negative, since, as he reasons, “the fact that our statements do not possess meaning apart from the codes and grammars which generate them does not mean that what these statements refer to is nothing but the codes and grammars themselves.” And he is surely right in regarding the basic error of structuralist theory to be that reinstatement of the genetic fallacy entailed in the assumption that the conditions under which the languages of man originate determine their veridical capacity.

But, for all the cogency and eloquence with which he locates the central folly of the nouvelle critique in its refusal to accord literature any significant “mimetic” relation to the world, Mr. Graff does not himself ever get round to the point of presenting—in the manner, say, of an R. S. Crane—a systematic case in behalf of the idea of literary fiction as imitation. True, he tells us that he does not propose to find a universal canon in the kind of “illusionistic presentation of circumstantial particulars” or in the linear narration of “naturalistic probabilities” that formed the standard convention of “documentary realism.” And he acknowledges that the human actuality may be rendered by fantastic and nonobjectivist literary methods. Which suggests that he does not envisage any simple possibility of redeeming mimeticist doctrine in any mode resembling its primitive or classical forms. But, more positively, what precisely is it that he does want to assert in support of his major presupposition? On this matter very little light is shed, and, in a book nearly every page of which is invoking a mimetic norm, Mr. Graffs consistent evasion of his more purely constructive and systematic task is striking indeed, so much so that finally one feels his book never quite finds its own essential argument.

Nor is his case substantially strengthened by the echoes that are occasionally sounded of something like Frankfurt “critical theory.” He has apparently convinced himself that the kind of literary hermeneutic at which he tilts, specializing as it does in “unreality,” is itself but an epiphenomenon of an advanced capitalism whose own essence is “its unreality, its malleable, ephemeral quality,” its inordinate need to break up all the stabilities and continuities of cultural tradition “in order to stimulate higher levels of consumption.” And thus his eminently sensible disquisitions on our present literary scene are from time to time intermingled with various dark sayings about the disintegrative culture of late capitalism. But, in this range of things, one feels Mr. Graff to have moved beyond his special forte—and beyond indeed the requirements of his fundamental project.

One ought not, however, to end on a caviling note, for, incomplete in certain ways as his book may be and encumbered as it occasionally is with an unnecessary freight of political ideology, it does, nevertheless, in what it principally sets out to do, conduct a wonderfully trenchant and illuminating inquiry. Indeed, whoever wants help in reckoning with the maladie that has overtaken contemporary criticism would be well advised to turn first of all to Gerald Graff.


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