Transgressing the Boundaries
A professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure is popularly supposed to have said: ''I agree that it works in practice. But how can we be certain that it will work in theory?'' In the course of the past few years, sections of the literary academy have had to endure a good deal of ridicule, arising from this simple jest. The proceedings of the Modern Language Association, in particular, have furnished regular gag material (gag in the sense of the guffaw, rather than the less common puke reflex) for solemn papers on ''Genital Mutilation and Early Jane Austen: Privileging the Text in the World of Hampshire Feudalism.'' (I paraphrase only slightly.) The study of literature as a tradition, let alone as a ''canon,'' has in many places been deposed by an emphasis on deconstruction, postmodernism and the nouveau roman. The concept of authorship itself has come under scornful scrutiny, with the production of ''texts'' viewed more as a matter of social construct than as the work of autonomous individuals. Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.
A new language or ''discourse'' is often considered necessary for this pursuit, and has been supplied in part by Foucault and Derrida. So arcane and abstruse is the vernacular involved that my colleague James Miller, dean of the graduate faculty at the New School, wrote a celebrated essay inquiring ''Is Bad Writing Necessary?'' He took up the claim made by Judith Butler that ''linguistic transparency'' is really a deception, fettering critical possibilities and inhibiting those who wish ''to think the world more radically.'' Butler agrees with Theodor Adorno, who argued in his ''Minima Moralia'' and elsewhere that ''plain words'' are the building blocks of consensus and authority, compelling people in effect to employ notions that have been preconceived for and imposed upon them. In the opposite corner is the linguist Noam Chomsky, who tends to agree with George Orwell that honest language is a weapon against obfuscation and propaganda.
The effusively respectful entry for Judith Butler in ''The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism'' reads, in part:
''Drawing widely from Nietzsche, Michel Foucault on discursive formation, J. L. Austin and Jacques Derrida on speech act theory and iterability . . . Louis Althusser on interpellation . . . Jacques Lacan on subjective foreclosure and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's work on queer performativity, Butler fashions a notion of performative identity that 'must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ''act,'' but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.' ''
Thanks to this notion of performativity, Butler has been able to contest a misinterpretation of Nietzsche's work on the difference between ''being'' and ''doing.'' To quote from a section discussing her book ''Bodies That Matter'':
''If she were arguing that gender simply was a kind of theatrical performance, 'that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night.' But as Butler makes clear time and time again throughout her work, 'the reduction of performativity to performance . . . would be a mistake.' ''
So the dancer and the dance are not the same after all. But does one really require a new language or theory to disprove the claim -- made by whom, incidentally? -- that gender is a mere role, or only a costume for that role?
Wondering how the opposite case might be summarized by the editors, I turned to Orwell and found that he isn't even mentioned in the index. Nor, for that matter, is A. J. Ayer or Ernest Gellner. Perhaps the editors (Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, who teach English at the University of Western Ontario, and Imre Szeman, who teaches English at McMaster University) assume that everybody has already assimilated ''Politics and the English Language'' or ''Language, Truth and Logic'' or that great critique of J. L. Austin and Oxford linguistic philosophy, ''Words and Things.'' But then, they grant a servile entry to the exploded figure of Raymond Williams, wrongly credited as the pioneer of cultural studies. Or perhaps they imagine that the argument began with Butler? Chomsky does receive an entry of his own as well as some mentions under other headings, and he is sternly reminded, by one Nigel Love, that he ''has nothing to say about genuinely innovative uses of language -- creativity that consists in going beyond what is generated by the rules -- ultimately, perhaps, because radical innovation calls into question the fundamental structuralist tenets of the enterprise.''
Adorno once remarked (this was also in ''Minima Moralia'') that a film of true aesthetic value could be made, and be in full conformity and compliance with all the rules of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office. That was, if you like, an ironic and paradoxical appreciation of the transgressive. However, Adorno did not mean that there were no rules or that they were made only to be broken, and what is true of celluloid and entertainment may be even more true of the language that we must (if it really is a language and not a jargon) speak in common.
One might vulgarly suspect, of those who wish, for whatever reason, that they could write like Judith Butler, that their aspiration to a superior and less intelligible tongue has something elitist about it. Yet one can state with confidence that the editors and contributors to this volume consider themselves to be subversives of the most audacious kind. Class, race and gender, and the yearnings of all ethnic and sexual minorities, are virtually assumed to be inherent in the agenda. The sections on Marxism are representatively dull and respectful (and ideologically pure, too, since the name of Leon Trotsky is barely mentioned and not mentioned at all in the entry on the ''New York intellectuals'' who wrote and operated in his orbit). Add to the omission list, then, the author of ''Literature and Revolution'' and, with Andre Breton, of ''Toward a Revolutionary Art.''
I decided to look up another author with whose work I have some acquaintance, and with whom I had actually met. Here is a typical passage from the discussion of Louis Althusser, a true son of the Ecole Normale and for many years a guru to the theoreticians:
''In fact, in a manner that is nonreductive, Althusser asserts that art, theology, literature and family life are determined according to their own relatively autonomous laws of production, which are not governed by or identical to the laws of production in the ordinary sense of goods and commodities.''
As with Butler's elaborate denial of the concept of gender as a uniform, one wonders why it should take a dialectical materialist so long to conclude that some crucial elements of the ''superstructure'' of society are not solely determined by its economic base. How much tautology, in other words, can one bear?
Respectful mention is made of Althusser's reputation-making books, ''Pour Marx'' and ''Lire le 'Capital.' '' Of the publication of these, as he wrote in his own memoir, ''The Future Lasts Forever,'' their author wrote: ''I became obsessed with the terrifying thought that these texts would expose me completely to the public at large as I really was, namely a trickster and a deceiver and nothing more, a philosopher who knew nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx.'' By 1980, Althusser had been exposed as the utter fraud he later confessed himself to be, and furthermore confined in a mental institution for, among other things, the strangling of his wife. No mention of his memoir and no hint of his recantation appears in this ''Guide.''
The use of the word ''assert'' in the excerpt about Althusser is a rare example of plain speech and may possess an irony unintended by its authors, Julian Holland and Gary Wihl. Althusser was renowned, even at the height of his fame, for ignoring the difference between asserting something and establishing it. But in the entry for St. Augustine, the same euphemistic and emollient prose is employed, in discussing a father of the church, as is used to discuss a 20th-century pseudo-intellectual:
''Augustine stresses that the knowledge of nonsensible realities is always problematic and approximate at best, though he argues that the human predicament of unknowing will be overcome in the next life, where the saved can encounter God/Truth 'face to face.' ''
Surely ''he asserts'' would have been better in this instance than ''he argues.'' We are speaking, after all, of someone who is credited here with the foundation of ''medieval semiology.'' And how about this, also from the entry about the celebrated bishop of Hippo? ''After his conversion he redirected his rhetorical skills and flair for debate toward the challenges of biblical exegesis and toward the eradication of rival interpretations of Scripture and Christian practice, views that he tended to construe as heretical.''
Good old ''eradication.'' You can't beat it. A ''guide'' that cloaks both Christian and Communist dogma in such facile language can, one supposes, at least have a claim to be evenhanded.
Words continue to lose their anchorage in meaning as one turns the pages. '' 'The question of gender is a question of language.' This statement is Barbara Johnson's . . . and her succinct formulation of the relationship between gender and language does much to characterize the approach of a group of feminists who draw upon the discourses of poststructuralism.'' What, apart from its brevity, is ''succinct'' about an assertion -- not at all a formulation -- that asserts both too much and too little and that proves nothing? If it is indeed true that such a remark characterizes a school of thought, then so much the worse.
Sometimes an unconscious humor infects the leaden pages: ''The sometimes formidable challenge of Spivak's work as a whole derives partly from the effortless and eclectic way that she draws on discourses as diverse as. . . .'' Hold it right there. Does the mercurial Prof. Gayatri Spivak really want to be depicted as ''sometimes'' formidable? And isn't ''effortless'' a bit backhanded? The three words ''as a whole'' are a sheer waste of text. ''Eclectic,'' however, seems more or less right.
The French, as it happens, once evolved an expression for this sort of prose: la langue de bois, the wooden tongue, in which nothing useful or enlightening can be said, but in which various excuses for the arbitrary and the dishonest can be offered. ''The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism'' is a pointer to the abysmal state of mind that prevails in so many of our universities. In another unconsciously funny entry, on the Kenyan Marxist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Nicholas Brown appears to praise his subject for a postcolonial essay entitled ''On the Abolition of the English Department.'' Like the other contributors to this shabby volume, Brown ought to be more careful of what he endorses. The prospect of such an abolition, at least in the United States, becomes more appetizing by the minute.