My letter of invitation to this seminar expresses the thought that “it will be very useful to have someone from outside the field help us see ourselves.” Given my interests in what you might call the fact of literary study, I was naturally attracted by the invitation to look at literary study as a discipline or profession but also suspicious of the invitation. I thought: Do professionals really want to be helped to see themselves by outsiders? This is an invitation to get a group of people sore at me, and it will only result in the group’s having an occasion not to see itself, since any member of it can easily dismiss anything I say as uninformed. But the invitation goes on to give the title for this session as “The Nature and Function of Literary Study: As Others See Us.” Reading that, I thought: That is different. That identifies me as an other to the “academic and professional concerns” of the field—hence, not just outside but intimately outside, as if my position were an alternative to yours. And how could I not be better informed about being other to you than you are?
But of course I know that there is no single unified “you” to which I am other, that some of you, perhaps most, have other others than philosophy and see your practice not against philosophy but against history or criticism or literary theory. So I should perhaps say that I am not exactly single or unified myself, that I am also other to the Anglo-American profession of philosophy, to which at the same time I belong. A way of expressing my otherness to this profession of philosophy is simply to say that I take you as also among my others, that I recognize the study of literature to be an alternative to what I do—a path I might have taken, might still irregularly be taking—to occupy a relation to the way I think, that for most of the members of my profession would be occupied by a profession of logic or science. I will not try here to account theoretically for the intimate differences that may make philosophy and literature alternative studies, which means that I will not here systematically try taking the perspective of an other. But I will be bearing in mind its certain messages and rumors that have lately been coming my way from the field of literary studies. You have, for example, not kept it secret that you have been worrying, as a profession, and sometimes in the form of conducting arguments about the obligation to literary theory as part of literary study, nor secret that these arguments sometimes take on the color or texture of strong statements of, or against, something called deconstruction. I will try to say something about these poorly kept secrets.
Stanley Cavell, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is the author of many works, including Must We Mean What We Say?, The Senses of “Walden,” The Claim of Reason, and, most recently, Themes Out of School. He has been chosen by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to receive the 1985 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for Criticism. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Politics as Opposed to What?,” appears in the September 1982 issue.
It is ironic that, with few exceptions, the now vast body of critical literature about Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas fails to link knowledge to understanding—fails to relate the encyclopedic knowledge we have acquired of its numerous details to a convincing understanding of the painting as a whole. Las Meninas is imposing and monumental; yet a large portion of the literature devoted to it considers only its elements: aspects of its nominal subjects, their biographies, and their roles in the household of the queen or the king. Niceties of court etiquette; concerns about clothing, and shoes (thought not one shoe appears in the painting), and the small cup of water offered to the Infanta Margarita (such cups were made of scented red clay imported from the East Indies and, after their contents had been imbibed, were eaten in the belief that the clay would bleach the skin to lighter and—in a kingdom ruled by Hapsburgs—a more regal tone).
This increasingly intimate discussion of the painting’s details is not altogether beside the point; some of this information deserves to be integrated into descriptions of the painting as a whole. But a reader of these descriptive accounts soon begins to suspect they are offered in the hope that some new details might provoke an understanding of the entire painting, might prove to be the key to our comprehension of it. In fact, Las Meninas invites such analysis. Some nineteenth-century critics called it “photographic” in its naturalism (“as [if seen] in a camera obscura” or “an anticipation of Daguerre’s invention”), in the profusion of its detail, and in the alleged “snapshot” quality of its composition.1 The underlying motive of this understanding ought not to be dismissed, even thought the photography analogy is clearly grotesque, in terms both of history and visual sensibility. Although we know a great deal about the contention, in seventeenth-century Spanish art theory, that a major function of art is the perfecting of nature according to ideal standards, Las Meninas nonetheless is most commonly taken to be a pure spectacle memorializing an incidental moment, seemingly explicable solely in terms of what is apparent in it.
1. Gustav Waagen, paraphrased in Carl Justi, Diego Velazquez and His Times (London, 1889), p. 419; William Stirling-Maxwell, quoted in ibid.
Joel Snyder is associate professor of humanities and of art and design and is chairman of the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a book about the foundations of perspective. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Photography, Vision, and Representation,” written with Neil Walsh Allen (Autumn 1975), “Picturing Vision” (Spring 1980), and “Reflexions on Las Meninas: Paradox Lost,” written with Ted Cohen (Winter 1980).
First, a joke that was circulating among academics a couple of years ago. In the version I heard, a Texan is walking across Harvard Yard. He stops a guy and asks him, in his nasal drawl, “Can you tell me where the library’s at?” The guy looks him up and down, pauses, and says, “At Harvard we do not end our sentences with prepositions.” The Texan apologizes, saying, “Excuse me. Can you tell me where the library’s at, asshole?”
This story may seem far removed from the subject of this essay, which is supposed to be a serious one. But what is the joke about, after all, if not the seriousness of language, its power, and the demystification of that power by our native brand of deconstructionist, the shrewd rube?
If we find the joke funny, I imagine that the experience with which most of us identify is this: we want the gumption to reject an arrogant cultural authority. This experience may be especially appealing to students, but it also may appeal to intellectuals conscious of those problems of power and knowledge that have been so celebrated in recent years. In fact, if Friedrich Nietzsche was right in suggesting that grammar is a metaphysical discipline comparable to God, then the pleasure of this joke may lie in its humiliation of law, pure and simple. Sigmund Freud, among others, has suggested that figures of authority in jokes are only stand-ins of that general power of society over all individuals which is contested in the very form of the joke. Thus, following Freud, or, say, those who have made Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of carnival so popular a topic of academic discussion, we could see enjoyment of this joke as representing a momentary rebellion against every form of culture that, as the saying goes, it imposed upon us. From that perspective, even my use here of this joke is bound to seem ridiculous; indeed, academic psychologists who write on laughter and humor often preface their discussions with defensive remarks about people who find it funny to see intellectuals seriously and laboriously analyzing jokes.1
1. See, e.g., Anthony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot, eds., It’s a Funny Thing, Humour (Oxford, 1977), and Paul E. McGhee and Jeffrey H. Goldstein, eds., Handbook of Humor Research, 2 vols. (New York, 1983).
See also: Daniel Cottom, On the Dignity of Tables
Daniel Cottom is associate professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of The Civilized Imagination (1985) and is currently working on a study of the politics of interpretation.
Greta Garbo named herself. It was she who invented the name “Garbo” and officially registered the change from Greta Gustafsson to Greta Garbo at the Ministry of Justice in Sweden on 4 December 1923. The name had the metonymic virtue of suggesting the nature of her screen presence. The Swedish meaning of garbo, “wood nymph,” suggests the association with otherworldly forces that became part of her image; while the Spanish meaning of the word, “animal grace sublimated,” combines the animal passion and spiritual grace that were part of her power.1 And yet in most accounts of Garbo’s life and work the legend still persists that it was Swedish director Mauritz Stiller who named her after a seventeenth-century Hungarian king. The extent to which the legend has obscured Garbo’s initial act of self-naming is symptomatic of the larger tendency in film theory and criticism to mask the creative power of the actress by treating her as the blank sheet upon which the director inscribes his own signature.
What is particularly misleading about the Svengali metaphor as it has figured in studies of Garbo is that it so deliberately masks the evidence. In her article “Gish and Garbo: The Executive War on the Stars,” Louise Brooks suggests that the popular image of Garbo—the “dumb Swede” transformed by Stiller’s art—was perpetuated by Hollywood executives eager to play down the very real power that Garbo already exhibited in the rushes for her first American film, The Torrent (1926). “The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stales, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen.” Although recent accounts of Garbo’s life and work have advanced beyond the “dumb Swede” publicity of Photoplay magazine, critics still reveal a similar, almost vampish determination to deprive Garbo of her creative power. “Her contribution,” states Kenneth Tynan, “is calm and receptiveness, an absorbent repose which normally, in women, coexists only with the utmost vanity. Tranced by the ecstasy of existing, she gives to each onlooker what he needs” (“G,” p. 347). Comparing Garbo to a “watermark in a blank sheet of paper,” David Thomson says in an essay in honor of her seventy-fifth birthday: “She must be no one in herself if she is to signify so much to so many others…. All the moods and moments of love are encompassed because the appearance is hollow. We are to inhabit it, to flesh it out.” In these accounts, Garbo is presented not as an active shaping power but as a passive female vessel, ready to receive the impress of male voyeuristic fantasy.
Betsy Erkkila, assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of Walt Whitman among the French: Poet and Myth and editor of Ezra Pound: The Critical Reception. She is currently working on a book, Whitman the Political Poet, and a collection of essays, American Women Poets Musing.
The Space Act of 1958 begins, “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” In March 1982, a Defense Department official commented on the statute: “We interpret the right to use space for peaceful purposes to include military uses of space to promote peace in the world.”1 The absurdity of this willful misinterpretation amazed me on first reading, and months later it readily came to mind when I was looking for an effective way to illustrate the politics of interpretation. With just the right touch of moral indignation, I offered my literary criticism class this example of militaristic ideology blatantly misreading an antimilitaristic text.
“But … the Defense Department is right!” objected the first student to speak. Somewhat amused, I spent the next ten minutes trying, with decreasing amusement, to show this student that the Reagan administration’s reading was clearly, obviously, painfully wrong. I pointed to the text. I cited the traditional interpretation. I noted the class consensus, which supported me. All to no avail. It was at this point that I felt that “theoretical urge”: the overwhelming desire for a hermeneutic account to which I could appeal to prove my student wrong. What I wanted was a general theory of interpretation that could supply rules outlawing my student’s misreading.
This little hermeneutic fable introduces the three topics of my essay. One topic is the theoretical moment that concludes the narrative; another is the simple plot, a brief rhetorical exchange; and finally there’s the institutional setting (a university classroom) in which the exchange takes place. These three topics preoccupy the sections that follow. Section 1 analyzes the problems resulting from the theoretical urge, the impasse of contemporary critical theory. Section 2 proposes my solution to this impasse, a solution I call rhetorical hermeneutics, which leads in section 3 to a rhetorical version of institutional history.
1. “National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958,” United States Statutes at Large (Washington, D.C., 1959), vol. 72, pt. 1, sec. 102(a), p. 426; Robert Cooper, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, quoted in Frank Greve, “Pentagon Research Retains Vision of ‘Winning’ N-war,” Miami Herald, 27 Mar. 1983, sec. D, p. 4.
Steven Mailloux, associate professor of English at the University of Miami, is the author of Interpretive Conventions: the Reader in the Study of American Fiction. He is currently at work on a book tentatively entitled Rhetorical Power: Politics in American Literature, Criticism, and Theory. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Stanley Fish’s ‘Interpreting the Variorum’: Advance or Retreat?” (Autumn 1976) and “Truth or Consequences: On Being Against Theory” (June 1983).
Arthur Schopenhauer ranked the several arts in a hierarchy, with literary and dramatic arts at the top, music soaring in a separate even higher heaven, and architecture sinking to the ground under the weight of beams and bricks and mortar.1 The governing principle seems to be some measure of spirituality, with architecture ranking lowest by vice of being grossly material.
Nowadays such rankings are taken less seriously. Traditional ideologies and mythologies of the arts are undergoing deconstruction and disvaluation, making way for a neutral comparative study that can reveal a good deal not only about relations among the several arts2 but also about the kinships and contrasts between the arts, the sciences, and other ways that symbols of various kinds participate in the advancement of the understanding.
In comparing architecture with the other arts, what may first strike us, despite Schopenhauer, is a close affinity with music: architectural and musical works, unlike paintings or plays or novels, are seldom descriptive or representational. With some interesting exceptions, architectural works do not denote—that is, do not describe, recount, depict, or portray. They mean, if at all, in other ways.
On the other hand, and architectural work contrasts with other works of art in scale. A building or park or city3 is not only bigger spatially and temporally than a musical performance or painting—it is bigger even than we are. We cannot take it all in from a single point of view; we must move around and within it to grasp the whole. Moreover, the architectural work is normally fixed in place. Unlike a painting that may be reframed and rehung or a concerto that may be heard in different halls, the architectural work is firmly set in physical and cultural environment that alters slowly.
1. See Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford, 1983), pp. 176-78.
See also: Nelson Goodman, The Telling and the Told
Nelson Goodman, emeritus professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is the author of, among other works, The Structure of Appearance, Languages of Art, Ways of Worldmaking, and Of Mind and Other Matters. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “The Status of Style” (June 1975), “Metaphor as Moonlighting” (Autumn 1979), “Twisted Tales; or, Story, Study, and Symphony” (Autumn 1980), “The Telling and the Told” (Summer 1981), and “Routes of Reference) Autumn 1981).
Critical Inquiry’s Forum on Mikhail Bakhtin [Critical Inquiry 10 (December 1983): 225-319] is the latest contribution to the spectacular effort of interpretation and assimilation that is being applied to the work of this recently recovered critic. In such a situation, analysis proceeds with one eye on the work in question and the other on current debates in the field; in the case of Bakhtin, interpretation is at the same time an attempt to come to grips with challenges posed by recent literary theory to certain axiomatic critical assumptions about intentionality, textuality, and the human subject. But the matter is also complicated by the fact that we are dealing here with a critic who was active in the USSR. This brings into play additional ideological pressures, generated by the cold war, which bear on the scholarly assimilation of his work.
The debate on Bakhtin is made yet more difficult by the nature of his writing: immensely varied stylistically and topically but also—and more importantly, I believe—writing which strives for solutions it cannot quite articulate. It moves between alternative and contradictory formulations in a single essay and thus produces a set of concepts whose explanatory importance is matched by an unnerving tendency to slide from one formulation to the next with disturbing ease. Such ambiguities are not the sign of an open and skeptical mind, but neither are they mere inconsistencies which can be safely ignored. These internal contradictions dictate that argument over concepts like “dialogism” and “heteroglossia” cannot be settled by a definitive decision as to what they ‘really’ mean; instead, we must discuss how to manage these complexities and contradictions, and to what ends. Certain definite strategies of management are emerging, and the articles presented in the forum, while by no means reducible to a single position, share key lines of interpretive strategy that I think ought to be brought out into the open and contested. With the notable exception of Susan Stewart’s article [“Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin’s Anti-Linguistics,” pp. 265-81], the contributions share an ideological drift, the ultimate effect of which is to evade the most radical aspects of Bakhtin’s work in favor of an interpretation that renders him useful in the argument against the recent advances of post-structuralism and recent literary theory in general.
Ken Hirschkop is a postgraduate student at Saint Antony’s College, Oxford University, working on a book about Mikhail Bakhtin.
One particularly interesting aspect of Hirschkop’s essay is the repertoire of “double-voiced words” (to use Bakhtin’s terms for certain rhetorical strategies) it displays. I will enumerate just three of them:
1. The Misaddressed Word. Apparently, Hirschkop has been arguing these points with someone else, whose voice has drowned out what was actually said by myself and the other contributors to the Forum on Bakhtin. In a number of cases, Hirschkop objects that we failed to say things that were, in fact, explicitly stated and attributes to us a different, phantom position, which he then cites as evidence of “liberal,” individualistic, and “cold war” biases (p. 676; and see p. 673). Likewise, I ostensibly “implied” a number of things, thought Hirschkop offers no direct quotations as evidence (p. 677).
2. The Word That Lies in Ambush (a special version of what Bakhtin called “the word with a loophole”). In a way that has become increasingly common in theoretical essays, Hirschkop contents himself with stating only what is not the case and neglects telling us his conception of the alternative, correct position. For example, Hirschkop says: “Such ambiguities [in Bakhtin] are not the sign of an open and skeptical mind, but neither are they mere inconsistencies which can be safely ignored” (p. 672). In consequence, respondents who presume to guess at his position, whether they guess rightly or wrongly, are subject to an accusation of total or partial misrepresentation of his position or, perhaps worse, of drawing typically liberal inferences.
3. The Preemptive Word (another version of “the word with a loophole”). Using a strategy familiar to most polemicists, Hirschkop attempts to discredit his adversaries by anticipating their objections within his own argument. Unfortunately, he projects responses—that no one has made—as if those responses were inevitable and seeks to dismiss them simply by naming them rather than answering them. Thus, he accuses my fellow contributors and me of a “kind of relativism, whose ideological affinities with the commonplaces of Western cold war discourse (the contrast of a liberal openness with a Left ‘dogmatism’) cannot be missed” and which “crops up again and again when Bakhtin is interpreted” (p. 676). The phrase in parentheses and the word in quotation marks are an example of preemptive discourse.
Gary Saul Morson is the author of The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s “Diary of a Writer” and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (1981) and the editor of Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies (forthcoming). He is currently completing a book on Tolstoy, one chapter of which (“Tolstoy’s Absolute Language”) appeared in the Summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry. He was the guest editor of Critical Inquiry’s Forum on Mikhail Bakhtin, for which he wrote the introduction, “Who Speaks for Bakhtin?” (December 1983).
In his article “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism” (Critical Inquiry 9 [September 1982]: 45-76), Wayne Booth develops an argument for “ethical” literary criticism, criticism that is concerned with the ideologies inherent in works of literature and the effects these ideologies may have on the reader. Or, as he phrases it himself: “What we are talking about [is] human ideals, how they are created in art and thus implanted in readers and left uncriticized” (p. 65). Booth’s starting point, his “inspiration” for this argument, is Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “dialogism” and, in particular, Bakhtin’s use of this notion in his interpretation of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel narratives.1 For those not familiar with Booth’s essay (and/or Bakhtin’s interpretation), I will briefly summarize his argument in support of ethical criticism.
Booth begins with much praise for Bakhtin (and Rabelais, as Bakhtin saw him) because Bakhtin seems (to Booth) to have discovered in Rabelais a linguistic technic that frees the reader from the ideologies inherent in language (much less in works of literature constructed with language). As Booth paraphrases Bakhtin, any writer who employs the languages of different ideologies within one text (hence making the text “dialogic”) freed the reader from the “prison-house of language” to the extent that he allows the reader to view each ideology from the outside, from these other languages, so that this reader can judge each ideology in terms other than those which the ideology builds into its own language.
1. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).
Richard M. Berrong is visiting assistant professor of French at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of Every Man for Himself: Social Order and Its Dissolution in Rabelais (forthcoming, 1985) and Rabelair and Bakhtin Revisited: The Presence and Exclusion of Popular Culture in “Gargantua and Pantagruel” (forthcoming, 1986).
At first I thought Richard Berrong’s claim was only that I had misread Rabelais. My main point was not about Rabelais but about how, in general, we might deal with sexist classics. But it remains true that if Berrong has caught me misreading—and then condemning—“bits” torn from their context, I have violated my own professed standards. He and I both see Rabelais as a very great author, and we both hope to avoid the pointlessness of judging works, great or small, for faults that they do not exhibit. But I am not certain whether we agree that when, after careful reading, we find that a beloved author is in some way insensitive or unjust, we will want somehow to include that judgment in what we say about the author’s genius. When I consider his conclusion closely, I begin to suspect that we are engaged in a dispute not about Rabelais but about whether we are free to appraise a literary work in terms other than “its own.”
I shall not attempt a detailed answer to the claim that I have misread Rabelais. Even if I chanced to persuade Berrong—an unlikely outcome now, since my long article failed to win him—we can be sure that many other modern readers would rise up to call Rabelais inoffensive. Disputes about his treatment of women have continued for more than four centuries, and they are not likely ever to be finally settled. So I shall just touch on four of our contrasting readings and then turn to the more important matter of how we view ethical criticism.
Wayne Booth’s most recent book is Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. A version of his critique of Rabelais will appear this year in The Company We Keep: Ethical Criticism and the Ethics of Reading.