Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 1984

Volume 11 Issue 1
    • 1Richard Rorty
    • I think … we ought to distinguish two sense of “deconstruction.” In one sense the word refers to the philosophical projects of Jacques Derrida. Taken this way, breaking down the distinction between philosophy and literature is essential to deconstruction. Derrida’s initiative in philosophy continues along a line laid down by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. He rejects, however, Heidegger’s distinctions between “thinkers” and “poets” and between the few thinkers and the many scribblers. So Derrida rejects the sort of philosophical professionalism which Nietzsche despised and which Heidegger recovered. This does indeed lead Derrida in the direction of “a general, undifferentiated textuality.” In his work, the philosophy-literature distinction is, at most, part of a ladder which we can let go of once we have climbed up it.

      In a second sense of “deconstruction,” however, the term refers to a method of reading texts. Neither this method, nor any other, should be attributed to Derrida—who shares Heidegger’s contempt for the very idea of method.2 But the method exists, and the passage I have quoted from Culler describes one of its essential features. Culler is quite right to say that deconstruction, in the second sense, needs a clear distinction between philosophy and literature. For the kind of reading which has come to be called “deconstructionist” requires two different straight persons: a macho professional philosopher who is insulted by the suggestion that he has submitted to a textual exigency, and a naive producer of literature whose jaw drops when she learns that her work has been supported by philosophical oppositions. The philosopher had thought of himself as speaking a sparse, pure, transparent language. The poetess shyly hoped that her unmediated woodnotes might please. Both reel back in horror when the deconstructionist reveals that each has been making use of complex idioms to which the other has contributed. Both go all to pieces at this news. A wild disorder overtakes their words. Their whimpers lend into interminable androgynous keening. Once again, deconstructionist intervention has produced a splendidly diffuse irresolution.

      See also: Henry Staten, Rorty's Circumvention of Derrida  ·  Stanley Fish, With the Compliments of the Author: Reflections on Austin and Derrida 

      Richard Rorty is Kenan Professor of Humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Consequences of Pragmatism and is currently writing a book on Martin Heidegger.

    • 24Brook Thomas
    • I have three aims in this essay. (1) I want to offer an example of an interdisciplinary historical inquiry combining literary criticism with the relatively new field of critical legal studies. (2) I intend to use this historical inquiry to argue that the ambiguity of literary texts might better be understood in terms of an era’s social contradictions rather than in terms of the inherent qualities of literary language or rhetoric and, conversely, that a text’s ambiguity can help us expose the contradictions masked by an era’s dominant ideology. (3) I try to prove my assertion by applying my method to Herman Melville’s three most famous short works—“Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and Bill Budd, Sailor—works dealing with the law and lawyers and widely acknowledged as ambiguous.1 I will base my critical inquiry into these stories on Melville’s relationship with his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, who, while sitting as the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts from 1830 to 1860, wrote some of the most important opinions in what Roscoe Pound has called “the formative era of American law.”2

      Before I get started, I should clarify what this study does not entail. By using Shaw and his legal decisions in conjunction with Melville’s fiction, I am not conducting a positivistic influence study. My method will not depend on the positivist assumption that Shaw’s legal opinions can be used to illuminate Melville’s texts only when his direct knowledge of Shaw’s opinions can be proved. Nor will I limit myself to a traditional psychoanalytic reading: my emphasis is on political and social issues, and too often these issues are deflected by translating them into psychological ones. At the same time, I recognize that critics concerned with political and social issues too often neglect questions raised by a writer’s individual situation. I compare Shaw to Melville not to reduce Melville’s politics to psychology but to prevent a political study from neglecting the political implications of psychology, to remind us—as the title of Fredric Jameson’s book The Political Unconscious reminds us—that psychological questions always have political implications.


      1. See Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby,” and Billy Budd, Sailor, “Billy Budd, Sailor” and Other Stories, ed. Harold Beaver (Harmondsworth, 1967); all further references to these works will be included in the text.

      2. See Roscoe Pound, The Formative Era of American Law (Boston, 1938). For discussions of Melville and Lemuel Shaw, see Charles Roberts Anderson, Melville in the South Seas, Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature, no. 138 (New York, 1966), pp. 432-33; Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly 34 (Mar. 1961): 3-35; Robert L. Gale, “Bartleby—Melville’s Father-in-Law,” Annali sezione Germanica, Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli 5 (Dec. 1962): 57-72; Keith Huntress, “ ‘Guinea” of White-Jacket and Chief Justice Shaw,” American Literature 43 (Jan. 1972): 639-41; Carolyn L. Karcher, Shadow over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge, La., 1980), pp. 9-11 and 40; John Stark, “Melville, Lemuel Shaw, and ‘Bartleby,’ “ in Bartleby, the Inscrutable: A Collection of Comentary on Herman Melville’s Tale “Bartleby the Scrivener,” ed. M. Thomas Inge (Hamden, Conn., 1975), all further references to this work, abbreviated JA, will be included in the text.

      See also: Brook Thomas, Reflections on the Law and Literature Revival

      Brook Thomas teaches English and American literature at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He is the author of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: A Book of Many Happy Returns and is at work on a study of the relations between law and literature in antebellum America.

    • 52David Simpson
    • Questions could and should be raised about the political profile of English Romanticism both in particular and in general. Wordsworth’s poetry is especially useful to me here because of the way in which, through formal discontinuities, it dramatizes political conflicts. Reacting against these discontinuities, aesthetically minded critics have simply tended to leave out of the canon those poems which have the greatest capacity to help us become aware of a political poetics. In this respect it may well be that Wordsworth is the most stylistically perverse of the Romantic poets. Not the most difficult to read, necessarily—Percy Bysshe Shelley’s breath-suspending songs and William Blake’s determination to produce “variety in every line” with the aim of unfettering poetry surely make more aggressive and obvious demands on the reader.1 But in these cases we can be reasonably sure that the difficulties are part of a conscious and coherent intention to set imagination to work in kindling sparks from ashes. Wordsworth also set out to do this, and we can agree that he did so with some success in some poems. But critics from Samuel Taylor Coleridge onward have rightly questioned the unity of Wordsworth’s canon in this respect. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge notices the “inconstancy of the style,” an unevenness and a general inability to satisfy the demands of “good poetry” conceived as something possessing an organic form.2 This concern with a wholeness and consistency of artifice is more Coleridge’s than Wordsworth’s, and it seems to me that it is precisely the disjunctions in the poems that embody some of their most original and historically urgent meanings. The blemishes recorded by Coleridge—alternating and dissimilar states of feeling, overminuteness in description, and obsession with “accidental circumstances” (BL, 2:126), overuse of the dramatic mode, disproportion of thought to event, and so forth—can in fact serve as eloquent signals for discerning the complexities of the poems as they address a historical crisis in consensus (both social and literary) embodied exactly in the unstable vehicle of the Wordsworthian speaker.3


      3. I have explored the “formal” implications of this crisis in Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry (London and Totowa, N.J., 1979), and the terms of its historical discourse in Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real (London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1982).

      See also: Paul de Man, Political Allegory in Rousseau

      David Simpson is professor of English at Northwestern University. He is the author of Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry (1979), Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real (1982), and Fetishism and Imagination: Dickens, Melville, Conrad (1982) and editor of German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Hegel (1984).

    • 82Gerald Mast
    • One of the common and commonsensical ways to distinguish cinema from every other art and semiotic system, and to define the property of its uniqueness, is to claim that cinema is the only art/”language” that links images. This “linking” can imply three different yet complementary operations. First, cinema links individual still photographs into an apparently continuous sequence of movement by pushing the individual frames or photographs through a camera or projector at sixteen or twenty-four or however many frames per second. Second, cinema links images by editing (or cutting, or montage, or decoupage), by splicing together individual shots, which are continuous chains of linked frames. Finally, cinema links images with sounds, synchronously or otherwise. The only problem with such an apparently unrestrictive and unprescriptive definition of cinema and the “cinematic” is that it obscures an essentially cinematic operation that precedes the linking of cinema images: the image must first be framed before it can be linked with another.

      But is framing unique to cinema? Don’t paintings have frames? Aren’t photographs frames?  Isn’t the theater’s proscenium arch a frame? A consequence of such perfectly sensible questions is a consistent undervaluing of the cinema frame as an essentially and uniquely cinematic tool, unlike that of any other art, producing serious errors in the writing of film theory and serious misunderstandings of the processes of film history. The goal of this article is to diagnose some of these errors (arising from mistaken assumptions and complementary prejudices) so they might someday be cured.

      See also: Gerald Mast, What Isn't Cinema?

      Gerald Mast is professor of English and general in the humanities at the University of Chicago. Among his many books are A Short History of the Movies, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, Film/Cinema/Movie, The Movies in Our Midst, and Howard Hawks, Storyteller. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “What Isn’t Cinema?”(December 1974) and “Kracauer’s Two Tendencies and the Early History of Film Narrative” (Spring 1980).

    • 110Anthony J. Niesz and Norman N. Holland
    • The structure of traditional fiction is essentially linear or serial. No matter how complex a given work may be, it presents information to its reader successively, one element at a time, in a sequence determined by its author. By contrast, interactive fiction is parallel in structure or, more accurately, dendritic or tree-shaped. Not one, but several possible courses of action are open to the reader. Further, which one actually happens depends largely, though not exclusively, upon the reader’s own choices. To be sure, the author is still in overall control, since it is she who has set up the particular nexus of events, but the route up the narrative tree, the actual sequence of events, is generally affected, if not completely determined, by the reader’s responses to that particular reader’s specific situation. In an adventure, the sequence of action frequently depends upon the reader’s decision to go in one geographical direction rather than another. In the eliza sample, the content of the “story” depends on such particulars as whether this reader has a brother or not, whether she fears her father, and why she has consulted the terminal. In general, the text presented to the eliza-reader depends on what that reader has already said and how the computer has interpreted and stored it, and this is generally true of interactive fiction.

      Further, interactive fiction is, in principle (if not in practice), open-ended—infinite. A conversation with eliza could go on for as long as one with Woody Allen’s psychoanalyst—in principle, forever. It has no necessary terminus. The program will go one writing texts and answers on the screen as long as the reader or player chooses to supply responses. Further, the computer can act as a metafictional narrator like John Barth or Thomas Pynchon who can create a story within a story or a story that generates another story within itself which generates another story within itself and so on, fictions dizzying and dazzling. One senses one’s essential humanity wobbling in the midst of the infinite paradoxes of existence and meaning.

      See also: Norman N. Holland, I-ing Film

      Anthony J. Niesz, assistant professor of German at Yale University, is the author of Dramaturgy in German Drama: From Gryphius to Goethe (1980). He is interested in the phenomenon of the meta-theater, especially in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German drama, as well as in the literature and cultural policies of the German Democratic Republic. Norman N. Holland is Milbauer Eminent Scholar at the University of Florida. He is the author of Laughing (1982) and The I (forthcoming in 1985).

    • 130Strother B. Purdy
    • What I refer to is how our thought in inventing, designing, modifying, and using machines carries over into acts we do not consciously associate with them—like writing or reading poetry. An airplane in flight may be “pure poetry,” or a Ferrari “a poem in steel”; it intrigues me to consider that beneath such object comparisons an object-of-thought connection may be made. Or in other words, there may be really something to a hackneyed compliment like “poem in steel.” (“Ah, commendatore, tu sei veramente in gamba! Questa volta c’è la poesia di acciaio!”)

      My preference for thought form over object form makes me less interested in machines that we can see than in those that we can’t, and it makes me direct my inquiry along two lines, concerning two questions about invisibility. The first involves the history of technology: How is it that machines “disappear”—become less visible, impinge less and less upon popular consciousness? The effect cannot be imputed entirely to familiarity. The second involves the history of literature: If machines have disappeared, are there “disappeared”—or “invisible”—machines in literature? It is reasonably clear that we go to considerable lengths to hide the machines that surround us and that we choose, or our artists choose, insofar as such choice can be located, to restrict the appearance of machines in art.3 Commonly their restricted appearance in art is understood as a kind of resistance to some form of machine takeover, while their concealment has only uncommonly received analysis and is not generally discussed in context with the matter of artistic representation. But we do accept, at least in theory, the idea that style of living and style in literature are connected. If the machine penetrates our style of living, then—and this is the end of my inquiry—these invisibilities are of interest to literary criticism, for they have something to do with the way literature is written, with whether or not, that is, writers choose to describe machines, use them as characters, or give them any role at all to play in surface structure. Since the artist often works to reveal what his society works to conceal and since the postmodern period has so far been one of crisis in the relations between society and technology, we may expect to find in postmodern fiction, or in writing to come, some greater revelation or simple exposure of the workings, than we could have seen before.


      3. I use “restrict” in a statistical sense, for since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there have been artists to celebrate the machine; today’s hyperrealist movement offers contemporary examples. These artists—Tom Blackwell, Ron Kleemann, Ralph Goings, and others—work a transformation like that of Andy Warhol with the pop object. They present not so much a celebration as an effort to turn looking into seeing, here directed at automobiles in particular, so much a part of everyday life as to have become (despite all efforts of the advertising industry) indistinguishable from one another and as a species from the other parts of the semiurban landscape—the mailbox, the front lawn, the visiting relatives staring into the camera.

      See also: Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So, Literary Pattern Recognition: Modernism between Close Reading and Machine Learning

      Strother B. Purdy is the author of The Hole in the Fabric: Science, Contemporary Literature, and Henry James. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Stalingrad and My Lai: A Literary-Political Speculation” (Summer 1979) and “Reply to Lawrence W. Hyman (Summer 1980).

    • 141Michael Riffaterre
    • If we try to arrive at the simplest and most universally valid definition of the representation of reality in literature, we may dispense with grammatical features such as verisimilitude or with genres such as realism, since these are not universal categories. Their applicability depends on historical circumstances or authorial intent. The most economic and general definition, however, must at least include the following two features. First, any representation presupposes the existence of its object outside of the text and preexistent to it. Readers feel, and critics pronounce, that the text’s significance depends on this objective exteriority, even though this significance may entail destroying the commonplace acceptance of the object; indeed, negating something still presupposes that something. Second, the reader’s response to the mimesis consists in a rationalization tending to verify and complete the mimesis and to expand on it sensory terms (through visualizations, for instance). The metalanguage of criticism accordingly prolongs and continues the text’s mimetic discourse, and critics evaluate representation in terms of its precision and suggestive power. Both processes—presupposition and rationalization alike—assume that referentiality is the basic semantic mechanism of the literary mimesis.

      There are, however, literary representations almost devoid of descriptive content, or so vague and so skimpy that their object cannot be analyzed or rationalized in sensory terms. Criticism is hard put to explain why readers feel compelled to evaluate them. And yet these texts not only lend themselves to interpretation but they are especially apt to trigger and control the reader’s hermeneutic behavior. In short, the represented object eschews referentiality yet refuses to vanish altogether, becoming instead the verbal vehicle of an interpretive activity that ends up by making the object subservient to the subject.1


      1. See Roland Barthes et al., Littérature et réalité (Paris, 1982), esp. my paper, pp. 81-118, on the referential fallacy.

      See also: Michael Riffaterre, Syllepsis

      Michael Riffaterre, University Professor at Columbia University, is the editor of Romantic Review. He is presently working on a book about Anthony Trollope (forthcoming in 1985). His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Syllepsis,” appeared in the Summer 1980 issue.

    • 163Edward Pechter
    • According to Froula, Paradise Lost is aimed at affirming or reaffirming the power of orthodox authority, by locating its source in an invisible being beyond understanding or question. In this respect, Milton’s own authority is analogous to that of the metaphorical priest in the Virginia Woolf passage quoted at the beginning of Froula’s essay, who can claim a direct connection, presumably derived from the laying on of hands, with this original authority to which the rest of us have no access. It is an odd analogy: Milton and a priest. It sorts very badly with everything we know about Milton, who was dedicated to the eradication of formal instutitional authority in favor of freedom of conscience. What is more important, such a view sorts oddly with the working of Paradise Lost itself.

      If we try to read Paradise Lost as an attempt to affirm orthodox authority by mystifying it, we run immediately into some major problems well before “Hee for God only, shee for God in him.” The first of these problems is Satan, who is, as we all know, in many ways an impressively heroic figure. Satan directly affirms the autonomy that Eve is said to be made to repress in the story she tells of her creation in book 4. This Satanic affirmation, moreover, is also made to depend upon a creation story. In book 5, responding to Abdiel’s argument that he owes gratitude to God for his creation, Satan says that he doesn’t remember any time when he was not as he is. The notion that God created him is, Satan declares, a “strange point and new” (5.855). If Milton’s purpose in the poem is the affirmation of authority, why has he made the proponent of autonomy and rebellion into such an impressive figure?

      See also: Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value

      Edward Pechter, associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, is the author of Dryden’s Classical Theory of Literature and is currently completing a book on Shakespeare and contemporary theory.

    • 171Christine Froula
    • The specter of Mr. Pechter’s complaints haunted me as I wrote “When Eve Reads Milton,” as those friends who helped me to write by continually banishing it can attest. This ghost seemed somehow familiar, a shadow of Milton’s bogey or an echo of that angel in the house who still stalks the precincts of academia. Indeed, if Mr. Pechter did not exist, I confess that I could have invented him, although the specter of my imagining was rather more daunting, with his perfect command of my arguments, urbane bearing, and formidable learning. Never mind. The materialization of this specter in any form elicits some important issues that my article itself could not address; so I must thank Mr. Pechter for the trouble of his reply.

      The difficulty that I find in answering him, however, is that he responds to my arguments by ignoring them, substituting for them certain inventions of his own. While I could cheerfully join Mr. Pechter in dismissing much of what he says I say, I’m afraid the credit for it goes to him. The best refutation I can offer is the original essay, but it would be a waste of time to reiterate that here. Nor does it make sense, given the extent to which his representation of my essay differs from the essay itself, to refute him point by point. Instead, I will attempt to describe what I think is the crux of our dispute and to propose a way of reconciling our positions.

      Our disagreement arises, it seems to me, from the fact that, although he and I look at Paradise Lost from two quite different perspectives, Mr. Pechter is able to recognize only one. Since he does not grant that women’s position and history in patriarchal culture place us at a vantage point which differs in some fundamental ways from that of readers like himself, who identify strongly with that culture, he cannot grasp—indeed, cannot even read—my arguments. It is not surprising, then, that such scattered impressions as he does pick up should seem to him not merely different from himself but, as he repeatedly says, “very strange.” Mr. Pechter has an interesting way of coping with difference, however; even as he professes to find the essay very strange, he goes to great lengths to claim that in fact I am saying nothing new. My argument, he says, has been anticipated by Milton criticism and indeed by Milton’s own Protestant resistance to orthodox authority. This position, so he thinks, already incorporates all imaginable differences, all possible inner voices, in itself. By these lights, there is no need and no use for a feminist critique of Miltonic authority, for it can only perform—unoriginally, unnecessarily, indeed, redundantly—another repetition of the poem and its critical history.


      Christine Froula is associate professor of English at Yale University. Her most recent book is “To Write Paradise”: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos; she is currently working on a book about literary authority in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy,” her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, appeared in the December 1983 issue.