Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 1988

Volume 14 Issue 2
    • 223Catharine R. Stimpson
    • Like every great word, “representation/s “ is a stew. A scrambled menu, it serves up several meanings at once. For a representation can be an image—visual, verbal, or aural. Think of a picture of a hat. A representation can also be a narrative, a sequence of images and ideas. Think of the sentence, “Nancy Reagan wore a hat when she visited a detoxification clinic in Florida.” Or, a representation can be the product of ideology, that vast scheme for showing forth the world and justifying its dealings. Think of the sentence, “Nancy Reagan, in her hat, is a proper woman.” In the past twenty years, feminist thinking about representation has broken apart. This fracture is both cause and symptom of the larger collapse of a feminist cultural consensus. Some of the rifts have been thematic. That is to be represented? Others have been theoretical. What is the nature of representation itself? I wish to map these rifts, especially those in the United States, and to wonder about the logic of a new cultural consensus.

      In the late 1960s, feminists began to share a cultural consensus about the representation of women and gender. Few who built up that consensus were village idiots. Even without being semioticians, everyone more or less knew that the marriages between the signifier and the signified in that odd couple, the sign, were ones of convenience. Everyone more or less knew that the marriages between the sign and the referent, that hubbub out there, or somewhere, were also ones of convenience. Some survived. Others were obsolete, cold, hostile, ending in separation or divorce. Everyone more or less knew that when I exclaimed, “Nancy Reagan wears a hat,” it was easier for a fellow citizen of my linguistic community to understand me than for a stranger to do so. Nevertheless, the consensus offered a rough, general theory of representation that extolled the possibility of a fit between “reality” and its “description”
       or “image.”

      See also: Catharine R. Stimpson, The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein  ·   Catharine R. Stimpson, Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English

      Catharine R. Stimpson is professor of English and dean of the Graduate School at Rutgers University. She is presently at work on a book about Gertrude Stein.

    • 244Yve-Alain Bois
    • The association between New York City’s all-over structure and the play that unfolds within it relative to difference and identity is very pertinent but is not specific enough, in my opinion. On the one hand, all of Mondrian’s neoplastic works are constituted by an opposition between the variable (position, dimension, and color of the plane) and the invariable (right angle, the so-called “constant rapport”). On the other hand, the type of identity produced in New York City relies on repetition, a principle which, we know, explicitly governs a whole range of paintings predating neoplasticism. New York City differs from the “classic” neoplastic works, as well as from the 1918-19 modular paintings with which it seems to have a good deal in common. It is, in part, because he never discusses this last point that Masheck doesn’t entirely grasp the amplitude of the reversal that Mondrian effected in his New York works.

      In fact, as James Johnson Sweeney realized quite early, one must go back o the 1917 works, which gave rise to modular grids for the two years that followed, in order to understand what happens not only in New York City but also in the two Boogie-Woogie paintings.3Everyone is aware of the extraordinarily rapid evolution of Mondrian’s work during the years immediately preceding the foundation of neoplasticism: under the influence of Bart van der Leck, he dopted the colored plane and the black dash on a white background as elements of his composition for the two Compositions in Color, A and B (1917, Seuphor 290-914). Mondrian, who had not yet found a means of perspicuously relating these diverse elements (which are the result of a cubist disjunction between line and color), tied both plane and dashes together by way of an optical dynamism, based largely on their superimposition. The immediate consequence was to make the background recede optically. The next step was the five Compositions (also in 1917), all entitled “With Colored Planes” (Seuphor 285-89). Here all superimposition was eliminated, as well as all “line.” In the last two of these canvases, the background itself is divided without remainder in to planes of different shades of white. The colored rectangles (less numerous) are on the way to alignment. In spite of this, the rectangles fluctuate and, consequently, the background is hollowed out behind them.


      3. See James Johnson Sweeney, “Mondrian, the Dutch and De Stijl,Art News 50 (Summer 1951): 63. Meyer Schapiro made a similar remark, at about the same time, in his courses. (However, his article on Mondrian appeared much later. See “Mondrian,” in Schapiro, Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers [New York, 1978], p. 256.)

      4. When I refer to a number accompanied by “Seuphor,” it refers to the “catalog by group” included in Michel Seuphor’s book on the artist. See Seuphor [Ferdinand Louis Berckelaers], Piet Mondrian; sa vie, son oeuvre, 2d ed. (Paris, 1970).

      See also: Charles Bernstein, Disfiguring Abstraction

      Yve-Alain Bois is associate professor of art history at the Johns Hopkins University. He has published a number of essays on twentieth-century art, architecture, and criticism and is currently working on Mondrian’s neoplastic years and on a history of axonometric perspective. Amy Reiter-McIntosh is a lecturer at the University of Chicago. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry was a translation of Ernesto Laclau’s “Psychanalyse et marxisme” (Winter 1987).

    • 278Robert Scholes
    • “Signature Event Context” (which I henceforth, following Derrida himself, refer to as “Sec”) offers a critique of previous theories of communication, a critique of previous theories of communication, a critique that seems to open the way toward a new and freer notion of reading. My response to this view will be to point out that the proffered freedom is quite illusory, partly because off certain problems in the theory itself but especially because there is no path open from that theory to any practice, a point that is merely underscored by Derrida’s own practice in response to being read by Searle.

      Derrida’s argument in “Sec” can be summarized in the following way: A written text can survive the absence of its author, the absence of its addressee, the absence of its object, the absence of its context, the absence of its code—and still be read. The argument also includes the stipulation that, as argued more fully elsewhere but briefly here as well, what is true of writing is also true of all other forms of communication: that they are all marked, fundamentally, by the difference that constitutes arche-writing and is so palpable in actual written texts.

      My summary is, I hope, at least tolerably fair and accurate. (It is impossible to hope for more, since, as Richard Rorty admiringly remarks, Derrida “is … so skillful at fishing both sides of every stream.”2) I believe that this summary of “Sec”’s argument also describes, in however compressed a form, what many American teachers and critics think they have learned from Derrida: namely, that reading can be freed from responsibility to anything prior to the act of reading, and, specifically, from those things named in the summary. As Derrida puts it himself: “writing is read, and ‘in the last analysis’ does not give rise to a hermeneutic deciphering, to the decoding of a meaning or truth” (“SecM,” p. 329).


      2. Richard Rorty, “The Higher Nominalism in a Nutshell: A Reply to Henry Staten,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Winter 1986): 464.

      See also: Jacques Derrida, But, beyond... (Open Letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon)  ·  Richard Rorty, Deconstruction and Circumvention

      Robert Scholes is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Brown University, where he directs the Center for Modern Culture and Media. His last book was Textual Power. His next, with Nancy R. Comley and Gregory L. Ulmer, will be a text book called Text Book.

    • 296Susan Gillman
    • My argument is that faced with such reversal of stereotypical female roles, the culture (whether in the discourse of the Thaw trial itself, or of the journalistic accounts of the trial, of Twain’s autobiographical tale) relies on both the institution of the law and the custom of storytelling to reassure itself about boundary confusions—between guilt and innocence, man and woman, seductress and seducer, fact and fiction. The Thaw trial, however, shows that the law itself could not resolve any of those ambiguities, a predicament which, I will argue, Twain entertains and creates in his own fictional courtroom but flees from in his response to the actual trial.

      My argument thus depends upon establishing particular dialogue between these two cases of seduction, for neither Twain’s nor the journalistic accounts alone tell the story that the two together do. Both cases speak in common to two aspects of fictionality. One is a mode of social differentiation, the sexual and legal categories (passive/aggressive, victim/victimizer, innocence/guilt) essential to both cases, but whose actual application was, for different reasons in each, momentarily suspended. It was impossible to decide, for example, whether Evelyn Thaw or Alice or Twain himself, for that matter, should be classified as victim or victimizer, as playing the active or passive role in their respective narratives. The temporary suspension of these categories, I will argue, does not invalidate them or brand them as “fictive,” but rather reveals them as culturally constructed and culturally applied, in Twain’s words “fictions of law and custom” (a phrase applied to racial difference in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, published in 1984). In both cases, the response to this moment when cultural categories cannot be definitively applied is a process of storytelling—a second aspect of fictionality—that attempts to construct coherent narratives about those suspended “fictions of law and custom.” Although Twain’s “Alice” case opens in 1877, not until it connects with the Thaw trial in 1907 does the full story, as I have just briefly outlined it, emerge. It is precisely that double story that this esay will tell: the story of how Twain’s personal compulsions met up with his culture’s in the act of reporting, representing, interpreting, and finally making its own events mean.

      See also: Bill Brown, The Tyranny of Things (Trivia in Karl Marx and Mark Twain)

      Susan Gillman is assistant professor of literature and American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This essay is part of a forthcoming book, Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America.

    • 315Robin Sheets
    • In contrast to [Susan] Sontag, who used the tools of literary criticism to evaluate sexually explicit fiction, I will use the conventions of pornography to interpret a dramatic monologue in which an expected sexual encounter fails to take place. In analyzing Rossetti’s “Jenny,” I will employ an interpretive model based on the work of [Steven] Marcus, [Susan] Griffin, and [Andrea] Dworkin. Despite different assumptions about sexuality—Marcus is a Freudian, Griffin believes in a mystical eros residing in the psyche and waiting to be rediscovered, Dworkin regards heterosexuality as a construct for subjugating women and masking men’s homoerotic drive—they share several ideas applicable to “Jenny.” (1) Although pornography features, and indeed perpetuates, various kinds of masculine power, especially the powers of money, class, and culture, it purports to be ahistorical in order to obscure its status as ideology. (2) It depicts male sexuality as fear-laden aggression resulting in very little pleasure; thus it is not liberating on either a political or a personal basis. (3) Pornography does not include “others.” Women are present only to be silenced, objectified, treated as screens on which a man projects his fantasies. Marcus, Griffin, and Dworkin are all concerned with what Suleiman calls “the representational or fantasmatic content” of pornography and “the political (in the sense of sexual politics) implications of that content.” The risks of emphasizing the representational—most especially, the denigration of language and style that result from Dworkin’s approach—can, as Suleiman says, be mitigated by careful attention to a particular text (see P, pp. 122-30).

      In Rossetti’s poem, a young man attempts to purchase a night’s pleasure with a London prostitute named Jenny. After she thwarts his plans by falling asleep, he spends the night meditating about her beauty, speculating about her past, present, and future, and thinking about the causes of prostitution. Although Rossetti’s subject matter is consistent with the etymological definition of pornography as “writing about prostitutes,” he avoids the explicit depiction of sexual activity which has been the common element in most modern accounts of the genre. Indeed, the only physical contact between the narrator and Jenny occurs at daybreak when he places coins in her hair and gives her a parting kiss.

      See also: Susan Gubar, Representing Pornography: Feminism, Criticism, and Depictions of Female Violation  ·  Lawrence Lipking, Aristotle's Sister: A Poetics of Abandonment

      Robin Sheets is associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. She has written on Thackeray, George Eliot, and other Victorian writers and is coauthor of The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and American, 1837-1883.

    • 335Oscar Kenshur
    • An attempt to warrant specific readings and to discredit others through appeal to the authority of the “text itself” … must be recognized for what it is: a political strategy for reading in which the critic’s own construction of the “text itself” is mobilized in order to bully other interpretations off the field.


      This passage, from an article by a contemporary English literary theorist, is typical of a genre of assertions that may, at first glance, seem to have less to do with critical theory than with pop psychology. For the writer, like other writers in this genre, may appear to be making a psychological observation to the effect  that the disposition to claim that one’s interpretations of texts are “correct” and other interpretations are “incorrect” is the function of an arrogant belligerence (and perhaps, by implication, that those who eschew such objectivist claims are characterized by meekness and humility). But such a psychological observation is closely related to a somewhat more dignified and elaborate sort of claim, namely, that the objectivist notion that there can be a standard of correctness in the interpretation of texts can be shown to have specific –and unsavory—political implications. And although contemporary polemicists who refer to connections between objectivist theory and right-wing tendencies generally omit to demonstrate the existence of such a relationship, it is possible to suppose that their omission, rather than reflecting a preference for invective over analysis, is tied to implicit references to analyses that have already been carried out.


      An ideal arena for such ideological analysis is the seventeenth century, the period during which early modern epistemology and the scientific movement laid the foundations for modern notions about objective knowledge, and during which philosophers were quite willing to discuss both their epistemological principles and their political convictions. Provided with such a wealth of raw materials, the contemporary scholar with an interest in ideological analysis need not attribute political opinions to theorists, but need only uncover the deeper ideological connections between views that were publicaly expressed. And if the relationship between objectivism and politics is one that can be revealed by darwing out the implications of the epistemological theory itself, then the results of an ideological analysis of early modern objectivism should, mutatis mutandis, be applicable to twentieth-century varieties. In the light of these considerations, it is quite apt that Michael Ryan, in attempting to merge deconstruction with ideological analysis in his Marxism and Deconstruction, uses as his paradigmatic case an analysis of Hobbes’ views on metaphor and on sovereignty.

      See also: Oscar Kenshur, (Avoidable) Snares and Avoidable Muddles

      Oscar Kenshur is associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of Open Form and the Shape of Ideas: Literary Structures as Representations of Philosophical Concepts in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1986), and he is currently at work on Dilemmas of Enlightenment, a study of tensions between epistemological and ethico-political commitments during the early-modern period.

    • 354James Elkins
    • The theories I have outlined suggest that by displacing but not excluding theory, art historical practice at once grounds itself in empiricism and implies an acceptance of theory’s claim that it cannot be so grounded. But beyond descriptions like this, the theories are not a helpful way to understand practice because they cannot account for its persistence except by pointing to its transgressions and entanglements in self-contradiction. Nor does it help to say, pace Steven Knapp, Walter Benn Michaels, and Stanley Fish, that strong theory can have no consequences, because the reason theory has no consequences in this instance is not the impossibility of theory’s transcendence (practice believes it to be transcendent), but a combination of the conventions, desires, and beliefs of practicing historians.14 Theoretical approaches must bypass the concerns of practice because practice has no position which can be argued alongside theory’s positions. There are two reasons why a “Defense of Empiricism in Art History” has not been written. First, art historical practice does not incorporate even a local or heuristic theory to explain or discuss itself. Second, its “position” is not a latent theory, waiting to be eloquently stated, but something which is presupposed in a vague and variable manner by the art historical texts themselves. (The conventions, desires, and beliefs are not positions but inferences, conjectures based on the texts and the ways we speak about them.) Art historical practice, for example, has an objectivist intention: it takes itself to be (or to approach) “a science, with definite principles and techniques,” which can exclude theory and generate texts by appealing only to previous nontheoretical texts and to the facts.15 This intention is rarely stated, exasperatingly slippery to formulate clearly, and even incoherent when it is applied to existing texts; but this is so precisely because it works by not being included in the texts. If some version of it were stated at the outset of a monograph, it would cast doubt on the entire enterprise and lead the reader to conclude incorrectly that practice is dependent on theory, and uncertain theory at that. In its unstated form, the objectivist intention allows narrative practice to continue unimpeded.

      See also: Marshall Brown, The Classic Is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin's Art History  ·  James S. Ackerman, On Judging Art Without Absolutes

      James Elkins is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. This article is from a work in progress concerned with the influence of writing conventions on the history of art.

    • 379Donald E. Pease
    • So Lentricchia has fulfilled one of his purposes in this essay. He has subverted the patriarchy from within: that is, he has subverted Bloom’s literary history as well as the essentialist feminism associated with it. But he has not fulfilled his affiliated purpose of establishing a dialogue between feminists and feminized males. The “feminization” of literary studies by patriarchal figures like Bloom does not account for the feminization of Stoddard, Gilder, Van Dyke, Woodberry, or Stedman. Their feminization, like that of the Stevens who felt positively lady-like, was not the result of patriarchal oppression. And it will not disappear as the result of the subversion of the patriarchy by a feminized male. Mistaking the work of feminization with the work of the patriarch eradicates the feminine. By identifying the difference between a feminization produced by the patriarchy and a feminine cultural sphere, Lentricchia has made room for the different cultural conversation he wants to develop. But this conversation can take place only after the backdrop of an oppressive patriarch can drop away.

      This conversation might begin with an account of that cultural sphere in which women are the agency to which Lentricchia alludes. It might begin when we recall that the model for the culture’s “Emmeline Grangerfords” was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva. The social change Little Eva helped effect was the emancipation of both slaves and slaveholders.


      Donald E. Pease is professor of English and American literature at Dartmouth College. His articles on nineteenth-century authors and literature have appeared in a number of journals. He is the coeditor, with Walter Benn Michaels, of American Renaissance Reconsidered, and is the author of Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Contexts, which won the Mark H. Ingraham Prize in 1987.

    • 386Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
    • That the pattern into which Lentricchia seeks to assimilate Stevens is politically charged becomes clearest when we turn to the following oddly incomprehensible statement: “In the literary culture that Stevens would create, the ‘phallic’ would not have been the curse word of some recent feminist criticism but the name of a limited, because male, respect for literature” (p. 767). At the point where he makes this assertion, Lentricchia has been persuasively demonstrating that Stevens was “encouraged … to fantasize the potential social authority of the literary as phallic authority” (p. 767). But suddenly the critic’s measured discourse is disrupted by obviously personal feelings about the “curse word of some recent feminist criticism” and by a dazzlingly illogical definition of “respect for literature.” (If male respect for literature is limited, does that mean that female respect for literature is unlimited? If respect for literature is limited and male, do women unlimitedly disrespect literature?) Such a disruption suggests that, in making his apparently objective argument about Stevens, Lentricchia has some other not so hidden agenda—and, of course, his peculiar decision to link his discussion of Stevens with an attack on The Madwoman in the Attic further supports this conclusion. What most strikingly reinforces the point, however, is the hysterical—or perhaps, with some recent feminist linguists, we should say “testerical”—rhetoric in which he couches his assault on our work.14


      14. The term “testeria,” for male “hysteria,” is proposed by Juli Loesch in “Testeria and Penisolence—A Scourge to Humankind,” Aphra: The Feminist Literary Magazine, 4, 1 (Winter 1972-73): 43-45; quoted in Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women: New Language in New Times (New York, 1977), pp. 60-61.


      Sandra M. Gilbert, professor of English at Princeton University, and Susan Gubar, professor of English at Indiana University, are coauthors of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume I: The War of the Words (1987), the first installment of a three-part sequel to their Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979). They have also coedited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English.

    • 407Frank Lentricchia
    • fl: Dad, what’s testeria?

      Dad: Figlio! What happened to your Italian? It’s TesaREEa! Capisce?

      fl: Yes.

      Dad: Tell me.

      fl: A store where they sell that stuff.

      Dad: In big jars!

      fl: Let’s go there!


      Frank Lentricchia is professor of English at Duke University. His latest book, Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens, has just been published. He is also general editor of the Wisconsin Project on American Writers.