One of the problems of the label "Reader-Response Criticism" is that it covers a multitude of different approaches. Jane Tompkins's anthology, Reader-Response Criticism, originally published in 1980 but reprinted many times since then and still used as a course textbook, includes essays that could equally well be labelled New Critical, Phenomenological, Structuralist, Psychoanalytic, or Deconstructive. Her introduction claims that Reader-Response Criticism "could be. said to have started with I. A. Richards's discussions of emotional response in the 1920s or with the work of D. W. Harding and Louise Rosenblatt in the 1930s" (x). Rosenblatt's later book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, first published in 1978 and now reissued with a new preface and epilogue, is one of the books under review here. But also under review are a number of books that might not normally be considered Reader-Response at all, including work by Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur, as well as new books by writers whose earlier work appeared in Tompkins's anthology - Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, and Wolfgang Iser.
What all these books have in common is a concern with The Act of Reading, to use Iser's title to name the process of responding to the black marks on a page. Whether this act is an art or a science, to be treated, as subjective and personal manner or regarded as a rigorous, objective discipline, has long been a matter of debate. Even the word "response" is a complex and controversial one. Fish happily describes himself on the back of his new book as "a founder of Reader Response Theory" but he is well-known for arguing that the text is the product of the reader rather than the other way round, so the term "response" seems problematic even in the case of its best-known exponent. Holland, as we shall see, adopts a position similar to that of Fish, rejecting out of hand the notion that reading is "a mere response to a stimulus" (226). Even Iser, against whom Holland is here arguing, appends a footnote to the preface of The Act of Reading, explaining that he reluctantly accepted the English word "response" for the German term Wirkung, "which comprises both effect and response, without the psychological connotations of the English word" (ix). Reader-Response, then, serves as an umbrella term for a variety of positions held together only by their concern with what goes on in the mind of the reader when he or she picks up and peruses a book.
Most of the present batch of books concerned with this process seem to consider it as an art, even a game, rather than a science. There is a widespread reaction against structuralism and the impersonal discourses it spawned, a return to the recognition that readers are people with all the properties that go with being human: gender, history, politics, and beliefs. They have hang-ups (and some let them all hang out); they are haunted by a range of ghosts (especially if they are Marx); they respond in personal and creative ways, and they are fed up with repressing these ways in their professional criticism (especially if they are women). It is not that there is a general clamor to return to the days of "Q" - Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, first professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge - though it is worth noting that even "Q" began his 1916 lectures "On the Art of Reading" with an acceptance that his responsibility was "to instruct young men how to read" (9). The study of English Literature has moved on since then, although not always, according to some of these recent books, in ways that have enlarged our understanding of the art of reading, or of literature, or of ourselves.
Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the contemporary literary critical scene is Norman Holland, who describes his book The Critical I as "a critical I-ing of current criticism, its practice and theory," with special attention to "what some of the practitioners assume about the I, the person engaged in the literary transaction" (xi). For Holland, or "Norm," to use the more intimate name he uses to refer to himself as one of the subjects of a student's experiment in response (an invitation, of which less confident critics might have been wary, to accompany her to the pornographic classic, The Story of O), the profession is in a critical state, in the medical sense of crisis: it is at the turning point of "a disease of the intellect which goes by the name 'theory,'" an elaborate structure resting on "a disproven linguistics and a dubious psychology," which totally ignores "the human beings who create literature and literary experiences" (xi-xiii). Holland's own understanding of identity, still largely based upon the "theme-and-variations" of Heinz Lichtenstein, betrays some acknowledgement of recent attacks on essentialism. Identity, he explains, "is a construct, a way to represent the continuities we see in someone. . . . Identity is thus decentered, imperfectly known, systematically elusive, not simply 'in' the person being interpreted, but 'between' interpreter and interpretee. . . . I cannot know anything at all . . . except through my own identity" (27). This represents something of a modification of Holland' s earlier confidence about identity, a response perhaps to the objection levelled against his Five Readers Reading that Holland's so-called experiment, analyzing the responses of his five students, was entirely manipulated by Norm himself, who seemed surprised to discover that his interpretation of the students matched his interpretation of their interpretation of the texts (Ray 67-69). Now, at least, he knows that all these identities are constructs of his own mind.
In elaborating his concept of identity, Holland employs the terminology of other Reader-Response theorists such as Iser and Fish. Iser, at least, seems to be behind the notion of a "repertoire" of feedback loops which impinge upon the "schemata my human body and my culture have supplied me for testing, and so perceiving, my world" (29), while Fish would appear to have contributed to Holland's recognition that each response is similar to the extent that individuals share "cultural codes" as a result of belonging to "interpretive communities." Holland, in fact, makes a distinction between codes, which are cultural and cannot be otherwise, and canons, which are also shared but are a matter of choice within a particular culture. He draws the line at deconstruction, however, which he sees as destructive of all notions of personality. He denigrates Hillis Miller, whom he quotes on the "impersonal power of reading" that "transcends the 'I'" and invests the teacher with authority (109), as well as Paul de Man, Barbara Johnson, and, of course, Derrida. Roland Barthes too comes in for his share of disapproval for suggesting that "I read the text" does not mean that "an innocent subject, anterior to the text," performs "a predicative operation called reading" since that subject "is already itself a plurality of other texts, of infinite codes . . . whose origin is lost" (117).
The problem with Holland is that he devotes so little space to other critics that he cannot possibly do justice to the complexity of their ideas. His sections on Iser and Fish take up three and four pages respectively. He claims Fish is fine because his views are "totally in harmony with my own" (190), but Iser, like Derrida and Umberto Eco, is only "half-right" because his "bi-active" model of reading involves a compromise between "text-active (the text controlling) and reader-active (the reader controlling)" (185). Holland has no time for the text, the other of any reading transaction; that may account for the few occasions where he quotes some poetry (a line and a half, for example, of the Four Quartets), but gives no indication that it is in verse (206). He berates Derrida for the same reason, for celebrating the "force" of writing (161) and for insisting that "our idea of reading must be intrinsic and remain within the text" (163). He brings in other deconstructive critics, such as Vincent Leitch and Jonathan Culler, to complete a picture of deconstruction as a hostile, antihumanistic conspiracy that suppresses the role of the individual reader.
Holland's lack of respect for the "other," whether text or theorist, makes him extremely partial in his quotations. He omits to mention, for example, the highly sophisticated discussion of "Stories of Reading," in On Deconstruction. There, Culler acknowledges that in theoretical discussions between monistic positions, which attribute all power to the reader, and dualistic positions, which share this power between reader and text, the monists (such as Holland) may appear clearer and more consistent. In practice, however, even in the textual criticism of theoretical monists (notably Fish), they regard the text as eliciting a response from the reader. Culler cites Fish's own admission in Is There a Text in This Class - that "Literature in the Reader" portrayed a text becoming progressively more powerful and the reader more constrained. Culler continues,
Fish is mistaken only in thinking this an error he can put right by arguing, as he does in later papers, that the formal features by which the reader is manipulated are the products of interpretive principles brought to bear by the reader. The story of manipulation will always reassert itself, first because it is a much better story, full of dramatic encounters, moments of deception, and reversals of fortune, second, because it deals more easily and precisely with details of meaning, and third, because this sort of reading confers value on the temporal experience of reading. A reader who creates everything learns nothing . . . . (72)
By contrast, Holland is forced to say that the reader only learns things about him- or herself; that may, of course, be true, but it makes for a weak defense of the discipline of literary criticism.
The fact is that Holland does not care very much about this discipline. The best sections of The Critical I are those in which he brings his awareness of more recent developments in psychology and linguistics to bear upon some of the more dubious assumptions literary critics sometimes inherit uncritically from Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan - for example that linguistic systems reside somewhere other than in the minds of native speakers, thus denying people the power to utilize "laws" in order to generate new meanings. "Looked at from the point of view of modern psychology or linguistics," Holland claims (and it is a vantage point he likes to adopt), "the literary criticism and theory of today that claims to be most radical has made no real break with the past" (210-11). He cites the continuities others have noticed between the "New Cryptics," the label Holland attaches to Derrida and his followers, and the much-despised New Critics. Little has changed in "the 'lit-crit' industry," he declares, since he first joined it thirty years ago (least of all, one might add, his own views). In his view, all that deconstruction has done is increase productivity, providing a few new terms for "the assembly line of literary studies" (213). Indeed, Holland provides one more example of what Fish calls the profession's tendency to despise itself, although it could be said that Holland positions himself outside the discipline of literary criticism altogether.
We find a more incisive attack on certain widely-held but flimsily-based theoretical assumptions from a position more firmly rooted in literary criticism on the other side of the Atlantic in Valentine Cunningham' s In the Reading Gaol, whose title plays in Derridean style with ambiguities resulting (unlike differance) not from a homophone distinguishable only in writing but from the difference in pronunciation of identical written words. Reading, the town where Wilde was imprisoned, where biscuits were packed in tins mentioned in Conrad's writing, and through which Derrida passed on his way from Oxford to London while writing The Post Card, represents for Cunningham the real world to which language and literature necessarily refer. This view that they refer to a real world, however, is under attack. As Cunningham observes at the very outset of his book,
Much of the most influential reading theory and practice of our time . . . would confine texts to themselves, locking them up in "the prison-house of language." Language is proposed as self-referring, and so are texts. So history, the world of things and people, the varied outside of texts, gets deferred, waived, put off as no longer central to what matters in reading games. Reading is reading. By contrast, the argument in this book is that reading can never be simply reading. Reading [the process] is, for example, also Reading [the place].
The act of reading, in other words, can never ignore the contexts in which texts are produced, to which they refer, and in which they are read. As in Holland (the person), the villain of the piece is Saussure, or, rather, naive misreadings of Saussure that fail to notice an ambiguity about his doctrine of the arbitrariness of the sign. Saussure insists, convincingly enough, that the linguistic sign is arbitrary, in the sense that there is no necessary connection in English between the signifier "cat" and its signified, the mental concept of a little furry animal with four legs, a tail, and a miaow. Phonetics can quite happily study the various systems of difference that enable such signs to function in different languages. "What goes wrong" for Cunningham in much second-hand understanding of structuralism, is that
the proposition that signs are arbitrary . . . gets extended, glibly and strangely, to deny that signs are related to the world at all and to suggest that languages, and so texts, exist quite cut off from the things and the world that they seem to refer to. This is the fallacy of extrapolating wildly from the system of phonemic differences that comprise langue to the level of semantics and semantic operation. (20)
Cunningham brings in Emile Benveniste as witness to the fact that the very examples of arbitrariness provided by Saussure confirm the necessary relation of signs to the world to which they refer: whether the signs are produced in French, German, or English, boeuf, Ochs, and cow "are necessarily, ungluably, attached to the mooing creatures they from then on denote" (22).
With Derrida there is a similar confusion over the extent to which he is supposed to deny reference, a confusion produced by the multiple meanings of a phrase such as the notorious "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" for which Gayatri Spivak provides two possible translations: "There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside text]." The whole point of the passage in Of Grammatology in which this phrase occurs is that everything is textual in the sense that it is understood through cultural codes already in place, hence Derek Attridge's suggested translation, in a note to Derrida's Acts of Literature, "There is no outside-the-text" (24). Cunningham recognizes that Derrida has frequently disowned early American versions of deconstruction that denied all reference, that his own writing of the 1970s focused on the importance of context, and that he has always engaged with political issues such as racism, nuclear weapons, and education. He quotes Derrida's insistence in the "Afterword" to Limited Inc that "the concept of text or of context which guides me embraces and does not exclude the world, reality, history" (25). This "Afterword," incidentally, has the subtitle "Toward an Ethic of Discussion," and Derrida's main point is that discussion, like reading, needs to pay attention to the other, to the text, unlike the claims of many misreaders of his own work, such as Jurgen Habermas, who manage to dismiss him without ever citing this work. Such misreading is what Derrida and his followers decry in their call for an ethics of reading, to which I will return in a moment.
Cunningham recognizes another way in which Derrida was misread by the overeager adopters of deconstruction in literary-critical circles of the 1960s, those who mistranslated the French jeu as "game" or "freeplay" (57). In a chapter entitled "Games Texts Play," he suggests (in his own playful way) that Jack Nicholson's Joker from the movie Batman could stand as "the messiah that our (post)structuralist textual practices and critical preferences have been awaiting. . . . Nicholson's Joker is the emblem and apotheosis of all the recent years of critics and writers supposing art to be Just Gaming, mere game, play, ludus, carnival, Spiel, a 'freeplay' of significance, unjeu des signifiants" (259). In these terms, Cunningham alludes to Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean-Loup Thebaud, and Roger Caillois, as well as Iser, Bakhtin, Barthes, and Derrida, but it is Derrida who continues most to fascinate Cunningham. An illuminating discussion of Derrida's The Post Card in terms of doubtful readability explains that postcards may appear transparently readable, but are in practice "cryptic, labyrinthine," dependent upon context for their meaning, locked into a postal system that "hinders, slows down, impedes, the arrival of messages, preferring to keep them tauntingly in circulation" (270). But The Post Card also contains, as Cunningham sees, "a very serious reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as being about the play of Freud's personal and institutional authority within the psychoanalytic movement" (271). The difficulty and delight of reading Derrida is that his work is full of meanings, highly referential in alluding to complex literary, philosophical, Biblical, and other sources. Cunningham himself seems to oscillate between admiration and frustration at all this complexity. Reading Derrida, while recognizing the mediated referentiality of Limited Inc, Cunningham grows impatient with the abysmal complexity of the process (in the heraldic sense of infinite deferral of representation) and with the placing of terms like "history" under erasure or in inverted commas. He is quick to separate himself from reactionary rejection of deconstruction, much of which he characterizes as "simple fuddy-duddyism in the face of incoming critical fire" (41). As he says at the end of his final chapter, which explores the links between rabbinic and deconstructive modes of interpretation, "Deconstruction is not some awful specter to be banished if possible from the Table of the Lord" (402). It might even be welcomed theologically as an exposition of the doctrine of the fortunate fall, celebrating the need for endless interpretation. And yet Cunningham seems to wish that things could be simpler, reading easier, and books (such as his own) shorter and fewer.
Another clear exposition of what deconstruction means for the practice of reading is provided by Simon Critchley in The Ethics of Deconstruction. Critchley is one of the new generation of philosophers who have caught on, somewhat belatedly, to what Derrida is about and tend not only to berate literary critics for getting there first, but also for misrepresenting what he "really" means (see Bennington). The philosophical context necessary for an understanding of the ethics of deconstructive reading, according to Critchley, is that provided by Emmanuel Levinas and his insistence on respect for the alterity of an other who should never be made into an object for consciousness to master. In an admirably clear section entitled "Deconstructive Reading and the Problem of Closure," Critchley breaks down what he sees as misunderstanding of deconstruction. It is not, he insists, negative, nor is it a critique in the Kantian sense. Nor is it "a method or way that can be utilized in the activity of interpretation, . . . a technical procedure assimilable by academics and capable of being taught in educational institutions" (22). Presumably Critchley has in mind the way aleconstruction rapidly became one of the "critical approaches" taught in all self-respecting literary theory courses from the 1970s, as satirized by Patrick Hogan:
Begin by isolating contradictions; this may be done by uncovering ambiguities in the text . . . or by wordplay or by ignoring historical readings or by overlooking literary conventions. (If stuck, attend to any discussions of writing, speech, books, letters, postcards - that sort of thing). From one of the contradictions, establish a hierarchy. Identify this hierarchy with writing/speech. Return to the text and elaborate along similar lines . . . . (183-84)
We have all played this game or seen it played almost as simplistically (indeed, Barbara Johnson's introduction to her translation of Dissemination spelt out the rules). At least, it can be said in its defense, even in its fashionably derivative form, deconstruction always returned to the text. For, as Critchley explains, perhaps ignorant of some of the developments in literary theory,
deconstruction is always engaged in reading a text. . . . Any thinking that is primarily concerned with reading will clearly be dependent upon the text that is being read. Thus Derrida's readings are parasitic, because they are close readings of texts that draw their sustenance from within the flesh of the host. What takes place in deconstruction is reading; and . . . what distinguishes deconstruction as a textual practice is double reading - that is to say, a reading that interlaces at least two motifs or layers of reading, most often by first repeating what Derrida calls "the dominant interpretation" . . . of a text in the guise of commentary and second, within and through this repetition, leaving the order of commentary and opening up a text to the blind spots or ellipses within the dominant interpretation. (23)
Critchley proceeds to illustrate how this has worked in practice in Derrida's reading of Rousseau, Husserl, Heidegger, and others, in all of which he locates "a point of otherness" within the text itself from where the "second moment" can begin. As any literate theorist knows, this point often occurs in the ambiguity of a particular word, such as supplement in Rousseau, pharmakon in Plato, and Geist in Heidegger. "It is of absolutely crucial importance," Critchley insists in somewhat schoolmasterly fashion, "that this second moment, that of alterity, be shown to arise out of the first moment of repetitive commentary" (27).
Critchley's understanding of The Ethics of Reading, to use J. Hillis Miller's title, shares with Miller's a desire to defend deconstruction against the charge that it is irresponsible. They both reject the idea of deconstruction as a form of textual free play. But while for Miller and Paul de Man "the act of reading means obeying the law of unreadability" and recognizing that reading "has to go against the grain of what one would want to happen in the name of what has to happen," Critchley wants to go beyond the book and to acknowledge the political and historical dimensions of texts that Miller represses. For Miller, according to Critchley, "the paradigmatic ethical situation is that of a man or a woman reading a book in a literature class," while becoming a good reader means "genuflecting before unreadability as the universal law of language": "For me, by contrast, the paradigmatic ethical moment is that of being pre-reflectively addressed by the other person in a way that calls me into question and obliges me to be responsible" (45-48). On one level, it might seem, the difference boils down to being an agnostic literary critic or being a radical philosopher. But there is more to it than that.
The difference between the kind of deconstructive reading that Critchley goes on to call clotural and Miller labels "ethical" centers on a recognition of the particular historical moment in which this reading is practiced. For Critchley it is of fundamental importance that Derrida and Levinas see themselves as thinking and reading (and living and acting) at a precise moment in the history of the West when "the problem of closure" looms large, a time others have labelled "postmodernity": "the problem of metaphysical closure describes the duplicitous historical moment - now - when 'our' language, concepts, institutions, and philosophy itself show themselves both to belong to a metaphysical or logocentric tradition which is theoretically exhausted, while at the same time searching for a breakthrough from that tradition" (20). What Miller does when he reads a book is part of this larger problem, but, for Critchley, the problem is that Miller himself does not know that; he does not explicitly address the broader issues. Critchley's description of clotural reading may sound suspiciously like what he has earlier called deconstruction: "First, the text is engaged in a repetition of its internal exigencies through an act of 'commentary.' Second, within and through this repetition, an ellipsis, or moment of alterity, opens up within the text which allows it to deliver itself up to a wholly other reading." But there is a point to the new label (like a relaunched detergent, deconstruction is no longer non-political): "The word clotural attempts to resituate deconstructive reading in relation to the closure of the history of metaphysics. As Levinas points out, the historical moment when philosophy becomes suspect and the history of Western philosophy enters its closure is not just any moment" (89). My suspicion is that the mode of reading called deconstructive will continue to sell better under its original brand name, but Critchley may well help to make it more aware of its historical roots and political responsibilities.
"The Politics of Deconstruction" is the title of the third and final section of an ambitious book by Robert Holub entitled Crossing Borders: Reception Theory, Poststructuralism, Deconstruction. The book attempts to chart the ways in which different theoretical schools of thought have succeeded in being transplanted from one cultural context into another and, more importantly, in engaging with each other, crossing the borders that so often separate one school from another. Holub, a professor of German at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the standard introduction to Reception Theory, is well aware of interdisciplinary as well as national rivalries. His study "The American Reception of Reception Theory" in the opening section deplores the fact that Iser is the only German theorist at all well known in the United States and that his writing tends to be read (in English) in isolation from its original context in German phenomenology and criticism. Add to this that Iser is not really interested in response anyway, but in the "'actualization'. . . performed by some sort of ideal reader" and that he was widely perceived as defeated by Fish in their famous dispute in Diacritics, and you get a fairly gloomy picture of the academic literary critical world in the United States, obsessed as it is, according to Holub, with the close reading of texts.
The attempts to construct a less narrowly textual "Marxist Deconstruction," the subject of the first of the two chapters in the final section of Crossing Borders, are seen by Holub to have foundered on the rocks of a similarly narrow understanding of textuality. Holub notices that deconstruction was initially scorned by "left-leaning" American critics of the early 1970s (111) and welcomed primarily by professors of literature in the 1980s. He cites Miller's paper at the MLA session on "the fall of deconstruction" in 1990 (the lower case initials presumably to alert us to the doubtfulness of this "event") along with the departure of Michael Ryan, Michael Sprinker, and Gayatri Spivak, the principal exponents of such a radical version of deconstruction, into areas such as film, politics, and feminism, as indicative of the failure of deconstruction to fuse with Marxism to "form the core of a progressive political critique" (142-43).
The second of Holub's chapters in this final section of Crossing Borders focuses on the two big scandals that rocked deconstruction in the 1980s, concerning the political affinities of Heidegger and de Man. Holub is scathing about the way in which aleconstructive critics refused to face up to these "facts." He is also damning about "the uncritical imitation that deconstruction has suffered at the hands of limited and unskilled epigones" who "frequently populate scholarly conferences," trotting out "the most trendy words and phrases" of the master (193). Holub's tone grows increasingly polemical, especially in long footnotes to this chapter, that deplore the "unanimous approval" accorded to Derrida's account of "Paul de Man's War" by "his faithful coterie of deconstructors." Holub's dismissive references to "the cultlike character of deconstruction," the "litany of praise for the high priest" of the "deconstructive church," and the "strict adherence to the deconstructive party line" (227-28), betray an animosity that vitiates what promised to be an interesting exercise in the history of recent critical ideas. What's more, Holub's announcement of "the self-induced demise of deconstruction" (193) contradicts his transparent need to attack it. Reports of its demise, indeed, seem to be have been greatly exaggerated.
Derrida himself, of course, is very much alive and writing. One of his recent books, Specters of Marx, attempts precisely to make "deconstruction form the core of a progressive political critique." Derrida wants to resist the triumphant chorus, led by Francis Fukuyama, that proclaims, "to the rhythm of a cadenced march . . . . Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices" (52). Derrida insists that his reading of Marx is not an academic exercise, a conversation with "a ghost that goes on speaking," but a genuine attempt to carry out his injunction "not just to decipher but to act and to make the deciphering [the interpretation] into a transformation that 'changes the world'" (32). Derrida promises "a performative interpretation . . . . an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets" (51). What Derrida is doing here is reading Marx's will, submitting the relevant documents to a double reading that is both attentive to the intention of the deceased (in the form of commentary) and aware of the ambiguities, the difficulties, in the text. We are all, he claims, heirs of Marx and need to read his "unique mark in history" carefully and responsibly (91-92).
Derrida recognizes that however much we may try to exorcise our ghosts, to escape from our past (and Marx criticizes Max Stirner for failing fully to rid himself of Hegelian ghostly abstractions), "everyone reads, acts, writes with his or her ghosts, even when one goes after the ghosts of others" (139). Readers of Derrida too will recognize the ghosts of arguments past in his deconstruction of the opposition Marx tries to establish between use-value and exchange-value. Just as Rousseau's attempt to distinguish nature from culture was doomed to fail (his notion of nature being itself culturally mediated), so Marx can never reach that pure table uncontaminated by cultural ghosts:
Just as there is no pure use, there is no use-value which the possibility of exchange and commercen . . . has not in advance inscribed in an out-of-use - an excessive signification that cannot be reduced to the useless . . . this limit-concept of use-value is in advance contaminated, that is, pre-occupied, inhabited, haunted by its other, namely, what will be born from the wooden head of the table, the commodity-form, and its ghost dance. (160)
Ghosts will no doubt continue to haunt the discourse of deconstruction for years to come, but if they lead critics back to as careful and responsible a reading as Derrida gives to Marx, that development will be welcomed rather than deplored.
That Derrida has himself become a kind of specter is confirmed by Stanley Fish in his recent book There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too. Fish is particularly scathing about the resort of reactionaries in the academic world to a version of scaremongering about "political correctness," deconstruction, and other bogies. A remark mistakenly attributed to Foucault about Derrida being "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name" (traced in fact to a Princeton philosopher referring to a small portion of Derrida's work that he found less convincing than the rest of his writing) is too often trotted out for the relieved laughter of "those who are happy to see the specter of their fears dissipated by a cheap and inaccurate joke" (98). Fish offers little comfort to those who hoped deconstruction would "fade away like a bad dream": "if there is now no vigorous discussion of deconstruction in the academy, it is because its lessons have been absorbed and its formulations - the irreducibility of difference, the priority of the signifier over the signified, the social construction of the self - have been canonized" (57). But, Fish is remarkably sanguine about the literary profession in general. In spite of its continuing propensity to despise itself, to make itself as uncomfortable as possible, to buy Volvos and to eat anyone's shit, Fish feels that "the revolution . . . has succeeded," by which he means that the institution has managed to retool to adapt itself to new circumstances. For change, according to Fish, whose last book described the way it was achieved by submission to authority, should not be frightening: it is "the means by which continuity is achieved and reachieved. Tradition does not preserve itself by pushing away novelty and difference but by accommodating them" (271). But more to do with Volvos than with politics, it is a concept of revolution that not everyone will share.
Fish's book exudes confidence and a sense of comfort (I don't know what he now drives). Laughing at fellow-critics who worry that their labors may be merely a vehicle for their careers, he urges them to "sit back and enjoy the fruits of their professional success" (256). "Milton's Career and the Career of Theory," the title of one of the essays, are both going well, and so is that of Fish, who reprints here his acceptance speech on being awarded "the highest honor conferred by the Milton Society of America" (27). The dominant metaphor of the book is that of games, from baseball to literary criticism. Chapters 3 through 7, Fish explains, were his side of an ongoing series of debates with Dinesh D'souza in which they "dined together, traveled together, and played tennis whenever we could" (52). When Fish addresses the question over which the New Historicists agonize, "Can you at once assert the textuality of history and make specific and positive historical arguments?" he has no qualms about answering in the affirmative, "because the two actions . . . have nothing to do with one another. They are actions in different practices, moves in different games." He raises for a moment the possible objection that "you will answer the question 'what happened' differently if you believe that events are constructed rather than found," but rejects it, separating this "general . . . belief" from "reference to any facts in particular" (248). This position may be convenient for Fish in particular, but it seems to me doubtful in theory and dangerous in practice. Our general theories do impinge upon our discussion of details or else they are not worth having.
Fish, of course, likes to shock. He reprints here in the Appendix an interview with Gary Olson in which he happily admits, "I don't have any principles" (298). When Ronald Dworkin tries to convince him that theories have consequences for practice, he disagrees, seizing upon Dworkin's example of Ted Williams, the baseball player who wrote a book called The Science of Hitting. But Williams's theories, Fish insists, had no bearing at all upon his practice; he just responded intuitively to each pitch. This may well be true of Fish's literary criticism, which as Holub and Holland have noticed, does bear no relation to his theories. But if it were true of all theory, then the fears and fury of the reactionaries would surely be justified. Why should we spend so much time and energy mastering all these complex theories if they make no difference to what we do when we read? Fish's answer, that it is fun and relatively well-paid if you are good at it, seems to me to ring a little hollow.
Fish is at least fun to read, which is more than can be said for the work of his former opponent Wolfgang Iser. No one in the history of literary theory can have written so much with such seriousness on the subject of play. In his book on Tristram Shandy and in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, he entitled chapters "The Play of the Text." Sanford Budick and he then edited a book subtitled The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Now he plays once more with the title "Text Play" in the penultimate chapter of The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology. Iser's strength, which can also be seen as a weakness, is that he draws from such widely differing fields of knowledge to produce a synthesis that some find rich, but others find incoherent. On the one hand, it is difficult not to respect the extent to which Iser trawls philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and literary theory for useful ideas. On the other hand, it is frustrating to find concepts from all these areas mixed together without adequate recognition of the conflicts between the systems of thought from which they have been taken. The bulls have been let among the sheep and the resulting offspring are unrecognizable and sometimes unreadable hybrids.
Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, as its subtitle indicates, plots a change in Iser's central concern. It moved from an opening section that put "Reader Response in Perspective" through a middle section of detailed textual analysis ("Paradigms") to a final chapter entitled "Toward a Literary Anthropology." Iser's most recent book explains two of the terms introduced in the previous book, the "fictive" and the "imaginary," and claims, in its subtitle, to be "charting literary anthropology." The last few chapters of Prospecting explain in a relatively clear and accessible way what it is that Iser values in literature. He tries to get away from mimetic notions of representation that are not present in the German term Darstellung, which recognizes "the performative qualities through which the act of representation brings about something which hitherto did not exist as a given object" (236). Systematic conceptualizations cannot afford to incorporate these playful or performative qualities "in view of the finality of the explanation to be achieved and the certainties to be provided by them." The "ludic nature of literature," on the contrary, simultaneously presents and withdraws from such complete explanation (245). Rather than simply re-present an already-given truth, a play performs a fiction of whose limitations as "truth" it is aware.
Iser's The Fictive and the Imaginary begins with a similar celebration of the plasticity of literature, which "manifests itself in a continual repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes human beings have assumed." Literature, according to Iser, "reveals that human plasticity is propelled by the drive to gain shape, without ever imprisoning itself in any of the shapes obtained" (xi). Iser finds the fictive a useful category because it avoids the straightforward binaries real/unreal or fact/fiction. The fictive is neither simply true nor untrue; it is "an operational mode of consciousness that makes inroads into existing versions of world. In this way the fictive becomes an act of boundary-crossing which, nonetheless, keeps in view what has been overstepped. As a result, the fictive simultaneously disrupts and doubles the referential world" (xiv-xv). In the footnotes to the first chapter, Iser provides some helpful definitions of reality ("the variety of discourse relevant to the author's approach to the world through the text"), of the fictive ("an intentional act, which has all the qualities pertaining to an event" rather than simply "unreality," "lies," or "deceit") and the imaginary, "not to be viewed as a human faculty," but as a set of playful functions, a transitional play area (305). In fact, Iser's footnotes are probably the most readable part of the book, much of which involves a tedious recounting of a variety of attitudes to fiction held by a range of philosophers from Bacon to Hume to Bentham and Vaihinger, followed by a number of psychoanalytic views of the imagination, from Freud to Lacan to Winnicott to Castoriadis, followed by Huizinga and Caillois on play. Anyone who completes the course will have learnt something about differing attitudes to literature over a range of centuries and disciplines. Perhaps that is what Iser means by "charting" literary anthropology, as if the reader were accompanying him on a long voyage through previously unmapped oceans. What a reader of The Fictive and the Imaginary will experience, however, besides seasickness, is a great deal of reflection about reading as an activity, why we do it and what we gain from it. The book remains very much at this general, rather abstract level. If this is literary anthropology, give me Reader-Response any time.
A literary critic may experience similar hankering after familiar territory while reading Paul Ricoeur's collection of essays in hermeneutics, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics,II. The book brings together material published over the last two decades, including such famous pieces as "What is a Text?" (first published in 1971). As the title of the collection indicates, Ricoeur displays with Derrida and Critchley a desire to broaden the understanding of texts to include ethical and political concerns. Hermeneutics, or the general theory of interpretation, as Ricoeur explains in his "Preface," "has still not finished 'having it out with' Husserlian phenomenology," by which he means that hermeneutics both originates from phenomenology and leaves it behind, moving on from what takes place within consciousness to "the gradual reinscription of the theory of texts within the theory of action," from configuring the internal structure of the text to "the refiguration of action" in ethics and politics (xiii-xv). Like Iser, Ricoeur, in attempting to build bridges between perceived opposites such as scientific explanation and historical understanding, divides power between the text and the reader and describes the process of reading as a "concrete act in which the destiny of the text is fulfilled" (124).
The final section of From Text to Action contains Ricoeur's most recent work, including two previously unpublished essays, "Ideology and Utopia" and "Ethics and Politics." The first of these new essays develops "a theory of cultural imagination" that would combine the critique of ideology developed by the Frankfurt School with sociological writing on utopia. Both, as Karl Mannheim suggested, involve "deviant attitudes toward social reality" (308). Ricoeur, who, like Derrida, looks closely at The German Ideology of Marx and Engels, wants to consider ideology not simply as "the intellectual depravity that its opponents aim to unmask," but as a necessary part of what Kenneth Burke called "symbolic action" and what Clifford Geertz referred to as a "cultural system" - the mediation and integration of human action in the public sphere (317). Ricoeur has clearly gone well beyond individual response to a book: the act of interpretation, he feels, is broader than that. But he is still concerned with texts, their readers, and their contexts.
The reprinting of Louise Rosenblatt's study The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, first published in 1978, is a tribute to its continuing contribution to the study of the reading process. I suspect that its appeal, like that of Iser and Ricoeur, lies in its recognition of both sides of the "reading transaction," reader and text, neither of which remains unchanged as a separate entity in the process. The book's back cover claims that Rosenblatt shares with Iser and Ricoeur "the same nonfoundational premises," but "avoids the extreme relativism of postmodern theories derived mainly from Continental sources." "Avoids" is certainly correct; nowhere does Rosenblatt engage with anything that could remotely be described as postmodern. Instead, she draws on good all-American pragmatists such as John Dewey, Arthur Bentley, and C. S. Peirce, from whom she derives her "transactional" terminology. The reading process, she argues, should not be thought of as an "interaction" of two "self-contained" and "already defined entities," like two billiard balls colliding, but as a "transaction" in which the entities themselves are transformed: "A person becomes a reader by virtue of his activity in relationship to a text, which he organizes as a set of verbal symbols. A physical text, a set of marks on a page, becomes the text of a poem . . . by virtue of its relationship with a reader who can thus interpret it and reach through it to the world of the work" (18-19).
Rosenblatt is at her most theoretical and impressive when resisting attempts by Rene Wellek and Austin Warren and by Roman Ingarden to establish the independent existence of the literary work in itself. Ingarden wants to see the literary work as inhering "as a skeleton in every adequately constituted concretization . . . visible through the clothing, but distinguishable from it" (107). She is similarly dismissive of E. D. Hirsch's attempt to establish a "correct" reading in terms of authorial intention. She overlaps with reception theory (of which she makes no mention) in suggesting that the "life" of a work is not "its own . . . but a function of the changing life-material, so to speak, which readers in different ages have brought to the text" (121). The only additions to the text of 1978 involve a brief "Preface to the Paperback Edition," barely more than a page in length, and an "Epilogue: Against Dualisms," which focuses mainly on Rosenblatt's own activity of the 1980s. Someone who was active in the 1920s should perhaps be congratulated for remaining active in the 1980s, but she could have benefitted from being more receptive to the ideas of other theorists in the intervening years.
The astonishing thing about Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work is represented in two new anthologies, is that ideas he produced in the 1920s seem to speak precisely to our postmodern condition. Simon Dentith, in his extended introduction to Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader, explains the parallels between the issues discussed by Formalists and Marxists in Russia in the late 1920s and the developments in structuralist thinking of the late 1960s, when Bakhtin's work was rediscovered. One of the four main sections in Part One of Dentith's book addresses the similarities between "Bakhtin and Contemporary Criticism," even suggesting that "the intellectual history of Paris" not only followed, "at a forty-year interval, the intellectual history of Mikhail Bakhtin," but was "partly prompted by it," since one of the "prime movers" in the transition from structuralism to post-structuralism was Julia Kristeva, "probably influenced by Bakhtin's work on carnival." But Dentith notices some differences between Bakhtin and Kristeva: for Bakhtin the focus is more "ethical and social" than epistemological. Bakhtinian intertextuality, for example, while recognizing the fragmentation of texts into their intertexts, attempts to place each fragment socially and historically. The "social location of heteroglossia equally undoes the unstoppable indeterminacy of [Kristevan] 'textuality'," according to Dentith, since Bakhtin retains "a notion of reference, of the text's relation to the world around it" (95). Moreover, Dentith criticizes Kristeva for developing Bakhtin's ideas beyond their original limits. "Kristeva," he writes, "effectively deracinates the signifying process, tearing it out of the dialogic encounter which is its only imaginable context for Bakhtin" (97). To read Bakhtin properly, Dentith argues, is to draw back from some of the dizzy absurdities of post-structuralism, to allow for the specific context of each textual encounter, to return a sense of responsibility to the process of reading, "to engage with others, and to allow them their difference" (102).
There is, of course, some debate about the authorship of some of the works attributed to Bakhtin. For want of sufficiently convincing evidence to the contrary, Dentith accepts the title-page attribution of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language to Bakhtin's friend and associate V. N. Voloshinov. The relevance of this work for later theoretical debates is indicated by its outspoken critique of the "false objectivism" of Saussurean linguistics. Voloshinov insists, like Noam Chomsky, that the system of language represented by Saussure's langue and Chomsky's competence "can only exist in the subjective individual consciousness" as part of a historical community. Any individual utterance activates this system in "a particular, concrete context" (111). Saussurean linguistics, according to Voloshinov, also encourages false notions of "passive understanding" that have a "built-in exclusion of response" (116), whereas language in use always involves a dialogue between people who use all available codes to generate context-specific meaning. Voloshinov, like Bakhtin, insists on "the word's contextual changeability, diversity, and capacity for new meanings" (254).
Bakhtin's distrust of systems of all kinds (religious, political, or linguistic) makes him sound at times surprisingly similar to deconstructive critics. His understanding of heteroglossia in the novel, for example, brings out elements in that genre which reveal the limits of the literary system within which they operate (59). Bakhtin recognizes too the complexity of reception history, the struggle for appropriation involved in re-accenting a word in a different context: "the historical life of classic works is in fact the uninterrupted process of their social and ideological re-accentuation" (63). This reaccentuation, of course, results not in a neglect of historical contexts, but in a re-emphasis on their importance. To read the material in Part Two of Dentith's anthology, covering the works of Bakhtin and his circle on language, poetry, the novel, and carnival, is to recognize how relevant his work is to our current understanding of the art of reading, how Bakhtin seems uncannily to have supplied in the twenties some of the answers to questions of the nineties.
Dentith's anthology, which describes itself as "An Introductory Reader," is complemented by The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov, edited by Pam Morris. This book has a much shorter, but nevertheless helpful introduction, a useful "Glossary of Key Terms" explaining the complexities of the original Russian (a real gift for dinner-party theorists with a penchant for putting down their more pretentious colleagues) and, most important, a fuller selection of material. Morris offers at least something from "all the major works originally signed by Bakhtin, P. N. Medvedev and Voloshinov." While she quite rightly complains that the University of Texas Press allowed only five per cent of texts under their copyright to be reproduced, these books - Art and Answerability, The Dialogic Imagination, and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays - are at least in print. Then there is little to prevent Bakhtin from continuing to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the reading process as we approach the millennium.
Bakhtin remains attractive for critics of most persuasions, I suggest, because he combines theoretical rigor with historical specificity and an awareness of the personal nature of the textual encounter. This personal element in reading is the focus of an interesting collection of essays entitled The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Criticism. These essays represent a reaction against the dry, impersonal style of conventional "male" academic criticism. The editors, Diane Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, describe in their introduction the "passionate correspondence" elicited by their invitation to colleagues to write "the essay about the literature you love in the way you would write it if you were not worrying about publishing it in a mainstream academic journal" (3). From all corners of the country, they received replies welcoming such a release from the alienating conventions of "the lit-crit game" so celebrated by Stanley Fish. The editors reprint Jane Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow" as an exemplary escape from the "decontextualized, depersonalized theory" dominant elsewhere in the profession. Tompkins herself confesses (now that she is in the confessional) that she was responsible for organizing an MLA session entitled "Professional Politics: Women and the Institution" in which she "urged a large roomful of women to 'get theory'" so that they could enter "the big leagues." Now that she has got there she feels that "theory itself, at least as it is usually practiced, may be one of the patriarchal gestures women and men ought to avoid" (24). What Tompkins says about the suppression of the personal and private in the impersonal and public discourse of academic criticism will no doubt find an echo in most professionals in the field (who, as Fish has said, have an innate tendency to despise themselves). Like her husband (Tompkins is married to Fish), Tompkins does not accept that changes in practice follow from changes in theory. It is not, she insists, a matter of epistemology: "Knowing that my knowledge is perspectival, language-based, culturally constructed, or what have you, does not change in the slightest the things I believe to be true" (27). It is rather a matter of being more personal, letting the suppressed inner voice speak out (though I would argue that this is a theory in itself and needs to be articulated and recognized as such). In fact, Tompkins proceeds to do both, explaining and examining her increasing dissatisfaction with "expository and . . . scientific discourse" as "distancing - making a gap, a space, between the subject or self and the object or other" (29).
Tompkins recognizes that there is a contradiction in her attempt to theorize her own incarceration in the language of theory in, on the one hand, "demanding a connection between literary theory and [her] own life and asserting, on the other, that there is no connection" (31). She confesses (while she's still in the box) that theory is more Stanley's game than hers and that she now wants "to declare my independence of it, of him" (31): "What I am breaking away from is both my conformity to the conventions of a male professional practice and my intellectual dependence on my husband. How can I talk about such things in public? How can I not?" (32). In her attempts to escape from the restrictions of academic discourse, the "authority-effects" of suppressing the personal dimension of the encounter between critic and reader, Tompkins deliberately mentions the sort of things academic essays normally omit, the fact that she is sitting in her stockinged feet by the open window "thinking about going to the bathroom. But not going yet" (28). This is all right as an illustration of the breaking of conventions, but it would be tedious were it to become a convention itself. The important thing, as she herself acknowledges, is not simply to break existing conventions just for the sake of it, but to reintroduce into the discourse of literary criticism a recognition of the personal dimension of reading, to allow us to discuss the emotions that make texts interesting to us in the first place. This point is reiterated by many of the contributors to this important volume. The self-consciously theoretical first part of the book gives way to the second, entitled "Critical Confessions," in which a range of critics open up about the personal dimension of their criticism (what it means to be a black critic, a woman and so on). The third part, "Autobiographical Literary Criticism," brings together a number of readings of literary texts in which the critics foreground the personal circumstances of their reading, the difference it makes to read Middlemarch after going through a divorce, what it feels like to re-read a book first read in adolescence, how the characters in Jane Eyre matched their brothers and sisters, and so on. I repeat "and so on" because there is clearly no end to this process. There will be as many different readings and re-readings of texts as there are readers.
The objection to the subjective pole of Reader-Response Criticism has always been that it imposes no limits, no discipline, upon the process of reading as it is experienced. In order to be respected (and funded) as an academic discipline, literary criticism has always had to present itself as objective, scientific, rigorous, male, rational, and so forth. The Intimate Critique quite properly attempts to analyze the effects of this discourse. In pointing towards alternative possibilities that allow us all to discuss those personal elements I. A. Richards dismissed in Practical Criticism as "irrelevant associations" and "sentimentality," the essays collected in the final section are, on one level, liberating. It is always pleasant to throw off restraints. But the answer, I feel, is not to spend more time talking about our grandmothers (whom we do not share), but to develop ways of talking about texts that allow us to draw upon what is shared and to that extent accessible and public. That has to be the basis of any useful discussion. There is no doubt that some of the language of literary criticism as it has developed over the last few decades is alienating, jargon-ridden, authoritarian, and repressive. Other technical terms, however, as I hope to have shown in my discussion of Derrida and Bakhtin, can be enormously productive. True discipline in literary criticism, I suggest, entails the discrimination of those technical terms that are genuinely illuminating from those that are obfuscating and designed to intimidate and exclude. It is easier, of course, to announce these grand principles than to put them into practice. But it is in the practice of criticism on the page and in the classroom that the profession will stand or fall and the art (or game) of reading survive into the next century.
Other Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
-----. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
-----. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.
Bennington, Geoffrey. Legislations. London: Verso, 1994.
Budick, Sanford, and Wolfgang Iser, eds. Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992.
-----. Limited Inc. Ed. Gerald Graff. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.
-----. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
-----. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Fish, Stanley. Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.
-----. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. "The Political Economy of Criticism." Criticism in the University. Ed. Gerald Graff and Reginald Gibbons. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1985. 178-86.
Holland, Norman. Five Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.
Holub, Robert C. Reception Theory.: A Critical Introduction. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
-----. Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Johnson, Barbara. Translator's Introduction. Dissemination. By Jacques Derrida. Trans. Johnson. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. vii-xxxi.
Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. On the Art of Reading. 1920. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1947.
Ray, William. Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.
Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism. 1929. London: Routledge, 1964.
Tompkins, Jane P., ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. New York: Academic, 1986.…